I finally caught an episode of American Digger last night and I was appalled. This episode focused on the history of slavery in Aiken, South Carolina. It begins with a few rebuffs from folks who want nothing to do with this past; however, the boys finally come across a home owner who is more than happy to comply only after renegotiating the standard agreement on any profits resulting from the dig. The worst part of this show is its star. Former pro-wrestler Rick Savage is obnoxious and seems to know very little about the history of slavery. These guys basically go into a site, dig up relics, and split the proceeds with the highest bidder. The scenes where Savage gets emotional about what he uncovered are priceless. And what does this have to do with the preservation of history?
You will need a shower after watching just 3 minutes of this episode.
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.
Yesterday I finished reading Yael Sternhell’s wonderful book, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South, which explores various aspects of mobility in the Confederate South. The author argues that what could be seen on the roads throughout the South tells us quite a bit about Confederate nationalism, the collapse of slavery and a strictly defined racial hierarchy, and defeat.
Her brief discussion of the capture of Jefferson Davis caught my attention:
On May 10, while camping outdoors in the piney woods near Irwinville, Georgia, Davis and his party were captured. Two Union cavalry regiments, searching for the presidential party, raided their camp at daybreak with no specific knowledge of who was staying there. In the confusion of the raid, Davis tried to escape from his tent and into the woods, but a Federal officer noticed him attempting to get away and called him to stop. With a carbine gun pointed at him, Davis had no choice but to surrender. Much has been made of the fabricated story that he was dressed as a woman when caught. Yet the true significance of the circumstances of his capture lies in the fact that he was apprehended not only in flight, but in the woods. Davis was forced to follow the ways of his former slaves and take refuge within the alternative geography they had used for generations to hide from the bloodhounds and armed patrollers who chased them without mercy. The Civil War did not end with Robert E. Lee’s dignified surrender at Appomattox. It ended with Jefferson Davis, in the forest, staring in fear at a group of white men who were coming to get him. The war had reduced even the most elevated of masters, the Confederate president, to a desperate runaway. [p. 192]
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.
One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war. With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation. As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.
Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862. It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor. Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited. Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.