Black Boston

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Robert Gould Shaw Monument, Boston

The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the Tufts Data Lab are working together to document Boston’s African-American history.  Learn more about the African American Freedom Trail Project in this piece at WBUR.

Here is a taste:

Boston is a city rich in American history. Tourists come here to explore the city’s central role in some of the United States’ pivotal moments. But its historical narrative is whitewashed, often omitting the influence and accomplishments of the city’s African-American community.

That’s according to Kerri Greenidge, who teaches history at Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Boston. She specializes in the African diaspora in New England and the Northeast.

“If you have the same people tell the story, you’re not going to get recent scholarship that challenges the story we accept,” says Greenidge.

The narrative Boston has accepted, Greenidge notes, doesn’t exactly highlight the African-American influence and experience beyond slavery.

The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, where Greenidge is on staff, wanted to help change that. So, together with the Tufts Data Lab, the center embarked on a mission to document significant sites that reflect local African-American history.

Greenidge and Kendra Fields, the center’s director, created a digital map that both tourists and curious locals could use to explore underrepresented but important events in the city’s history.

Read the entire piece here.

The Great Dismal Swamp and Fugitive Slaves

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Check out writer Richard Grant’s piece on the Great Dismal Swamp:

Here is a taste from Smithsonian.com:

The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp, the better I understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.

We don’t know much about them, but thanks to the archaeologist hacking through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world until the 19th century. The Dismal Swamp covered great tracts of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, and its vegetation was far too thick for horses or canoes. In the early 1600s, Native Americans fleeing the colonial frontier took refuge here, and they were soon joined by fugitive slaves, and probably some whites escaping indentured servitude or hiding from the law. From about 1680 to the Civil War, it appears that the swamp communities were dominated by Africans and African-Americans.

Read the entire piece here.

Tweeting the History of Slavery at the University of Virginia

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The Daily Progress has a nice piece on Kirt von Daacke, Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the university’s co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Slavery, who has been tweeting the results of his research. Check out his tweets @slaveryuva

Here is a taste:

Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean of history and co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University, writes most of the tweets. The periodic intrusion into Twitter timelines helps to keep the immediacy of slavery alive at the university, von Daacke said, and helps users get a sense of how interconnected and violent the system was in Central Virginia.

“Real people lived and died to build and maintain the U, it’s not just abt Jefferson. #SlaveryU,” he posted in January.

“I started tweeting out information eight or nine months ago just as a way to share it, promote our existence and begin to think about the evidence,” von Daacke said. “As I did it, I was struck by how useful it was as a way to begin to see patterns in all the data.”

So he kept tweeting between classes and meetings, sometimes enlisting students or other researchers to write a few posts about their own research.

“Each individual tweet doesn’t do much, but if you are following, it starts to creep in just how many people were involved, how much money, how much violence and misery,” he said.

Read the rest here.

This project is certainly fitting in light of what happened on the Charlottesville campus in August, but it also serves a great model for using Twitter to share snippets of historical research.

 

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Historians

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After his article “The First White President” appeared in The Atlantic, social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted:

Coates draws heavily from the work of American history, particularly historians of race and slavery.  I first encountered Coates when he writing blog posts on Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery–American Freedom.  I have been following him ever since.  Whatever one thinks about his views on race in America, Coates has done his homework.

At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jordan Michael Smith writes about Coates’s relationship with historians.  Here is a taste:

When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, Coates was no less effusive about the significance of scholarship. “I really enjoy talking to historians, for the most part, because there’s so much — this is going to sound elitist but it’s true — there’s just a basic ignorance about facts in American history” among members of the public. He points to recent debates over the Confederacy, spurred by attempts to have monuments of Confederate leaders removed from public spaces. The disputes over whether Confederates were fighting to preserve slavery or states’ rights “would not fly in most history programs in this country,” he says. Even among journalists, he argues, there is a dearth of knowledge about something as crucial to understanding America as the Civil War.

