Where Are All the Black People?

Emancipation Day Parade, Richmond, Va

Emancipation Day Parade, Richmond, Va

One question that often comes up when discussing the scope of the current Civil War Sesquicentennial is why so few African Americans appear to be taking part. The question arose this past June at the Civil War Institute and the previous year as well. I’ve also heard it in connection to battlefield commemorations such as the Gettysburg 150. The question itself is packed with assumptions about the kinds of events and activities that define this sesquicentennial.

One thing that folks who worry about this issue most likely need to get over is that African Americans will never flock to battlefields in significant numbers. And whether we like it or not, the reason has everything to do with the Confederate flag. It is packed with meaning (much of it from the civil rights movement) that sends a clear message to the African-American community: You are not welcome here.

In researching my book on the Crater I learned from one elderly gentleman who recalled an unstated rule while growing up in Petersburg that the battlefield was off limits to the black community. Talking with leaders in the black community of Petersburg I learned that up until recently they had little, if any, connection to their local Civil War history.

Natasha McPherson of Spelman College offers some thoughts as to why African Americans appear to be indifferent to the Civil War.

First, this wasn’t our war. Many African-Americans fought and died on both sides of the conflict, but they were excluded from the decision-making process. Without political representation, African-Americans have come to regard the Civil War and its memory as the white people’s burden. The black historical narrative places less emphasis on the Civil War itself and tends to highlight actions of African-Americans in response to the war. This seems practical, considering the modern African-American experience emerged directly from individual and collective actions of blacks during and after the Civil War.

Exploring African-American perspectives on the war also means confronting the painful history of slavery. Certainly, the causes of the Civil War were many — preservation of the Union, conflicts over states’ rights and changing meanings of freedom. To be sure, slavery was at the heart of the conflict. For many Americans, slavery is still a sensitive topic, and one that is often too difficult to discuss.

There is much to think about here, but I wonder whether McPherson might be overstating her case. It’s not that I don’t see some truth in what she says, but there is almost never any objective measurement to accompany these conclusions. What exactly would sufficient black participation look like? On the other hand, perhaps we are asking the wrong question and/or looking in the wrong places.

Rather than speculating as to why black Americans are not attending certain events or why they lack interest we ought to be exploring how the African-American community is, in fact, remembering the Civil War. I have a feeling that we might be surprised.

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43 comments… add one
  • London John Aug 7, 2013 @ 5:19

    Does anyone know what commemorations are taking place in Oklahoma? I was reading recently about the tri-racial Union Army of the Frontier and its successors, that fought in the Indian Territory, and it seems African American troops were prominent, as well as Native Americans. The AotF seems to have been integrated at a smaller-unit level than other armies.

  • Yulanda Burgess Aug 5, 2013 @ 8:00

    “Rather than speculating as to why black Americans are not attending certain events or why they lack interest we ought to be exploring how the African-American community is, in fact, remembering the Civil War.”


    Ms. McPherson has a different experience. I have another. I am troubled about her blanket statements. One can not speak for the entire population — instead one should state their own experiences and encounters. I also disagree with her statement African Americans “were excluded from the decision-making process.” The entire saga of the creation of the Bureau of Colored Troops and the self-emancipation of millions of people prior to the Emancipation Proclamation refutes this statement.

    The African American community is remembering the Civil War in their own certain way. It’s not at the mega events that one typically encounters, but at museums, religious based functions, commemorations, etc across the country. There have been USCT markers dedicated, battles like Island Mound in Missouri and Milliken’s Bend in Louisiana commemorated, the dedication of the contraband camp (Freedom Park) in Helena, Arkansas, ….

