Edward Ayers on Confederate Monuments

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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.

 

A Historian of Civil War Memory Reviews Katie Couric’s “Re-Righting History”

Lee Monument

Historian Caroline E. Janney wonders if we can “right the past.”  “Re-Righting History” was the theme of an episode in Katic Couric’s documentary mini-series America Inside Out.  You can watch it here.

Here is a taste of Janney’s post at AHA Today:

This film offers a powerful reminder that memory is always about the present—about using the past to address social, cultural, and or political ideals. When Union veterans launched textbook campaigns in the late 19th century to ensure that the “proper,” i.e. the “Union,” version of the war was taught in classrooms, or when southern states began flying the Confederate battle flag during Massive Resistance, it was about the present, not the past. Such was and is the case in dedicating monuments, naming schools or state highways, flying the Confederate flag, or removing Confederate symbols and names. This documentary provides a stark example: Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler candidly (and chillingly) explains that the alt-right rallied in Charlottesville to protect Lee’s statue in an effort to push back against the “policies of liberals [who] are ethnically cleansing white people from the face of the earth.” Just as the context of the early 20th century shaped efforts to build monuments, the current social and political climate informs calls to both remove and preserve them.

We need to press our students (and perhaps ourselves) to ask what is at the heart of protecting certain symbols or names, constructing new memorials to forgotten aspects of our past, or removing from the public landscape those we have come to evaluate differently in the 21st century. Who should get to make those decisions? What power dynamics are at play? Whom or what do they serve? And can we, as the documentary’s title suggests, ever “re-right” the past?

Read the entire post here.

Hannah Duston: The Puritan’s Memorialized Indian-Killer

Hannah_Duston,_by_Stearns

Check out Barbara Cutter‘s fascinating piece on Hannah Duston, a Puritan woman who was used as a “national symbol of innocence, valor, and patriotism to justify westward expansion.” Cutter is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Domestic Devils, Battlefield Angels: The Radicalism of American Womanhood, 1830-1865.

A taste:

On a small island north of Concord, New Hampshire, stands a 25-foot-tall granite statue of Hannah Duston, an English colonist taken captive by Native Americans in 1697, during King William’s War. Erected in 1874, the statue bears close resemblance to contemporary depictions of Columbia, the popular “goddess of liberty” and female allegorical symbol of the nation, except for what she holds in her hands: in one, a tomahawk; in the other, a fistful of human scalps.

Though she’s all but forgotten today, Hannah Duston was probably the first American woman to be memorialized in a public monument, and this statue is one of three built in her honor between 1861 and 1879. The mystery of why Americans came to see patriotic “heroism” in Duston’s extreme—even gruesome—violence, and why she became popular more than 100 years after her death, helps explain how the United States sees itself in world conflicts today.

Born in 1657, Hannah Emerson Duston lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts, at a time when disputes among English colonists, the French in Canada, and various Native American nations resulted in a series of wars in the region. King Philip’s War (1675-1676), for example, decimated southern New England Indian nations, which lost between 60 and 80 percent of their population as well as their political independence. Many were sold into slavery. By the late 1680s and the start of King William’s War, fragments of those southern tribes had joined the Abenaki and other northern New England Indian nations allied with the French to fight the continuing expansion of the English colonists to the north and west. Native men conducted raids on frontier English settlements, burning property, killing or injuring some colonists, and taking others captive, either to ransom them back to their families, or to adopt them as replacements for their own lost family members.

Read the rest here.

When the Declaration of Independence Came to Exeter, New Hampshire

Exeter

Historian Jessica Lepler writes: “Exeter’s residents thought they were King George’s subjects twelve days longer than Philadelphians.”  In her piece at Common-Place, Lepler tells the very interesting story of a first edition copy of the Declaration of Independence printed in 1776 by John Dunlap.  Here is a taste:

The Dunlap broadside (the broadside) on display during Exeter’s American Independence Festival was “discovered” in 1985 in the attic of the Ladd-Gilman House. The house was built in the early eighteenth century and was the home of the politically prominent Gilman family. During the Revolutionary War when Exeter was the state capital and a booming inland seaport, the house served as the treasury. In 1902, the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Hampshire acquired the house from the Gilman family. The society, a hereditary organization composed of the eldest male descendants of New Hampshire’s commissioned officers who served in the Continental Army and Navy, named it Cincinnati Memorial Hall. In this clubhouse, members gathered for meetings and brought with them artifacts from the revolutionary era for a kind of grown-up show-and-tell. Some of these objects had been passed down in their families; others were acquired over time. The collection grew: political cartoons, swords, furniture, rare books, original drafts of the Constitution complete with handwritten notes, an eighteenth-century purple heart, and portraits of revolutionary leaders by famous artists. Despite the value of the items at Cincinnati Memorial Hall, the collection was unorganized and record-keeping haphazard. The society, however, knew it owned valuable artifacts. In 1985, the society hired a local electrician to install a security system, which required attic access. Local lore suggests that the electrician’s assistant “discovered” the broadside in a stack of old newspapers serving as insulation. The society, in turn, argues that the broadside was “rediscovered” by a member during an inventory of the items stored in the attic inspired by the electrician’s need for access. Regardless of who should be credited with finding the document, it quickly became clear that this piece of paper was worth quite a lot of money. By selling the broadside, the society could afford to repair and restore the rest of its collection, including the Ladd-Gilman house and Folsom Tavern.

