A few months ago I was contacted by The Civil War Monitor to read and review a couple new books for their Book Reviews section. It was very flattering to be asked to contribute to what I think is one of the best Civil War history magazines in the business right now. My first book review was posted a few days ago and can now be viewed on the Monitor’s website. I reviewed Stephen Davis’s A Long and Bloody Task, a slim volume on the first half of General Sherman’s march to Atlanta that is part of Savas Beatie’s ongoing Emerging Civil War series. If you’re interested in reading about General Sherman’s campaign I think the book is a worthwhile read, but I also believe there are some interpretive oddities throughout and a clumsy effort to incorporate the political context of the war into the book.
Check out the review and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!
The Washington Post recently wrote an article about an ongoing debate between economic historians and historians of capitalism (the two are not the same) about the role of slavery in the U.S. economy before the Civil War, particularly the relationship between slavery and capitalism. This debate has been taking place for a number of years, from what I can gather, but I find the Post’s handling of this extended conversation to be mildly annoying.
Generally speaking, the historians of capitalism argue that the two were intimately related and that slavery thrived and expanded in the U.S. precisely because of capitalism. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman have recently argued that the sheer number of enslaved people throughout the South, combined with Northern (and British) capital investment in the institution renders “an unclear line of demarcation between a capitalist North and a slave South, with consequences for how we understand North and South as discrete economies—and whether we should do so in the first place.” In the Post article we hear from Edward Baptist, another historian of capitalism, who argues that the torturing of enslaved people was foundational to slavery’s growth and expansion by forcing them to produce at higher and higher rates to account for the increased demand in slave-picked cotton during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Economic historians, on the other hand, generally caution that collapsing the distinctions between Northern and Southern economies runs the risk of complicating our ability to explain how the Civil War came about. If the institution of slavery was so strongly supported in the North, then how do you explain the rise of popular anti-slavery parties in the North during the 1840s and 1850s that campaigned on the argument that slavery was a threat to the value of one’s labor and a less efficient production system than one based on free labor principles? How do you explain the origins of a bloody civil war between the two sections if their economic systems were so intimately connected? Where do discussions over sectional disagreements about economic policies like tariffs, taxes, public land sales, and government involvement in infrastructure projects fit within the capitalist historians’ focus? Furthermore, in responding to Baptist, Alan Olmstead argues that new seed technologies accelerated cotton production and played the most crucial role in fostering slavery’s growth, not slave torture.
I don’t propose to offer any concrete answers to this discussion other than to say that I find the way the Post has framed the issue isn’t really productive. Must historians’ explanation for slavery’s growth in the United States–an incredibly complex topic that could take a lifetime to study–be whittled down to a single cause: torture or seeds? Isn’t it more plausible to suggest that the two ideas (and probably more) of the various camps can coexist and complement each other? I think so. Increased cotton production in the South by enslaved labor before the Civil War was possible because of political and economic policies (national, state, and local), social practices, scientific and religious beliefs, and a strong law enforcement/police state that allowed for this state of affairs to flourish and grow.
I do not mean to suggest that historians must put equal weight to all factors when explaining a particular historical event or topic; weighing out these factors is part of the fun in debating these issues. Whenever possible, I think the quantification of empirical evidence allows historians a chance to put more weight into their claims for one particular factor over another. But historians should always strive for complexity and nuance rather than either-or propositions as the Post would have us understand this topic. When the goal becomes over-simplification and monocausal explanations for complex historical processes, I think we end up doing more harm than good to the historical record.
Public historians who work in interpretation and education often find themselves in a uniquely different setting from that of a classroom history teacher. A classroom teacher typically has at least sixteen weeks to learn about his or her students and to build a relationship with them. The teacher typically works with those students from sixty to ninety minutes per classroom session, and the really good ones blend a range of pedagogical techniques throughout the semester that simultaneously foster teamwork, historical empathy, a better understanding of historical content for a given time period, enhanced reading, writing, and research skills, and a heightened appreciation of the importance of history in our daily lives.