There is in Coates’s work evidence of a fanboyish enthusiasm, an earnest affection for certain people, places, and things. They include rappers (his Twitter avatar is an image from an album by a member of the Wu-Tang Clan), the French language, and comic books. Among the adored are historians, political scientists, and sociologists. “He’s like our biggest supporter, and that’s really refreshing,” says Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University. “I don’t know anyone else who deliberately” foregrounds a reliance on the work of academics to the same degree.

[Historian Manisha] Sinha describes Coates as “one of those rare writers who can effectively mine historians’ work. He has an intuitive grasp of the issues involved.” What Sinha finds particularly interesting is that Coates will develop his own take based on his reading, making him as much an active participant in the historicizing process as the people he reads.

Indeed, part of what sets Coates apart from other journalists or public intellectuals is that he tells his audience that historians’ works need to be consulted if they want to understand American history. Like any good high-school math student, Coates shows his work, illustrating which history books lead him to his conclusions.

Read the entire piece here.

 

George Moses Horton’s Recently Discovered Prose

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George Moses Horton was an African-American poet enslaved in Chatham County, North Carolina.  Jonathan Senchyne, a book historian at the University of Wisconsin, has discovered a previously unknown essay by Horton entitled “Individual Influence.”

Learn more about Horton and this new find in Jennifer Schuessler’s piece at The New York Times:

The essay, a roughly 500-word sermonlike meditation called “Individual Influence,” was found at the New York Public Library by Jonathan Senchyne, an assistant professor of book history at the University of Wisconsin. The document, which will be published in October in PMLA — the journal of the Modern Language Association — appears to be the first prose essay in Horton’s handwriting to come to light, and one of only a handful of manuscripts in his own handwriting known to survive.

Today, while Horton is still far from a household literary name, he has been celebrated in a growing body of scholarship; in a children’s book; and in Chapel Hill, where the university renamed a dormitory in his honor, as part of continuing efforts to tell a fuller story of its historical relationship with slavery.

Any new text by Horton, scholars say, is a welcome discovery. “We’re unlikely to find much more from him, given his enslaved status,” said Faith Barrett, an associate professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, who has written about Horton. “It’s really a wonderful find.”

“Individual Influence” is interesting not just for Horton’s lofty, abstract words about the primacy of divine influence, but for the context in which they were preserved: in a scrapbook of material relating to a prominent scholar who was forced out of the university after publicly opposing slavery.

Read the entire piece here.

Slavery and the 1619 Fallacy

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Over at Black Perspectives, Davidson College early American historian Michael Guasco complicates our understanding of the “20. and odd Negroes” who arrived in colonial Virginia in 1619.  He concludes: “Unfortunately, 1619 is not the best place to begin a meaningful inquiry into the history of African peoples in America.”

Here is a taste:

...the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day.

When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European.

Where does that leave Africans and people of African descent? Unfortunately, the same insidious logic of 1619 that reinforces the illusion of white permanence necessitates that Blacks can only be, ipso facto, abnormal, impermanent, and only tolerable to the degree that they adapt themselves to someone else’s fictional universe. Remembering 1619 may be a way of accessing the memory and dignifying the early presence of Black people in the place that would become the United States, but it also imprints in our minds, our national narratives, and our history books that Blacks are not from these parts. When we elevate the events of 1619, we establish the conditions for people of African descent to remain, forever, strangers in a strange land.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Do We Need to Change Our Vocabulary When We Teach American History?

Compromise

Should this be called “The Appeasement of 1850?”

According to Christopher Wilson, the Director of the African American History Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, removing Confederate monuments is only the beginning.  In his recent piece at Smithsonian.com, Wilson argues that the vocabulary that we use to talk about American history is also tainted with Confederate values.