    Although I have never encountered an equal number of black and white visitors at any events I have participated at as a historical interpreter, African Americans do come to Civil War related events. I only have a visual appreciation of African American attendance as I am unaware of event organizer doing an actual physical count of black, white and other ethnic visitors. My experience is that African Americans come out in large numbers to USCT focused events (such as Camp Nelson, Olustee, Fort Pocahontas. If there is publicity in the right media venues for non-USCT events with African American themes, the African American community is part of the visiting population also. This is my experience. The feedback I get from African American visitors is mixed. It includes: awareness that their education omitted a lot of the information about African American involvement in the Civil War; the lack of publicity about Civil War events with African American participants; and they would be interested in attending more historical events if it had more inclusive histories. This is my experience. I have yet to experience an African American who did not want to attend a Civil War event because of the Confederate flag. But maybe I should start asking that question as I often do a Q&A with the public. When I am in historical clothing coming to and from events I am stopped and asked questions — mostly about where the event is, what I am doing at the event and complaints about there being no publicity about the event. Again, this is my experience.

    “So why don’t black folks care?” Don’t know as I can only assume that the people Ms. McPherson has encountered don’t care. I have a different experience.

    I attended a Civil War event in Springfield, Illinois, this past weekend, and it involved over forty young people. They were given the enlistment papers of USCT soldiers and portrayed those men over a seven hour people. They were given a lecture by USCT scholars, interacted with a USCT commemorative regiment and a USV regiment at the Old State Capitol, drilled, set up tents, marched in a parade with USCTs and USVs and placed flags in the GAR section of Oak Ridge Cemetery during a wreath ceremony. So, to say that the African American community is not interested in Civil War history is spectulation.

    -Yulanda Burgess

  • Patrick Young Aug 4, 2013 @ 12:28

    Thanks London John. I agree that people support parties for a variety of reasons. Know Nothings may have only agreed with the anti-Irish Catholic aspect or they may have swallowed the ideology whole hog. Some may have only been opportunists with little conviction and others participated in extralegal violence against immigrants. But that would have true of Republicans and Democrats as well.

  • Patrick Young Aug 2, 2013 @ 6:17

    Dan raises a good point on age. A few weeks weeks ago I did a Google image search for “Civil War Round Table” to see pictures of meetings. I wanted to test the idea that nearly all members of these groups are white. Not only are they white, they are overwhelmingly white haired!

    On my facebook page for “Immigrant Action” the median age of my readers is 24. On my Civil War page it is 52. I am paying for outreach to young people for my Civil War page, but it is only slowly being effective.

    I was on a bus from DC to NYC recently when the conductor asked if we’d like to pick a movie to watch. The riders were almost all teens and in their twenties. They overwhelmingly voted to watch “Lincoln” over a Seth Rogan film and at least half of them watched it attentively from D.C. to New Jersey. So there are Civil War stories that resonate with the young.

  • Dan Weinfeld Aug 2, 2013 @ 5:34

    Having organized and attended CW-related events over the last 18 months, I don’t see a race gap in participation: I’m more concerned about the age gap. Here in Westchester Co. NY, the White Plains annual Juneteenth parade is easily the largest Civil War-related commemoration. This is almost entirely an African American event that involves numerous school aged children. I worked with our local SUV chapter to organize a Gettysburg commemoration event last month which was attended by a racially diverse audience of about 60 people. Pat might be interested to hear that a White Plains councilwoman with a hispanic name was inspired to take the podium and speak quite movingly about how the AM CW made her think of her father’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War. I think that people who ask why blacks aren’t participating in CW events are looking in the wrong places.

    • Patrick Young Aug 2, 2013 @ 6:08

      Good points Dan. Maybe more “Civil War” orgs should see how they can partner with existing Juneteenth groups to hold “End of Slavery” celebrations on Juneteenth in 2015. Instead of reinventing the wheel, CWRT can join in the yearly commemoration.

      One problem I have seen with the CW150 is that in reaction to the CW100 popular participation and control seems to be suspected by historians. Since most commemorations in the black community are organized by local people who both want to commemorate and build community through fun, these events don’t always register as “proper” CW150.

      Maybe CWRTs and other history groups could invite a representative of the local Juneteenth or Watch Night celebration to a meeting to explain the history and meaning of these events.

      Dan, as for the woman who spoke in White Plains, the highest ranking elected Latino immigrant official in Suffolk County always talks to me about the Civil War series. He draws a lot of parallels between his family’s experience in El Salvador during the Civil War and what happened here 1861-1865. We forget that many immigrants came here from countries that were torn by civil war and that they are very interested in how our country, which seems so stable to them, could have ever been so violently divided.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 2, 2013 @ 5:27

    “I thought McPherson was trying to explain why she believes more African Americans are not interested rather than exclaiming that it is not their history.”

