Tag Archives: St. Louis

A Letter to the Editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Ronald C. White, Jr., a popular biographer who’s written several books about American Christianity and Abraham Lincoln, recently published a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant that’s been getting national attention. While I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet and admit that I’m skeptical as to how many new findings White will uncover in it, the book is getting a lot of buzz and will hopefully expose more people to Grant’s story.

My local newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, recently published its own review of White’s book by Harry Levins, a retired writer for the paper. The review itself was okay, although he screwed up a bit about Grant being inspired to protect Native Americans because of his experience in the Mexican-American War. I’m not really sure where Grant developed his views towards Indians, but they were more likely influenced by his time doing frontier duty in Washington Territory and California in the early 1850s and his friendship with Ely Parker when the two first met in Galena, Illinois, around 1860.

In any case, what was most irksome to me and a number of my co-workers was Levins’s mentioning of Grant’s Farm as a relevant site to visit in the St. Louis area while completely omitting any mention of us at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. I was encouraged by my supervisors to write a letter to the editor of the Post-Dispatch and it was published in today’s Sunday edition of the paper. Here it is:

***

In the book review (“A man of modesty, calmness,” Nov. 6) of author Ronald C. White Jr.’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Levins remarks that the book would be a useful read for local residents who might be taking guests to Grant’s Farm, the famous animal park operated by Anheuser-Busch InBev since 1954.

While Grant’s Farm is a wonderful family-oriented attraction worth visiting, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, a 10-acre unit of the National Park Service that lies directly across the street from Grant’s Farm, is another family-oriented attraction that readers should take note of. The site is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the historic White Haven home where Grant’s wife, Julia, grew up and where Grant himself tried to make a living as a farmer in the 1850s.

The site also explores the lives of the enslaved people owned by Julia’s father, Frederick Dent, and the history of St. Louis in the years during the Civil War era. The site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Perhaps readers of White’s biography will also be inspired to visit this national historic site and learn more about Grant’s connections to St. Louis.

Cheers

The Pruitt Igoe Myth

The other night I had a chance to watch the above documentary, The Pruitt Igoe Myth, about a failed public housing complex in St. Louis. Pruitt Igoe was billed in the 1950s as an example of smart urban planning and a model for future cities dealing with housing crises. The complex quickly ran into a myriad of funding and maintenance issues, however, and the complex became so dangerous that St. Louis police officers sometimes refused to go into the area. Pruitt Igoe was torn down in 1972, and the area where the complex was located is littered with dilapidated trees and brush today.

The “myth” that the movie describes is the idea that Pruitt Igoe failed mostly because of the poor black residents who lived there. Instead, the movie argues that other factors such as structural racism, government subsidization of outlying suburbs (aka White Flight) in St. Louis county that drove away crucial tax revenues for the city, and political ineptitude within the St. Louis Housing Authority all contributed to an idealistic initiative that was arguably too expensive to financially sustain long-term. As one interviewee says in the film, “you can’t build yourself out of poverty.”

Even though I’ve been a St. Louis resident for most of my life, I learned a lot of new things about the city’s history from this film. There’s a nice mix of oral histories from former residents of the complex and historical analyses from urban historians. If you’re into St. Louis or urban history and have 90 minutes to spare, give it a watch.

Cheers

Saying Goodbye: The Politics of Franchise Relocation in the “New NFL” Era

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last week the National Football League decided the St. Louis Rams would now be the Los Angeles Rams. The talented scholars at Sport in American History let me put my sportswriter’s hat on and submit a piece for the site, which went live today. I wrote about my disappointment as a St. Louisian who loved Rams football and made the case that the Rams relocation to Los Angeles sets a bad precedent for future NFL relocation crises. Writing this essay was simultaneously sad and liberating. Check it out here and let me know what you think.

Cheers

An Update on the Status of the St. Louis Confederate Monument

The Confederate Monument in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit: KDSK http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/stl-mayor-wants-to-rethink-confederate-statue/26164443/

The Confederate Monument in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit: KDSK http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/stl-mayor-wants-to-rethink-confederate-statue/26164443/

I hope readers have enjoyed the holidays in the company of loving friends and family.

