Remembering Garrison Frazier

There is an excellent post over on Hiram Hoover on the 141st anniversary of the meeting between William T. Sherman and a delegation of black religious leaders. The meeting resulted in Special Field Order 15 which issued 40 acres of land to individual slaves along a coastal area stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to north Florida. The post focuses specifically on Reverend Garrison Frazier who led the contingent of religious leaders. Hoover discusses Frazier’s views on emancipation, and the role of land in guaranteeing the economic survival of the newly-freed slaves. His final thoughts on the significance of the steps African Americans themselves took to end slavery and our understanding of Lincoln’s role in this process are quite interesting:

The problem too often with popular discussions of this history is that they focus on a few figures—Lincoln, Johnson, Sherman, etc.—or collapse these complexities into simplistic generalizations—especially about the North vs. the “South.” I say this not out of a sense of professional superiority or jealousy, but because I feel strongly that bad history makes bad politics. And it’s very rare to see discussions of the South in politics today that don’t invoke history to some extent (which you seldom see in discussions of other regions, like the Midwest or Mountain states). When I see discussions in the media or blogosphere about “the South,” I know I’m likely to hear mostly if not entirely about the white South. When I read people repeating the popular line that the “South lost the war but won the peace,” it’s clear to me that they don’t have Garrison Frazier in mind.

I don’t mean to suggest that the only problem here is race (though that’s certainly a large part of it). It’s also that complex events get reduced to questions about the judgment or character of an individual, so that the coming of emancipation, for example, gets debated as a question of what Lincoln thought about slavery and race. This is not, let me emphasize, an argument that the great “dead white men” don’t matter (which strikes me primarily as a caricature anyway). Rather, it’s an argument that they need to be understood as part of an historical process—one that connects Lincoln, for example, not just to other politicians and to the northern public, but also to soldiers and officers in the field, to runaway slaves, and to black leaders like Garrison Frazier. The study of history isn’t a zero-sum game, and recognizing the importance of those other actors isn’t a way to impoverish Lincoln—it’s a way to enrich our understanding of the past.

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