    This time, I went and read McPherson’s whole editorial. But her message still reads the same for me. It comes across as, “The Civil War is White’s people’s history and not our interest.” I’ve heard many Black people communicate that for years; as if the history you should care about first and foremost is your OWN history, whatever that is. If that’s the case, can we blame White people for the attitudes that many of them display- like Black History Month is for Black people and no one else?

  • Chris Coleman Aug 2, 2013 @ 5:20

    First, let me congratulate you on a thoughtful essay on the subject of African-American participation in the sesquicentennial. On the other hand, as the blog comments show, raising that issue opens up a whole Pandora’s Box of other issues related, not only to the celebration, but to American history and society, then and now. That is not necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps not only more historians, but the mass media in general, should be discussing this. Nothing demonstrates how relevant what happened 150 years ago is to today than the whole issue of ethnicity and race as it relates to the war.

    Without trying to speak for others, there are obviously proportionately less African-Americans who participate in Civil War events than whites. This is not just because they are a smaller percentage of the overall population. Here in the Mid South, I believe the percentage of Blacks is about twenty to twenty-five percent; higher in some of the Deep South states. Whether their avoidance of Civil War battlefields is because of some long standing unspoken taboo, I can’t say. Of course, most of the participants in reenactments tend to be from the South and so Confederate re-enactors tend to predominate in local events. This is nothing against the re-enactors; sometimes they have to don Union uniforms to balance out the re-enactments. If anything, I would guess CW re-enactors have less racial bias than average, simply by being better informed and educated.

    On the other hand, as you allude to, the Confederate battle flag –the Southern Cross flag–has evolved into a symbol with many different meaning to different people. Blacks can’t help but associate it with Jim Crow, the Klan, and racial oppression. At times it has been used in that manner by hate groups. But to many, it is simply an expression of regional pride; to others, wearing it on your truck or clothing simply means, “I’m a redneck.” Notice no one ever gets their hackles up when a CW site flies the Stars and Bars–the Confederate national flag– and if anything the symbol of secession and treason should stir more debate, not less.

    And, as your commentators point out, the Civil War was more complex as regards ethnicity than simply black and white. Before the war, the Republicans more or less looked the other way at “Know Nothing” anti immigrant behavior, yet Lincoln made a concerted effort, partly successful, to embrace German-Americans and Irish American immigrants and recruit them to the Union cause. On the other hand, we also have the notorious anti-Semitic incidents on the part of Union generals; nor were Union commanders innocent of abusing and exploiting Blacks who came into their lines. Sherman and Grant both have black marks against them.

    On the other hand, while there is no denying that the Confederacy was built on the bedrock of slavery, in some aspects, Confederate leaders had good relations with other ethnic groups. Jefferson Davis, despite his many faults, was at least not an anti-Semite. As was pointed out, Hispanics did willingly join the Confederate army in the Southwest; Native Americans, who too were slave-owners, also volunteered for the Confederacy in both North Carolina and Oklahoma, whereas there were many Whites, especially in Appalachia, who were violently opposed to Secession. Overall, there were complexities and nuances beyond simply black and white.

    I apologize for being so wordy here, but as I said, you opened up a Pandora’s Box. One thing to remember about Pandora’s Box, though, was that the last spirit to escape from it was Hope.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2013 @ 6:15

      Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      • Patrick Young Aug 2, 2013 @ 7:18

        Chris Coleman,

        The notion that the Confederates had good relations with immigrant groups is not supported by the facts. There were few immigrants in the South. The one part of the South with a double digit percentage of the population being foreign born was Louisiana. New Orleans, where most of these immigrants lived, had been convulsed by anti-immigrant and anti-French riots just a few years before the war and the city was under Know Nothing control when the war broke out. You can read a little bit about the consequences of that here: http://longislandwins.com/news/detail/did_immigrants_hand_new_orleans_over_to_the_union_army

        In addition, in the 1856 presidential election, the heaviest vote for the Know Nothings was in the South and Border States.

