Black Virginians Interpret the Civil War Centennial: Follow Up

I’ve collected quite a number of news articles over the past two days from the Richmond Afro-American newspaper.  As I mentioned the other day I am looking for sources that will give me a sense of the extent to which the black community in the Richmond-Petersburg area interpreted and/or followed the Civil War Centennial.   The Centennial was set up in a way that made it unlikely that black Americans would take an interest.  Both Karl Betts, who served as the first executive director and Ulysses S. Grant III, who served as the first chairman of the Civil War Centennial Commission envisionws the four-year event as an opportunity to celebrate regionally neutral values and at the same time work to buttress the nation’s Cold War propaganda.  Owing to their political and racial convictions neither Grant nor Betts had any interest in highlighting the themes of slavery, emancipation or the service of USCTs.  Coming from a career in publicity and advertising Betts viewed the Centennial as a way to stimulate travel by marketing Civil War history for mass consumption.  Reenactments and other entertaining events were the order of the day.  Early on Betts and Grant kept at arms distance fellow commission members such as Bell Wiley and others who hoped to educate the public and address some of the more controversial issues.

Looking back it almost seems naive to think that the issues of race and emancipation could be kept out of the proceedings given the way events transpired following the Supreme Court’s desegregation order in 1955.  Many southern state commission chapters remained wary of a federally mandated national commission, but they were encouraged by the likes of Betts and Grant who promised not to impose restrictions on the way the centennial was remembered in the individual states.  The editorial cartoons that I collected highlight the fact that black Americans viewed Civil War memory through the events that were transpiring daily in much of the South.  Consider the image of Kennedy with Lincoln in the background.

Shortly following Kennedy’s inauguration the first crack in the Centennial Commission’s vision took place as it prepared for its fourth annual national assembly which was to be located in Charleston, South Carolina in April 1961.  The meeting was scheduled to correspond with a local commemoration of the firing on Fort Sumter.  The incident involved Madaline Williams who was a black delegate from New Jersey.  The meeting was scheduled to take place at the Francis Marion Hotel; hotel management was not willing to accommodate Williams given the city’s Jim Crow laws.  Within a matter of weeks a number of northern delegations joined New Jersey in boycotting the meeting.  The situation was finally resolved after one of Kennedy’s advisers arranged for the meeting to take place on a military base outside of Charleston.  Three months later the Third Battle of Bull Run/Manassas took place in Virginia.  The response of the media to reports of the audience screaming in approval of the route of the “Yankees” along with the scandal in Charleston did not bode well for Grant and Betts.  As a result both were under pressure to resign.  The image to the right is one of only a few news items that directly commented on the work of the Centennial Commission. By the end of the summer both Betts and Grant had resigned and were replaced by Allen Nevins, who served as CWCC chairman and James I. Robertson who served as executive director.  Both worked to emphasize educational programs rather than the more popular forms of commemorations such as reenactments.  They also strived to do justice to the war as a moment of emancipation and freedom for the slaves.  Both Robertson and Nevins seem to have understood that the Centennial had to address  these themes given the way the Civil Rights Movement was evolving.  From what I can tell black Americans did not follow Centennial events closely, but they understood that it was there.  They were much more concerned with what was taking place in the present.  That said, the fact that these events were taking place 100 years after the Civil War did not go unnoticed.  Confederate symbolism can be found in a number of cartoons.  I did find a few articles that described the service of USCTs; interestingly, one article described them as “tan” soldiers in the Afro-American.  In addition, I found a few editorials that commented on the state of school textbooks and the need for more attention to black history.  It’s as if the past and the present were interwoven with no clear distinction between the two.  Images contain cannons, Confederate flags, and disgruntled or defiant Confederate generals.

