Is Heritage History? – Part 2

Just a few follow-up thoughts to some of the comments from yesterday’s post. I am struck by the tendency on the part of some who equate southern history with white southern history. This is precisely where much of the tension lay in the debate over the renaming of various public spaces in the South. I think it is important to remember that many of these public spaces were created at a time when white southerners stood at the top of the political and social hierarchy throughout the South. From the control over the content of school textbooks by the UDC to the Jim Crow legislation passed at the turn of the century, most black southerners were cut off from adding to the national narrative an element that would accurately reflect their contributions to the recent past, including the Civil War. This is not to say that African Americans did not commemorate their past, it is just to say that they did not have equal access to the public spaces that were shaped by white Americans to commemorate their own version of the past. It is not surprising that given the increased participation of African Americans in the political process on all levels that they would want to see their communities reflect a broader history, one that is more inclusive and acknowledges their contributions to history. I agree that this is an emotional topic, but change is inevitable. One final question re: the changing of names of public spaces: Why was there such a backlash from heritage groups when the Arthur Ashe statue was unveiled on Monument Avenue in Richmond? Nothing was torn down or changed, only added.

Given my current research on postwar commemorations and memory of the Crater I can give you one clear example of the disappearance of African Americans from national memory. Between the letters written in the weeks following the battle by Lee’s men and the well-attended 1903 reenactment of the battle in Petersburg, black soldiers were almost entirely forgotten about in the written record and public ceremony. The 1903 reenactment included only one black man and it turned out to be Stonewall Jackson’s personal servant. It is not surprising that the organizers of the event failed to include black representatives since this would only serve as a reminder that they had recently fought for their freedom and sacrificed for the United States. Virginia had just recently revised its state constitution which barred large numbers of black Virginians from the polls and the state legislature was in the process of passing legislation segregating public spaces along racial lines. Better to ignore this crucial aspect of the battle and concentrate on the mythology of the obedient and loyal slave who remained loyal to his fallen white chieftain.

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