In the News

I‘ve been following the first two stories on the blog. First, Alabama lawmakers passed a resolution to honor the state’s first black lawmakers during Reconstruction. Plaques will be placed throughout the capitol grounds.  This second story on a proposed change to the Maryland state song stirred up a great deal of discussion on the blog.  While no changes will be made, it looks like a number of state legislatures are willing to revisit the issue in a future session.  Finally, check out this Washington Post article on the battle of New Market Heights and the participation of black Union soldiers.  This is one of the battlefields currently on the CWPT’s “Most Endangered Battlefields” list.

Fox News Protects Us From Dangerous Liberal Professors

I guess this is now what passes for investigative journalism.  I am willing to wager that you can find mistakes, oversights, inaccuracies, etc. in any large textbook, especially when it comes to more recent history.  Part of the problem is that the publisher may not be able to issue new editions of a particular textbook in response to new information.  The bigger problem, however, is our understanding of the history textbook itself.  Our tendency is to think of it as somehow capturing an objective or neutral historical narrative.  It does not exist.  Good instructors teach their students how to read primary and secondary sources with a critical eye.

My bigger issue with the harassment of Columbia University professor, Alan Brinkley, by Fox News’s Griff Jenkins is the way he went about it.  Jenkins follows Brinkley for several blocks while criticizing the book’s treatment of the War on Terror. Apparently Brinkley wrote that only one terror suspect detained at Gitmo was ever charged, while Fox claims that the number today is over one hundred.  The problem is that Fox did not have data for 2006, when the book was published. On the positive side Jenkins looked quite spiffy and the Fox logo prominently displayed.

If Jenkins was really interested in sitting down with Alan Brinkley than why not request an interview instead of this shameful display?  Could it be that as a producer of one of Fox’s shows that Jenkins wasn’t interested in a mature conversation to begin with?  Could it be that what he was really interested in is the kind of television “shock and awe” that translates into ratings?  I’ve used Brinkley’s Unfinished Nation before in my AP classes and the majority of my students scored 4s and 5s on the test.  From what I can tell it did not turn them into screaming liberal fanatics who call for the downfall of this nation.  On p. 549 of his book you will find the following in response to the tragedy of 9-11: “Americans responded to the tragedies with acts of courage and generosity, large and small, and with a sense of national unity and commitment that seemed, at least for a time, like the unity and commitment at the start of World War II.”  Yep, this is definitely someone you want to stalk in the name of patriotic journalism.

So, in the end what have we learned.  Well, if you are a fan of Fox News you probably had your assumptions about academics confirmed and you see Jenkins as some kind of moral crusader.  And if you dislike Fox News you are probably feeling sympathetic for Brinkley.  What is lost in all of this, however, is a conversation about the book and its content.  Congratulations Mr. Jenkins – looks like you had a good day.

“The Robert E. Lee Memorial: A Conflict of Interpretation”

The following is an abstract for an essay that I am contributing to an edited collection on tourism in the American South, which is being edited by Karen Cox.  Your feedback and questions are strongly encouraged.

In recent years Civil War landscapes (especially battlefields) have come under increasing pressure from various interest groups to broaden their site interpretations beyond a traditional narrative of national reconciliation and the heroism of the Civil War soldier. The evolution of Civil War historiography over the past few decades as well as the changing racial and gender profile of public and private institutions has led to calls for increased attention, among other things, to slavery and race along with the roles that women and civilians played in the war.  As the custodian of some of the most prominent and sacred Civil War sites, the National Park Service has been on the front lines in working to manage the tension between and within groups who continue to struggle for control over this nation’s collective memory. Overlooking Washington, D.C., Arlington National Cemetery, surrounding the Robert E. Lee Memorial, which is also known as Arlington House, serves as a repository for the U.S. military dead while the home functions as a shrine to the life and legacy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  Like other Civil War sites, the problem of how to meaningfully interpret slave life has proven to be the most vexing for National Park Service staff in recent years.  Specifically, a 2004 report on the subject highlighted just how little information is being shared with the general public as well as a certain amount of resistance from visitors who question whether slave life is even relevant to understanding Robert E. Lee, Arlington House, and the surrounding grounds.

The challenge for the NPS in bringing their interpretation of Lee’s home more in line with recent scholarship and in integrating competing narratives long ignored has much in common with other related landscapes.  When in 1925 the NPS took over Arlington House, it concentrated on Lee himself by restoring the home to the period just before the Civil War, thus providing the proper context in which to emphasize his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army and eventually align himself with the Confederacy.  In doing so, the NPS presented the general public with a heroic story of Lee that highlighted his ascendancy to the pantheon of American heroes.  As late as 1962, the NPS maintained Arlington House as a “national monument to one of America’s greatest men.”  Absent, however, was the presence of a large slave population that worked the grounds as well as a Freedmen’s Village at the end of the war.  The challenge of presenting slavery at Arlington House within this “Lost Cause” paradigm is, of course, not unique to this particular site.

