John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)

cimg0234Today one of the truly gifted historians died at the age of 94.  John Hope Franklin, however, was always more than a historian.  He understood that the present and the past are closely interwoven and that the study of history is always the first step to addressing present injustices.  Duke University has set up a webpage to commemorate the life of John Hope Franklin.

My wife and I were lucky enough to meet Dr. Franklin last summer at a slave family reunion at Montpelier.  Simply put, Dr. Franklin is one of my intellectual heroes.  His career embodies a strong commitment to racial justice through activism and scholarship.  It would be more accurate to say that his scholarship is in fact a form of activism, and at 94 he was still going strong.  I especially enjoyed listening to him discuss why it is so important to tell the story of slavery as part of American history and the perils of ignoring or forgetting the past.  I like to think that my own research on Civil War memory is in a way a form of activism.  I to believe that it is important for a nation to confront its collective past in all of its richness, which includes both moments of great achievement as well as disappointment.  And I am convinced that one can keep this moral goal in mind without it impinging or threatening the integrity of scholarship.  The highlight of the day was having the chance to talk with him in person.  I truly felt like I was talking with one of the great Americans of the twentieth century and I don’t mind saying that I was just a little star struck.

All I can say is, thank you Dr. Franklin.  We will miss you.

White Southerners Have Always Loved Lincoln

Barry SchwartzIhighly recommend Barry Schwartz’s new book, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  There is an interesting section on the image of Lincoln during the Depression, which is a moment where, according to Schwartz his reputation had peaked only to decline following WWII.  Schwartz not only surveys popular or institutional representations of Lincoln, but also tries to uncover the views of ordinary Americans.  One of the more interesting sections is his analysis of how white Southerners viewed Lincoln from the turn of the twentieth century through the New Deal.  Along the way, Schwartz mentions Thomas Dixon, D.W. Griffith, and Mary R.S. Andrews and a host of lesser-known writers.

I learned that on February 12, 1928, the Virginia House of Delegates rose for the first time in respect for Lincoln’s memory and adjourned “in honor of…the martyred President of the United States, whose death was a distinct blow to the South, resulting in a national calamity.”  Not surprisingly, a number of public figures, including Lyon G. Tyler (son of of the president) and Reverend Giles B. Cook (Lee’s staff) offered a request to “to Repeal the Resolution of respect for Abraham Lincoln, the Barbarian…” and an eleven-page resolution.  At least one newspaper editor encouraged its readers to “put aside old animosities.”

What I found most interesting was a 1929 survey of 4,658 boys and girls in Alabama living in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham done by David Spence Hill.  Hill asked the following: Of all persons whom you have heard, or read about, or seen, whom would you most care to be like or resemble”?  One third of the boys and 60% of the girls named a relative or personal acquaintance; however, when it came to historic and public figures their answers were quite telling.  Of the boys, 26% chose Washington while both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee came away with 5% each.  The girls also overwhelmingly chose Washington, but Lincoln earned 3% while Lee only earned 2%.  Schwartz’s analysis of the data is worth repeating in full:

Hill’s survey shows Lincoln’s prestige to have been feeble among school children, but he also documents the decline of the Confederate tradition.  That Lincoln and Lee are named by virtually the same small percentage of respondents is surprising, given the belief about the South’s lingering resentments.  No longer can negative Southern attitudes toward Lincoln be attributed to nostalgia for the Confederacy and its heroes.  Moreover, Alabama children were discovering ideals in the present as well as the past.  Boys ranked Charles Lindbergh (22 percent) just below George Washington.  Girls also mentioned Lindbergh, along with film stars Clara Bow, Billie Dove, and Ruth Elder.  Not the Confederate hero but George Washington and contemporary entertainers were competing against Abraham Lincoln for Southern children’s attention and respect. (p. 55-56)

