Public History and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

The History Department at North Carolina State University [their website is awesome] is hosting a conference in March, titled, “The Public History of the American Civil War, a Sesquicentennial Symposium.”  I’ve been asked to put together an abstract for a panel that will focus on recent interpretive challenges at Civil War battlefields.  It will come as no surprise to most of you that I am going to focus on the battle of the Crater and the Petersburg National Battlefield.  Here is the abstract. “When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:

Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s.  Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service.  At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public.  While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift.  This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970.  This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely.  A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

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11 comments… add one
  • John Maass Feb 17, 2011 @ 9:28

    I plan to go to the conference.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Dec 15, 2010 @ 3:47

    Speaking in this case an employee of said park in question: Kevin is correct. Visitation from African-Americans remains low. However, it’s really not that different from any other NPS site beyond those one may think of as “traditional” black interest (Martin Luther King Jr’s Boyhood home in Atlanta for example). Lots of recent commentary shared here from the latest Virginia Sesquicentennial conference examined why most Black Americans have not been traditional visitors to NPS sites (particularly Civil War battlefields) but we (being black I can say “we” in this case) also are not traditional visitors to Yellowstone or Acadia or Gettysburg or the Everglades.

    One study not specific to Civil War NPS sites ( has been turned into a book that I have.
    Nevertheless, Kevin is correct. We have started taking the history to the community and not only one specific element of the community. Tours of downtown Petersburg, special programs in Poplar Lawn Park, and programs at the city’s major cemetery, Blandford exist hand-in-hand with similar programs happening at places like Fredericksburg and Richmond National Battlefields.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 15, 2010 @ 3:58

      Thanks for the comment as well as the link to the report. It looks to be quite interesting.

  • Bob Dec 14, 2010 @ 15:45

    That is a great idea…maybe things will get better if the park takes over the train station downtown, of course its all about budget. Anything is better than what has happened there in the past with relations between the park and city

  • Bob Dec 14, 2010 @ 14:20

    what is the visitation for the local African American community at Petersburg Battlefield? Its great to talk about bridging gaps and creating ideas…but I know it has really led to no real significant upswing in local visitation and the majority of the local African American community has no interest or direct link to the park. Its sad, great resource…not sure how to fix it. I know new staff there have been making great headway, maybe it will take time to clear out dead weight…

    • Kevin Levin Dec 14, 2010 @ 14:27

      Hi Bob,

      It’s still low. One thing that the NPS has begun is a series of walking tours in downtown Petersburg. The tours have been quite successful. So, I guess one lesson is to bring the staff and their resources to the people rather than waiting for them to show up.

      • George Geder Dec 15, 2010 @ 23:02

        Now, there’s a thought! Since “… Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely. …”

        It seems you have generations of black folks not being welcomed that speaks to exclusion rather than apathy. That’s a stigma which is difficult to overcome; even today.

        The upside is that mindset is changing. You may not see it locally – and that needs to be investigated – but you see it nationally.

        Peace & Blessings
        “Guided by the Ancestors”

  • John Maass Dec 14, 2010 @ 3:13

    Thanks for the notice @ this conference!

  • Charles Bowery Dec 14, 2010 @ 2:31

    Thanks for highlighting the NCSU history department. I got my MA there in 2001, and had a great experience overall. They have often been overshadowed by the giants down the road in Chapel Hill and Durham, which is a shame. I was able to take classes at all three universities, and the Triangle Institute for Security Studies hosts a series of great cooperative programs.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Dec 13, 2010 @ 10:17

    It’s no guarantee yet but myself and a couple other followers of this blog are working on a panel discussion on the use of living history at NPS sites in conjunction with challenging past interpretations of the war.

    So the potential exists for quite a bit of discussion on Petersburg National Battlefield. Hope to see you there Kevin.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 13, 2010 @ 10:21

      Great idea.

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