Black Confederates Defined on Facebook

One of my FB friends invited me to join a group dedicated to black Confederates. There are just under 200 members.  No surprise that just about all of them are white, including Rickey Pittman.  There is nothing serious about the site.  Essentially, it serves as a dumping ground for the same tired stories that populate the Web.  To get a sense of how ridiculous this is consider the fact that they use an image of Jim Limber as their profile picture.  One of the more aspects of the site is the attempt to define who constitutes a black Confederate.  Check it out:

BLACK CONFEDERATE DEFINED: 1. Any Black person, slave or free, a subject of a seceded Southern state, who faithfully performed his/her duties during the existence of the Confederate States of America. There were 3.5 million blacks in 1860 census residing in Southern states so the number of Black Confederates numbers in millions, not thousands.

Black Confederate Definition 2: Post War 1865-1940. Blacks of any age and gender and including veterans who identified with and defended the Confederate Cause, its symbols and veterans.

Black Confederate Definition 3: Modern. Blacks of any age and gender who identify with and defend the Confederate Cause, its symbols and heroes; and who belong to the Confederate Community and/or consider themselves Confederate Southern Americans.

So, I guess the tens of thousands of free blacks and fugitive slaves who served in the U.S. Army betrayed a cause that they morally ought to have supported in some way.  Notice also that the term has been completely watered down beyond any kind of presence with the Confederate army.  I guess “faithfully performed his/her duties” simply means that they maintained their roles as slaves.  As for Definition #2 I would love to know who they have in mind.  Is there a Preferred Membership option for those who maintained their loyalty even as Jim Crow hardened race relations at the turn of the twentieth century?  Finally, I guess they have the likes of H.K. Edgerton in mind for their Modern category.

There is something quite disturbing about a bunch of white people recruiting blacks to buttress their silly beliefs about the loyalty of tens of thousands of slaves.

New York and Slavery

Just returned from a wonderful trip to the “Big Apple” with my wife.  We caught two excellent jazz shows featuring guitarist Mike Stern at the Iridium Club.  Both shows featured some excellent players, including Sonny Fortune (sax), Buster Williams (b), Victor Wooten (b), Dennis Chambers (dr) and Randy Brecker (trumpet) and Jimmy Cobb (dr).  We tried to see the exhibit at the Tenement Museum, but it was too crowded.  Be smart and buy tickets in advance.  Unfortunately, I completely forgot about the slavery exhibit at the New York Historical Society.  I’ve read nothing but positive reviews of the exhibit and even though scholars have been writing about slavery and race in the North for quite some time it is a topic that is sorely misunderstood by the general public.  Hopefully we can catch it next time we are in town.  For now check out this wonderful introductory video of the exhibit.  I love the creativity and the way they utilize the old lithographs.

By the way, there is a brand new book on the subject that is slated to be published in the coming weeks that looks to be very interesting.

Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend (Continued)

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Update: Is Jackson’s dark complexion just an accident or is this an attempt to blur the racial line?

If you didn’t know any better one might think that Confederate leaders were at the forefront of the civil rights movement.  Case in point is the popular and misunderstood story of Stonewall Jackson’s black Sunday School which he established in Lexington, Virginia in 1855.  Most of the stories that you will come across Online or in non-academic books tend to wax poetic about the benefits of these classes for the areas free and enslaved blacks.  There is no shortage of stories of blacks praising Jackson or dedicating stained-glass windows long after his death and the end of the Civil War.  All of this is interesting, but rarely are we given anything that approaches analysis of how the school functioned in slaveholding Virginia in the period after Nat Turner’s insurrection.  Even James I. Robertson, who authored the most thorough biography of Jackson, fails to provide a sufficient analysis of the broader conditions that shaped Jackson’s Sunday School.  Robertson cites the widely held assumption that “the more uninformed a slave was about everything, the more docile he tended to be”, the Virginia code that forbade the teaching of slaves to read, and Jackson’s apparent defiance.  That’s about it. We are left with an image of a defiant Jackson who would not allow Virginia law to stand in his way of saving souls.  This view is pervasiveness throughout much of the popular literature.  Consider Rickey Pittman’s new book, Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School:

