Category Archives: Public History

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

The Charleston Museum is set to unveil a new exhibit that extends their permanent exhibit beyond 1865 with “A Storm Beyond Control: Freed Slaves and Political Mobilization in Reconstruction South Carolina.”  That’s right, up till now, for one reason or another, the museum ended its history of the state with the end of the Civil War.  That means that the history of African Americans in South Carolina only encompassed the institution of slavery.

That powerful narrative went largely unchallenged here until the late 20th century, but since then the racial and cultural myths at its core have aged poorly, causing decades of controversy and indigestion for numerous local institutions. Which raises the question: Did From Slaves to Sharecroppers represent another evolutionary step away from the aristocratic party line?  Museum Assistant Director Carl Borick doesn’t think so, contending the organization made a break from the past when it updated its mission in the 1980s.  “Since 1983, we’ve been pretty up-front about our history,” Borick says. “The museum has been very open to admitting the good and the bad. Slavery was what it was. We show that in our permanent exhibit.”

But good history also teaches us a healthy respect for irony, and no matter the efforts of its current employees, memory at the Charleston Museum remains highly selective. Glorious victory at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776 gets a special display case. Humiliating defeat on the peninsula in 1780 — the largest surrender of patriot troops in the Revolutionary War — essentially goes unmentioned. Captured German and Japanese weapons from World War II? They’re on display. But the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969? Nada.

Well, better late than never.  Meanwhile, just north of Charleston in Berkeley County, the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans [General Ellison Capers Camp 1212] is asking the local school board to close in honor of Confederate Memorial Day on May 10.  Although the holiday falls on a Sunday the SCV is encouraging the schools to close on Monday.  And what does this particular chapter hope the kids should do on this day off from school?  Any suggestions on how to honor their Confederate heritage, including the African American students in the district?  They don’t say.  In fact, you will not find anything educational on their website, which is the case for just about every SCV website that I’ve come across.  Check out the video in the link if it is still functional.  The head of this particular chapter is a real whoot.

CFP: Historical Tourism in the American South

n36619244_35369672_232My friend and fellow historian, Karen Cox, has issued a call for papers for a proposed collection of essays on tourism in the American South.  Karen already has a number of historians involved in this project, including yours truly.  I am going to contribute an essay on Arlington House and the evolution of the NPS’s discussion of slavery on the grounds.  Over the past few years I’ve collected some information on this subject so it will be nice to be able to finally do something with it.  Karen is already in contact with a publisher and has been given an advanced contract so it is likely that the collection will see the light of day.  What follows is the CFP as well as Karen’s contact info. if you are interested.  [oh...and I stole the image from K's Facebook page.]

This is an invitation to submit proposals for essays to join others in a book (now under advance contract) that explores historical tourism in the American South.  Historic sites, for the purposes of this volume, are those places that have been restored and/or adapted for the purpose of preserving some aspect of southern history and interpreting that history to the public. This volume will be divided into four sections each exploring a different aspect of tourism to sites of southern history and memory and proposals should fit into one of the following categories:

People and Places:  will examine individual southerners and the historic sites preserved to tell their story.

War and Remembrance: will examine Revolutionary, Civil War, Spanish-American sites in the region.

Race and Slavery: will examine historic sites that interpret slavery or civil rights.

Landscape and Memory:  will examine tourist sites that are concerned with the physical environment.  Suggestions include cemeteries, Rock City, the Virginia’s Natural Bridge or the Florida Everglades.

Final essays will be 20-25 pages in length and will be accompanied by illustrations.

