University of North Carolina Proposes Building a House for “Silent Sam”

Silent Sam

The University of North Carolina is proposing a $5.3 million dollar building to house a Confederate monument that was recently toppled by students. Here is a taste of an article at CNN:

Administrators at the University of North Carolina are proposing a new $5.3 million building to safely house a controversial Confederate monument that was toppled by protesters in August.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said that experts concluded that the rifle-carrying statue, known as “Silent Sam,” could not be returned to its previous home on campus because of public safety concerns.

However, the statue also cannot legally be moved to a museum, mausoleum or cemetery because of a state law that limits the removal of public monuments.

So the university plans to build a new indoor facility on campus to house Silent Sam, Folt said on Monday. The new building, at a proposed cost of $5.3 million plus another $800,000 in annual operating costs, will provide historical context for the statue and for the university’s broader history.

“(We plan to) make it a truly strong interactive center that tells our full history of this university, from before settlement to its emergence this day as one of the leading public state research universities in America,” Folt said.

Read the rest here.

Other coverage:

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Students at UNC are not happy about the decision.

Adam Harris reports at The Atlantic

The editorial board of the Charlotte Observer opposes the building.

I am sure some American historians will weigh-in today.

Episode 43: Reconciling the Church and Slavery

PodcastSadly, the Church, both in America and abroad, has a long history of supporting the institution of slavery. So what can a single congregation do to reconcile their past with a contemporary commitment to social justice? In today’s episode, host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss truth and reconciliation within the Church. They are joined by public historian Chris Graham, who serves as the chair of the History and Reconciliation Initiative at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.


Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).


The Author’s Corner with Ben Wynne

5afdd229cb854.jpgBen Wynne is professor of history at the University of North Georgia. This interview is based on his new book The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist (LSU Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: My doctoral dissertation dealt with politicians in the South who argued against the idea of secession during the years leading up to the American Civil War, and in the course of doing my research Henry Stuart Foote’s name kept popping up. The more I read about him, the more interested in his life and career I became, to the point where I thought his life story might make a good book. Not only was he involved in a number of important national events in his lifetime, but he was a bit of a maniac. All of his contemporaries seemed to have an opinion about him, and those opinions ranged from genius to buffoon. I was also intrigued by his relationship Jefferson Davis. Foote was Davis’s most outspoken political enemy, and the hatred that the two men had for each other was epic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: The book is a strait biography. It captures the highly unusual spirit of the subject as well as his unique contributions to American history and politics from the 1830s until his death in 1880.

JF: Why do we need to read The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: Henry Stuart Foote’s life included many unusual twists and turns, making for an interesting read. In general, Foote was one of antebellum America’s true political mavericks with an eccentric and sometimes violent personality. He was a polarizing figure who was beloved by supporters but reviled by critics. During his career, he participated in innumerable physical altercations—including a fistfight with then-fellow U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis that provided the title for the book—and he carried bullet wounds from several duels. He once brandished a pistol during proceedings on the Senate floor, and on another occasion threatened a fellow solon with a knife. During his career he was also very well-travelled. He was in Texas during the early 1840s as the Texas annexation debate was in full swing, and he represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate during debates over the Compromise of 1850. In 1851, he defeated Jefferson Davis in an exceedingly bitter campaign for Mississippi governor. Later, he moved to California where he ran unsuccessfully for another senate seat, and then back to Tennessee, where he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. As a Confederate congressman, he remained a thorn in Davis’s side for the duration of the Civil War, publically lambasting the Confederate president again and again. A lifelong Democrat, Foote became a Republican after the war and ended up as superintendent of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BW: Like others in the field, I have been fascinated with American history and culture all of my life. It seemed like a natural profession for me. I believe strongly in the cliché that you will not know where you are going if you do not know where you have been.

JF: What is your next project?

BW: I am currently researching for a book on the history of music in Macon, Georgia from the 1830s to the 1980s, that will include material on iconic American musical figures such as “Little Richard” Penniman, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

Jefferson Davis’s New Home at UT-Austin

Davis

University of Texas workers remove the Jefferson Davis statue

What should we do with Confederate monuments?  Should they be destroyed?  Should they remain standing?  Should we supplement them with additional monuments or  interpretive signs and plaques?

