Frederick Douglass’s Loyal Slaves

Frederick Douglass

Tomorrow my American Studies classes will begin to discuss Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, but I still look forward to every opportunity to revisit this book.  At some point I would like to teach an elective on the history of the nineteenth-century through a close examination of Douglass’s life.  As I was making my way through chapter 3 [pp. 20-21] I came across one of my favorite passages in which Douglass explores the complexity of the master-slave relationship.  In it he explains what appears to be the language of the loyal and contented slave.

It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head.  They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. If they have anything to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man. I have been frequently asked, when a slave, if I had a kind master, and do not remember ever to have given a negative answer; nor did I, in pursuing this course, consider myself as uttering what was absolutely false; for I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us. Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately. It was so on our plantation. When Colonel Lloyd’s slaves met the slaves of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters; Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!

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Developing Historic Land To Save It in Petersburg

I enjoyed reading John Hennessy’s most recent post on our perceptions of what it means to live on battlefield land.  He’s right that it is no longer acceptable for real estate developers to advertise the development of Civil War battlefields, which implicitly implies its destruction.  I admit that on occasion I’ve fantasized about living in a Civil War era home nestled on hallowed ground.  At the same time I rarely worry about whether those who currently occupy historical homes hold similar beliefs.  I tend to think that the caretaker perspective is the exception to the rule and the one that needs to be explained.  Perhaps this explains my resistance to taking a firm stand in the continued drama unfolding in Gettysburg between preservationists and commercial developers.

John notes that our tendency to resist the commercial development of historic land was not always so and he cites the sale of the McCoull House on the Spotsylvania battlefield.  It would be interesting to know at what point a community arrives at a preservationist mentality.  I find it difficult to imagine a farmer in Sharpsburg or some other remote site worrying about the preservation of his land; rather, I assume that what was most on his mind was economic recovery.  At some point, however, the community did come to see preservation as a worthy goal – with the help of the federal government, of course.

Commercial developers in Petersburg, Virginia continued to exploit the proximity to Civil War battlefields well into the twentieth century.  In the case of the developers of Pine Gardens Estate the sale of land was to be used to preserve significant Civil War sites in and around Petersburg.  The ads also reveal an attachment to well-worn themes of national reunion and reconciliation by the twentieth century. As many of you know the Crater battlefield itself was turned into a golf course before it was brought under the management of the National Park Service in 1936.  Ironically, it may have been the development of this land that helped to save it at a time when city managers pushed commercial development.

Some of you have been asking about the status of my Crater manuscript since the revised version was sent to the publisher back in August.  I haven’t heard anything yet, but I am hoping to hear something soon.

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Interviewed About Virginia Textbook Scandal

Yesterday I was interviewed by Patricia Gay, who is a reporter with the Weston Forum in Weston, Connecticut.  You might wonder why a Connecticut paper is so interested in this story.  Well, it turns out that Five Ponds Press is located in that town.  In fact, it turns out that author Joy Massoff is married to the publisher, Louis Scolnik.  Now that’s an interesting and disturbing turn.  We talked mainly about the issue related to the references of black Confederates, which was the catalyst for this story.  I am pleased to see that a large chunk of our discussion was included in the article.

Silver Lining

Although Ms. Masoff and Mr. Scolnik have come under considerable media and political scrutiny, Kevin Levin, a Civil War scholar and history teacher at a private high school in Charlottesville, Va., said there may be a silver lining to be gleaned from the debacle.

In a telephone interview with The Forum, he called mistakes in the textbook “mindboggling” and “disappointing.” But he also said the incident brought to light an important issue — the importance of teaching children how to judge information they get from the Internet.  “Ms. Masoff admitted she got her information about black Confederate soldiers from the Internet. If you search the terms ‘black’ and ‘Confederate’ online you will get Web sites put up by private individuals with no credentials,” he said.

Mr. Levin explained that most of those Web sites are written by “lost cause” Southerners who are still bitter about the South’s defeat in the Civil War. They hold on to a number of historically skewed tenets, including the belief that slavery was a benign institution and slaves were happy to serve their masters and volunteered to fight in the war, he said.

“Robert E. Lee had thousands of blacks with his army during Gettysburg. But they were performing services as impressed slaves and personal body servants. They were not soldiers. That distinction is a fundamental mistake,” he said.  In this electronic age, Mr. Levin said it is all too easy for kids to make the same mistake Ms. Masoff did, and assume all data found in a Google search is true.  “As teachers, we have a real opportunity here to teach students how to judge the information they get online,” he said.

Another positive thing, Mr. Levin said, is now when an Internet search is done for “black Confederate soldiers,” articles from the textbook ordeal will show up alongside ones written by the “lost cause” individuals.  “Before this incident, the issue of black Confederate soldiers was a preoccupation by a relatively small group. Now it has been introduced to a broader range of people,” he said.

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Upcoming Talks

This new year is already shaping up to be a busy one for me.  My work with teachers continues, which gives me a great deal of satisfaction.  I try to fit in as much as possible, given my busy teaching schedule, so feel free to contact me if you are interested in setting up a visit.  Click here and scroll down for previous talks.

“From Civil War to Civil Rights” w/Professor Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill [Teaching American History Grant Workshop] Virginia Beach, January 2011.

“Cutting and Pasting Black Confederates on the Internet and in Our Classrooms”, [Teaching American History Grant Workshop] Virginia Beach, March 2011.

“Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory” Historical Society of Western Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia, April 2011.

“Black Confederates and Media Literacy in the Classroom” and “Teaching Glory in the Classroom” Civil War Preservation Trust Annual Teachers Institute, July 2011.

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Just Say What You Mean

As a teacher I am a big fan of assigning short analytical reviews.  At some point during the year my students must review websites, articles by historians, historical documentaries and Hollywood movies.  Students in my AP and Civil War courses must write numerous reviews of short articles by a wide range of historians.  I have them do this to better understand what goes into a scholarly historical interpretation as well as preparation for their own research projects.  It goes without saying that our students must be instructed as to how to go about writing such a critique.  My students have to learn to…

  • read the publication carefully.
  • take extensive notes.
  • be aware of the primary sources utilized and how those sources are interpreted.
  • explain the author’s argument to the best of their ability and in their own words.
  • explain both the strengths and weaknesses of the interpretation to the best of their ability based on their understanding of the evidence and the relevant secondary sources.

At no time are my students told to assess the authors themselves.  As far as I am concerned it is irrelevant to the scope of the assignment.  I can’t imagine one of my student doing so, but if they handed a review in that included references to “political correctness”, “revisionism”, or “liberal bias” I would immediately hand the paper back with a grade of Incomplete.  It would get such a grade not because I agree or disagree, but because the student apparently does not understand what it means to evaluate a historical interpretation.

I share this in light of the comments that I’ve read on this site and so many others in response to PBS’s recent documentary about Robert E. Lee.  I find it funny that folks actually believe that such references convey any real significance when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative as well as the commentary offered by the historians.  It may come to a shock to some, but it is possible to disagree with one another when thinking about the past and doing history.  There are legitimate disagreements that one can have over last night’s documentary.  For example, one of the most common criticisms has to do with the postwar portrayal of Lee as well as the amount of attention given to Lee’s faith.  That’s a legitimate criticism so make the point to the best of your ability.

So, go ahead and give it a try.  You know who you are.  Next time you feel tempted to resort to such references take a step back and regroup.  Take the necessary time to elaborate and explain your main points.   Reference specific primary and secondary sources and try to engage in a serious discussion.  Who knows, you may end up advancing the understanding of all parties.

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