In praise of my Alabama: Doug Jones & the Crimson Tide

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Alabama Senator Doug Jones happily watching the Crimson Tide’s championship victory with the D.C. chapter of the Alabama National Alumni Association at Willie’s Brew & Que

Well it has been a month since I’ve posted, and my last one was on the day of our special election here in the state of Alabama. Much has happened since then that I have wanted to blog about, but Christmas vacation trips (more on that in another blog), the new year, a writing project, and the start of the new semester have kept me too busy. I’ve finally gotten a second to breath again, so I wanted to quickly comment on the two events that have had my beloved state in the national news over the last few weeks.

My last posting was a pretty emotional one, as I was not quite sure whether my state would do the right thing by putting its normal commitment to the Republican Party aside to vote against Roy Moore and for Doug Jones. I have been voting since 1988 and I have to tell you, I never felt more exhilarated in exercising my suffrage rights than I did in voting in this senate election.

With no other elections going on, and with an enormous amount of interest in results that would have major consequences, much of the nation’s eyes were on Alabama that night.  Sadly, when my state brings national attention to itself like this it is usually something negative . . . except for football.

That’s one major reason why football is so beloved in the state of Alabama. Starting with their unexpected 1926 Rose Bowl win and 1925 national championship, and continuing into the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, the University of Alabama’s football team has been about the only thing that has brought national praise to the state.

During the Civil Rights era, Alabama appeared on television stations across the country when Freedom Riders were firebombed in Anniston, and beaten in Birmingham and Montgomery. A few years later, Americans watched in horror as police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner had children fire hosed in the streets of Birmingham as they demonstrated for desegregation.  Having been arrested earlier in the same demonstrations, Martin Luther King wrote his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail garnering worldwide attention.  Later that year, Alabama Governor George Wallace defied the Kennedy administration live on national television by forcing the president to nationalize state troops to integrate the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The nation was then stunned into numbness when four black children were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.16th_Street_Baptist_Churchs_Neon_Sign_(268472006).jpg And then as if for a brutal encore, the state grabbed attention again as the country watched Civil Rights marchers get pummeled and gassed marching across the Pettus Bridge in Selma while attempting to walk to Montgomery to demonstrate for African American suffrage rights.

The media’s attention on those events rocked the conscience of our nation, shaming it on a world stage during the height of the Cold War and thus leading to the Civil Rights movement’s biggest victories. Yet the black-eye brought to the state solidified people’s opinion of Alabama in ways that still very much shape outside perceptions of the Heart of Dixie.

Still,  during those very same turbulent years, the University of Alabama gained national attention because of the dramatic success of its football program under the direction of Paul “Bear” Bryant.

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Bryant & Namath

Winning three national championships in the 1960s with legendary players like Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, the Tide brought adulation to the state instead of the typical scorn (they would have one a 4th in 1966, but the AP punished them for resisting integration). This of course intensified the pride and love that people in the state had for their football.

This dynamic outlived the 1960s. The state of Alabama consistently ranks near the bottom in far too many lists, such as literacy, funding for public schools, quality of life, health and healthcare, infrastructure, wealth, and tax base. Yet all the while, football continued to bring accolades as the Tide has won national championships in 1973, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015. Auburn too has added to the pride, winning a championship in 2010 and playing for another in 2013. If there is only one thing the state of Alabama does well in the eyes of the nation, it’s football.

And then came the special senate election in December, 2017. The campaign received an unprecedented amount of national attention, as Alabama voters had to choose between a candidate who’s politics seemingly came from the state’s ugly past, and a man who promised to keep it moving in a progressive and inclusive direction.

Roy Moore was woefully unqualified and shamefully undeserving of the job of US senator. He believes in theocracy, that America was “great” during the era of slavery, that we were better off before the 14th and 15th amendments (which made the Civil Rights era’s successes possible), and apparently believes women’s suffrage and officeholding is bad for the country. I’ve no doubt in my mind that Roy Moore would have stood with Bull Conner and George Wallace.

Doug Jones, on the other hand, also conjured up the state’s ugly past, but only because he was the lawyer that finally successfully convicted two of the KKK members responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. He is also a rather moderate Democrat with political positions that align well with Alabama values (besides abortion).

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Doug Jones successfully convicting a Klansman

Those scandalous sexual allegations about Moore aside, the election thus seemingly came down to whether voters wanted to reinforce the  image of the state’s ugly past, or move boldly away from the reputation that still haunts it and shapes perceptions. The choice seemed clear, but would enough white Alabamians be able to put the state’s image and future ahead of their strong party loyalties? The whole country was watching . . .

The turnout of African American voters was of course crucial, but so too was having enough white Alabama Republicans willing to vote for a Democrat. I went to the polls that day unsure of whether we could depend on either. Still, as I looked around at the people voting in my precinct, I was hopeful when I quickly calculated that about one third of the voters I saw were blacks. My precinct here in Tuscaloosa County is actually a pretty good racial mix that’s probably a good representation of the county as a whole. I felt that if one third of people voting across the state were black, there was a chance of a Democrat victory. Yet it would also require a significant amount of white voters for Jones, and of that I was most uncertain.

Watching the returns that night was about as tense and dramatically exciting as it gets. Because the polls in the evangelical North Alabama counties came in first, Roy Moore took a lead that seemed to indicate the election was going down a predictable red path. Yet with the New York Times election meter consistently indicating a Doug Jones victory, I became cautiously optimistic.

And then there was that late surge as the returns came in from Tuscaloosa (where Wallace had defied Kennedy), the so-called “black belt” counties (where the Selma marchers were beaten), and Birmingham (where Bull Conner had once reigned with terror) . As those votes came in, the whole country watched with bated breath as Jones pulled even, took a slight lead, and then in almost an instant was declared the winner by the Associated Press and other media outlets.

The victory was exhilarating, all the more so because of the late night dramatic shift in the numbers and from where they had come. I have to tell you, I cried real tears of joy, and I can’t even recall the last time I’ve done that.

I was very proud of my state because we were in the national spotlight again, with everyone thinking that the home of George Wallace and Bull Conner was going to screw it up . . . but then, dramatically, we didn’t. African American turnout was larger than normal (how proud the Selma marchers must be!), but I believe a much larger number of white Alabamians voted for Jones than the flawed exit polls indicate.

It was as if we as a state, both black and white, collectively said, “chill out America, we got this.”

And then just weeks later, as if the state pride could not get any larger, the Alabama football team found itself in the national spotlight yet again. Looking unbeatable in the Sugar Bowl, they took down last year’s national champion in a revenge game. One week later, they found themselves in a championship game that mirrored the previous month’s special election. Like Jones, Bama got down big early, fought to tie it up, and then with the whole country watching on the edge of their seats, pulled off a late night win in what seemed like an instant.

Jubilation abounded across the state as Coach Nick Saban tied Bear Bryant in number of national championship wins.

