I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities. They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment. Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery. This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War. Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education. All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.
For my second installment in this series I thought we would take a quick look at Ann DeWitt’sBlack Confederate Soldiers site. It’s one of the more recent sites to appear and it is growing in popularity. Feel free to suggest websites that might be worth exploring at a later date. I apologize for the sound quality. I am still playing around with a couple of programs so hopefully things will improve.
An American Turning Pointis not a top-down study of battles and generals. Instead, the exhibition engages visitors in the experiences of a representative group of individuals and situations to promote an understanding of the wartime experiences of Virginians, and those who served in Virginia, during the war. The stories of the men, women, and children who struggled to survive Virginia’s Civil War can be are found in the fabric of every uniform, the blade of every sword, the handle of every tool, the imagery of every drawing, the words of every letter, and the notes of every song.
The exhibit also reflects much broader changes since the Civil War Centennial surrounding how Americans have come to remember their Civil War. I see this exhibit as a crucial link between the work that historians have done over the past few decades and a general public that has shown strong signs of interest in this crucial moment in American history. Why Did the Civil War Happen? is the subject of the introductory video for the VHS exhibit. Enjoy.
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.
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.