“I’m a Person of Color First. I’m a Historian Second”

Last night C-SPAN featured this recent panel discussion about Confederate monuments from last year’s Lincoln Forum that included historians Harold Holzer, Edna Medford, Elizabeth Varon, and Gary Gallagher. It’s well worth watching, but if you’ve seen a panel discussion like this you won’t learn much of anything new. That is not a criticism of the participants. They are all talented historians, who have helped the public to better understand the history and memory of these monuments.

Discussions narrowly focused on history, however, fail to address the fundamental issue that many communities are struggling with. Professor Medford captured it beautifully in her opening comment.

Much of the rest of the discussion shifted to the history of the monuments and the challenges of interpreting them in the current environment, but the Q&A appeared to reflect that many in the audience were interested in the implications of Medford’s opening comment.

That’s pretty much where I am in this ongoing debate. While historical knowledge is certainly relevant to this debate, ultimately it is about whether these monuments reflect the values of local communities. Medford’s comment serves as a reminder that they never reflected the values of African Americans. The only difference is that now Medford and African Americans have the right to speak out and voice the kinds of concerns that these monuments were erected to erase.

You can’t ask someone in 2020 not to do everything in his or her power to remove monuments that were intended, in part, to deny an entire race of Americans political power and maintain them indefinitely as second class citizens.


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“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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19 comments… add one
  • Jimmy Jones Mar 22, 2020 @ 21:58

    What about Holt Collier? I may have mispelled the last name. I’ve also seen Confederate graves that told what outfit the man fought with, and then said free man of color. What’s the problem with that? Didn’t Gen. Mc Clellans scouts during the peninsula campaign report seeing blacks in Confederate uniforms in the ranks carrying muskets and wearing cartridge boxes? I have also read an article in a Pennsylvania newspaper that had re printed a letter from a Yankee soldier to his father stating that the “wooly headed” Confederate picket was the best shot of the Confederate pickets in front of him and was really giving them a fit. I don’t understand the issue. Holt Collier rode with Gen Forrest I think, and also after the war was the hunting guide on the very hunt that helped Pesident Theodore Roosevelt wind up with the nickname Teddy, and the Teddy bear doll .
    I don’t think the Confederate government debating on blacks being soldiers is necisarily a reason to say there weren’t any. I believe that it was illegal to teach a slave to read, however it didn’t stop Gen Stonewall Jackson from having part in teaching slaves to read and giving tithes to the Sunday School classes that taught slaves to read. It seems like the logic on that saying that the government debated it in 1864-1865 so there weren’t any black soldiers, is kinda like saying that – Drugs are against the law in this country so we don’t have any drugs or drug addicts.
    Thanks so much for your interest in our great countries history and taking the time to get others interested in our history.Thankfully beiing Americans we can disagree with each other and have a discussion about it and learn something from each other.Please forgive my poor spelling and punctuation,and again thank you for taking the time to get folks interested in our history.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 23, 2020 @ 1:19

      Holt Collier was a body servant or camp slave during the war. Read my book.

    • London John Mar 24, 2020 @ 1:32

      “blacks in Confederate uniforms in the ranks carrying muskets and wearing cartridge boxes” could have been the servants of sons of slaveowners serving in the ranks. No doubt such slaves would carry the young master’s rifle and pack on the march, and how else should they be dressed but in some form of Confederate uniform? Or at least as much of a uniform as most actual Confederate soldiers wore.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 24, 2020 @ 2:16

        That is exactly what took place. We know this because Confederates talked extensively about this in their letters and diaries. Body servants carried the weapons of men who were fighting to keep the enslaved.

  • anandisamlal Mar 20, 2020 @ 17:03

    The monuments tell a story about the area. They hold importance to a community. The monuments reflect the values of local communities. Even though Medford had his opinion, I believe they serve as a reminder that they reflected the values of African Americans. They fought and they were humans too. In my opinion they hold some kind of value to a community. Later on people may question about the origin with respect to the community and these monuments will play an important role in helping them identify this. There were other wars occurring that may have been of importance too but it is important to be respectful.

  • msb Mar 11, 2020 @ 11:34

    “this debate, ultimately … is about whether these monuments reflect the values of local communities. … they never reflected the values of African Americans. The only difference is that now … African Americans have the right to speak out and voice the kinds of concerns that these monuments were erected to erase.”
    Got it in a nutshell.

  • Robert W. Brooks Mar 8, 2020 @ 9:57

    The paramount dilemma with the “contextualizing” proposition is who will determine the “context” in which the monuments will be clarified? This conflict is erroneously named the ‘American Civil War.’ To be correctly described as a Civil War two opposing factions have to be struggling for control of a single government. This was not the case! A multitude of antedated events heralds the outbreak of The War Between the States. What alliance of ‘politically correct’ persons shall perform the contextualization?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2020 @ 10:05

      With all due respect, let’s hope it’s not left up to you.

    • Matt McKeon Mar 8, 2020 @ 10:17

      Since Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee referred to the Civil War as “The Civil War” I’m inclined to accept “The Civil War” as a good title. My personal favorite remains “Treason in Defense of Slavery(TIDOS).”

    • Jeffry Burden Mar 8, 2020 @ 12:11

      “To be correctly described as a Civil War two opposing factions have to be struggling for control of a single government.” No matter how many dictionaries or other sources I check, the above is never the sole, or even primary, definition of “civil war.”

      • Joshism Mar 8, 2020 @ 17:25

        I firmly agree with Robert that “two [or more] opposing factions struggling for control of a single government [i.e. country]” SHOULD be the definition of a civil war and it is most often used in that context, but it is not consistently used solely in that context. And significantly Lincoln and others referred to it as a “civil war” during the conflict itself.

        As an example of the complicated terminology: the American Revolution was also a civil war within the colonies.

        I think the most accurate term for the conflict of 1861-1865 is The War of Southern Secession, but I am sure after 150 years it is far too late to sway people to that terminology.

        • Mark Mar 9, 2020 @ 6:57

          The most correct term is the official name the US Army uses, The war of the rebellion. What the fire-eaters in the south did was start a rebellion because a party they didn’t like was elected to the Presidency.

    • London John Mar 9, 2020 @ 19:04

      “The War Between the States” implies that the Confederate states were internally fairly united. This is to deny the existence of the African-American inhabitants of those states, as well as the White Union volunteers from every Confederate state except SC. And what about Missouri?
      In fact the naming of wars within one country is rather arbitrary. The English Civil War of the 1640s could equally well be called the English Revolution, while the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, which aimed to put the Stuarts back on the throne of Great Britain, could be called British Civil Wars.

  • Diane Hyra Mar 8, 2020 @ 6:51

    Kevin, what museum should they be a part of? If they are put at the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar, it will make that place even more of a Confederate museum than it already is. (I am unhappy with the renovated museum’s commentary and don’t find it nearly as balanced as the original.) Contextualizing them on Monument Avenue seems to me to be the best of many bad options.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2020 @ 7:04

      Museums are not a viable alternative for most of these monuments.

      The problem of contextualization came up quite a bit in the discussion. I recommend watching it.

    • Chris Graham Mar 8, 2020 @ 9:45

      Hi Diane,

      I’m curious to know more about your observations on the ACWM at Tredegar. What do you see that makes it “a Confederate museum”? What do you see that has changed in terms of what you call “balance”? What does balance mean to you?

      I know this is a bit off topic, so if you’d like to reach out to the email address in my profile, I’d love to hear from you.


      • Diane Hyra Mar 8, 2020 @ 13:22

        Chris, I’m sorry, I don’t know how to get to your profile to respond. Are you familiar with the museum, both its original layout and the renovated one?

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