I am not surprised that public officials in Union County, North Carolina have finally authorized the inclusion of a marker/monument on courthouse grounds to honor its local slave population. [I’ve followed this story for quite some time.] Given everything I know about the folks involved in this project I am not optimistic that the final wording of the marker will do justice to what we know about the history of free and enslaved blacks and the Confederacy. The history will be distorted.
This is unfortunate since slaves like Aaron Perry and Weary Clyburn deserve to be remembered. The final wording of the marker will likely reference their service in the Confederate army and their having been awarded pensions late in life. This interpretation will satisfy the self-serving agenda of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are committed to remembering the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights. It will also satisfy the descendants of these men, who wish to see their ancestors remembered.
These men deserve to be remembered, but not for living a life that falls outside of the historical record. They deserve to be remembered because they survived slavery. We can only imagine what hardships and humiliations these men suffered as chattel. How many experienced the lash or the pain of separation from loved ones? How many suffered from the intense desire to be free?
On top of all of this these men were forced to endure the hardships of a war that, if concluded in favor of their owners, would have ensured their continued enslavement. Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the Confederate government as laborers, while thousands more accompanied their owners to serve their individual needs. The presence of slaves in the army did not mark a change in their legal status. They were not brought to war to place them any closer to freedom. Quite the opposite. Now, in addition to the hardships experienced at home these men were forced to negotiate a new set of challenges and dangers. Violence was anything but foreign to the nation’s slave population by 1861. Separation from families was anything but new for these men.
And yet these men survived. They even went on and managed to eke out an existence during very difficult times that perhaps filled them with pride in knowing that their lives were finally their own.
Yes, we should honor these men. Honor them not for serving the Confederacy, but surviving it.
This morning I learned that Natasha Trethewey has been named as the next poet laureate. Many of you know Trethewey from her penetrating collection of poems on the racial legacy of the Civil War, titled Native Guard. Her selection comes at an important point in the Civil War Sesquicentennial as we begin to commemorate those events that mark emancipation and the recruitment of African Americans into the United States army. It is a commemorative landscape fraught with landmines, but I am comforted in knowing that there are voices out there that can help to guide us through.
The ghost of history lies down beside me, rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.
Here is a video of the author reading “Elegy of a Native Guard” on location.
How should the terrorists be interpreted in the museum?
What should be done with the remains of 9-11 victims and how should they be memorialized?
How much influence should 9-11 families have on interpretation?
What artifacts should be included in the museum?
How should the politics of 9-11 be handled, including subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
There are no easy answers nor should there be at this stage. I was struck by the issue of how to handle the most emotionally sensitive materials such as voice recordings and images. The designers of the museum have sectioned off certain exhibits and made it possible for visitors to exit at certain points if the experience becomes too much. As someone who is personally invested in this story I can appreciate the steps taken here, but the historian in me is concerned.
If we are going this far to protect visitors from certain sights and sounds than perhaps it is too soon to even consider a museum. Perhaps the site should remain a memorial for the near future and perhaps the museum would have been better placed in NYC, but away from Ground Zero. The people in charge of interpreting the site may have achieved a certain level of detachment, but the general public may still be far behind.
File this one under the ‘better late than never’ category. I guess every historian has experienced uncovering a gem of a reference that failed to make it into a published work. The following editorial (“Our Colored Militia”) was published in the Petersburg Lancet on September 12, 1885 by George F. Bragg, Jr. on the occasion of a local black militia parade.
When we think of the achievements of those brilliant knights of the middle ages; when we think of the christian armies moving onwards to Jerusalem to wrest the tomb of the blessed Saviour from the fierce barbaric hands of Saracenic hosts; when we remember the courageous conduct of the Negro troops at Fort Fisher, Fort Wagner, at New Orleans and at the CRATER near our own city, in which the limbs of may of our brethren in black lie mouldering in the dust from which they came, we may feel that this gathering to day is not an idle insignificant one, but that the colored militia men of this grand old State have determined to perpetuate the memories of that institution from which so many healthy lasting benefits have been derived.
There were a number of black militias active throughout Virginia during the postwar period. Though their service was limited they performed an important function within the local black community by reinforcing civic pride and preserving a memory of the war that was slowly losing its hold on the public’s imagination by the late nineteenth century. This editorial reinforces just how important it was for African Americans to keep alive the memory of their service and sacrifice in the war as a way to maintain what limited freedoms they enjoyed, especially in the wake of the end of Readjuster control of the state.
One of the topics that I briefly explore in the book is the challenge of connecting black residents of Petersburg to the history at the Crater. Earlier this week I posted on a parade in Fredericksburg that recreates the postwar participation of local blacks in decorating and honoring Union graves. If repeated it at least has the potential to connect a certain segment of the community to the Civil War past and its continued relevance. Perhaps the recreation of a black militia march in Petersburg with their overt references to black participation in the war can achieve similar ends. Just a thought.
I am delighted to hear that residents of Fredericksburg, Virginia have resurrected a civic ceremony that was lost as a result of reunion between white Northern and former Confederates. For a number of years after the war the black residents of the city took part in annual marches on Decoration Day to the cemetery to commemorate the bravery of United States soldiers and the cause for which they fought. Those early commemorations constituted a living reminder that the war had profound results for millions of slaves and that its memory would be incomplete without the acknowledgment of emancipation and freedom.