Over the past week media coverage has spiked in response to the proposal from two Republican state legislators in South Carolina, who are proposing to erect a monument to black Confederates on the state house grounds. What is different about this latest wave of coverage is the clear denial that these men ever existed in South Carolina. Given the often poor reporting on this subject over the years this is certainly a welcome development.
The proposal was announced back in October 2017. At the time I responded with an op-ed in The Post & Courier. Much of the credit for the recent attention goes to Jeff Wilkinson, who published a piece on December 30 under the title, “A Monument to SC’s black Confederate Soldiers? None Fought for the South, Experts Say.” The story was picked up Talking Points Memo, U.S. News & World Report, and a number of local news outlets. All of these stories issued clear denials of the underlying history.
I was also pleased and somewhat surprised to see The Root pick up the story. Staff writer Michael Harriot published a piece yesterday that did little more than summarize Wilkinson’s original story. He concluded with the following:
I have come up with a solution to the controversy that should make everyone happy. If South Carolina wants to build a monument to people who never existed, just make the monument invisible, too. In fact, I’ve already built it. Maybe you can’t see it, but trust me—just like the black soldiers of the Confederacy—it’s there.
While this might be good for a little laugh the author appears to be unaware that his own publication is on record as acknowledging the existence of black Confederates. In 2015 Harvard’s John Stauffer published an essay titled, “Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why,” that included the following claim: “No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers.” As I have pointed out numerous times, Stauffer never explained how he arrived at this number.
At one point I was tempted to email the article to the two legislators as a reminder that this piece is much more problematic than their proposed monument. All they have to say in response to the media scrutiny is that there is a respected Harvard scholar, who confirms that black men fought as soldiers in the Confederate army.
Henry Louis Gates, the founder of The Root, has also peddled this myth over the years, most recently on the PBS series, Finding Your Roots. Enough.
The Root needs to decide where it stands on this issue. It’s easy to go after two Republican state senators, but let’s be clear that their proposal for a black Confederate monument will likely never come to fruition. If the editors and staff at The Root do not believe in the existence of these men than they should issue a clear retraction of the above statement by Stauffer. Anything less is irresponsible and will likely continue to contribute to the spread of this insidious myth.