An African American-less Civil War Sesquicentennial?

stonewallhinklemanOne of the sessions that I attended at last week’s SHA was a roundtable on Civil War Memory and the Sesquicentennial.  It was an excellent panel consisting of Gaines Foster, Suzanna Lee, John Neff, and Robert Cook.  The presentations were short which left plenty of time for conversation.  The question of how to attract African Americans to sesquicentennial celebrations received a great deal of attention from a number of the panelists, especially Prof. Cook, whose study of the Civil War Centennial highlights the extent to which this particular group was ignored.  Prof. Cook suggested that what is needed this time around is a much more inclusive commemoration that does justice to the “Emancipationist Legacy” of the conflict.  Well, who would disagree with that?  Here in Virginia we’ve already held one major conference on the eve of the Civil War.  Panelists touched on questions of race and slavery throughout the various sessions and future conferences will focus even more on the end of slavery in Virginia and its aftermath.  There will be no shortage of talk about slavery, race, the home front and every other subject under the sun.

However, anyone who believes that a simple formula of inclusiveness is going to significantly expand the racial profile of those who attend the various events over the next few years is going to be sorely disappointed.  As I sat in the audience it occurred to me that many academic historians have absolutely no clue as to what they are talking about when it comes to these important challenges.  As many of you know I blogged from the University of Richmond for the first “Signature Conference” and out of roughly 2,0000 people I counted a very small handful of African Americans.  I am now even more convinced that the question of how to attract African Americans is wrong headed and likely to get us nowhere.  The problem is that it’s not about inclusiveness of narrative; rather, it is about an emotional alienation from the events in question that may be insurmountable.  Yes, next year’s conference at Norfolk State University is bound to attract more African Americans given the conference’s theme as well as its location, but that is also problematic.  It’s as if we expect African Americans to jump when it comes specifically to the question of slavery and emancipation as opposed to a conference on battles and leaders or some other subject.  I suspect that for many African Americans the Civil Rights Movement looms much larger than the Civil War years.  That’s not surprising given that many who lived through it are still alive and it is much easier to cast those years in heroic terms as opposed to the disappointment, mistrust, anger, and shame that are often attached to the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In the end all we can do as historians is offer advice on our areas of expertise.  Critical history that allows Americans to engage in serious reflection about the tough questions is absolutely essential in helping to bring about a successful sesquicentennial.  We don’t have to ask who it is going to attract because that is largely beyond our control.  That said, it is important for pubic historians, museum officials and others working in the trenches to think creatively about introducing the Civil War to as wide an audience as possible.  During the Q&A I tried to voice my frustration with some of the suggestions from the panel by pointing out that it is likely that the Sons of Confederate Veterans may be the most successful in drumming up interest within the black community over the next few years.  And they will do it, in part, with events that honor so-called black Confederates.  The SCV has made it a point to contact descendants of the men they plan to honor and quite often there is a black audience present during the actual ceremony.  They are successful not only because individual chapters are embedded within the community but because they offer a narrative that is appealing to people who have a strong desire to identify with their family’s as well as their region’s past.  The hook that attracts groups that have traditionally been alienated from Civil War commemorations may be those that appeal to an emotional as opposed to an intellectual curiosity.

We will have to wait and see.

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15 comments… add one

  • margaretdblough Nov 11, 2009

    Kevin=One thing that has to be avoided is the tendency of many event organizers to presume what interests people based on their gender and/or race. Many of the efforts to get women more interested in the Civil War tend to focus on clothing and domestic issues. I can only speak for myself, but my only interest in corsets is that I do not have to wear one. I am interested in military history and the political/societal issues such as slavery as my mother was before me and there are more than a few other women like me.

    • Andrea Nov 12, 2009

      As another woman interested in the Civil War, I can only agree. It's not like African-Americans, or women, or any other minority group are a monolith of opinion and interests to which one can appeal to get them involved.

  • wbaetz Nov 11, 2009

    Great blog! This post reminded me of an article written by Dr. Latschar in 2003 on the history of the Gettysburg National Military Park, an article that touches on this subject as it pertains not to the ACW sesquicentennial, but battlefield park visitation. Perhaps you have seen it before, if not, it’s a great read. It can be found at the link below, beginning on page 18 (sorry, can’t edit the online pdf).

    http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/liho/interpreter_workshop.pdf

  • Dan Wright Nov 12, 2009

    Good point about the SCV working within communities.
    In a recent letter to an editor, the commander of a local SCV referred to the Civil War as “the Second War for American Independence.” He then expressed his willingness to help in the “honest education about our Southern heritage.” The SCV is dedicated. And at times they're just weird.