Here is a taste of his piece “We Legitimize the ‘So-Called’ Confederacy With Our Vocabulary, and That’s a Problem“:

Historian Michael Landis suggests professional scholars should seek to change the language we use in interpreting and teaching history. He agrees with people like legal scholar Paul Finkelman and historian Edward Baptist when they suggest the Compromise of 1850 be more accurately referred to as an Appeasement. The latter word precisely reflects the sway that Southern slaveholders held in the bargain. Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, “the Union.” A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now one we only use “the Union” in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States.

In the same way, we could change the way we refer to secessionist states. When we talk of the Union versus the Confederacy, or especially when we present the strife as the North versus the South, we set up a parallel dichotomy in which the United States is cast as equal to the Confederate States of America. But was the Confederacy really a nation and should we refer to it as such?

When historian Steven Hahn participated in the 2015 History Film Forum at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, he noted that using these customary terms to tell the story of the Civil War —Hahn suggests we use “War of the Rebellion”—lends legitimacy to the Confederacy.

“If you think about it,” Hahn said, “nobody in the world recognized the Confederacy. The question is can you be a state if no one says you are a state?”  

Read the entire piece here.

Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Abolitionist

laySalon is running an excerpt from Marcus Rediker‘s new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.  Here is a taste:

Lay is little known among historians. He appears occasionally in histories of abolition, usually as a minor, colorful figure of suspect sanity. By the nineteenth century he was regarded as “diseased” in his intellect and later as “cracked in the head.” To a large extent this image has persisted in modern histories. Indeed David Brion Davis, a leading historian of abolitionism, condescendingly called Lay a mentally deranged, obsessive “little hunchback.” Lay gets better treatment by amateur Quaker historians, who include him in their pantheon of antislavery saints, and by the many excellent professional historians of Quakerism. He is almost totally unknown to the general public.

Lay was better known among abolitionists than among their later historians. The French revolutionary Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville gathered stories about him almost three decades after his death, during a visit to the United States in 1788. Brissot wrote that Lay was “simple in his dress and animated in his speech; he was all on fire when he spoke on slavery.” In this respect Lay anticipated by a century the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, who was also “all on fire” about human bondage. When Thomas Clarkson penned the history of the movement that abolished the slave trade in Britain, in 1808, a moment of triumph for that country, he credited Lay, who had “awakened the attention of many to the cause.” Lay possessed “strong understanding and great integrity,” but was “singular” and “eccentric.” He had, in Clarkson’s view, been “unhinged” by cruelties he observed in Barbados between 1718 and 1720. When Clarkson drew his famous graphic genealogy of the movement, a riverine map of abolition, he named a significant tributary “Benjamin Lay.” On the other side of the Atlantic, in the 1830s and 1840s, more than seventy years after Lay’s death, the American abolitionists Benjamin Lundy and Lydia Maria Child rediscovered him, republished his biography, reprinted an engraving of him, and renewed his memory within the movement.

Lay is not the usual elite subject of biography. He came from a humble background and was poor most of his life, by occupation and by choice. He lived, he explained, by “the Labour of my Hands.” He was also considered a philosopher in his own day, much like the ancient Greek Diogenes, the former slave known for speaking truth to power. (He refused Greek nationality and insisted that he was, rather, “a citizen of the world.”) Lay lived a mobile, far-flung life, in England, Barbados, Pennsylvania, and on the high seas in-between, all of which shaped his cosmopolitan thinking. Unlike most poor people, he left an unmediated record of his ideas, most significantly in his own book, “All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates,” a rich and remarkable body of evidence by any measure.

Read the entire excerpt here.

 

 

 

A Young Confederate is Transformed by the Study of History

DewOver at History News Network, Robin Lindley interviews noted Civil War historian Charles Dew.  (On a personal note, I am using Dew’s Apostle of Disunion in my Civil War America course this semester).

The interview centers on Dew’s 2016 book The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.

