Author Archives: Kevin Levin

About Kevin Levin

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What Happens When Your Monument is Hit By a Truck?

This is an interesting story out of Franklin County, Virginia.  Two years ago their Confederate monument, which was dedicated in 1910 was struck by an out-of-control driver and all but destroyed.  Local leaders raised the necessary funds to build a new monument and plan to dedicate it in August only this time around there is also a push to include a marker that acknowledges the Civil War experiences of African Americans.  Just what that experience involved seems to be a matter of some debate.  First, it is difficult to imagine that an additional marker would be on the table had the original statue not been destroyed.  I suspect that a re-dedication on public land at a time when these symbols have come under increased scrutiny is part of what is at issue here.

The community group responsible for this new marker includes Francis Amos, a doctor; Franklin County Circuit Court Judge William Alexander; members of the Jubal Early Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy; and several other black historians, educators and local leaders.  The marker/pillar would include the following:

In commemoration of the many contributions, service and sacrifices on the home front and on the battlefront by People of Color, enslaved and free, from Franklin County during the War Between the States. (1861-1865).

You couldn’t ask for a vaguer inscription.  In contrast to most Confederate soldier monuments, which clearly state why they fought, died, and sacrificed this marker commits to nothing and yet ensures that any narrative will be framed around a reference to the war that is commonly used by the UDC and other heritage organizations to distance slavery and emancipation from our collective memory of the war.  Florella Johnson, who is the president of the local chapter of the NAACP expressed concern that the additional marker was not enough, though the article does not say why.

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Nikki Haley’s Civil War Memory (when the SCV asks)

Update: The interviews were conducted by the Palmetto Patriots with all the candidates and are available on the organization’s website.  A wide range of issues were covered.  McMaster discusses the flag in Part 2 at 2:55.  Bauer comments on the flag in Part 2 at 4:50 after one of the interviewers admits that there is some crossover between the SCV and Palmetto Patriots.  Barrett is a member of an SCV camp and in Part 1 at 2:25 pledged to defend the Confederate flag against “cultural genocide.”  One of the interviewers also encouraged Barrett to resist calls to remove the statue of Ben Tillman from the statehouse.  There is nothing surprising in any of this.

This is a wonderful example of a behind-the scenes-look at the way in which Civil War/Confederate heritage continues to shape politics.  I’m not sure Nikki Haley, who recently won the Republican Gubernatorial Primary in South Carolina, knows anything about the American Civil War, but she is clearly being put through the ringer by an unknown group.  I suspect that the interviewers are with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but I can’t be sure.  Haley reduces the war to a matter of “tradition vs. change” and is clearly doing her best not to offend.  Around the 5 minute mark one of the interviewers demands to know Haley’s position on the ongoing debate about the Confederate flag and reminds her of their work to remove Governor Beasley for proposing to remove the flag from atop the statehouse.

I’m not sure if I am more upset about the complete lack of historical understanding by everyone in this video or that this is an issue that demands serious attention by our candidates for public office.

Another Black Confederate Website

Black Confederate Soldiers has more of a professional look to it, but the information and commentary provided is as misleading as anything you will find online.  You will find all of the standard accounts on the “History Facts” page as if to assume that serious history involves a simple listing of facts without any attempt at analysis or confirmation.   The bibliography is nothing more than an assortment of neo-Confederate/Sons of Confederate Veterans propaganda that fails to draw any distinction between secondary and primary studies.  The authors of this site invite readers to share their own sources on the subject.

Interestingly, both Kevin Weeks and Ann DeWitt are African American.  DeWitt seems to be responsible for much, if not all, of the content of the website.  As in the case of Edward C. Smith I get the sense that we are looking at another example of wanting to acknowledge the presence and importance of African Americans in our collective memory.  And as I’ve said before, this is certainly understandable.  In this case, however, there is something very personal at stake for DeWitt:

Born and raised in the south, I was taught forgiveness. (Matthew 18:21-22).  During my research, I visited a 19th century church in Oxford, Georgia called “The Old Church.” Sitting in the front pew during a tour, I finally understood that one cannot completely understand the complexity of the American Civil War and its ties to slavery until there is complete forgiveness. The people I met on this journey gave an open reception and led me down the safest trails in obtaining the facts about Black Confederate Soldiers. For this, I am grateful.