        Nationally, the 1856 Know Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore won 22% but he got 37% in Alabama, 32% in Arkansas, 42% in Delaware, 43% in Florida, 43% in Georgia, 47% in Kentucky, 48% in Louisiana, 54% in Maryland, 41% in Mississippi, 43% in North Carolina, 48% in Tennessee, 33% in Texas, and 40% in Virginia. Conversely, in immigrant-heavy Wisconsin he got less than 1%. While Southerners who voted for Fillmore may have had the same mixed motives that voters in any era have, their willingness to support an avowedly anti-immigrant,/anti-Catholic party hardly demonstrates good relations among ethnic groups in the South.

        You are correct that many Northern Know Nothings entered the Republican party. They were not strong enough to take it over, but they were strong enough to defeat William Seward in his bid for the presidential nomination in 1860 because of his demonstrable sympathy for New York’s immigrants.

        • Chris Coleman Aug 2, 2013 @ 10:19

          I will confess I am surprised to learn that New Orleans was under Know Nothing control and that such a heavily Francophile city could have anti-French riots. Regarding anti-immigrant sentiments in general, I hadn’t really been thinking about the South at all, since it had far fewer immigrants in general than the North. In Texas and contiguous territories, ethnicity doesn’t seem to have hindered Confederate recruitment–but then Hispanics were native to the area and not immigrants. Then too there is the notorious Jacqui Velasquez, a Cuban woman who spied for the Confederacy, although she was admittedly atypical.

          Religion more than ethnicity seems to have adversely affected Lincoln’s recruitment efforts. While Lincoln had no bias against Catholics, many in his party did and also many officers in the Army. Previously, during the Mexican War, anti-Catholic bias among the officer corps was so bad it led to the mass desertion of the San Patricios to the Mexican side. I already cited Anti-Semitic attitudes in the Union army.

          German American immigrants overwhelmingly sided with the North, and perhaps the fact that many were political refugees from the 1848 rising may have been a factor there. With the Irish it was more of a mixed bag. Initially Lincoln had some success, such as with the Irish Brigade, but as the war wore on, many in the Irish American community became disenchanted with the Union cause, the low point of course being the Draft Riots in 63. The South had some Irish units, like the Tenth Tennessee, but largely the Confederates were white and Anglo Saxon (or Scots Irish) in composition. Still, it can’t be denied in Texas and elsewhere in the west, Hispanics were openly accepted by the South into their ranks.

          • Patrick Young Aug 2, 2013 @ 11:19


            Know Nothingism went well beyond prejudice against Catholics. German Freethinkers complained about it as did Lutherans and Jews. While Germans were more likely to accord with the ideological program of the Republicans, they remained wary of the party’s Know Nothing element and its evangelical wing.

            Strong suspicion of Texans as anti-Latino spurred recruitment of New Mexicans into the Union army. I have not looked into the relations of Latinos in Texas so I offer no opinion on that subject yet. Do you have any good references for me on Latinos in Texas regiments?

            • Chris Coleman Aug 2, 2013 @ 13:30

              Regarding Tejanos and the Confederate Army I have mostly just anecdotal instances of individuals who volunteered. No doubt there were whites in Texas who held strong prejudices against the indigenous Hispanic population, but I don’t believe there was any official bar to their joining as the case was with Blacks in the South.

              I do know that the German-American population in Texas were pro-Union at the outset of the war, but were not strong enough politically to do anything about it.

              According to the Texas Historical Association website, about 2,500 Tejanos volunteered for service but that probably does not include militia units. While not a huge number, it is significant enough; compare that to the estimated 200 Blacks for the Army of Tennessee who applied for pensions after the war. (cf. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/pom02 )

              For an article on one local unit near Brownsville, TX, see:

              Just as elsewhere in the South, there were also Loyalist Federal units recruited in Texas, which would have included Tejanos as well.