As I sat on my porch that night with friends smoking a victory cigar and sipping champagne, I couldn’t help but once again well up with pride in my state. We’ve won a lot of national championships down here, but this one was special. For once, we didn’t need football to save our reputation. This time, it was just the cherry on top.

And to that I have but one thing to say:

Roll Tide.

 

 

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In search of slave resistance, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

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You guys recall that show, “In Search of” with Leonard Nimoy? What a great series (even though it was probably an inspiration for that later pile of rubbish,  Ancient Aliens).

Anyway . . . more travel blog today:

Last month after leaving Philadelphia (where we visited the new Museum of the American Revolution) our band of history nerds travelled south by going through Delaware and the Maryland Eastern shore. Our ultimate destination was Yorktown’s new American Revolution museum, via the Virginia Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. This once again allowed us to skip the hell that is I-95 (after we got out of the Philly metro area) enjoying a rather pleasant drive through a mix of suburban sprawl and rural countryside.

The bigger reason for this route, however, was to locate Frederick Douglass’s birthplace, visit some of the sites on Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Byway, and check out the brand new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor’s Center in Church Creek, Maryland. We stopped for the night at a really well-kept Best Western in Denton, Md. which is very near the neighborhood of Douglass’s early youth.

The site of the famed abolitionist’s birth has long been marked with a roadside historic marker on route 328 near Easton, Md, as well as a nearby bridge dedicated to him.  The marker was probably placed there to catch traffic on the heavily traveled US 50 (and from which a road sign leads you the short distance down route 328 to the marker), but in reality it is 4-6 miles away from the actual spot— which is on a secluded farm with very little traffic (even local). If you’ve stopped at this highway marker before, I hate to tell you, it’s not really very close to the real spot.

Douglass himself visited the area in 1878 looking for his birth site, and indicated it was on a farm near “Tapper’s Corner.”  This is the intersection of Lewistown Rd. and Maryland Rt. 303. At birth, Douglass was owned by Aaron Anthony (or “Captain” Anthony, as Douglass names him in his autobiography, and who might have actually been his father), who had a small farm in the shadow of the enormous nearby Wye Plantation (which dominated the region). Many of the slaves on the Wye Planation were apparently bred on Anthony’s farm and later sold to the larger plantation, which is the case with Frederick Douglass. He was born in his grandmother’s cabin on the Anthony farm.

Census records indicate that if you are standing at Tapper’s Corner looking east, you’re looking at what was Anthony’s farm (today it is called No-No Acres). The northern side of the farm is bounded by a creek that had a grist mill on it (the remnants of which are still highly visible when you drive by). When Douglass was there in 1878, he identified the probable location of his grandmother’s cabin as being at the head of a heavily wooded and un-tillable ravine which runs into the Tuckahoe River (which forms the eastern border of the Anthony farm).

The farm house that stands on the property now was not there when Douglass was born, but was when he visited in 1878. The farm is privately owned, so after getting our bearings at Tapper’s Corner,  we approached the owner and asked if we could walk out to the head of the ravine (which was apparently called “Kentucky” in Douglass’s day). He was a very nice man that has received this request before, so he happily gave us permission. Luckily, he’d recently cut a path all the way around his hay field, so we were actually able to carefully drive a circuitous route around the field out to the head of the ravine.  Nice.

It is important to keep in mind that the identification of the spot is a product of Douglass’s memory as an older man, recalling a farm he lived on only until he was about 8 years old. (And upon which he experienced the only connection to his mother, as she sometimes slipped off at night from another planation twelve miles away just to slip into the cabin and sleep next to her child for a few precious moments before walking back).  Thus, it might not actually be the precise location of the cabin. However, it is still pretty cool to be on the ground that he felt pretty sure was the spot, and even if it’s not correct, these are definitely the fields that his grandmother toiled on as an enslaved laborer. That in itself is pretty amazing to contemplate as you stand in the fields.

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“X” marks the spot. Mississippi University for Women Assistant Professor Jonathon Hooks (left) and myself standing near the spot that Frederick Douglass identified as his birth site.

The entire area has changed extremely little from the time Frederick Douglass was enslaved here, and is still very secluded (probably the reason why the marker was never placed in the area), as we saw only one or two other cars (and they were locals) the whole hour that we were snooping around.  (Seeing us pulled off the road, one truck turned around and came back just to see if we were OK). If you want to “feel” the past, this is a remarkable spot for it. It was one of the more emotional experiences that I’ve had while visiting an historic site.

If you’d like to go to the location yourself, I highly recommend viewing this website for information and help. It is invaluable. And PLEASE, keep in mind that this is private property and that you need to ask for permission to get out into the fields.

After this highly moving experience (all the more special because we had to work for it), we drove to the Wye Planation house, which is where Douglass was sent at about age eight. At its peak in the early 1800s, this planation was well over 20,000 acres (some sources say as much as 42,000) and around 750 enslaved laborers toiled on it, making it highly profitable for the white masters (by far the area’s largest slaveholding plantation). It isn’t anywhere near that size now, but is still in the same family, thus it is privately owned and can not be toured. We were disappointed that the house sits at the end of a long private drive that has signs on it clearly discouraging sightseers. Still, it was interesting to be in the heart of a plantation that Douglass memorably wrote about in his autobiography (describing the especial brutality of the overseer as one of his first exposures to slavery’s cruelty), even if he was there only about a year before he was given to the Auld family and forcefully taken to Baltimore.  The countryside around the Wye Plantation house has also changed very little since the antebellum era.

Better still, while traveling through the region we stumbled along another gem (thanks to Maryland’s Civil War Trail signs). We stopped at historic St. Stephens AME Church, about three miles from the Wye house.  Before the war, the area was near a spot where local slaves gathered to worship, and after emancipation they established the church nearby. Naming their community “Unionville,” the formerly enslaved citizens bought land cheaply from local Quakers and began farming.

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St. Stephens AME Church in “Unionville,” Maryland

The center of the community was the church, and behind it is a cemetery in which eighteen African American Union soldiers (USCTs) are buried. We couldn’t help but feel it is likely that some of these men had been enslaved on the Wye Plantation, but had “come back fightin’ men” (to quote the movie Glory). As a former park ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park, I was interested to see that some of the veterans had fought at New Market Heights, Virginia, where fourteen black soldiers earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Again, the area around the church has changed very little, so this too was a very moving experience, and I left wanting to know more about Unionville and the postwar experiences of its community of U.S. veterans and former slaves.

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Our next destination was the new Harriet Tubman museum, which acts as a visitor’s center for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, 125 miles of roads that connect 45 sites together associated with Tubman and/or the Underground Railroad. Even before finding Douglass’s birth site, we’d already visited a few of these places, including the Caroline County Courthouse where captured runaways and alleged conductors (like Hugh Hazlett) were jailed, the Choptank Riverbank site where a runaway named Daniel Crouse gave the slip to a pack of dogs and crossed in a canoe, and Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House, where local Quakers coordinated efforts to help runaways.