Here is a taste of Lindley’s introduction to the interview:

Professor Dew illustrates how he and generations of white southerners were poisoned by racism as if by osmosis, a word he uses advisedly to describe his own experience growing up with demeaning images of African Americans and rules that penalized and dehumanized them at every turn. He explores the vexing issue of how otherwise seemingly admirable people, including members of his own family, could embrace the odious tenets of white supremacy and the oppression of others.

But Professor Dew also describes his evolution from a “young Confederate” to an outspoken critic of racism, thanks in large part to his education at Williams College, and particularly his study of history. He details how he became a scholar of the South and its deeply conflicted past, and how that study revealed the noxious, insidious influence of white supremacist ideas that has poisoned whites there since the dawn of slavery.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Robin Lindley: I was surprised that your father, with his Jim Crow ideas, encouraged you to go to college at Williams in the far North.

Professor Charles Dew: Looking back on it, it does seem strange, but on the other hand I think he thought, as I say in the book, that the armor in which we were clad as Southerners was impenetrable and we could come to a New England college and, as he would say, we’d learn to speak well and write well and get a good liberal arts education. Then we would come back south with our cultural norms intact. It didn’t work that way. I think he anticipated that what he called “our Southern roots” were so firmly implanted that they weren’t going to be uprooted by four years of college in New England.

Robin Lindley: But your racist beliefs were uprooted, and your evolution—the unmaking of your racism–is a marvelous part of your story. What were a couple of incidents or moments that were particularly eye opening for you?

Professor Charles Dew: The experience of having an African American classmate and having someone I went to the dining halls with. We were in the same freshman vertical entry in the dormitory. You did a lot of things together with the kids in your entry. There were two senior advisors who lived in the entry with us and they planned activities for us together.

I was reacting as a social equal for the first time in my life with a person of color. I mention telling that dialect joke as my classmate walked down the stairs outside the dorm room in which I was telling this. I was so humiliated; I stopped and never told another joke like that in my life. I made a point of introducing myself to him a day or two later. I had to find out if he heard me. I was so upset. As I said, my mother had taught us not to humiliate anybody, and never to humiliate ourselves, and I thought I had done both. He didn’t let on that he had heard. We shook hands. That was the first time I’d shaken hands across the color line. I was 17 years old.

That was a profound experience for me. I started seeing things I hadn’t noticed before about Jim Crow customs in the South. I mention the curtain being pulled across the dining car on the train as it was going south. I had never noticed that before.

Just being in an educational institution in the North where I had classmates who were African American was life altering. I didn’t come out of that culture all that fast. It was a step or two forward, a step or two back. I still am puzzled by how blind I was to a lot.

I evolved with some tardiness, but I did evolve, and by my senior year, I was fully out from under. And that’s where those conversations with Illinois were so important. That’s the final thing that led me to break free from the racism that I had been raised under.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to study history and then to specialize in the history of the South and slavery?

Professor Charles Dew: I was fascinated by the South. Most boys who grew up in the South dream of Civil War battles, but I had some great teachers at Williams—historians who got me hooked on history, first as a major and then as something to study to understand Southern history.

I was fascinated by the region and I also began to ask questions about the South that I had never asked before. How did we come to embrace slavery? What caused the Civil War? How did the Jim Crow South evolve in the period after Reconstruction? I read a lot of C. Vann Woodward as an undergraduate and that made me want to go to Johns Hopkins and study with him, which I did.

So I think it was being fascinated with the South and its culture and history and absorbing that Confederate mythology and having that pretty well smashed to bits when I was studying it in college. So, instead of going to law school like everyone else in the family, I decided I wanted to go to grad school. It was a question of my growing up there and being fascinated by the South and then being educated about it in college in ways that were brand new to me. And just wanting to understand the region, which I still find fascinating and still find challenging.

Read the entire interview here.

More on the Bust of Richard Stockton

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Last week we published a post on Stockton University‘s decision to remove a bust of Richard Stockton from its library.  Stockton was a New Jersey revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The bust will be replaced with a more thorough exhibit that will apparently deal with Stockton as a slave holder.   Read our post here.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell offers his own thoughts on the remove of the Stockton bust.

