Here is another news item concerning the commemoration of Weary Clyburn which will be held today in Monroe, North Carolina. I am not going to comment extensively as the story is well known to my readers, but here are a few highlights.
Earl L. ljames, who is a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History and who apparently used to be employed at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History believes that, “His is a hero’s service…. Him serving is really an incredible story.” By the way if ljames and members of the SCV and UDC are truly interested in honoring the service of North Carolina’s slaves than why not recognize the 5,000 plus that joined the Union army which has been documented extensively by Richard M. Reid in his new book, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).
ljames goes on to suggest that “…this whole event vicariously honors the thousands of ‘colored Confederates’ who served in various capacities and never had a voice to express it.” For someone associated with a museum, and who one assumes has some credentials in the field, this is truly an irresponsible statement. Even more ridiculous is the claim that Weary Clyburn and the son of the man who owned him were “best friends”, which is “not an uncommon story.” What does “uncommon” actually mean in this context and what does the concept of friendship mean between slave and slaveowner?
I don’t have the patience to go on. All I can say is that we can be thankful that ljames no longer works at the NCDAH. Apparently, Clyburn’s descendants will hold a news conference following the celebration. I will keep you posted.
I finally decided to read Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. My reluctance was twofold: On the one hand I already have a short stack of books to read on slavery and race and didn’t feel a need to add to it. More to the point, however, I am usually quite skeptical about reading history books by journalists. They are typically good writers, but tend to gloss over important analytical points that can only be discerned by reading through a selection of the secondary literature. Well, the other day my wife shared a review of the book that was published in a German newspaper and my interest was piqued. After three days of reading this book I have to say that I am emotionally drained. Blackmon examines the steps taken after the war in the South to control the black population, maintain white supremacy, and provide an economic boost to lumber camps, coal mines, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. By the turn of the century every state in the South, except Virginia, had instituted laws that allowed local and state law enforcement to lease prisoners [Blackmon argues that over 90% were black] to these companies. Violations included vagrancy, raising one’s voice in front of white women and a host of other minor offenses. The leasing out was usually the result of the inability to pay a fine/debt and once the transaction was made company owners were given complete control of the prisoner. Blackmon argues that upwards of 200,000 African Americans fell victim to this hideous practice. Check out the website for the book which includes an overview of the author’s argument as well as a selection of photographs from these forced labor camps.
Blackmon structures his book around the Cottenham family, beginning with Green Cottenham who was arrested in 1908 on charges of vagrancy and forced to work for a company in Birmingham, Alabama owned by U.S. Steel. He worked in a mine called Slope No. 12 where, like many others, he died. From there the author traces the history of the family going back to the early nineteenth century. Along the way Blackmon does an excellent job of situating the family’s story in the broader context of the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as early slave-leasing practices, which began before the war as states like Alabama focused more and more on mining and iron production. It is hard to believe that this practice continued into the 1940s and was only stopped for fear that it would aid the Nazis in their claims of racial abuse within the United States.
As I mentioned earlier, Michaela and I stopped off at Stratford Hall for a quick tour of the plantation on our way home from vacation. We arrived at 3pm which gave us little time to stroll around the grounds before the start of the final tour of the day at 4pm. We were only able to spend a few minutes in the museum but I noticed a wide range of exhibits that covered both the Lee family and the history of the estate following its sale in the 1820s and through the establishment of the R.E. Lee Memorial Foundation and later the R.E. Lee Memorial Association. The grounds are quite beautiful and on a clear day you can see the Potomac River from the house. The tour itself, however, was a bit of a disappointment. Visitors are taken through the various rooms and vivid descriptions of various objects are shared as well as short overview of the more prominent members of the Lee family, but there is a minimum amount of information shared concerning life at the plantation. While our guide did a competent job there was very little analysis to give visitors a deeper understanding of how plantations functioned on the Northern Neck. At one point she commented that the building of the house was a team effort between the Lee’s and their slaves. I’m not sure this is the most accurate way of describing the relationship between slaves and the family that owned them. I should point out that there is an ongoing effort to piece together a more complete story of Stratford Hall which is somewhat hampered by a lack of documentary evidence.