Finally reaching the museum in Church Creek, Maryland, we found this area too is vastly untouched by time, which is one reason the location was chosen near the fields Tubman grew up in as an enslaved child and young adult. The building itself is rather nice and has all the gloss and shine you’d expect from a brand new facility. The small museum features few relics, however, relying on the effective presentation of interpretation. This is nicely done, as I was struck by how successful it was at delivering solid and thought-provoking history, yet also providing kid-friendly interpretation.

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Displays offer a solid overview of Tubman’s biography, slavery, and the Underground Railroad, introducing themes explored in more detail at sites along the trail. One display that stands out is a listing of the names of people that Tubman is known to have helped rescue from slavery. Despite its rather out-of-the-way location, we were pleased to find a healthy number of visitors filling the museum and parking lot.

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We were sad that the museum’s film is not yet ready for viewing, but we had an engaging conversation with a Maryland park ranger who stuck around even after closing to talk with us about Tubman, and an area in which she herself had grown up. We even got so deep in conversation that we talked with this African American woman about modern race relations, why many blacks are often reluctant to want to learn or talk about slave history, and how many whites refuse to accept that the legacy of slavery still infects and shape’s our society and culture.

Yet the best part of the hunt for Tubman came afterwards.  The farm she grew up on is but a short drive away, and again takes you through fields that are untouched by time. We located the site of the Bucktown Village Store, where a reproduction of the building stands at a crossroads in the middle of farm land.IMG_20170520_180655734.jpg

Here as a young girl Tubman had perhaps her first moment of overt resistance. While she was in the store, an enslaved man that did not have permission to be there was caught by his overseer, who then ordered the young Tubman to help him tie-up the fugitive. She refused (a remarkable act of defiance by a young enslaved girl) and the enslaved man then tried to run. The white man grabbed a two pound weight and threw it at the absconding slave, but struck Tubman instead, gashing her head open. The injury plagued Tubman the rest of her life, as she was prone to blackout spells that came and went unexpectedly, perhaps a reminder of her young act of overt defiance.

We also visited more sites associated with Quakers that helped runaways, and another Choptank River crossing spot on the Underground Railroad. Yet perhaps most emotionally compelling was the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where it is believed that Tubman met with enslaved individuals who were contemplating escape.

It was getting late in the day when we arrived at this spot, a cool breeze was blowing, and it was here that I think I most connected with Harriet Tubman. I imagined her meeting under the cover of darkness and amongst the graves with folks that might have still needed to be inspired by her determination and bravado in order to overcome their legitimate fears. The courage it took to try and escape slavery is more than the average person possesses, and I was moved while standing in a spot in which Tubman infected others with her uncommonly large reservoir of bravery.

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Mount Pleasant Cemetery. None of the current headstones date to antebellum America, but it’s still a powerful spot for connecting with Tubman

Once this amazing day came to an end, we all agreed that the travel experience had answered many questions for us about Tubman. Visiting the sites, it becomes abundantly clear that much of her Underground Railroad success was due not just to her, but to a strong and defiant community of both free and enslaved African Americans, as well as a large and active population of white Quakers in the region, who together created a highly efficient and effective network on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Delaware.

Those of us that enjoy visiting historic sites know that there is nothing like standing on these spots to help connect with the past, to “feel” the presence of our forebears, and to understand their experiences.

Which points to a truth: We need to preserve more sites like these and interpret them properly. Yes, the fact that we had to work to find Douglass’s birth site, and stumbled upon the Unionville Cemetery,  made the experience all the more special, but sites like these need to be in the hands of more state and national parks. The Tubman Byway and the new Reconstruction Era National Monument park in Beaufort, South Carolina are hopefully just the beginning of efforts to mark and interpret such locations.

Think of all the land that we have that tells the story of the Civil War. What if we had an equal number of sites that interpreted slavery and resistance to it? Or Reconstruction? So much could be learned and “felt” about both topics at even small places like Unionville.  Sadly, most surviving antebellum planation homes are in private or local hands, filled with guides still hashing out romanticized versions of the Old South and the Lost Cause.

While it is true that an increasing number of sites are more fully developing interpretations of slavery (good recent examples are James Madison’s Montpelier, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and a Nat Turner visitor center and trail is in the works, though progressing slowly), we need more places like the Whitney Planation in Louisiana, where the entire focus is centered on the enslaved community.

With the recent cancellation of WGN’s Underground (by the way, the show’s producers had been at the Tubman museum just a few days before we were there), I’m afraid that Harriet Tubman and the many other heroes of the Underground Railroad will become less highly visible again, as will the plight of the enslaved and their resistance.

Let’s become less worried about tearing down Rebel monuments, and more active in marking, memorializing, and interpreting our sites associated with slavery and emancipation, so more people in more places can have experiences like my friends and I had on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These stories need to be told and these lives and decisions understood.

I’ve spent untold hours visiting Civil War battlefields and antebellum sites, but this experience of traversing these battlefields of survival and resistance to slavery is one that I’ll long remember.

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Forgive my cheesy selfie with Harriet Tubman, but after such a great experience, I just had to.

 

 

 

 

Visiting our two new American Revolution museums

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Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution (left) and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (right)

My “travel blog” continues today. Two of the four brand new museums I recently visited were Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.

My group of history nerd friends headed to Philadelphia after our day in DC (in which I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture), deciding to go via Annapolis and the Maryland Eastern Shore/Delaware route rather than up I-95 North through Baltimore. What a great decision! Anyone that has ever travelled on I-95 north of Richmond (all the way to Boston) will tell you to avoid it at all costs if you can. Not only did our route cut down on the toll charges, but it was a relaxing drive with very little traffic as we came through in the late evening. Having driven the stressful I-95 route many times (which sucks no matter what time of day or night it is), I can tell you, this was an extremely nice alternative. If you are traveling from DC to Philadelphia, I highly recommend it (sorry, Baltimore).

Our hotel was only a short walk from the museum (I also recommend the Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District. I have stayed there twice now and it is easy walking distance from just about everything you want to see in Philly). The new museum is in a great location (the site of the old visitor’s center), across the street from the First Bank of the US, and next door to the historic (and delicious) City Tavern (don’t miss the dining experience there). Before construction began on the brand new building, they found about 82,000 relics from colonial and 19th century Philadelphia while excavating the site.

The new facility is visually appealing on the outside and strikingly beautiful inside, featuring a grand spiraling staircase. The ground floor contains the obligatory introductory movie (honestly I don’t recall much about it), and then you ascend the stairs to the main galleries.