Here is a taste:

This month brought news that Stockton University in New Jersey has removed a bust of Richard Stockton (shown above) from its library. The reason was not, however, because his iconic status in the state rests on a shaky legend of stoic suffering at the hands of the enemy.

Rather, the university removed the bust because Stockton owned slaves. Those people are documented in his will, in which the judge said his widow Annis could free them if she chose. (I’ve found no evidence she did so. Their son Richard owned slaves as an adult, as did their daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush—even though he advocated for an end to slavery.)

As a public university, and one founded to provide more opportunities for students who don’t have advantages in our society, Stockton University has good reason not to glorify someone who participated in slave-owning even while championing liberty for gentlemen like himself.

At the same time, I don’t see how removing Stockton’s bust will fix that contradiction when the institution is still, you know, named Stockton University.

The school started in the 1970s as South Jersey State College and evolved through Stockton State College, Richard Stockton State College, and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey before becoming Stockton University in 2015. Has the Stockton name developed enough of its own legacy to leave the judge behind? Does Stockton’s documented interest in higher education (as a trustee of Princeton College) make him a good namesake for a university despite his other behavior?

Good questions.

Read the entire post here.

Baltimore Is Trying to Figure Out What to Do With the Monuments They are Taking Down

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Baltimore removed a statue of Supreme Court justice Roger Taney

Here is a taste of Merrit Kennedy’s report at National Public Radio:

On Aug. 16, under the cover of darkness, Baltimore removed four statues of figures with Confederate ties in a five-hour operation ordered by Mayor Catherine Pugh.

The Lee-Jackson statue and three others are now in a city lot, covered and protected. The location is being kept secret. And Baltimore is trying to figure out what to do with them. Pugh says she has appointed a working group of city officials to weigh the options for where the statues should go.

Other cities across the U.S. that have taken down controversial monuments are grappling with the same questions.

“They’re coming down so fast, I don’t know if we have enough museums to house them or enough cemeteries to stick them in,” Pugh says of those works.

Baltimore’s mayor says she took action quickly and quietly because she was worried about violence in the aftermath of Charlottesville, Va., where plans to remove a statue of Lee became a rallying point for white nationalists.

Pugh says that because of safety concerns, only she and the contractor knew the removals were happening until right before the operation started.

The statues had already been a matter of city debate for years. In 2015, a panel of scholars heard comments from more than 200 people about whether the statues should stay or go and what should be done with them if they were removed.

“There were a wide variety of opinions about the statues and about how we should remember Baltimore’s complicated situation during the Civil War and how we should remember the Jim Crow era here,” says University of Baltimore history professor Elizabeth Nix, who was part of that commission. “Really, those statues are products of the Jim Crow era and not the Civil War.”

Read the rest here.

Stockton University Removes a Bust of Richard Stockton

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I have been doing a lot of reading about Richard Stockton lately.  He was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, he was married to Annis Boudinot Stockton, one of the great female American poets of the eighteenth-century.  He was a member of the Continental Congress and he signed the Declaration of Independence.  He almost became the revolutionary-era governor of New Jersey, but he lost that honor to William Livingston in a very close election.  In the Revolutionary War, Stockton was captured by the British and imprisoned in New York.  He died in 1781 at Morven, his Princeton home.

Stockton also owned slaves.

Here is a taste of Suzanne Marino and Claire Lowe’s piece at The Press of Atlantic City:

GALLOWAY (NJ) — The bust of Richard Stockton has been removed from Stockton University’s campus library in an attempt to address a longtime controversy surrounding the college’s slave-owning namesake, college officials said Thursday.

Although recent protests have erupted around the country over other controversial statues, Stockton University President Harvey Kesselman said that controversy about the college’s namesake has been going on for several years.

