One question that often comes up when discussing the scope of the current Civil War Sesquicentennial is why so few African Americans appear to be taking part. The question arose this past June at the Civil War Institute and the previous year as well. I’ve also heard it in connection to battlefield commemorations such as the Gettysburg 150. The question itself is packed with assumptions about the kinds of events and activities that define this sesquicentennial.
One thing that folks who worry about this issue most likely need to get over is that African Americans will never flock to battlefields in significant numbers. And whether we like it or not, the reason has everything to do with the Confederate flag. It is packed with meaning (much of it from the civil rights movement) that sends a clear message to the African-American community: You are not welcome here.
In researching my book on the Crater I learned from one elderly gentleman who recalled an unstated rule while growing up in Petersburg that the battlefield was off limits to the black community. Talking with leaders in the black community of Petersburg I learned that up until recently they had little, if any, connection to their local Civil War history.
First, this wasn’t our war. Many African-Americans fought and died on both sides of the conflict, but they were excluded from the decision-making process. Without political representation, African-Americans have come to regard the Civil War and its memory as the white people’s burden. The black historical narrative places less emphasis on the Civil War itself and tends to highlight actions of African-Americans in response to the war. This seems practical, considering the modern African-American experience emerged directly from individual and collective actions of blacks during and after the Civil War.
Exploring African-American perspectives on the war also means confronting the painful history of slavery. Certainly, the causes of the Civil War were many — preservation of the Union, conflicts over states’ rights and changing meanings of freedom. To be sure, slavery was at the heart of the conflict. For many Americans, slavery is still a sensitive topic, and one that is often too difficult to discuss.
There is much to think about here, but I wonder whether McPherson might be overstating her case. It’s not that I don’t see some truth in what she says, but there is almost never any objective measurement to accompany these conclusions. What exactly would sufficient black participation look like? On the other hand, perhaps we are asking the wrong question and/or looking in the wrong places.
Rather than speculating as to why black Americans are not attending certain events or why they lack interest we ought to be exploring how the African-American community is, in fact, remembering the Civil War. I have a feeling that we might be surprised.