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

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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.

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

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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.

The Largest Confederate Monument in America

Jeff Davis Highway

It’s the Jefferson Davis Highway.

Historian Kevin Waite explains:

The largest monument to the Confederacy is not made of bronze. It’s paved in asphalt.

For over a century, portions of America’s road system have paid tribute to a failed slaveholding rebellion in the form of the Jefferson Davis Highway. Once planned as a single transcontinental highway, a series of roads that today bear Davis’s name run for hundreds of miles through the South, while dozens of markers to the original highway are spread out across the country — from Virginia through the old Cotton Belt, then westward across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and into California.

Cutting through the southern half of the country, the Jefferson Davis Highway serves as a reminder that the fight over Civil War memory took place not only in the statues dotting parks across America, but in the very infrastructure of the nation itself. The highway is an asphalt monument to false equivalency, designed to balance the Lincoln Highway in the North with a Confederate rival in the South. It reveals the extent to which activists in the early 20th century embedded their defense of the Confederacy in the growing infrastructure of the country.

The origins of this road system date to 1913, when the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) unveiled their plans for a coast-to-coast highway in honor of the rebel chieftain. The project was intended as a rival of sorts to the then-recently announced Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco, which was backed by Northern capital. Not to be outdone by Yankee entrepreneurs, the UDC sketched out a Southern analogue that would stretch from Arlington, Va., to San Diego — what writer Erin Blakemore recently called a “superhighway of Confederate veneration.” The sectional animosities of the Civil War era thus lived on in the mapping of America’s first national highway systems.

Read the rest here.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 4

For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 4 in Montgomery, Alabama.  (Montgomery is the only city where we are spending two nights.  This means that we didn’t have to pack our suitcases this yesterday!).

In the morning we made quick stops at some of Montgomery’s most iconic historical sites. As we entered the area around the Alabama State Capitol I was struck by the juxtaposition between Confederate States of America sites and Civil Rights Movement sites.  I am sure historians and scholars have written about these juxtapositions, but when you see them for the first time they are quite striking.  (If you know of any good books or articles that deal with these commemorative juxtapositions in Montgomery please let me know in the comments section).

As our bus entered this part of the city we passed the First White House of the Confederacy, the home of Jefferson Davis during the brief period when Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy. (The Confederate capital moved to Richmond, Virginia in August 1861).

As a series of massive Alabama government buildings (including the capitol building) came into sight I was immediately struck by their whiteness.  Seriously, these buildings are painted in a very bright white.  I don’t know if they were that white during the 1965 Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, but as I surveyed the landscape I tried to imagine what it was like on Sunday, March 25, 1965 to see the color of these buildings in the background as 25,000 people–many of them African Americans– arrived at the capitol to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “How Long, Not Long” speech.

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Office building in Alabama capitol area

 

I was also struck by the location of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church that Martin Luther King Jr. served from 1954-1960.  It is only a few hundred yards from the Alabama State Capitol Building where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederate States of America and where the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was written.  Every Sunday morning King and his congregation would step out of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and into the whiteness of the built environment.  It was a material manifestation of Alabama’s historical commitment to white supremacy.

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View of the Alabama State Capitol from the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

 

As you leave Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and walk up Dexter Avenue toward the Capitol Building, you will see, on the right side of the road, a monument commemorating the path of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration parade.  It was placed at this site in 1942. Directly across the street on Dexter Avenue is a monument commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.  It looks very new.  I did my best to capture this contrast here:

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Selma to Montgomery march monument is in foreground.  Jefferson Davis inaugural parade monument is in upper right of the picture (monument with water marks behind gray car)

After our visit to the capitol area, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage, and the homes of some of the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, we headed over to the Montgomery headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).  If you are familiar with Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercyyou are familiar with the work of EJI.  I have a lot to say about EJI, so I think I will save those thoughts for another post that I hope to get up later today.