One of the most popular publications of Confederate nostalgia was Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine and in 1939 one of its contributors complained that “praises for Lincoln emanate in almost equal fervor from practically every section of America.”  Not too long ago newspapers inquired as to why Southern states were not taking part in Lincoln Bicentennial events.  Of course, anyone who bothered to look would have noticed that there are numerous events throughout the South which acknowledge in one way or another his importance to American history.  In fact, Lincoln is getting much more attention than both Lee and Jefferson Davis.  My guess is that the author of the piece was driven more by popular perception than any serious understanding of Lincoln’s place in our national memory.  One of the reasons why I find the study of memory to be so intriguing is that it has the potential to surprise.  I am constantly struck by the extent to which our assumptions about the past or the ways in which previous generations interpreted the past deviate from our own.  We should be careful not to use those who came before as a means to our own ends.  So, if you are a white Southerner who respects and admires Lincoln, it turns out that you are in very good company.

Thinking About the Survey Course in a Post-Modern America

It’s that time of the year when I take a good hard look at how my classes are progressing or not progressing.  For the past two years I’ve been experimenting with a new approach that replaces the standard textbook with different types of secondary sources such as biographies, social and political histories, etc.  Overall, the approach has worked well.  Students get a clearer sense of what is involved in the writing of history and I’ve enjoyed the space to explore specific topics, issues, and events in much more detail compared with the pace that is dictated by textbooks.  However, even with these changes I am still weary of the overall approach.

Actually, my concern applies as much to the traditional textbook approach as it does to a small collection of secondary sources.  The fundamental problem is not so much with the kind of sources we use to teach American history, but with the idea of the survey course itself.  It seems to me that at the time the survey course became a part of the public school curriculum this nation was much more rooted in a heroic narrative of its past.  The acceptance and possibility of a grand narrative could be used to emphasize the pantheon of American heroes.  In short, the survey course functioned to shape each generation of young Americans in a way that allowed them to identify with or see themselves as part of a larger narrative.  The pantheon could be used to teach moral lessons and act as a framework in which the individual could measure his/her own actions and behavior against an ideal rooted in the past.  We may not agree with the idea of a static pantheon and we may even be disgusted by the politics involved in selecting who gets to be included and why; my point is that the traditional survey course served a purpose within this broader cultural milieu.

The problem is that we no longer see ourselves nor do we interpret our history from such a perspective.  Multiculturalism and Post-Modernism has thrown a wrench in the very idea of objectivity as well as challenges the very idea of an American pantheon as strictly definable.  The grand narrative has become fragmented based on more local interests revolving around gender, culture, and politics.  Impersonal social and economic forces have supplanted the individual as the loci of historical investigation.  We celebrate the victims as much as, if not more than, those who best exemplified the American ideal and its stories of rags to riches.  Again, I am not suggesting for one moment that this is a loss that I personally regret, but as a framework that fit well into a traditional survey course.

Our textbooks have become much more sophisticated in their inclusion of minority history as well as elements of the new social and cultural history.  I applaud these revisions, but what has not held up is the function which these narratives once served.  To what extent, if at all, do these new narratives foster identification with something larger than the student’s immediate world view?  Do these multiple and competing narratives encourage empathy with others or the importance of multiple perspectives?  Do they have much to do with encouraging curious and responsible young citizens?  This is a long-winded way of suggesting that the survey course in U.S. History has outlived its usefulness.  Old habits are hard to break and the place of the textbook sits at the very core of our idea of U.S. History course, but have we ever seriously considered alternatives to this approach?

One idea that I’ve been playing with is rooting the survey course in local history.  If the traditional heroic narrative is dead along with a culture that places value on a static list of heroes than we need to be thinking about the overall goal of the high school history survey.  Beginning with the local community provides a setting in which students can identify by virtue of the fact it is where they call home.  The community itself becomes a lab where individuals,  statues, buildings, cemeteries, and other sites become the foundations of entire periods of study.  The teachers primary role is to encourage students to interact with the historical elements of their communities.  In short, students learn to think and live history.  So, what does this actually look like?