In 2015, the University of Texas at Austin moved a bronze statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from a public space on campus to an exhibit at the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Cailin Crowe describes what happened next:

The Davis statue’s exhibit, “From Commemoration to Education,” was unveiled last year in tandem with renovations to the Briscoe Center’s first floor. The exhibit chronicles the statue’s life from its 1916 commissioning by George W. Littlefield, a Confederate veteran and the university’s largest original benefactor, to its removal, in 2015.

The Briscoe Center also features the statue’s campus life with an interactive display that includes digitized documents. So far, the exhibit has received largely positive feedback from students and professors because the statue was moved from a commemorative space to an educational one, Wright said.

Instead it has become a learning tool for academic conversations. “The object itself has sort of developed this second life, where it now acts as a teaching moment,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

I would encourage the University of North Carolina to do the same with Silent Sam.

Evangelicals Come to Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

Wait–I thought evangelicals were racists and white supremacists?

Here is a taste of Josh Shepherd’s piece at Christianity Today:

Rising 825 feet over the skyline of Atlanta, Stone Mountain is the most-visited destination in the state of Georgia. On its north face, a carving in the granite wall depicts three figures central to the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

Against this backdrop, observers might have puzzled over the scene unfolding on a recent Saturday at the top of the monument. An ethnically diverse crowd of more than 3,000 people, the majority under age 30, sang as a full rock band led the crowd in Christian praise songs.

Nearly all lifted their hands, shouted, and even danced as pop-rock worship music blasted from speakers. Then a black man in a bright red shirt with white letters reading Reconcile took the mic.

“Heaven is among us,” said Jonathan Tremaine Thomas, a young pastor from Ferguson, Missouri. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Thomas was followed by civil rights leader John Perkins, who was followed by apologies from Christian leaders to two Jewish leaders for the history of Christian anti-Semitism, who were followed by declarations of forgiveness for Dylann Roof by family members of Charleston church shooting victims. And this was all in the first 150 minutes.

Read the rest here.

Washington and Lee University in the Wake of Charlottesville

Lee College

One might expect that Washington and Lee University, a school named after George Washington and Robert E. Lee, might respond to the tragic events of Charlottesville 2017 by removing Lee from its name or removing on-campus memorials to the Confederate general.  According to Susan Svrluga’s piece at The Washington Post, this has not happened.  But other things have changed.

Here is a taste:

In the days after the Charlottesville conflict, the new president of the private university in Lexington, Va., William Dudley, convened a group and asked it “to lead us in an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it — shapes our community.”

As this school year began, Dudley announced the changes that would — and those that would not — take place on this storied campus, where traditions carry tremendous weight: The university will keep its name, Lee Chapel will remain an integral part of campus, and the school will find ways to tell its history more fully.

The school has begun a national search for a director of institutional history, a historian who will lead the design, construction and operation of a museum and oversee all of the school’s historical sites. The museum will be dedicated to the university’s many connections to American history. Dudley envisaged close collaborations with students and faculty members to create interactive exhibits, such as a campus walk, that would delve into lesser-known parts of the institution’s history — including the role of slavery.

The challenge for Washington and Lee was different from what other colleges confronted as they considered the fate of Confederate relics. Duke University removed a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee last year after it was vandalized. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, protesters recently toppled a monument to alumni who fought for the Confederacy. At Washington and Lee, named for two generals who helped the school endure and thrive, “they aren’t just honorifics,” the school’s president said. Both men played important, direct roles. And Lee is buried on the grounds.

Read the entire piece here.

Goodbye Silent Sam

In case you have not heard, last night protesters (apparently students) at the University of North Carolina pulled down a Confederate statue called “Silent Sam.”

