Ida B. Wells, Lynching, and the Burning of Black Bodies

My Women’s History course is progressing nicely.  We are currently exploring the experiences of women in the post-Civil War era with much of our attention focused on the split over the wording of the 15th Amendment between the National Women’s Suffrage Association and American Women’s Suffrage Association.  We looked at Susan B. Anthony’s famous New York trial over her decision to vote in the 1872 presidential election based on the "New Departure" theory along with the 1876 Supreme Court case of Minor v. Happersett

Today we examined the experiences of black women during Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era with a focus on the exposes written by Ida B. Wells on lynchings in the South.  We read a short selection from her autobiography which describes her introduction to the horrors of lynchings and the realization that many of these cases involved accusations of black men raping white women.  Wells found it ironic that white men were so concerned about interracial sexual conflict given the history of sexual relations between the slave owner and female slave.  We discussed the difficulty, which Wells references, for white men to acknowledge that white women may have been sexually attracted to black men and what that meant in a Jim Crow society.  It was a very interesting discussion and one that I hope we can continue tomorrow.  What prompted this post, however, is a question that one of my students asked which I could not answer satisfactorily.  She asked why so many lynchings ended with the burning of the body.  Can anyone help?  I’ve looked through a few sources, including Fitz Brundage’s study, but I am not having any luck. 

[I should note that the above image was taken in Omaha, Nebraska.]


High School Students Choose Top 10

[Hat-Tip to Ralph Luker]

Two thousand high school juniors and seniors from around the country were recently asked to choose the top ten most influential famous Americans, excluding presidents and their wives.  The results are interesting:

1. Martin Luther King Jr.: 67%

2. Rosa Parks: 60%

3. Harriet Tubman: 44%

4. Susan B. Anthony: 34%

5. Benjamin Franklin: 29%

6. Amelia Earhart: 25%

7. Oprah Winfrey: 22%

8. Marilyn Monroe: 19%

9. Thomas Edison: 18%

10. Albert Einstein 16%

The results are interesting when analyzed along racial and gender lines, although the way the question was asked no doubt shaped the responses.   One could argue that the shift in focus within the historical profession over the past few decades and the gradual filtering into textbooks on both the college and high school level helps explain the list.  My AP textbook by Eric Foner does an excellent job in both areas.  One of the more significant gaps in our historical understanding is pointed out in the article:

The study acknowledges that the emphasis on African-American figures by the schools leaves behind not only 18th- and 19th-century figures but others as well, such as Hispanic icon Cesar Chavez, Native American heroes such as Pocahontas and Sacagawea and labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers and Eugene V. Debs.

Apart from Pocahontas and Sacagawea the list points in the direction of the difficulty involved in teaching the history of communism and socialism. Americans generally have trouble acknowledging the violent history of class conflict at the turn of the twentieth century along with the popularity and influence of socialist ideas.  While I am not a card carrying member of the communist party I sometimes feel as if my students assume some level of sympathy or support for the movement.  After all I am just as animated when discussing the political success that Debs enjoyed during his presidential bids or his defiance while in jail as I am when commenting on Barry Goldwater and the rise of modern conservatism.  The other problem, as any high school teacher knows, is that it is so damn difficult to teach this period of American history during the Gilded Age.  Finally, though the responses are refreshing in their diversity it would be even more impressive if students could take it one step further.  I would like to think that a number of my students might be able to list W.E.B. Dubois, Tom Watson, Lucy Stone, or even Ida Wells – not your bread and butter profiles.  The full report is slated to appear in the March issue of the Journal of American History which I will be sure to comment on when it arrives.

While our high school students seem to be learning a bit more about non-traditional topics in American history that not too long ago were completely disregarded, it is worth noticing that these  subjects are fast becoming attractive to more popular audiences.  Consider the noticeable increase in popular histories of Reconstruction that have appeared over the past 8 years.  A few that stand out are Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann, Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America by Garrett Epps, and the Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky.  I suspect that part of this is due to the war in Iraq and language of Reconstruction that is being bandied around by the administration.  Many of these titles are authored by journalists and while professional historians have been quick to criticize for the lack of analytical rigor it is important to note that they are being written at all and are being consumed by non-academics. 


An Overlooked Civil War Memory Study

Somehow I overlooked Thomas Brown’s The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration for my proposed course on Civil War memory.  The book is part of Bedford/St. Martin’s "The Bedford Series in History and Culture" which covers a broad range of subjects in American history.  The nice thing about these books is their length which makes them ideal for classroom use.  The chapters are short and include an excellent selection of primary sources.  Thomas Brown’s book will be perfect for my course as it includes chapters on Civil War soldiers, Lincoln, Lee, the 54th Massachusetts, and women.  The primary sources include inscriptions, paintings, statues, monument designs as well as public addresses and two perspectives on the public display of the Confederate flag.  The book will also be very helpful in preparation for day-long trips through Charlottesville and Richmond, which will include stops along Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery.  This is going to be an awesome class.


