This morning I was reminded that today is the first day of the sesquicentennial of the War in 1864. As I alluded to this past spring, it is going to be very interesting to see how the final sixteen months of the war will be commemorated and remembered. There are practical issues of funding, but there is also the turn that the war itself took in 1864. Those of us on the education/public history side of things will have to think long and hard about how we engage the public about some of the more important and challenging issues of the war. Continue reading
The next episode of PBS’s The African Americans airs on Tuesday night.
The African American in antebellum times was, as the stereotype held, reliable, faithful, hardworking, malleable. Indeed, one entrusted one’s children, one’s property to such people. Now, of a sudden, the African American becomes demonized, a threat, a lascivious beast roaming the countryside of the South, people loosed by the end of slavery and now upon us like locusts. Well, this was an absurdity. — David Levering Lewis
It’s always interesting to watch politicians distort the past for their own purposes. This week Elbert Guillory decided to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. As he explains in this short video, he did so based on his understanding of the broad political history of race. Why he only recently came to some of these realizations goes unmentioned, but here are a few highlights. According to Guillory “the Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an abolitionist movement.” It was the Republican Party that gave blacks rights of citizenship during Reconstruction. Democrats have always been on the wrong side of the history of race. Most importantly, “they were the party of Jim Crow.” Guillory praises Dwight D. Eisenhower as the champion of the Civil Rights act of 1957.” Somehow he forgot that it was a Democrat from Texas who pushed for the final passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.
Ultimately, Guillory’s break with the Democrats is based on a rejection of the notion that only big government can improve the lives of Americans. But isn’t much of the history of freedom for African Americans the result of government intervention? Setting aside the important role that blacks played in securing their own freedom didn’t the government intervene directly during the Civil War to free slaves? Finally, wasn’t Reconstruction itself the most extreme example of government intervention during the postwar period before the 1930s? Wasn’t it Southern Democrats who wanted to be left to sort out their affairs without federal intrusion. Continue reading
Many of you have viewed the Open Yale Course on the Civil War and Reconstruction taught by David Blight. It’s a wonderful opportunity to take a survey course with one of the nation’s most respected Civil War scholars. I am currently making my way through Professor Jonathan Holloway’s course, African American History: From Emancipation to the Present. Below is the first lecture. [Interested in the American Revolution? Check out Joanne Freeman's course.]
Looks like the Virginia General Assembly has been busy with resolutions about the Civil War era. Last week I shared Sen. Henry Marsh’s resolution that would set aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln and today I bring to you another resolution sponsored by Marsh that would honor black Virginians, who served in state government during Reconstruction. The Senate committee approved the resolution and incorporated it by voice vote into SJR 13 Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868, recognizing African American representatives. The committee substitute was ordered printed and the resolution will now advance to the floor of the Senate. I assume that for many Virginians this resolution makes more sense than one meant to honor Lincoln. I tend to agree, but this resolution distorts a crucial moment in the state’s history.
Our standard narrative of Reconstruction goes something like this: After the war the southern states were forced to re-write their state constitutions to conform to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. In many of these states these changes were imposed by occupying federal armies. Between 1865 and 1877 African Americans enjoyed a brief window of civil rights and political privileges that would not be seen again until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. The Compromise of 1877 left the southern states once again in control of their own futures and quickly instated a series of Jim Crow laws that left their African American population disfranchised and reduced to second class citizens. In short, the black population was abandoned by the federal government. This narrative has become so deeply embedded in our collective memory (at least in our textbooks) that we tend to assume that the end of Reconstruction led inevitably to Jim Crow.