Public historians share many of these same goals when working with their many publics, but the amount of time we have to communicate with them is much shorter. In my work with the National Park Service I typically get one ten-minute introductory talk to build a relationship with visitors of all different backgrounds and spark an interest in history within them. My interpretive narrative changes and evolves with each group I work with in the hope that I can meet people where they are on their own journey through history. In the public history world you must quickly learn how to work in small time spaces like mine. Moreover, you never know who will walk through that door to visit your site on a given day, which is simultaneously exciting and nerve-racking.
Those who work the front lines with their many publics are often trained to study historical content, put together an interpretive program based on a knowledge of that content, focus on exposing “multiple perspectives” to the past through the eyes of various historical actors and, if possible, make connections to present-day circumstances. These objectives are noble and challenging, especially because the historical content we interpret and the present-day connections we make are inherently political. If you work in public history long enough, you will run into a visitor who will object to the historical content you share, your intent to go beyond the historical perspective of White Anglo Saxon men, and the connections you make between the past and the present. These interactions can be difficult and emotionally draining. The recent news of increasingly hostile anti-immigrant comments from visitors to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City is but one example of tour guides experiencing a great deal of challenging visitor feedback about their interpretive stories and the messy politics of the present.
We are trained to understand the past but less often trained to deal with the present. While public historians should be prepared for confrontational visitors, how to work with these visitors to turn heated confrontations into meaningful interactions that promote learning and understanding is often left unsaid. What follows are a few simple tips that I’ve employed in my own interactions with confrontational visitors over the years.
Respectfully challenge visitors to further explain and defend their claims.
The purpose of education in my view is to encourage learning, which I broadly define as a change in thinking about and understanding of the world through experience, study, and interaction. When I experience a confrontational visitor, my first desire is to turn the interaction into a learning opportunity through dialogue. Public historians need to be well-versed in historical content and methods, but they also need to be effective conversationalists. Good public history practice is as much about being a respectful, attentive listener to visitor feedback as it is about effectively communicating historical content. When public historians demonstrate their willingness to listen, they establish trust with visitors and open the door for respectful interactions. They might also learn something from a visitor during the process!
When a visitor says something I might disagree with, I try to respectfully challenge that claim by encouraging the visitor to keep talking rather than telling them outright that they’re wrong. I like to use the following prompts:
“Tell me more.”
“What sources did you rely on to make that conclusion?”
“Where did you hear that claim? I’ve heard a few different viewpoints on this topic.”
“I want to better understand your perspective. What you do mean when you say…”
“There’s been a lot of debate about this topic. Have you read [enter a relevant work of scholarship] before? It might offer a different perspective worth considering.”
“Thanks for sharing your perspective. What made you interested in this topic?”
Each of these prompts challenges visitors to defend their position while also encouraging them to continue sharing their perspective with someone who’s willing to respectfully listen to them. I particularly like “tell me more” and “what sources did you rely on” because they put the onus on the visitor to explain and defend themselves. After listening and providing a few prompts to get the visitor talking, you then put yourself in a position to share your perspective and use your historical knowledge to direct the visitor towards resources they can use to learn more after the interaction has taken place. None of this is rocket science, but these prompts have been my best tools for challenging confrontational visitors.
Different circumstances require different sorts of responses from public historians.
While public historians should always strive to encourage visitor feedback and constructive dialogue, there are times when the best option is to stop the conversation and let it go. Some visitors will simply refuse to listen to you or give you the respect you deserve as an educator and scholar. Your emotions, self-respect, and dignity come first, and sometimes saying “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” is the only path forward.
There are other times where clearing up misinformation and historical inaccuracies stated by visitors requires a response more forceful than a dialogic method. For example, a visitor once argued to me that Abraham Lincoln was a slaveholder. It was necessary, in my view, to simply state right off the bat that such a claim is inaccurate and to explain that Lincoln lived in free states his entire adult life save for his time in Washington, D.C. I felt like we needed to be on the same page on this matter before engaging in a dialogue about Lincoln’s political views towards slavery.
So, in sum, each individual interaction with a visitor has unique circumstances attached to it. Public historians must determine on an individual basis how they’ll respond to the confrontational visitor, whether that be through dialogue, a more assertive approach that corrects inaccurate information, or a decision that the conversation is too heated and should be ended.
Never put labels on visitors. Challenge what they say and do rather than making claims about who they are.
