Where Were You Educated?

Yesterday I was contacted by a descendant of a family that included a very well known “black Confederate.”  The individual in question had read some of my commentary on this man and volunteered to answer any questions I might have.  We had a pleasant conversation and I asked a few questions.   I think my caller was much more interested in making sure that I understood that his ancestor and slave were very close and that the family treated their property humanely.  Yes, I understand all too well.  While I appreciated his reassurances I was much more interested in documentation than I was in family stories.

Then I was asked where I was educated.  The question surprised me and I asked why a response was important.  I was told that it would help to better understand what I believe about this subject.  Of course, I quickly shot back that it has absolutely nothing necessarily to do with what I believe about this topic or any other aspect of the Civil War.  It’s not that I have a problem with where I was raised and educated.  You can easily find out where I was educated if that is of interest to you, but I don’t feel a need to encourage the kind of judgment that I know would ensue if I had responded.  You want to talk history?  Let’s talk history.  The conversation ended shortly thereafter.

What I should have said is that while the region of the country in which I was educated is irrelevant, the historians that have shaped my thinking about the Civil War, Reconstruction and beyond are fair game and very relevant.  Given their personal backgrounds it is safe to say that I was educated by white and black Southerners: Edward Ayers, David M. Potter, C. Vann Woodward, William J. Cooper, John Hope Franklin and the list goes on.

I hope that helps.

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This is the equivalent of a question I usually get when I am speaking to a group of folks in my hometown. They listen intently and often ask very pointed questions. Regardless of whatever information the person who introduces me gives relative to my educational background and experience I can always be assured that I will get one particular question from the audience: Sir (or Mr. Meekins), who are your people? (Meaning where is it I was raised). Its about the same question – I am surprised to learn its a first for you!

It can also be a cultural thing. I come from a very rural area of Southwest Pennsylvania and, at least during the time I lived there, many people were genuinely floored if they couldn't put you into the context of several generations of a family in the area. Anyone else was a newcomer.

Sure, but I think this is a case of wanting to steer the conversation away from what matters. In other words, he wasn't really interested in my personal background.

Sure he was … as a means to an end.

See, the assumption of many people who embrace the notion of widespread and voluntary black participation in the Confederate war effort is to say that somehow it's not about slavery. That's important because (and this is what some people don't get) they take criticism of historical ancestors as directed personally at them. They identify with their ancestors, and they worship said ancestors, so it must follow that their ancestors must be above reproach on this issue … because otherwise look at the people they worship and what it must say about them. Given the propensity of these people to take personal umbrage at linking the Confederacy with slavery (“my ancestors did not own slaves … northerners are as racist as southerners … you just don't like the South … some of my best friends are black, and so are some of the scholars we cite and the CSA reenactors with whom I associate”), the best way to discredit argument is by declaring “consider the source.” Education's one way to get at that argument.

Of course, the fact that I graduated from the University of Virginia tends to upset these people no end. :)

The conversation was much more about his need to reassure me that the relationship between his ancestor and the “black Confederate” – who I persisted in referring to as a slave – was one of friendship.

I am curious about the content of the discussion beyond where you were educated. Will you be posting about that part of the conversation?

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