A few quick comments:

  1. I support the spirit behind this act.  The statue needed to be removed from its prominent place on campus.
  2. I understand what Silent Sam stands for, and I oppose it, but I was bothered by the hate and rage I witnessed during this video.
  3. The UNC History Department has made an earlier statement about the monument.  The department proposed removing the monument from its prominent position on campus and moving it to an “appropriate place” where it could “become a useful historical artifact with which to teach the history of the university and its still incomplete mission to be ‘the People’s University.'”  I wish the UNC administration would have acted sooner on the UNC History Department’s recommendation.

Churches and the Legacy of Racism: A Tale of Two Congregations

Interior_of_St._Pauls_Episcopal_Church_Richmond_VA_2013_8759347988-e1443705658980

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Back in June, I wrote a post about the 150th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Dallas, the congregation led by court evangelical Robert Jeffress.  In that post I referenced Tobin Grant’s 2016 Religion News Service piece on the long history of racial segregation at First Baptist. Daniel Silliman’s piece at Religion Dispatches is also worth a look.

Here is the 150th anniversary video that the congregation has been promoting:

A few comments:

  1.  The narrative revolves around three authoritarian clergymen:  George Truett, W.A. Criswell, and Robert Jeffress.
  2. It says nothing about the fact that the Southern Baptist Church was formed because southern Baptists defended slavery and white supremacy.
  3. It says nothing about Truett’s and Criswell’s commitment to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
  4. It does include an image of Robert Jeffress with Donald Trump.  Let’s remember that Jeffress defended Trump last year after the POTUS equated white supremacists and those protesting against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rather than taking a hard look at its past, First Baptist-Dallas has whitewashed it.

I thought about this June 2018 post a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of teaching the Adult Faith Formation class at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, Virginia.  St. Paul’s occupies and amazing building in the heart of Richmond.  It is located across the street from the Virginia State Capitol and adjacent to the Virginia Supreme Court.  The church was founded in 1844.

During the Civil War, when Richmond served as the Confederate capital, both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s.   After the war, the church used its windows to tell the story of the Lost Cause.  It is often described as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

But unlike First Baptist-Dallas, St. Paul’s decided to come to grips with its racist past.  In 2015, the church began its “History and Reconciliation Initiative” (HRI) with the goal of tracing and acknowledging the racial history of the congregation in order to “repair, restore, and seek reconciliation with God each other and the broader community.”  I encourage you to visit the HRI website to read more about the way St. Paul’s is trying to come to grips with the darker sides of its past.

Public historian Christopher Graham, who co-chairs the HRI when he is not curating an exhibit at The American Civil War Museum, invited me to Richmond to speak.  He is doing some amazing work at the intersection of public history and religion.

When I think about St. Paul’s, I am reminded of Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”  It is also refreshing to see the words “repair” and “restore” used in conjunction with the word “reconciliation” instead of “Christian America.”

Southern Baptists, and American evangelicals more broadly, may immediately conclude that they have little in common theologically with St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond and can thus dismiss the congregation’s history-related efforts as just another social justice project propagated by theological liberals.  But this would be a shame.  They can learn a lot from this congregation about how to take a deep and honest look into the mirror of the past.

Author’s Corner with Leigh Fought

FoughtLeigh Fought is Associate Professor of History at LeMoyne College.  This interview is based on her book Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisia S. McCord, due out in paperback in September 2018 with University of Missouri Press.

JF: What led you to write Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: The not entirely glib answer is that I wanted to understand my grandmother, a powerful southern woman, who bore many traits of Louisa S. McCord, from the father-worship to the contradictions between her ideals and her life.  The serious answer is that I never bought Mary Chesnut’s lament about “poor slaves, poor women” or that southern women were closet abolitionists. Now, of course that has been entirely dissected in the historiography, but I wrote this manuscript back in the 1990s when much of that research was very new or developing. McCord captured my attention in a section of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household. Not only did she seem more true to a white woman of the planter class, but she was also a woman who married late and widowed early, controlled her own property after marriage, and counselled women to be the “conservative force” behind the scenes while publishing essays on unfeminine subjects like slavery and political economy. I wanted to know more. This became, to the best of my youthful abilities, the book that I wanted to read.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Southern Womanhood and Slavery

LF: Because this was my first book, taken from my dissertation, the implied argument was: “Please give me a PhD and publish my manuscript!” The real argument was that Louisa S. McCord was a female Fire-Eater, one of the Southern political essayists who defended slavery even to secession. She injected women into their white supremacist construction of society, insisting that, while women could match any man intellectually, they must remain subordinate to prevent the nation from descending into chaos because they did not have the physical capacity to control slaves or the working class.