“If you look in our 40th (anniversary), you’ll see that the discussion began to take place then,” he said, adding even during the university’s founding it was controversial. “It never was placed in context and I think that’s the most important thing about this.”

The bust of Stockton was on display at the Richard E. Bjork Library. It was taken down Wednesday. Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, also owned slaves.

Stockton Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lori Vermeulen sent a letter to the campus community Thursday to inform them of the decision to remove the statue.

Vermeulen said the mission of Stockton University — “to develop engaged and effective citizens with a commitment to lifelong learning and the capacity to adapt to change in a multicultural, interdependent world” — affords the university the responsibility to provide an opportunity for students to learn about the facts surrounding Richard Stockton’s place in American history as well as in Stockton’s history.

The removal of the bust is temporary, and will return with an exhibit that is being developed that will show a more historical perspective and one that will allow meaningful dialog about Richard Stockton as a controversial figure, Vermeulen explained.

Read the rest here.

I like the idea of contextualizing the Stockton statue.  At the same time, I am starting to think that National Review writer Victor Davis Hanson may have a few good points in this piece.  Indeed, cleansing the past can be “dangerous business.”

Masur: Abraham Lincoln Salvaged the Thomas Jefferson “We Desire from the One Who Lived”

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Rutgers University historian Louis Masur argues that Abraham Lincoln took a document written by a Virginia slaveholder and used it to advance a free society.

Here is a taste of his piece at The American Scholar:

It took Lincoln to salvage the Jefferson we desire from the one who lived. Lincoln grounded his understanding of the nation on the Declaration of Independence and argued time and again that the phrase all men are created equal included blacks. “All honor to Jefferson,” proclaimed Lincoln. The Declaration “set up a standard maxim for free society . . . constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

Lincoln embraced gradual, deliberate change and exemplified that approach. He too had believed in white superiority: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. … There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together.” Lincoln supported colonization, though he realized it was not possible on a large scale. He always hated slavery, but as president refused at first to act against the institution or make provisions for whites and blacks to live peacefully in freedom.

The Civil War compelled Lincoln to bring Jefferson’s maxim of a free society to fruition. We can watch him change his mind over time. He moved from saying he could not attack slavery where it existed to freeing slaves in Confederate areas not under Union control, and then advocating for a 13th Amendment abolishing it throughout the United States; he shifted from embracing colonization to authorizing the enlistment of black soldiers; he stopped believing that blacks could not attain political equality and, in the last speech he ever gave, publicly endorsed black suffrage. Thinking about Lincoln, civil rights activist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois exclaimed, “I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed.”

Read the entire piece here.

W.E.B. Du Bois on Robert E. Lee

Du Bois EssaysThanks to Kevin Levin for posting this on his excellent blog Civil War Memory.  DuBois’s thoughts on Lee were published in 1928.

Here is the entire short essay:

Each year on the 19th of January there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Copperheads like the New York Times may magisterially declare: “of course, he never fought for slavery.” Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Nonsense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. If nationalism had been a stronger defense of the slave system than particularism, the South would have been as nationalistic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. He surrendered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.

Today we can best perpetuate his memory and his nobler traits not by falsifying his moral debacle, but by explaining it to the young white south. What Lee did in 1861, other Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro because of the overwhelming public opinion of their social environment. Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization.

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. it is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.

Annette Gordon Reed: Why Jefferson Matters in the Wake of Charlottesville

The Rotunda with a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.I have been trying to say something like this throughout the week, but I can’t say it as well or with the expertise and authority of  Annette Gordon-Reed:

Today, a time of intense focus on the personal and of misplaced faith in the importance of sincerity, we question whether Jefferson really believed the words “all men are created equal,” as if ideas are only as important and powerful as the personal will of the individual who utters them. The Confederates knew better than that. Ideas can have a power and life of their own. They weren’t taking any chances. They saw Jefferson as a public man who had put ideas into popular discourse that could be used in opposition to the society they hoped to build. The Confederates took him at his word, thinking it important to mention him by name and repudiate what they took to be his views. Alexander Stephens’s famous “Cornerstone Speech” said that Jefferson was wrong, insisting that blacks were not the equals of whites and, therefore, slavery was A-OK.  