The society had stumbled upon a bounty, or at least the members and appraisers thought so. The society reached out to leading sellers of historic documents and rare books. Most valued the broadside at around $500,000 (adjusted for inflation to 2017, that would be about $1.1 million). This is probably a low estimate given the more than $2 million sale price of the copy discovered and sold just a few years later.

The price tag, however, proved inconsequential. As the society prepared to send the broadside to auction, the state of New Hampshire intervened. It turns out that, in legal terms, the mystery of who found the broadside matters a lot less than who lost it. Did a member give it to the society during the show-and-tell meetings sometime after 1902? Or was it the original copy—the one sent to the Committee of Safety by Hancock that arrived on July 16, 1776—hidden in the attic of the state treasury? In 1776, after all, the broadside was not a rare, valuable piece of old paper; it was treason. If the Gilmans hid the broadside in their house in the 1770s, it was never theirs to convey to the society. It was technically state property. And the state of New Hampshire wanted it back.

Read the rest here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Anne Bailey

51yawlmV0vL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Anne Bailey is associate professor of African American history at Binghamton University. This interview is based on her new book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What is the argument of The Weeping Time?

AB: Drawing on victims’ accounts and descendants’ memories, The Weeping Time uses the largest slave auction in U.S. history as a lens to explore the legacies of slavery, diaspora and the Civil War.

The story of “The Weeping Time” is also a story of the strength and resilience of families – in this case, African American families. Building on the great work of historians like Herbert Gutman (The Black Family in Slavery and in Freedom) and Annette Gordon Reed ( The Hemingses), The Weeping Time demonstrates that in spite of a history of displacement and loss, some Black families managed to reconnect after emancipation and reestablished strong ties that remain to this day.

JF: Why do we need to read The Weeping Time?

AB: The book is also about memory and why there is such amnesia about slavery particularly about the mechanics of the system. Slave auctions were as common as stock trades today yet most of us cannot recollect even one. How does something so important disappear from public memory? Why is there still contention about Confederate generals and the statues built in their honor? I think all aspects of slavery are important to share because there is still a lot of misperceptions and misinformation about the period and its effect on American history. There is still a lot of healing that needs to take place – a lot of understanding that there are strong connections that we share that should help us to overcome our differences. I also hope the book will open up again the discussion on Reparations – the debt that is due to descendants of slaves whose ancestors labored without compensation. This debt or investment could be a particular boon to inner city communities across the nation.

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

AB: I don’t think I consciously decided until I was in my mid twenties yet I was interested in history from I first saw ROOTS in 1977. I later did a school research project on slavery. That project created in me an endless thirst to know more about this period and, in fact, about my own roots.

During college, I ended up taking the route of Literature (French and English), but again, was more interested in the places where literature and history connect. In the end, I found that that original thirst would best be quenched through the field of history yet I have maintained a strong interest in many disciplines including English and Anthropology.

JF: What is your next project?

AB:  Transatlantic Slave auctions—an edited volume on slave auctions in Brazil, Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean and South America.(2019)

Back to the Future: Jamaican Identity in a Globalized World, co -edited with Dr. Hilary Robertson Hickling of the University of West Indies regarding the history of the Jamaican Diaspora and its relationship with host countries such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, (Expected date: 2018.)

JF: Thanks, Anne!

Christ Church in Alexandria is a Church, Not a Museum

George_Washington_memorial_-_Christ_Church_(Alexandria,_Virginia)_-_DSC03516In case you have not heard, an Episcopalian church in Alexandria, Virginia is taking down a plaque memorializing George Washington.  When Christ Church opened in 1773, Washington owned a pew.  He attended the church whenever he was in town to conduct business.  It is located about nine miles from Mount Vernon. Washington also served as a vestryman in the church.

According to this piece in The Washington Times, Christ Church will also be removing a memorial marker dedicated to another famous parishioner: Robert E. Lee.