JF: Why do we need to read Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: At this moment in our national life a critical mass of people cannot escape the strains of race and gender that have defined our nation from its inception, and they echo those of Louisa McCord’s time. Indeed, many of the idols of her life have been resurrected in ours, but their purveyors attempting to strip or deny the reality of their historical contexts. At the same time, on the left, especially among white feminist, many editorial and columns ponder the perplexing issue of white women seeming to work against their own political interests.

Louisa McCord’s life and work illustrates aspects of these topics. She portrayed herself as a Roman matron in the cause of the Confederacy and, later, to the memory of the Confederacy, and she made perfectly clear that the Southern society defended by the Confederacy would not and could not exist without slavery. Her anti-woman’s rights position rested on privileges rather than rights. The ability of white men to exercise their rights without restriction would allow them to protect their dependents and thereby keep white women safe from other men, both black and white. She did not see the woman’s rights movement as empowering women to take care of themselves because, in a patriarchal slaveholding society, she understood physical violence as the decisive factor in maintaining order. Women, she believed, could not and should not wield that power. Race and class privilege, therefore, in her mind, came before the individual rights of gender for the preservation of civilization.

If you scratch the surface, of course, you find that she controlled the wealth in her marriage and was a widow for far longer than she was a wife. She found ways to use violence through overseers and the workhouse. She did not follow her own counsel on women remaining within their sphere, and others uniformly considered her a commanding presence. Indeed, many details of her upbringing resemble those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, she just took a decidedly different ideological road. She was a challenging woman to encounter as a subject.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LF: I may have decided to become a historian when I was in elementary school, watching Little House on the Prairie and Roots, visiting historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg, reading children’s biographies of Betsey Ross and Annie Oakley or children’s novels about slave girls and Laura Ingalls and captives among the Native Americans. Blame the Bicentennial. That “historian” was an actual job that a person could do did not occur to me until late in college. Then, I simply wanted to tell stories. Since I didn’t have the experience to make them up very well, I turned to history. The stories are already there, you just have to find them, which is even more fun. I especially wanted to learn about and to tell stories about the places where different people meet, be it in the borderlands, on slave plantations, or in a movement for racial justice. Half of those stories always seemed to be missing and mysterious, arousing my curiosity, while I was growing up so sheltered in the suburbs of Houston. I wanted to know the rest of the story, the whole story, and I wanted women to be the main characters.

JF: What is your next project?

LF: The project after Louisa McCord was a short history of Mystic, Connecticut, for a lay audience predominantly of tourists. The one after that was Women in the World of Frederick Douglass. Next, I’m considering either exploring nineteenth-century ideas of race and civilization through Frederick Douglass’s tour of Europe or Little House on the Prairie and the memory of the American borderlands. I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment. There is quite a bit on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books, mostly within literary studies, but very little on the public history sites, television show, and other iterations of the story. I’m quite interested in the ways that the interpretations attempt to reconcile some of Wilder’s quite contemporary ideas about race and gender with more modern ones. I wonder at what point that becomes no longer possible. After all, the children’s literature award named for her was just un-named because of her racial depictions. I can’t say they were wrong in doing so.

JF: Thanks Leigh!

A “Kanyefication of one of our most enduring national myths”

kanye-west

Writing at the Los Angeles Times, historian Kevin Waite connects Kanye West’s comments about slaves choosing slavery with Lost Cause myths about slavery.  Here is a taste:

Yet there’s an uncomfortable truth in West’s comment. Ill-informed though his views may be, they align alarmingly well with popular interpretations of American history.

