This week I am busy reading through drafts from the contributors to my book on how the Civil War is currently being interpreted at museums and historic sites. It involves a good deal of work, but I am learning a great deal and excited about how the project is beginning to come together.
One of the things that I encouraged my authors to tackle in their essays is the ongoing debate about the public display of Confederate iconography that followed the violent shooting in Charleston last summer by Dylann Roof, whose trial has begun. It seems to me that public historians are in somewhat uncharted territory in terms of finding a place within local communities that are engaged in these difficult conversations. I am pleased that a number of the contributors are dealing directly with these issues, which I hope will result in this book having some role in helping to guide public historians who want to get more involved.
John Rudy’s essay deals directly with the challenges that public historians face when having to address contemporary problems. As a trainer of park rangers for the National Park Service, John has thought long and hard about the need for front line interpreters to engage visitors and to encourage them to think about how the past informs the present.
One passage in particular in his essay stood out to me, which I can’t quite stop thinking about. It comes in his discussion of the Charleston shootings and its aftermath. I did not know that just months before stepping foot in the AME Church Roof visited the NPS’s Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island.
To a large extent, Dylann Roof was a Park Service visitor: looking for meaning in a landscape. He sketched “14-88,” a neo-nazi slogan, onto the sand at the beach and had his photograph taken in front of the marker commemorating the importation of human chattel.
I was, of course, familiar with the photographs of Roof with Confederate battle flags, but I did not know that he likely contemplated instigating a race war at a place that was central to the beginnings of American slavery and the Civil War.
As John points out in his essay, the NPS staff at Fort Moultrie discussed the implications of Roof’s visit on how they interpret the site and engage visitors, but it raises all kinds of profound and difficult questions for public historians at historic sites and museums.
Roof’s visit to Fort Moultrie is a powerful reminder that there is no neutral ground at our historic sites, where the present can be ignored and brushed aside.