Fall at White Haven

One of the benefits of my job at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site that I really cherish is the scenery that surrounds me. My “office” is beautiful, and it’s easy to see why Julia Dent Grant wrote so glowingly of her childhood here in her Personal Memoirs. Since a big part of my job consists of giving tours of the historic White Haven home, I am not confined to a cubicle or computer screens for eight hours, and there’s a fair amount of moving around throughout my day, especially when the park is busy. On really busy days I’d estimate that I walk as much as four or five miles in a day. I like that.

Fall is my favorite time at work. Our attendance numbers take a dip compared to the summertime, but the visitors who come at this time of the year are genuinely interested in the history we interpret, and the smaller tours allow for more personalized experiences and meaningful interactions with visitors. Fall is also a great time at White Haven because the leaves on the more than 500 trees at the park start to turn.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been taking pictures on my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70, attempting to capture the beauty of the site. What follows below are a few of my favorite shots. Click on any picture to view the slideshow gallery and view pictures at full size. Enjoy!

 

Wanted in America: Good U.S. History Teachers

The Atlantic has posted an essay by Alia Wong on U.S. history textbooks in K-12 classes that is worth reading. The essay focuses on a recent discovery of a ridiculous claim in a history textbook published by McGraw Hill suggesting that African slaves brought to the American colonies from the 1600s to the 1800s were “immigrants” to this land who somehow came here on their own free will. You would think that twenty years after the “textbook wars” of the 1990s and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong was published to critical acclaim that textbook companies like McGraw Hill would be more careful about the claims they make in these textbooks, but I suppose that is asking too much when a group like the Texas Board of Education wields so much power in determining what gets into history textbooks around the country. You often hear George Santayana’s abused quote about people who don’t remember the past being doomed to repeat it, but it seems that there are times when people who do remember the past and in some cases actively participate in that past are actually more doomed to repeat it.

There is a bigger problem than bad history textbooks in U.S. classrooms, however, and that is bad history teachers. To wit:

Compared to their counterparts in other subjects, high-school history teachers are, at least in terms of academic credentials, among the least qualified. A report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on public high-school educators in 11 subjects found that in the 2011-12 school year, more than a third—34 percent—of those teaching history classes as a primary assignment had neither majored nor been certified in the subject; only about a fourth of them had both credentials. (At least half of the teachers in each of the other 10 categories had both majored and been certified in their assigned subjects.)

In fact, of the 11 subjects—which include the arts, several foreign languages, and natural science—history has seen the largest decline in the percentage of teachers with postsecondary degrees between 2004 and 2012. And it seems that much of the problem has little to do with money: The federal government has already dedicated more than $1 billion over the last decade to developing quality U.S.-history teachers, the largest influx of funding ever, with limited overall results. That’s in part because preparation and licensing policies for teachers vary so much from state to state.

A recent report from the National History Education Clearinghouse revealed a patchwork of training and certification requirements across the country: Only 17 or so states make college course hours in history a criterion for certification, and no state requires history-teacher candidates to have a major or minor in history in order to teach it.

“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history,” said Loewen, who’s conducted workshops with thousands of history educators across the country, often taking informal polls of their background and competence in the subject. “They just happen to be assigned to it.”

A bad history textbook in the hands of a good teacher can be turned into a useful instrument for teaching students about the construction of historical narratives, the differences between history and memory, and, of course, the factually correct historical content. A bad history teacher can lead students towards a lifetime hatred of history, regardless of how factually correct their textbook is.

I did not know that 34 percent of history teachers were not majors or certified in history, nor did I know that only 17 states have required qualifications for someone to teach history in a classroom, but I can safely say that Loewen’s observations about people being “assigned” to teach history are true. They often have “coach” in their title.

I do not mean to suggest that all coaches are bad teachers or lack historical knowledge. My initial inspiration for studying history in college was sparked in large part by a Western Civilization teacher during my senior year of high school who also happened to coach football and basketball. But that was the thing; every student viewed him as a teacher who also happened to coach, rather than as a coach who also happened to teach history. And unfortunately there were several coaches at my high school who were simply unfit to teach history.

Is there a lack of qualified history teachers in the United States for our K-12 schools, or does the problem lie in a lack of opportunities for qualified history teachers to find gainful employment in K-12 schools?

