I always knew that I wanted to use the famous photograph of Andrew and Silas Chandler for the cover art on Searching for Black Confederates. The design team did a wonderful job of complimenting one of my central interpretive goals of trying to untangle former camp slaves like Silas from the web of the Lost Cause.
Silas sits next to Andrew, but he is featured in his own right while Andrew hovers behind the book’s title. So much of the story that I tell in this book is about how the history and memory of these men has been appropriated for various purposes. During the war and for decades to follow the narrative was loyalty to master and the Confederacy. Nothing else mattered to Confederate veterans and white southerners generally.
In more recent years the black Confederate narrative has been embraced to gloss over the history of racial injustice in this country. If slavery was benign and if African Americans remained loyal to their masters and the cause, so the story goes, than recent calls to address racial discrimination have no merit.
Yesterday The Washington Post published a teaser from the book that focuses on the presence of former camp slaves at Confederate veterans reunions. They were there to reinforce Jim Crow society and justify white rule by the beginning of the twentieth century. Their participation was predicated on knowing their place in society, supporting the Democratic Party and denouncing the Republican Party and its brief experiment in Reconstruction.
African Americans who challenged the South’s racial status quo at this time were seen as troublemakers and often faced violent repercussions, including lynching.
Controlling the past has always served as a means of dictating accepted behavior in the present. Extolling the loyalty of former camp slaves during the Jim Crow-era helped to reinforce various control mechanisms to limit black political action and public engagement. In short, it reinforced what it meant to be a full citizen in this country.
It is hard not to hear the echoes of this past in our president’s recent insistence that four colored congresswomen “go back” to their countries of origin for speaking out against government policy. To unpack this vicious tweet storm is to uncover the long history of white supremacy and its attempt to control people of color.
This is about control. Donald Trump is stoking the fears of white Americans who in 2019 still expect people of color to know their place in society.