Did Weary Clyburn’s Past Have To Be Distorted For It To Be Recognized and Honored?

Last November my wife and I traveled to Fredericksburg for a special tour organized by NPS historian, John Hennessy.  The tour focused specifically on the life of a slave by the name of John Washington whose memoir was recently uncovered and edited by David Blight.  In April 1862 Washington crossed the Rapphannock River to the Union army and freedom.  A few weeks before the tour Blight contacted descendants of Washingtons and arranged for them to join the tour.  I wrote about this back in November, but the highlight of the experience was watching Ruth Washington, his granddaughter, and his great-great-granddaughter, Maureen Ramos learn about their ancestor for the first time.  They knew very little about John Washington and knew nothing about his memoir.  There were some very powerful moments as we toured what was once Washington’s bedroom in what is now a bank as well as the point along the river where he crossed to freedom.  That evening we all had dinner and luckily I got to sit next to Ruth and Maureen which allowed me to ask a number of questions.  Ruth spoke eloquently, both at dinner and later during an evening ceremony, about what John Washington’s story meant to her.

I was struck by her comments on the extent to which her parents went to minimize the history of slavery in her family.  Ruth fondly recalled their emphasis on education and the value of self-improvement that was impressed upon her at an early age.  She speculated that her grandparents probably wanted to put the past behind them, which is understandable given the challenges that newly-freed slaves faced at a time when choices were limited and discrimination abounded.  It seems reasonable to suggest that such a decision was made by many black families.  Ruth also suggested that for many black families slavery is seen as a shameful episode and one to be ignored.  Add on top of this the fact that much of the history of black Americans, including the history of emancipation and slavery, has been ignored and one can begin to see how stories of black Confederates and the participation of black Americans themselves is possible.

Many black families have been cut off from their own history.  My interview of three reenactors with the 54th Massachusetts along with a number of African Americans living in Petersburg last summer point in this direction.  Many of my interviewees did not remember learning much of anything concerning black history in school.  Until the 1970s many high school textbooks simply failed to address the history of black America beyond short references to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and there is evidence that some continued to push the old stories of “happy darkies” and “loyal slaves” in to the 1980s.  What I was most impressed with was their sense of pride and ownership once they learned about their family histories or were able to identify with a bigger story within the broader national narrative.  Perhaps this explains Chris Rock’s response while being interviewed for the African-American Lives Series

Is it any surprise that Weary Clyburn’s descendants took part in this commemoration?  Here was an opportunity to identify and celebrate American history as well as their family’s history.  Clyburn was recognized not as a slave, but as a brave soldier who risked his life on the battlefield and served the great Robert E. Lee.  The tragedy in all of this, however, is that Weary Clyburn’s past did not have to be distorted for it to be recognized and honored.  The point that needs to be made is that Clyburn is a hero.  He survived the horrors and humiliation of slavery and war and even managed to make it through the height of the Jim Crow South.  If that is not worthy of remembering and commemorating than I don’t know what is.

I remember listening to Ruth Washington speak eloquently about how important it was to be able to place her newly-discovered memory of John Washington within her family tree.  This man’s perseverance and commitment to starting a new life for himself and his family served to strengthen her own sense of connectedness with her family today.  It also helped Ruth to understand herself better in terms of how the past came to shape her own outlook on the world.  I have little doubt that there is much in Weary Clyburn’s life that is worthy of commemorating by both his family and the broader community.  Unfortunately, we may never be in a position to be able to explain the details, but we can begin to show respect by being honest

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

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4 comments… add one
  • GE Jul 21, 2008 @ 0:14

    I don’t think this is just an African-American phenomenon. I learned about the Civil War history of my German ancestors during the past five years, but only because of the internet. I think they remembered their Civil War experience up until WWI, but found it advantageous to forget what they knew during the era when Germany became the enemy. I am amazed at the extent to which the Civil War has shaped the course of my life. It can be difficult to distinguish God’s plan from the residual momentum of Civil War history.

  • James Epperson Jul 20, 2008 @ 18:19

    I think your efforts to tell the truth on this are badly needed. I’m a mathematician by profession, and my wife is a biologist. In the broad area of science, an analogy might be made to the evolution-creationism debate. Scientists initially refused to debate the creationists, so their POV went unanswered and gained traction with politicians who are always sensitive to the political winds. As a result we now have states that insist on putting disclaimer patches on biology texts and similar idiocy. If people like you (and, of less import, me) don’t speak up on this “Black Confederate” business, in a few years it will enter the mainstream of thought. Similar issues are out there involving slavery as the cause of secession, but thankfully the State of Mississippi was rather explicit on
    that score 🙂

  • Adam Arenson Jul 20, 2008 @ 11:40

    Even African Americans tied to the famous (or infamous) moments in the coming of the Civil War, like Dred Scott’s family, have faced a similar pattern of being forgotten and then the links and traces of their history only now recovered. I’ve written about it (http://www.common-place.org/vol-08/no-03/arenson/) but the St. Louis County Library’s Ruth Ann Hager and Lea VanderVelde, a professor at Iowa, are making even greater strides…

  • Marc Ferguson Jul 20, 2008 @ 8:45

    Your observations here are so important and so right on, in my opinion. You write: “She [Ruth Washington] speculated that her grandparents probably wanted to put the past behind them, which is understandable given the challenges that newly-freed slaves faced at a time when choices were limited and discrimination abounded. It seems reasonable to suggest that such a decision was made by many black families. Ruth also suggested that for many black families slavery is seen as a shameful episode and one to be ignored.”

    In the spring of 2007 I attended a talk in Florence, Mass, commemorating the inclusion of a house in Florence that had been owned by two fugitive slaves, Thomas H. Jones and Basil Dorsey, onto the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. Thomas H. Jones wrote a slave narrative, traveled and spoke against slavery, and was nationally renowned in his life as an anti-slavery activist. His great-granddaughter was at the commemoration, and spoke about the fact that until about a year before she had never known about him and didn’t learn about him until someone brought her a scrapbook/memoir of original _Liberator_ articles about Jones. She was amazed, especially since no one in her family had ever talked about this remarkable, important, and renowned man. She said that she believes he was never spoken of because of the taint of shame over his having been a slave. It was a past the family was trying to forget and leave behind. It was clear that she was so proud to learn about her great-grandfather, his life and actions, and that aspect of her family’s history. It was very moving, eyeopening, and also profoundly saddening, so see the personal impact of the denial and rediscovery of this history which is still so difficult for us as Americans to come to terms with.


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