Cheers

Addendum: If you’re a teacher who is frustrated with the quality of your history textbook, I highly recommend that you take advantage of The American Yawp, a free online history textbook that is collaboratively written by some of the best and brightest historians in the country. It is designed for a college classroom but I have no doubt that high school students, especially those in AP classes, could use it to their advantage.

Taking a Balanced Approach to Lecturing and Student-Centered Learning

Bueller

Over the past few weeks the New York Times has rekindled a longstanding debate among scholars and educators over the role of lecturing in the college classroom. Back in September Annie Murphy Paul suggested that college lectures are “a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself . . . that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.” This month Molly Worthen responded with a defense of the traditional lecture, arguing that “lectures are essential for teaching the humanities most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.”

Both essays make good points that I agree with. Since I adhere to the idea that knowledge is constructed and that people rely on prior knowledge when making connections to new intellectual content, I can see Paul’s argument that poor and minority students who attended inferior schools during their youth can be at a disadvantage in a lecture-based college classroom. Conversely, I can also agree with Worthen that lectures expose students to content experts who have a platform to share their knowledge beyond the confines of a TV soundbite or YouTube video. I also agree with her that lectures can challenge students to synthesize information and take good notes.

I do not approach this conversation as an experienced college professor, but as a certified social studies teacher who had a cup of coffee in the middle/high school teaching world a few years ago and as a current interpreter for the National Park Service, where a parallel discussion is taking place about whether interpreters should play the role of “sage on the stage” or “guide by the side” during visitor interactions. These jobs have allowed me to participate in and facilitate learning experiences through a wide range of mediums. These experiences inform my opinion that lectures can be an effective tool for generating effective learning experiences, but only if they are used within reason, at appropriate times. Furthermore, it’s not productive to look at lectures and active learning as either/or propositions. Educators should be well-versed in a range of teaching methods, and I believe most critics of the lecture format are asking professors to expand their pedagogical vocabulary rather than asking them to fully abolish the traditional lecture course, as Worthen suggests.

Before I advance my arguments further, we should pause and ask what, exactly, constitutes a lecture. Derek Bruff of Vanderbilt University offers a useful distinction between educators who incorporate discussion and interaction throughout their lectures and others who engage in what he calls “continuous exposition,” which is completely devoid of any student interaction and is really just a monologue. The “continuous exposition” was a staple of my undergraduate education, and it was a real drag most of the time. I had a number of professors that lectured for the entire period and then, with five minutes left, would ask if anyone had questions. In my five years in undergrad I don’t think a single student ever asked a question during those five-minute windows, largely because most students wanted to get out of class by that point and understood that any sort of real, substantive Q&A with the professor would require much more than five minutes. A more active approach to lecturing–or a wholly different approach altogether–would have yielded more feedback from students if these professors truly cared about that feedback.

Another consideration is how much emphasis is given to the lecture in evaluating a student’s performance in a given class. In a continuous exposition lecture, the student’s grade is tied almost exclusively to his or her ability to recite in written form what the professor says during the lecture. This too is a problem in my mind because it places too much emphasis on rote memorization and recitation of content at the expense of training students to think about interpretation, analysis, and the process of drawing informed conclusions. I like Andrew Joseph Pegoda’s “high stakes quizzing” approach which places much more emphasis on assigned readings outside the classroom, frequent quizzes that challenge students to draw conclusions about their readings, and classroom discussions about those readings that are guided–but not exclusively directed–by the professor. This approach invites thoughtful student interaction while also allowing the professor the option to step back or jump into the discussion as necessary.