New Course: Civil War Memory

It’s that time of the year again when I have to decide what courses to teach next fall.  We are moving to a trimester schedule which will present a number of challenges relating to the amount of material which can be covered.  I thought about teaching the Lincoln course once again, but decided against it given the number of students who will have already read William Gienapp’s biography in the survey course.  I also played around with a course centered on the history of children, which would use Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood.  In the end I decided on a survey course on the Civil War in the first trimester and a course on memory in the second.  Students will be encouraged to register for both classes and should prove to be quite an experience given the amount and range of material which can be covered between the two courses.  Keep in mind that this is a rough description and outline.  Feel free to offer suggestions and remember that this is an elective for high school students.

Course Description for Civil War Memory

“The Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the national imagination” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1961.  Indeed the Civil War occupies a prominent place in our national memory and has served to both unite and divide Americans.   This course will explore the various ways in which Americans have chosen to remember their civil war through literature, monuments and memorials, histories, film, art, as well as other forms of popular culture.  We will examine how memory of the war changed over time as well as the political implications for Civil War memory.  Specific subjects to be addressed include the role of reunion and reconciliation in shaping memory of the war, the place of slavery in our national narratives of the war, public disputes over the display of the Confederate flag, changing perceptions of such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as other controversies surrounding the way in which the war has been remembered in public spaces.  We will pay particular attention to the way in which the war has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville in such places as the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia, Lee and Jackson Park, and Courthouse Square.  Additional field trips may include the Museum of the Confederacy, American Civil War Center at Tredegar, and Hollywood Cemetery – all in Richmond, Virginia.  Students are encouraged to take the Civil War course, which will be offered in the first trimester.


Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, reprint, 1998).

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Gary W. Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2004).

[Additional readings will be made available by the instructor.]

Outline [very rough]:

Week 1: Early commemorations and Reconstruction
Week 2: Competing Memories of the War
Week 3: The Soldiers’ Memory
Week 4: Americans Remember Lee, Jackson, Lincoln and Grant
Week 5: Black Americans Remember in the Jim Crow Era
Week 6: Reconciliation and Reunion at Gettysburg
Week 7: The Civil Rights Movement and Civil War Centennial
Week 8: The Civil War in Film
Week 9: The Civil War in Art and Reenacting
Week 10: Displaying the Confederate flag and other public controversies


Lincoln in the News

Allen Guelzo explores the relevance of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates to our political culture.  His latest book on the L-D Debates is now available.  I highly recommend Susan Mandel’s article on the proposal and construction of the Lincoln Memorial, and make sure you check out the photo gallery which includes some wonderful images of its construction.  Lev Grossman reviews some of the recent Lincoln literature of which there is a great deal. He has this to say:

At the time, Lincoln’s death was fused with Jesus’ in the popular
imagination—people needed Lincoln to be more than human in order to
give meaning to the slaughter over which he presided. We still seem to
need that, even while we know it’s not true. Maybe it’s that gap,
between Lincoln’s mortal and immortal natures, that we’re trying to
fill with all these words.

I don’t think that explains it at all.  Maybe Lincoln is just a fascinating study.


A Civil War Marketing Meme that Needs to Go

I was recently checking out some new titles on Amazon and came across Steve Woodworth’s forthcoming study of the western theater titled, Decision in the Heartland: The Civil War in the West (Praeger, 2008).  I’ve read a few surveys of the war in the west, including Woodworth’s last book which I thoroughly enjoyed so I will probably skip this one.  Unfortunately, the jacket description includes the typical selling point:

The verdict is in: the Civil War was won in the “West”–that is, in the nation’s heartland, between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Yet, a person who follows the literature on the war might still think that it was the conflict in Virginia that ultimately decided the outcome. Each year sees the appearance of new books aimed at the popular market that simply assume that it was in the East, often at Gettysburg, that the decisive clashes of war the took place.

Actually, anyone who has followed the “literature on the war” over the past few years cannot help but notice the sharp increase in studies that cover every aspect of the war in the west.  How many books need to be published before we can dispense with this little marketing ploy?


2008 Virginia Forum

The third annual Virginia Forum will be held on April 11-12 at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

The Virginia Forum brings together historians, teachers, writers,
archivists, museum curators, historic site interpreters, librarians,
and others engaged in the study and interpretation of Virginia history
to share their knowledge, research, and experiences. The first Virginia
Forum took place in April 2006 at Shenandoah University in Winchester,
and the second in April 2007 at the Library of Virginia. The Forum is
an annual event and will be hosted by different universities and
historical organizations around the state in future years.

Registration is now open and the schedule is also available.  Congratulations to Jeff McClurken for pulling it all together. 

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