Henry Louis Gates and PBS Fall For Black Confederate Myth…Again

Update: Early on in the production of this episode a producer with Finding Their Roots reached out to a reputable historian about the ongoing research into Martin Lamotte. In an email exchange that I have seen the producer was told specifically that the Louisiana Native Guard was never accepted into service by the Confederate government. This raises important questions about the integrity of this program’s research process.

Tonight’s episode of PBS’s Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, included a segment on Bryant Gumbel’s family history. His family’s roots in New Orleans led to the revelation that Gumbel’s great-grandfather, Martin Lamotte, who was freed in 1840, served in the Louisiana Native Guard. Gates concludes from this that Lamotte was a Confederate soldier. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the Louisiana Native Guard knows that this unit was never accepted into Confederate service.

Gates insists that Martin Lamotte was a soldier in the Confederate army until he switched uniforms and joined the Union army.

This is one of the most common mistakes made by people who fall for the black Confederate myth. It is true that the men of the Native Guard pledged their loyalty to the Confederacy and as Gates suggests many of these free blacks may have done so to protect their economic interests, but again they never were accepted into the Confederate army.  The reason is because the Confederate government refused to accept black men into the service until the final weeks of the war.

How can the show’s researchers be so careless? At this point there is simply no excuse for this kind of oversight.

This is not the first time that Gates has become seduced by the black Confederate myth. Why is not entirely clear. Gates has never done any serious research on the subject. He appears to believe that the black Confederate shows that African Americans cannot be easily labeled or their behavior predicted. He once told me following a talk at Harvard that the reason I deny the existence of these men is because I resist acknowledging that African Americans are complex or “complicated.”

This is another case of Gates allowing the shock value of the black Confederate narrative to take precedence over solid historical research. What is most disappointing is that his guests end up as the victim. Bryant Gumbel is now in possession of a fundamentally flawed account of an important moment in his family’s story.

Everyone at Finding Your Roots should be embarrassed, especially Henry Louis Gates. PBS should acknowledge the error publicly and issue a statement. This is just the kind of thing that will be picked up by individuals and groups that push this myth. They will point to the credibility of PBS as well as Gates’s connection to Harvard.

Yes, this story will just make it into my black Confederates manuscript.

A Civil War Historian’s Talking Points

Yesterday historian Aaron Astor posted a list of talking points on his Facebook page that he utilizes when discussing the Civil War with the general public. It is well worth reading in its entirety and I thank Aaron for permission to publish it on my blog.

I want to push back a little bit on #11. Certainly we need to understand the spectrum of motivations that propelled men into the Confederate army, but this is often brought up by people who want to disconnect the army from the broader goals of the Confederacy entirely. I remind audiences that Confederate soldiers functioned as the military arm of a government committed to protecting slavery. In that sense they all fought to protect slavery. Every victory brought them one step closer to achieving that goal. I find it helpful to reference the rounding up of fugitive slaves during the Gettysburg campaign or how the Emancipation Proclamation and the presence of black Union soldiers on the clarified what was at stake for the men in the army.

I speak and write regularly about the causes of the American Civil War, to both academic and popular audiences. Engaging with different people who hold different assumptions about the Civil War and its legacies today has forced me to develop a set of priming points that I use to begin the conversation. Here are some of the key ones. If you find them useful, feel free to share them. [click to continue…]

Confederate Veterans Remember Their Days of Service in the Klan

We expend a great deal of energy re-casting Confederate soldiers as engaged in a constitutional struggle or defense of home that had nothing to do with the protection of slavery. The price we pay is to ignore what actual Confederates said during the war about the consequences of slavery’s demise and their efforts to re-build a society around white supremacy in the years after.

By the time this story was published monuments were being raised across the former Confederate states in celebration of the bravery and sacrifice of the men who with every victory brought their nation closer to establishing a slaveholding republic around white supremacy. That cause did not end with the furling of flags at Appomattox.

Those communities that have chosen to remove or relocate Confederate monuments now have the opportunity to take a closer look at this history and decide how to re-shape their public spaces and even add to those empty pedestals.

Positive Feedback

It’s been a real thrill having the opportunity over the past few months to speak with audience from around the country about the current controversy surrounding Confederate monuments and other iconography. My audiences have been very receptive and I always walk away having learned something. [click to continue…]