  • msimons Nov 12, 2009

    Kevin I see lots of things about the CW that should attract all types of folks. This war affected all of America at that time and the resistance to the changes brought about by it is still active in our culture today. As you state who will come remains to be seen. My Hope is that we can look at this period of history in a clam civil manner and that the remembrance of this time will not bring any disharmony to our nation.

  • James Bartek Nov 12, 2009

    I’ve been giving this subject some thought, lately. A history of African-Americans and Civil War memory would make for some interesting reading. Has anyone done any substantive research in this area? It’s been a few years since I’ve read Blight, but he seems to concentrate more on how Northern and Southern whites managed to come to a mutual understanding on how to remember the war through the exclusion of blacks, rather than focusing on how blacks themselves actually remembered it. Before asking how African-Americans ought to be included in the sesquicentennial, or lamenting their probable under-representation, it would be great to know (or at least have a general idea) of how their views on the war have changed or evolved since 1865, and how (or if) they incorporate or reconcile that history with contemporary identity. I would think that any such study would raise some mighty complicated and painful issues. I agree that it’s easy enough for historians to write African-Americans into the historical narrative of the Civil War. To explain its personal significance or lack thereof in the 150 years since is another matter entirely.

  • Ed Harcourt Nov 13, 2009

    The emotional alienation is understandable given the lamentable history of forgetting and disparagement toward African American experiences by dominant historical groups and institutions. The task for historians during the seisquicentennial is surely one of restoration – taking the evidence and stories from recent scholarship out to black communities and speaking in churches and at local community and genealogy groups. One of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences I had studying the legacy of the civil war in tennessee was in taking Black Union soldier pension records into the towns of Middle Tennessee and speaking to largely black audiences. 40% of black men of military age in Tenessee were wearing the blue by 1865 – and most had been slaves in 1861. It's a great Republican story of gaining liberty by fighting tyranny, and the groups I spoke to were captivated by the personal connections they were able to reestablish via the pension rolls and records. The art of recovering their stories is still in its infancy – but there was certainly no lack of interest from the communities I spoke with! But we can't expect a sizable black audience to attend a marque event at the, say, Va Historical Society or at Hollywood Cemetery, or even at the University of Richmond – let alone the SHA. Historians needs to draw on Douglass' sense of a 'stupendous contest” over Civil War memory.

  • Craig Nov 13, 2009

    The African-American community already has a fairly well developed commemoration called Juneteenth, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in Texas, the last of the Confederate states to acknowledge it. Ralph Ellison's long awaited second novel is named after that commemoration. His first novel, Invisible Man, has strong ties to the Civil Rights movement. My understanding is that many of the people involved in organizing Juneteenth celebrations have an abiding interest in documenting African-American history.

  • Ed Harcourt Nov 13, 2009

    The emotional alienation is understandable given the lamentable history of forgetting and disparagement toward African American experiences by dominant historical groups and institutions. The task for historians during the seisquicentennial is surely one of restoration – taking the evidence and stories from recent scholarship out to black communities and speaking in churches and at local community and genealogy groups. One of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences I had studying the legacy of the civil war in tennessee was in taking Black Union soldier pension records into the towns of Middle Tennessee and speaking to largely black audiences. 40% of black men of military age in Tenessee were wearing the blue by 1865 – and most had been slaves in 1861. It's a great Republican story of gaining liberty by fighting tyranny, and the groups I spoke to were captivated by the personal connections they were able to reestablish via the pension rolls and records. The art of recovering their stories is still in its infancy – but there was certainly no lack of interest from the communities I spoke with! But we can't expect a sizable black audience to attend a marque event at the, say, Va Historical Society or at Hollywood Cemetery, or even at the University of Richmond – let alone the SHA. Historians needs to draw on Douglass' sense of a 'stupendous contest” over Civil War memory.

  • Craig Nov 13, 2009

    The African-American community already has a fairly well developed commemoration called Juneteenth, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in Texas, the last of the Confederate states to acknowledge it. Ralph Ellison's long awaited second novel is named after that commemoration. His first novel, Invisible Man, has strong ties to the Civil Rights movement. My understanding is that many of the people involved in organizing Juneteenth celebrations have an abiding interest in documenting African-American history.

  • Averynana Dec 30, 2009

    Hi Kevin:

    I want to briefly respond to your concerns about the inclusion of African Americans in the Sesquicentennial and the comments of some of your posters. Let me add, that I've referred your website to some of my colleagues, black and white. We need more voices like yours.

    With all due respect, I interpret the word “inclusion” (not like an affirmative action corporate target), but a very needed worldwide education on the contributions of the Union Army's US Colored Troops in the Civil War. I view the heroism of these 180,000 plus men and approximately 500,000 women and men contrabands as strategic members in defeating the confederate army. I'm not interested in a sidebar that mentions a US Colored Troop regiment at a decisive battle. Rather, a discussion of all units engaged in battle.

