I am not surprised that public officials in Union County, North Carolina have finally authorized the inclusion of a marker/monument on courthouse grounds to honor its local slave population. [I've followed this story for quite some time.] Given everything I know about the folks involved in this project I am not optimistic that the final wording of the marker will do justice to what we know about the history of free and enslaved blacks and the Confederacy. The history will be distorted.
This is unfortunate since slaves like Aaron Perry and Weary Clyburn deserve to be remembered. The final wording of the marker will likely reference their service in the Confederate army and their having been awarded pensions late in life. This interpretation will satisfy the self-serving agenda of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are committed to remembering the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights. It will also satisfy the descendants of these men, who wish to see their ancestors remembered.
These men deserve to be remembered, but not for living a life that falls outside of the historical record. They deserve to be remembered because they survived slavery. We can only imagine what hardships and humiliations these men suffered as chattel. How many experienced the lash or the pain of separation from loved ones? How many suffered from the intense desire to be free?
On top of all of this these men were forced to endure the hardships of a war that, if concluded in favor of their owners, would have ensured their continued enslavement. Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the Confederate government as laborers, while thousands more accompanied their owners to serve their individual needs. The presence of slaves in the army did not mark a change in their legal status. They were not brought to war to place them any closer to freedom. Quite the opposite. Now, in addition to the hardships experienced at home these men were forced to negotiate a new set of challenges and dangers. Violence was anything but foreign to the nation’s slave population by 1861. Separation from families was anything but new for these men.
And yet these men survived. They even went on and managed to eke out an existence during very difficult times that perhaps filled them with pride in knowing that their lives were finally their own.
Yes, we should honor these men. Honor them not for serving the Confederacy, but surviving it.
I am delighted to hear that residents of Fredericksburg, Virginia have resurrected a civic ceremony that was lost as a result of reunion between white Northern and former Confederates. For a number of years after the war the black residents of the city took part in annual marches on Decoration Day to the cemetery to commemorate the bravery of United States soldiers and the cause for which they fought. Those early commemorations constituted a living reminder that the war had profound results for millions of slaves and that its memory would be incomplete without the acknowledgment of emancipation and freedom.
Emancipation Day Parade, Richmond, Va
Today I came across the Remembering Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom Project, which is a partnership between The College of William and Mary and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Association. This really is a wonderful example of how technology can promote and shape a community’s efforts to commemorate its past. What I like most about this project is the grassroots element. Organizers are not just looking for Facebook likes or Twitter followers; rather, they are encouraging involvement through attendance at any number of community meetings across Virginia. Here is a list of their goals:
- To publicly recognize sites throughout the Commonwealth associated with slavery, resistance to slavery, and emancipation from slavery
- To foster respect for the lives of enslaved persons and to contribute to an honest and informed public understanding of the consequences of the enslavement of Africans and African Americans
- To assist in the public’s recognition of “slaves” as complete persons who recognized and asserted their own humanity by memorializing their dead, who should be credited for what they produced, and who, by their very humanity and personalities, naturally resisted attempts to turn Africans and African Americans into property
- To reveal the pervasive historical presence of African and African American lives and experiences
- To provide events of remembrance that contextualize Virginia’s commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Lincoln’s relevance to Virginia and the Emancipation Proclamation
- To design a commemorative website based on the messages and goals identified by regional communities
Whether you like it or not, Lincoln is central to Virginia’s story of emancipation. You may remember that the Virginia Assembly recently failed to pass a resolution honoring Lincoln. With the Assembly’s backing of this project I have to wonder whether they had any influence on the goals listed here. It will be interesting to see whether the meetings and other forms of feedback lead to any substantial recognition of his place in this story.
This project is a positive sign given that I have not heard much on the Emancipation 150 front.
Will Moredock has a wonderful editorial in today’s Charleston City Paper that provides some sense of why a Robert Smalls Weekend is so significant. All too often the study of Civil War memory seems like an abstract exercise, but in this case it is grounded in something that all of us can relate to: history textbooks. If you want to explain why the city of Charleston is now in a position to commemorate Smalls look no further than the pages of your child’s history textbook. Not too long ago many of them were filled with all kinds of myths and distortions about black Americans and slavery. Moredock shares excerpts from Mary C. Simms Oliphant, The History of South Carolina, which was used in the state as late as the mid-1980s. Oliphant was indeed the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, but what Moredock does not mention is that her 1917 textbook was a revised version of Simms’s own history of the state written in 1860.
Click to continue
The question of how far we’ve come in expanding and correcting certain elements of our collective memory of the Civil War has come up on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere. I have stressed the extent to which we have moved beyond a strictly Lost Cause narrative of the war to one that is much more inclusive, especially in reference to Unionists, women, and African Americans. This can clearly be seen on the institutional level in places such as the National Park Service and a wide range of history museums. While I believe it is important that we acknowledge these changes I don’t want to minimize the challenges that public historians continue to face in engaging the general public in programs that deviate from the popular stories of battles and leaders. This is a fight that is far from being won and I have nothing but admiration for those people work day to day on the front lines.
All we can hope for is that our public historians and other interested parties remain committed to doing good history that continues to deepen and expand the general public’s understanding of the nation’s past. However frustrating it is we do need to remind ourselves that many of the questions and subjects that are now openly being discussed are inconceivable just a few decades ago.
Exhibit A: The city of Charleston will commemorate Robert Smalls this coming weekend with a number of entertaining and educational programs. [Who is Robert Smalls?] Is there any evidence that Smalls’s name was mentioned once during the centennial? In the state and city where disunion began this weekend belongs to a black man, whose story directly challenges much of what many people continue to believe about the Civil War. Even if the events scheduled attract a smaller audience, compared to more popular Civil War related events, those who do attend will have been well served and in a position to share what they’ve learned. The simple fact that such an event has even been planned is worth acknowledging.