For consideration, please send a brief CV and a 1-page abstract by April 1, 2009 describing your topic to: Karen L. Cox, Editor, Department of History, UNC Charlotte, kcox@uncc.edu

SCV May Offer Davis-Limber Statue to Themselves

It looks like the Davis-Limber statue may wind up in a place where very few people will get to see it.  The statue was origininally offered to the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar before the SCV pulled out of the deal.  They are now looking to see if the state of Mississippi is interested in it; this is likely to go down in a ball of flames.  A few people associated with Beauvoir have expresed interest in the statue.  This would be an ideal place for the statue since it served as Jefferson Davis’s residence after the war and is currently managed by the Mississipi Division, SCV.  It’s a beautiful place and by all appearances the SCV has done an excellent job of restoring the property following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Still, if the deal goes through it is hard not to consider the entire project to be a failure.  After all, the goal was to counter or balance the Lincoln-Tad statue on the grounds at Tredegar, which many in the SCV find offensive.  Don’t ask me why.  A sitting Lincoln with his arm around Tad doesn’t seem to me to be very shocking.  Finally, if the deal does go through the SCV would have offered the statue to themselves.  I wonder if they will accept it.

Richmond’s Civil War Memory

Tomorrow I am taking 32 students and three colleagues to Richmond to tour Civil War related sites.  Since the courses that I am teaching this trimester are focused on memory we are going to spend time exploring various statues that offer case studies on how different groups, and at different times, chose to remember the war.  It will also offer a unique opportunity to analyze and discuss the contested nature of memory and public spaces.  We’ve spent quite a bit of time in class discussing how to interpret monuments and public spaces, including the way in which they reflect the values of the individuals and organizations responsible for their placement as well as the profile of local government.  It’s another thing entirely to see these sites in their actual settings.

We will begin with Monument Avenue.  Since we spent 10 days discussing the evolution and ascendancy of Lee in memory we will start with the Lee statue.  From there we will stop at both the Stonewall Jackson and Arthur Ashe statues.  I want to use the Ashe statue to discuss the bitter public debate that took place in Richmond over its placement on Monument Avenue as well as its dedication in 1996.  Some of you may remember that both Arthur Ashe as well as his wife wanted the statue placed in front of the African American Sports Hall of Fame, located in a black neighborhood, rather than the “Avenue of Confederate Heroes”.  The city council, including Viola Baskerville, overruled the Ashe family insisting that the monument be placed in a more visible location where it could be seen by all Richmonders and visitors alike.

From there we head on over to the Tredegar Iron Works to view the Lincoln-Tad statue, which is another monument that caused a bit of an uproar when it was unveiled in 2003.  Both the Lincoln and Ashe statues reflect not only changes in the make-up of local city government in the post-civil rights South, buta broader understanding of who and what is deemed worthy of remembrance.   Anyone following the recent story of the SCV’s offer of a statue to the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar of Jefferson Davis holding hands with his biological son and a black boy who briefly stayed with the family in 1864-65 knows all too well that this is also contested ground.  I plan to discuss these recent developments in some detail.

Our final stop will be Hollywood Cemetery.  Our focus will be the way Hollywood was used by white Richmonders to commemorate their Civil War dead and give meaning to their Lost Cause.  Stops will include the section devoted to the Gettysburg dead as well as the Confederate memorial (pyramid structure) designed by Charles Dimmock and dedicated in 1869.  We will stop briefly by the Pickett gravesite where I will talk a bit about LaSalle Pickett and her postwar writings as well as the controversy surrounding the placement of her remains next to her husband not too long ago.  I also want to head over to President’s and Davis circle, which will give me plenty of time to talk about the beginnings of the cemetery in 1849, its early struggles, and how it functioned as the city of Richmond continued to expand in the years leading up to the war.  Along the way I will amaze my students with all of the dead people that I can point out and discuss intelligently.

It’s supposed to be sunny with a high of 48 degress.  We couldn’t ask for a better day.  Of course, I will post all of the pictures for your enjoyment.

Museum of the Confederacy on YouTube

It’s nice to see the Museum of the Confederacy taking advantage of YouTube as a form of outreach. A few months ago they started a series of short videos on various subjects that feature their talented staff as well as the museum’s extensive collection of artifacts. This video focuses on Turner Ashby and includes interviews with Robert Hancock, Teresa Roane, and John Coski.

Click here for the other videos.