              • pat young Aug 2, 2013 @ 14:28


              • London John Aug 3, 2013 @ 3:34

                From what I’ve read, about 3/4 of the Tejanos who fought in CW were Confederates, but Tejanos were a large proportion of the Texas Union volunteers. Lincoln’s Loyalists by Richard Nelson Current quotes an estimate that Tejanos made up “40.6%” of the roughly 2000 Texas Union volunteers. Elsewhere it’s claimed they were a majority. No doubt there would have been more if not for the articulation of the American and Mexican Civil wars; many pro-Union Tejanos crossed the border to fight for the Jauristas.

        • London John Aug 3, 2013 @ 3:58

          I don’t think you can really consider the Know Nothings (or American Party) as a national party, as it only existed during the run-up to the Civil War when the Northern and Southern wings of all parties were quite distinct. So the Know Nothing party that did well in the South was not the same party as in the North. The northern KNs seem to have been generally anti-slavery and somewhat motivated by the RC church’s support for slavery and Irish immigrants’ support for slavery and in particular the use of Irish-American militia companies to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom has quite a bit about this question; It is a major theme in How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev; and Nativism and Slavery by Tyler Ambinder is all about it.
          This is not to say, of course, that simple anti-Catholic prejudice was not a motivator for the northern KN party.

          • Patrick Young Aug 3, 2013 @ 4:17

            London John,

            Those are national election results. If you read Know Nothing propaganda from the 1850s, you will find that it rarely mentions slavery since, unlike the Republican Party, it was trying to be a nationwide movement. In fact in Anbinder’s book he descibes Know Nothingism as fading in the north as evangelicals began to perceive slavery as a greater danger than immigrants.

            Non-Catholic immigrants in the north frequently referenced Know Nothingism as antithetical to their interests. They are almost as likely as Catholics to brand the Know Nothings as Puritans intent on a culture war against immigrants. German Protestants and Freethinkers were likely to tie evangelicals, temperance men, sabbatarians, etc into a general category of anti-immigrantism along with the Know Nothings.

            Also, Know Nothing legislative proposals were to deprive naturalized citizens of the vote or the ability to hold government jobs or serve in the military regardless of religion.

            • Patrick Young Aug 3, 2013 @ 4:34

              London John,

              During the height of the Know Nothing party, called the “American Party” at the time, Know Nothing Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland published The Origin, Principles and Purposes of the American Party.

              Davis would later become a committed Republican and focus on slavery, but here is how he wrote about immigrants from the Know Nothing perspective. His repeated references to them not speaking English is a pretty good indication that he was not just talking about Irish Catholics:

              “Large masses of foreigners are cast yearly on our shores, ignorant of our laws and language, and still greater strangers to the moderation and self-control of American republicanism.”

              “[n]ot content with living on us…under existing laws, they propose to improve them. They aspire to play reformers; and insolently form associations…to improve our…American liberty into the bloody and drunken dream of French and German liberty. They are no more American in heart than they are in birth, in language or in blood. They come flaming from the furnace of rebellion and civil discord…and fall like firebrands in our midst to disturb and exasperate the sedate and moderate conduct of America politics.”

              “ it is not fit that any person not of American birth” shall be elected to or hold any government office. He wrote that “American citizens by birth…shall not be controlled by foreign influences through naturalized citizens”

              It is a myth that the Know Nothings were at base only an anti-Catholic party. They mined fears of “foreigness” that went beyond the Pope.

              Here is an article I’ve written on Davis:


              • London John Aug 4, 2013 @ 9:56

                Very interesting article about Davis; so there was more to
                him than just Wade’s sidekick. He does seem, though, to have been
                so bursting with enthusiasm that for each cause he threw himself
                into he would go beyond the party line. It is of course true that
                KN policy applied to all immigrants, none of whom would have been
                keen on having to wait 21 years to vote; but is it possible that
                rank-and-file KNs were only motivated by some aspects of the party
                line, particularly the bits about Catholics? I suppose this cannot
                be known, I’m just guessing based on what I see of members and
                supporters of British political parties these days.

  • Jake Dinkelaker Aug 2, 2013 @ 4:49

    The NPS has done some (limited) focus group work on this question. It’s a few years old (2011) but you all might be interested in this report created for Kennesaw Mountain NBP: http://www.nps.gov/kemo/parkmgmt/index.htm

    • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2013 @ 4:58

      Thanks for passing this along, Jake.

