The Real Price of Forgetting the Past (Continued)

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In response to my last post in which I suggested that public historians have reason to feel good about the seismic interpretive shifts that can be seen in our museum’s and other historical institutions John Hennessy offers the following:

As it relates to the supply-side of the equation, I think there is little doubt that there is something to your and Pete’s declaration of victory. But on the consumer side–not entirely. Anyone would be hard-pressed to declare to the front-line staff on an NPS battlefield site that the issue of disputed memory/history/heritage/tradition is settled in the public’s mind. There HAS been great progress, and we see evidence of that on a regular basis, but we also see evidence of discord literally every day. And then, too, there is the issue the entrenched disconnect between the public history of the Civil War and the African-American community. As has often been said, history doesn’t turn the page, only historians do. [my emphasis]

I think John is absolutely right and this is an issue that came up a few times during the conference in Raleigh, but it didn’t receive nearly enough attention.  My paper attempted to sketch some of the challenges that the National Park Service in Petersburg face in attracting African Americans and the local community to the battlefield.  I am in now way suggesting that NPS historians need to spend their time generating plans on how to go about attracting any one group of Americans.  I’m not even sure how one would go about this.  At the same time and given their location within a predominantly black community I do believe that the NPS does have a responsibility to be sensitive to the extent to which decisions made within its own institution and beyond served to alienate African Americans from a landscape that figured prominently in a narrative that traced the transition from slavery to freedom.

It is clear to me that public historians need to spend much more time coming to terms with the myriad ways in which Americans approach their past.  With all of the attention being paid to how little Americans supposedly know about the past, it would be much more helpful to try to better understand why so many of us feel drawn to the past.  [One useful source is Roy Rozensweig’s and Thelen’s, The Presence of the Past.]  A new YouTube video interview of H.K. Edgerton by the Sons of Confederate Veterans points to just how important this is if we hope to offer an interpretation of the past that responds to the needs of various consumers of history.  I’ve written extensively about H.K. and while I find him to be quite entertaining it would be a big mistake to dismiss him without considering his core message.  I find it very difficult to follow much of his thinking about slavery, Reconstruction, the Klan, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in this video.  Frankly, I don’t get the sense that H.K. has read much history at all.

That said, public historians ought to listen closely to H.K.  His is a personal past of marginalization and exclusion.  What stands out to me is the following: “How are you going to separate Confederate history and Southern history from black folks?”  I hear someone declaring their rightful place within the rich history of the South and the Civil War in particular.  The emphasis on black Confederates and even his own donning of the Confederate uniform and long marches through the South reflect someone who has a desire to read a history about bravery and sacrifice within the African American community.  Perhaps his preferred history is one that does not involve African Americans leaving the South for the Union army, but for a history that places them at the center of Southern history.

Is it any accident that H.K. has found a home in the Sons of Confederate Veterans?  Both are clearly getting something out of this relationship.  The SCV enjoys the embrace of an African American who confirms their own need to remember a past that minimizes the centrality of slavery and race and H.K.’s desire for black agency that sits at the center of the Confederate narrative is acknowledged.

Public historians have a lot to learn.

10 comments… add one
  • John Maass Mar 29, 2011 @ 1:28

    I was somewhat surprised that at a CW public history conference held in NC that Earl Ijames was not there. Granted that the conference was not put on by the NC State Archives, but still, a MAJOR conference in his home town and a no show? I wonder if he tried to get on the program? I doubt it, as these kind of venues at which he’d be subject to tough questions @ his research he tends to avoid.

    Good seeing you there Kevin!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2011 @ 1:33

      You may be right about Ijames, but not having him on the program was a missed opportunity. Perhaps we would have seen him and a lot of other folks if the conference were held off campus. It was also nice to have a chance to talk with you – looking forward to the next opportunity.

  • Phil Ross Mar 28, 2011 @ 20:54

    Disclaimer: I’m not black, but I am a public historian of some experience. I think that we need to modify our thinking about the African-American community as a monolithic entity. Heritage activities, in many ways, are luxuries, and unfortunately heritage tourism *as a whole* has not achieved a whole lot of racial and cultural diversity as of yet. That doesn’t mean we aren’t reaching diverse groups, but I think this is where we get back to the heritage vs. history thing again.

    I directed a state historical marker program during that state’s (well-funded) bicentennial observances, and helped organize commemoration activities in observance of each marker’s topic, engaging likely community leaders. Where the topic concerned African-American culture the turnout was always significant — but by the dress and bearing of attendees it was clear that these marker dedications were middle-class leisure activities, no different from any other group of heritage-minded folks with a special interest. That interest may be a scholarly interest in the topic, or a personal connection to it, but it is defined much more by class and education than race.

    I rarely saw much interest in heritage activities among working-class folks, even when dealing with labor topics. In fact, some of my stickiest and least productive negotiations were with labor organizations. But I saw distinct correlations between community-mindedness and heritage-mindedness.

    I think our greatest likelihood of success at engaging folks on a historical level is going to be in terms of existing community organizations. I think I mentioned this in an earlier comment, but I consider heritage to be consensual history, and history that prompts inter-community conflict can’t really be considered heritage.

  • Larry Cebula Mar 28, 2011 @ 19:07

    Our declaration of victory would be a lot like Bush’s “Mission Accomplished”–it might make us feel good but it would not be true. Whatever we do as academic and public historians and however we influence the National Park Service, these are not the main ways the most adults learn history in this country. They learn through books and the internet and television and at al sorts of historic sites, not just the professionally-run NPS sites. And in those venues the Lost Cause is alive and well and even growing.

    Did you see my posts on my visit to the Baron Von Munchausen home?

  • Jillian Mar 28, 2011 @ 17:33

    “I am in now way suggesting that NPS historians need to spend their time generating plans on how to go about attracting any one group of Americans.”

    Are you suggesting that the National Park Service doesn’t employ marketing techniques already? That hardly seems likely. As historians, we have to go above and beyond to interest the public in our quest to share our knowledge about the past. History is often poorly taught in schools and many histories have been intentionally eliminated from this country’s story. We can and should be intentional about reaching out to the public and recognizing that we need to diversify our marketing venues.

    • Bob Pollock Mar 29, 2011 @ 4:29


      I’m curious, what marketing techniques have you seen the NPS employ? I’m not an expert on this, but I think NPS is restricted by law when it comes to marketing. Often it takes private friends groups to market individual sites, and not all parks have friends groups, or friends groups that are effective.

      • Jillian Mar 29, 2011 @ 4:39

        Having worked closely with the Park Service in Lowell, I have seen them market the park through signage, newspaper articles, event sponsorship, and public/private partnerships. I’m not aware of marketing restrictions, though I won’t argue the point other than to say they need visitors to exist and they get them there somehow. However that is happening, it’s important to think about who the target audiences are.

        • Bob Pollock Mar 29, 2011 @ 5:53

          Public/private partnerships is what I was referring to when I said friends groups.

          “it’s important to think about who the target audiences are.”

          This is very true and is stressed in all NPS interpretive efforts.

          • Bob Pollock Mar 29, 2011 @ 5:57

            Should have said “partially” what I was referring to. There are various kinds of partnerships.

  • Corey Meyer Mar 28, 2011 @ 17:25

    At one point in the HK video he mentions a name that I cannot make out and then alludes to what I believe is Northerners coming south and dressing like the klan to attack blacks. This is the second time I have recently heard or read a comment like this…

    Very disturbing!!

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