As we wind down 2015–a year that current and future Civil War scholars will look back upon with much interest given all that has transpired with the nation’s commemorative landscape and Civil War memory–the St. Louis Post-Dispatch passes along news that the “St. Louis Confederate Monument Reappraisal Committee” has published a report on their investigation into the possibility of removing a historic monument dedicated to the Confederacy in downtown St. Louis and relocating it elsewhere. This effort was commissioned by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who broached the topic in April with a blog post suggesting that it was “time for a reappraisal” of this monument and its place of honor in Forest Park, a popular destination in the downtown area.

I wrote about that monument and my own reservations about relocating it a few days after Mayor Slay’s original post. I still hold a lot of the reservations I expressed in that original post, but my thinking on this subject has evolved since that time. The possibility of a change to the monument’s interpretive text and/or a relocation seems much more politically feasible now compared to then, and I am more reconciled to the idea of a relocation although I’m not fully sold on it. The number of changes to Confederate iconography throughout the country since the Charleston Massacre in June has been nothing short of astounding. Whether or not you support these changes, all can admit that they’ve come fast and in bunches.

The committee’s report clocks in at twenty-five pages. Here were some of the big points it addressed and a few of my impressions after reading the entire report:

  • In the committee’s very short history of the monument they note that while the United Daughters of the Confederacy provided financial support for erecting the monument, there was “what have been reported to be years of political controversy” leading up to the monument’s dedication in 1914, suggesting that not everyone was on board with the messages it intended to convey at the time of its unveling. Unfortunately the committee provides no further details as to who complained about the monument or what they complained about. The committee also adds that amid the Civil Rights Movement in 1964 the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy held a fiftieth anniversary re-dedication ceremony at the monument that highlighted the “many charitable works” of the SCV and UDC.
  • The committee solicited bids from contractors who could remove the monument from Forest Park. They estimate that the cost to dismantle the monument, move it to another site, prepare the new site for the monument, and re-erect it could cost as much as $268,580. Added to the financial challenge here is the Mayor’s request to use only private funds to remove the monument – no taxes. How would this process work and who would be willing to donate money to have the monument removed? The report does not tell us.
  • The committee reached out to a number of local institutions about submitting a proposal for receiving the monument. Although neither National Park Service site in St. Louis was contacted, numerous universities, cultural institutions, and Cavalry Cemetery were contacted. The committee requested that each institution, if interested, provide information within their proposal about the institution’s history, its primary audience and attendance numbers, educational programming, a budget for funding the monument, and a statement explaining why the organization would be an appropriate custodian for the monument. Every institution except for one declined to submit a proposal. An official with the University of Missouri-St. Louis left the most detailed response and stated that “I don’t believe that the sentiment of the faculty/staff would be favorable [to receiving the monument] and that the deliberations, in-and-of-themselves, may be divisive for the campus and our key stakeholders.” The monument is a political hot potato and they know it.
  • The relatively new and privately-owned Missouri Civil War Museum was the only institution to submit a proposal for the monument. The committee reported that the museum’s proposal offered to take full ownership of the monument at the City’s expense, but that said proposal “was incomplete and non-responsive to the RFP. The museum currently has no place at which it could display the monument. It informed the committee that it ‘is not interested in submitting any detailed plans of interpretation or exhibition of the monument’.” Indeed, a cursory glance at the proposal indicates that few of the committee’s questions were answered with any sort of detail. The tone of the letter leaves the impression that the museum believes it is doing the city and Mayor Slay a favor by relocating the monument to their facility. By allowing the transfer of the monument and all of its “social and political issues and problems” to the museum, they alone should have the right to determine budgetary and interpretive issues at their discretion without the city’s input.

The folks at the Missouri Civil War Museum are good people and their dedication to preserving historical artifacts related to Civil War history is unparalleled within the St. Louis area, but I don’t see this current proposal getting anywhere. I find it curious that the museum’s proposal asks for full ownership of the monument while simultaneously lacking any sort of detailed budgetary, educational, or exhibit plan. Given the relative newness of the museum and its expanding facilities I believe that at some future point the museum could be in a position to have an acceptable plan for housing the monument, but now does not seem to be the right time for such a transfer, and I get the impression that the committee feels the same way.