The social commentator Jay Smooth says it best in the below video when he argues that if you hope to get through to a person and give yourself a chance to change their perspective, it’s more effective to focus on what they say then making claims about who they are. We don’t know the personal lives of our visitors or how their life experiences have shaped their particular perspective of the world. When the focus is on speculating about someone’s motives or putting labels on that person, the conversation turns into name-calling and the potential for a genuine learning opportunity is lost. Furthermore, your ability to hold someone accountable for their views becomes much tougher when you focus on names instead of words and actions. In my own work I often encounter visitors who believe the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. The easy response would be to call out the person’s incorrect view and accuse them of being a neo-Confederate. A more productive response would challenge that person using the above prompts to ask them how they came to that conclusion. Rather that saying that the person is a neo-Confederate, I can respectuflly state, using my knowledge of historical scholarship and contemporary debate, that what they’re arguing sounds like something a neo-Confederate might say.
What do you think? What strategies and technique do you utilize for working with confrontational visitors?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Christianity and political action within the context of both the Civil War Era and our own confused politics today. The Journal of the Civil War Era’s excellent civil war history blog, Muster, gave me a chance to write out some thoughts about these topics, and the final product was published earlier today. You can read it here. Please give it a read and let me know what you think.
A big thank you should be given to my friend and fellow public historian Christoper Graham, who proofread the essay and gave me some great suggestions for improving it.
The famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a fierce critic of the idea of scholarly “objectivity.” As Brandon Byrd points out in an excellent essay for the African American Intellectual History Society, Du Bois’s status at the turn of the twentieth century as a black professor at Atlanta University in the Jim Crow South exposed him to the necessity of fusing “scholarship and struggle . . . social analysis and social transformation” to remake American society upon the ideals of social and political equality and equal protection of the laws. Indeed, Du Bois understood long before most of his academic contemporaries that claims of “objectivity” and being “cool, calm and detached” in one’s work run the risk of merely being a rhetorical claim to unwarranted power and authority and the maintenance of the scholarly status quo.
Byrd’s essay reminded me of another work from the Du Bois canon: a chapter from his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) entitled “The Propaganda of History.” Historians correctly cite Black Reconstruction as a landmark publication in the historiography of Reconstruction scholarship. In a time when the Dunning School of though argued that Reconstruction was a complete failure and that the effort to enfranchise black men and engage in bi-racial governance after the Civil War was a mistake, Du Bois provided comprehensive statistical analysis and primary source evidence to argue that Reconstruction was actually an era of great civil rights achievements and remarkable evolution in both economics and legal practices in the United States.
Black Reconstruction is also a remarkable achievement, however, because it probes the philosophical depths of the historical enterprise itself. Is history a science or art? How do people remember the past over time, and how do those memories shape the way we understand history? Can a nation collectively write its own history in an objective fashion? In the chapter “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois argues that the history of Reconstruction taught in schools throughout the country at that time had been largely incorrect–even based on lies–because its authors were white supremacists who were “objective” in name only and because the United States was “ashamed” of its Civil War history. “The Propaganda of History” is a really remarkable essay for its time and I believe it still resonates today. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy!
“How the facts of American history have in the last half century been falsified because the nation was ashamed. The South was ashamed because it fought to perpetuate human slavery. The North was ashamed because it had to call in the black men to save the Union, abolish slavery and established democracy.
What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? . . . [A]n American youth attending college today would learn from current textbooks of history that the Constitution recognized slavery; that the chance of getting rid of slavery by peaceful methods was ruined by the Abolitionists; that after the period of Andrew Jackson, the two sections of the United States “had become fully conscious of their conflicting interests. Two irreconcilable forms of civilization . . . [with] the democratic . . . in the South, a more stationary and aristocratic civilization.” He would read that Harriet Beecher Stowe brought on the Civil War; that the assault on Charles Sumner was due to his “coarse invective” against a South Carolina Senator; and that Negroes were the only people to achieve emancipation with no effort on their part. That Reconstruction was a disgraceful attempt to subject white people to ignorant Negro rule . . .
In other words, he would in all probability complete his education without any idea of the part which the black race has played in America; of the tremendous moral problem of abolition; of the cause and meaning of the Civil War and the relation which Reconstruction had to democratic government and the labor movement today.
