Last November my wife and I traveled to Fredericksburg for a special tour organized by NPS historian, John Hennessy. The tour focused specifically on the life of a slave by the name of John Washington whose memoir was recently uncovered and edited by David Blight. In April 1862 Washington crossed the Rapphannock River to the Union army and freedom. A few weeks before the tour Blight contacted descendants of Washingtons and arranged for them to join the tour. I wrote about this back in November, but the highlight of the experience was watching Ruth Washington, his granddaughter, and his great-great-granddaughter, Maureen Ramos learn about their ancestor for the first time. They knew very little about John Washington and knew nothing about his memoir. There were some very powerful moments as we toured what was once Washington’s bedroom in what is now a bank as well as the point along the river where he crossed to freedom. That evening we all had dinner and luckily I got to sit next to Ruth and Maureen which allowed me to ask a number of questions. Ruth spoke eloquently, both at dinner and later during an evening ceremony, about what John Washington’s story meant to her.
I was struck by her comments on the extent to which her parents went to minimize the history of slavery in her family. Ruth fondly recalled their emphasis on education and the value of self-improvement that was impressed upon her at an early age. She speculated that her grandparents probably wanted to put the past behind them, which is understandable given the challenges that newly-freed slaves faced at a time when choices were limited and discrimination abounded. It seems reasonable to suggest that such a decision was made by many black families. Ruth also suggested that for many black families slavery is seen as a shameful episode and one to be ignored. Add on top of this the fact that much of the history of black Americans, including the history of emancipation and slavery, has been ignored and one can begin to see how stories of black Confederates and the participation of black Americans themselves is possible.
Many black families have been cut off from their own history. My interview of three reenactors with the 54th Massachusetts along with a number of African Americans living in Petersburg last summer point in this direction. Many of my interviewees did not remember learning much of anything concerning black history in school. Until the 1970s many high school textbooks simply failed to address the history of black America beyond short references to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and there is evidence that some continued to push the old stories of “happy darkies” and “loyal slaves” in to the 1980s. What I was most impressed with was their sense of pride and ownership once they learned about their family histories or were able to identify with a bigger story within the broader national narrative. Perhaps this explains Chris Rock’s response while being interviewed for the African-American Lives Series.
Is it any surprise that Weary Clyburn’s descendants took part in this commemoration? Here was an opportunity to identify and celebrate American history as well as their family’s history. Clyburn was recognized not as a slave, but as a brave soldier who risked his life on the battlefield and served the great Robert E. Lee. The tragedy in all of this, however, is that Weary Clyburn’s past did not have to be distorted for it to be recognized and honored. The point that needs to be made is that Clyburn is a hero. He survived the horrors and humiliation of slavery and war and even managed to make it through the height of the Jim Crow South. If that is not worthy of remembering and commemorating than I don’t know what is.
I remember listening to Ruth Washington speak eloquently about how important it was to be able to place her newly-discovered memory of John Washington within her family tree. This man’s perseverance and commitment to starting a new life for himself and his family served to strengthen her own sense of connectedness with her family today. It also helped Ruth to understand herself better in terms of how the past came to shape her own outlook on the world. I have little doubt that there is much in Weary Clyburn’s life that is worthy of commemorating by both his family and the broader community. Unfortunately, we may never be in a position to be able to explain the details, but we can begin to show respect by being honest