The Civil War Centennial: A Personal Reflection

A reader left this incredibly thoughtful comment in response to my last post on our changing attitudes on the Civil War and Civil War remembrance.

Until five years ago I didn’t know that I had a Civil War ancestor. Most of what I know about that ancestor I learned on my own by way of the internet. I spent the first five decades of my life blissfully ignorant of the myriad ways in which that conflict shaped my life. I don’t remember anything about the Centennial celebration. I lived on the west coast from 1961 until 1965 and beyond in a state that didn’t become a state until fifteen years after the war had ended. The Civil War was simply not relevant to me. Then in 1970 I moved to Houston before my senior year in high school.

I was born in Lawrence, Kansas, and started school in Topeka, five years after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Topeka, Board of Education. There weren’t any black kids in the schools I attended. The only black kid I ever met in Topeka was named George. His father worked with my dad at the V.A. hospital. We lived in a barracks called Sunnyside on the hospital grounds. My first memory of Halloween was trick or treating with George in the barracks. We both dressed as pirates. During kindergarten and first grade in Topeka I learned about Jayhawks. They were these funny looking birds that had a big yellow beak, big yellow claws, a red head and a blue body. We were given crayons so we could color inside the lines. It was supposed to have something to do with the Civil War.

I had forgotten all about those Jayhawks when I started my senior year in Galveston. Only one black family lived in my school district, the Bookmans. They had been sharecroppers in Friendswood when the Quakers arrived in 1898. Pat was in my class. Her brother, Ermus, had graduated the year before I got there. He owned the state record for the 100 yard dash, 9.7 seconds flat. Pat was an all-state volleyball player.

When I started college at the University of Houston a year later a substantial portion of the student body was black. Most of the black students were pledged to fraternities or sororities that required membership in the Black Student Union, Many of them lived within walking distance of campus.Getting to school for me meant a forty minute commute on a congested freeway. I belonged to the Honors Program. It had an office and a lounge in the East Office Annex, situated directly between the Math Department and the Black Student Union. The director of the Honors Program was a white history professor. The only required course for Honors Students was a history seminar called Western Civilization.

I commuted to school with my dad my freshman year. He was a psychology professor then. I lived in a high rise dorm for part of my second year, then found an apartment I couldn’t afford off campus in a “bohemian” district three or four miles from school. My third year was spent in an apartment I could almost afford three or four blocks off campus, an area known as the Third Ward. Except for a few “international” students it was an all black neighborhood. Living white in an all black community was a far more profound educational experience for me than anything offered in the classroom.

I dropped out of school after my third year and moved back to the west coast. I drove taxi for four or five years and eventually started taking classes part-time, but didn’t really make any progress until I got poor enough to qualify for financial aid, which allowed me to borrow money in exchange for attending school full-time. It took me twelve years to get a four year degree and three more to earn a master’s degree that younger students were collecting in only one year.

My problem in school was that my history text was written by Spengler and everybody else was reading Toynbee. I never did figure out how to color those Jayhawks inside the lines. But thanks to the internet I know why my great great grandfather was buried in St. Louis and how his visit to Texas prefigured mine.

The Sesquicentennial Celebration is to the internet what the Civil War Centennial was to television. My great great grandmother was widowed by the Civil War. My great grandfather was orphaned by it. He died in an industrial accident the same year that his father’s commanding officer died. My grandfather got into seminary with an eighth grade education because his grandfather died in the Civil War. My dad wrote a dissertation about sadness and anger that he completed when I was five years old. He knew about sadness and anger because he was five years old when his father died.

My grandfather didn’t live long enough to tell my father that his great grandfather died in the Civil War. His older sisters knew and so did his mother, but they left it to me to break the news to him when he was almost eighty.

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