Herein lies more than mere omission and difference of emphasis. The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists. We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans. The editors of the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica asked me for an article on the history of the American Negro. From my manuscript they cut out all my references to Reconstruction. I insisted on including the following statement:
White historians have ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption. But the Negro insists that it was Negro loyalty and the Negro vote alone that restored the South to the Union; established the new democracy, both for white and black, and instituted the public schools.
This the editor refused to print, although he said that the article otherwise was “in my judgment, and in the judgment of others in the office, an excellent one, and one with which it seems to me we may all be well satisfied.” I was not satisfied and refused to allow the article to appear.
War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them. It was therefore soon conceived as neither wise nor patriotic to speak of all the causes of strife and the terrible results to which national differences in the United States had led. And so, first of all, we minimized the slavery controversy which convulsed the nation from the Missouri Compromise down to the Civil War. On top of that, we passed by Reconstruction with a phrase of regret or disgust.
But are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying Truth? If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with the accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations, there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.
If, on the other hand, we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment, then we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.
It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is “lies agreed upon”; and to point out the danger in such misinformation. It is indeed extremely doubtful if any permanent benefit comes to the world through such action. Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?
Here in the United States we have a clear example. It was morally wrong and economically retrogressive to build human slavery in the United States in the eighteenth century. We know that now, perfectly well; and there were many Americans North and South who knew this and said it in the eighteenth century. Today, in the face of new slavery established elsewhere in the world under other names and guises, we ought to emphasize this lesson of the past.
Moreover, it is not well to be reticent in describing that past. Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially, that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right. Slavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America, while the South was blameless in becoming its center. The difference of development, North and South, is explained as a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law.
One reads, for instance, Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization, with a comfortable feeling that nothing right or wrong is involved. Manufacturing and industry develop in the North; agrarian feudalism develops in the South. They clash, as winds and water strive, and the stronger forces develop the tremendous industrial machine that governs us so magnificently and selfishly today.
Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation, there is no room for the real plot of this story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded black millions in the fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy. Can all this be omitted or half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific? Or, to come nearer the center and climax of this fascinating history: What was slavery in the United States? Just what did it mean to the owner and the owned? Shall we accept the conventional story of the old slave plantation and its owner’s fine, aristocratic life of cultured leisure? Or shall we note slave biographies, like those of Charles Ball, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass; the careful observations of Olmsted and the indictment of Hinton Helper? . . .
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
No one reading the history of the United States during 1850–1860 can have the slightest doubt left in his mind that Negro slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and yet during and since we learn that a great nation murdered thousands and destroyed millions on account of abstract doctrines concerning the nature of the Federal Union. Since the attitude of the nation concerning state rights has been revolutionized by the development of the central government since the war, the whole argument becomes an astonishing reduction ad absurdum, leaving us apparently with no cause for the Civil War except the recent reiteration of statements which make the great public men on one side narrow, hypocritical fanatics and liars, while the leaders on the other side were extraordinary and unexampled for their beauty, unselfishness and fairness . . .
This, then, is the book basis upon which today we judge Reconstruction. In order to paint the South as a martyr to inescapable fate, to make the North the magnanimous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke in the whole development, we have in fifty years, by libel, innuendo and silence, so completely misstated and obliterated the history of the Negro in America and his relation to its work and government that today it is almost unknown. This may be fine romance, but it is not science. It may be inspiring, but it is certainly not the truth. And beyond this it is dangerous. It is not only ideals; it has, more than that, led the world to embrace and worship the color bar as social salvation and it is helping to range mankind in ranks of mutual hatred and contempt, at the summons of a cheap and false myth.”