The claim that slaves somehow consented to their own enslavement is a Kanyefication of one of our most enduring national myths. Depicted in fiction, film and even statuary, the “loyal slave” has persisted for more than a century and a half. The trope buttresses the so-called Lost Cause school of history, an intellectual movement celebrating the plantation South and exonerating it from any blame for the Civil War. Instead, that cataclysm is charged to the North, which destroyed a civilization that benefited masters and slaves alike — so goes the logic of Lost Cause propagandists.

Read the entire piece here.

Someone Give the Governor of Alabama a History Lesson

We need historians more than ever.  Yesterday Kay Ivey, the Republican governor of Alabama, released this campaign ad:

Ivey says “we can’t change or erase our history.”  She is correct.  But just because a particular community has a past doesn’t necessary mean that the celebration of that past is the best way forward.  Sometimes our encounters with the past should shame us.

She adds: “To get where we are going, we need to understand where we’ve been.”  Again, this is true.  But I don’t think she means that we need to “understand where we’ve been” because “where we’ve been” was racist and because it was racist we must repudiate it. Let’s remember that we are talking about monuments to white racists here.  Ivey is telling us that the best way for Alabama to move forward is to celebrate a history of slavery, racism, Jim Crow, and segregation.  Ivey’s usable past is a past of white supremacy.

After the ad was criticized, Ivey defended it.  According to The Hill, she called out “folks in Washington” and “out of state liberals” for trying to take away Alabama’s Confederate monuments.

Here we go again with the “outside agitators” coming into racist Alabama and trying to change their precious way life.  This is what they said about the so-called “carpetbaggers in the 1860s and 1870s and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s and 1960s.

Someone get Governor Ivey a copy of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Edward Ayers on Confederate Monuments

Ed+Ayers+color+compressed

Last weekend Edward Ayers gave a stirring and inspiration presidential address at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento. (See our coverage here). The title was “Everyone Their Own Historian.”  I was not in Sacramento for the conference, but I followed along eagerly as Liz Covart of “Ben Franklin’s World” fame live-tweeted:

Over at Salon, Chauncey Devega interviews Ayers about Trump, Confederate monuments, and Civil War history.  Here is a taste:

The Republican Party is in many ways the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South updated for the 21st century. There has long been a neo-Confederate element in the post-civil rights era Republican Party. With Trump’s election they have fully empowered. And in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, we actually saw the president of the United States, suggesting that there are “some very fine people” among neo-Nazis and white supremacists. How do you make sense of this?

I was in Charlottesville that day. I was going to teach a class that afternoon at the University of Virginia. I would start by explaining how there are people who turn to the symbols of the Confederacy as a native, indigenous rebellion against the power of the federal government. That appeals to a lot of people. But when you see that Confederate flag being mingled with Nazi flags, suddenly that claim upon an indigenous, pure and non-racialized argument about politics and “traditions” is gone. It has been forever entangled with white supremacy.

You might be surprised by the number of people who will come up to me after I give a lecture and tell me, “Slavery was wrong, I would never defend it. But the fact is that Robert E. Lee was a fine man and he was fighting for his home, right? He was fighting for what he thought was right.” You hear that a lot. It makes you realize all the evasions that are built into this defense of the Confederacy.

We have all these formulas that people use to say that they are proud of their ancestors. For example, he was a “good” slaveholder. Two, he didn’t really believe in slavery. Three, he wanted to get rid of slavery. Four, most white Southerners weren’t slaveholders so they could not have been fighting for slavery, and so forth. I listen to these folks and I then say, yes, let’s think about this. Let’s forget about whatever you might think about the character or identity of Robert E. Lee. What if the Confederacy had won? What if those men on horseback had actually accomplished what they set out to do? They would have created a nation explicitly based on perpetual bondage that would have been the fourth-richest economy in the world with a monopoly over the single most valuable commodity in the world. How would world history have been different? Other parts of the world would have looked to the South and said, “Ah, the path to the future leads through slavery.”

If you try to argue with them on the same ground that they form the question on, you will have a hard time persuading them. But it’s also the case that white Northerners and Westerners have a smug belief in the inevitable end of American slavery that is not warranted either.

