I Sense a Pattern Here

VA-textbookThis is a perfect follow-up to my earlier post on Rickey Pittman’s childrens book about Jim Limber.

I’ve suggested numerous times that the proposed statue commemorating Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber fits into a broader push on the part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups to minimize the place of slavery within the antebellum South as well as the history of the Confederacy specifically.  Of course, the view that slaveholding was benign and best understood as paternalistic has a long and disturbing history in this country.

This morning a friend emailed an image taken from a textbook titled Virginia: History, Government, Geography (Scribners, 1966) and written by Francis Butler Simkins.  Simkins was a well-known Southern Historian who taught at Longwood College and who authored a well-received biography of Ben Tillman, which was published in 1944 by the University of South Carolina Press.  The individual who emailed the image noted that Simkins’s narrative betrays a strong pro-slavery bias, but speculates that, given his scholarship, revisions were made by the Virginia Textbook Commission and that Simkins allowed his name to continue to be used for the publication.  As for the image used for the chapter on slavery, I don’t think I need to explain what is problematic about it.  There is a rich history behind the Davis-Limber statue and it fits neatly into our broader assumptions concerning race relations in the South and throughout the United States at different times.  In the same way that the illustration misrepresents the realities of slaveholding, can’t we also suggest that a statue depicting Davis holding hands with Limber misrepresents how blacks lived under the various Davis rooftops?

We must be very critical when it comes to the messages that our public spaces convey about our history.  We no longer live at a time when one racial group has a monopoly on the shape of public spaces as a way to maintain control of both history and government.  Let’s take advantage of that fact.

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10 comments… add one

  • Ken Noe Jun 22, 2008

    Kevin: We used that textbook when I was in seventh grade, c1969. As I remember, the slaves were happy, the abolitionists caused the war, and nothing much happened after Lee surrendered other that Carver’s experiments with peanuts. But then my social studies teacher-basketball coach quit using it halfway through the year anyway except as punishment reading, so I read about Carver after cutting up in class.–Ken

  • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2008

    Ken, — It is truly an astounding and disturbing image. I hate to ask what your social studies-basketball coach teacher substituted for it.

  • I too am bothered by the way that some (pseudo)academics and laypeople are trying to minimize the importance of slavery. I came across this myself when I was reading the newsletter for a little county historical society in a state that I am researching for my dissertation. There was an editorial in it about how multiculturalism is ruining our Civil War museums and battlefields by taking the focus off of the great deeds of military officers. Perhaps I will have to blog about this on my blog.

    Anyway, sorry about the rambling. I am following this Jim Limber story with great interest and hope to hear more about it. I went to the Tredegar museum in the fall, and I thought their portrayal of the war’s causes was very well done. I hope they continue on that route.

  • Ken Noe Jun 22, 2008

    Kevin: There was no substitute, as I remember, we just did without a book. That was fine with me. I was still a solid member of the Lee Cult as a seventh grader, but even then I didn’t buy the happy slave mythology. I honestly can’t remember much about the class otherwise, other than that crucial lesson: if you’re wearing a turtleneck, don’t pull it up over your face.–Ken

  • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2008

    HE, — Well, those claims are all too common and routinely pass as legitimate historical argument. It reflects one of the major fault lines within the Civil War community.

  • John Maass Jun 23, 2008

    There’s an article at http://www.suntimes.com/news/nation/1012277,sons061808.article about divisions within the ranks of the SCV that may be of interest to your readers Kevin. JM

  • Kevin Levin Jun 23, 2008

    Thanks John. I read that piece a few days ago, but have read similar articles before. I love the idea of putting pennies in public urinals face-up – quite creative. I’ve been getting a large number of hits as a result of the Chicago Sun-Times linking to my blog through blogburst.

  • Charles Bowery Jun 23, 2008

    Kevin,
    What a blast from the past. I used that textbook for fifth grade Virginia history in 1980! It had a very fanciful picture of Jeb Stuart riding over hill and dale, as recall. That stuck in my mind.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 23, 2008

    HOLY SHIT Charles…the book was still being used in 1980?

  • Charles Bowery Jun 25, 2008

    Kevin,
    If memory serves, that is correct. Certainly no earlier than 1978, third grade. Keep in mind that my elementary / middle school was a private school that folded two years after that, so they were probably cash-strapped at the time.

    My daily bus ride to school went right through the Glendale battlefield, crossing White Oak Swamp near where Stonewall Jackson dozed against a tree while his division tried to force its way over the swamp. Such are my Civil War memories.

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