The other day I commented on the recent meeting I attended as an adviser to the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the Civil Commission. Everyone on the committee is extremely optimistic and excited about both on-going and future projects. During the meeting a few of the Commission members submitted written reports outlining the broad goals of the commission. Ervin Jordan, who is an archivist and historian at the University of Virginia, submitted a very thoughtful report that included potential problems that will have to be addressed at some point.
The most important issue that Jordan cites should come as no surprise. As I’ve commented before the Commission hopes to be as inclusive as possible in commemorating the Civil War era and that will mean acknowledging, among other things, the importance of race, including the centrality of emancipation and the contributions of black Americans to securing their freedom through their service in the Union army. While the Commission is committed to this goal of inclusiveness it may be difficult recruiting or convincing African Americans to take part in various events. And the reason for this, which Jordan cites, is that many black Americans view the symbols of the Confederacy through the prism of "Massive Resistance". Simply put, they consider those symbols to be offensive. I am not making a normative claim as to how people ought to interpret those symbols, but simply reporting that the black community does in fact subscribe to this view. And anyone who understands the history of symbols such as the Confederate flag should be able to sympathize with this view. I heard the very same thing during my interviews of NPS personnel. As long as those symbols are present on the battlefields it will be difficult to attract the attention of the black community or convince them that those symbols are not being used to reinforce an interpretation designed to exclude or minimize their claims to the past. This is, of course, very difficult given that reenactors and others use the Confederate flag for historical purposes.
I don’t know what the solution is or if there is one at all.
Jordan also raised a few other concerns. Most importantly he speculates that there may be very little enthusiasm for the Sesquicentennial across the board. Visitorship is down at places such as Monticello, the Smithsonian, and the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia. We’ve also heard recently that the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar is not meeting the levels they expected and the Museum of the Confederacy continues to deal with declining numbers. It should also be pointed out that the First World War Centennial will overlap the sesquicentennial by two years (2014-2018). I mentioned in my last post that the federal government has yet to create a Civil War Commission, but it is likely that they will devote significant energy to planning events for First World War commemorations – the planning of which will surely not generate the same kind of political tensions that the Civil War engenders. Jordan speculates that the federal government will use the opportunity to "reinvigorate homeland patriotism in the Global War on Terrorism" which would not be surprising given the effort to use the Centennial as a way to unify the nation during the Cold War.
It is much to early to speculate as to how the Sesquicentennial will play out both here in Virginia and elsewhere. As mentioned before the Virginia Commission has taken the lead in planning for the event, but it will also need to consider what it will mean for someone to have participated in the Sesquicentennial. Perhaps we should move away from numbers alltogether and focus on projects such as James I. Robertson’s proposal that every community in Virginia transcribe their 1860 census report. It’s a brilliant idea because it is worthwhile as a historical endeavor, it brings people together around local history and it has the potential to attract significant interest without its success necessarily depending on it.
No one should expect that any amount of planning will shift the general public’s attention away from "To Catch a Predator" to questions of history. Those days may be over for good assuming it was ever true.