What makes the ongoing debate about how to interpret the history of Arlington House worth examining, however, is its location within the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.  Specifically, the use of the grounds as a final resting place for fallen U.S. soldiers adds another layer of meaning to the landscape and one that the NPS has struggled to effectively integrate. It is here at Arlington House that visitors arrive after having walked by the “Eternal Flame”, the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, and row upon row of marble headstones – all of which are symbols of national pride and sacrifice.  Such a situation presents NPS interpreters with a set of unique challenges. First, the NPS must bring their site interpretation more in line with recent scholarship on slavery, the Civil War, and Lee specifically because we cannot fully understand the home or Lee without a fuller understanding of slave life at Arlington. Secondly, they must do this in an environment where visitors may not be prepared to contemplate these controversial topics: slavery and race versus the solemn landscape of fallen heroes. One speaks to what binds us together as Americans while the other reminds us of what once divided us and continues to prove difficult to understand.

The Power of Hollywood

3412585481_cf3245787aThe highlight of my trip to Richmond this past weekend was the tour of Virginia’ State Capitol.  Although I’ve walked by it many times, for one reason or another I never had the time to actually walk through it.  Michaela and I decided to tag along with one of their tour guides.  We had a nice elderly woman guide us.  I have to admit that I anticipated the standard tour that barely scratches the surface of the place, but I was pleasantly surprised within a few minutes of the tour.

Our guide did an excellent job of interpreting the Jean-Antoine Houdon statue of George Washington which sits at the very center of the Rotunda, but it was her knowledge of Rudulph Evans’s famous Robert E. Lee statue in the Old Hall of the House of Delegates that really impressed me. The statue is located at the spot where Lee accepted command of Virginia forces on April 23, 1861.  I inquired into the choice of uniform that Evans utilized.  In an attempt to impress our guide I noted that Lee would not have been wearing his Confederate uniform at this time since he was only accepting command of Virginia state forces.  First, our guide informed me that the likeness was based on a wartime photograph of Matthew Brady, which makes sense after looking at it, but then she asked if I knew what he was, in fact, wearing on that day.  With little delay and an apparent knack for putting my own foot in my mouth I said that he would have been wearing his blue U.S. army uniform.  How did I know this?  I clearly remember the scene in Ron Maxwell’s Gods and Generals.  Lee, played by Robert Duvall, is wearing a uniform.  Well, it turns out that Lee wasn’t wearing a uniform at all.  He was wearing civilian clothing.

Innocent mistake, no doubt, but it does reflect the influence of popular culture on our understanding of the past.  What’s funny is that I’ve criticized this movie over and over and I still went to it as a reliable source on this issue.  I should know by now that the only reason to reference it is in the context of Civil War memory/mythology and bad film making.  Here is the scene:

[Have you ever wanted to embed a YouTube video at some point in the middle?  Click here.]

A Word of Advice

3412596379_eef3ac5919Before driving 60 miles for what you believe to be a scheduled event double-check the date.  That’s right, Michaela and I drove to Richmond today for a walking tour of Lincoln’s visit to the city in April 1865 only to discover that it is actually scheduled for tomorrow.  I guess I just assumed that a walking tour would take place on Saturday.  Well, we made the best of it.  In fact, we had a great time in Richmond.  Although it was a bit windy the temperature was perfect and the downtown area was very quiet.  We walked Lincoln’s route from the area around Rockett’s Landing to the Capitol grounds.  Luckily, I had my copy of Nelson Lankford’s Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital, which made it easy for us to imagine the throngs of Richmonders who came out to welcome Lincoln to the city.  Along the way we had a chance to stop at the Reconciliation Monument as well as the new Civil Rights Monument.  We also toured the capitol building for about an hour with a wonderful guide.  On the way back we walked along the canal and grabbed a bite to eat at Bookbinders.

Additional photographs can be found at my flickr site.

Capital of the Confederacy Remembers Lincoln’s Visit

lincoln-richmond01One hundred and forty-four years ago this weekend, Abraham Lincoln visited Richmond for the first time.  A large crowd of Richmonders welcomed the president in the wake of the Confederate government’s abandonment of the city.  To mark the occasion, the Valentine Museum, Library of Virginia, and American Civil War Museum at Tredegar have scheduled a series of events to mark the occasion.  Choose between talks on Lincoln and emancipation as well as another on Lincoln and the fall of the Confederacy, a photography collection of Richmond in 1865, and a Lincoln walk titled “Step Toward Freedom”.  Click here for information on the weekend’s events.  Don’t expect to see Brag Bowling at any of these events.

