The Sesquicentennial is Alive and Well in Fredericksburg

Congratulations to John Hennessy of the NPS and Sara Poore of the Fredericksburg Area Museum for organizing a wonderful event yesterday that included a rare opportunity to tour the grounds of Brompton as well as listen to historians George Rable and William Freehling.  More than 600 people attended the event at the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church, which is quite an accomplishment given the beautiful weather as well as the subject.  Read John’s thoughts about the day’s proceedings at Fredericksburg Remembered.  John and Sara are two of the hardest working public historians in the business and I hope that the people of Fredericksburg appreciate their commitment to organizing programs for the local community that are both entertaining and educational.

One of the more interesting moments took place during the Q&A following John’s talk on the secession debate that took place in Fredericksburg.  A member of the audience suggested that the lack of slave rebellions during the antebellum period suggested to him that slaves may have, in fact been content.  No surprise that John handled the question directly and with the sensitivity that it deserved.  What surprised me, however, was that after John finished with his response a large percentage of the audience clapped.  The response suggests that these questions are no longer appropriate to ask.  Yes, we can have serious discussions about the complexity of the master-slave relationship, but thankfully we seem to have moved beyond being able to suggest that people were content being slaves.

Thanks to everyone involved for organizing this event.

14 comments… add one

  • Raffi Nov 21, 2010

    Hi Kevin,

    I’m curious: how did John Hennessy respond to the question about the lack of rebellion suggesting slaves were content? Not that I make such an argument, of course, but I’m interested to hear how Mr. Hennessy handled such a loaded question, so that I too can have an additional insight on how I might reply to such a question myself when in the land of public history.

  • Dick Stanley Nov 22, 2010

    Wow, what a question. Especially in a place that I believe is today more of a Washington, D.C., suburb than a Southern town.

  • James F. Epperson Nov 22, 2010

    I’m with Raffi—I want to hear how he responded.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 22, 2010

    I always wonder why someone would ask a question like that. I am interested that Kevin does not mention the race of the person who asked the question (nor has anyone else), because I guess that (and the assumed motivation of the question) is assumed. Recently I’ve decided not to take any of that as assumed, because it seems to me that it’s better to make explicit what’s going on. .If we don’t do that, then I think that all the fuss about using the sesquicentennial as a way to question assumed narratives will prove a bust.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010

      That’s a good point, Brooks. To be honest, I didn’t even think about mentioning the race of the individual in question.

      • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 22, 2010

        Next question … would it matter?

  • Andy Hall Nov 22, 2010

    I always wonder why someone would ask a question like that.

    To catch the speaker in what the questioner sees as an obvious logical fallacy. The question isn’t posed to elicit a detailed answer, but to embarrass the speaker and make him or her look like a fool. It’s not quite as bare-faced an attempt to dismiss the speaker out-of-hand as the guy who demanded to know where Kevin was from, but it’s in a similar vein. Still interested to know how John responded.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 22, 2010

      As someone who fields all sorts of questions all the time in various circumstances, it is not very hard for a speaker to turn such a question into a teachable moment, so long as the speaker realizes that this is the best way to respond to such an opportunity. It is often very hard for a speaker to come to that realization, especially if one responds to an attempt to embarrass by responding personally. It’s not hard to discern the challenge implicit in such questions. John’s response shows that he’s thought about how to respond. It’s much harder to do in virtual environments, because there such questioners feel free to be insulting, snide, and so on, because there is no audience response. In those environments people expect the person responding to the question to hold to a far higher standard than the questioner, and often give the questioner a free pass … which is one reason why the vast majority of academic historians stay away from internet forums.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010

    John acknowledged the importance of the question and then attempted to place the questioner in the position of the slave. He asked the individual to think about the role of fear attached to rebellion as well as the connection to a particular place and a profound sense of the unknown when thinking about the world beyond the plantation. He asked if a slave had any reason to expect success through open rebellion. For slaves in the Deep South the thought of rebellion must have been the furthest from their mind, but he did acknowledge more subtle ways in which slaves could have asserted their freedom. John also talked about the hold that family had on slaves. He made a few additional points, but I think you get the gist of it.

  • James F. Epperson Nov 22, 2010

    I think Mr. Hall makes a good point, but he is also making the assumption (which I would as well) that the questioner is white. Looking forward to more details.

  • Michaela Nov 22, 2010

    John Hennessy did an excellent job answering the question not only in his choice of words, but also in the way he emphasized the notion of empathy.

    However, I was not so surprised by the audience’s response AFTER John’s answer, as much as I was appalled that nobody in the audience gave a sign of disapproval BEFORE he answered it. We need to strive for an environment where it becomes utterly uncomfortable to ask a question such as “But why didn’t the slave run off to Chicago and start a manufacturing business with his sister Lucy and their Irish friend Jack? Isn’t it because he must have been treated well by his master?”. The fundamental hypocrisy in this question should be obvious. Similarly to the elderly lady whose granddaddy fought in the Civil War and who complained about her family’s eternally lasting trauma of having lost property during that time. Well, at least the “content” and “happy” slave did not have to worry about overwhelming issues like that. Lucky him!

    • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 22, 2010

      I disagree. I would not want anyone to feel that they could not ask me a question, even if I suspect that there’s an agenda behind it. I had a similar experience in NYC two years ago, and I’m glad the person asked the question, and I’m glad the audience was happy with my answer and expressed that approval. I would not want someone to feel that they could not ask a question because of a concern that they might be silenced by their fellow audience members, and I can’t blame audience members for not being on their toes as if it was their job to comment on questions before I had a chance to respond.

  • Raffi Nov 22, 2010

    Kevin, thanks for filling us in on John’s answer.

    James and others who are assuming the questioner is white…
    I kindly suggest that we try to be more careful. For example, while working at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site earlier this year, I encountered Reverend Williams of Atlanta, a long time black Georgia who grew up in Jim Crow and participated in the Civil Rights Movement. I remember on his tour of the Dr. King’s birth and boyhood home in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood (which I attended as part of my training), he said that Dr. King gave “us” (African Americans) more progress in 14 years than we made in the previous 300 years. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, that claim really jumped out at me, because it certainly seemed to defy the narrative of resistance that we as historians construct throughout the African American experience over the centuries.

    (And Reverend Williams was not alone in his perception, I found, as I encountered more of his upbringing as visitors on my own tours later, when they described their own experiences pre- and post- King’s rise and national influence)

  • Raffi Nov 22, 2010

    Addendum:

    I bring this up because when I talked to these folks I mentioned above, they did not suggest the same resistance (hence why they put so much emphasis on King, which historians have moved away from). Thus, our assumptions would effectively take away the voices of these African Americans I encountered. That is threat number one of our assumptions (which also raised the question of whether these actors perceive their actions under Jim Crow the same way we might perceive them when we analyze them with our historian’s hat on).

    But to bring it back to assuming the race of the questioner at Fredericksburg… Well, in the situation above, would you have assumed what I said came from Jim Crow raised Southern blacks? Doubtful.

    Bottom line to me is that it really doesn’t matter what race the speaker is at this event in Fredericksburg. The question is still the same question, no matter who asked it — it’s still the same question, with the same answer. An argument stands on its own constructions and logic, regardless of the person making it; anybody of any race could make that mistake we fear by following the “lack of rebellion” line of reasoning. So the issue is the argument being presented (i.e. the question asked), which is utterly unrelated to the person’s race — because the response is (should be) the same.

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