The group of teachers that I have been working with over the past seven days has experienced the best in Civil War site interpretation from Nashville to Washington, D.C. At the same time, however this trip has reminded me of just how important it is that our public historians reflect the gender and racial profiles of their audiences.
This group of teachers is overwhelmingly white and female. Throughout Tennessee and Virginia our guides were almost all white and male. Let me stress that site interpretation was sophisticated and clearly based on the latest scholarship. Eric Jacobson did a fabulous job of interpreting the Carter family and the battle of Franklin that touched on gender and slavery and NPS Ranger, Christopher Young at Chickamauga, led one of the best battlefield tours that I’ve ever experienced.
By the time we finished a day long tour of the Petersburg Campaign there were some clear rumbling in the air. A few teachers expressed concern that the tours were conducted all by whites. In an attempt to address this we decided to make some last-minute changes. The changes were not meant to satisfy the concerns of a few, but based on the realization that there is value in hearing from a variety of voices. With this in mind I contacted Christy Coleman of The America Civil War Center to see if she might be able to spare a few minutes to talk with our group. She did and on her day off. Christy talked for a good 40 minutes about the challenges related to interpreting the Civil War in Richmond as an African-American woman.
The group also took part in an artillery demonstration at the headquarters for the Richmond National Battlefield, which was conducted by a young woman. A few teachers shared their thoughts about the noticeable change at the end of the day and eve this afternoon following a talk by Hari Jones at the African-American Civil War Museum. For others the change was apparent by the way they engaged the speakers.
It should come as no surprise that we not only identify with the stories told at historic sites, but with the storytellers as well. For some the legitimacy of the stories told depends, in large part, on who is sharing them. There are not only issues of trust involved, but a reassurance that the best interests of the broader community represented in those stories are kept in sharp relief. In short, this trip has been an eye opener.
Tomorrow it’s off to Antietam. This has been an amazing experience, but I am looking forward to my own bed on Wednesday.