Update: The wife and I decided to check out the Lincoln walk. You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful day to submerge yourself in Richmond’s heritage. Check back later for photographs.

Newly-Released “LIFE” Photographs of Memphis (April 4, 1968)

LIFE PhotoOn April 4, 1968, LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky and writer Mike Silva, on assignment in Alabama, learned that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. They raced to the scene and there, incredibly, had unfettered access to the hotel grounds, Dr. King’s room, and the surrounding area. For reasons that have been lost in the intervening years, the photographs taken that night and the next day were never published. Until now.

What Is Your End Goal? (Part 1)

fishingpierMore specifically, one of my readers recently asked the following: “[W]hat exactly is your end-goal/interest in how Confederate commemoration evolves and is acknowledged?”  It’s a fair question.  My response to it may help some people better understand how a boy from the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey ended up with an interest in the subject of the Civil War and its remembrance/commemoration.  The answer can be broken up into two sections; the first has to do with where I was raised while the second comes down to a deep philosophic interest of mine.

As I mentioned I am from Southern New Jersey. My hometown is Ventnor, which is located on an island and is surrounded by a bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.  On the northern end is Atlantic City itself while the southern portion includes the small towns of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport.  My childhood was filled with the staples of beach activities and a healthy dose of competitive sports.  I had excellent schools through the 8th grade even if my performance was less than stellar.  That final year of Middle School, however, was filled with a bit of anxiety, especially as my friends and I approached graduation.  We all knew that next year would be a much larger school in Atlantic City itself.  I had seen the imposing structure – situated between Atlantic and Pacific Avenues – many times before on trips with friends and family to the amusement piers and boardwalk arcades.  The problem wasn’t the size of the building, but the students that I would have to interact with.  Up to this point my classmates had been overwhelmingly white.  On the other hand, Atlantic City was and still is predominantly black.  In fact, the school itself functioned (it was demolished some years ago to make room for a parking lot) as a fault line; as you moved a few blocks south of the school the community gradually turned white so that by the time you reached my town of Ventnor it was all white.  Rarely did we see blacks walking the streets and if we did I imagine we looked on them as a curiosity and even, perhaps, with just a little concern.

My introduction to a black community in Atlantic City took place during my 8th grade year as a member of the basketball team.  We played a team from Atlantic City and lost by 40 points.  Part of the problem was that no one expected to win given our attitudes about blacks and basketball; simply put, we all knew they were necessarily stronger, faster, and much more agile.  But what stands out for me and what I will never forget is what happened as the bus pulled away.  Keep in mind that our coach was also the bus driver.  As we pulled away one of my friends shouted out the window, “Nigger”.  Within a few seconds the entire bus, including the cheerleaders, were shouting out racial insults at the crowd.  I am proud to say that I was ashamed and embarrassed.  What I remember is crouching down in my seat, but in doing so I noticed our coach laughing hysterically as he drove the bus slowly down the street.  Once we turned the corner everyone quieted down and that was pretty much the end of it.  I have no idea why that experience has stayed with me for so long, but I am certain that it has helped to shape my understanding of race relations on some level.

That experience stands in sharp contrast with my high school experience.  I remember being warned not to use the Men’s Room without being accompanied by a friend or staying away from certain sections from the basement level.  I’m sure that there was a little anxiety those first few days of high school, but what I remember more than anything else were the friendships that eventually ensued from the classroom to the marching band to the cross-country team.  I don’t mean to paint a glowing picture of high school, but I ended up having the most problems with a white Anti-Semite who actually used to push me around in class and in full view of at least one teacher.  I don’t remember one racial incident during my four years of high school.  In fact, I remember cutting school and heading down to the beach or sneaking into the closest casino floor with just as many black friends.

My point for now is that I didn’t need to travel to Birmingham, Alabama to learn first hand about the problem of race in America.  I learned it in my own backyard.  I still have trouble getting my hands around the racial configuration of the small island where I grew up.  Even to this day, and with all of the changes that have taken place on the island, I can’t help but perceive it through the lens of history and race.  In recent years I’ve read quite a bit about the history of the place, including Bryant Simon’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America (Oxford University Press, 2006), which has helped me to place the history of the city within the broader narrative of race in the North.

My interest in the South and, more specifically, the Confederacy is a natural extension of my earliest perceptions of race and prejudice.  It comes down to a fascination with the way in which our perceptions of race shape how we choose to live and interact with one another.

To be continued…