Here you are immediately immersed into the history, as a film projected on a wall around and above you places you in the middle of the pulling down of the King George III statue in New York (an event that took place on July 9, 1776). This first room asks you to question why the colonists came to despise a king that they once celebrated with a monument. I don’t think the museum’s planners intended a connection to our current wave of dismantling monuments, but it is a good reminder that there are precedents for Americans tearing down monuments when they no longer wanted to lionize men that they once did. It seems our revolutionary generation was not against “erasing history.”

The tight hallways then usher you through the exhibits, starting with George III’s coronation and ending with the New Republic. Unlike some museums, there is no guesswork involved in where to go and what to view next, as tight corridors snake through chronologically arranged displays. These are a nice mix of relics, interpretation, and immersive experiences.

The core of the objects on display were first obtained in the early 20th century by Reverend W. Herbert Burk, a collector/amateur historian from Valley Forge who obtained the pieces and later bequeathed the collection to the Valley Forge Historical Society. Some of the objects were then loaned out to other institutions, but most of them sat in warehouses waiting for the organization to build a large facility to display it all. That didn’t come until the early 2000s when the collection was handed over to the planners of the Museum of the American Revolution, who then spent nearly two decades cataloging the relics, planning the museum, raising funds, constructing the 118,000 square foot facility, and finally openings the doors in April 2017.

On display are such items as a pocket bible that was carried by a soldier during the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benjamin Lincoln’s sword, some of Patrick Henry’s law books, remnants of the aforementioned destroyed statue of George III, silver cups used by Washington and his staff, a powder horn used in the Battle of Fort Washington, a wooden plank from Concord Bridge (seriously cool), and a sash that Washington used early in the war to distinguish his rank and which he is seen wearing in the famous portrait painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1776.

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Washington wearing the sash in the Peale painting (left), and the sash on display

The relic collection is amazing, but the museum is also heavy on exhibits that use technology and carefully constructed sets and life-sized figurines to immerse visitors into the times. For instance, you’ll stand under Boston’s Liberty Tree, smell the tea that was cast into the Harbor, sit in replica chairs in a mockup of Independence Hall, get shot at during a skirmish with British troops, and (my favorite of all) stand among elders of the Oneida Nation as they make the decision to support the Patriots in the Revolution. (It is even way cooler that it might sound, and FYI, the Oneida Nation was one of the museum’s biggest financial contributors).

As the presence of the Oneida Nation suggests, the emphasis is on inclusiveness, and everyone in my group agreed that the Museum of the American Revolution does this exceptionally well. Instead of having a women’s section, or an African American section, or Native American section, etc., those people, their experiences, the roles they played in shaping the Revolution, and (most important) how it effected them, is fully, appropriately, and effectively interwoven into the narrative at nearly every step along the way.

This is the way that I think history should be done, not just in museums, but in textbooks and classrooms. I am not a fan of segregating people that were not caucasian men off in their own museum sections, book sidebars, or separate lectures, because that in itself suggests that they are not included in the mainstream narrative. For instance, I’ll never deliver a lecture titled “African Americans in the Revolution,” or “Women in the Civil War,” because I feel when done correctly, those groups show up in meaningful ways in every lecture. In my mind, the Museum of the American Revolution is now a model for how to do this effectively. Other museums, and teachers, take note.

The crown jewel in the museum’s collection is the exterior section of one of George Washington’s headquarter tents (his office and sleeping tent). Once you have finished your trip through the exhibits, you’ll be sent into a movie-theater-like room where a high tech audio/visual program introduces the history of the tent and its usage during the war. The climax is the reveal of the tent, which you’ll never come anywhere near arm’s reach to, as swelling music and dramatic dialogue dictate exactly how you should feel as you view the relic. I found this presentation to be a bit overly dramatic/cheesy. (“The Republic, like the tent, endures”), but I’ll admit it was effective, leaving you feeling like you have seen and experienced something quite amazing.

Visitors should know, however, that Washington had two campaign tents, and the interior of the other one (the dining and meeting tent for Washington and his officers) is at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor’s Center at the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Yet not only do they have the interior of the dining/meeting tent, they possess the interior of the sleeping/office tent (the exterior of which is what they are displaying in Philadelphia) as well as its poles. Further, without the stirring music and grandiose rhetoric, the Yorktown display is set up in a way that allows you to walk part-way inside the tent (you are separated from it by glass). Personally,  I like the tent display by the National Park Service in Yorktown much better. It is immersive and powerful without the high tech and overly dramatic fluff.

And speaking of Yorktown, the other new American Revolution museum is there at the site of what was formally known as the Yorktown Victory Center. After 50 million in upgrades, the institution has recently opened a new museum dedicated to telling the story of the whole Revolution. My group visited it two days later (after spending a day on Maryland’s Eastern Shore tracking down Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. More on that in my next posting).

Like the one in Philly, the building is immediately impressive and welcoming, with a brand new smell and shine. First up is once again the obligatory intro movie, but the Yorktown film is far more original than the one in Philadelphia (and most other historic sites). Set in the early 19th century, the film depicts a traveling carnival-type show that uses high tech (for the times) displays and a charismatic barker (“gather round, ladies and gents!”) to tell the story of the American Revolution to a group of enthralled children and adults. I really appreciated the originality of this film’s introduction to the museum’s interpretive themes. You really feel as though you are about to experience something special.

The museum does not disappoint. Honestly, the thing I immediately liked most about it is that it is open and airy, containing far more places to sit down among the exhibits than are available in the Philadelphia museum (for a weary traveler with a strained back and tired feet, this was a godsend).  It too is laid out in mostly easy to follow chronological order (although the drawback to the openness is that in contrast to the tight corridors in Philly, there are a couple of spots where it is not clear where you should go next to maintain the chronological flow. But that doesn’t last for long and is not a major problem.)

The Yorktown museum has less relics (though there are many, and some nice pieces, such as pistols owned by Lafayette), relying mostly on the interpretation and immersive exhibits.

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Two of Lafayette’s pistols on display at Yorktown

Unlike Philadelphia’s museum, Yorktown’s focuses more attention on the “big name” Founders and their influences. For instance, the Enlightenment, the philosophes, and their impact on the Founders is largely missing in Philly, and less attention is paid to the standard pantheon of Founding Fathers. These men get more of their just due in Yorktown.

Yet, while the Yorktown museum also strives for an inclusive story, it commits what I consider the sin of mostly (not exclusively) segregating women, African Americans, and Native Americans into their own separate sections.

In defense of the museum, these exhibits feature solid interpretation and derive from a genuine and non-patronizing effort (there are no “tokens” here). I just think there is a better way.

Further stemming from efforts at inclusiveness, the museum has exhibits on the typical life and the homes of colonial and revolutionary Americans of all classes.  I found this to be an odd waste of space, as Colonial Williamsburg is nearby, and anyone visiting the area will likely be spending time there. (The Philadelphia museum, for instance, spends little time on Benjamin Franklin or even the Continental Congress, presumably because there are famous areas nearby where those stories are explored in detail).

