Tag Archives: Earl Ijames

African Americans and Black Confederates

I noticed that Ann DeWitt has taken the time to respond to one of my recent posts about Entangled in Freedom [and here].  I will leave it to you to decipher her post.  In addition, yesterday Hampton historian, Veronica Davis filed a lawsuit to halt the deletion of the controversial passage about black Confederates in the Virginia 4th grade history textbook.  [Update: Brooks Simpson has included a link to Davis's petition at Civil Warriors.]  High profile African Americans, who have come to endorse this historical meme and for different reasons include H.K. Edgerton, Nelson Winbush and even Earl Ijames.  One of my readers is convinced that Edgerton and other African Americans are being paid to promote this narrative.  I couldn’t disagree more.  In fact, I would suggest that such an explanation ignores an important aspect of this cultural phenomenon and our collective memory of the Civil War.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what the identification of some African Americans tells us about the evolution of Civil War Memory and while I don’t have any firm answers it might be worth posting for further discussion.  Perhaps the identification with this narrative by some African Americans can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with a Southern past.  That should come as no surprise given the central role that they have played in its formation from the very beginning.  At the same time that role has been decidedly influenced at different points in history by white Americans to buttress their own racial, cultural, and political agenda.  One need look no further than the pervasiveness of an ideology of paternalism (in the context of slavery) during the antebellum period, the advent of the Lost Cause following the Civil War, and more recently a conscious effort to support white political control in the 1950s and 60s through the control of history textbooks.

For many African Americans it is the Civil Rights Movement that looms large as a place to find heroic stories, larger-than-life personalities, and even narratives of racial reconciliation.  The Civil War, on the other hand, has been lost.  As I’ve learned over the years many African American families pushed their history of slavery away either because it was too painful or the narrative had been reduced to one of degradation and misery.  The past few decades has witnessed a dramatic shift in the way that slavery is interpreted as well as the reemergence of African American participation in the war itself – seen most clearly in the 1989 release of “Glory.”  The movie’s success in its appeal to a mainstream white audience ought to be seen as an important milestone in the evolution of popular memory of the war that has come to acknowledge the central role of slavery and emancipation in the overall conflict. Continue reading

Black Confederates at Radford University?

Update From Professor Sharon Hepburn: Before things get out of hand, I need to clarify things since this is completely unintentional. It seems my mistake was to write the abstract too quickly without proofreading it adequately. There should have been a qualification along the lines of “some claim it is likely that thousands…” This is not my primary field of research, just meant to be a community talk regarding general black participation in the war. I was asked to discusss African Americans in the Confederacy–which encompasses a great deal of different kinds of service. Since I do not research this particular topic I personally cannot make any claim as to the numbers and did not mean to. This is not even a field of research I plan on pursuing. My current research is on the 102nd USCT, a Union regiment, but I was asked to say some things about blacks and the CSA. Most of what I discuss is body servants, impressed slaves, etc., not soldiers per se. I apologize for any miscommunication or confusion in this matter.

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From the 4th Grade we head on over to Radford University, where Dr. Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Chair and Professor of History is scheduled to give a public address titled, “African American Confederates” at the Radford Public Library.  The talk is being sponsored by the Radford Heritage Foundation and Sun Trust.  Here is the description:

Just as African Americans aided both the Patriots and the Loyalists during the American Revolution, they supported and fought for both the Union and Confederacy during the American Civil War. The Confederate States of America benefited from its slave population throughout the war. Most cooks in the Confederate army were slaves. The Confederate army used slave teamsters, mechanics, hospital attendants, ambulance drivers, and common laborers. Slaves constructed most Confederate fortifications. Wealthy slave owners often went to war with their body servants who kept their quarters clean, cooked for them, washed their uniforms, and performed other menial duties. While most of this work was extracted involuntarily through coercion, there were African Americans throughout the south who willingly supported the Confederate States of America in various ways, including fighting for them. Although the exact numbers are widely disputed, it seems likely that several thousand African Americans provided military service to the Confederate army. Join Dr. Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Chair and Professor of History at Radford University, to learn more about the various ways in which African Americans played a vital role for the CSA. Sponsored by the Radford Heritage Foundation and SunTrust. For more information, contact Scott Gardner, 540 731 5031

As I read through this for the first time I thought to myself that perhaps the general public will be treated to a thorough examination of how the Confederate war effort utilized slave labor in various forms.  In other words, the first part of this description is spot on, but the claim that several thousand African Americans provided military service to the Confederate army sticks out like a sore thumb.  This wouldn’t bother me so much if we were talking about Earl Ijames, but Professor Hepburn is a trained historian.  Now, it could be the case that Hepburn did not author the above description.  Hepburn is the author of Crossing the Border: A Free Black Community in Canada (University of Illinois Press, 2007) so it is clear that she understands the research process and probably did not rely on an Online search for her information as in the case of our 4th Grade History textbook author.

What I would like to know is what is the evidence (primary or secondary sources) that supports such a claim?  I am familiar with the relevant scholarly research on this and related subjects and I am confident in stating that there is absolutely no evidence that would support such a claim.

