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.
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.