At this point there is a bigger question of community input that still needs to be figured out in this discussion before determining if and where the monument could be relocated or who might take ownership of it. So far the discussion has taken place entirely at the institutional level, from Mayor Slay’s blog post, to the formation of a monument committee, to the institutions that have been contacted about submitting proposals. Where do the perspectives of the St. Louis community fit into this conversation? Why not follow the example of other cities where town hall meetings and other community forums have been used to expand the conversation? While I respect the Missouri Civil War Museum’s work and appreciate their willingness to accept the monument, there are many stakeholders outside that museum’s realm who have not been heard through this process and–based on the language of the museum’s proposal asserting that all future decisions about the monument will be determined “entirely by our museum officials”–will not have a voice at the table under this proposal.

So…it appears that the committee report’s most useful insight is that no one knows what to do with this thing.

Cheers

A Brief History of U.S. Grant’s Hardscrabble Log Cabin

We at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis are often asked about a log cabin that Grant built on his in-laws White Haven estate while living on the property from 1854-1859. The log cabin attracts much curiosity from visitors partly because it still stands today, but it has been moved several times and is not located on the remaining ten acres the National Park Service preserves at White Haven today. It is currently located across the street from ULSG at Grant’s Farm, an animal park attraction run by Anheuser-Busch InBev on property now owned by the Busch family. But how did it get there?

When Ulysses and Julia Grant married in 1848, Julia’s father, Frederick Dent, gave the newlywed couple roughly 80 acres of property on the northern boundary of his 850 acre White Haven estate. (St. Paul Churchyard now sits on this part of the original property and in 1946 the Daughters of The American Revolution placed a marker commemorating Grant’s presence there). When Grant resigned from the U.S. Army in 1854 and moved to the White Haven property to be with his wife and kids, he began farming fruit and vegetable crops on this land. The next year he also began constructing a log cabin for his family that would eventually turn into a four-room home. Julia Grant later recalled this experience in her Personal Memoirs:

[Ulysses] thought of a frame house, but my father most aggravatingly urged a log house, saying it would be warmer. So the great trees were felled and lay stripped of their boughs; then came the hewing which required much time and labor; then came the house-raising and a great luncheon. A neat frame house, I am sure, could have been put up in half the time and at less expense. We went to this house before it was finished and lived in it scarcely three months. It was so crude and so homely I did not like it at all, but I did not say so. I got out all my pretty covers, baskets, books, etc., and tried to make it look home-like and comfortable, but this was hard to do. The little house looked so unattractive that we facetiously decided to call it Hardscrabble. [78-79]

This short-lived experience at Hardscrabble ended when Julia’s mother Ellen died in January 1857 and Frederick Dent asked the Grants to move back into White Haven, the main home on the property.

Hardscrabble remained on the White Haven property for a number of years after the Grants had lived there, but it was eventually moved to the nearby town of Webster Groves, where a real estate company conducted its business out of the home. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, Hardscrabble had fallen into disrepair. Cyrus F. Blanke, a coffee salesman eager to save the home and attract interest in his business, purchased Hardscrabble for $8,000 and moved it piece-by-piece to Forest Park in downtown St. Louis in preparation for the 1904 World’s Fair. They placed the home just east of where the St. Louis Art Museum is located today, and there the Blanke Coffee Company sold coffee to fair-goers and proudly celebrated Grant’s connection to the place.

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin circa 1890. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin circa 1890. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Following the World’s Fair questions once again emerged about the log cabin’s future as the Blankes expressed no interest in maintaining or moving the home. For several years it remained in Forest Park until the Busch family purchased it in 1907 and moved it to its current location. The roughly 250 acres of land where the animal park is located was originally part of the White Haven estate when the Dents and Grants owned it, but the Busch family purchased it from a later owner in 1903, four years before adding Hardscrabble to the property. This Busch property initially functioned as a home and hunting ground for the family, but in 1954 “Auggie” Busch opened “Grant’s Farm” to the public to showcase his exotic animals, offer free Budweiser beer, and give tours of Grant’s Hardscrabble cabin. This operation continues today, but unfortunately the site stopped offering tours of Hardscrabble about twenty-five years ago, so it remains quietly on display near the intersection of Grant and Gravois roads.