Yet another consideration in this discussion is reconciling the underlying tension between disciplinary knowledge and educational theory in educating future teachers. Most of my history professors were primarily focused on teaching content and used the continuous exposition model to convey that content, but my education professors stressed that we could only lecture for ten minutes to our future students and that we would have to utilize other active learning methods for the bulk of our classroom experiences (these education professors, ironically enough, often had a tendency to lecture for more than an hour to us). Historian and educator Fritz Fischer, writing in the June 2011 issue of Historically Speaking, explains that:

My students and I struggle with trying to connect the world of academic history with the world of pedagogical training. On the one hand, they were told by the educational theorists to create a “student centered” classroom and to rely on clever and fun classroom activities such as jigsaws and Socratic debates. These activities were often intellectually vapid, devoid of historical content or an understanding of historical context. On the other hand, they sat in their introductory history courses and listened to lectures about THE story of the past. Some of the lectures might have been engaging, interesting, and powerful, but were they really reflective of what historians do, and could they be at all helpful in a K-12 history classroom? How were my students to reconcile these worlds? (15)

The best way to reconcile these worlds, in my opinion, is to embrace a balanced approach to teaching that values lecturing not as the ultimate means for obtaining knowledge but as a tool within a larger arsenal that includes the use of other methods such as classroom discussions, group projects, classroom websites and blogs, and assignments that challenge students to develop and communicate arguments through written and oral form.

The challenge, of course, is designing these student-centered activities in ways that incorporate both content and disciplinary process. Bruce A. Lesh offers some great examples of implementing a balanced teaching approach in the middle/high school history classroom in his book “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12. In one case he challenges students to envision themselves as public historians who are tasked with documenting historical events through the creation of a historical marker. Students work on a given topic and are tasked with doing historical research, writing the text for this historical marker, and then explaining their methods and interpretations in both written form and during classroom discussion. This is a perfect example of an intellectually rigorous but student-centered approach to teaching historical thinking and content. It allows students a platform to contribute their own knowledge to the learning process, but it also allows the teacher to facilitate conversation and act as a content expert when necessary. Furthermore, it’s an activity that can be catered to students of all ages, whether they’re in elementary school or college.

So, while I don’t think educators need to fully discard the lecture, I think they should take the time to ensure they use it with proper care and with students’ learning journeys in mind.

Cheers

P.S. I meant to, but forgot to include a link to Josh Eyler’s post “Active Learning in Not Our Enemy,” which is very good and worth reading. I owe a debt to Josh for sparking some of my own thoughts in this essay.

Is TripAdvisor an Effective Tool for Evaluating Public History Sites?

Tripadvisor-logo

Not too long ago I engaged in a discussion with a number of colleagues about the merits of the popular website TripAdvisor. The site is well-known for its user-created ratings and reviews of hotels and restaurants, but it’s also considered a reputable resource for organizing and choosing destinations to visit during a vacation. There are many public history sites–including the park I work for–that are listed on the website, and the crux of our conversation revolved around how much stock we should put into the TripAdvisor reviews about our own site. We all agreed that we should care about these reviews in the sense that many people consult them before visiting St. Louis, and that some prospective visitors would definitely be reading what users have to say about us. From there, however, I think our views went in different directions. One person, after reading a reviewer’s complaint that there “was nothing for kids to do” at our site, started walking around the visitor center wondering what signage needed to change in order to make our Junior Ranger kids program more prominent. I, on the other hand, thought that changing a site’s operating procedures based on one anonymous reviewer’s opinions (especially in the wake of hundreds of other anonymous opinions on the same website that don’t mention this particular issue) was a bit overkill.

I admit that I am sensitive to some of the TripAdvisor criticisms of our site, but it’s mostly because I resent what I consider to be petty, unfair opinions that don’t accurately reflect the hard work we do to make the site interesting and relevant. We have been knocked for doing “politically correct” history, which is essentially code for saying that we mention slavery as a central topic of disagreement in political discussions leading up to the outbreak of the American Civil War, and that we acknowledge the lives of the enslaved African Americans who once labored at the home we now preserve. We have been knocked for “dumbing down history,” which is an arrogant assertion given that we are tasked to work with people of all ages and expertise levels and to give them a concise history of Ulysses and Julia Grant, slavery, and antebellum politics in a ten-minute interpretive talk. We have been criticized for having “no furniture in the house,” as if the existence 19th century furniture is the most important element of a historic house tour (we actually have a few period pieces in the home, but we do not have any original Grant furniture because it was all destroyed in a storage fire at another home during Grant’s presidency. I suppose I can’t blame visitors too much for being disappointed at the lack of historic furniture given how much it’s emphasized at other sites). And of course we’d bend over backwards to make a kid leave the park with a smile on their face, contrary to what anyone says about us offering nothing for kids.

