Is W.E.B. Dubois Allowed To Compare the Civil War and Reconstruction With Nazi Germany?

W.E.B. Dubois

My American Studies course is currently making its way through Reconstruction as part of a broader look at the history of race.  From here we move on to the twentieth century and the Civil Rights Movement.  Reconstruction readings include Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Dubois.  For our Dubois selection we decided to read his 1943 essay in the journal, PHYLON, titled, “Reconstruction, Seventy-Five Years After.”  It allowed the class to make connections between the three authors’ views of Reconstruction as well as the racial context of WWII.  Analogies between the Civil War and Nazi Germany come up fairly frequently on this blog and others, but our tendency is to resist the urge given the strong emotions that they engender as well as the sloppiness that almost always frames the discussion.

On the other hand, here we have an African American looking back on the history of the Civil War in the middle of WWII.  Dubois can’t help but make the connection in the process of reminding his readers just how crucial African Americans proved to be in preserving the Union:

We are today contemplating with uncertainty and fear the steps that must be taken in Germany by the victorious allies after the overthrow of Hitlerism.  Suppose it were true that the only way to restore Germany in a form which would make it impossible for her to be for a generation if not forever, a menace to the peace of the world, was to put political and social power into the hands of a mass of people who had long been victims of German oppression and who now desired freedom, work, land and education?  Suppose that when the Allies marched into Germany, they found thirty-five per cent of the population, friendly and sympathetic, but hated by the Germans as the Jews are hated; and in contrast to the Jews, ignorant, poor and sick, because of slavery and exploitation for two hundred and fifty years; would there be the slightest doubt but that this suffering and oppressed people would be fixed upon by the conquerers as the God-sent instrument for the reconstruction and democratization of Germany? ….

And what is true in the South faces the nation in this Second World War.  No matter what we may think and say of Germany, by singular paradox the race-religion which Germany has suddenly thrust to the front, is but an interpretation of what America and Europe have practiced against the colored peoples of the world.  No matter who wins this war it is going to end with the question of the equal humanity of black, brown, yellow and white people, thrust firmly to the front.  Is this a world where its peoples in mutual helpfulness and mutual respect can live and work; or will it be a world in the future as in the past, where white Europe and white America must rule “niggers”?  The problem of the reconstruction of the United States, 1876, is the problem of the reconstruction of the world in 1943.

It should be remembered that Dubois wrote this before the liberation of the Concentration Camps in 1944-45.  I actually think that this helps to strengthen rather than weaken his analysis.

Emancipation as an “Honorable Discharge”

We are likely to see more of these black Confederate stories throughout Black History Month.  This one is a perfect example of the confusion and inconsistency that often accompanies these stories.  You can clearly discern both the narrative of a slave and a soldier at work here with no sense that they are mutually exclusive.  Mary Crockett presents her great-grandfather, Richard Quarls, as both a Civil War veteran and as a slave.  The reporter tells us that although he was forced into the army as a slave he wore the Confederate uniform.  The uniform is typically referenced as evidence that the individual in question was considered something other than a slave.  In addition, his pension is shown, which leads one to believe that he served in a Confederate unit as a soldier as opposed to being attached to a soldier/officer as a servant.  In this case the pension that Quarls received was for his work as a slave and not as a soldier.  Once again we can thank the Sons of Confederate Veterans for distorting this story for their own purposes by placing a marker that suggests that Quarls was a soldier.  Ms. Crockett is absolutely right when she points out that her family’s history is complex.  It’s also an important story and at this point in time we should try to get right.

Is This Image Really Controversial?