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin as seen today at Grant's Farm. Photo Credit: National Park Service, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin as seen today at Grant’s Farm. Photo Credit: National Park Service, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Major changes now appear to be coming to Grant’s Farm, however. Six of Auggie Busch’s children collectively own the property, and it was announced last week that four of the children have agreed to sell the property to the St. Louis Zoo. The zoo proposes to continue the current operation but also add a breeding ground for endangered species, a night zoo for nocturnal animals, rope courses and zip lines, and upgraded facilities. This plan is contingent upon taxpayer support of Grant’s Farm (which is currently funded through A-B InBev) and a judge’s order backing the four Busch children seeking to release the land from the family’s trust. But the situation is even more complex because one of the sons, Billy Busch, wants to keep the land in family hands and build a Kräftig Beer Brewery on the site, a plan his brother Adolphus supports. What happens next will have to be determined in court in early 2016.

Lost in all of this current conversation, however, is what might happen to U.S. Grant’s Hardscrabble log cabin. Neither the zoo or Billy Busch have commented on what they’d do with the home. Will it stay in its current location? Could it be open for interpretive tours again? Is there a chance it could be transferred to the National Park Service and moved across the street to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site? I have no idea what might happen, but it will be interesting to see what develops from here. I would love to see the house opened again for tours, whether that be at its current site or moved over to ULSG.

UPDATE: The St. Louis Zoo withdrew their offer to purchase Grant’s Farm from the Busch family in March 2016.

Cheers

“Will Teach 4 Food”: Museum Education and the Politics of Labor

Imagine that you are an emerging museum educator about to finish a museum studies or public history degree. You have closely studied historical methods, historiography, education theory, and visitor studies. You probably worked at least one unpaid internship while taking out thousands in loans to finish your degree. Now you’re about to start applying for jobs.

You start browsing job openings online and find one that sounds almost perfect to you: K-12 Museum Educator. There is much appeal in this job. You get to work with a diverse range of students teaching them the importance of history in our daily lives. You get to teach them about the ways history is viewed through multiple perspectives and help them better understand local and national history. You get regular training and professional development as a part of your job. And you don’t have to grade papers at the end of the day!

The qualification requirements suggest that you’re probably in good shape. The museum asks that you posses at least two years of college, but a BA is preferred. You’ve got that. But then you look at the fine print, and your overpriced Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte falls to the floor: you will be paid only $9 an hour and limited to working 15-25 hours a week if you get hired for this job.

You may have just drank your last Pumpkin Spice latte.

Fortunately this sort of frustrating situation never occurred during my own search for a public history job last year, but this job posting is real and comes to you courtesy of the Missouri History Museum. And, sadly, I am sure there are many other desperate people out there who are probably going to apply for this job because they have no leverage and no other options save for abandoning the museum/public history field for other employment.

It’s a shame that so many talented and educated people are forced to live on a teenager’s wages if they hope to have a chance of breaking into this field. True, there are many small museums and institutions that are working on shoestring budgets, and perhaps–perhaps–they can be excused for relying on volunteers, unpaid interns, and/or part-time employees to keep the boat above water. But a popular, well-endowed institution like MOHIST paying its educators barely above minimum wage is simply inexcusable.

The taxpayers of St. Louis city and county give the Missouri History Museum ten million dollars a year for operating costs. The museum’s former President, Robert Archibald, ran the institution for twenty-five years and was making an annual salary of $515,000 by 2012. But then Mr. Archibald ran into trouble when an audit revealed that he and another museum board trustee spent $875,000 of the museum’s money, without an appraisal, on a tract of land that was valued by the city of St. Louis for only $232,000. A lot of taxpayers were angered when they heard that news, and eventually local politicians and the museum board forced Archibald to retire. Luckily for Mr. Archibald, however, upon retirement he cashed in his vacation days and sent in a bill for a six-month consulting project he had recently participated in, and the same museum board that called for his retirement compensated him with a cool $820,000 payout. This action also led to a lot of taxpayer head-scratching, and in order to save face the museum board announced that they would not use any taxpayer dollars for Mr. Archibald’s payout. Instead the money would unexpectedly come through private donations from people like Marian and Ethel Herr, twin sisters who regularly volunteered and collectively left $900,000 to the museum after Marian died in 2010. But museum educators? Nine bucks an hour for you! We’ll even tweet the job opening using the hashtags #museumjobs and #STLjobs to make it seem like this is a really important and highly valued position within our institution.