While I can’t go as far as Alex Proud and say that TripAdvisor is “democracy for the stupid,” I do think Suzanne Moore is correct when she asserts that not all opinions are created equally:

Trust is the issue here. Why do I listen to certain people telling me about a film or an exhibition? Because I know they know much more than me. I respect their experience, no matter how much marketing may seek to critic-proof some duff product. So yes, we are all critics now but some are more equal than others. A quick trip to TripAdvisor soon demonstrates that not everyone tells you the things you actually want to know. In this never-ending review of everything, credibility is still hard to fake.

Within the context of public history sites I’ve come to the conclusion that TripAdvisor is much more useful for visitors looking for destinations to occupy their time than for institutions looking to learn about visitor experiences or the meanings people ascribe to the sites they visit. The platform is too open-ended and the opinions are too wide-ranging and subjective for most sites to do anything with them. That goes for positive reviews as much as bad ones. Someone who gives a site five stars and says “I loved this site!” offers enough information for another TripAdvisor user to potentially include a visit to that site during their next trip, but it doesn’t really do anything to help the leadership of that site besides prompting a congratulatory pat on the back.

I do not mean to suggest that all opinions expressed on Tripadvisor can or should be roundly dismissed by public historians, but I would like to suggest that we proceed with caution when assessing the merits of any user’s opinions about our sites. One way to counterbalance TripAdvisor reviews would involve creating formal evaluations that address specific questions a site or institution is looking to have answered, such as how visitors are responding to a new exhibit, what visitors would tell their friends about a site they visited, or what motivates people to visit historical sites in the first place. The sort of evaluative work I envision, however, requires the assistance of trained professionals that would work either as independent consultants or as fully dedicated staff members at these particular sites. And at least in my part of the National Park Service world, I have not seen anything suggesting that such an effort will be undertaken anytime soon, unfortunately, but that’s a topic for another day.

Do you use TripAdvisor when planning your visit to a public history site? Have you ever written a review? What do you make of my concerns? I welcome your comments below.

Cheers

That Moment When Someone Completely Misreads Your Arguments

Earlier this month I wrote an essay discussing a controversial statue in Louisiana that is dedicated to “The Good Darkys” of the Civil War, those enslaved African Americans who stayed home–allegedly through their own free will–to protect the white women and children on their plantations while their white masters went off to fight for the Confederacy. I proceeded to explain the history of this statue’s dedication, the controversies it set off during the Civil Rights Movement, and its subsequent move to the Rural Life Museum at Louisiana State University, where it remains today in a place of honor and devoid of historical context. My goals in writing this essay were two-fold in that I hoped to provide an explanation for how and why this statue was erected in 1927 while at the same time questioning whether we should continue to keep this statue in a place of honor today. I made no firm conclusion on that last point because I don’t really know what the best answer is. That’s why we’re engaging in these sorts of discussions in the first place.

Unfortunately my post rubbed someone the wrong way, and the comments section dovetailed into a litany of personal attacks, mischaracterizations of my arguments, accusations of me being “biased,” and a host of red herring fallacies that are really just historical inaccuracies that have nothing to do with the discussion at hand. And Al Mackey of Student of the Civil War, a friend of this blog and a friend in real life, was accused of being a hateful bigot, which is completely uncalled for.

Mr. George Purvis of the Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education (SHAPE) took it upon himself to continue this fractious discussion by responding to me with his own post entitled “Fighting White Supremacy — –,” [sic] and unfortunately he manages to completely misread the post, quote me out of context, and make claims without any sort of historical evidence to back them up.

Mr. Purvis screws things up within the second sentence of his post by stating that the “Uncle Jack” statue depicts a person “who was never a slave and was born after the war. His image is used to honor those slaves and freemen loyal to his loyal to the Confederacy [sic] during the War For Southern Independence.” Seeing as though this statue was intended to honor the “the Good Darkys” of Louisiana who stayed at their enslavers’ plantations during the Civil War, I’m not sure how Mr. Purvis can claim that the statue depicts someone who was born after the war and was never enslaved. Calling the Civil War “The War For Southern Independence” also tells us something about Mr. Purvis, although it is more accurate to call it a war for Confederate independence, if you must, since the Confederacy and the South are not one in the same. I also note that Mr. Purvis consistently refers to African Americans as “Negroes” as if we’re living in 1955 and not 2015.