“In school (in Venezuela) we learned about the United States’ Civil War and slavery. I learned to have a negative view of the flag — I basically associated the image of the flag with slavery, racism and the KKK…. In 1983, I was a college student in Texas and saw a group of KKK clansmen in their hooded robes, standing on a street corner yelling and waving the (Confederate) flag. My English was limited at the time, so I’m not sure what they were yelling, but I probably wouldn’t want to know.  It only happened once in the 12 years that I lived there, but that image stuck with me.” — Stanley Bermudez

By Golly They Were Fighting For States’ Rights

It’s always entertaining to watch folks get worked up about the pride they feel when defending those brave white Southerners, who  in 1860-61 were doing nothing more than standing up against an evil federal government that had stepped beyond its constitutional authority.  For many, it’s nothing less than an act of patriotism that may have to be carried out again if we are not careful.  In this interpretation of American history, the American Civil War ushered in a new era of corrupt government.  Lincoln fits perfectly into the role of arch villain, not simply for ordering the total destruction of the Confederacy, but for his blatant disregard of the Constitution.  The act of secession and the war itself constituted the final stand against this blatant disregard for the Constitution.

What is interesting, of course, is that these very same people fail to extend their argument further.  Why not continue to defend these salient constitutional issues within the history of the Confederacy itself?  After all, a closer look at the historical record may reveal an even more defiant stand against the encroachments on states’ and individual rights in the Confederacy as opposed to the United States between 1861 and 1865.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to add to the argument that the 1860s represented a fundamental shift in our assumptions about the proper relationship between the states and the federal government?

A cursory glance at the historical record suggests that Southern slaveholders are begging to be embraced as defending their rights against what they perceived to be a corrupt government.  Throughout the war they stood up against every attempt on the part of the Confederate government to impress their slaves for military purposes.  They did so not only because they knew there would be a good chance that their slaves would run away, but that the legislation constituted a direct threat to their individual rights as property holders.  Stephanie McCurry does a brilliant job of explaining all of this in her book, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  If we understand the direct connection between states’ right and slaveholders’ rights we can more easily view the slaveholding class as engaged in a broader struggle to protect their individual rights, first against the United States and, within a short period of time, the Confederate States of America.

A Virginia Fourth Grader’s Civil War

General Winfield Scott

I came across this question not too long ago on my Facebook News Feed.  It was posted by a well-known Civil War historian, who was helping his 4th grader study for the Virginia Standards of Learning Test:

Name the roles of the following
1) White Virginians
2) Freed African Americans
3) American Indians

Choices:
A) Supported the Confederacy
B) Fought for the Confederacy to protect their rights
C) Did not take sides during the Civil War.

Let me know how you did because I still can’t figure out the right answer.  This past week I had the opportunity to work with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers in Virginia Beach.  It presents a unique challenge since I do not have children of my own and my work as a history teacher is on the high school level.  Even more challenging is the fact that many of these teachers are not trained in history.  That’s not necessarily a problem given the level at which they are working at with the kids and the skills they are working hard to impart.  However, we should expect that every attempt is being made to provide these teachers with curricular materials that reflect the latest scholarship and that allows students to see as much of the richness of their state’s history as possible.

If this question reflects what our kids are being taught at this level than we’ve got a lot to worry about.  In fact, if I have the right answers the question clearly reflects the content of Joy Masoff’s Our Virginia: Past and Present in which she suggests that slaves supported the Confederacy in large numbers.  As bad as that is it could be argued that the assumption that all Virginians supported the Confederacy is also a gross distortion of the past.  At one point during my teaching session we were discussing Robert E. Lee’s difficult decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army.  I brought up General Winfield Scott’s name as another example of a Virginian, who struggled with the same decision and my audience largely stared back in silence.  Scott was one of the most important Americans by 1860 and he was a Virginian.  Please don’t tell me that 4th graders can’t understand the concept of a Unionist.  I don’t see how you can understand the war in Virginia without it.

On a related note I also learned that public schools in Virginia Beach are not allowed to visit the Museum of the Confederacy.  No one could give me an answer beyond the vague rumblings over their name, which have plagued it over the past few years.  I made it crystal clear that the MOC is truly one of our most important historical institutions and that they should be taking full advantage of what it has to offer.   Here we are at the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in Virginia and we are still teaching our kids not only an outdated version of the Civil War, but one that somehow manages to fall short of the cognitive capacity of 4th graders.  Of course, I have no doubt that there are teachers, who are doing a first-rate job in their classrooms, but these little signs are not encouraging.

If the above question is what passes for historical knowledge in our public schools than I suggest we just bag the entire project and devote the time to math and science.

Our children deserve better.