Whether you’re interested in teaching in a classroom, a museum, or anywhere else, you learn quickly that the closer you are to students and/or the public on a daily basis, the less money you make compared to the administrators who almost never interact with the same students or public audience. Society pays a lot of lip service to the importance of education in enriching children’s lives, but they don’t pay much money to actually do that work. The museum world is particularly guilty because they want to have their cake and eat it too. There are a record number of museum studies and public history undergrad and graduate programs in the United States today, and the opportunity to get a good education in these fields has never been easier. But with the increase in programs comes an increase in educated candidates looking for gainful employment. Credential creep occurs as more and more overqualified candidates fight for a limited number of available jobs that have not kept pace with the number of graduates on the market. Similar jobs to the one posted by MOHIST, as Kelly Gannon of Emory University pointed out to me, often provide no career track or hope of a future promotion. Wages get driven down and future museum educators find themselves fighting for crumbs. This “Yoga Instructor Economy” works great for the museum industry as a whole, but it absolutely sucks for its workers, including those interested in education.

To be sure, I actually love the Missouri History Museum. I enjoy many of their exhibits, and their work in helping to heal the St. Louis community in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting last year should be commended. I am going for a visit within the next few days and will continue to be a regular visitor as long as I live in the St. Louis area. I also wouldn’t take away a single penny from the museum’s ten million dollars in tax revenue. But I am not just a patron of this industry – I am a worker too, and people like me who have been encouraged to dedicate our lives to history, museums, and informal education ought to be compensated in a way that allows us to put food on the table, gas in our cars, and money towards our mortgages. I am lucky to be in a good financial position with my current job, but I know so many people who are unemployed or underemployed, and I hate seeing it.

Cheers

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!

 

Confederates At the Bridge

This past Saturday I attended a very nice wedding in Southern Illinois. The drive to the ceremony was like any other adventure through the Land of Lincoln (boring!), but a couple attractions along Interstates 70 and 64 caught my attention and prompt me to write yet another (and hopefully the last one for a while) post on Confederate iconography in American society today.

I started my drive in St. Charles county, Missouri, and within minutes of getting onto Interstate 70 I noticed a demonstration on a bridge above the highway with roughly fifteen men waving just about every Confederate flag that existed during the Civil War, from the “Stars and Bars” to the Battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and everything in between. The purpose of this demonstration was unclear; there were no signs identifying the group or a message stating their purpose. For this reason it’s hard to speculate this group’s motivations, but I have traveled on this road for nearly my entire life and have never seen such a demonstration before. You can’t help but wonder if the vocal backlash against Confederate iconography in the wake of the Charleston Massacre in June has something to do with it.

I continued my drive and eventually crossed over into Illinois on Interstate 64. As I neared Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County I observed yet another demonstration that included the waving of a Confederate flag! This time the group had a number of signs explicitly stating their message:

“IMPEACH OBAMA!”

“ISLAM IS NOT A REAL RELIGION!”

This time there were two flags being waved. One was an American flag. The other was a Confederate flag conveniently displayed right next to the Obama sign.

Waving an American flag makes sense in this context, even if you disagree with the message. Historically all sorts of political groups from the Second Ku Klux Klan to the Communist Party USA have used the American flag to symbolize their beliefs and give them validity. The fact that libertarians, conservatives, liberals, socialists, and communists find meaning in the American flag is a testament to the fluidity (and ambiguity) of our nation’s fundamental principles. By flying the red, white, and blue, the demonstrators at this bridge wished to appropriate the American flag’s symbolism to reflect their own values and ideological views. They wanted to show drivers that they are true American Patriots who care deeply about the state of their nation, which they believe is now imperiled because of the President.

