“This is sacred ground. It is a neutral place, no race, color, religion should be mentioned here.”
That was the response of one visitor to the question of whether the themes of race and slavery ought to be introduced at Arlington House, Robert E. Lee National Memorial. Another visitor suggested that slavery should be taught "only in schools." I don’t need to remind my readers that Arlington House was a working plantation up to the Civil War. It is a remarkable response and arguably the clearest reflection of the difficulty that many Americans continue to have when confronted by such issues.
I came across these responses while reading an informative essay titled "Presenting Race and Slavery at Historic Sites" written by Kevin Strait and completed as part of a cooperative research project between the National Park Service and Center for the Study of Public Culture and Public History at the George Washington University. Strait conducted numerous interviews with NPS personnel as well as visitors to Arlington House. His paper has given me a great deal to think about as I continue to arrange for interviews to help me gauge perceptions of the Civil War in Petersburg’s black community as well as their connection/identification with the NPS and the battle of the Crater.
Strait’s interview results suggest that we are still far from figuring out not so much why slavery is important to the understanding of specific historic sites, but how to frame the issues in a way that does not leave people feeling defensive. This visitor’s idea of "sacred" or "neutral" ground points to the crux of the problem, which is one of personal identification. The difficulty is in distinguishing between the modern problem of race, or our difficulty in discussing those related issues, with the historical dimensions of slavery. The visitor has appropriated this particular site in a way that identifies it with R. E. Lee or the Lee family without acknowledging a crucial historical element that detracts from that perspective. Any discussion of slavery would immediately raise uncomfortable personal questions for the visitor and result in a defensive posture. Ira Berlin spells this out clearly in his contribution to the Rally on the High Ground/NPS conference:
Thus we create a selective history: The Mayflower is me, the slave ship Brooks is them; freedom fighters at Valley Forge is me, freedom fighters at Southampton is them; freedom is me; slavery is them. Even as we make slavery a surrogate for race, it becomes tangled in the old, familiar emotional briar patch. Discussions of slavery become muted by fears of embarrassment both personal and political, and this is not simply a matter of good manners. More than 130 years since slavery’s demise, the question of slavery still sits on tender and sensitive grounds–so sensitive that some Americans cannot even say the word. For some it is "servants," or "servitude," a recognition of subordination but an obscuration of the slave’s unique status as property…
Berlin touches on the central issue which is an inability on the part of many Americans to distinguish between discussions of race and the history of slavery. Visitors to our nation’s historic sites are uncomfortable with discussions of slavery because they automatically translate a historical narrative into one that is present minded and fraught with all of the politicization and anxieties that characterize our debates about race in America. This need not be the case, but it is unclear to me how to go about addressing the problem.
Questions about contemporary issues of race are indeed sensitive, but as a historian I find it fairly easy to distinguish my interest in the history of race and slavery with its long-term consequences that we continue to struggle with. Those questions are important, but I do not consider myself an expert (not even competent for that matter) to seriously debate such issues. I suspect that most historians who focus on the historical contours of race and slavery do so without being influenced by their own political agenda. This is not to say that those concerns never enter the mind of the historian only that the primary goal is to understand the past and not the present to whatever extent possible.
Let’s face it, historians are partly to blame for the politicization of history. Sean Wilentz and Eric Foner have recently come out strongly against George W. Bush in popular magazines. I am not judging their motivations or the appropriateness of their doing so, but we shouldn’t be surprised that more and more people judge historical studies along the narrow lines of politics rather than based on the strengths of the interpretation. Is it any surprise that there has been such a strong reaction on the part of certain groups to ongoing changes at NPS sites? The visitors identification of Arlington as "neutral" is a plea – from his point-of-view – to keep politics out. We need to get this visitor to see historically rather than politically.
The role of slavery at Arlington House does not violate "sacred" soil or its supposed "neutrality"; in fact it can only enhance and deepen our understanding of the site. To use Berlin’s line of thought, we cannot say that Lee’s Arlington belongs to white America while the slave quarters belong to the story of black Americans. Instead, we need to come to terms with the obvious point that the stories are one and the same. The history of Arlington, including its white and black residents are interconnected and any attempt to divorce the two, while it may make some visitors more comfortable, can only distort the historical picture.