Goodbye Austin

I talk quite a bit on this blog about why and how I teach American history on the high school level. At times I’ve engaged in some passionate debates about the proper content and the necessary skills that ought to be imparted to our students. As much as I value these exchanges and the issues they involve my first priority as a teacher has always been to engage each of my students as individuals. I try to get to know them as much as possible and I take a sincere interest in the development of each and every one. Inevitably we grow attached to those select few who make an impact on our lives in one way or the other. It’s those moments between classes, during office hours, in the cafeteria, and while playing music that we as teachers make the most meaningful connections. What I love most about teaching on the high school level is the way in which my students keep me young. I feed off their energy every day.

Last week I learned that one of my former students died. Austin Frazier was a junior at James Madison University where he studied psychology. I remember Austin as a bright-eyed young intellectual during his sophomore year. We spent quite a bit of time talking politics, but especially philosophy. He carried around a beat up copy of Friederich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and freely shared passages with me as we waked the halls between classes. The book was always held with the cover on the outside and it sort of reminded me of how I used to hold my copy of Plato’s Republic in college. In his junior year Austin took my AP US History course and he gave me a run for my money. Not a day went by that I didn’t have to respond to a thoughtful question or reflection that connected the subject to some broader philosophical issue. Many of the latter discussions had to wait until office hours or after school, but they are some of my most cherished memories of Austin. I never lost sight of the fact that Austin’s energy and insatiable drive for knowledge and understanding came with a heavy price. Of course, I will never understand Austin’s private struggles but I tried my best to make sure that he was doing his best to take care of himself. Austin had wonderful friends and his teachers cared a great deal about his well-being. The best I could do was to be there and try to direct his energies. During his senior year Austin and I read through books by Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel. The readings were difficult and the meetings were intense.

I continued to worry about Austin after he graduated and did my best to keep in touch. The thought that Austin is no longer around is incredibly sad and my heart goes out to both his family and friends. It’s hard not to feel like a tiny piece of me died last week. You can read more about Austin from those that new him here and here (on Facebook).

Thanks Austin

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Deep Thoughts With H.W. Crocker III (4)

For this week’s installment of “Deep Thoughts” we visit the final chapter of Crocker’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War for some thoughts about what might have been.  Following a fictionalized speech in which Lincoln allows the Confederacy to leave the Union in peace, Crocker says the following:

Had Lincoln given that speech would “government of the people, by the people, and for the people have perished from the Earth”?  No, it would have been confirmed, as the Southern states would have enjoyed that very thing and not have been brutalized into accepting a government that did not represent their interests.  Would slavery have persisted until this very day?  No, it seems certain it would have been abolished peaceably, as it found itself abolished everywhere else in the New World in the nineteenth century.  Imagine that there had been no war against the South, and subsequently no Reconstruction putting the South under martial law, disenfranchising white voters with Confederate pasts, and enfranchising newly freed slaves as wards of the Republican Party.  Without that past, race relations in the South would have been better, not worse, and the paternalist planters would have arranged, over time, to emancipate their slaves in exchange for financial compensation. (p. 332-33)

First, given that the value of slaves continued to increase during the late antebellum period and even through part of the war, why would any slave owner seriously consider emancipation for compensation? Not surprisingly, Crocker presents the reader with a distorted and false view of Reconstruction. It pits black v. white and North v. South along with a fantasy about the future of race relations had the federal government not occupied the former Confederacy. What I fail to understand is if white Southerners would have done a better job handling race relations on their own terms than how do we explain the rise of Jim Crow?  Why were state constitutions rewritten to disfranchise the vast majority of black Americans during the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century?

It’s hard to imagine that there are people out there who consider this to be serious history. Keep in mind that this book eclipses in sales anything written by a serious historian. So, if you want to know what Americans believe about their Civil War start with this book. Yes, it’s very disturbing.

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John Brown Sesquicentennial Event at Harpers Ferry

JB 150If you happen to live in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry I encourage you to attend the inaugural event of West Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.  The event will include a panel discussion titled “Madman, Martyr, or Myth: John Brown’s Portrayal in Film” and will include clips from films and miniseries, including, among others, the “Santa Fe Trail” and “North and South”. Each clip will be followed by panel comments and discussion.  Dr. Mark Snell will moderate the panel, which will consist of Dr. Charles Niemeyer of the USMC University; Ron Maxwell, director of “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals”; Dr. Walter Powell, a cultural historian who also is adjunct professor of historic preservation at Shepherd University and past president of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association; and Beth White, adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Charleston and a member of the WV Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.  The event takes place from 6-7:30 pm this Friday on the second floor of the John Brown Museum in Harpers Ferry NHP.  It is free and open to the public but seating is very limited. The WV Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission also will have an information table set up in HFNHP on Friday and Saturday.

