Black Virginians Interpret the Civil War Centennial: Follow Up

I’ve collected quite a number of news articles over the past two days from the Richmond Afro-American newspaper.  As I mentioned the other day I am looking for sources that will give me a sense of the extent to which the black community in the Richmond-Petersburg area interpreted and/or followed the Civil War Centennial.   The Centennial was set up in a way that made it unlikely that black Americans would take an interest.  Both Karl Betts, who served as the first executive director and Ulysses S. Grant III, who served as the first chairman of the Civil War Centennial Commission envisionws the four-year event as an opportunity to celebrate regionally neutral values and at the same time work to buttress the nation’s Cold War propaganda.  Owing to their political and racial convictions neither Grant nor Betts had any interest in highlighting the themes of slavery, emancipation or the service of USCTs.  Coming from a career in publicity and advertising Betts viewed the Centennial as a way to stimulate travel by marketing Civil War history for mass consumption.  Reenactments and other entertaining events were the order of the day.  Early on Betts and Grant kept at arms distance fellow commission members such as Bell Wiley and others who hoped to educate the public and address some of the more controversial issues.

Looking back it almost seems naive to think that the issues of race and emancipation could be kept out of the proceedings given the way events transpired following the Supreme Court’s desegregation order in 1955.  Many southern state commission chapters remained wary of a federally mandated national commission, but they were encouraged by the likes of Betts and Grant who promised not to impose restrictions on the way the centennial was remembered in the individual states.  The editorial cartoons that I collected highlight the fact that black Americans viewed Civil War memory through the events that were transpiring daily in much of the South.  Consider the image of Kennedy with Lincoln in the background.

Shortly following Kennedy’s inauguration the first crack in the Centennial Commission’s vision took place as it prepared for its fourth annual national assembly which was to be located in Charleston, South Carolina in April 1961.  The meeting was scheduled to correspond with a local commemoration of the firing on Fort Sumter.  The incident involved Madaline Williams who was a black delegate from New Jersey.  The meeting was scheduled to take place at the Francis Marion Hotel; hotel management was not willing to accommodate Williams given the city’s Jim Crow laws.  Within a matter of weeks a number of northern delegations joined New Jersey in boycotting the meeting.  The situation was finally resolved after one of Kennedy’s advisers arranged for the meeting to take place on a military base outside of Charleston.  Three months later the Third Battle of Bull Run/Manassas took place in Virginia.  The response of the media to reports of the audience screaming in approval of the route of the “Yankees” along with the scandal in Charleston did not bode well for Grant and Betts.  As a result both were under pressure to resign.  The image to the right is one of only a few news items that directly commented on the work of the Centennial Commission. By the end of the summer both Betts and Grant had resigned and were replaced by Allen Nevins, who served as CWCC chairman and James I. Robertson who served as executive director.  Both worked to emphasize educational programs rather than the more popular forms of commemorations such as reenactments.  They also strived to do justice to the war as a moment of emancipation and freedom for the slaves.  Both Robertson and Nevins seem to have understood that the Centennial had to address  these themes given the way the Civil Rights Movement was evolving.  From what I can tell black Americans did not follow Centennial events closely, but they understood that it was there.  They were much more concerned with what was taking place in the present.  That said, the fact that these events were taking place 100 years after the Civil War did not go unnoticed.  Confederate symbolism can be found in a number of cartoons.  I did find a few articles that described the service of USCTs; interestingly, one article described them as “tan” soldiers in the Afro-American.  In addition, I found a few editorials that commented on the state of school textbooks and the need for more attention to black history.  It’s as if the past and the present were interwoven with no clear distinction between the two.  Images contain cannons, Confederate flags, and disgruntled or defiant Confederate generals.

By far the largest number of images and other commentary can be found starting in September 1962  and through the summer of 1963.  Of course, we are talking about news items that comment on Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the fundamental change that it brought about on January 1, 1863.  The Afro-American ran a special issue commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation on March 16, 1963, which can be seen to the right.  Look closely and you will see articles on “Colored troops”, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln.  At the bottom are two scenes, one which depicts the fall of Richmond and the other which shows news of the Emancipation Proclamation reaching the slaves.  I should point out that opinion in the Afro-American was anything but uniform when it comes to the commemoration of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.”  This should not be surprising as the ongoing struggle in the 1960s reflects clearly on the fact that basic civil rights had yet to be attained by the nation’s black population.  The image to the left does an effective job of referencing the past in order to highlight just what was at stake in the years leading up to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.  Notice the caption at the bottom which says: “The Centennial Celebration is not the time for rejoicing.  Rather, we must rededicate ourselves to the achievement of our goal — First Class Citizenship for All Negro Americans.”  There is one line cut off which reads in bold print: “1 PAY YOUR POLL TAX 2. REGISTER 3. VOTE.”

At first I was surprised that I didn’t find anything that referenced the commemoration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  There were events staged at Gettysburg to acknowledge the occasion in July 1963; however, as I scanned through the newspaper I realized that there were far more important events transpiring that deserved attention.  The Gettysburg commemoration fell right in the middle of the Birmingham protests and the March on Washington in August 1963.  In the end there may not have been a need to acknowledge this speech.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation perhaps proved sufficient in situating the Civil Rights Movement withing a historical context.

Between scanning the pages of the Afro-American and reading Robert Cook’s fine study of the Civil War Centennial I am getting a clearer sense of how black Americans maintained a coherent counter-memory of the war through the 1960s.  Civil War Sesquicentennial planners would do well to study the Centennial celebrations.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2007 @ 20:16

    Brooks, — Your comment about Grant resonates with what I’ve been reading in the Cook study.

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 8, 2007 @ 17:50

    In my work on Grant and Grant historiography I found Ulysses S. Grant III to be a major disappointment (as well as a man who was unaware of aspects of his grandfather’s legacy and of at least one of his grandfather’s mistakes). He hoarded family letters, harrassed biographers (including a rather mean letter to Bruce Catton in the 1950s), supported segregation when it came to the centennial commission, and propagated an antiSemitic explanation for the war by saying that it was all somehow due to the Rothschilds. He also worked hard at rendering his autograph in the style of his grandfather.

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