As in Philadelphia, technology is used to draw you into the Revolution, as an especially neat exhibit features a battle simulation game in which visitors can compete against the computer, or each other, and then learn how the real battle played out. Yorktown also has a Liberty Tree exhibit, yet upstages the Philly museum because visitors can type in a message that is quickly posted electronically on the tree’s lanterns. (I may or may not have posted something about being vigilant against tyranny and the need to resist chief executives that obstruct justice and decry a free press).

Far and away, however, the coolest thing I found at either museum was Yorktown’s immersive film on the Battle of the Capes and the Yorktown Siege. It is only about 12 minutes long, but is rather amazing. As you sit surrounded on three sides by film screens, you’ll feel the sea air in your face, smell the coffee being served to troops in the entrenchments (seriously, the coffee), feel the rattle of shell explosions and thunder, and be surrounded by fog and smoke during the Alexander Hamilton-led attack on redoubt # 10. The combat scenes are beautifully filmed and thrilling, yet not gruesomely realistic. Yes, other museums have similar presentations, but this one if by far the best I have ever seen (I watched it three times!) It alone is worth the price of admission.

The Yorktown museum includes a living-history area, where siege lines, military encampments, and even a colonial farm are replicated. My group did not have time to visit this area, and it didn’t seem to be much different than what has long been available at the previous Yorktown Victory Center. Still, it should be noted this alone makes a visit to the Yorktown museum a much different experience than the one in Philadelphia.

In both museums, all the high tech bells and whistles are largely designed to deliver the message that the American Revolution and our experiment in republican government are far from over. The last exhibits in both focus on the fact that our nation’s history is largely the story of increasing freedoms for peoples and groups that our Founders left out when creating a government to protect individual liberties.

Despite powerful and significant opposition, slow and halting progress, and significant times of retrogression, we’ve continually forced the United States to live up to and expand the promises of the Revolutionary generation in ways that the Founders never intended or even envisoned. Instead of canonizing them, their work, and their design for our government as infallible, we’ve honed, expanded, and bettered what they started. It is up to us to continue to do so.  Thus, both museums stress, the Revolution continues, and whatever it becomes is up to our current values and actions, as well as our vigilance and resistance to those that would turn the Revolution backwards.

It may have been because I was rushed at the end of the day through the final exhibits at Yorktown, but I felt the Philadelphia museum delivered this message more powerfully. As you exit the exhibits, you very literally look into the faces of the current generation of revolutionaries. (Hint: it is us).

Bottom line: Both of these new museums are exceptional and dedicated to telling an inclusive story of the American Revolution.  The intro movie is more unique at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the facility is more comfortable, and the Yorktown battle presentation is by far the coolest and most successfully immersive exhibit at either site. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution more effectively tells its inclusive narrative, has more awe-inspiring relics, and more inspiringly delivers its message.

Thus the Philadelphia museum is the superior one, but not by much (and perhaps the outdoor living history displays at Yorktown make the experience there superior in the end).

I highly encourage you to make it a goal to see visit both institutions.

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood!

Back from vacation!

It has been a while since my last posting, and of course much has happened (Trump and terrorist related), but for the next few days I’m going to turn this into a travel blog, detailing and reviewing the four brand new history museums that I visited on my trip.

I’ll start today with the big one: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Like many of you, I’ve been anxiously awaiting my chance to visit this amazing facility, and I can tell you that despite my high expectations,  I was not disappointed.

It didn’t start out that way. As I am sure you are aware, the only advance tickets at this point must be reserved months ahead of time (they won’t be taking orders again until July, for September visits!). I failed to do so, which means I had to get up at 6:30 AM on the morning of my visit (last Thursday, May 18, 2017) to try and snag some same-day tickets on the internet. Despite the fact that three of us were trying to get the tickets, we all struck out, and they were sold-out for the day in a matter of 15 minutes (or less). We were saddened, but decided to make the best of the day by visiting other DC sites we had never seen, or had not seen in a while. This sent all four in my group scattering in different directions.

There was still one more possibility, however. The museum gives out a very limited number of “walk-up” tickets at 1 PM, and I was the only one in my group that decided to give it a shot despite the odds. I showed up at around 12:30, and the line was already a monster. I had little hope.

But then a miracle occurred. As I took my place at the back of the line, a museum employee was working her way around asking for veterans or first responders. It was not until she made it to two people just in front of me that she found two of them, a married couple. Pulling them out of the line, she said she could take them straight in, as well as two others as their guests. They had no others with them, so one woman spoke up immediately and  uncouthly begged, “take me! take me!” So she was chosen. When asked who else they wanted to take inside as a guest, the couple demurred (we were all strangers, after all), so the museum employee asked where they were from. Would you believe it? They said “Alabama!” (Even better, they were Alabama fans, not Auburn).  I then spoke up and said, “me too!” Which got me chosen as their guest! Yep, I was in the massive walkup line for all of 5 minutes before I got to walk right into the museum. I chalked it up to good karma. 🙂 Roll Tide.

Once inside, I quickly submerged to the underground bottom floors where the museum begins shuffling visitors through a chronologically displayed tour of American history. The design is brilliant, as the early exhibits deal with European history and conceptions of race, as well as the powerful West African kingdoms, in the 1400s. These are laid out in a way that shows the convergence of the two, and at the same time  gradually crams visitors tightly together in the replica hull of a “Middle Passage” ship. It was very dark and cramped, as I viewed slave shackles, original beams and planks from a slave cargo ship, and other Atlantic slave trade relics. It was a powerful and sobering start.

As the timeline-advances from Colonial to Revolutionary America, the rooms get slowly larger as the interpretation takes on the paradoxical nature of the American Revolution and its impact on slavery. Eventually, I emerged into a large room with the opening words of the Declaration of Independence looming massively large overhead and an impressive life-sized statute of Thomas Jefferson presiding over the scene. He stands in front of a wall constructed from bricks representing the number (and names) of the slaves he owned. (The exhibit takes it as a given that he fathered Sally Hemings’ children). Pictures do not do justice to the powerful nature of this interpretation and display design, especially as you enter the large room after being cramped in the tighter spaces.

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From there, the museum takes you through displays covering slave life and resistance (both violent and subtle), abolitionism and sectionalism, the role of African Americans in the Civil War, and finally Reconstruction (embracing Eric Foner’s interpretation of both the failure and the small but extremely important successes of the Reconstruction era). Relic highlights here include Nat Turner’s small bible (awesome), a large cotton gin, a slave master’s whip (on loan from Oprah Winfrey), Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal, first edition copies of slave autobiographies, and most impressively, a full sized slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina (not a reproduction, the real deal).

This first (underground) floor is simply amazing. If the museum were just this first floor, it would still be a remarkable facility.

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Nat Turner’s bible. Just wow.