Here is a taste:

While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said both plaques, which are attached to the front wall on either side of the altar, are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as “All are welcome — no exceptions.”

“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques,” the church leaders said in a letter to the congregation that went out last week.

The decision was also announced to parishioners on Sunday.

The backlash was swift, with the church’s Facebook page turning into a battleground. Some supporters praised the church for a “courageous” stand, while critics compared leaders at the Episcopal church leaders to the Taliban or the Islamic State.

Read the entire piece here.

Let’s remember that Christ Church is a functioning congregation.  If the leadership of this congregation believe that people will be offended by commemorative material related to Washington or Lee, or if they believe that these plaques will somehow hinder the advancement of the Gospel in their midst, then the materials should definitely be removed from the sanctuary.  Finally, I am not sure political figures or military generals belong in a church sanctuary.  I would say the same thing about the American flag.

I am also glad to see that the church will be creating a separate space where the commemorative items can be explained and contextualized:

The new display location will be determined by a parish committee. That location will provide a place for our parish to offer a fuller narrative of our rich history, including the influence of these two powerful men on our church and our country,” she said in the email. “We look forward to this opportunity to continue to learn more about our own history and find new ways to introduce it to the wider community.

Read the statement from the Senior Warden of Christ Church here.

Agnostic Monuments and Other Forms of Secular Commemoration

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As Washington University-St. Louis religion professor Leigh Eric Schmidt points out, religion, patriotism, and lost causes are not the only things people in America commemorate.

Here is a taste of his Aeon piece, “Monuments to Unbelief

Materialising secularism, giving it ritual shape and monumental expression, has picked up again as the ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company – have become bestsellers, and as the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has grown dramatically in the past decade and a half. Defenders of scientific rationality and free enquiry have mounted new festivals such as International Darwin Day on February 12 and International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30 to keep up the battle against superstition. This past summer, the Freedom from Religion Foundation orchestrated the dedication of a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. (His anti-evolution opponent, William Jennings Bryan, had already been memorialised some years earlier with a statue outside the courthouse, but now Bryan’s likeness – thanks once more to Frudakis the sculptor – must share public space again with his infidel adversary.)

Atheists and nonbelievers have also launched new congregational ventures – most prominently, the Sunday Assembly and Oasis – in several cities across the country, and humanist chaplaincies have flowered on a number of college campuses to afford a community for openly secular students. The UK-based philosopher Alain de Botton has crystallised much of this recent ritual creativity in Religion for Atheists (2012), in which he expressly reimagines Comte’s religion of humanity for contemporary nonbelievers. Restaurants and art museums, de Botton suggests, are potential sites for humanistic liturgies of communal solidarity and unbuttoned conviviality. Whether in Sunday gatherings or funeral rites, the new secularists court temple, sacrament and monument much as the old secularists long did.

Perhaps the most successful instance of that courtship has been the Satanic Temple – a group of freethinking activists, led by the pseudonymous Lucien Greaves, which has puckishly deployed an occult statue of Baphomet to challenge a monument devoted to the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol in Oklahoma. Winning its case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2015, the troupe forced state officials into the bind of removing the Decalogue or having it share space with a winged, goat-headed, pagan idol – a topsy-turvy symbol to these ‘Satanists’ of equal liberty, rational enquiry and free expression. Reluctantly, the state’s Republican leadership decided that it was better to take down the Ten Commandments than to make room for such sacrilege. Deprived of a space in Oklahoma’s public square, the statue of Baphomet went instead to Michigan where it has been installed as the showpiece of Detroit’s chapter of the Satanic Temple, the latest US monument to blasphemy, infidelity and strict church-state separation.

Read the entire piece here

Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities

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Over at Uncommon Sense, Elizabeth Losh of the American Studies Department at William & Mary reports on an upcoming conference:

The Digital Humanities Caucus of the American Studies Association is committed to working across “the various areas of digital humanities,” including but not limited to  “born-digital work, computational methods (such as network, spatial, and textual analysis), cyberculture studies, digital editions and collections, digital tools (cyberinfrastructure) for humanities scholars, and new media.” The American Studies Program at William and Mary consulted with the caucus’s leadership to assemble an exciting roster of digital humanities speakers to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of African Americans in Residence on the historic campus. These efforts have been helped by months of collaboration with the Omohundro Institute, which is developing more digital projects and more interactive articles in its signature publication, The William and Mary Quarterly, including many that address the legacies of slavery and the racist dogmas of colonization.

