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.
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]