To him the Uncle Jack figure “tips his hat and is just a nice polite guy. Where I was born , [sic] men still tip their hats and open doors for women. What is wrong with that?” I guess Mr. Purvis believes that I argued against the general practice of politeness and kindness to others (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) when in reality I was just challenging readers to think about the symbolism of a black man in the South submissively tipping his hat to white society and how a certain social code of manners and etiquette dictated the day-to-day interactions of blacks and whites in Jim Crow America, and how a violation of that code could possibly leave black people bruised, bleeding, and possibly hanging from a tree.

And then Mr. Purvis states:

Well gee Nick I remember when 18 year olds could not vote, but could carry a gun, there was a time when white women couldn’t vote and for the most part men and women’s restrooms are still separated. So what??? In ten years all of this may change.

Umm, okay?

I state in my essay that while some enslaved people may have stayed home out of a genuine sense of loyalty to their enslavers, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people ran away to Union-run contraband camps and roughly 180,000 African American men served in United States Colored Troops Regiments. Mr. Purvis seems to accept this basic and uncontroversial premise, but asks me to cite how many people died in contraband camps and how many African Americas were “forced” to join the USCT regiments, as if any of that is relevant to the discussion at hand (the point, of course, is that enslaved people ran away in the first place). He demands that I also cite an exact number of how many “loyal” slaves stayed at their enslavers’ plantations during the war, as if a precise number actually exists in the historical record and I’m just ignoring the “facts.” Such a number, of course, doesn’t exist, which is why I don’t offer one. Who at the time would have even collected this figure? I’d rather not speculate other than to say that it certainly happened from time to time because a qualified statement admitting the uncertainty of the question is what a responsible scholar would do in the absence of hard numbers.

Mr. Purvis assumes that I mention the Emancipation Proclamation in this discussion to argue that all slaves were freed by the document, when in reality I mentioned the proclamation only as it related to offering a path for free and enslaved blacks to enlist in the United States military. The Proclamation, of course, only applied to the status of slaves in the Confederate states that were still in active rebellion against the U.S. government in 1863. That doesn’t mean that all enslaved people in rebel territory, upon hearing news of the Proclamation, decided to stay home. Again, Mr. Purvis acknowledges this basic fact when agreeing with me that hundreds of thousands of enslaved people ran away for contraband camps (which occurred throughout the duration of the war) and the USCT regiments after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Mr. Purvis finally concludes by quoting me out of context and getting to his real conclusion – that the “loyal” slaves who chose to stay home did so because they actually supported the Confederacy. That claim assumes, without documentary evidence, that these enslaved people in all cases voluntarily chose to stay home because they agreed with the political goals of the new Confederate nation. Mr. Purvis, as stated earlier, demands that I document how many black men were allegedly “forced” to join the USCT regiments, but then doesn’t bother to acknowledge that many (if not most) of the enslaved people who stayed home did so because they were forced to do so by their enslavers! The idea that enslaved people faced a number of tough and unfavorable choices during the war–that the path to freedom or even the meaning of freedom itself was not self-evident, that enslaved people often stayed back not out of an ideological conviction in support of the Confederacy but because they often had no other choice (especially when the U.S. military had no presence in the area), and that the choice to run away towards a potentially dangerous and uncertain future was one that some enslaved people declined to make for a myriad of reasons–completely escapes the mind of Mr. Purvis.

It appears to me that Mr. Purvis chooses to bend the historical record to suit his own agenda. He doesn’t think the “Uncle Jack” statue is controversial and that it merely depicts a polite black man with good manners. That other people besides himself–black and white–understand the historical context of this statue and find it controversial and offensive is wholly irrelevant to him. That public historians and other scholars would question whether this statue should be in a place of honor and whether there are other ways to interpret it is an affront to his sensitivities and a threat to his preferred narrative of Civil War history. And by trying to redirect this conversation towards alleged misdeeds against freedpeople in contraband camps and “forced” enlistments in United States Colored Troops Regiments instead of dealing squarely with my arguments or acknowledging that enslaved people who stayed home often did so not out of loyalty to their enslavers or the Confederacy, Mr. Purvis almost suggests in a subtle way that maybe slavery wasn’t so bad in comparison to the evils black people faced in a post-emancipation world.