An upcoming Omohundro-sponsored conference on “Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities” reflects a number of recent conversations about using digital technologies to archive and interpret the cultural record with more attention to the contributions of communities of color. Although just a few years ago Tara McPherson bemoaned the lack of diversity in the digital humanities in her groundbreaking article “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” digital scholarship that approaches race as a critical issue from the traditional archive to online communities has become a vibrant and expanding field. From digitizing records on slavery, colonialism, and 19th century political organizing by free and fugitive Blacks to interpreting Afrofuturist science fiction, digital music, and hashtag activism, the contributions of scholars of African-American history and culture to the digital humanities have been significant.  Digital humanities work that explores race and memory even incorporates cutting-edge technologies like 3D computer animation and virtual reality, which Angel David Nieves of Yale will discuss.  Many of the speakers – including Moya Bailey, Alexis Lothian, Amanda Phillips – were founding members of TransformDH, which is devoted to “a digital humanities of transformative research, pedagogy, and activism for social justice, accessibility, and inclusion.”

Read the rest here.

How Did African Americans Remember the Civil War?

Confederate Charleston

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a Ph.D candidate in the History department at Rutgers University, tackles this question in a piece at Black Perspectives titled “Beyond Monuments: African Americans Contesting Civil War Memory.”

Here is a taste:

African Americans worked from the end of the war to this current moment to consistently affirm and interpret the Civil War’s meaning for them.  Due to its power and influence, confronting the Lost Cause is a large part of this collective memory.  The Lost Cause movement includes the historical memories, myths, commemorative events, and invented traditions of many white Southerners that first took shape after the end of the Civil War. The Lost Cause was as much about upholding white supremacy as it was about commemorating the white Southern Civil War experience.  It is not incidental, for example, that the Keystone, a publication for Southern white clubwomen and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) published stories of Confederate heroism alongside dedications to “faithful slaves” and praise for books like Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman.  White Civil War memory has long dominated conversations about how the war is remembered, even now when it involves anti-racist activism.  The idea that “both sides” should be celebrated and honored was largely an invention of white Southerners and Northerners in order to reunite the nation.  African American Civil War memory was sidelined in its service.  As a result, we know considerably less about the long tradition of Black anti-Lost Cause resistance that culminated with Bree Newsome snatching the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse grounds of South Carolina in 2015 and Takiyah Thompson toppling a Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina on August 14 of this year.

On March 27, 1865 African Americans flooded the streets of Charleston, South Carolina to celebrate the coming end of the Civil War.  The result was a grand spectacle, with dozens of Black men marching while tied to a rope to symbolize those bound in chains while being sold down South. A hearse followed with the sign “Slavery is Dead. Who Owns Him? No one.  Sumter Dug His Grave on 13th April, 1861.” Behind the hearse, fifty Black women marched dressed in mourning clothes, but were laughing and happy. “John Brown’s Body” was a popular song among Black and white Union troops and was commonly sung in the various military parades across the South as Union troops marched in victory.  The school children marching in this parade focused on singing one verse in particular loudly: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree . . . As we Go Marching On.”

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Civil Rights Movement and the Search for a Usable Past

TheoharisOver at The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviews Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis about the various ways the Civil Rights Movement has been used in present-day politics.  Some of you may recall that this issue of the Civil Rights Movement and “usable pasts” was on the forefront of my mind this summer when I took a Civil Rights-era bus tour.

Theoharis is the author of the forthcoming A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.  Here is a taste of the interview:

JS: Before we get into some of these specific examples, I’m just wondering about your overall view of how key historical figures or moments in the civil rights movement are kind of used or inaccurately portrayed in our current discourse, either by politicians or by ordinary people having arguments online.

JT: I mean I think what we’ve seen, and this has happened over the past number of decades and I would argue since really Reagan changes his position and signs the King holiday, is the kind of creation of a national fable of the civil rights movement.

And so now the civil rights movement is used to make Americans feel good about themselves. You know, from 50th anniversary commemorations of the March on Washington, to the Selma to Montgomery march, from the dedication of King’s statue on the Mall, from the statue of Rosa Parks in Statuary Hall. All of these events have become places where we now celebrate the United States, where we feel so good about the progress we’ve made.

And I think in the process, these kind of dangerous ideas about what the civil rights movement was, what it entailed, how it went forth have become cemented. And so, as you’re implying politicians, citizens, constantly invoke the civil rights movement in the present to justify certain kinds of positions, to chastise contemporary movements; whether it’s Black Lives Matter, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick’s stand that has now turned into a much broader stand by athletes. We’re constantly being bombarded with, “This is not what King would do.” You know, “Be like King, be like Parks,” that strip and utterly distort what the civil rights movement was and what people like King and Parks actually did and stood for.

Read the entire piece here.

The Women Behind the Lost Cause

UDC

Over at The New York Times, historian Karen Cox tells the story of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the role the organization played in instilling “Southern white youth a reverence for Confederate principles.”

