William Mahone and the Readjusters to the Rescue

Illustration of a White Member of the Readjuster Party Cajoling a Black Man to Vote

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.

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Triumph, Not Trauma

There is an interesting article over at Psychology Today, if only because it takes a different perspective on the controversy surrounding Confederate History Month.  Molly Costelloe Fong suggests that Governor McDonnell’s proclamation may have certain psychological effects within the black community owing to the long-term legacy of slavery:

When one group deliberately inflicts suffering on “others” as through slavery, the victimized group suffers certain psychological effects: shame, humiliation, guilt, and a decreased ability to be assertive.  McDonnell’s blundering declaration reinforces shared mental images of Black oppression within our national psyche and will likely perpetuate feelings of victimization for African-Americans.

The author suggests that the governor’s proclamation may trigger those “unconscious” feelings of victimization and oppression:

When mourning is unfinished business — the trauma is handed down to future generations. This is done through stories, feelings, and unconscious behaviors that “deposit” images of an injured self into one’s children and other descendants.  In these ways, a younger generation is asked to perform certain unresolved psychological tasks. “Confederate History Month” may also contribute to the perpetuation of historic trauma across generations.

Since I am not a psychologist I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the assumptions at work in these short passages.  On the fact of it it looks like an incredibly weak argument.  My real interest, however, is with the picture of black history that is implicit in this piece.  At first I thought I was reading something out of Stanley Elkins’s thought-provoking study of slavery which uses the structure of the concentration camp system to understand the relationship between slave and master along with its psychological consequences for its victims.

Few people will deny that the horrors of slavery had both short- and long-term consequences for the African-American community. I am not so sure that they can be reduced in the way that Fong asserts, but I must assume that her analysis fits in somewhere within the overall analysis.  The problem for this author is the tendency to interpret the response within the black community to the governor’s proclamation as somehow stemming from the experience of slavery, which no one today experienced first-hand.  It also portrays black Americans as victims and their collective story as a history of victimization.  Historians who have written about American slavery since Elkins have tended to move away from such a narrative to one that explores the myriad ways in which slaves and free blacks struggled to shape their own lives within the confinements of terrorism and legal discrimination through much of the twentieth century.  What we have here in Dr. Fong’s analysis is a short description of how she views black history; I would dare say that her limited understanding of this collective story has been made to fit into her psychological analysis.

What Dr. Fong has missed is the extent to which the reaction of the black community and the subsequent apology and amendment by Gov. McDonnell reflects a story of triumph and perseverance and not some lingering collective trauma.  There was some anger expressed by certain individuals (Roland Martin), but for the most part I read what I consider to be fairly moderate reactions.  Very few people suggested that Confederate soldiers ought to be dropped from any public commemoration; rather, African Americans argued that the Confederate soldier does not encompass the entire story of the war in Virginia.  In short, African Americans have stated openly and forcefully that they do not share the governor’s vision of how to remember and commemorate the Civil War in Virginia.  As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, it is a response that was not possible just a few decades ago.  That it is possible now – on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial – can be traced to the sacrifices and determination of African Americans since the Civil War who were determined to force the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality.  Since the 1960s that has translated into increased involvement on all levels of government and it is that involvement that was at work last week in the wake of the governor’s announcement.

Who Won the Civil War?

The first day with my two sections of the Civil War Memory course went quite well.  Both sections are incredibly enthusiastic and, for the most part, seem to be interested in the subject.  After going over the basic outline of the course, including my expectations, we dove in and explored the question of who won the Civil War.  I gave my students 5 minutes to brainstorm some ideas, which we discussed as a class.  As we discussed their responses I showed a number of corresponding images.  Student responses revolved around the following: 

A number of students suggested that while the North won militarily, the Civil War is remembered with more conviction and “enthusiasm” in the South.  Interestingly, one of my students was educated in Chicago and had great difficulty relating to this distinction.  It seems that this student’s school emphasized Union military and political leaders over their Southern rivals.  In fact, this student was quite dismayed by the apparent agreement among many of her classmates who agreed that Southern leaders tend to be remembered more favorably. 

The second prominent theme was that of emancipation and freedom.  It was expressed in a number of ways, from emphasis on the end of slavery and emancipation to a “victory” for the Declaration of Independence and “America’s founding ideals.”  This led to a rebuttal from a few students who suggested that the victory for slaves and emancipation was only temporary.  These students were adamant in their belief that the white South had won the war by 1900, owing to the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow.  On a related note, a number of students suggested that the South won since many of our most revered and popular figures and images are related to the Confederacy.  I asked why this is, but only one or two students could articulate a response. 

I was surprised by the number of students who argued that Lincoln won the war since he proved successful in carrying out his agenda and denied Southern independence.  Two students specifically cited his “House Divided” speech in arguing this point. 

By the end of our discussion I was able to point out that the answer to the question depends, in large part, on perspective as well as the time frame assumed.  Some of the students looked at the years of the war itself, while others extended their focus into Reconstruction and beyond.   One of my students suggested that the abolitionists won the war, so I asked if we should extend the dates of the Civil War to include the beginning of the abolitionist movement.  It raises the question of whether the Civil War is to be understood as a series of battles or about something larger.  The debate between students also allowed us to touch on the contested nature of memory, and a little heat betwen students lent itself well to the observation that Civil War memory is often divisive.  I think I am going to enjoy this class.