    • Patrick Young Aug 2, 2013 @ 5:48

      The report was interesting, although we would have considered it methodologically problematic since it was facilitated by historians and selection of participants was through organizations. I prefer using opinion research professionals and selecting randomly without prior disclosure of the subject matter.

    • Patrick Young Aug 2, 2013 @ 18:46

      Interesting that the focus groups found that while blacks wanted their history interpreted at Civil War sites, they said it was not present at most of them except as passive slaves. They also said that they were afraid that if black experiences were included in Georgia Civil War sites it would provoke a backlash from whites.

      The most disturbing part of the report on the lack of black visitors at Kennesaw Mountain KEMO was this line written in 2011:

      Participants across the groups stated that
      KEMO should implement strategies to make African
      Americans feel safe and welcome at the battlefield.

  • Patrick Young Aug 2, 2013 @ 4:19

    London John,

    I’m not sure that Gov. Henry Connelly was an expert on New Mexican identity.

    The Latinos and Asian Americans that read my blog are primarily located in the New York (NYC, Hudson Valley, Long Island) area. While I have written about the war in New Mexico, there are many other aspects that Latinos and Asians are interested in. A number of my articles on the Know Nothings, language issues in the Union army, as well as Emancipation and racial attitudes have been even more popular than the Latino-specific articles. Other issues of cultural maintenance within ethnic units have also been popular.

    A lot of modern immigrants are surprised that Federal regiments could be officially bilingual. They are used to hearing that such language accommodations are modern and “bad”. Similarly, the story of the ban on non-Christian chaplains resonates with a lot of Muslim immigrants. Grant’s order of expulsion of the Jews and the ways the Jewish community responded was a particularly popular series.

    A lot of immigrants have told me they enjoy my essays on how immigrants responded to attacks on their communities. The fact that most of these 19th Century immigrants were Irish, or Jewish, or German does not seem to diminish the interest.

    A lot of my writing focuses on American racial attitudes. Since my immigrant readers tend to be overwhelmingly non-white, they tell me they are always trying to grasp the fine gradiations of race-talk among white people.

    Most of my Latino readers would likely identify themselves as racially indios or mixed (“La Raza”) from Central America, Mexico, and the Andean countries. My Asian American readers tend to be Korean, Chinese, or South Asian. I also have a decent number of readers from various Muslim Countries.

  • msb Aug 2, 2013 @ 0:12

    I don’t know N. McPherson, but Ta-Nehisi Coates has talked interestingly about this at the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/02/why-do-so-few-blacks-study-the-civil-war/308831/)

    • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2013 @ 1:38

      Thanks for linking to it. It’s an excellent essay.

  • Dave Stilwell Aug 1, 2013 @ 19:59

    It is puzzling. In U.S. military history it is hard to imagine another conflict where African-American soldiers had a greater impact on the final victory than the Civil War. One of my suspicions is that the final result of reconstruction — and the subsequent decades — looked like defeat instead of victory. The 11 states of the rebellion soon moved into the same position of political power in the federal government through the suppression of African-American votes, one party-rule that let them leverage the old congressional seniority system and block delivery of electoral votes to compromise the executive branch. The question could be why focus on the first skirmish in a fight that really produced breakthrough victories 110-120 years later?

  • Patrick Young Aug 1, 2013 @ 19:11

    I looked at this year’s Juneteenth Celebration in Buffalo where I went to college. It included a parade, a fun run, a track meet, a concert of 19th Century African American sacred music, free tours of underground railroad sites, and a lecture on the lives of children of slaves. This is the sort of popular grassroots Civil War era commemoration that combines scholarship, tourism, and fun with a purpose that can really inspire, but I’ll bet a lot of whites don’t even recognize it for what it is.

  • Patrick Young Aug 1, 2013 @ 18:40

    I know that in my local community there are often formal reading from Fred Douglass. These are rarely viewed by local white Civil War enthusiasts as “Civil War” events. Same with two local communities that hold Juneteenth celebrations. The white people you see at these events are more likely to be NAACP members than CWRT folks.