By far the largest number of images and other commentary can be found starting in September 1962  and through the summer of 1963.  Of course, we are talking about news items that comment on Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the fundamental change that it brought about on January 1, 1863.  The Afro-American ran a special issue commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation on March 16, 1963, which can be seen to the right.  Look closely and you will see articles on “Colored troops”, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln.  At the bottom are two scenes, one which depicts the fall of Richmond and the other which shows news of the Emancipation Proclamation reaching the slaves.  I should point out that opinion in the Afro-American was anything but uniform when it comes to the commemoration of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.”  This should not be surprising as the ongoing struggle in the 1960s reflects clearly on the fact that basic civil rights had yet to be attained by the nation’s black population.  The image to the left does an effective job of referencing the past in order to highlight just what was at stake in the years leading up to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.  Notice the caption at the bottom which says: “The Centennial Celebration is not the time for rejoicing.  Rather, we must rededicate ourselves to the achievement of our goal — First Class Citizenship for All Negro Americans.”  There is one line cut off which reads in bold print: “1 PAY YOUR POLL TAX 2. REGISTER 3. VOTE.”

At first I was surprised that I didn’t find anything that referenced the commemoration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  There were events staged at Gettysburg to acknowledge the occasion in July 1963; however, as I scanned through the newspaper I realized that there were far more important events transpiring that deserved attention.  The Gettysburg commemoration fell right in the middle of the Birmingham protests and the March on Washington in August 1963.  In the end there may not have been a need to acknowledge this speech.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation perhaps proved sufficient in situating the Civil Rights Movement withing a historical context.

Between scanning the pages of the Afro-American and reading Robert Cook’s fine study of the Civil War Centennial I am getting a clearer sense of how black Americans maintained a coherent counter-memory of the war through the 1960s.  Civil War Sesquicentennial planners would do well to study the Centennial celebrations.

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New Lincoln Letter: Who Cares

Lletter Can someone please explain to me why the emergence of this new Lincoln document is so important.  This morning it even showed up as a news item on AOL News.  The letter tells us nothing new and I assume that this isn’t the first Lincoln letter uncovered in recent years.  I would love to know how this story took off and spread so quickly.  Listening to both Brian Williams of NBC and Katie Couric of CBS mention Lincoln, Gettysburg, and Robert E. Lee sounded so surreal to me and I can’t quite explain why. 

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Black Virginians Interpret the Civil War Centennial

Today I spent five hours going through two years of the Richmond Afro-American newspaper on microfilm.  I was looking for anything that addressed the Civil War Centennial or Civil War history generally.  The goal is to revise my Crater manuscript in a way that renders the black counter-memory more central to the story.  As any of you who have worked with microfilm know it is usually slow going and it takes a toll on your eyes.  I didn’t know what to expect, but if I was going to find anything relevant it was going to be in the newspaper started by John Mitchell, Jr – formerly known as the Richmond Planet. I found a wide assortment of editorials and cartoons that drew directly on the symbolism of the war.  There are straightforward history articles such as the one I found on USCTs and others that comment on the work of the Civil War Centennial Commission.  Most of the references, however, were made in the context of the Civil Rights struggle.  It’s hard to know how closely average black Virginians thought about the Centennial celebrations or history in general, but when the past was invoked it must have been impossible not to draw the political and racial issues that were so bitterly fought over during the early 1960s.  I came across a couple of references to the Emancipation Proclamation by September 1962 and I expect that there will be plenty more on Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address when I begin 1963 tomorrow morning.

Here is a short editorial that appeared on November 17, 1962, titled "They Owed Lincoln Nothing":

Most commissions created to mark the observance of the Civil War Centennial have carefully avoided giving any recognition to the important role colored troops played in that bloodiest of American conflicts.  This is especially true of the Southern states, which thus far have recreated only those skirmishes in which the Confederates came out victorious.  But it is also true of the Northern states where there has been a general indifference towards the whole idea of celebrating a holocaust in which so many of their loved ones lost their lives.  Because we think it important that the present generation is not left with the impression that their forefathers contributed nothing to the eventual Union triumph, we pause this week to do long overdue honor to the First Kansas Colored on its 100th anniversary.