Here is a taste of her piece “The Confederacy’s ‘Living Monuments’“:

The Daughters’ primary objective, however, was to instill in Southern white youth a reverence for Confederate principles. Indeed, they regarded their efforts to educate children as their most important work as they sought, in their words, to build “living monuments” who would grow up to defend states’ rights and white supremacy.

Members of the U.D.C. developed a multipronged approach to educating white children about the “truth” of the “War Between the States.” They developed lesson plans for teachers, a number of whom were members of the organization. They placed pro-Confederate books in school and public libraries, which they insisted students use when they competed in U.D.C.-sponsored essay contests. They led students in the celebration of Robert E. Lee’s life on his birthday and placed portraits of Confederate heroes, festooned with the battle flag, in classrooms across the South and even in some schools outside of the region. They also formed Children of the Confederacy chapters for boys and girls ages 6 to 16, intended to serve as a pipeline for membership in both the U.D.C. and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a parallel organization.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Cook

51BmfDCLdAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Robert Cook is professor of American History at the University of Sussex. This interview is based on his new book, Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United since 1865  (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Civil War Memories?

RC: I’ve been working at the intersection of race, politics, and historical memory in the United States for more than two decades. This book grows directly out of a previous research project on the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s and a conviction that a deeper awareness of how and why particular strands of Civil War memory have been constructed over time can enhance our understanding of the war’s impact on contemporary culture wars.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Civil War Memories?

RC: I argue that four principal strands of Civil War memory – Unionist, southern, emancipationist and reconciliatory – were constructed during the late nineteenth century by the men and women who lived through the turmoil of the 1860s and 1870s. Social and political change in the United States enabled the Lost Cause and reconciliatory narratives to dominate the field of Civil War memory until the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century raised the profile in public memory of the previously marginalized and predominantly African American story of black liberation and martial service to the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Civil War Memories?

RC: The lethal violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 highlighted the continuing resonance of the Civil War in contemporary debates over race and historical commemoration. This book provides the essential backstory to the current controversy and will contribute positively to an informed and constructive debate over removal of Confederate symbols and statues.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

RC: As a teenager growing up in the English midlands I enjoyed reading the Civil War histories of Bruce Catton. However, I didn’t decide to become an American historian until I was a student at the University of Warwick where I enrolled in Bill Dusinberre’s classes on the African American experience and the antislavery movement. Bill was an inspirational teacher. He encouraged me to pursue a PhD in American history at the University of Oxford in the early 1980s. I researched the early history of the Republican party in Iowa, focusing particularly on the party’s remarkably strong support for black rights in the Civil War era.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I’m currently in the early stages of a project that investigates African American responses to different manifestations of the Lost Cause since 1880.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

 

Why the Columbus Statues Should Stay

Columbus

I am in complete agreement with this piece by Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra. (And it is not just because I am half Italian).  If we are going to make an argument against Robert E. Lee statues because of the Jim Crow context in which they were erected, then we can make an argument for Columbus statues based on the same principle–the meaning Italian-Americans gave to these statues at the time many of them were erected.  (I also blogged about this here).

A taste of Ruberto and Sciorra’s piece at Process:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants saw the American idolization of Columbus as a way to deflect the onslaught of xenophobic and racial prejudice and violence they encountered, and for which they were relatively unprepared, as new arrivals in the United States. They bought into and contributed to a specific Italian reading of Columbus in relationship to their brutal experiences of bigotry. Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.

The connections between Columbus and Italian Americans developed in great part through the work of Italian immigrant prominenti, ethnic leaders who served as intermediaries between WASP elites and the working poor and who supported an upper-class notion of Italian national identity. These included Angelo Noce, a publisher who spearheaded the first declaration of Columbus Day as a state holiday, in Colorado, in 1907, and Carlo Barsotti, a banker and newspaper editor who solicited funds from primarily working-class immigrants to erect New York City’s Columbus monument in 1892. These leaders, many from northern Italy, “argued for full inclusion as Americans based upon an imagined ‘Italian’ heritage of civilization and whiteness,” as historian Peter G. Vellon reveals. In Columbus, they perceived a tool by which to forge an Italian national identity which did not exist among the vast majority of immigrants from southern Italy whose geopolitical affinities were to their local villages. By perpetuating ideas of a united Italian community based on racial hierarchies and a grand history of an assumed, singular Italian civilization, the prominentiimposed elitist notions of a unified Italian American community that was removed from working-class understandings of history and social formations, and that relied on Italians aligning themselves with a white majority. At the same time, the prominenti devalued and inhibited a whole host of Italian working-class cultural expressions that became more and more associated with ignorance and vulgarity—from undermining the practice of Catholic street feasts to belittling the use of Italian regional dialects.