I respect the fact that folks will sometimes disagree with me and I welcome dissenting opinions on this blog, contrary to Mr. Purvis’s earlier claims that I am trying to “ban” him from this website for his opinions (I have approved all of his comments up to this point in time). But I don’t think it’s too much of me to ask that people actually read what I have to say and engage with the arguments I make rather than trying to divert the conversation towards wholly irrelevant topics that have nothing to do with what I am trying to discuss. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but not all opinions are entitled to respect, especially if they don’t have evidence to back them up.

I wish Mr. Purvis good luck with own pursuits and interests in life, but it’s time to move on to something else. Thanks for reading.

Cheers

Richard Evans on Truth, Objectivity, and the Boundaries of Reasonable Historical Interpretation

Over the past week I’ve been reading Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial by Richard J. Evans, a British historian noted for his scholarship on modern German history. The book is fantastic, a must-read for its discussions of Nazi history and the nature of historical research and interpretation.

Evans wrote the book after serving as chief historical adviser and witness for the defense team in a famous libel suit that took place in a British court in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The suit was brought on by David Irving, a now-largely discredited “historian” of World War II and Nazi history who was accused by author Deborah Lipstadt of being a Holocaust denier in a book she wrote about the topic. Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books UK, enlisted Evans’s help in determining whether or not Lipstadt’s claims about Irving were true and, if so, how Irving manipulated the historical record to exonerate Adolf Hitler and minimize the horrors of the Holocaust. These challenges were particularly difficult for the defense team because British libel laws assume that accusers/plaintiffs in these cases are acting in good faith, which in turn essentially throws the burden of proof on the defense instead of the plaintiff. Evans and several PhD candidates spent more than a year and half researching Irving’s works, primary source documents, and other relevant historiography, and Evans himself spent several days in the witness box during the trial.

While the case was primarily concerned with determining whether or not Irving had manipulated the historical record to promote his political agenda (and NOT whether or not the Holocaust had occurred in the first place), it proved to be an interesting one for the entire historical enterprise because it also raised important questions about truth, objectivity, and the boundaries of reasonable interpretation in historical scholarship. The entire profession, in a sense, was on trial. One journalist at the trial–responding to Irving’s claims that the memories of thousands of Holocaust survivors were subject to dismissal because of the victims’ delusional thinking and a vast conspiracy by the Jewish community to perpetuate falsehoods about the Holocaust–remarked that:

It is history itself which is on trial here, the whole business of drawing conclusions from evidence. If Irving is able to dismiss the testimony of tens of thousands of witnesses, where does that leave history? If we can’t know this, how can we know that Napoleon fought at Waterloo or that Henry VIII had six wives? How can we know anything? . . . If we start to doubt corroborated facts, how can we prevent ourselves being swallowed up in doubt, unable to trust anything we see? It might all be a conspiracy, a legend, a hoax. This the bizarre, never-never world inhabited by David Irving. Now the court has to decide: is this our world too? (195)

In the course of researching and testifying at the trial Evans uncovered instance after instance in which Irving intentionally manipulated historical evidence by selectively choosing, altering, and misquoting documents, falsified quantitative data, and relied on primary sources that were universally declared by trained historians to be forgeries and/or deliberate falsehoods. Evans presented substantial evidence suggesting that Irving had consistently argued in books, interviews, and talks that Hitler neither knew about or ordered violence against Jews during Kristallnacht or their total extermination during World War II; that gas chambers were never used to kill Jews during the war; that the figure of six million Jews killed was a deliberate exaggeration perpetuated in part by the Jewish community (Irving placed the number of Jews killed around 100,000, most of which he attributed to disease at the concentration camps); and that the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in 1945 had actually killed upwards of 250,000 Germans instead of the roughly 25,000 that most contemporary officials reported at the time and most historians accept as an appropriate figure today. Downplaying the total number of Jews killed by the Nazis and playing up the total number of Germans killed at Dresden, of course, allowed Irving to argue that the conduct of Allied forces during the war towards Germany was harsher and more brutal than Nazi actions towards European Jews. Evans proves without a doubt in Lying About Hitler that all of these claims are absolute bunk.

