An Open Letter To Earl Ijames

Update: Well, it doesn’t look like Mr. Ijames is willing to share his presentation with me.  He did, however, take the time to write me a lengthy letter in which he invited me to take part in one of his future presentations.  That’s very kind of him.  According to Mr. Ijames he has already shared all of the information he has on “Private Venable”, which is sufficient to accuse me, along with my “unnamed associates”, of “dishonoring” his memory.  I assume by “unnamed associates” he means his former colleagues at the NCDAH.  Unfortunately, it comes down to is his claim that the vast majority of the research for this presentation was done on his own personal time.  What is even more confusing is a string of attached emails between Ijames and a representative of UNC-TV that was included in his personal email to me.  Apparently, the two are under some mistaken belief that I based these posts on a recent interview with Ijames.  While I came across it on one of my searches I didn’t view it.  Finally, in addition to dishonoring the memory of Venable I am also being accused of dishonoring the memory of Weary Clyburn as well as his descendants.  Apparently, I may even be hearing from their lawyer.  No doubt I will be charged with doing history.  My next step will be to send a letter to the director of the NCDAH along with an attached copy of Ijames’s response to my request  I understand Ijames’s frustration.  He admitted in one of the emails that a Google search of his name lists this blog at the top of the list.  That said, this is no way for a public servant to respond to a request from the general public.  Well, that’s the latest. :D

To: Earl Ijames

cc: Dr. Jeffrey J. Crow [Deputy Secretary, North Carolina Office of Archives and History]

Subject: Black Confederates

Dear Mr. Ijames,

I am a high school history teacher and historian who specializes in Civil War history. My current research project focuses on the history of black soldiers in the Civil War.  I understand that over the past few years you have done extensive research on the service of black soldiers in the Confederate army and that you have presented your findings to the general public on numerous occasions.  Unfortunately, due to my location I am unable to attend these presentations.  However, I would like to request that you send me your Powerpoint presentation and/or copies of materials that have been used in your public programs.  I understand that your research was done while an employee at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History and that the requested items are part of the public record.  Thank you very much for your time and I look forward to reviewing your research.

Sincerely,

Kevin M. Levin
Instructor of History and Department Chair
St. Anne’s – Belfield School
Charlottesville, Virginia

Earl Ijames Is At It Again

Looks like Earl Ijames is taking his “black Confederate” roadshow out once again.  We first met Mr. Ijames, who works as a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, in the summer of 2008 in a series of posts I did on Weary Clyburn [and here].  In a comment contained in the second link Mr. Ijames introduced us to Private John Venable, who he believed served in Co. H, 21st NCST.  I assumed this was one of his ironclad examples given Mr. Ijames’s insistence that I acknowledge his findings.  With some help from archivists at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History it didn’t take long for us to poke a sufficient number of holes in Ijames’s interpretation of the documents related to Venable.  Unfortunately, Mr. Ijames never responded to the findings and interpretation of his colleagues.

Well, it looks like none of this is enough to prevent Mr. Ijames from presenting his “findings” to the general public.  I wonder if he is going to reference “Pvt.” John Venable in his presentation to the Chatham County Historical Association on February 28:

Many people find it hard to believe that any African American, slave or free, would have willingly served on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But Earl Ijames, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, says that many did just that, and that their reasons for fighting were as varied and complex as those of white soldiers. These black soldiers, as well as the blacks who served the Union cause, will be the topic of Ijames’ presentation. Whatever their reasons for serving, Ijames says, these men deserve to be recognized for their valor. “It’s a miscarriage of justice for this many people to be just blotted out of history,” he believes. Ijames has spent some 15 years studying this interesting and controversial topic.

[Update] Here is a description of the presentation on the Chatham website:

Many people find it hard to believe that any African American, slave or free, would have willingly served on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But Earl Ijames, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, says that hundreds did just that, and that their reasons for fighting were as varied and complex as those of white soldiers. These black soldiers, as well as the blacks who served the Union cause, will be the subject of Mr. Ijames’ talk on Sunday, February 28.

“The historically accurate term for the African Americans in the service of the Southern cause is ‘colored Confederates,’” Ijames says, and thousands of them went to war from Southern states, including North Carolina. Some were slaves sent in place of their masters, or were forced or volunteered to serve alongside them. Others were free blacks who offered their services. Whatever their reasons for serving, Ijames says, these men deserve to be recognized for their valor. “It’s a miscarriage of justice for this many people to be just blotted out of history,” he believes.