The quintessential prominente, Generoso Pope, was instrumental in cementing Italian Americans to Columbus. A powerful businessman and influential newspaper owner in New York City, Pope was pro-Fascist. He used his Italian language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano during the 1920s and 1930s as propaganda for the Italian dictator, and he led Columbus Day gatherings at Columbus Circle where audience members made the fascist salute (and anti-fascist Italian Americans protested both vocally and physically). Critical in securing the Italian American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he later lobbied FDR’s administration for an annual national Columbus Day, eventually proclaimed in 1937.

Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.

Read the entire piece here.

A Metric to Help Us Decide if a Monument Should Stay or Go

Confederate_Monument_-_W_face_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery_-_2011

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and one of our leading public intellectuals, offers this metric:

  1. Was the person’s or cultural artifact’s historical impact exclusively focused on slavery and racism?
  2. Did the person insist on their support of segregation and racism even in the face of vigorous arguments otherwise?
  3. Is the monument an ever-present part of experience?

Read how he develops these points here.  There is much to commend here. But even if we accept the metrics that McWhorter proposes I imagine that there will still be debate over how to parse their phrasing.  For example, what defines an “ever-present part of experience?” What qualifies as “vigorous arguments otherwise?”

Statues of Christopher Columbus and Italian-Americans

Columbus Cirlce

Columbus Circle (Wikimedia Commons)

In case you have not heard, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio is considering removing the statue of Christopher Columbus in the circle that bears his name.  David Marcus of The Weekly Standard explains how that statue got there:

The earliest celebration of Columbus in North America took place in in 1792. A newly formed New York City government called Tammany celebrated the 300th anniversary of his discovery of America. Eight years earlier, the Manhattan college formerly known as Kings College had been renamed, Columbia. This happened before many people who actually were Italian became residents of the world’s first constitutional democracy, and it greatest city. One hundred years later, Italians would begin to pour through Ellis Island like water drained through pasta. By 1900, Italians were becoming a fixture in the United States.

These Italian immigrants weren’t greeted warmly. In the 1890s, a group of Sicilian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. Few Italian Americans today would suggest that they faced greater bigotry than blacks have. But, the lynching happened, and it is a part of our country’s dark history of racial resentment. In the wake of this bigoted violence, Il Progresso, the leading Italian language newspaper of the time in New York City, began a campaign to raise money for a statue of Columbus, as a gift to the city, and a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.

It worked: Small dollar donations led to an image of Columbus towering over the city. Italian immigrants chose Columbus as their avatar for good reasons. Not only was he a great man, who had inaugurated the trade between the New and Old World, he was a founding father of America. Only the Norwegians with Leif Erickson had a similar figure, but he was a tourist, not a man who changed the course of history.

This is interesting.  Many have argued that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments need to be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a way of glorifying the “Lost Cause” and white supremacy.  In other words, we need to understand these monuments in light of the meaning they carried at the time they were erected.  Could a similar argument be made for Columbus statues?

I am half-Italian.  I have spent a lot of time listening to my late grandfather (died a few years ago at the age of 103) talk about discrimination against Italian-Americans. White Americans treated him as a member of another race.  None of my grandfather’s stories about working in the breweries of Newark, New Jersey were as bad as the lynchings that Italians suffered in 1890s New Orleans.  And like Marcus, I do not pretend to believe that the story of Italian-Americans is synonymous with the sufferings faced by African Americans in this country.  That would be bad history.  But Columbus became a symbol of pride for Italian-Americans.  The statue in Columbus Circle, as Marcus points out, was erected “as a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.”

What do you think?  Should Columbus go?

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Levin

interpreting-the-civil-war-at-museums-and-historic-sitesKevin Levin is a historian, educator, and the proprietor of the popular Civil War Memory blog. This interview is based on his new edited collection, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017).

JF: What led you to collect and edit the essays in Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: With the United States recently having completed a 4-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, I was interested in how the war was interpreted at historic sites and museums throughout the country. I wanted a better sense of how recent scholarship and shifts in our popular memory of the war impacted interpretation on the ground. With that in mind I gathered together a group of public historians and educators to talk about how their respective institutions approached the sesquicentennial. I asked them to focus on how the specific challenges posed by their location and clientele shaped their exhibits and public outreach. My contributors include some very well known public historians working at high profile sites as well those who work at places that are a bit further off the beaten path.

JF: I realize that Interpreting the Civil War is an edited collection, but does the book have an overarching argument?