Here in Charlottesville we are lucky enough to be surrounded by an incredibly rich history.  Our study of slavery and the Revolutionary generation could be rooted in a close study of Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello.  Of course, we could spend the day as a class on the grounds discussing any number of themes and events.  Notice that much of the content of the traditional course would be maintained, but it would be introduced through local history and in a way that is much more tangible and easy to identify with.  If one of our major goals is to encourage our students to be more conscious of the local community we could shape our projects in a way that gives back.  For instance, perhaps instead of having students work on projects that never see the light of day outside of the classroom they could work in small teams and create lesson plans for Monticello’s staff to be used in the future for other school children of various ages.  A study of 19th century expansionism could be rooted in the Lewis and Clark Monument on Main Street.  The monument itself has recently come under protest owing to the positioning of Sacajawea behind Lewis and Clark.  We could examine how monuments function and the way they shape our understanding of the past.  One project idea would be to create a proposal as a class that would be submitted to city commissioners for an updated version of the statue.  [Don’t laugh.  I am thinking off the top of my head here and trying to push the boundaries of  what it means to think about history and how we measure our students’ understanding of its importance.]  There is no shortage of resources for the Civil War.  Again, we can explore statues, but we also have a wonderful Confederate cemetery within walking distance of our school.  Students could explore the service records of those buried in the cemetery and the data could be used as part of a larger profile of these men.  The results could be printed and made available for visitors to the cemetery.  When we get to WWII, I could have my students work with the local historical society and interview veterans.  Charlottesville is one of the most popular destinations for senior citizens.  My favorite idea has to do with the Civil Rights Movement.  Charlottesville was at the center of the process of desegregation of public schools in the 1960s so there are numerous possibilities for case studies.  Regardless of what we do I would love to see my students organize a symposium at the school that includes member of the community who were in Charlottesville during this time.  We could explore what it was like for students to be bused to different schools along with the myriad ways in which court decisions impacted the lives of locals.  The event would be organized and run by students.  They would send out invitations, come up with questions and run the actual discussion.  Best yet, the event would be open to the general public.

Again, I want to emphasize that the concentration on local history does not have to come at the expense of a broader national narrative.  In fact, it seems to me that that broader narrative will make clearer sense given the anchor in local history.  In some cases the experiences of the local community will conform to the national level and in other situations will prove to be the exception.  Finally, I wonder whether there can be a service component to such an approach.  How about having students spend 15-20 hours volunteering at UVA’s Special Collections, Monticello, Montpelier, Ashlawn (James Monroe’s home), the Albemarle County Historical Society, or Miller Center learning and practicing various aspects of historical interpretation and preservation.  What do we call such a course?  Perhaps Applied U.S. History?

I keep coming back to the idea of encouraging good citizenship and curiosity about the world in which we live.  I want my students to learn to think historically and to think of themselves as part of a larger narrative that has roots in their own backyards.  We have an opportunity to truly broaden the very idea of the history classroom.  Let’s embrace it.

Civil War Monuments and Virginia Politics

confederate_monument_500pxThere is an interesting article in today’s Washington Post on the place of Civil War statues in a changing Virginia political landscape.  It’s a fairly balanced look at how these sites are interpreted by different constituencies and it directly addresses the connection between political power and how our public spaces are used to remember the past.  John Coski explains that connection in pointing out that, “A monument always testifies to power — to who was in power at the time.”  The Civil War statues that dominate Monument Avenue in Richmond and the soldier statues that populate local court houses serve as a reminder of white supremacy and a commitment to imparting to the general public a memory of the war that reinforced its preferred view of the past.  Such a view worked to reinforce political dominance through much of the twentieth century.  One wonders what the landscape of memory would look like if between 1880 and 1920 black Americans were able to take part in the decisions over who and what to remember.  How might Monument Avenue appear today under such changed circumstances?