How Close Are We?

“I see dead people.” The Sixth Sense (1999)

According to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown “we’re just two lifetimes removed from [the] ugly history of slavery.”  That acknowledgment seems to play an important role as Brown deals with the fallout surrounding the discovery that his ancestors were slaveowners.  What was once abstract becomes personal and immediate and the question of responsibility or guilt looms overhead.  National interest in slavery has increased over the last decade on the heels of academic scholarship which has been at work at least since the mid- to late-1960s.  In 1998 Edward Ball published Slaves in the Family which won a National Book Award and spawned a cottage industry of white Americans narrating their personal struggles to uncover and acknowledge family histories steeped in race and slavery.  Most of these books end in some kind of triumphant reunion and reconciliation with descendants of the slave families.  These books allow us to wade through the more disturbing aspects of race relations in America without giving up on a belief in a brighter future.  In recent weeks we learned of the connection between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond and the recent PBS series African American Lives has uncovered a very rich past for prominent black Americans such as Oprah Winfrey and Chris Tucker.  Finally, the state of Virginia expressed regret about the “peculiar institution.”

What I find to be so interesting is that we tend to be moving closer to this aspect of our collective past rather than moving away.  Time is collapsing rather than expanding.  Here is how Brown conceptualizes things:

The way I look at it, 1853 isn’t so long ago. That’s just two lifetimes. Let’s take that 5-year-old slave girl Sarah. It’s possible that she lived to be 82 years old. In her later years, she might have met and had some impact on some other little 5-year-old girl, who is now 82 herself. That brings you right up to today.  That 82-year-old could be somebody whose life has intersected with mine — or with my children’s — without my knowing it.  Maybe that’s too esoteric for your taste, but it seems pretty straightforward to me.

I use these kinds of examples all the time in the classroom and in the case of slavery, along with its companion Jim Crow, they are essential.  As a nation it would be an understatement to suggest that we are mildly uncomfortable when it comes to talking about the history of race and slavery.  We simply do not know how to do it without the discussion sliding into a childish slugfest of blame and personal guilt and white vs. black.  For those of us who study how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War and related topics the discussion of slavery and race hits like a ton of bricks because as a nation we have invested so much in ignoring the issues.  Our responses are telling: “The Civil War ended so long ago” or “I had no personal involvement so what business is it of mine?”  Brown’s analysis suggests that it’s not so long ago and that we would do well to consider his little thought experiment.

The people in my family owned other people. Black people. They passed on these black people in their wills as inheritance. They recorded this ownership in official records the same as if the black people were parcels of land…. Do I think I owe anybody financial reparations? No.  Do I feel some personal sense of obligation that I didn’t feel a week ago?  Yes, I think so. I’m not sure what form it should take, but at the very least, I think I have an even greater responsibility to be sensitive to racial issues.  Some people want to dismiss this as “white liberal guilt”….  I’m not telling anybody they should feel guilty.  I don’t personally feel guilty. But I’m not particularly comfortable with this new knowledge, either. [my emphasis]

I highlighted those two particular passages because they reflect a mature thinker and a profound sense of uneasiness which I personally value when writing and thinking about the past.   Brown is correct in noting that it’s not about guilt or personal responsibility for the actions and decisions of others.  The form it takes may be differ depending on the questions being asked or the background of the individual engaged in historical thinking.  The history of slavery/race should make us uncomfortable if we acknowledge the ways in which we are connected to it and shaped by it.  As Brown learned we may be interacting with it on a daily basis.

Jim Crow: Where and When?

Today I worked my way through the Richmond Daily-Dispatch looking for accounts of Confederate military executions when I came across this little item from February 17, 1865:

The negroes not to ride in the Philadelphia street cars.

–The Philadelphia Ledger contains the following account of the failure of the first regular effort to allow “colored” citizens to ride with whites in the street cars:

The Fifth and Sixth Streets-Railroad Company, with a view of testing how far public opinion desired, and would sanction, the carrying of colored passengers in the city railroad cars, four weeks ago passed an order removing all restrictions to passengers on account of color. The experiment has not been a successful one, and the company has been compelled to impose the restriction again, as the following [ annoucement ] of theirs show:

“At a meeting of the Board of Directors, held on the 6th instant, the following preamble and resolutions were adopted:

“Whereas, the Frankford and Southwark Passenger Railroad Company have been carrying colored passengers, without restriction, for the last four weeks, and the experiment has resulted in a serious prejudice to the company, arising from hostility to the measure on the part of the patrons of the road, and a want of sympathy on the part of other similar companies; and whereas, the directors, whatever their private views may be, cannot consistently jeopardize the pecuniary interests of the stockholders; therefore.

“Resolved, That the order admitting colored persons be rescinded from and after the 10th instant, except on special cars, to be appropriated.

“Resolved, That every fifth car be appropriated for colored passengers.”

One difficulty with the railroad companies is, that there are not enough colored persons disposed or able to ride in cars to make up for the loss
sustained by white customers refusing to ride with the colored persons, and it is not to be expected that business companies will sacrifice their pecuniary interests to carry out a political or social principle.