Last year I wrote an essay about Ulysses S. Grant and a number of claims on social media alleging him to have owned slaves during the Civil War. Using primary sources in Grant’s own writing I demonstrated that these claims were completely false, and that a number of statements alleged to have come from Grant were actually made up quotes by people with too much time on their hands. The only enslaved person known to have been owned by Grant was William Jones, whom Grant freed in St. Louis in 1859. I wondered aloud if these claims intending to paint Grant as a slaveholding Union general spoke to a larger desire to portray the Civil War as a conflict that had little to do with slavery as a cause of the war. After all, how could the war be about slavery if the savior of the Union was a slaveholder? Moreover, I argued–and the credit for this argument goes to historian Brooks Simpson–that Grant’s views one way or the other towards slavery were irrelevant for understanding the causes of the Civil War since Grant had no political role in the coming of the war or the decision of eleven states to secede from the Union. He was a clerk for his father’s leather good store in Galena, Illinois, at the beginning of the war, far removed from the political crisis emerging in Washington, D.C. with the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
The other day I received three comments from a person eager to contest that essay, and one of his arguments (which had nothing to do with the subject at hand but is nonetheless revealing) seems to suggest that the Confederate Constitution could have been seen as calling for the eventual end of slavery in the Confederacy because it banned the international slave trade. Again, it wasn’t all about slavery! This claim is an interesting one and worth exploring further. Does it have any merit?
The U.S. Constitution states in Article 1, Section 9.1 that the international slave trade would be closed in 1808, but that Congress could not prohibit the trade until that time. The Confederate Constitution was in most regards almost an exact copy of the U.S. Constitution, and Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution also bans the international slave trade within the Confederate states. There are two significant changes in Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution, however. One is that while the U.S. Constitution only vaguely refers to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” the Confederate Constitution clearly stipulates that the subjects under consideration were “Negroes of the African race from any foreign country.” The other extremely significant change is that the Confederate Constitution did not call for a complete ban on the international importation of slaves. An additional clause stipulates that slaves from “the slaveholding states or territories of the United States of America” (which were now considered part of a foreign country) could still be imported into the Confederate states. The Confederate Constitution, in other words, still allowed for the importation of enslaved people from the border slaves states and Western territories like New Mexico that had not yet seceded from the Union.
This is when the date of the Confederate Constitution’s ratification comes into play. That constitution was adopted on March 11, 1861, roughly one month before the firing of Fort Sumter to start the Civil War. At that time there were only seven states in the Confederacy, and eight border slaves states remained in the Union: Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Banning the international slave trade was one method by which the Confederacy aimed to convince these states to secede, especially in the case of Virginia, whose economy by 1860 largely revolved around the interstate slave trade and the shipping of slaves to the South and West. By allowing the slave trade to continue between the U.S. and the Confederacy, the Confederate Constitution allowed the uncertain border slave states a chance to continue selling their slaves to the Confederate states in the short-term while they debated their next step. In the long-term, after these border slave states had ostensibly left the Union and joined forces with the Confederacy, their continued financial interests in the slave trade would not be challenged by international trade with slaveholding countries in South America, Africa, and elsewhere. Removing all protections for the domestic slave trade and embracing a “free trade” approach ran the risk of lowering the price of slave labor and putting border state slave traders out of business. There was also an international motivation for banning most of the international slave trade. The Confederacy attempted to make a pitch for support from European countries like England and France that had already banned slavery by demonstrating that they were willing to ban parts of the slave trade, even though they really had no desire of ending slavery as a whole any time soon.
Through these examples we can clearly see that the Confederacy’s banning of most of the international slave trade in its Constitution was not done in the hope of eventually abolishing slavery in the Confederacy, but to strengthen its domestic slave trade while hopefully winning points with England and France.
It’s also worth mentioning that a good number of Confederate supporters–although probably not the majority–supported the idea of re-opening the slave trade precisely because they knew it would help lower the cost of slave labor. James Paisley Hendrix, Jr.’s 1969 article in Louisiana History shows that support for a reopening of the trade increased greatly in the 1850s, and that a Southern convention in 1859 passed a resolution saying as much. The New Orleans Delta reflected these desires when they wrote an editorial in support of opening the trade, arguing that “We would re-open the African slave trade [so] that every white man might have a chance to make himself owner of one or more Negroes . . . Our true purpose is to diffuse the slave population as much as possible, and thus secure in the whole community the motives of self-interest for its support.”
So yeah, slavery had something to do with all of this.
Back in February I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Memphis to hear a talk from Dr. Andre E. Johnson and meet leaders at both the University of Memphis and the larger Memphis community to discuss efforts to commemorate the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The formal ceremony commemorating the event occurred in May. What follows is a brief essay I wrote following my trip to Memphis. At this point it is slated to be published in a future National Park Service Handbook on the Memphis Massacre, but I want to also share it with readers here on the blog.