We spent the afternoon in Selma.  Our guide was Joanne Bland, a civil rights activist who, as an eleven-year-old girl, marched in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  She took us to the Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point of the March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march.  In the back of the church is an outdoor concrete slab that served as the launching point of the march.  Bland asked us to pick up a stone from the crumbling slab (she is trying to get the slab refurbished) and hold it up as a reminder of the Selma marchers.  She challenged us to show this kind of courage in our lives whenever we encounter injustice.

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Joanne  Bland tells her story

Bland showed us some historical sites in Selma, took us to a local fruit stand so she could buy some peaches, and then told us her experience during the 1965 voting rights marches.  We then made our own march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  (Our tour guide Todd Allen asked my daughter Caroline to lead us across the bridge.  It will be an experience she will never forget.  Later in the day Todd asked Caroline what she thought about playing the role of John Lewis in our march).  It was a moving end to a very moving day.

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Caroline is about to lead us across the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Tomorrow we will spend half the day in Montgomery and the other half in Birmingham. Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:

 

 

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Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage

University of Texas Professors Protest Removal of Jefferson Davis Statue

On Sunday the University of Texas at Austin removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate State of America, from its location in front of the school’s main tower.  The statue will be moved to a history museum on campus.


Not everyone on the Austin campus is happy about the move.   Yesterday two professors wrote a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing the removal of the Davis statue.  Al Martinich teaches philosophy and Tom Palaima teaches classics.

They make a compelling case.  Here is a taste:

Removing the statue is a serious moral and ethical mistake. Remembering our lamentable behavior in the past is an important part of helping to ensure that a similar behavior does not recur, especially if that remembering does what colleges, particularly public colleges, were created to do: produce educated citizens who can make sound ethical decisions.
“Remember the reason the statue of Jefferson Davis was erected in the first place and what it symbolized for over eight decades” is not as pithy as “Remember the Alamo.” But it is just as important. Remembering the long and inglorious success of racism in our institution and our society is as important as remembering a glorious defeat in battle…
UT-Austin should unequivocally acknowledge its history and assert its commitment to do better. We should have retained all the statues. As it is now, we should put plaques on the remaining statues and on Davis’s when it gets to its final, high-dollar place of honor. The plaques should have texts such as this: “The University of Texas at Austin regrets its long association with people who supported the system of segregation that denied equality to African-Americans and other oppressed minorities as if it were an acceptable part of civilized life.”
The university’s decision in the case of the Confederate statues runs counter to the core values it has long promoted. Carved in large letters prominently across the façade of the south entrance of the UT Tower are the liberating words of John 8:32: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The motto on the official seal of the university readsDisciplina Praesidium Civitatis: “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.” The recent decision is not faithful to those values, nor is it in keeping with our university motto: “What starts here changes the world.”
All human lives matter, including historical lives. For over a century, people of color in Texas were treated as unworthy of the full rights and privileges of American citizens. We should not segregate any part of our past in a moral skeleton closet. Keeping, contextualizing, and explaining the Confederate statues and their history would convert those artworks into tools of historical witness to wrongs done and too long tolerated. And they would serve as conspicuous examples of how to change moral direction within our society.

Quote of the Day

“First question about Davis.  Great Confederate president, or the greatest Confederate president?”

–Stephen Colbert to James McPherson on the October 6, 2014 Colbert Report.  McPherson was on the show to discuss his recent book Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

HT: The American Historian magazine, p. 9.

*New York Times* Interview With James McPherson

He is currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington.  The last “great book” he read was James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States.  He believes that Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, David McCullough, and David Hackett Fischer are the best historians writing today.  He endorses John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom as the best book ever written on African-American history.  C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South is the book that has had the most influence on his career as an American historian.  If he could assign Barack Obama one book it would be Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit.  If he was hosting a literary dinner party he would invite Mark Twain, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner.  He is embarrassed that he has not yet read A. Scott Berg’s biography of Woodrow Wilson.

Read about these things and more in this interview with noted Civil War historian James McPherson
By the way, he has a new book out:  Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief.