But Will They Come To the Battlefields?

Martin R. Delaney

I am beginning to think about what I am going to say next Saturday at North Carolina State University for their symposium on the Civil War and public history. My talk will focus not only on the challenges surrounding the discussion of slavery and race at our Civil War battlefields, but specifically the difficulty of attracting African Americans to these sites. I will look specifically about the steps taken by the National Park Service at the Petersburg National Battlefield.

I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory.  For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community.  In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools.  A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet.  Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War.  The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations.  Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.

The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites.  Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches.  John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:

“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.

I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries.  The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg.  Again, all of these things bode well for the future.

The question that I have, however, is whether we are likely to see these results replicated on the battlefields themselves.  The title of my talk is, “When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”, which was pulled from a recent New York Times editorial.  The editorial was written by a black man, who had visited the Gettysburg battlefield.  It’s one thing to be able to offer tours that point out local landmarks relevant to black history, but what about the battlefields themselves?  All of our Civil War battlefields connect with the broader story of emancipation and the end of the slavery, especially sites such as the Crater in Petersburg.

Here is the challenge: Regardless of how the issue is framed, African Americans have little patience when it comes to the display of the Confederate flag – even on a Civil War battlefield.  I heard this over and over in my discussions within the African American community of Petersburg.  This is not simply a matter of working through recent memories of the 1950s and 60s, but with how the war itself is remembered.  In other words, there seems to be little tolerance for maintaining a distinction between attempts at historical accuracy on the battlefield and the pain of having to confront this particular symbol.  One individual suggested that the display of the flag suggests on some level an implicit approval for what it represented.  Others conveyed the feeling that they were not welcomed at these particular sites.  This is one of the “mixed messages” that must be understood if we are to see progress here.  These perceptions have had a long time to fester and take root and there are no easy solutions.

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; flickr user dbking
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. Full details of the license at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

19 comments… add one
  • Bob Beatty Mar 22, 2011 @ 10:41

    Kevin, while not necessarily apropos to the title of your talk, but nonetheless germane to your general precis is spelled out in the four points below.

    One thing many of us in the public history field have discussed, and my organization (American Association for State and Local History) has adopted as the principles for the CW150 commemoration are the following four points:

    1) Emphasize 150 years of history, not just 150th anniversary of battles/war
    2) History org’s should make themselves available as centers for open discourse about
    the war and its legacy
    3) History org’s should make stronger efforts to provide evidence about the causes and effects of the Civil War by sharing primary sources with the public
    4) It’s important to respect, hear, engage all groups

    This is all spelled out in more detail in the 2008 article found here, “Seeking Common Ground” http://bit.ly/dFHHMu.

    My best for continuance of your thoughtful work.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2011 @ 10:44

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the link as well as for the kind words. I truly believe that we are on the right track.

  • Jacob Dinkelaker Mar 22, 2011 @ 5:50

    “When people don’t care,” you have to ask the question, why? I really think it is a question of meaning and relevance. I don’t think it is apparent to most African-American visitors on any battlefield where the meanings are that relate to them. It seems as if most interpretive programing at battlefields caters to white middle class people, who want to talk battle action and ignore cause, context, slaves, and civilians. This paradigm needs to change – and I think it is, albeit slowly. Mentioning USCTs in an off-hand remark, or casually discussing slavery won’t do it though, you have to make these stories front and center in historical interpretation.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2011 @ 5:55

      It is the responsibility of public historians to introduce those windows onto historic landscapes that help to foster meaning for various individuals and groups. I agree with your point that we no longer can refer to certain subjects as an afterthought; rather, they must be integrated within the narrative and presented as relevant to all Americans.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Mar 22, 2011 @ 5:45

    I do not think that statement is true. For evidence see the 2011 annual commemorative event of the hatred unleashed on Civil Rights marchers on “Bloody Sunday.” http://photos.al.com/4461/gallery/bridge_crossing_jubilee/index.html

    The photographs show children, 20 and 30 somethings, families, grandparents, leaders in our country’s political system, and of course Representative John Lewis who was a part of the Civil Rights Movement.

    In 2008, I was a part of a group of NPS employees who attended a workshop on Youth and Civic Engagement which was graciously hosted at Hampton National Historic Site a former plantation of the Ridgely family of Maryland. As a part of that two day workshop, a teacher brought her middle school students to meet with us on day two and to visit the site alongside park staff from various Northeast Regional parks. These students were inner city District of Columbia youth who lived blocks away from the Mall, White House, monuments, etc. They told us about their stamp project in which they went to local & regional NPS sites and toured the site and then got their Passport books stamped upon completion of their tour. These students were blogging about their travels and in fact that particular group went on a half way across the country tour for spring break to inform other students about their project while also visiting numerous historic sites NPS and non-NPS. They were becoming interested in the potential for employment with the NPS and had lots of questions for me and another young Black NPS employee as we were much closer in age to them than most park rangers they encountered in their travels. Most of these students were Black and many a year before we met them would have had no clue about the NPS and the natural and cultural resources we maintain had it not been for this after school program they WANTED to be a part of.

    How do we encourage EVERYONE to learn America’s history (not “our,” “mine,” “their,” “his,” or “hers”)? In large part it starts with education. The Virginia Standards of Learning for History and Social Science can be found here (http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/sol/standards_docs/history_socialscience/index.shtml). You will note if you open them that there is a much broader story to be taught however, I also see that in the Civil War section for U.S. History to 1865, the only Black individual specifically addressed is Frederick Douglas. In the Virginia Studies section, no specific individual is targeted for the Civil War and Postwar Eras; however, in the Virginia 1900-present there are a host of Black Virginians targeted for study. We (parents and non-parents) must demand more.