At that point, visitors climb a ramp up to the second floor, where exhibits focus on the early 20th century/Jim Crow Era, as well as the modern Civil Rights movement. Here, displays and relics focusing on the cultural construction of black stereotypes and their purposes are particularly powerful and well done, as are those that deal with black migration during the world wars. I felt that while the modern Civil Rights movement displays were extensive, they were less than comprehensive. Still,  the Emmett Till exhibit was particularly powerful, especially the viewing of his coffin. (I came in expecting to be shaken up by the sight of it, and I was). This rather morbid display is crucial to what the entire museum is trying to accomplish.

Besides the coffin, relic highlights here include two of the dolls used in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, IMG_20170518_150909466.jpga full sized and segregated railroad car, a bucket that MLK used to soak his feet after the Selma March, and most imposing, a plane used in training the Tuskegee Airmen.

Lastly, the ramp takes you up again to the final chronologically arranged exhibits, using 1968 as its starting point for carrying visitors through the ongoing fight for Civil Rights, culminating with Obama’s presidency.  (I was born in the momentous and eventful year of 1968, so it really interested me to pause and consider the ways that my own life growing up in Birmingham, Alabama played out during, and was shaped by, these more modern events and cultural transformations).IMG_20170518_152719854.jpg

Most interesting to me were the displays dealing with the role that 70s and 80s television and movies played in shaping and changing perceptions of African Americans. Here, Bill Cosby was noticeably missing from the narrative. This is understandable given his current troubles, but I feel The Cosby Show and its creators and cast deserve to have its very important cultural impact significantly explored in the museum.

Some will question the ending of the history lesson with Obama, but I have no doubt the museum will continue to evolve and is not ending the story with our first black president as a means of embracing the concept of a “post racial” society. The last video that we see before emerging on the ground floor contains a clip of Obama’s brilliant speech at the Pettus Bridge in Selma (I am convinced it will go down as one of our greatest presidential speeches), in which he strongly rebukes those that believe there has been no racial progress in this country, yet insists that the artificially and purposely created barrier of race is far from dismantled.

As the museum’s interpretations are largely focused on our artificial construction of race that has prevented us from living up to our greatest founding promises, this ending is appropriate. The museum definitely embraces the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” interpretation of American history, (which is physically conveyed as visitors start in the darkened lowest floor, slowly rising via ramps to more airy and elevated spaces) while still acknowledging that it is our responsibility to fight the powerful and deeply entrenched forces that have and would bend it off course and backwards (hence the importance of uncomfortable relics like slave shackles, whips, pictures of lynchings, and Till’s coffin). It is a sobering presentation and ending, but a clearly hopeful one.

From there, visitors can explore the above ground floors that take you on a less chronological tour through the American past, focusing on the cultural and pop cultural impact of African Americans in the shaping of the United States. I was disappointed by the jazz exhibits, but the TV and film and sports sections were quite good. Highlights included a short film on the transformation of the depiction of blacks in movies, as well as relics like Chuck Berry’s guitar and convertible Cadillac, the track shoes Jesse Owen wore in the ’36 Olympics, the gloves Joe Lewis used in his rematch with Max Schmeling, and Jackie Robinson’s uniform.

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Joe Lewis’ boxing gloves

But these just scratch the surface of what is upstairs (they even have Eddie Murphy’s jacket from the first Beverly Hills Cop movie), as these cultural exhibits are heavier on objects than they are on interpretation (the reverse is true in the below ground, chronological history sections). These exhibits are more fun and certainly entertaining.

I spent a total of about 4.5 hours in the museum, only because I did not get in until 12:30ish. I definitely needed more time.

Besides not having enough hours to do the upstairs portions more justice, I was mostly disappointed by the number of kids and teens frolicking around seemingly oblivious to the remarkable facility’s interpretive power. Don’t get me wrong, I saw a large number of youngsters transfixed and interested in the exhibits (and there are many high tech and “immersive” exhibits meant to draw them in and get them pondering what kinds of choices they would have made if they had been in our past), but those that were treating it like a playground made me feel sorry for all the people that have been trying to get into the museum and were not as fortunate as myself (like the three friends I traveled with). All in all, the museum was not as successful at keeping the attention of children as were the three other museums I saw on my trip (more on those in later postings).

My final assessment: A few quibbles aside, the museum is every bit as amazing as you have heard and read about. I was astounded by the relics, at times numbed by the experience, and inspired by its sobering, yet ultimately hopeful interpretation of United States history.   A+.

Get there ASAP.

Why Mercy Street is too important to let die

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Well, today I am mainly posting just one thing, written by me, but I hope that you don’t see it as self serving. Smithsonian Magazine has graciously agreed to help add their weight behind my plea for the saving of PBS’s Mercy Street. In the article I wrote for them I did a brief review of the way that the American Civil War has historically been portrayed on film and television, concluding that Mercy Street was becoming our most important pop cultural depiction of the American Civil War, and thus is too important a show to let die. I hope you’ll give it a read and help share it on social media.

(And thanks to rockstar historian Megan Kate Nelson for helping edit the piece so I could make my best plea).

The show is about to premiere in the UK, one of its creators, Lisa Q. Wolfinger just won a Gracie Award for her production of the show,  and we’ve recently gotten some indication that she has had meetings with some cable networks about possibly saving the show.

Obviously, I am very passionate about this, so please share the article on your social media and lets #SaveMercyStreet.

Mercy Street 2:5 review: Pinkerton finally talks to the right source and it leads to a “moment of truth.”

Pinkerton finally comes callin’ on Belinda

YES!!

That was my reaction to one scene in this week’s Mercy Street, and if you’ve been reading my reviews, you know which one. If for no other reason, this was my favorite episode. Yet other storylines were well executed too, and  Charlotte Jenkins delivered her best line yet. We even got some battle action thrown in for good measure. I’m definitely high on Mercy Street.

The battle sequence introduced this week’s most interesting patient. The engagement takes place during the Battle of Chantilly (the last action in the Second Manassas Campaign, in which Stonewall Jackson’s attempt to cut off the Union retreat was thwarted). The scene is visually striking, taking place at night with bursting shells illuminating the sight of troops clashing in a bayonet charge. This isn’t totally inaccurate, there was some late evening fighting (though not totally nighttime) and hand-to-hand combat during Chantilly (or Ox Hill), but both were actually rare in the Civil War and thus the scene perpetuates some myths/stereotypes about the war. (We’ll forgive them.) The most disturbing image is of a man burning alive while screaming and lunging for help. We later learn he was left for dead for several days, spent time suffering in a field hospital, and finally arrived at Mansion House. Because he’s badly burned and incoherent, it is unknown whether he is a Reb or Yank. Dr. Foster and staff save his life, while Lisette puts her anatomical sketch talents to use recreating his face so that he might be identified. A group of women come to the hospital searching among the wounded for loved ones. Recognizing her husband in the sketch, one woman rushes tearfully to the victim’s bedside as the hospital watches the emotional reunion. Turns out he’s not a soldier, he’s the Quaker we met earlier in the season and was somehow set afire while on the battlefield bringing water to the the wounded and dying. Yes, the scenario is a bit contrived, but carries an emotional punch.