    I live and work in communities of color. Frankly, it is hard to get white people to come to anything in one of the communities. People tell me they are “afraid” to come here. I am a pretty broke down guy and I have never had a problem, but people are scared to come to where I live and work every day.

    I was looking at an article on a Juneteenth celebration in Texas and the comments were of a nasty racist kind. In celebrating the end of captivity, blacks were apparently “dredging up old wrongs” to “get a welfare check.”

    I think whites often can’t see when blacks commemorate the war, because it isn’t the same war they are commemorating.

    • catsgeesonexaminer Aug 1, 2013 @ 22:42

      I just have to comment on what Patrick said about the way blacks are commemorating the Civil War. (I actually have read everyone’s comments). I think that blacks are perceived as not having as much interest in the commemorations because it was not their war, or they appear to possibly be afraid to mix in with Civil War buffs, especially those who reside in the South. I find it ridiculous, but there really are southerners who are still thinking the “South will rise again.”

      I believe that slavery and racial bias is a factor in keeping many black Americans away from Civil War activities, which is sad, actually. People forget the many parts blacks played in that war, particularly those who fought for the Union. Living in Richmond, I am familiar with the Juneteenth celebrations, as well as “Watch Night” services. These activities are well attended here. But, Patrick is correct, whites rarely attend these celebrations.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 1, 2013 @ 17:44

    I know there is some truth to Natasha McPherson’s words but I kind of resent her comments. Just how is the Civil War not African-American history? Di this woman ask all Black people how they feel about the Civil War Era? I don’t think I was asked.

    What’s funny is that this afternoon I had a conversation with a history professor from a Texas college about how some people have taken issue that when the Civil War is taught in history classes today, “Glory” is the only movie shown, even though Blacks made up only about 10% of the Union army. Granted, “Glory” better than Ron Maxwell’s “Gods & Generals” and “Gettysburg” films gets what the war was really about… but it doesn’t offer much as to who most Civil War soldiers were and has no Confederate perspective except the proclamation to not treat African-Americans as soldiers.

    You know, there is no National Civil War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. But if one were to be built, I wonder just how Ms. McPherson would feel if the memorial included no African-American soldiers or sailors? After all, according to her, it’s not our history anyway.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2013 @ 1:45

      Just how is the Civil War not African-American history?

      That’s not how I read her editorial. I thought McPherson was trying to explain why she believes more African Americans are not interested rather than exclaiming that it is not their history. I agree with you that the editorial is problematic in assuming how the African-American community thinks about its past. We need to look deeper.

  • Paul Taylor Aug 1, 2013 @ 16:51

    “One thing that folks who worry about this issue most likely need to get over is that African Americans will never flock to battlefields in significant numbers.”

    Kevin, who are the “folks who worry about this issue”, and why do they worry about it in the first place? As has been discussed in any number of forums in recent years, the body of work pertaining to the black experience in the Civil War has mushroomed over the past several decades. I would imagine that the number of black scholars engaged in the study of the war has likewise increased dramatically.

    There are numerous reenactment units featuring African-American men and, of course, as we all know, the National Park Service has noticeably altered the interpretive lens at the major Civil War battlefields in order to focus on the centrality of slavery in the war. I think we’ve agreed in the past that much of this was done in order to make the experience at the parks more accessible to the African-American community. The same lens alteration has occurred at museum exhibitions.

    In other words, I think it’s fair say that the welcome mat has been laid out and the front door flung wide open to the African-American community. Of course, I could be really missing something….While I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph, I am sincerely perplexed over the apparent angst that some feel about the perceived lack of black interest in the Civil War.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2013 @ 16:58

      Hi Paul,

      It’s a question that I’ve heard on numerous occasions. You are absolutely right in pointing out the growth in scholarship, the number of black historians writing it as well as the other examples mentioned. The angst that you reference is present in the editorial that I linked to in the post and others who have organized events in hope of attracting members of the African-American community.

      I am simply suggesting that before some people break out the white flag we should cast our net wider for signs of life. In other words, I suspect that black Americans may be more active in commemorating the war than we believe.