Read the entire interview here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Enrico Dal Lago

9781107038424_1Enrico Dal Lago is Professor of American History at National University of Ireland Galway. This interview is based on his new book, Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy?

EDL: I was always fascinated by the historical parallelisms between the United States and Italy in terms of having a comparable past of difference and conflict between the north and the south of the country. My first book – Agrarian Elites: American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815-1861 (LSU Press, 2005) – was a comparison between the propertied classes of the two southern regions of the United States and Italy, and other scholars, notably Don Doyle, have also written about parallelisms between the U.S. South and southern Italy. However, no scholar had ever written a comparative study of the civil wars that the conflict between north and south caused in the United States and Italy in the same years in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1861-65, contemporaneous to the American Civil War, fought between a northern-based Union and a southern-based Confederacy, a civil war was also fought in southern Italy, largely between northern and southern Italians. My book is the first comparative study of these two civil wars. I felt that it was an important gap in the comparative scholarship on the United States and Italy that needed to be filled in order to acquire an in-depth understanding of the significance of the parallelisms represented by the north vs. south conflict in the two countries. The importance of these parallelisms is further confirmed by the fact that, in both the United States and Italy, the long-term legacy of the outcome of the civil war – which, in both cases, led to a fracture and then a reconciliation between the northern and southern parts of the country – is still very much present and has witnessed a surge in national interest since the parallel commemorations of the 150 years from the start of the American Civil War and from Italian national unification, in 2011.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy?

EDL: My book argues that the two parallel civil wars in the United States and Italy in 1861-65 had comparable origins in attempts by two regional propertied elites to be instrumental in the creation of two new nations – the Confederate States of America and the Kingdom of Italy – which protected their interests at the expense of the majority of the two southern populations. The resistance to Confederate authority, carried out in the Confederate South by large numbers of Unionists, and especially by African American slaves, and the parallel and contemporaneous resistance carried out by large number of peasants and soldiers attached to the former Bourbon dynasty in southern Italy produced two parallel “inner civil wars” in the two southern regions, and eventually resulted in the collapse on the Confederacy and in the near collapse of the Italian Kingdom, and also in a temporary loss of power for the two regional elites.

JF: Why do we need to read Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy?

EDL: Not only my book is the first comparative study of the American and Italian civil wars of 1861-65; it is also the first comparative study that builds upon the most recent scholarly tendencies of focusing on the Confederate South’s “inner civil war” to argue that comparable “inner civil wars” occurred, as happened in Italy, wherever a process of forcible nation-building from above took place during the course of the nineteenth century. Inevitably, the outcome of this process could only be either the complete collapse or the near collapse of the new nation, as the examples of the Confederacy and of the Italian Kingdom clearly show. Crucially, for the majorities of the two groups of southern agrarian workers – African American slaves and landless southern Italian peasants – who were in conditions of dependency from masters and landlords, the “inner civil wars” in the Confederate South and southern Italy represented major opportunities to strike at their oppressors, by allying with anti-Confederate Unionists in one case and with the anti-Italian pro-Bourbon forces in the other case, and with the two primary and distinct, but parallel and comparable, objectives of acquiring legal emancipation and economic independence. My book shows, though, that, ultimately, complete freedom was indissolubly tied, for both African American slaves and southern Italian peasants, to ownership of land. My book shows also that this aspiration, common to all nineteenth-century agrarian workers, was frustrated in both cases, leading to continuous conditions of dependency for the African American freedpeople and the southern Italian peasants, and, also in both cases, these conditions lasted until long after the end of the two civil wars.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EDL: The long-term origins of my fascination with American History have a lot to do with the many American movies – starting from Gone with the Wind – and American TV Series – among which Roots and North and South – I watched in Italy, where I was born and I spent the first twenty-five years of my life. The actual decision to become an American historian, though, came somewhat later, during the course of my postgraduate studies, when I became progressively aware of the historical parallelisms between the United States and Italy to which I referred earlier with regard to the conflictual relationship between the north and the south of the two countries. As a result of this growing awareness, I thought that I could understand better the significance of these parallelisms if I studied in depth the history of the United States in the Civil War era, and this eventually became my main field of research.