    Unfortunately, too, many public schools facing the host of budgetary constraints find field trips to be off the table. Therefore, who can afford to travel to where the history happened? Many minorities live in underprivileged communities in America and those districts feel the brunt of the budgetary concerns the hardest. Field trips to historic places are just off the table not because perhaps administrators don’t want their kids to go but they simply cannot afford the gas travel cost to send them.

    Historic sites must also continue to do more to attract non-traditional visitors. Many places ARE; however, too many are not. Both have been subject to critique by a variety of people of a variety of races and genders. One of my favorites is the essays in Slavery and Public History edited by James O. and Lois E. Horton (http://uncpress.unc.edu/browse/book_detail?title_id=1617).

    I have certainly gone on and on here but I hope this addressed in part the questions posed here.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2011 @ 5:52

      I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said here. Receptiveness within the black community and across the country at large hinges on the steps taken by various institutions to offer as inclusive a narrative as possible. Good public history programs will attract. We are already seeing this with programs related to the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

  • Alan Mar 22, 2011 @ 4:05

    Would you say that most African Americans today just dont care about that part of their history? I know we are trying to dive into the depths of the meaning behind it all…but maybe it is just as simple as they just dont care or are not interested?

  • Emmanuel Dabney Mar 22, 2011 @ 3:14

    As a current employee of Petersburg National Battlefield (and a black employee who grew up locally, visited the battlefield often as a child, etc.), I can say that it’s a matter of what is presented (I am not totally convinced that it matters what race the ranger is who is presenting; though I have found that gender seems to play some factor in how some men perceive of who knows the historical dimensions more but that’s another story).

    Contextual evidence and human interest stories are critical in any historical interpretation (so far as I am concerned and I regularly say I am more interested in social/cultural history than the details of Springfield muskets or Hardee’s manual of arms). Saying that United States Colored Troops served during the war, most notably during the Petersburg Campaign in the numbers that were present and were critical in the Union war effort is very different than informing visitors of the dangers that faced US Colored Troops due to the spring 1863 Confederate Congressional legislation passed on how to deal with them and their officers (http://tinyurl.com/49f2azz pages 386-7). Context for at the Crater when USCTs start screaming “Remember Fort Pillow” is necessary. Human interest stories abound but must be looked for in different sources than traditional diary/letters due to the overwhelming lack of these materials for the rank and file.

    However, if is true that a lot of Black Americans (and all the rest of America) is unaware of the life and plight of USCTs, slaves, and free blacks and a lot of this does have to do with the overwhelming narratives that Kevin often draws attention to on here and numerous historians have written about in the last decade or so. Narratives like the Southern Lost Cause, Union victory, the commonalities of honor, bravery, and courage which were fostered by white veterans in the post-war continued to erode emancipation narratives or the different experiences by Blacks in various sections of American society between 1861 and 1865. The mere struggles for survival during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras and poor educational opportunities in those periods have contributed to certain generational gaps in knowledge about the complexities of the Civil War for Americans generally.

  • Phil Shiman Mar 21, 2011 @ 16:06

    During the early ’80s I worked as a seasonal costumed interpreter in the Union camp at Petersburg battlefield. The camp was immediately adjacent to the remnants of Confederate Battery 9, which was captured by Hinks’ division of US Colored Troops on June 15, 1864.

    I sometimes pointed out this fact to visitors, especially African Americans, but to my surprise the latter, without exception, showed no interest in it whatsoever, even though they seemed to have just as much curiosity about our camp, activities, and earthworks as anybody else.

    In fact, in the six summers I worked there I don’t think I ever had a single follow-up question or comment from a black visitor about Hinks’ Division, which I thought was a shame since I myself found the story rather interesting and had done some extra reading on it.

    The dramatic and tragic story of Ferrero’s division at the battle of the Crater evoked little more response. I came away from my experience with the definite impression that African Americans were completely disengaged from that aspect of their history.

  • Ed Norris Mar 21, 2011 @ 10:17

    Hopefully you won’t repeat yourself too often during that talk. 🙂


    • Ed Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:52

      Now that you corrected it, my comment makes no sense. 🙂


      • Kevin Levin Mar 21, 2011 @ 16:44

        It will be our little secret. Thanks again, Ed. 🙂

  • John Mar 21, 2011 @ 10:08

    Interesting subject for your talk at the symposium but my question is “Why should we worry about attracting blacks to the Civil War battlefields?” Just curious.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 21, 2011 @ 14:46

      I think for the same reason that we should want all Americans to be able to identity with and learn from what is arguably one of the most important events in our history.

  • Mary Jane Mar 21, 2011 @ 8:34

    Hello Kevin, Is Civil War Memory your site?
    I see that you’re a fan of our Penn State Civil War tour page on facebook. Thanks for your interest. I’m having trouble getting involvement in my “trivia” postings.

    You mentioned Petersburg. When we were there for a site visit for a possible future program, I was shocked at the state of the town.

    BTW, We had a significant part of our Charleston program some time back on the various roles of African Americans

    • Kevin Levin Mar 21, 2011 @ 8:35

      It is indeed my site.

  • Will Stoutamire Mar 21, 2011 @ 6:01


    Sounds like a fascinating talk. If you are writing it up, or if it’s being recorded, I’d love to be able to ‘listen in’ to what you say on Saturday. Any chance you’ll be able to post something here after your talk? Or at least email interested folks?


    • Kevin Levin Mar 21, 2011 @ 6:29

      I don’t know whether the panels will be recorded, but I will post part of my talk toward the end of the week.

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