Perhaps, Christian slaves forgave and picked up arms to fight for the little they acquired during their years on American soil. Not until we set aside our differences can we have the necessary dialog about everyone, regardless of color, family lineage, political, or military affiliation, who made tremendous sacrifice from the first shots fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861 until the the final surrender of General Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

I have no interest in critiquing what motivates Ms. DeWitt to explore American history and the history of race relations specifically.  That said, there is something very honest about the above passage and I certainly sympathize with the ways in which understanding history can help to bring about understanding and reconciliation.  Unfortunately, this site does little more than promote the same tired myths and moves us even further away from understanding how the war effected the master-slave relationship.

Is This a Photograph of North Carolina Slaves?

I remember the disappointment on the faces of some of my students when I revealed that many of the images used by Ken Burns in his documentary to accompany his narrative about slavery were actually from the postwar period.  As horrified as we are by the harsh reality of slavery we still seek a connection with that past.  We want to understand the human dimension of this sad chapter of American history.  It’s no surprise that the release of an image purportedly of two young slave children from North Carolina would receive so much attention.  The photograph even comes with a bill of sale that is attributed to one of the two children.  New York collector Keya Morgan said he paid $30,000 for the photo album including the photo of the young boys and several family pictures and $20,000 for the sale document.

Representatives of the historical community were quick to offer their own assessment of the document’s significance:

Such photos were circulated in the North by abolitionists to garner support for the Union during the Civil War, said Harold Holzer, an author of several books about Lincoln. Holzer works as an administrator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Most of the photos depicted adult slaves who had been beaten or whipped, he said.  The photo of the two boys is more subtle, Holzer said, which may be why it wasn’t widely circulated and remained unpublished for so long.  “To me, it’s such a moving and astonishing picture,” he said.

Ron Soodalter, an author and member of the board of directors at the Abraham Lincoln Institute in Washington, D.C., said the photo depicts the reality of slavery.  “I think this picture shows that the institution of slavery didn’t pick or choose,” said Soodalter, who has written several books on historic and modern slavery. “This was a generic horror. It victimized the old, the young.”

I posted this story on my Facebook page and agreed with others that the image was probably from the postwar period.  Leonard Lanier offered the following comment after going back to the 1850 Slave Schedule:

I have my doubts over whether the slave bill of sale goes with the photograph. The 1850 Slave Schedule for Brunswick County, NC lists a “George W. Potter” as the owner of seven slaves, including two boys aged 16 and 14. The census also lists two adult male slaves aged 24 and 30. Considering the large sum paid Potter’s estate administrator in .1854, $1150, for “John” I think the bill of sale is for one of these older men. Such a high price reflects their value as able field hands. However, either man is clearly too old by 1860 to be the subject of the photograph.

It’s not conclusive, but it should lead to further questions.  Either way it is a fascinating photograph and a wonderful find.

Edward C. Smith on Black Confederates

This is great.  In 1993 Professor Edward C. Smith addressed a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting on the subject of black Confederates.  Unfortunately, only the first ten minutes of his presentation was posted, but it is extremely helpful.  First, Prof. Smith is a Professor of Anthropology at American University.  It is unclear to me on what grounds he can claim to be an authority on this particular subject.  As far as I can tell he has never published anything on the subject in a scholarly journal.  I suspect that he can claim as much authority as Earl Ijames.  What is interesting is the timing of the speech just a few short years after the release of Glory, which I suggested yesterday functioned as a catalyst for interest in this issue.  Well, Smith confirms my suspicions, but he also helps us to better understand why African Americans may be interested in this subject.  From what I can tell Smith views this subject as the next step in more fully understanding the place of African Americans within the broader national narrative.  Blacks served as soldiers in the Union army so it must be the case that they also served in Confederate armies.  Smith wants a more inclusive history that does justice to the accomplishments of black Americans.  That is certainly understandable.  I hope the rest of this speech is eventually posted.