My job with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) in St. Louis, Missouri, requires that I interpret difficult and contentious topics in nineteenth century American history, including slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction. The programs we offer at the park are reflective of a larger interpretive shift within the NPS over the past twenty years. This shift explicitly ties stories of emancipation and political debates over civil rights to the military aspects of the Civil War experience. By connecting political and military conflicts within a broader interpretive framework, the agency’s educational initiatives aim to demonstrate how the Civil War Era represented a prolonged and violent struggle over the meaning of American freedom. One such initiative is taking place at the University of Memphis, where NPS officials at ULSG recently began working with the university and other community members to raise awareness of one particularly harrowing event from the era: the Memphis Massacre of 1866.
One major takeaway from learning about the massacre and meeting community leaders in Memphis pushing for a public commemoration of this tragic event is that I’ve gained a better understanding of the evolving terminology scholars are currently using to describe racialized violence in American history. The words we use to describe historical events can say much about the ways we understand and remember the past, and they play a crucial role in providing context for describing historical events. Historically the May 1866 mass killing of African Americans in Memphis by white residents has been described by scholars and popular media as a “race riot.” This has also been the case with similar events in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921). But the leaders of this commemorative effort in Memphis have boldly and correctly reframed this event as a “massacre.” I believe riots and massacres are distinct from each other in two different ways.
The first distinction lies in the use of violence. In a riot there are usually two groups of people engaging in violence. One group attacks property, other citizens, and/or a government authority, while the second group—typically the government authority—responds by using law enforcement to shut down the first group, often through their own use of violence. In a massacre, however, only one group uses violence, and that violence is often targeted towards powerless groups unable to defend themselves. Under this terminology we can clearly say that what happened in Memphis was indeed a massacre of innocent victims, not a riot. In fact, governmental authorities in Memphis actually encouraged the plundering of black lives and property in the area. General George Stoneman, in charge of black and white Army troops at nearby Fort Pickering, stated as much in later Congressional testimony about the violence.
The second distinction lies in emphasis. The language of riots places the interpretive focus on groups engaging in violent attacks. The language of massacres, however, places the interpretive focus on the victims of those violent attacks, forcing us to ask why these people were targeted for the destructive treatment they received from oppressive social groups and government entities. By rebranding the events in Memphis in 1866 as a massacre, the National Park Service, scholars at the University of Memphis, and other community members are leading an important effort to commemorate the lives of black Memphians who attempted to carve an existence for themselves as freedpeople in a newly reconstructed country, but whose hopes and dreams for the future were destroyed over three days of deadly racialized violence towards their community.
Over the past two weeks a number of friends, colleagues, and visitors to the park felt compelled to share their perspective on the Confederate iconography discussion with me, pushing me to think about the role of honorific memorials in a slightly different way. Meanwhile a number of relevant news articles have popped up on social media and generated further discussion between myself and others. Rather than trying to combine all my thoughts into a coherent narrative, I offer readers a few bits and pieces of my present thinking on this topic.
1. Public Schools have a right to ban symbols that they and the community find offensive and/or threatening, including the Confederate Battle Flag.
Out in Montana a public high school banned the Confederate Flag after a white 17-year-old student made racist comments against blacks, allegedly threatened to hang and drag the lone black student on the road with his truck, and then showed up to school with a Confederate flag on that truck. The School administration responded in kind with the ban, which has now created a firestorm in the community about whether or not students have “free expression” rights to bring the flag to school. Whether or not the community is as concerned about the racist behaviors of some students on campus is left unsaid.
To be sure, the lone black student in the school, Darius Ivory, says he’s not phased by the waving of the Confederate flag, and that’s understandable. What else is he supposed to say in this situation if, as I suspect, he’s just trying to finish school and anxious to get the limelight off himself? A Confederate apologist who felt compelled to tweet his thoughts at me proclaimed victory in light of Ivory’s response. Hey, the Black kid doesn’t care about waving the Confederate flag, so why should the school care about it?! I think that point is irrelevant, however. It bears reminding that not everyone in a given racial group thinks alike or shares the same political views, nor does one person speak for an entire race. Some people in the black community are going to be more bothered by Confederate symbols than others. Ivory’s particular response to the situation doesn’t mean the racist 17-year-old’s actions in this case were appropriate, free of consequences, or fully divorced from his use of a Confederate symbol to further assert his views.
