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.
I don’t have much patience for the long-standing debate of who freed the slaves. The question itself is much too simplistic and sterile. Why historians have felt a need to single out one factor or engage in wholesale reductionism, in the end, tells us much more about the assumptions we employ than about the complexity of the story of emancipation that needs to be told. Today is the 150th anniversary of General Benjamin Butler’s letter informing his superiors of three escaped slaves who had made their way to Fortress Monroe.
The American Studies class that I team teach just finished reading William Gienapp’s concise biography of Abraham Lincoln. Of all the challenges that students coming to Lincoln struggle with is the issue of colonization. It’s not simply that Lincoln advocated colonization before the war it’s the extent to which he pushed for it during the war itself. It simply doesn’t mesh with the image of the “Great Emancipator” that many of my students come to class with. The same holds true for my AP sections. Luckily, the textbook that I use by Eric Foner does a first rate job with this particular topic. Understanding the steps that Lincoln took toward emancipation as well as the evolution of his thinking concerning race goes far to humanizing Lincoln and coming to terms with the challenges he faced during the Civil War.
Apparently, there is a new book set to be released that focuses specifically on Lincoln’s colonization policy. According to a Washington Times review, “Newly released documents show that” Lincoln pushed for colonization, “to a greater degree than historians had previously known.” I don’t know much about these new documents, but supposedly they show that Lincoln continued to push for colonization even after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation. It would be interesting to know which slaves Lincoln was hoping to colonize; if I had to guess we are talking about those slaves in the border states. I always remind my students that regardless of what Lincoln desired, African American leaders rejected his proposals. Here is the book description:
Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement explores the previously unknown truth about Lincoln’s attitude toward colonization. Scholars Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page combed through extensive archival materials, finding evidence, particularly within British Colonial and Foreign Office documents, which exposes what history has neglected to reveal—that Lincoln continued to pursue colonization for close to a year after emancipation. Their research even shows that Lincoln may have been attempting to revive this policy at the time of his assassination.
Using long-forgotten records scattered across three continents—many of them untouched since the Civil War—the authors show that Lincoln continued his search for a freedmen’s colony much longer than previously thought. Colonization after Emancipation reveals Lincoln’s highly secretive negotiations with the British government to find suitable lands for colonization in the West Indies and depicts how the U.S. government worked with British agents and leaders in the free black community to recruit emigrants for the proposed colonies. The book shows that the scheme was never very popular within Lincoln’s administration and even became a subject of subversion when the president’s subordinates began battling for control over a lucrative “colonization fund” established by Congress.
That’s an interesting scenario that Magness and Page lay out, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Consider the following comment by one of the co-authors:
The way that Lincoln historians have grappled with colonization has always been troublesome. It doesn’t mesh with the whole ‘emancipator.’ The revelation of this story changes the picture on that because a lot of historians have tended to downplay colonization. … What we know now is he did continue the effort for at least a year after the proclamation was signed.
I would love to know which historians are being referenced here. And what exactly is the criticism? The authors claimed to have uncovered new documents that change the narrative of Lincoln and colonization. O.K., I get it, but that doesn’t mean that historians have downplayed colonization. In fact, the very opposite is true. The story is front and center in both the biography and textbook that my students read. It’s present in just about every recent biography that I’ve read in recent years. Sorry boys, but this is not news. At least it’s not news to my high school students.
Finally, agree with Richard Williams, however, in that I would love to see some kind of interpretive plaque placed at the Thomas Ball statue.
The other day I mentioned that a professor at Rice University used a few of my old posts on black Confederates as a way to focus his students on how Americans remember the war. I thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful comments of the students, many of which suggest that proponents of this particular narrative have a broader goal of embracing Confederate history – heritage without having to deal with the tough problems of race and slavery. I think there is some truth to this, but I wouldn’t propose it as anything approaching a generalization or even as a sufficient condition.
Second, many of you suggested that remembering the Civil War in a particular way fills certain needs people have–to absolve themselves or their ancestors of guilt, for example, or distance themselves from racism. This made me wonder (and some of you alluded to this): if remembering the Civil War as a conflict that was not meets certain psychological or cultural needs for the people doing the remembering, how does depicting the Civil War as a conflict that was about slavery, or even a war to end slavery, influence the identities or satisfy the needs of people who remember it that way?
It seems like an appropriate question given the slave auction reenactment that took place this morning on the steps of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis. Here is a very interesting interview with Angela desilva, who took part in the reenactment. [Click here for some powerful photographs from the event.] She offers a very personal response to Professor McDaniel’s question, but one that must acknowledge from a distance given my lack of any ancestral connection with slavery.
So, what needs does remembering a war to end slavery satisfy? That’s a tough question and one that I don’t think I can answer right now. I am tempted to suggest that it satisfies my need to know what happened and why, but that sounds shallow and could easily be suggested by those who minimize or reject the importance of slavery. I’m sure others will opine that my radical liberal beliefs have left me feeling guilty or that such an interpretation fits into my view of the United States as fundamentally flawed. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not it.
Perhaps it relates to my Jewish upbringing. Although I am no longer a practicing Jew I do believe that my strong belief that we have an obligation to remember flows from my experience in Hebrew School during my formative years. It goes without saying that the Holocaust looms large in the lives of most Jews. But this doesn’t fully satisfy either. After all, I can remember the harsh reality of slavery without focusing on the Civil War. In other words, I still don’t know what needs of mine are satisfied by remembering a war to end slavery.