Ijames has spent some 15 years studying this interesting and controversial topic.  He will present some examples of people who served and discuss the historical evidence available to document them.  He will invite questions following the presentation.

The public is invited to attend the program to learn more about this fascinating and often ignored subject.

It’s difficult to believe that “many” African Americans served in the Confederate army given that the government expressly forbid it until close to the end of the war.  Given that fact, I would love to know what evidence Mr. Ijames has that would support his claim that the “service” of African Americans in the Confederate army has been “blotted out” of history.  I don’t expect much from organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans on this topic, but don’t people who are in positions like Mr. Ijames have a responsibility to be competent purveyors of the past?  Finally, I find it hilarious that Mr. Ijames would imply a conspiracy surrounding this subject and yet, as far as I can tell, in fifteen years he has never published his findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

Public Service Announcement From William Tecumseh Sherman

This is a cute little video that attempts to capture the technology behind an early Edison TV.  Edison, or his assistant, can be heard chatting with Gen. Sherman at the end, inquiring whether the General would be attending upcoming festivities with Sen. Conkling. Sherman’s on-again off-again feud with Roscoe Conkling was a running joke in New York social circles.

Where Were You Educated?

Yesterday I was contacted by a descendant of a family that included a very well known “black Confederate.”  The individual in question had read some of my commentary on this man and volunteered to answer any questions I might have.  We had a pleasant conversation and I asked a few questions.   I think my caller was much more interested in making sure that I understood that his ancestor and slave were very close and that the family treated their property humanely.  Yes, I understand all too well.  While I appreciated his reassurances I was much more interested in documentation than I was in family stories.

Then I was asked where I was educated.  The question surprised me and I asked why a response was important.  I was told that it would help to better understand what I believe about this subject.  Of course, I quickly shot back that it has absolutely nothing necessarily to do with what I believe about this topic or any other aspect of the Civil War.  It’s not that I have a problem with where I was raised and educated.  You can easily find out where I was educated if that is of interest to you, but I don’t feel a need to encourage the kind of judgment that I know would ensue if I had responded.  You want to talk history?  Let’s talk history.  The conversation ended shortly thereafter.

What I should have said is that while the region of the country in which I was educated is irrelevant, the historians that have shaped my thinking about the Civil War, Reconstruction and beyond are fair game and very relevant.  Given their personal backgrounds it is safe to say that I was educated by white and black Southerners: Edward Ayers, David M. Potter, C. Vann Woodward, William J. Cooper, John Hope Franklin and the list goes on.

I hope that helps.

How Best to Respond to the Black Confederate Narrative

I have been giving this question some thought since our recent discussion surrounding the upcoming movie about Patrick Cleburne and the broader black Confederate narrative.  As many of you know I’ve been committed to responding to some of the more outlandish claims in the news and on numerous websites.  My goal has not been simply to deny these claims, but to work to steer the debate in a direction that may help us to better understand the complexity surrounding the question of how the Confederate war effort challenged the slave – master relationship as well as broader issues of race relations in the South.  I feel comfortable in concluding that between these posts and the intelligent discussion that almost always ensues that this site offers the most thought provoking commentary to be found on this issue on the Web.  That said, I am very much aware of its limitations.

First and foremost, Civil War Memory was never meant as a place to showcase my scholarship in a finished form on any subject nor was it meant to be considered as a digital history site.  Yes, I regularly share ideas that I am working on and excerpts from finished projects, but I am not doing history here in a strict sense.  I’ve always thought of my blog as a place to share ideas about teaching, the books I am reading, the news items I come across and a host of other concerns.  Some of these threads are relatively short while others are quite extensive.  In other words, I think it would be a mistake to treat this site as a legitimate secondary source of any kind.

That said, I do think that the extended thread on black Confederates offers the interested reader a great deal to consider.  A number of posts explore the terms employed in this debate while others counter claims made about specific individuals.  In fact, we’ve not had one example of a supposed black Confederate hold up under close scrutiny.  I want to thank those of you who have helped to hunt down the necessary archival materials, work that should have been carried out by those making the claims.

Still, as I pointed out there are limitations to what a blog can do in addressing these issues.   Most importantly, blogs easily lend themselves to partisan bickering since they can be attributed to an individual or organization.  In the eyes of most observers all is equal on the Web.  Anyone and everyone can establish their own website and/or comment on a subject regardless of their background and competence.  That is both a blessing and a curse.  I’ve met some very talented and smart people through this site, but I’ve also been forced to deal with outright incompetency.  The black Confederate issue provides us with a case study of the pros and cons of the dangers and possibilities associated with the Web.  Continue reading