FEW, IF ANY, history textbooks bothered to take note of it, but men of the First Kansas Colored, were the first of their race to see combat in the Civil War….This was the first of hundreds of battles from Florida to Maryland in which stout-hearted black men wearing the Union blue fought fiercely for freedom, eventually turning the tide of the war against the rebel slaveholders.

AS THE 100TH anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation nears you are certain to hear once more the dreary refrain that President Lincoln gave you your freedom.  When you do, stop the spaker [sic] right there and tell him very frankly that he does not speak the truth. Tell him that Lincoln gave you nothing; that thousands of brave black men paid dearly with their blood and with their lives for freedom and owed Lincoln no fawning vote of gratitude for his belated stroke of the pen.  Tell him the story of the heroic First Kansas Colored. [my emphasis]

I think this is an absolutely fascinating editorial.  More to the point, I find it very difficult to read this without seeing it as both a claim about history and a commentary on the steps that black Americans were taking to secure basic civil rights in 1962.  History and racial politics of the 1960s were clearly intertwined.  One thing I was struck by as I went through the newspaper day after day were the number of horrific images of black Americans who paid the price for their decisions to engage in civil disobedience.  it’s one thing to read about it in a historical survey, but the level of violence makes much more of an impact by reading the newspaper. 

The federal government did very little before passing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964-65.  Within this context it is no surprise that this commentator takes such a stance in reference to USCTs.  The writer argues that just as black Americans had to take it upon themselves to fight for their freedoms on the battlefields of the Civil War so must they must do so in 1962. 

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Representative Tommy Benton of Georgia Lectures on Black Confederates

This video is from the Georgia state assembly on April 20, 2007.  I assume that it is part of the overall discussion concerning a state proclamation that would acknowledge and apologize for the state’s role in slavery.  Rep. Benton estimates that 65,000 blacks fought for the Confederacy.  He compares their service with the large numbers of blacks who fought with the colonies against Britain during the Revolution.  At one point he makes the claim that blacks would never have thought about joining ranks with the British.  I guess he never heard of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation.  Anyway, enjoy the silliness.

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Do Historians Need Philosophy?

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent and Progressive Historians]

Rachel, over at A Historian’s Craft, blogged recently about some concerns surrounding the nature of language and the problem of reference.   She worries specifically about the ramifications for her ongoing research project of not being able to break down simple concepts into necessary and sufficient conditions:

I mean to say, I am wary about nouns & their ability to coherently refer to things. Example: when we call something a cup, we do not refer to the space inside the handle of the cup as part of the cup, nor even the shadow cast by the cup, even though there’s no real reason not to. The word ‘cup’ also reifies the concept of a cup: one might, for example, call a box a cup if it were small enough. The idea of a noun is pure convention, or convenience.

While I have absolutely no problem with asking such questions I wonder whether concerns about abstract philosophical topics such as objectivity, causality, and language should matter to the historian working historian.  Rachel raises an issue that has attracted the attention of philosophers and linguists going back to before the Greeks.  In the modern era this questions begins with Frege and winds its way through Quine and Kripke; the question now sits at the intersection of philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience or what is called cognitive science.  Whether we can reduce our concepts to simple definitions that are self-contained or whether they are in fact conventions along the lines of what Wittgenstein argued will no doubt continue.  Such concerns about language and reality have seeped into classes in historiography over the past few decades; graduate students in history are now talking about metahistory and the latest in postmodern theory as if the ability to do history somehow hinges on being able to provide answers to these abstract issues.  Does our language "mirror" a historical past?  Can we even makes sense of a historical past?  What does it mean to know something about the past?  Such questions are incredibly seductive and are no doubt important.  Unfortunately, when historians do it they usually fail.  And they fail because in the end historians are rarely qualified to address the issues and are unable to show why answers to such questions ought to matter to working historians. 

