Is This Really A Hate Crime?

Some of you are no doubt aware of the story out of Montgomery, Alabama surrounding the vandalizing of a Confederate statue.  Last week the faces of Confederate soldiers were painted black with “N.T. 11 11 31” spray painted in reference to the anniversary of Nat Turner’s insurrection execution in Southampton County, Virginia.  Before proceeding I want to make it clear that this type of behavior is unacceptable and if caught the perpetrators ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

That said, I am intrigued by the talk of “hate crime” as a proper characterization of the act.  From today’s Montgomery Advertiser:

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said while the action was “very objectionable,” painting over the face of a statue of a Confederate soldier was not an attack on all white people. The vandalism insulted people who respect the rule of law or admire the memories of the old South, said Potok, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project.  “It’s more an attack on the principle of the old Confederacy, but not to all white people in general,” Potok said Thursday.  He said a hate crime targets an entire group of people who share a common link such as race, religion, disability, nationality, gender, or sexual preference.  “If these vandals had written ‘death to whitey’ or ‘all whites must die’ it would have been a hate crime because it attacked an entire class of people,” Potok said.

Of course, representatives of the SCV and UDC disagree:

But representatives of the Alabama Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans want the defacement to be investigated as a hate crime.  The historical group is offering a $1,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the vandalism that occurred sometime last Saturday night.  Pat Godwin, a Selma resident and a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, inspected the damage Thursday.  She said she believes the reference to Turner is what makes the incident a hate crime.  Godwin said the numbers represent the date of Nov. 11, 1831, when Turner was executed for leading a slave insurrection in Virginia. The revolt resulted in the death of 57 whites.  “This speaks loudly to me as a white person that whoever defaced this monument must hate all whites by honoring Nat Turner, who slaughtered innocent white children by decapitating them in 1831,” Godwin said.

On the face of it I tend to agree with Potok.  This is not necessarily directed at all white people given that not all white people identify with the symbolism or history of the statue.  Godwin’s argument is on shaky ground for the simple reason that the reference to Turner could have been intended to honor a “freedom fighter” along with a statement pointing to the lack of statues honoring African-American history.

On the other hand, what both statements have in common is the implicit assumption that the perpetrators are black.  Now if I were a betting man I probably would agree, but it is worth asking whether that assumption tells us more about ourselves than anything about this particular crime.  It could very well be white southerners that are responsible for this incident, and it may also be the case that they are making the very same point that might motivate black southerners.


Walking the Road from Slavery to Freedom With John Washington

[Click here for photographs from the day.]

I don’t really know how to begin this post about my experience yesterday in Fredericksburg other than to say that it reminded me of just why I find the study of history and the Civil War in particular to be so important.  It was a whirlwind day that began in the afternoon with a tour of John Washington’s Fredericksburg through his own words and memories.  Michaela and I were honored to be included in the afternoon tour which included Ruth A. Washington, granddaughter of John Washington and his great-great granddaughter, Maureen F. Ramos.  I was conscious throughout the tour that they were hearing the story of their ancestor for the first time.  For me it was a meaningful and entertaining way to broaden my own understanding of the past through the words of an actual participant.  However, as much as I was moved by Washington’s own words for Ruth and Maureen it was a much more personal and profound experience.  [The photograph at the left includes Ruth (l), David Blight, and Maureen (r).]

We toured various parts of the city, including the Farmers Bank where Washington lived for a time.  While on the second floor and in the hallway outside the room that probably served as his living space John Hennessy read from one of the most moving sections of Washington’s narrative:

The Night before Mother left me (as I was to be kept in hand by the old mistress for especial use) she, mother, came up to my little room I slept in the “White peoples house,” and laid down on my bed by me and begged me for her own sake, try and be a good boy, say my prayers every night, remember all she had tried to teach me and always think of her…

Then and there my hatred was kindled secretly against my oppressors, and I promised myself If ever I got an opportunity I would run away from these devilish slave holders–The morrow came and with tears and Lementations cars left with all that was near and dear to me on Earth.

One of the gems of the tour around Fredericksburg was a stop at the Minor – Maury House.  John read a few passages about slave life from the diary of Mary M. Blackford and then took us to the rear of the home where we could see the etching of slave names on the window of one of the buildings which was done as a reward for their learning to read.  Apparently Blackford went out of her way to defy the laws which made it illegal to teach slaves to read.  [Click here for the image.  I was intrigued to hear at this stop that nine black Fredericksburgers are buried in Liberia.  [In the photograph to the left you can see John Hennessy, Ruth, and Maureen by the window.]