The courts found in favor of Deborah Lipstadt and the defense team in 2000. She had not committed an act of libel when she claimed that Irving was a Holocaust denier, and it was determined that Irving had in fact manipulated the historical record to justify his antisemitic and racist views.

Evans neatly summarizes some of the central issues this case raised for the historical enterprise in the last chapter of Lying About Hitler. He asks two questions:

  • “What are the boundaries of legitimate disagreement among historians?”
  • “How far do historians’ interpretations depend on a selective reading of the evidence, and where does selectivity end and bias begin?”

Evans argues that while historians frame their questions from a range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches, they are obligated to read historical evidence “as fully and fairly as they can.” Using Joseph Goebbels’s diary as a case study, he asserts that it is useless to cherry-pick quotes from the diary to support an argument when another historian could pick other quotes and potentially refute your argument. “What a professional historian does,” Evans argues, “is to take the whole of the source in question into account, and check it against other relevant sources, to reach a reasoned conclusion that will withstand critical scrutiny by other historians who look at the same material . . . Argument between historians is limited by what the evidence allows them to say” (248-250). He then uses a metaphor that I find extremely convincing to reinforce his points:

Suppose we think of historians like figurative painters sitting at various places around a mountain. They will paint it in different styles, using different techniques and different materials, they will see it in a different light or from a different distance according to where they are, and they will view it from different angles. They may even disagree about some aspects of its appearance, or some of its features. But they will all be painting the same mountain. If one of them paints a fried egg, or a railway engine, we are entitled to say that she or he is wrong; whatever it is that the artist has painted, it is not the mountain. The possibilities of legitimate disagreement and variation are limited by the evidence in front of their eyes. An objective historian is simply one who works within these limits. They are limits that allow a wide latitude for differing interpretations of the same document or source, but they are limits all the same (250).

Hats off to Dr. Evans’s important work in this case, both for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust but also the historical enterprise as a whole.

Cheers

Louisiana’s “Uncle Jack” Statue and the Problem of Interpreting Iconography in History Museums

In 1894 The Confederate Veteran, a magazine edited and published by Confederate veterans of the Civil War, offered an op-ed proposing the erection of new statues throughout the South in honor of the “faithful” slaves who stayed behind on their enslavers’ properties during the war. To wit:

It seems opportune now to erect monuments to the Negro race of the war period. The Southern people could not honor themselves more than in cooperating to this end. What figure would be looked upon with kindlier memory than old “Uncle Pete” and “Black Mammy,” well executed in bronze? By general cooperation models of the two might be procured and duplicates made to go in every capital city of the South at the public expense, and then in the other large cities by popular subscription . . . There is not of record in history subordination and faithful devotion by any race of people comparable to the slaves of the Southern people during our great four years’ war for independence.

For more than thirty years no Southern state took heed of these suggestions, but in 1926 a successful businessman in Natchitoches, Louisiana, commissioned the erection of a statue “dedicated to the faithful service of black people who had played an instrumental role in the building of Louisiana.” Although Jackson Lee Bryan was born after the Civil War in 1868, his privileged upbringing on Hope Plantation in Natchez, Louisiana, provoked nostalgic memories of earlier days when happy, contented black people slaved away on his parents plantation. Bryan committed $4,300 to erecting a statue, which was designed by Hans Schuler, Jr. the following year.

Photo Credit: Abagond https://abagond.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/uncle-jack-the-good-darky/
Photo Credit: Abagond https://abagond.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/uncle-jack-the-good-darky/

The Uncle Jack Bronze Statue, which is often referred to as “The Good Darky,” has an inscription stating that this statue was “Erected by the City of Natchitoches in Grateful Recognition of the Arduous and Faithful Service of the Good Darkies of Louisiana. Donor, J. L. Bryan, 1927.” At the dedication ceremony a resolution was passed stating that “the faithful and devoted service rendered by the old Southern slaves, in working and making crops and taking care of the [white] women and children, while their masters were away for many years, fighting to keep them in slavery, has never been equaled.”