But why fly a Confederate flag alongside the American flag and a sign calling for Obama’s impeachment? Why not fly just the American flag or, if necessary, a “Don’t Tread on Me” Sign? Would these demonstrators whip out a Confederate flag if they were protesting the actions of Presidents Reagan, Bush, or Clinton? These people believe they are losing their freedoms, and in a way the Confederate flag’s use has always symbolized the perceived loss of freedom. But given the Confederate flag’s long history as a symbol of opposition to Civil Rights legislation and racial equality, one can easily conclude that the flag was also there because the demonstrators’ dislike for our nation’s first black President stems at least in part from their racism. There is also something to be said about their mistaken belief that he is a practicing Muslim, but that’s a different topic for another day.

In the wake of the Charleston Massacre the economist Thomas Sowell was quick to warn against “trying to make up for the past with present-day benefits” from the welfare state. He expressed a desire to see the country repudiate racism, find a path towards national racial reconciliation, and come to terms with the results of the Civil War. Sowell, however, did not direct this message to the wavers of Confederate flags. He instead directed it to who he describes as “professional race hustlers” like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the Black Lives Matter Movement (which, ironically, has had a very limited public association with either Sharpton or Jackson). In Sowell’s rendering these hustlers are bent on perpetuating a new civil war within the country and destroying its history by renaming every memorial and landmark that is scared in our collective memory. And in a strange leap of logic, he concludes that the result of a victorious Black Lives Matter movement “could ultimately accomplish [Dylann Roof’s] dream of racial polarization and violence.”

There is certainly room for debate about the tactics and methods of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Veteran Civil Rights Activists from the 1960s don’t even agree about the effectiveness of the movement’s approach so far. And Sowell’s desire for national reconciliation and racial healing is a sentiment I share. But his hyperbolic warnings to the “race hustlers” lose their substance when white modern-day Confederates without an ounce of reconciliation in their souls go to interstate bridges on Saturday mornings to wave the symbols of a failed government whose cornerstone foundation was based on white supremacy. Are the people peacefully demonstrating at Black Lives Matter protests the actual race hustlers bent on perpetuating a state of war, or is it the people flying the Confederate flag under the ambiguous cloak of “heritage” who are the actual race hustlers still bent on fighting the Civil War?

It should go without saying that everyone has the right to freely express themselves and wave as many Confederate flags as they want at their homes or at bridges on top of busy interstates. Likewise, I have had my own criticisms of President Obama and don’t approach this discussion as an apologetic defender of his administration. It would be nice, however, if the people so proudly waving this flag could be a little more self-reflective about the history of their beloved symbol and its divisive nature. I wish people would care about the betterment of their communities and a more just society for all Americans as much as they care about their Confederate flags.

Cheers

Creating Sound Arguments: Personal Experiences vs. Structural Realities

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Do you remember that time about a year and a half ago when Duck Dynasty actor Phil Robertson made some questionable remarks about homosexuals and black people during an interview with GQ? A&E, Robertson’s employer, decided to put Duck Dynasty on hiatus; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal misinterpreted the meaning of the first amendment; some of your friends probably joined an “I Support Phil Robertson” Facebook group on the website and claimed in harried status updates that Christians in the U.S. were now being persecuted for their beliefs; and then A&E–caving into the criticism against their choice to suspend Duck Dynasty–came to their senses and lifted the suspension nine days later when they remembered that ratings have always dictated the ethics of television programming.

The whole episode was a waste of time and maybe even a ploy by GQ and A&E to manufacture a controversy and garner attention for themselves. But I learned an important lesson during this “crisis ” that’s stuck with me ever since. That lesson is that there are many logical shortfalls to making arguments about the world based on personal experiences and perceptions. This lesson simultaneously applies to the ways we talk about contemporary society and how we talk about history.

When asked about racism in his native Louisiana in the 1950s and 60s before the Civil Rights Movement, Robertson relied on personal experience to argue that life wasn’t so bad for African Americans back then:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

There are many ways to interpret these comments. A generous interpretation could suggest that Robertson really was telling the truth about his experiences and that life really wasn’t that bad for the black people in his community. A more cynical interpretation could argue that Robertson’s status as a beneficiary of a racist system of legal segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence against black people may have blinded him to the actual hardships of his neighbors, and that his suggestion about African Americans becoming discontented and “singing the blues” only after the rise of the welfare state is offensive. My thoughts lean towards the latter interpretation, but that’s beside the point.

