Black Virginians Interpret the Civil War Centennial

Today I spent five hours going through two years of the Richmond Afro-American newspaper on microfilm.  I was looking for anything that addressed the Civil War Centennial or Civil War history generally.  The goal is to revise my Crater manuscript in a way that renders the black counter-memory more central to the story.  As any of you who have worked with microfilm know it is usually slow going and it takes a toll on your eyes.  I didn’t know what to expect, but if I was going to find anything relevant it was going to be in the newspaper started by John Mitchell, Jr – formerly known as the Richmond Planet. I found a wide assortment of editorials and cartoons that drew directly on the symbolism of the war.  There are straightforward history articles such as the one I found on USCTs and others that comment on the work of the Civil War Centennial Commission.  Most of the references, however, were made in the context of the Civil Rights struggle.  It’s hard to know how closely average black Virginians thought about the Centennial celebrations or history in general, but when the past was invoked it must have been impossible not to draw the political and racial issues that were so bitterly fought over during the early 1960s.  I came across a couple of references to the Emancipation Proclamation by September 1962 and I expect that there will be plenty more on Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address when I begin 1963 tomorrow morning.

Here is a short editorial that appeared on November 17, 1962, titled "They Owed Lincoln Nothing":

Most commissions created to mark the observance of the Civil War Centennial have carefully avoided giving any recognition to the important role colored troops played in that bloodiest of American conflicts.  This is especially true of the Southern states, which thus far have recreated only those skirmishes in which the Confederates came out victorious.  But it is also true of the Northern states where there has been a general indifference towards the whole idea of celebrating a holocaust in which so many of their loved ones lost their lives.  Because we think it important that the present generation is not left with the impression that their forefathers contributed nothing to the eventual Union triumph, we pause this week to do long overdue honor to the First Kansas Colored on its 100th anniversary.

FEW, IF ANY, history textbooks bothered to take note of it, but men of the First Kansas Colored, were the first of their race to see combat in the Civil War….This was the first of hundreds of battles from Florida to Maryland in which stout-hearted black men wearing the Union blue fought fiercely for freedom, eventually turning the tide of the war against the rebel slaveholders.

AS THE 100TH anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation nears you are certain to hear once more the dreary refrain that President Lincoln gave you your freedom.  When you do, stop the spaker [sic] right there and tell him very frankly that he does not speak the truth. Tell him that Lincoln gave you nothing; that thousands of brave black men paid dearly with their blood and with their lives for freedom and owed Lincoln no fawning vote of gratitude for his belated stroke of the pen.  Tell him the story of the heroic First Kansas Colored. [my emphasis]

I think this is an absolutely fascinating editorial.  More to the point, I find it very difficult to read this without seeing it as both a claim about history and a commentary on the steps that black Americans were taking to secure basic civil rights in 1962.  History and racial politics of the 1960s were clearly intertwined.  One thing I was struck by as I went through the newspaper day after day were the number of horrific images of black Americans who paid the price for their decisions to engage in civil disobedience.  it’s one thing to read about it in a historical survey, but the level of violence makes much more of an impact by reading the newspaper. 

The federal government did very little before passing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964-65.  Within this context it is no surprise that this commentator takes such a stance in reference to USCTs.  The writer argues that just as black Americans had to take it upon themselves to fight for their freedoms on the battlefields of the Civil War so must they must do so in 1962. 

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