Public iconography commemorating a historical person, event, or period serves a dual purpose in that it tells us something about both the historical moment being commemorated and the period in which the iconography is being erected. Uncle Jack, portrayed as an elderly black man in this statue, acts as a symbolic representation of both the 1860s and 1927. During the war the idealized Uncle Jack stayed at his enslaver’s home and faithfully tended to his duties even though the temptations of freedom knocked on his door. By 1927 Uncle Jack understood his role in Southern society and even embraced it, happily bowing his head and symbolically tipping his hat to the white society that had ostensibly provided care and protection for him throughout his life. Uncle Jack acknowledges that he doesn’t have the same rights as white people: he can’t vote, serve on juries, or use the same public facilities as white people, but these inconveniences are but a small price to pay for a more advanced, progressive society organized by the dictates of scientific racism, Jim Crow laws, and white supremacy. These are the messages the creators of “The Good Darky” monument hoped to impart on their viewing audiences.

Any casual student of nineteenth century U.S. history can easily see how this statue distorts what actually happened during the war. Hundreds of thousands of slaves ran away to contraband camps as United States forces regained control of lands throughout the South; roughly 180,000 African American men enlisted in the military through United States Colored Troops regiments following President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation; and many other slaves, even if they didn’t run away, provided valuable reconnaissance and intelligence to U.S. forces in their effort to destroy the Confederacy. Some enslaved people may have stayed home out of a genuine sense of loyalty to their enslavers, but many were forced to stay simply because they had no other place to go or choice to make.

Uncle Jack’s life was priceless in the days of slavery, but his life became worthless in the war’s aftermath. He possessed nothing but his freedom, and that freedom was meager at best.

In 1968 black activists vandalized the Uncle Jack statue, and apparently somebody chucked the statue into a nearby river. The statue was recovered and removed from public view, however, and stored at the Natchitoches Airport for four years. Jackson Bryan’s daughter, Jo Bryan Ducournau, desired a new public location for the statue, and she began fielding offers from interested parties. Although some local residents wished for the statue to return to its original location, Ducournau and other civic leaders throughout Louisiana believed the statue would fit better in a museum where its meaning could be interpreted and contextualized by museum professionals (sounds like a familiar strategy, eh?). The statue was placed on public display at the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum in 1974, and it remains there today.

Despite the museum’s stated purpose of interpreting “life ways of the working classes of the 18th and 19th centuries” in the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi River Valley, its leaders have largely failed in this endeavor with regards to the Uncle Jack Statue. Historian and sociologist James Loewen, writing in Lies Across America: What American Historic Sites Get Wrong, asserts that:

When statues become controversial . . . civic leaders sometimes suggest that they be carted off to a museum. The statue of ‘The Good Darky’ shows what can go wrong with that solution. Although run by a university, the Rural Life Museum has not used ‘The Good Darky’ to ‘provide insight into the largely forgotten lifestyles and cultures of pre-industrial Louisiana,’ the museum’s avowed purpose. Instead, it situated the statue in a place of honor. No plaque gives any information about its history or symbolic meaning, and on the layout of the museum given to every visitor, it is identified by the familiar segregationist form of address, ‘Uncle Jack.’

Beyond the writing of interpretive text markers or plaques I would be absolutely shocked if any sort of facilitated dialogue or interpretive program ever takes place at this statue. Loewen’s description of the statue’s interpretation (or lack thereof), which he wrote in 1999, still seems to be the same today in 2015. According to the Rural Life Museum’s online description of the statue:

Uncle Jack is still controversial today. Individual reactions vary: to some, it is an honor; to others, it’s demeaning; and still to others, it is fond reminiscences. However, everyone will agree that it is part of Louisiana’s history.

In the future [it] is hoped that an accurate interpretation of the statue will be revealed not only to our visitors but also to ourselves.

Whatever the hell any of that passive nonsense actually means.

So what do we do with this statue? Remove it? Find another way to recontextualize it in a museum setting? Relocate it to its original place? Each option presents its own challenges. Saying that removing the statue will be a morality play that “destroys history” or that all problems are solved by putting it in a museum setting seems incredibly mistaken to me in this particular instance.

Cheers