The question of Confederate symbols in schools goes far beyond the viewpoint of any one individual and depends upon the ways the symbol is being used. The Confederate flag within an educational context is certainly appropriate, but a situation similar to the one in Montana calls for a different response from school administrators. Schools have the right to ban offensive symbols and images on articles of clothing such as pornography and alcoholic beverages. Likewise, they have the right to ban threatening symbols such as the Nazi flag and gang-related colors. I don’t see the banning of Confederate symbols in schools as a “free expression” issue, at least as it relates to how any particular student views the issue. Isn’t this story reflective of the blessing of local control in educational matters – schools and communities working together to educate their children in learning settings that they deem safe and appropriate?
2. Some of the most outspoken Confederate apologists and “heritage advocates” are often their own worst enemy when it comes to defending the public displaying of Confederate icons.
Rickey L. Jones, a professor at the University of Louisville who is also black, recently wrote an op-ed calling for the university’s Confederate statue to come down. In response he received hate mail, personal attacks upon him and his family, and racist vitriol that sounds like the words of someone from 1860 and not 2016. Symbols and icons gain much of their meaning through the actions and words of their adherents. If the best argument Confederate apologists can muster in support of keeping up all Confederate iconography consists of personal attacks and blatant racism, they should not be surprised to find themselves and their arguments in retreat, nor should they be surprised when governments remove Confederate iconography from civic spaces and schools ban Confederate symbols from campus grounds.
If we wish to have a civil, honest, and meaningful discussion about the role of Confederate history and the ways we remember and commemorate it today, then we need to move beyond the silly stuff and engage with the history at hand and its significance to today’s society.
3. Calling for a given Confederate symbol to be taken down from a place of honor does NOT reflect a desire to erase or avoid the “warts” of history.
I have been accused several times of being “weak-minded” because there have been situations in which I believed the removal of a Confederate icon was appropriate, such as my long-standing support for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House. This is a ridiculous charge. Most of the advocates for a more critical approach to Civil War history and the way it’s commemorated are looking to have more conversations about the war. In reality it could be said that there are a lot of arguably “weak-minded” people who struggle to acknowledge the role of slavery and the politics of westward expansion in shaping the circumstances of war in 1861 because such acknowledgements threaten preferred narratives of the war as a conflict solely over states’ rights, tariffs, and/or federal tyranny. As Kevin Levin argued months ago, instances like the one in South Carolina are not so much about interpreting history so much as making a political statement that represents “how a community has chosen to remember the past in a certain place in a certain time.” (Or at least a select part of the community). Erecting a commemorative marker is as much an act of politics and selective memory of the past as much as an act of history.
4. The significance of America’s Commemorative Landscape is shaped by what’s missing from it as much as what’s currently there.
The Memphis Massacre of 1866–a tragic and harrowing event that greatly influenced the direction of the U.S. government’s Reconstruction policies after the Civil War–had a grand total of zero commemorative markers, statues, memorials, or monuments prior to the first of this month, when the Memphis NAACP and the National Park Service worked together to finally put up a historically accurate marker commemorating the event. That it took 150 years to publicly commemorate this event is reflective of a collective desire among Memphians and the country more broadly to forget this act of racialized mass violence and downplay the horrors committed upon blacks during the Reconstruction era. Where are the fighters against “erasing history” in this instance, and why did the Tennessee Historical Commission fight this effort to commemorate the Memphis Massacre? In the case of Reconstruction history, why are the Sons of Confederate Veterans opposed to commemorating Reconstruction history through the establishment of a National Park Site dedicated to its history?
5. Counter-Monuments and -Memorials are often inadequate substitutes for countering or overcoming iconography that celebrates and honors racism, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression.