From there we drove to the Taliaffero House where Washington also lived for a time.  We saw the slave quarters in the rear of the house which is believed to be where Washington lived at one point.  The structure is in remarkable condition and as luck would have it just as we were finished the owner pulled up and allowed us to peak inside.  The floors and beams are original and I can only imagine what Ruth and Maureen were thinking as they walked through.  I should point out that the two had flown to Virginia from Tampa yesterday morning and Ruth is 89 years old.  She didn’t miss a beat which was all the more impressive given the spectrum of emotions that the two exhibited.

Our final stop was the point along the Rappahannock River where on April 18, 1862 – and with the Union army opposite Fredericksburg – Washington crossed to his freedom.  John and Professor Blight made it a point to remind us that while our tendency is to see suffering and hardship for the residents of Fredericksburg following Union occupation for many it meant freedom.  Washington’s description of that moment can be connected to the experiences of thousands of black Americans whose memories have been forgotten by a nation that has since 1865 worked to distance the war from the central theme of emancipation that the slaves themselves helped to bring about:

Very soon one, of a party of soldiers, in a boat call out to the crowd standing around me do any of you want to come over–Every body “said no,” I hallowed out, “Yes I want to come over,” “all right–Bully for you” was the response.  and they was soon over to our side.  I greeted them gladly and stepped into their Boat, as soon as James (W’s cousin) saw my determination to go he joined me and the other young man who had come along with us–

Before morning I had began to fee like I had truly Escaped from the hand of the slave master and with the help of God, I never would be a slave no more.  I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim Every cent that I should work for as my own.  I began to feel that life had a new joy awaiting me.  I might now go and come when I pleased So I wood remain with the army until I got Enough money to travel further North This was the First Night of my Freedom.  It was good Friday indeed the Best Friday I had ever seen Thank God–xxx–we were all asstire [astir?] very early next morning for the soldiers had a sad duty to perform. [Washington witnessed the burial of Union soldiers killed while taking Falmouth.]

About 12 of us went to dinner and I was lucky enough to sit next to Ruth and Maureen.  They are both educators which gave us quite a bit to chat about.  Ruth still volunteers three days a week reading to children in the early grade levels.  It was also a pleasure to be able to talk to Professor Blight whose work on Civil War memory has been so influential and inspiring to me.  During dinner I asked all three to sign my copy of a A Slave No More which, unlike most of my books, I will not mark-up but keep as a memento of the occasion.

The highlight of the entire day was a dramatic reading of sections from Washington’s narrative which took place at the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.  Readers included Dominic Green, S.J. Cordell-Robinson, Sarah Poore, and John Hennessy who provided a stirring narrative that placed Washington’s life in its proper historical context.  The reader’s voices blended perfectly with one another and were interrupted only by the beautiful voice of Jim Thomas who sang a few appropriate slave spirituals.  I was very impressed with John’s narrative which began with the word ‘silence’ repeated a few times to highlight the amount of time that Washington’s voice, along with so many others, have been ignored or forgotten.  John brought the story to a close by noting that “the silence is broken” – and indeed it has.

David Blight touched on the importance of Washington’s narrative and the story of how two slave narratives ended up “on his lap.”  Finally, both Ruth and Maureen addressed the crowd.  Both of them thanked the city of Fredericksburg for their hospitality and the chance to reconnect with their past.  Rather than try to quickly summarize what they said I am going to wait until I’ve thought about it a bit more.

Finally, I want to thank John Hennessy for including me and my wife in yesterday’s events.  To say we had a great time would be an understatement.  John is doing groundbreaking work with events like this.  In my mind yesterday was a triumph for John on a personal level, the National Park Service and the city of Fredericksburg.  I hope the success of yesterday will translate into additional projects within the NPS that continue to push the boundaries of what it means to do public history.

Congratulations John on a terrific event that I will not soon forget.  Now take a few days off and relax.  You can find a few more photographs here.


Look…It’s a Black Confederate


See the story here.

