Not too long ago I received an email from a public historian who works at a plantation site in South Carolina asking whether he should accept a speaking invitation from the Sons of Confederate Veterans:
I have recently been asked to speak to the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I was surprised, terrified and strangely excited to get the invitation. I have a lot of research on the experiences of the men and women who lived at my plantation for the Civil War time period and I’m excited to be reaching out to a group in the local community who also have an interest in the time period, but I’m a bit nervous as to how I’ll be received.
It’s the policy of my agency that we call the Civil War, the “Civil War.” I’ve already been jokingly told that this group has considered fining speakers for every use of the “CW” word. I want to go in and reach out to this group. I want to present historically correct information. I do not want to alienate anyone or start a riot.
It may come as a surprise to some of you, but I’ve spoken to five chapter of the SCV in Virginia and North Carolina. It may also surprise you to hear that three of the five talks took place after I began this blog in 2005. [I even spoke once to a local UDC chapter in central Virginia.] All of the talks focused on the work I had done on my MA thesis at the University of Richmond on the battle of the Crater and historical memory so as you might imagine I had every reason to anticipate a great deal of discomfort and even outright hostility from my audience. But the thing is, I didn’t experience much hostility at all. Sure, there were a few people who dismissed my work from the get go, but the overwhelmingly response was much more positive. That’s not to say that everyone – or even the majority of my audience – agreed with me. Rather, most people listened closely to the talk and engaged me with some great questions. I would have to say that I’ve experienced more hostility at Civil War Roundtables over the past few years than I did with the SCV.
So, of course I encouraged the author of the email to accept the invitation and fulfill his responsibility to teach and engage the public. What other choice is there?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not anticipating a flood of invitations from the SCV. As much as I would like to think that this blog has helped to tear down certain walls there is no doubt that it has reinforced others. What I am reminded of, however, is the importance of treating people as individuals and not assuming the worst. I never heard back from this person, but I have no reason to think that the talk was anything but a success, which suggests to me that when people come together to learn good things usually happen.