I cannot help thinking that the menaced people standing around the statue, no doubt holding many different views about Jefferson the man, symbolize the fragility of the idea of progress and aspirations for the improvement of humankind: the ideals that animated Jefferson in the Declaration, his insistence on the separation of church and state, his belief in public education, religious tolerance, and science. It must be said, they also animated what Jefferson knew by the end of his life to be the pipe dream of solving the slavery question, and wiping away the transgression of slavery, by giving blacks their own country—whether they wanted one or not. When he wrote his will freeing five enslaved men, he requested that they be allowed to remain in Virginia “where their families and connexions” were (an 1806 law would otherwise have required them to leave the state within a year). That is, of course, why all blacks in America should have had the right to stay in the country. He did this while other slave owners were freeing enslaved people on the condition fdaa8-gordonreedthat they be sent to Liberia. The simple fact is that as brilliant as he may have been, Jefferson had no real answer to the slavery question. Although  historians do not like the concept of inevitability, legalized slavery was destroyed in the most likely way it could have been destroyed.

American ideals have always clashed with harsh American realities. We saw that clash on the grounds of UVA. But how do we continue in the face of depressing realities to allow ourselves to hold fast to the importance of having aspirations, and recognize that the pursuit of high ideals—even if carried out imperfectly—offers the only real chance of bringing forth good  in the world? In many ways, grappling with that question is what being a scholar of Jefferson is all about. Perhaps coming fully to grips with the paradoxes that Jefferson’s life presents is what being an American is about. Even if one rejects that formulation, there is no doubt that he remains one of the best ways we have of exploring and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the American experiment displayed so vividly last week in Charlottesville.

Read the entire piece at the New York Review of Books

 

No, Your Questions About Monuments Do Not Make You a Racist! (Updated)

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A monument to George Washington in Budapest

Over the last several days I have received messages from readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home who are trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s recent words about monuments.  On Tuesday, he equated monuments commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with monuments commemorating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yesterday POTUS offered these tweets:

What should we make of all this?  Here is one of the reader messages I received:

I wouldn’t ever dare post this publicly because honestly I don’t want to get lumped in with Trump and or be labeled a racist for simply asking a question. But I’m having a hard time understanding why Trump is so wrong on the Lee/Washington comparison. If Lee is guilty of perpetuating slavery, than why isn’t Washington just as guilty? Yes he freed his slaves after he died, but he didn’t end it when he had the chance to voice support for it at the convention, so why is he granted a pardon and still one of the good guys, but Lee is not off the hook? I get that he was a General for the Confederacy and I’m not arguing that he was good or right. I’m just wondering why Washington or Jefferson aren’t being attacked?

And I hate the fact that I can’t feel safe to ask this question in public without feeling like I’ll be labeled as a racist/terrorist or trump supporter. But I’m genuinely curious if you can shed some light or even point me to a good article that isn’t going to shame me into thinking the way the author wants me to already think.

First, I am saddened that this reader thinks she/he will be labeled a racist for trying to make historical and moral sense of what Trump said about monuments to Lee and Washington.  I don’t know this person well, but I know she/he is not a racist.  I should also add that I do not know where this person falls on the political perspective.  Over the years I have known this person to have a curious mind and a passion for truth.  If a person like this feels she/he cannot ask honest questions about this issue then something is wrong.

Second, at one level this person is correct (and so is Trump).  There are similarities between Washington and Lee.  I wrote about them yesterday. Let’s not forget the fact that both men owned slaves and were active participants in America’s slave culture. Maybe neither of them deserve a monument.  But on the other hand, there were also a lot of differences between Washington and Lee.  They are worth noting too.