KL: Given the ongoing public debate about Confederate monuments it will not be surprising to hear that taken together the essays serve as a reminder that interpreting the Civil War for the general public is fraught with challenges. Contributors to this volume shared both successes and failures. The most successful public programs turned out to be those that took chances in engaging new audiences and addressing topics that have been both ignored and/or mythologized over the previous decades.

JF: Why do we need to read Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: First and foremost, I hope these essays will be helpful for practicing public historians. This book is part of Rowman & Littlefield’s “Interpreting History” series and is intended primarily for pubic historians, but I suspect that general readers interested in interpretive controversies as well as the long arc of Civil War memory will find much to consider. Essays cover the history of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and questions surrounding how to interpret the battle flag that was recently removed from the State House grounds as well as the challenges of interpreting the war in the former capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Other essays offer insight into where we may be headed in our work as public historians. A historian with the National Park Service assesses its sesquicentennial programming and offers suggestions on what work still needs to be done while the final essay offers advice to public historians on how they can engage various constituencies in communities that are currently debating the public display of Confederate iconography. I can’t think of a better moment for just such a book.

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

KL: I never intended to become a historian. In 2005 I finished an M.A. in History at the University of Richmond and was teaching full time at a private school in Charlottesville, Virginia. In November of that year I started a blog called Civil War Memory, which within a few years had become fairly popular. The exposure that the blog offered paid off gradually with opportunities to speak and write and eventually led to a contract for my first book with the University Press of Kentucky that was based on my thesis. As much as I enjoy writing, I still think of myself primarily as an educator. Although I am not in the classroom full time, my greatest joy is working with history educators on their professional development and working with students on field trips and other settings.

JF: What is your next project?

KL: I am finishing up a book-length project that is tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. The book explores the wartime role of body servants or what I call camp slaves in the Confederate army and how these stories evolved after the war and into the present as the myth of the black Confederate soldier. My next project will address the current debate about Confederate monuments. I plan on structuring the book as a travel narrative that will allow me to visit and interview some of the most vocal participants on both sides of this debate in different places and weave into the story the history of these very same monuments. No title yet and I am still working through the overall structure and goals of the project.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

Lonnie Bunch III: Dismantle Confederate Statues, Group Them Together, and Contextualize Them

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583

I just read Robin Pogrebin and Sopan Deb’s New York Times article titled “Trump Aside, Artists and Preservationists Debate the Rush to Topple Statues.” The article quotes Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Here is a taste:

Mark Bradford, the renowned Los Angeles artist, says Confederate statues should not be removed unless they are replaced by educational plaques that explain why they were taken away.

For Robin Kirk, a co-director of Duke University’s Human Rights Center, the rapid expunging of the statues currently underway needs to be “slower and more deliberative.”

And Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, proposes that the dismantled statues be grouped together and contextualized, so people understand what they stood for.

In state after state this week, artists, museum curators, and historic preservationists found themselves grappling with lightning-fast upheaval in a cultural realm — American monuments — where they usually have input and change typically unfolds with care. Many said that even though they fiercely oppose President Trump and his defense of Confederate statues, they saw the removal of the monuments as precipitous and argued that the widening effort to eliminate them could have troubling implications for artistic expression.

“I am loath to erase history,” Mr. Bunch said. “For me it’s less about whether they come down or not, and more about what the debate is stimulating.”

Read the entire article here.

American Historical Association Issues Statement on Confederate Monuments

Confederate_Monument_-_W_face_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery_-_2011

Here it is:

The American Historical Association welcomes the emerging national debate about Confederate monuments. Much of this public statuary was erected without such conversations, and without any public decision-making process. Across the country, communities face decisions about the disposition of monuments and memorials, and commemoration through naming of public spaces and buildings. These decisions require not only attention to historical facts, including the circumstances under which monuments were built and spaces named, but also an understanding of what history is and why it matters to public culture.

President Donald Trump was correct in his tweet of August 16: “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is a good beginning, because to learn from history, one must first learn what actually happened in the past. Debates over removal of monuments should consider chronology and other evidence that provide context for why an individual or event has been commemorated. Knowledge of such facts enables debate that learns “from history.”

Equally important is awareness of what we mean by “history.” History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.

Understanding the specific historical context of Confederate monuments in America is imperative to informed public debate. Historians who specialize in this period have done careful and nuanced research to understand and explain this context. Drawing on their expertise enables us to assess the original intentions of those who erected the monuments, and how the monuments have functioned as symbols over time. The bulk of the monument building took place not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but from the close of the 19th century into the second decade of the 20th. Commemorating not just the Confederacy but also the “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction, this enterprise was part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement across the South. Memorials to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life. A reprise of commemoration during the mid-20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and included a wave of renaming and the popularization of the Confederate flag as a political symbol. Events in Charlottesville and elsewhere indicate that these symbols of white supremacy are still being invoked for similar purposes.