Earl Ijames, Henry Louis Gates, and “Colored Confederates”

[Hat-tip to Patrick L. Lewis]

I have written extensively about Earl Ijames’s mishandling of evidence related to the presence of black southerners (free and enslaved) in Confederate armies, but it is truly disturbing to learn that a historian such as Henry L. Gates endorses his shoddy research.  You can find the following in Gates’s book, Lincoln on Race and Slavery:

pp.xxxviii-xxxix “The pioneering research of Earl Ijames reveals that some slaves bore arms, and some free Negroes in the South actually enlisted and fought in the Confederate Army, as Frederick Douglass as early as 1861 warned Lincoln they would do, in an attempt to persuade Lincoln to authorize the use of black men as soldiers.”

And the subsequent footnote, p.lxvi n13. “Earl L. Ijames, correspondence, November 17, 2008; … Ijames, the curator of the North Carolina Museum of History, says that, among others, the Fortieth Regiment of North Carolina Troops, Company D, included several free black men who enlisted voluntarily and fought with guns in combat against the North.  His book Colored Confederates is forthcoming.”

First, it is important to acknowledge that Ijames has done nothing that would count as serious research on this subject.  In 15 years of study he has not published a single peer-reviewed article and there is no evidence of a forthcoming book on the subject.  I suspect that Gates first made contact with Ijames during the filming of his recent PBS documentary “Looking for Lincoln.”  One episode includes a ceremony sponsored by the SCV honoring Weary Clyburn as a Confederate soldier, which I am unable to pin down.  Ijames spoke at this ceremony, though he has waffled on drawing any firm conclusions about Clyburn’s status.

Ijames is scheduled to give a talk this coming Wednesday [Aug. 18] at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, North Carolina.  It is unfortunate that a branch of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, which is also Ijames’s employer, would allow him to speak on this subject.  No doubt, his talk will follow the same line as a recent presentation which was recorded and can be accessed here.  [Click here for an outline of this talk.]

Edward C. Smith on Black Confederates

This is great.  In 1993 Professor Edward C. Smith addressed a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting on the subject of black Confederates.  Unfortunately, only the first ten minutes of his presentation was posted, but it is extremely helpful.  First, Prof. Smith is a Professor of Anthropology at American University.  It is unclear to me on what grounds he can claim to be an authority on this particular subject.  As far as I can tell he has never published anything on the subject in a scholarly journal.  I suspect that he can claim as much authority as Earl Ijames.  What is interesting is the timing of the speech just a few short years after the release of Glory, which I suggested yesterday functioned as a catalyst for interest in this issue.  Well, Smith confirms my suspicions, but he also helps us to better understand why African Americans may be interested in this subject.  From what I can tell Smith views this subject as the next step in more fully understanding the place of African Americans within the broader national narrative.  Blacks served as soldiers in the Union army so it must be the case that they also served in Confederate armies.  Smith wants a more inclusive history that does justice to the accomplishments of black Americans.  That is certainly understandable.  I hope the rest of this speech is eventually posted.

Black North Carolinians Plan to Erect Faithful Slave Marker

A group of historians and other concerned citizens recently lobbied the commissioners of Union County to “recogniz[e] the contributions of 10 black Confederate pensioners, known as colored troops during the Civil War.”  We’ve seen all this before and it doesn’t look like anything will steer certain folks away from making this all too common mistake regarding the conditions under which black Southerners were given pensions after the Civil War.  The assumption seems to be that a pension indicates that a given individual served as a soldier in the Confederate army.  [For some reliable commentary on pensions please read James Hollandsworth, Jr., Robert Moore, and the Library of Virginia.] The group wants to install a small monument to these ten individuals in front of the old courthouse in Monroe.

The most disappointing aspect of this story is to read the words of the descendants of these men who were forced to endure the horrors of war as property, ultimately without any choice in the matter.

Aaron Perry of Charlotte is the great-grandson of one of the pensioners, also named Aaron Perry, a Union County slave who fought with the North Carolina 37th Company D. Although the Confederate States lost, their story should be remembered.  “I think it’s a great thing,” said the younger Perry, 72. “It’s been a long time ago, so I’m not going to overlook that. What’s so bad about it? They’re honoring these 10 North Carolina soldiers for being helpful to their country, even if it was under slavery.  “They lost that war, but my great grandfather helped rebuild the camp at Fort Fisher,” Perry said. “He played his part, even though he was under slavery and somebody else’s command. When you enlist in the service, you’re taking orders from somebody.”

Notice how Mr. Perry completely collapses the distinction between status as a slave and citizen.  In what way was the Confederacy “their country” given the constitution’s provisions that specifically protect the institution of slavery?  Even worse is the failure to distinguish between having to take orders within a military command – a responsibility that under certain conditions is conferred on citizens – and status as a slave which views the individual as an extension of his master’s will.  What could be clearer?

Of course, it should come as no surprise that Earl Ijames is involved in this nonsense.  Ijames works as a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, which is part of the NC Department of Archives and History.  I guess Ijames couldn’t resist referencing Weary Clyburn, who happens to be his favorite “Colored Confederate.”  Unfortunately, Ijames isn’t even sure whether Clyburn was a slave or a free man at the time of the Civil War.

Between Perry and Ijames we get a sense of the quality of “research” and thought that seems to be behind this project.  I am sad to say that in 2010 we have two African American men, who are essentially hoping to erect a monument to faithful slaves of the Confederacy.  What could be more pathetic?