In the end, I think there is a difference between moralizing about men and women in the past and erecting monuments to them.  As I have now said multiple times at this blog, monuments tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in the past they are meant to commemorate.   Lee monuments were erected by Lost Causers who wanted to celebrate a society built on slavery and white supremacy.  Most of them were built during the Jim Crow era for this very purpose. Think about it.  Would Lee merit a monument if not for his role as commander of the Army of Virginia?  Maybe, but I doubt you would find one outside of Virginia.  I don’t know off-hand the history of George Washington monuments, but I wonder how many of them were erected for the purpose of celebrating his slave ownership.

This post has some good links for further reading on this issue.

Another Court Evangelical Doubles Down on Trump’s Charlottesville Remarks

Over at the Federalist, a writer named Daniel Payne has a piece titled “Trump Spoke Truth About ‘Both Sides’ In Charlottesville, And The Media Lost Their Minds.”  As the title suggests, this piece defends Trump’s remarks on Tuesday and seems to have no problem with his attempt to put the white supremacists in Charlottesville on equal moral footing with the counter-protesters.

Read it here.

I should also add, using Payne’s words, that American manufacturing leaders and an ever-growing number of GOP leaders have also “lost their minds.”

I understand the defense of Trump’s comments.  Yes, there were problems on “both sides.”  The counter-protesters engaged in violence.  It takes two to tango.  I condemn the violence on all sides.

But when the President of the United States takes to the bully pulpit in response to the arrival of white supremacists in an American city and says that “all sides were to blame” he misses the point.  He fails to see what happened in Charlottesville–the arrival of a group of white supremacists denouncing African Americans and Jews– as part of the larger context of race in America.  When one takes a longer view of what happened on Friday night and Saturday, it seems clear that the white supremacists represent something–racism–that has plagued this country from its birth. Yes, in the past those who have protested against American racists were violent at times.  During the 1850s there was a big debate over how to effectively oppose slavery. Many condemned violent approaches.  But the anti-slavery forces of that era all believed that the greatest moral issue was the ending of this immoral institution.  Any wrong-headed or destructive violence in the cause of abolitionism was always understood in this larger moral context.

Trump, Payne, and other defenders seem incapable of moral nuance here. Perhaps this kind of black and white thinking and the failure to grasp any degree of moral context and complexity explains why so many court evangelicals and writers like Payne are still defending Trump’s comments.  Or maybe its’ just politics.

Whatever it is, court evangelical Eric Metaxas has come out in support of the Payne piece and Trump’s comments.

Metaxas again

 

 

Jefferson, Secession, and Monuments

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Last night on CNN, host James Lemon had African-American public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on his program.  Lemon asked Dyson to respond to the comments Donald Trump made yesterday about historical monuments.  Trump said:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.

All day the commentators on CNN have been outraged that Trump would compare Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Dyson responded by saying that Lee and Jackson seceded from the union, while Jefferson and Washington, despite owning slaves, formed a “bulwark” against slavery by articulating the ideals that eventually brought the institution to an end.

On one level, I found Dyson’s comment refreshing.  When commentators say that we can’t find a usable past in Western Civilization because it is tainted by the sin of slavery, I often cringe.  Yes, Western Civilization has been inherently racist.  Yes, Western Civilization brought us slavery.  But at the same time, Western Civilization brought us the ideas and ideals–liberty and freedom especially–that were eventually applied to the slavery and ultimately brought it to an end.

I have little patience for defenders of Western Civilization who fail to acknowledge its relationship with race.  I have little patience for those who demonize Western Civilization without acknowledging the historical complexity I wrote about above.  I read several books and articles this summer that propagated both fallacies.

But when it comes to Jefferson, things are even more complicated than this.  If you read Ibram X Kendi’s recent New York Times op-ed you will learn that some of Jefferson’s ideas contributed to secession.

So should the Jefferson monuments come down?

The conversation continues.

(See my last post where I discussed this more fully).