Other bits of drama play out among our various characters. McBurney gives Hastings the assignment of caring for an old friend that has a toe likely needing amputation. Claiming he has bad luck due to a pocket watch he carries because it is a family heirloom (and which he believes caused the death of other family members), the officer tragically dies when placed under sedation. McBurney is livid, shouting at Hastings that he will now ruin her career. The good news: this means Hastings will stop sucking up to him, instead using her conniving ways to get McBurney out of the hospital, and as the body is carried away, the despicable Silas Bullen steals the cursed watch. Meanwhile, the Chaplain refuses to speak to Emma and she finally confronts him. He explains that in his youth, his temper and rage caused the death of someone, and he made a promise to God to control his impulses and dedicate his life to his faith. Thus, he feels killing the man that shot at them last week broke an oath to God and was precipitated by his feelings for her. Less silly but no less melodramatic are the scenes between Foster and Lisette. Feelings from their past linger, strengthened by the emotional reunion her sketch talents facilitated. Eventually, she invites Foster to her bed, promising that Phinney will never know. Our boy does the right thing and rejects the offer, but takes it to heart when she encourages him to not lose Mary because of his emotional timidity.  Finally, the episode featured yet another death, when Matron Brannan gets a letter she does not have the strength to read, knowing it is about her son. Hastings reads it to her, detailing that he was killed trying to steal alcohol. The scene is a heart wrenching reminder that not all war deaths are honorable.

McBurney causes trouble for more than just Hastings, shutting down the school that Charlotte Jenkins runs in the contraband camp. He did so, Jenkins explains to Samuel, because she “may have mentioned a slave rebellion in Haiti” and thus he feels she is encouraging a violent uprising among the black population. (The event she alludes to, of course, is the Haitian Revolution, perhaps the largest and most successful violent slave rebellion in history, and which was a source of southern white paranoia in the early 19th century). As Jenkins vents her frustration at whites, Samuel reminds her that “some of them are dying for us,” to which she replies, “you can’t really see it that way.” Expressing her doubts as to how the war will actually impact them, Jenkins delivers one of the series’ best lines. “We got to make a change for ourselves,” she asserts, “or all we are going to do is change hands.” This is a reminder that at this point in the war (summer, 1862), emancipation was not assured, and there were thousands of blacks behind Union lines with uncertain statuses. It was still possible the war could end with slavery intact, and thus Jenkins’ call for black agency counters the popular perception that emancipation was something that was simply bestowed upon African Americans. Indeed, their own actions played a crucial role in turning the war into one that served their own purposes.

Inspired, Samuel later gets a chance to reopen the school. McBurney discovers the case study that Hale and Samuel worked on in last week’s episode, and is set to punish them both because it is unthinkable that a black man would be involved in an autopsy of a white. Hale initially wants Samuel to “play the role of the dumb negro” by lying that he added his name to the paper without consent, but the doctor does the right thing and tells the truth to McBurney. Foster saves the day, however, by concocting a doozy. The whole report was a ruse, he tells McBurney, to get Samuel accepted into medical school. Doing so, he argues, would win the favor of influential abolitionists that could write letters to superiors to help McBurney get transferred out of the hospital and back in the field. “A bit Machiavellian,” the head doctor asserts, asking Samuel to do his best to make it happen.  Samuel promises he will, as long as McBurney reopens the contraband school. Nice, but an all the more appropriate scene because it involves a black man, with help from sympathetic whites, playing upon and using the goals of those in power in order to secure his own designs. Emancipation, it could be argued, was secured via similar means.

And then there is the Green family. Junior is out buying a Gatling gun with money he steals from his father, coming up with the idea of transforming the family factory into a munitions facility for the Confederacy (yeah, that’ll work). Meanwhile, Mr. Green attends a reception in DC, and thanks to a British Duke staying in their house (who desperately wants to see a battle and may be a total phony), as well as the beguiling charms of his daughter Alice, he meets with a British ambassador. When the diplomat indicates slavery is likely a sticking point that will keep the brits away from helping the South, Green suggests that they tell the Jefferson Davis administration that gradual emancipation is a condition the Confederacy must meet in order to procure help.  (This reminds me of that ridiculous line in the Gettysburg movie when Longstreet says, “we should have freed the slaves and then fired on Fort Sumter.”) If this storyline continues, I hope it is in the form of the Davis administration making it clear that a plan for gradual emancipation is out of the question, as slavery is exactly what the South is trying to preserve. (It should be noted, that just before the summer of 1862 when this episode takes place, Lincoln tried to entice the Border States into a program of compensated gradual emancipation, which they flatly rejected).

Which brings us to the scene that thrilled me and that I was watched like this:

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As you know, since the start of this season I’ve hoped that Pinkerton’s investigation of the Green family would involve the questioning of faithful family slave Belinda. In actuality, the famed detective heavily relied on information that he gleaned from slaves, runaways, and “contrabands,” and even had an African American operative working for him in the rebel capital. Thanks to their help, he busted spy rings, learned about Confederate fortifications, and even gathered information from a free black man in Virginia that played a role in the planning of the Peninsula Campaign. To a large degree, these facts are unknown and unexplored, even within the community of Civil War scholars and buffs. As the Green family plotted and connived this season, Belinda has witnessed it all while staying devoted to the family. Thus, I hoped that the show would ultimately get around to having Pinkerton question the enslaved woman, and that her information would break the case. Such a development would say much about slave “loyalty” and explore a little known facet of the Civil War.

Pinkerton finally shows up at the house while the family is away, requesting a conversation with Belinda (I almost leaped out of my seat when he did so). She is reluctant, explaining she has known the children their whole life and loves them “like they are my own.” Pinkerton feigns sympathy, but tells her that Lincoln wants to free the slaves. If he is killed (by spies like the ones the family has harbored), the next president might end the war with slavery intact (still a legitimate scenario in summer 1862). If so, all runaways behind Union lines might be returned to their owners, and “things would go back to the way they were before.” Does she really want that, he asks, promising he only wants to catch Frank Stringfellow. This leads to an off camera conversation in which Belinda apparently opens up to Pinkerton. When the family returns, the information he gets leads to catching Mrs Green in a lie, proving the family’s guilt. Thanking Belinda, he promises to come back soon with men to help him make an arrest.