Relying on personal anecdotes to explain a society’s political, economic, and social foundations generally results in poor arguments that don’t advance the conversation because they are used at the expense of compelling evidence about a society’s systematic and structural regulations, policies, and philosophies. Robertson’s perceptions of racism or lack thereof in his own community tell us something about Phil Robertson’s view of reality in 1950s America, but they don’t necessarily reflect the structural workings of 1950s American governance. Across the United States blacks in impoverished communities at this time were offered fewer opportunities in the labor market, education, housing, and quality health care. It is not difficult to find this information or accept these realities, regardless of what Phil Robertson says or whether or not he is accurately describing an objective reality of his upbringing.

I make these points because it’s so easy to rely on personal experience as the final arbiter of truth without acknowledging the limited and flawed nature of our perceptions. Here in St. Louis, for example, I had no idea that various municipal governments were using aggressive policing and exorbitant ticket fees from petty misdemeanors to fund their operations on the backs of impoverished people until Radley Balko reported on it for the Washington Post in September. A Robertson-esque response to the Balko report might argue that “the police in my community treat everyone with respect. Nobody is discriminated against by the police on account of race, ethnicity, or class. People just need to follow the law and they’ll be just fine.”

That argument might very well be true for some people, myself included! Every police officer I’ve met in my area of St. Louis has treated me with kindness and respect. I have no doubt that those hard-working people are doing everything they can to keep my community safe. But just because I haven’t been witness to the corruption of these municipal governments does not mean that they don’t exist or that no one else has suffered. My experiences and those of others here in the area only make sense once they are fit together within a larger social, political, and economic context that explains how structures shape our society.

And just like Phil Robertson, we are always relying on personal experience to explain the past. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of arguments from ancestors (typo!) descendants of Confederate soldiers who claim that their ancestors did not fight for the Confederacy on account of their support for slavery but instead fought for things like honor, defense of home, allegiance to the South, etc. For that reason, they argue, the Confederate flag is not just a flag of white supremacy. Again, that might very well be true for some. I readily accept that the Confederate flag has many layers of meaning, but the personal experiences of your ancestors tell us more about the experience of soldiering during the Civil War than anything about the political disagreements that precipitated the war. Soldiers and politicians often have very different motivations for participating in wars, and the vast majority of Civil War soldiers on both sides had no political role in the debates over secession in 1861. Therefore any discussion of a Confederate soldier’s desire to fight on behalf of “defending his family” (and not for slavery) is inadequate until you also take a look at the bigger picture and acknowledge what the politicians were willing to go to war over in the first place. It wasn’t states’ rights.

Are personal experiences unimportant or useless? Of course not. I would argue, however, that they are inadequate determinants for explaining how the world works. Our experiences don’t happen in isolated bubbles. We must account for that.

Cheers

Did Ulysses S. Grant Own Slaves During the Civil War?

Over the past few days I’ve observed at least three postings on social media perpetuating an old, hackneyed claim about Ulysses S. Grant that has resurfaced in force. The reasons for its resurgence should be obvious to most readers, but it will suffice to argue here that a heightened uncertainty about the appropriate place for Confederate iconography in U.S. society has mobilized some Confederate apologists into a fighting position on the front lines of history. Their claim about Grant goes a little like this:

U.S. Grant had several slaves who were only freed after the 13th amendment in December of 1865. When asked why he didn’t free his slaves earlier, Grant stated that “Good help is so hard to come by these days.”

As Abraham Lincoln argued in 1862, “don’t trust everything you read on the internet,” and this claim is patently false despite its seemingly wide acceptance online. Here’s why.

Prior to the Civil War Grant lived with his wife Julia and their four children in St. Louis, Missouri, at his father-in-law’s White Haven plantation estate from 1854 until 1859. At some point during this experience Grant obtained a slave named William Jones. The sole document we have confirming Grant’s ownership of Jones is a manumission paper freeing Jones on March 29, 1859, written in Grant’s own hand:

William Jones Manumission

William Jones Manumission TranscribedHow, when, and why Grant obtained a slave are all unknown, although Grant’s mentioning of Frederick Dent suggests that he most likely purchased Jones from his Father-in-law (Grant also had a brother-in-law named Frederick Dent who was serving with the U.S. Army in the western frontier at this time. The brother-in-law could have sold Jones to Grant, but these circumstances suggest that it was unlikely). Grant never mentions Jones in any correspondence or in his Personal Memoirs, so we don’t know his thoughts on this matter. What happened to William Jones after his emancipation is also a mystery lost to history.