In autumn 1855, slaves and free black men, women, and children first made their way to the Lexington Presbyterian Church to attend Sunday school. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, stood as the superintendent of this school. Although it was illegal under Virginia law to teach blacks to read and write, Jackson believed all men, regardless of race, should have the opportunity to receive an education. To these students, Professor Jackson was a leader and mentor who taught them more than just reading and writing. He instilled in them the word of God. Even after he left to join the Civil War, he prayed for his students and sent them money for Bibles and hymnals. Through Jackson’s leadership, many of his Sunday-school students went on to become community leaders, ministers, and educators. This lesser-known tale of the Confederate leader shows young readers another side of the man known in battle as “Stonewall.”

Earlier I referenced Nat Turner and I did so because it is crucial to understanding this story.  Charles Irons does a magnificent job of analyzing the degree of cooperation between white and black evangelicals in Virginia through the early 1830s.  He notes that by 1830 there one-quarter of black Virginians (115,000) had been converted to evangelical Christianity and thousands more practiced outside of the church.  In addition, Turner’s claims that God had inspired him to rise up against the white population worked to reinforce growing concerns among white evangelicals as to their ability to safely monitor black gatherings. Irons is instructive here:

Gripped by fear and mistrust for several months, white Virginians struggled to adjust to the sobering fact that converted slaves could unleash such savagery.  Some, particularly nonslaveholders from the western portion of the commonwealth, suggested that only a general emancipation could save the state from racial Armageddon and pushed for a constitutional convention to consider such a measure.  Others, including some white evangelicals still shocked by August’s carnage, favored simply denying slaves the privilege of religious expression.  Stark choices: emancipation or an end to evangelization.  Within tow years, however, white evangelicals had found a way to move forward without either destroying black religion or freeing their slaves.  No single ideologue emerged to articulate the new policy of constant white supervision right away; politicians and churchgoers independently stumbled toward the formula of aggressive oversight and proselytization. (p. 143)

Within this context, Jackson’s school makes perfect sense, though it should be pointed out that a school had been established in Lexington as early as 1843.  While our popular perceptions paint Jackson as some kind of liberator who was ahead of the curve, Irons’s analysis provides us with a clearer understanding of how the school reinforced slavery and white supremacy in Lexington and the Shenandoah Valley.  Jackson admitted as much himself when he noted that God had placed the black race in a subordinate position.  Constant oversight allowed Jackson and the rest of the white population to continue to proselytize and at the same time monitor his black students’ understanding of themselves in relationship to God and the white community.  One can only wonder what Jackson would have said to a student who put forward the notion that slavery stood in contradiction to God’s law.

Let me point out that the goal here is not to demonize Jackson.  I have no problem with people who choose to celebrate Jackson’s work within the black community.  As historians, however, our job is to understand how churches functioned in a slaveholding society and how those institutions evolved in response to various challenges.  As much as we need to be sensitive to Jackson’s personal motivation we must never forget that he did not operate in a vacuum.

Who Was “Ten Cent Bill” Yopp?

One of my biggest complaints about the many stories about so-called “black Confederates” is that the authors in question have almost no interest in doing serious research.  Most of the stories that you will find on the Internet are simply cut and pasted from one site to another.  Essentially, these men are treated as a means to an end; they are used to reinforce assumptions that the authors themselves have a need to uphold.  Such is the case of Bill Yopp, who is the subject of a recent essay by Clint Johnson. The story:

The aging veterans, in the Confederate Soldier’s Home, were proud men who had braved many a battle in the 1860s. One of these men was former Captain Thomas Yopp who saw such battles as that of Fredericksburg, VA, where a cannon shell burst knocked him unconscious.   The man who stayed with him until he recovered was his servant who had also joined the 14th Georgia Regiment, Company H. Bill Yopp was more then a servant; he and Thomas Yopp were friends who hunted and fished together.  Bill Yopp, a Black Confederate, was sympathetic to the men of Atlanta’s soldiers home who had been his compatriots in arms over fifty years earlier.