Yale University recently announced that they would continue to name one of their residential colleges after John C. Calhoun, even though a large number of students and faculty have supported a name change for years. School administrators did decide to name another residential college after Anna Pauline Murray, a Black Civil Rights activist and graduate of Yale’s law school. (This move, I might add, was not really any different from the U.S. Treasury’s decision to eventually place Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill but continue to keep Andrew Jackson on the back). But as Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore argues, “It is not a just compromise to split the difference between Calhoun and Murray; there should be no compromise between such stark contrasts in values. The decision to retain the Calhoun name continues the pain inflicted every day on students who live in a dormitory named for a man distinguished by being one of the country’s most egregious racists.” There are times when splitting the difference and saying “both sides have valid arguments” isn’t enough. Again, we are talking about establishing places of honor for these people by naming residential halls after them. Is John Calhoun someone worthy of honor, and does he represent our values today? If the answers are no, then there’s no need for his name to be on a residential hall.
6. Do we place too much educational value on historical monuments, memorials, statues, and other icons that attempt to tell the story of America’s past?
I think it’s a question worth exploring farther. Historical icons are one tool for exploring and interpreting the past, but iconography often simplifies, distorts, and erases complex histories. If a person only learned their history through historical iconography, what would they tell the rest of us about their understanding of American history?
The National Park Service recently announced that it would be publishing an official handbook on the history of the Reconstruction era to be sold at Civil War and nineteenth century historic site gift shops within the agency. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book that I just finished reading, and yesterday I sat in on a one-hour webinar the agency hosted about the book and the NPS’s ongoing theme study to help designate a historic site dedicated to Reconstruction. No such sites currently exist within the agency.
I applaud all of these developments. It has been far past time for the Park Service to take Reconstruction history more seriously, and there are a number of crucial events that would make for an appropriate historic site worth preserving and interpreting. The recently-commemorated Memphis Massacre of 1866, for example, would be one such event worth commemorating in some way with an NPS site. Historians Gregory Downs and Kate Masur are in charge of the NPS Reconstruction Theme Study, and I have all the confidence in the world of their ability to lay out a blueprint for future NPS efforts. (I’d also add that there are plenty of Civil War-related sites that could be doing more right now to interpret Reconstruction in their educational programming, and this is something the entire agency should also be working on).
During the webinar, however, there was one element of the theme study that I found mildly concerning. For the time being the search for a potential site and the broader interpretive focus of the NPS’s educational programming on Reconstruction will be centered geographically on the former Confederate states and Washington, D.C. On the one hand I can understand this focus. The question of how to forge a political reunion between the former Confederate states and the rest of the country was paramount to establishing a stronger, consolidated United States in the future, and historians have traditionally emphasized the ways the South acted and was acted upon through the politics of the era. The political changes that occurred during Reconstruction include the establishment of three new Constitutional amendments, the expansion of federal power through government agencies like the Freedman’s Bureau and the Department of Justice (which was formed in response to growing Ku Klux Klan violence throughout the South), the expansion and protection of newly established civil rights for African Americans, and the process of transitioning white former Confederate soldiers and supporters into law-abiding U.S. citizens. To expand the NPS’s interpretive focus beyond the former Confederate states is probably too much at this point, and I understand that.
On the other hand, any holistic understanding of Reconstruction requires historians and the NPS to view the era as one of remarkable political, cultural, and economic transformation for the entire country, not just the South. The question of black voting rights was hotly contested and frequently rejected in statewide referendums throughout the North before the passage of the 15th amendment. Western settlement increased dramatically after the Civil War thanks the expansion of the country’s railroad infrastructure and the passage of the Homestead Act, which offered settlers publicly-held Western lands on the cheap. This westward expansion, however, directly led to some of the most violent clashes in American history between the U.S. Army and Indian Tribes all the way from the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean as settlers encroached upon lands once thought to be protected for the Tribes through treaty agreements. The restructuring of citizenship and voting rights in the North and the push to impose a Northern “free labor” political vision for the West represent two additional goals of Reconstruction that furthered the effort to establish a stronger political Union within the entire country. We might also look to border Union states like Missouri and Kentucky–where the federal government’s Reconstruction policies did not apply but where some of the most vehement complaints against policy initiatives and government overreach emerged–as places where a stronger historical analysis of the period are sorely needed. Reconstruction history is not just about the South.
Again, I understand the approach of the NPS theme study and the organizers’ caution to make the study too geographically broad. I do hope, however, that future academic and public historians will use the 150th anniversary of the Reconstruction Era and beyond to expand our historical inquiries to include events that occurred in the North, West, and Midwest. Let’s get to work!