JF: What is your next project?

EDL: I am planning to write a follow-up comparative study which will focus on the aftermath of the two parallel civil wars in the U.S. South and southern Italy. In my comparison, I will look specifically at the extent of continuity vs. change with regards to labor relations in the agrarian countryside. I am especially interested in the rise of illegal, and in one case paramilitary, forms of agrarian violence as tools for the protection of the interests of the agrarian elites – i.e., the former southern slaveholders and the southern Italian landowners – and as a means to keep the agrarian workers – i.e., the African American freedpeople and the southern Italian peasants – in continuous states of subjection in the Reconstruction U.S. South and southern Italy after 1865.

JF: Thanks, Enrico!

When the Union Army Stuck Confederate Soldiers in “Slave Pens”

Slave Pen

Check out Jonathan White‘s piece at Smithsonian on the freedmen’s reaction when the Union Army arrested Confederate soldiers and civilians and imprisoned them in the same pens and jails that the enslaved were forced to endure prior to the war.

Here is a taste:

For decades before the Civil War, slave markets, pens and jails served as holding cells for enslaved African-Americans who were awaiting sale. These were sites of brutal treatment and unbearable sorrow, as callous and avaricious slave traders tore apart families, separating husbands from wives, and children from their parents. As the Union army moved south during the Civil War, however, federal soldiers captured and repurposed slave markets and jails for new and often ironic functions. The slave pens in Alexandria, Virginia, and St. Louis, Missouri, became prisons for Confederate soldiers and civilians. When one inmate in St. Louis complained about being held in such “a horrible place,” an unsympathetic Unionist replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, it is a slave-pen.” Other slave markets, such as the infamous “Forks of the Road” at Natchez, Mississippi, became contraband camps—gatherings points for black refugees from bondage, sites of freedom from their masters, and sources of protection and assistance by Union soldiers.

Ex-slaves relished seeing these paradoxical uses of the old slave pens. Jermain Wesley Logan had escaped slavery to New York in 1833 and returned to Nashville in the summer of 1865, where he found his elderly mother and old friends he had not seen for more than 30 years. “The slave-pens, thank God, have changed their inmates,” he wrote. In place of “the poor, innocent and almost heartbroken slaves” who for years had been held captive there as they awaited sale to the Deep South, Loguen found “some of the very fiends in human shape who committed those diabolical outrages.”

Loguen turned his eyes to the heavens. “Their sins have found them out,” he wrote, “and I was constrained to give God the glory, for He has done a great work for our people.”

Read the rest here.

Jeff Sessions Gets It Right on the Cause of the Civil War (Yes, you read that correctly)

I did not hear the entire speech so I don’t know the larger context, but it does appear that Attorney General and former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions knows a thing or two about the cause of the Civil War.

Here is Yoni Appelbaum‘s tweet:

Also this.

Still More on John Kelly’s Civil War Comments

Compromise

In addition to my analysis of Kelly’s remarks and Carole Emberton’s Washington Post op-ed, I also want to call your attention to Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on this controversy.  It is a nice overview of the various compromises that took place from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to the outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  She quotes David Blight, Manisha Sinha, and David Waldstreicher.

Read it here.

More on Kelly’s Civil War Remarks

Kelly

I addressed Kelly’s remarks yesterday.  Today I want to point you to Binghamton University historian Carole Emberton’s piece, “The North tried compromise. The South chose war.

A taste:

By blaming a failure of compromise for the Civil War, Kelly repeated a well-worn tenet of the Lost Cause narrative that valorizes the Confederacy and its leaders like Lee. In this narrative, the failure to compromise is laid at the feet of radical abolitionists and Northern politicians, including the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, who gave Southerners no choice but to secede.

But it was slavery, and the refusal of Southern slaveholders to compromise on slavery, that launched the Civil War. In fact, the secession crisis of 1860-61 was the culmination of a decade-long movement led by ultra-radical pro-slavery “Fire-Eaters.” After decades of compromise between the North and South, the election of Lincoln spurred an almost paranoid anxiety about slavery’s future that made compromise untenable and war virtually unavoidable.