Consider Joyce Appleby’s, Lynn Hunt’s and Margaret Jacob’s Telling the Truth About History (1995) which essentially called on historians to address the philosophical foundations of their discipline.  The authors are all notable historians in their own right, and there is something admirable in wanting to tackle the kind of relativism that has eaten away at the social sciences in recent years by arguing for the possibility of a meaningful notion of historical objectivity and explanation.  The book provides a solid overview of the rise of so-called scientific history and more recent challenges to the epistemology of historical studies.  The problem these authors face (and it is a problem that any historian wishing to tackle these issues must deal with) is that to understand the outlines of the intellectual landscape of objectivity and epistemology requires abandoning historical studies.  In looking for a philosophical underpinning for historical studies the authors argue for what is called "practical realism" which was introduced and defended by Hilary Putnam.  The authors are no doubt on strong philosophical ground, but they are hardly out of the woods given that Putnam’s theory is one among many.  Putnam’s realism does allow the authors to make philosophical sense of historical studies as stating claims about a past, but that is a far cry from justifying the theory. 

This is wonderful example of doing philosophy of history from the top-down or conceptually.  At no point do the authors inquire as to how Putnam’s theory actually connects to the learning of and critical evaluation of historical studies.  This top-down approach is not new.  The positivist philosophers of science between the 1920s and 1940s criticized historians for their employment of the concept of causation.  The positivists described historical narratives that included references to causation as "pseudo-explanations" since their understanding of the concept did not conform to the deductive-nomological or general law model.   Rachel mentioned R.G. Collingwood in one of her comments and he is no doubt worth reading, but not as someone who has his feet in the muddy world of the historian. Collingwood is best known for his claim that historical knowledge is the result of a mental process which involves rethinking the thoughts of the historical actor.  It is worth noting that Collingwood was responding to criticisims of history fro the positivist camp.  Interestingly, at no point does Collingwood or the positivists seriously inquire into how historians actually go about doing history.  I fear that much of what is coming out of Critical or Postmodern Theory and that is passing for serious philosophy of history has the same fundamental flaw.

Most historians are not interested in philosophical speculation and that’s probably a good thing.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think critically about our discipline.  In fact, it is absolutely essential that we do so.  However, we should do it with our feet on the ground.  We need to ask questions that connect directly to the process of writing good history.  What is so interesting is that while Rachel begins her post with an abstract question of how or whether our concepts describe objects in the world by the end she comes back down to Earth and asks a very reasonable questions about her ongoing research project:

[A]nyway, my thesis argument essentially takes the problem of the mui tsai as one of definition & redefinition — it was the colonial administration’s practice of bureaucratic categorization juxtaposed against the uncertain fluidity of the term mui tsai that made its abolition so intractable, and the whole process of abolition was one of legislative redefinition — this was a conclusion I arrived at through assiduous archival beavering. but I wonder how much it was a foregone conclusion given the inbuilt premises from which I operate. How much do my personal biases shape the way I look at the archive?

I wonder whether Rachel’s descriptive claim was a "foregone conclusion" based on her philosophical questions.  After all, it is possible to just as easily gravitate towards a theory of language that makes sense of the way in which concepts reflect or represent the world.  It’s her final question that is the real gem.  Rather than asking whether objectivity is possible at all Rachel asks a descriptive question of how bias in fact shapes interpretation.  To answer this question we need to examine actual historical studies. 

What I find so interesting about Rachel’s post is the way it straddles both the abstract and empirical terrain of philosophy of history.  My own personal preference, however, would be to start with the empirical question of bias and see where it goes. A related question to ask is whether we can make sense of the notion of progress in historical studies.  If we were to look closely at a long-standing historigraphical debate could we discern patterns of progress?  Do we understand certain subjects better over time?  What does it even mean in historical studies to understand better?  Answering such questions does not stand or fall with the latest in philosophical theory.  What it does require is a close examination of actual historical studies.  And who better to explore these important questions than historians themselves? 

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