I welcome the debate about how utilize our finite public space in commemorating and remembering the past; however, I worry about the tone that it has taken and will likely take as we approach the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  My biggest concern is the language of “tearing down” Civil War monuments that are deemed to be antiquated or even racist. Consider the recent controversy over a prominent Civil War statue in Raleigh, North Carolina involving a columnist who called for the newly-elected governor to tear it down. [Click here for the original column and here for a follow-up.]

I must remember that I approach these questions from the detached perspective of a historian interested in memory and public history and as a teacher who believes these sites need to be properly interpreted.  In other words, I understand that people are passionate about these issue.  The problem with the language of removal is that it fails to address some of the underlying issues that drive the discourse.  It’s ultimately a veiled attempt at covering up the problem rather than working to better understand it or, more importantly, working toward meaningful reconciliation over what the Civil War was about.  In the case of J. Peder Zane, however, it seems to me that all he managed to accomplish was to cause the various parties to dig in their heels even more firmly.  It leads to defensiveness and suspicion and renders it that much more difficult to engage in meaningful discourse.

3217946367_2796191d71I recently took 30 students to Richmond to explore its Civil War heritage through monuments.  This was a fairly diverse group of students who have very different opinions as to what the war was about and how it should be remembered.  As we walked around the Lee and Davis monuments in Richmond and walked through Hollywood Cemetery we discussed and analyzed the sites and tried to better understand both the time in which they were constructed and their continued place on the public landscape.  Even with a diversity of opinion not one of my students suggested that the solution was to remove them from public viewing; in fact, most of them acknowledged in one way or another that it is important for them to remain where they are.

Public spaces are not static.  To understand this point is to acknowledge that they reflect the changing dynamics of the people who must live within their midst and, in many cases, maintain their integrity through tax dollars.  If that is the starting point than it is incumbent on the community to discuss in as open and as honest a way how these sites should be maintained.  I’ve tended to support at least two approaches in those situations when a monument or other structure no longer reflects the values of a substantial portion of the local population.  The most common approach is to add to the landscape as in the case of the Arthur Ashe monument in Richmond, but the approach taken in Louisville, Kentucky is also instructive.  In 2002, the University of Louisville announced plans to add civil rights monuments around its Civil War statue as part of a new development to be called “Freedom Park”, which will include structures commemorating the Civil Rights Movement.  Another way of bridging the divide between the commemoration of a statue and the present is to place interpretive markers that educate the public about the origins of the structure.  These do not have to be overly intrusive and can go far in placing the site in its proper historical context.  What I like about this approach is that it does not prevent members of the public from attaching their own preferred interpretation or meaning to the structure.  Perhaps the best example of this approach is the placement of an interpretive marker at the Heyward Shepherd Marker at Harpers Ferry, which was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1931.  [Click here for an excellent overview of the history of this monument and also see Caroline Janney’s recent essay in Civil War History (June 2006).]

I am not overly confident that rational discourse about how to remember and commemorate the Civil War in public spaces is possible.  Our culture is much too comfortable with a language of polarization that includes “Red States v. Blue States”,  “Capitalism v. Socialism”, etc.  Ultimately, we have to want to talk to one another or perhaps we must first learn how to do so.

“Is This the Union That Lincoln Was Trying To Save?”

I’ve been playing around with an elective idea on conspiracy theories in American history.  It provides an opportunity to explore issues of epistemology in historical studies as well as the ease with which myth and outright lies can be disseminated and, in some cases, become part of our cultural lexicon.  One of the projects that I’ve considered assigning would allows students to develop their own conspiracy theory using video or some other social networking program.  This would allow the general public to consider it and make a decision as to its veracity or as a means to gauge some of the biases that shape those judgments.  Consider the following short video that attempts to draw a connection between Lincoln, his legal activities with the railroads in the 1850s and the supposed purpose of the American Civil War.  Of course, the individual who put this together believes the content of his video to be true:

It’s not a very convincing video, but please take notice of the comments that follow.  It suggests that for my students to create a convincing interpretation they would have to have a sufficient command of the relevant literature.  So, what would be the goal of such an exercise?  Well, in a class on conspiracy theories it might provide students with some insight into the general public’s ability or interest in discerning truth from fiction.  It would also reinforce one of my top priorities, which is to encourage healthy skepticism and strong analytical skills in my students.  It may lead to some interesting psychological and/or cognitive observations concerning our ability to engage in critical analysis in a society that thrives on suspicion and distrust of power.