  • Patrick Young Aug 1, 2013 @ 16:50

    The current racial breakdown of the United States is White 72%, Black 13%, Asian 5%, Native American 1%, Latino 16%. The fastest growing group is Asians, the second fastest is Latinos.

    A 2012 study by Pew Research projects this racial breakdown in 2050: White 47%, Black 13%, Asian 9%, Native American .9%, Latino 29%. Current framing of the Civil War in terms of Northern White v. Southern White, or even Black/White leaves out people who will soon make up 4 out of 10 Americans.

    My own experience in writing for a Latino/Asian audience is that certain aspects of Civil War history have a great resonance with people in these communities.

    • London John Aug 2, 2013 @ 0:20

      Which aspects and which Latinos? Do you find them particularly interested in the CW in the SW, where the New Mexico Volunteers were all Hispanic (apart from Kit Carson) and Tejanos fought on both sides?
      Mexican-Americans at that time thought of themselves as white; the Union governor of New Mexico Territory appealed to their “pure Castilian blood”.

    • Lee Aug 2, 2013 @ 13:35

      “Latino” isn’t a race. People from Spanish-speaking countries are of all races and complexions. To say otherwise is like saying that Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are both members of the “Anglo” race because they’re both native English speakers.

      • pat young Aug 2, 2013 @ 14:26

        Black and white aren’t races either. Now that we have that out of the way.

      • Chris Coleman Aug 3, 2013 @ 7:37

        “Latino” isn’t a race. People from Spanish-speaking countries are of all races and complexions. To say otherwise is like saying that Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are both members of the “Anglo” race because they’re both native English speakers.”
        While Lee has a valid point here, I wouldn’t want to get too far afield. However, it does highlight our collective confusion regarding race, ethnicity and national origin in America. Both the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” convey a linguistic category; Puerto Rican, like African, is not a racial but a geographic term. Someone being Mexican or Tejano does not necessarily say anything abut their racial makeup; I have met “Texicans” who looked and dressed (and acted) like white redneck Texans, but who were native Spanish speakers. Similarly, in the modern debate over immigration, there is common confusion about “illegal” (as a noun); one may have immigrated legally into the US, with full documentation, yet be classed as illegal alien due to the sometimes byzantine rules and regulations of the IMS; until one’s legal appeals are processed they may remain that way for a substantial period of time.
        While not as obvious as the issues regarding slavery and race, immigration issues also owe much in their origins to the Civil War era and its consequences, as Patrick’s discussion of the Know Nothing movement points out.

  • Patrick Young Aug 1, 2013 @ 16:21

    Has there been polling or focus groups within the African American community on this? I’ve used both tools in the past and found them very useful in getting beyond white people speculating about black people’s attitudes.

    The other element that is strange for me about this discussion, which I have seen elsewhere, is why it leaves out people of color who are not black. The war helps new immigrants understand the centrality of race to the definition of “American” and the willingness of men to die to preserve the ideals of white supremacy.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2013 @ 16:49

      The other element that is strange for me about this discussion, which I have seen elsewhere, is why it leaves out people of color who are not black.

      No one has pushed this point harder than you, Pat. It has definitely opened my eyes a bit wider though I admittedly don’t comment on it much. I can see how the war offers a useful case study for immigrants who are beginning to think about their own place within the civic body. I don’t think the discussion “intentionally” leaves out immigrants as much as it finds the absence of African Americans to be more problematic given the emphasis on emancipation.

      • Patrick Young Aug 1, 2013 @ 16:57

        I almost hated to raise it on this blog because I know you focus a lot on neglected parts of Civil War racial history.

        This was one of the first blogs I read when I began my The Immigrants’ Civil War project three years ago, and I greatly admire your writing. I also appreciate your grace in provoking and curating discussion on serious issues that are close to my heart. So, don’t consider my comment a criticism of your project. I wish that I, like you, had something interesting to say every day!

        • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2013 @ 17:01

          I appreciate that, Pat, but we know each other well enough that you should feel comfortable poking me to take that crucial step back. 🙂

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