There are literally no other pieces of historical evidence to suggest that Grant ever owned slaves at any point after 1859. The quote about Grant not being able to find any good labor is a complete fabrication and you will not find it in his edited papers or any newspapers from the time. It’s simply not true.

That is pretty much the heart of the matter regarding Grant’s alleged ownership of slaves during the war, but I believe there is other evidence that can further advance us towards a conclusive answer.

Grant’s wife Julia grew up in a household that benefited from slave labor, a fact that Julia acknowledged and romanticized in her own Personal Memoirs. Julia claimed in her Memoirs that her father gave her legal title to four slaves to be used for her benefit, and one gets the impression that she and the entire Grant family benefited from their labor during their St. Louis years. There’s no evidence to suggest that Julia ever held legal title of a slave, however, suggesting that they were always her father’s slaves. Furthermore, Julia also incorrectly claimed that “her” slaves were in her possession until the Emancipation Proclamation (p.88), but the Proclamation did not apply to Missouri, which was not in active rebellion at the time of its issuance in 1863. Additionally, Missouri voluntarily abolished slavery in a January 1865 state conventionbefore the 13th Amendment was passed, AND Julia contrarily stated elsewhere in her Memoirs that the enslaved people at her Father’s plantation ran away at some point during the war. All of this information indicates that “her” slaves–in actuality her Father’s–were not in her possession by the end of the war or the passage of the 13th amendment.

What is key here is that in any case, regardless of Julia’s recollections more than thirty years after the war in her Memoirs, General Grant was away fighting the war and had no legal ownership of any slaves during the Civil War. The enslaved people in St. Louis at White Haven were Frederick Dent’s property all along.

Frederick Dent, however, ran into serious financial troubles and struggled to maintain ownership of White Haven and his enslaved people by the time of the Civil War. Dent wrote up a bill of sale during the war for some of his enslaved people. Grant, writing from a camp in Corinth, Mississippi, on May 16, 1862, received word of these struggles and mentioned to Julia that:

Your father sent Emma [Julia’s sister] a bill of sale for the negroes he gave her. To avoid a possibility of any of them being sold he ought to do the same with all the balance. I would not give anything for you to have any of them as it is not probable we will ever live in a slave state again but would not like to see them sold under the hammer.

Grant expresses concern about Frederick Dent’s slaves being confiscated and possibly broken up to be sold at a slave auction to pay off debts. He suggests that Dent write a bill of sale to Emma for all of his slaves instead of the four he originally sold to her. And, importantly, Grant states his intention not to invest any of his own money in his father-in-law’s slaves because the likelihood of his family moving back to a slave state is slim to none. Through this letter it’s apparent that by 1862, Grant–regardless of his own views about slavery at that point in the war–had no intention of investing any funds to become a slaveholder again.

Given this evidence, why is it claimed that he owned slaves until December 1865? By arguing that Grant didn’t care about slavery’s demise and that he even owned slaves himself during the war, the people who buy this narrative are trying to spread the idea that slavery had little to do with the pretext or context of the Civil War. The claim has little merit, however, because regardless of Grant’s personal views towards slavery at the outbreak of the Civil War, he played no role in the political debates over secession or slavery that precipitated the conflict.

Cheers

Update, 8/24/2016: A passage in this letter from Grant to Congressman Elihu B. Washburne on August 30, 1863, further demonstrates that Grant did not own slaves during the war until the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865, nor did he even have intentions of doing so. By 1863 he believed slavery was dead. To wit:

The people of the North need not quarrel over the institution of Slavery. What Vice President Stevens [sic] acknowledges the corner stone of the Confederacy is already knocked out. Slavery is already dead and cannot be resurrected. It would take a standing Army to maintain slavery in the South if we were to make peace to-day guaranteeing to the South all their former constitutional privileges.