Of course, there are a number of ethical considerations involved in such a course/project.  Essentially, I would be asking my students to intentionally lie to the general public.  While the deception would not be carried out in the name of this school there is an obvious connection that cannot be severed or minimized.  What is paramount for students to keep in mind is that the end goal is not the deception, but what we learn about the extent to which the public can be deceived.  Consider a recent class at George Mason University where the students created a fictional character and utilized Wikipedia, blogs, and other social networking sites to test the ease with which their interpretations could be successfully filtered through the Web.

I am nowhere near proposing such a course, but it is an idea that I keep coming back to, which means that it is very likely that I will act on it at some point in the not too distant future.  What do you think?

Civil War Memory Reviewed in America’s Civil War

mayacwcoverI hope you don’t mind a bit more tooting of my own horn, this time in the pages of the latest issue of America’s Civil War[May 2009, p. 69] which includes a very nice review of Civil War Memory by Kelvin Holland:

Aside from a new address and a clean new theme, the newly overhauled blog Civil War Memory provides new features, including “threaded comments,” which allows readers to append their comments to a specific reply.  What remains the same is blogger Kevin Levin’s fierce commitment to examine how Americans “remember and commemorate the Civil War.

As we enter the war’s sesquicentennial, we are faced with a new challenge to define a collective narrative for the war years.  Levin reminds us that how we remember the war is just as important as what we remember.  His battlefield tours with students are more than just the chess notation of advances, retreats, captures, forks and pins, they transcend to the experiential via an active re-imagining of history rooted in facts.  The following excerpt from his 2008 keynote address commemorating the 146th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg is a good example:

We all know there are aspects of battle that are best left to the individual, and silent contemplation is often instructive.  When positioned below Marye’s Heights I give my students a few moments to reflect on the bravery and steadfastness of the men who marched roughly 600 yards over open ground to what was almost certain death.  Following lunch on Telegraph Hill I ask my students to sit alone and think about Robert E. Lee’s poignant words about the nature of battle as he contemplated the bloody scenes unfolding around him.

Levin is a fearless scout in the internal landscape of the collective memory.  He challenges his students as well as his readers “to stretch the traditional definition of the battlefield.”  Levin asks hard and unconventional questions such as, “Why did the local African-American community here in Fredericksburg discontinue celebrating Memorial Day just a few short years after Appomattox?”  Levin expects any battlefield visitor to “struggle with these and other questions.  We ought to feel just a bit uncomfortable when confronted with so much bloodshed and sacrifice.”

Levin hopes all Americans “come to see themselves as part of a much larger narrtative” shaped by the Civil War.  Civil War Memory continues to be a great mirror of our past and present conceptions of who we are as Americans.

Making a Difference

Itry to keep the tooting of my own horn to a minimum, but I think you will understand why I feel a need to share this recent email.  It’s from an acquaintance who teaches history at Elon University and it made my day.

We’ve met before, most recently I think at last summer’s SCWH conference in Philadelphia.  I’m writing because you’re now a role model for our best sophomore.  She thought she was inventing a new breed of high school history teacher when she articulated the goals of staying on top of the literature, seeking graduate training, publishing substantial contributions to ongoing scholarly discussions, etc.–all the while transforming young lives through excellent teaching.  And then I introduced her to your blog.  She was blown away and has referenced you as a model in her latest application for research support.  Thanks for this; you’ve challenged her in all of the best ways.