As I wait for my flight back to Boston I wanted to share a little bit about my experience this weekend in Richmond at the ASALH. First and foremost, I was self conscious throughout of the fact that for the first time I was in the racial minority at an academic conference. A good friend of mine jokingly remarked, “Bottom rail on top”. We shared a good laugh over it, but it left me with questions about what it must be like for African Americans, who are usually in the minority at most academic conferences focused on American and Southern history.
As I mentioned in the last post, the range of participants also adds a unique quality to this gathering. I heard talks from academics, a USCT reenactor, amateur historians, genealogists, and public historians. The quality of the presentations definitely covered a wide spectrum, but that was far outweighed by the enthusiasm by both the presenters as well as the audience. I would also say that the presentations leaned heavily toward the narrative as opposed to analysis. The discussions were incredibly animated. There was a buzz in the audience that I have not experienced before. It was so nice to engage in conversation with people with so many interests and backgrounds. I was especially struck by the emphasis on the recording of names. No doubt, some of this comes back to the genealogist presence, but I suspect that the interest is much broader within the African American community to record names that in many cases can only be uncovered through a great deal of archival work.
Correction: One of my readers noticed some very sloppy writing in this post that I wish to acknowledge and correct. I wrote that the SCV did not reference Clyburn as a slave, which is untrue. Interviews with members do include such a reference. What I should have said was that there was no clear reference to his status in the brief clips that show the actual ceremony. Even Earl Ijames references Clyburn as a slave, but like the SCV their language is unclear and inconsistent, which was the point I was trying to make. The crucial distinction between a soldier and slave has all but been lost in all of this. Thanks to the reader for keeping me honest and I apologize for the confusion.
I wanted to share some thoughts with you about last week’s talk by John Stauffer on black Confederates. I had a number of problems with his presentation, which you can read here. One of the questions I’ve had since the talk is why the W.E.B. DuBois Institute would be interested in such a subject and then I remembered that you have had some exposure with this narrative, most recently while filming your PBS documentary, Looking For Lincoln. As a former high school history teacher I want to thank you for this series. At the time I was teaching a course on the Civil War and historical memory so the show fit in perfectly. My class was able to watch individual segments as a basis for further discussion or other activity. We all thoroughly enjoyed it.
If you want a sense of the growing level of acceptance of the black Confederate myth look no further than this NPR story. NPR has now confirmed that the oldest living “Daughter of the Confederacy” is Mattie Clyburn Rice, who is the daughter of Weary Clyburn. That name should ring a bell for many of you because I discussed his story in detail not too long ago. This is not the first time that a major news outlet has fallen victim to this story and it won’t be the last. I applaud Ms. Rice for working so hard to uncover a history that deserves to be told and that for far too long has fallen outside the boundaries of our national memory, but it is unfortunate that she fell victim to this narrative.
If you did miss those earlier posts, I highly recommend the following:
Black man struggles to come to terms with what he believes is the military service of one of his ancestors: “Gregory Perry of Monroe, N.C., who learned recently that an ancestor was awarded pension for Confederate service, says it’s hard to reconcile that fact with what he knows firsthand about being a black man in the South. ‘I grew up in the era of Malcolm X and militancy, and would never have considered something like this possible,’ said Perry, 46, reflecting on the life of his great-great-grandfather, Aaron Perry. ‘I wonder: If Aaron Perry knew the Union Army was coming to free him, why did he join the other side?'”
Thanks once again to Andy Hall at Dead Confederates for once again taking the time to expose the house of cards that is the myth of the black Confederate soldier. This is another example of a website that purports to be educational, but is really nothing more than a list of names by state, most of which are clearly referenced as slaves – both body servants and impressed. There is almost no serious analysis nor is there any indication of the methodology utilized to order, catalog, and interpret the men listed. Somehow the facts are suppose to speak for themselves, whatever that means. The site is called Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education (SHAPE) and is run by George Purvis. You will also find such lists on other websites along with the same shoddy or limited analysis.