For more information re: upcoming events surrounding the sesquicentennial of Brown’s Raid check out the NPS/Harpers Ferry website.

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Clarifying our Disqus-sion

It looks like most of you have adjusted to the new comment system with little difficulty.  A few of you expressed some misgivings, but enough of you have taken advantage of Disqus’s features to convince me that it has been worthwhile.  I want to encourage more of you to set up an account with Disqus and “claim” your comments, especially fellow bloggers who are looking to direct more traffic to your sites.  Consider Greg Rowe’s Profile Page, which includes all of his comments, an option to subscribe to his comments, and a link to his own blog.  You can add links to a number of social networking sites if you like.  I also recommend uploading an avatar unless you don’t mind a default image of Frederick Douglass.

I suspect that the threaded comments format has been somewhat of a challenge to adjust to.  The first thing you will notice is that the comments are organized in the order of most recent first.  Every comment that is aligned left is potentially the beginning of a new thread.  Leave a new comment or hit the “Reply” button to respond directly to a comment.  Threads can be indented five times before they align directly below the previous comment.  I don’t mind admitting some difficulty following extended discussions; the trick is to learn to follow threads rather than individual comments.   In other words, although the comments are organized most recent first, you may have to scroll down to locate a new comment that has been added to a old thread.  Of course, you can subscribe to an individual blog post’s comments if you want to be notified as soon as a new comment is posted.

Finally, you may have noticed what is called a Wibiya bar at the bottom of the screen.  This blogging tool is still in beta, but I’ve noticed it on other blogs and thought it might help with functionality without adding to the sidebar.  You can minimize it by clicking on the arrow on the right hand side.  I want to see where the developers take this little gadget.  And I am pleased to report that I am in the process of moving the blog to a new hosting company called MidPhase.  Their customer service has been stellar thus far and I am hoping that this will be a painless transition.

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Exploiting John Brown’s Body

Storer_college_postcardI‘ve been thinking about the recent press release by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the eve of the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry. If you remember, they have chosen to commemorate the death of Heyward Shepherd, who happened to be black and working at the local train station at the time of the raid.  There are a number of things that are disturbing here.  Referencing Shepherd as an “unfortunate black citizen” reflects the most basic misunderstanding of black civil rights history since the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that blacks could not be citizens.  Unfortunately, that is about par for the course when it comes to getting the basic facts right in the SCV.

What is more disturbing, however, is the blatant way in which the SCV distorts black history to serve their own agenda.  Notice that at no point in their announcement did they even mention why John Brown was in Harpers Ferry.  They do mention his “nefarious scheme”, but it would be helpful if the public was told what that scheme involved: How about nothing less than the freeing of the slaves.  Now please don’t misunderstand me as I am not suggesting that we should not engage in serious debate about the ethics of Brown’s life and actions in Kansas and Virginia.  The problem here is that the SCV has set up the parameters of debate in a way that serves their own purposes of distancing slavery from Confederate and Southern History.  More to the point, why honor Heyward Shepherd at all?  It is unfortunate that he was caught in the cross-fire, but does that in and of itself constitute a sufficient reason to honor him or give him his own day?  Would the SCV have taken these steps if Shepherd happened to be a white baggage handler?

The bigger problem is the choice of which black man to honor.  If you were just to rely on the SCV’s press release you might think that the only black individual in Harpers Ferry was Shepherd.  And here is where the intentional distortion of the past occurs.  There were five black with Brown at Harpers Ferry: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave.  How do these men fit into the SCV’s understanding of this event?  Why aren’t they being honored as opposed to Shepherd.  I think I have an idea.  Notice in the press release that Shepherd is characterized as a “faithful employee.”  What possible reason could the SCV have in characterizing an employee as faithful?  Of course, anyone familiar with the historiography of Southern history knows that that one word, ‘faithful’, resonates throughout the Lost Cause literature, which characterizes slavery as populated by faithful and obedient slaves.

This morning I came across an excellent video on the black legacy of John Brown and Harpers Ferry.  The documentary did not focus on Brown, but on the five blacks who accompanied him: Dangerfield Newby, Lewis Sheridan Leary, Shields Green, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., Osborn Perry Anderson.

Although I skipped around a bit I am pretty sure that you will not find Shepherd’s name mentioned (perhaps a brief reference) in this 48 minute video.  The importance of the Harpers Ferry Raid in the local black community is to be found in the actions of the five men mentioned above.  The distance between the SCV’s preferred memory of Brown and Harpers Ferry and the history of black Americans in the area couldn’t be wider.  As you will see in the video, for example, Heyward Shepherd’s death, however tragic and unfortunate, does not explain the rise of Storer College and its rich history of education and black civic activism.

Exactly what is the SCV commemorating?

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