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Off to Fredericksburg: Remembering John Washington

I’ve been looking forward to my trip to Fredericksburg for a few weeks and I couldn’t be more excited.  Tonight the city of Fredericksburg will celebrate the memory of John Washington with a "dramatic presentation" and talk by historian David Blight.  Washington’s emancipation narrative has recently been edited and published by Blight.  Washington’s memoir chronicles his life as a slave in Fredericksburg, his decision to escape across the Rappahannock River in March 1862 and work for the Union army, and his eventual relocation to Washington, D.C.  Click here for information about this event. 

While events begin tonight at 7pm for the general public my day begins with a special tour of Washington’s life in Fredericksburg which will be led by historian John Hennessy and will include Professor Blight, and three generations of Washingtons who have made the trip from Florida.  As I mentioned earlier the descendants of Washington have only recently learned of this memoir; it will be very interesting to see how they respond.  Dinner will follow the tour and then we will head over to the Fredericksburg Baptist Church where the event will take place.  This promises to be a very emotional and educational experience. 

You can expect a full report and plenty of photographs. 


This Post Isn’t Really About Stonewall Jackson

I came across this entertaining little video from the Christian Broadcasting Network which examines the religious convictions of John Jasper, R.E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.  It is somewhat humorous to find these two men being raised to something along the lines of civil rights activists.  The questionable story of Lee accepting communion in a Richmond church next to a black man and just after the war is explored along with Jackson’s mission to educate his slaves and other blacks in the Lexington area.  I found this passage by James I. Robertson to be just a bit curious:

As he saw it, slavery was something that God ordained upon black people in America for God’s own reasons," Robertson said. "And he had no right to challenge God’s will. That was blasphemy. And so, while he hated slavery, he was opposed to slavery, Jackson had to obey his Heavenly Father and accept the system. And he accepted it through doing the Golden Rule, do unto others as he would wish they do unto him.

Here is what I don’t understand.  If God brought slavery to black people than how is it possible that Jackson "hated" or was "opposed" to it?  To put it another way, isn’t God’s ordaining something to be the case a justification of its existence?  As I understand it, if Jackson questioned slavery than he was also questioning God’s justification for it – whether he understood the reasons or not.  I don’t see how it is possible to reconcile the claim that Jackson "had no right to challenge God’s will" on the one hand and the belief that he hated slavery.  On what grounds could Jackson question slavery without coming into conflict with God’s willing it to be the case?  I am the first to admit that I am no expert on these difficult religious issues. 

There is something very disturbing about this evangelical view of religion.  On 9-11 I lost a cousin to religious fanatics who fervently believed that their God demanded that they fly planes into buildings and kill innocent people.  No one reading this blog would have been disappointed if before the attack one or more of the terrorists had come to the realization that this in fact is not what God demands.  We wouldn’t argue that this revised/non-violent view is "blasphemous", but that it is in fact closer to a proper religious/moral life. We expect people to question the way they treat others. 

This brings me back to the question of why we are so tolerant of this authoritarian mindset in other cases.  The idea that a slaveowner had no reason to or couldn’t question the theological foundations of slavery is ludicrous.  By the mid-19th century there were plenty of examples in both north and south of individuals and groups who repudiated the idea that God sanctioned or imposed slavery on blacks.  The idea that Jackson was unaware of such movements is impossible to imagine.  Did Jackson believe that those people who were working towards the freedom of slaves on religious grounds were disobeying God’s law?  If so, then who ought we be critical of and who, in fact, should we celebrate for doing God’s work?  I am not criticizing Jackson’s Presbyterian convictions, but what I am wary of is what appears to be an authoritarian psychology that allows for little questioning or the possibility that one’s moral view of the world needs to evolve.  We’ve seen the consequences of blind obedience over the course of the twentieth-century, from the Nazis to Stanley Milgram’s labs at Yale.      

The other thing that irks me is this notion that we can make sense of the Golden Rule within a slave system.  I am always left with the same question: does a slaveowner wish to be treated like a slave?  What about the perspective of the slaves themselves – where do they fit in?  Did Jackson’s slaves believe that the Golden Rule was being followed?  Is the lesson of Jackson that as long as we apply the Golden Rule within our own set of assumptions regarding its extension than it is safe to conclude that we are living a moral life or carrying out God’s expectations?  I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that slaveowners do not properly apply the Golden Rule.  Seems to me there are plenty of examples of individuals in history who come much closer to doing justice to this beautiful moral/ethical concept than a slaveowner.