To remove such monuments is neither to “change” history nor “erase” it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor. Historians and others will continue to disagree about the meanings and implications of events and the appropriate commemoration of those events. The AHA encourages such discussions in publications, in other venues of scholarship and teaching, and more broadly in public culture; historical scholarship itself is a conversation rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards. We urge communities faced with decisions about monuments to draw on the expertise of historians both for understanding the facts and chronology underlying such monuments and for deriving interpretive conclusions based on evidence. Indeed, any governmental unit, at any level, may request from the AHA a historian to provide consultation. We expect to be able to fill any such request.

We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. Prior to removal they should be photographed and measured in their original contexts. These documents should accompany the memorials as part of the historical record. Americans can also learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues, such as Coronation Park in Delhi, India, and Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary.

Decisions to remove memorials to Confederate generals and officials who have no other major historical accomplishment does not necessarily create a slippery slope towards removing the nation’s founders, former presidents, or other historical figures whose flaws have received substantial publicity in recent years. George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery. There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.

Nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without anything resembling a democratic process. Regardless of their representation in the actual population in any given constituency, African Americans had no voice and no opportunity to raise questions about the purposes or likely impact of the honor accorded to the builders of the Confederate States of America. The American Historical Association recommends that it’s time to reconsider these decisions.

This is a very useful statement.  I endorse it.  Thanks to the folks at the AHA for writing it.

Teaching With Monuments

20fa7-monument

Chris Gehrz (aka The Pietist Schoolman) steers the conversation on monuments away from the “take down” or “keep up” debate.  He suggests that we use monuments in our teaching.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s post “How Historians Can Teach From Memorials“:

Memorials can indeed “sustain rich, nuanced interpretation.” But that requires the professional assistance of historians, whose most significant job it is to make meaning of the past. Historians should certainly critique Confederate memorials… but just as importantly, they should find ways to teach from those and other memorials: to bring representations of them into their teaching and scholarship as artifacts for students and readers to interpret.

Or better yet, to burst the walls of the classroom and take their students out into public spaces to encounter memorials in space, as well as time. Indeed, I first grew interested in commemoration while teaching a travel course on World War I, whose students regularly report that the most meaningful moments came in the presence of war memorials. Both on the former Western Front and in cities like London, Oxford, Paris, Munich, and Salzburg, students learned to notice and interpret a wide variety of memorials. (Few of which, it should be said, are statues of generals, on either side of the war.)

And if you can’t spend three weeks touring former WWI or Civil War sites… There are ways to teach about commemoration where you’re located. I now require an off-campus experience of students in my on-campus World War II class, one option being that they join me on a 90-minute walking-driving tour of war memorials in St. Paul and Minneapolis. And in the upper-division Modern Europe course I’ll teach again this fall, I’ve often given students the option of orienting their 20th century research project around the design and presentation of a new memorial or monument. Rather than writing a paper about, say, the Holocaust, they design a commemorative space and structure that forces them to wrestle with European memory in light of present-day European concerns.

Read the entire post here.

Historian: When it Comes to Monuments, “Nuance” and “Complexity” Connects Us All

San Antonio Confederate Monument

What should happen to the Confederate monument in San Antonio’s Travis Park?

Carey Latimore is a scholar of African-American history who chairs the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Over at the website of the San Antonio Express-News, Latimore explains why it may not be a good idea to pull down every Confederate monument that crosses our paths.

Here is a taste:

I can understand the reasons to remove these monuments. However, if the past decade has demonstrated anything to us, it is that we should not be too quick to view small victories as symbolic of racial progress or transcending race, especially if these victories do not force us to address race both intraracially and interracially.

Moving forward will require us to directly confront the meaning of racial progress.

For many years, I tried to separate my identities linked to both masters and slaves, but now I realize that this was an impossibility. Such a sentiment is shared by many in this great nation. Whatever the manner in which diverse communities met, erasing any of them will not move us forward. Indeed, the lives of the masters and slaves are so connected that removing either of them from our collective memories erases the other.

Nonetheless, Confederate monuments should not be allowed to remain without clarifying the connections the organizations and people represented in these monuments had to slavery and racism. Such clarification needs to be more than a footnote, and it needs to be placed where the monuments stand.

The current conversation about Confederate memorials is a sign of our collective failure not only to accurately tell the stories that we memorialize but also a failure to celebrate diverse stories. If we are truly a multicultural nation, we should aim to do a better job pulling together the nuance and complexity that connects us all.

Perhaps then we can move forward together.

Read the entire piece here.

Thanks to Paul Thompson for bringing this piece to my attention.