    Yes, the Civil War was certainly about slavery. But these same enslaved and free people of color should not be confined to, or characterized as, passive blacks waiting at the gates of Tara to be liberated by Northern troops.
    The majority of the US Colored Troops came from the south. They liberated themselves. They fled the “loving arms” of the confederacy, joined the Union Army and helped to liberate the enslaved. My colleague and friend, and noted US Colored Troops scholar and author, Bennie McRae calls them “Freedom Fighters.” You can read his documented histories at the link below:

    http://www.lwfaam.net/cw/

    Although some of us, black and white, memorialize the heroics of the 54th Mass. US Colored Troops, there were many more “Denzel's” who need to be remembered. The First Colored Kansas, Louisiana's “Corps D'Afrique” at Port Hudson and many many more.

    It's estimated that approximately 6 million African Americans today are descendants of the US Colored Troops. Sadly, most don't know it.

    If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm African American, a descendant of a soldier who served in the Corps D'Afrique.

    Many of us have had the unpleasant experience of being contacted by neo-confederates. Unfortunately for them, we've confused their arguments with facts. Their shameful black supporters who love the history of the confederacy, accept the title of “Uncle” as a loyal confederate “Soldier?”, and drape themselves in the confederate flags, are self-serving or paid quislings.

    One last comment on quislings. These neo-confederates and their black supporters continue to put forth the myth of free and enslaved people of color who rushed to join the confederate army . (To guarantee their life-long employment) Hmm. they sound like traitors. Those selfish guys in the Louisiana Native Guards, the Creoles of Color in the Gulf Coast region, and the black Virginia confederate Regiments who willingly were mustered seconds before the end of the Civil War, are absolutely untrue. Historians present us with documented evidence that their motivation was the fear of confederate revenge, re-enslavement and worst of all, death.

    I refuse to participate in discussions with the above. I'm too busy working to promote the memory of the US Colored Troops.

    I welcome everyone to visit Mr. McRae's website.

    Averynana

    • C.W. Roden Dec 31, 2009

      Averynana (cute name)

      HOW DARE YOU CALL BLACK CONFEDERATES QUISLINGS?!
      You have no damn clue what their motivations were, and yet you feel the need to condemn and trash those good Southern men, only because it doesn't fit in with your happy little delusion that Honest Abe freed the slaves in Southern States purely out of the goodness of his own heart, and that in raping the Southland, Union soldiers did not rape black slave women and children along the way.
      As for your claim of so-called “neo-Confederates” (whatever that's supposed to mean) it would probably blow your mind to know that Black veterans on both sides are honored by Confederate historical organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who make it a point of restoring the gravesites of men in BOTH Blue and Gray, black and white and otherwise.

      Keep your own personal politics out of history.

      C.W. Roden

      • Kevin Levin Jan 1, 2010

        Mr. Roden, there is no need to get bent out of shape re: the previous comment. There is very little scholarly work on so-called black Confederates and most of the examples that can be found are, in fact, slaves who were present with the Confederate army. I've never come across an example that in the end turns out to be a legitimate black Confederate soldiers. That should come as no surprise since the Confederate army operated as the military arm of a government pledged to protect the institution of slavery and white supremacy. At this point that is not open to debate. I suggest you browse the category, 'black Confederates' for additional commentary.

  • Lex Musta Apr 19, 2014

    Hi Kevin,

    In Spotsylvania County, Virginia, we are celebrating the liberation of an African American family on June 9 1864 by the Michigan Union Cavalry. The Benin family was enslaved in 1740. The fight for justice and equality began to be recorded in history, when two Minors were known to have run away in 1795 John and Bob. In 1805 the Minors took part in the whipping of their overseer at Chatham Manor for interrupting their Christmas celebration, with Phillip Minor becoming a Martyr for freedom, as enslavers called the event “an insurrection,” and shot him. The family later, had two cousins Joseph and Lindsey who found in the 23rd, seeing the first directed action against the Confederates in Virginia against USCT, which took place on May 17 1864. Joseph and Lindsey escaped in 1863 along with 40% of the Africans in Spotsylvania during the earlier Union advance into the Confederacy. The Minor family continued to advance with their freedom purchasing the land they had been working for 160 years, in 1905, and live on it to this day. The celebration will take place at 10am on June 14th 2014 at the nearby Goodwin slavery gold mine which at one time was one of the largest in America, which is now Lake Anna State park.

    I hope this story of fighting for liberation and fighting for land and fighting for equality and Justice, since the moment they were enslaved in Benin in 1740 to the present day, in which they returned to Benin and were welcomed with open arms, just as we witness the reunion of the segregated Baptist Church in Partlow, VA 130 years after it was segregated in 1878. Justice is something to be fought for and equality is an achievement that all Americans should celebrate on this sesquicentennial.

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