During the War Between the States, 1861-1865, Bill Yopp was nicknamed “Ten Cent Bill” because of the money he made shining shoes. He did this for the soldiers at a dime a shine and ended up with more money than most of his comrades. These men, also, cared for him when he was sick.  During the Christmas of 1919, Bill wanted to pay back the kindness that was shown to him. He caught a train from Atlanta to Macon, where he was offered help from the editor of a local newspaper [The Macon Telegraph]. He then caught a train to Savannah to raise Christmas money for the old veterans. Bill met many generous people on his trip.  Just weeks before the Christmas of 1919, he had raised the money and Georgia’s Governor Hugh Dorsey helped him distribute envelopes of three dollars to each veteran. That was a lot of money in those days.  The old Confederates were speechless. Tears were shed because of Bill Yopp’s good heart and kind deed. Many of these men had little or nothing. Bill was invited to come into the home’s Chapel and say a few words.   Bill Yopp was later presented a medal of appreciation for his support of the old soldiers and also voted in as a resident of the Confederate Soldier’s Home.

It’s unfortunate that Bill Yopp is irrelevant to this story.  Think about it.  We learn nothing about this man other than how he fits into those timeless tropes of loyalty and reconciliation.  It seems obvious to me that Bill Yopp was owned by Thomas Yopp and yet Johnson continues to refer to him as a “servant” who “joined” the 14the Georgia.  Well, that can easily be confirmed.

But beyond that there is so much that we don’t know about Bill Yopp.  What did he do after the war?  What was his economic situation before 1919?  And while it is comforting to believe that Yopp “wanted to pay back the kindness” of former “comrades” we are obligated to ask for evidence.  I am always struck by the ease with which writers like Johnson assume the motivation of former slaves during the Jim Crow Era.  I am also curious about Governor Dorsey’s involvement in Yopp’s project.  What was his motivation?  It would be interesting to know how Yopp fits into Atlanta politics during the period following WWI.  Perhaps the governor’s archival record might yield some answers.  Finally, I am very interested in a more sophisticated analysis of Bill Yopp’s place in the Confederate Soldiers Home.  We need to understand more about the culture and social structure of veterans homes and part of the problem is that we still need more research in this area.  [I am looking forward to Rusty Williams’s forthcoming study, My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  How common was it for former slaves in the Confederate army to gain admittance into these homes?  Were they, in fact, treated as veterans?  Did they have equal access to the available resources?  The questions are numerous, but if we have any interest at all in better understanding these men than they must be addressed.  Unfortunately, organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other writers have no interest in looking into these stories for fear that what they find will complicate and muddy their preferred interpretation.

Better to use the past to make us feel all warm and cozy during the Christmas season.

History Channel Does Reconstruction Right

Our tendency to distinguish between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures the fact that fundamental questions of freedom, national identity, and citizenship were left unanswered. According to historian, Vernon Burton:

At stake during the Civil War was the very existence of the United States. The bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War posed in a crucial way what clearly became persistent themes in American history: the character of the nation and the fate of African Americans (writ large the place of minorities in a democracy, the very meaning of pluralism). Consequently, scholars have been vitally interested in the Civil War, searching out clues therein for the identity of America. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction, and the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war. (“Is There Anything Left To Be Said About Abraham Lincoln?, Historically Speaking, [September/October 2008] p. 6)

Part of the problem is that our tendency to remember Appomattox as some kind of love fest or the beginning of reunion obscures the level of violence that continued into Reconstruction.  Much of that violence was perpetrated against southern blacks to reinforce assumptions of white supremacy and prevent freed slaves from exercising newly-won civil rights.  Such a view has grown steadily among academic historians since the 1960s and in recent years can be seen in a wave of more popular titles.  The pervasiveness of this view can be seen in a recent History Channel documentary, titled, Aftershock: Beyond The Civil War.  Based on only viewing the first episode it looks like this particular documentary is not so concerned with the complex political issues that dominated the period, but with the scale of violence that was used to terrorize blacks into submission.  It suggests that perhaps the war did not end in 1865, but took on a different form in the years that followed.