That technically makes Kelly correct. There was a failure of compromise. But lamenting it without addressing the role of slavery at its root reflects the flawed, Southern version of Civil War history that has nourished the white nationalism currently poisoning American politics.

Read the rest at The Washington Post.

Confederate Monuments Get Their Day in Congress

MHC_Confederate_Statue_Hill

Over at AHA Today, Dane Kennedy reports on a congressional briefing about what to do with Confederate monuments.

Here is a taste:

A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Rayburn House Office Building to hear three leading authorities on the subject—David Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University; Karen Cox, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and Gaines Foster, LSU Foundation Professor of History at Louisiana State University. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, chaired the event….

How, asked a congressional staffer, does one respond to those who argue that the removal of Confederate statues erases history? It isn’t history that the statues’ defenders want to preserve, Blight insisted, but a memory that distorts or denies history. Cox made a similar point, noting that these monuments celebrate a sanitized version of history that obscures the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the “Lost Cause.”

Another person asked, so what should be done with the monuments? Options include placing them in museums, contextualizing them with historical labeling, and collecting them at a single site, such as Stone Mountain. James Grossman pointed out that the Russians adopted the latter strategy with their Fallen Monument Park, where they relocated statues of Soviet leaders. In response to a related question about how public arts programs can alter historical narratives, Grossman recommended monuments that present the Civil War as a war of liberation for blacks. Blight suggested memorials to the black churches that sustained African American communities in the South and “elegiac” monuments that highlight the horrific slaughter of the Civil War. But he also cautioned against any precipitate action, urging deliberation in dealing with Confederate monuments. Foster struck a similar note, pointing out that public opinion on the issue needs to change. Cox was blunter: the removal of these monuments, she stated, will not bring an end to the systemic racism that inspired them.

Read the entire piece here.

Do the Victors Really Write the Histories?

Lee

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Keenan Norris of Evergreen Valley College asks: If the victors write the histories, then why has the Confederate flag and monuments been around for so long?  It’s a great question.

Here is a taste of his piece: “To  Be Continued, or Who Lost the Civil War?”

The possibility that the victors do not necessarily write the histories is an interesting one. Today, histories and counter-histories and counters to the counter-histories can be found in most libraries and on the internet. Yet the basic truth that the victors enjoy the spoils and the heroic history books is supported, most obviously, by our historical record. Begin with the language of that record. The works of Herodotus and Livy, C. L. R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, Studs Terkel and Svetlana Alexievich are not written in the tongues of the defeated. We do not read about Hannibal’s valiant refusal to be a friend to Rome in his native Punic, nor about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolutionary cause in Haitian Creole, nor are Alexievich’s incredible interviews on Russia’s ongoing conflict with Chechen rebels conducted in Chechen. Moreover, the histories that have been legitimated by widely acclaimed literature and film — that have been canonized — have tended toward a heroic vision of the victors. Plutarch does not remember Alexander the Great as a bloodthirsty psychopath bent on successive genocides, nor does Gary Sinise portray Harry S. Truman as a simple-minded destroyer of worlds, though the subjugated histories of the raped, pillaged, and atom-bombed would probably have told a different tale about them.

The victors do, in fact, write the initial and most powerfully influential histories of every conflict, whether between warring armies or warring ideologies. And, when it comes to war, that history begins not with books or movies, but with the terms of peace treaties, the force of occupation, and the redrawing of borders.

Is the rebel flag an impotent symbol? Do the monuments maintained to the greatness of Confederate generals not hold persistent emotional power? There would be no petitions and no protests calling to bring those symbols down if that were the case. White supremacists and neo-Nazis would not be clashing with Antifa in pitched battles in broad daylight if no one cared. The #NoConfederate Twitter movement would not exist because the idea for an HBO show, which the Twitter movement protests, about the historical “what if” of a Confederate victory in the Civil War, would never have been considered potentially lucrative enough to bring to primetime in the first place, let alone to endure such a sustained negative public backlash if these symbols were just ugly gift-shop kitsch.

Read the entire piece here.