That said, I liked the fact that the tour did not focus on R.E. Lee alone; after all, Stratford Hall served as his home only for a brief period of time. This makes for an interesting challenge. On the one hand most people, including yours truly, travel to the plantation because of R.E. Lee, yet the property has little to do with him. On a somewhat related note, I noticed in the gift shop that while you could purchase an America flag there were no Confederate flags for sale other than a few items such as the hat that I am pictured wearing. My wife suggested that it would have been inappropriate to sell such an item given that the house has nothing to do with Confederate history. What do you think?
Interestingly, at one point our guide commented on the changing face of the Stratford Hall staff. She jokingly said that a few years ago the directors all had white hair, while in recent years they are much younger. I had to laugh when I heard this as I just met the new Executive Director, Paul C. Reber, at the recent meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians. Paul discussed the challenges of doing public history in the 21st century. Later that day I had a chance to talk with Paul and it is clear to me that a number of changes concerning interpretation at Stratford Hall are forthcoming. Paul has some very interesting ideas about exhibits and interpretation. One of the more interesting opportunities for interpretation at Stratford concerns the infamous cradle, which until recently was thought to be the R.E. Lee’s. The object was reason enough for many to visit Stratford Hall given its supposed iconic value. When it was discovered that the cradle could not possibly be Lee’s the family that loaned it to Stratford requested to have it returned. Paul suggested that it would be interesting to do an exhibit on the history of the object throughout its different phases from sacred to ordinary object. I agree.
What I find most interesting about the history of the site is the story surrounding Mary Field Lanier who helped create the R.E. Lee Memorial Association in 1929. The organization assumed ownership of the property to turn it into an “ENDURING TESTIMONIAL TO THE STAINLESS LIFE AND GLORIOUS SERVICES OF OUR DEPARTED GENERAL.” Lanier was the President of the William Alexander, Jr. Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Greenwich, Connecticut, which I also find interesting. There is a library at Stratford Hall and I’ve already inquired into the possibility of doing some research on the subject, perhaps for next summer.
Of course, Stratford Hall is a bit out of the way, but if you happen to be on the Northern Neck of Virginia do yourself a favor and visit this beautiful site.
Yesterday I shared an illustration from a popular history book used here in Virginia titled, Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis B. Simkins, Spotswood H. Jones, and Sidman P. Poole. The illustration speaks for itself, but today I found some text on slavery and race relations from the book, which serves to remind us of just how important it is that our history textbooks be based on first-rate scholarship and not fantasy.
A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous. Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.
One of my readers commented on the previous post that he was assigned this book in 1980. Now that is incredibly disturbing.
This is a perfect follow-up to my earlier post on Rickey Pittman’s childrens book about Jim Limber.
I’ve suggested numerous times that the proposed statue commemorating Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber fits into a broader push on the part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups to minimize the place of slavery within the antebellum South as well as the history of the Confederacy specifically. Of course, the view that slaveholding was benign and best understood as paternalistic has a long and disturbing history in this country.
This morning a friend emailed an image taken from a textbook titled Virginia: History, Government, Geography (Scribners, 1966) and written by Francis Butler Simkins. Simkins was a well-known Southern Historian who taught at Longwood College and who authored a well-received biography of Ben Tillman, which was published in 1944 by the University of South Carolina Press. The individual who emailed the image noted that Simkins’s narrative betrays a strong pro-slavery bias, but speculates that, given his scholarship, revisions were made by the Virginia Textbook Commission and that Simkins allowed his name to continue to be used for the publication. As for the image used for the chapter on slavery, I don’t think I need to explain what is problematic about it. There is a rich history behind the Davis-Limber statue and it fits neatly into our broader assumptions concerning race relations in the South and throughout the United States at different times. In the same way that the illustration misrepresents the realities of slaveholding, can’t we also suggest that a statue depicting Davis holding hands with Limber misrepresents how blacks lived under the various Davis rooftops?
We must be very critical when it comes to the messages that our public spaces convey about our history. We no longer live at a time when one racial group has a monopoly on the shape of public spaces as a way to maintain control of both history and government. Let’s take advantage of that fact.