In March I will co-lead a group of students on a 7-day trip through the South to explore the history and memory of the Civil Rights Movement. It should come as no surprise that Montgomery, Alabama is on our itinerary. In preparation for the trip we are putting together a collection of documents that offer different perspectives on how these communities are coming to terms with their pasts. This New York Times piece about the placement of new historical markers throughout the city will be included in that list.
But Southern history is a custody battle still in litigation. The Alabama Historical Association, which has its name on many of the historical markers around the state, confirmed the accuracy of the research but declined to sponsor the markers, citing “the potential for controversy.” (The markers were eventually sponsored by the state-run Black Heritage Council.) Todd Strange, the mayor of Montgomery, while acknowledging in a newspaper article several years ago that the sign referring to slave markets made him uneasy, gave the project his backing after a meeting with Mr. Stevenson.
I love the fact that the mayor admitted to feeling “uneasy” but still provided the necessary support for the project to move forward. These projects should make us feel uncomfortable. If they didn’t there would be little reason to carry through with it at all.
Sounds like there is a pretty intense backstory to all of this.
I read Solomon Northrup’s personal account of slaverylong enough ago that I decided to pick it up again in light of having seen the movie. It’s hard not to be impressed with how close the movie actually follows the narrative, but specific choices made by director Steve McQueen stand out. Consider this passage from very early in the book:
With the return of spring, Anne and myself conceived the project of taking a farm in the neighborhood. I had been accustomed from earliest youth to agricultural labors, and it was an occupation congenial to my tastes. I accordingly entered into arrangements for a part of the old Alden farm, on which my father formerly resided. With one cow, one swine, a yoke of fine oxen I had lately purchased of Lewis Brown, in Hartford, and other personal property and effects, we proceeded to our new home in Kingsbury. That year I planted twenty-five acres of corn, sowed large fields of oats, and commenced farming upon as large a scale as my utmost means would permit. Anne was diligent about the house affairs, while I toiled laboriously in the field. (p. 9)
Those of you who’ve seen the movie already know that McQueen chose to begin his story with the Northrup family already established in Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon is shown well dressed and walking in a park with an individual that he is unable to identify in his narrative, when he is approached by two strangers who were ultimately responsible for his kidnapping and enslavement. Northrup’s life prior to this is ignored entirely. Continue reading
Update: More details are emerging about this meeting: “Passions ran high, at one point erupting in a spontaneous chorus of “Dixie” led by a black man, H.K. Edgerton, who called Union soldiers rapists and wielded his large Confederate flag like a conductor’s baton as the audience sang.” Oh, brother.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection held a meeting last night on a proposal to add a monument to Union soldiers on the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park. This story has been in the news for some time, but it’s still not clear to me why there is an issue with adding a monument to a battlefield. Most monument controversies are about their removal.
Speaking out against the addition of the monument, along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was none other than H.K. Edgerton, who we haven’t heard much from of late.
“There is no place in the south land of America to memorialize Yankee soldiers,” Edgerton said. “This is an army that came here raping, robbing, stealing, killing and murdering our people. The kinds of things that happened here under the sanction of Abraham Lincoln were for these men to commit total warfare against innocent men, women and children who could not defend themselves.”
What the commission made of a black man carrying a Confederate flag is anyone’s guess. Probably a good thing H.K. didn’t show up in full uniform.
I think you will agree that the story of a fallen Confederate soldier mistakenly sent to Gray, Maine, where he continues to be remembered by the community is perfect material for a sesquicentennial-inspired song.
[Uploaded to Vimeo on December 2, 2013]
Selma Police Department’s Sgt. Tori Neely dusts for prints in March 2012 after the bronze bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest was stolen from the monument that is placed in Old Live Oak Cemetery.
Earlier this week a settlement was reached in Selma, Alabama surrounding a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest. You can read the story here.
Whether the photographer intended to or not, the accompanying image serves as a reminder that regardless of the battles that Forrest may have won during the Civil War, ultimately, he lost. And that is something that all of us can be thankful for today.