After he departs, the family erupts in an argument in which all their lies, deceptions and animosities get openly aired. Turning on Belinda (whom Alice has repeatedly insulted by alleging that she stole the money missing from Mr. Green), they express shock that she shared information with Pinkerton. Mrs. Green begins to swoon and asks Belinda to bring her the laudanum. This request suddenly rips away the mask that the enslaved woman has worn for years, as she haughtily responds, “get it yourself!” As the family looks on in stunned disbelief, Belinda (channeling Charlotte Jenkins) disdainfully tells them she had wanted to keep them out of trouble, but they were too good at bringing it on themselves. She then storms out.

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Look at those reactions! Beautiful.

Folks, this is perhaps the most real moment that Mercy Street has thus far given us, and one of the better ones ever depicted in a movie or TV show involving slavery. Belinda has not yet fully thrown off her lifetime of deference to a family that she helped raise, but this is her first step toward independence, and it is one that many supposedly “loyal” house servants took by degrees during the Civil War. The letters and diaries of white southerners are filled with descriptions of their slaves becoming more haughty and disobedient as the conflict progressed, leading to their refusal to work and ultimate flight to Union lines if/when the opportunity presented itself. This created a “moment of truth” as historian Eugene Genovese long ago described it, when white masters learned that the enslaved people they had long considered loyal demonstrated that it had all been an act, and that they desired freedom irregardless of how well or poorly they had been treated as slaves. Belinda does not yet seem ready to abandon the family (and in fact at this point in the war she would not have obtained freedom if she did, as Green’s loyalty oath means she would not qualify for emancipation under the Second Confiscation Act), but the Emancipation Proclamation is coming.

This excellent episode ends with Emma Green deciding that her dysfunctional family is no longer where she belongs, as the affirmation she receives at the hospital for her increasing self reliance and initiative is more satisfying than anything she receives at home. She then moves into the Union hospital, leaving behind her southern family. We can hope that Belinda is only one step behind.

Trump vs the press; Trump & the Electoral College; Three cheers for Heather Cox Richardson!

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Look, I really want to get off Trump. But he makes it so difficult!

Yesterday I went off on a rant here about how Trump’s feud with Hamilton and SNL once again sheds light on his autocratic tendencies. Now today we get even more news of that nature, learning that he called a meeting with some major news network executives and anchors. It was all “off the record,” but some details have emerged and they are not pretty. In a move that will no doubt delight his supporters, he apparently blasted the gathering as a roomful of liars, and made it clear that he will not tolerate or cooperate with any news organization or anchor that he deems unfair to him. As we have seen, it does not take much for him to deem someone or something unfair. I know the people that scream all the time about the “liberal media” are cheering this news, but if you know the history of the rise of autocrats, you have to be even more concerned about our president-elect.

There’s an article in The Atlantic that has gotten a lot of attention and criticism from certain folks which argues that the Electoral College was designed to prevent someone like Trump from getting elected, and yet ironically it is the thing that got him elected. There are some inaccurate/misleading statements in the piece (and in fact one that commits a pet peeve of mine–the 3/5ths clause did NOT define African Americans as 3/5ths of a human being!), but its basic premise is correct. More interestingly, it concludes with a call for the Electors to not choose Trump, making the case with four points for why his presidency presents a danger. All four are valid, especially the one about the threat of nuclear war if such an unstable man gets the codes. It points out that back in August, Trump met with a “foreign policy expert” who later reported that three times in a one hour meeting, the now president-elect asked, “Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?” Further, in an interview with Chris Matthews, Trump said, “someone hits us with ISIS–you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?” The article points out the number of times we have come close to nuclear war with even stable-minded men at the helm, so our prospects now are a bit scary. (Let’s also recall that Trump has also stated that he thinks the world would be safer if more countries had nukes).

Lastly, the most ridiculous thing I have seen today is that some young Americans have created a “Professor Watch-list” made up of educators that they believe “discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Of course this echoes of McCarthy (but lets not take that analogy too far, these are just some well organized college kids with a group called Turning Points USA, not a government agency), but it apparently does not take much to get on their list. Look, we all know that there are professors that use the classroom to promote their political leanings, and it can be VERY annoying. Throughout my career I have worked hard to keep my politics out of my lectures, but as I have written elsewhere on this blog, Trump made it impossible for me to keep my concerns about the man (not the Republican party) to myself. No, I am not on the list, but an historian I greatly admire (and once briefly worked with on an essay for We’re History) is on it. The inclusion of Heather Cox Richardson (or any professor) is just plain ridiculous. Today on Facebook, she posted a response to being placed on the list that I think is worthwhile reading for everyone. I hope she doesn’t mind my re-posting of parts of it here, but I do so because it is pretty much an accurate expression of my own sentiments—-And I am sure it reflects the sentiments of many of you as well. (The comments in ITALICS below are mine, the rest are Professor Richardson’s).

“It is ironic that this list would label me “leftist.” In fact, in my public life, I do not identify with a political party, and I work with politicians on both sides of the aisle. I also teach the history of American conservative beliefs, as well as those of liberalism. I believe that the nation needs both the Democratic and the Republican parties to be strong and healthy.

ABSOLUTELY

It is even more ironic that the list would label me “anti-American.” In fact, I do what I do– all the teaching, writing, speeches, and media– because I love America. I am staunchly committed to the principle of human self-determination, and have come to believe that American democracy is the form of government that comes closest to bringing that principle to reality. This nation is not perfect– far from it– but when it is at its best, it has more potential for people of all genders, races, and ethnicities to create their own destinies than any other governmental system. I work to teach people about that system, its great triumphs… and also its hideous failures. We must learn from the past because the miracle of America is that it is always reinventing itself, giving us the potential to remake it, better, every day.”

AMEN!

“. . .  For the last several years, as I took on a more and more public role, I have focused on the present, hammering on the idea that the ideologically-driven Movement Conservatives who have taken over the nation through the Republican Party are not real Republicans; they are a cabal concentrating wealth and power into a ruling class that is crushing the rest of us. I truly believe that most Americans want not this extraordinary upward redistribution of wealth and power, but rather the same sort of government known in the 1950s as the “liberal consensus,” established by FDR and Eisenhower, that regulates business, maintains national infrastructure, and provides a basic social safety net, while still leaving ample room for private enterprise and the innovation it sparks.”

Pretty much my politics in a nutshell. 

“People have asked what they can do in this moment. Across the political spectrum, I would urge everyone who believes in this nation to focus on the mechanics of government and constantly to call out official actions that you would find unacceptable if they happened to “your” side, especially if it’s “your” side doing them. Call attention to law-breaking that is actionable at a state or national level, rather than focusing on individual outrages (that Russia interfered in the 2016 election is important; a keyed car is not). Do not believe or share any sensationalist stories until you have confirmed them through a site like Snopes.com, and call out those who make assertions without factual evidence.

Oh, wouldn’t social media and the internet in general be such a better place if so!

“Do not mistake legal practices like peaceful protests or government petitions for wrongdoing. If you see something illegal, document it with photos and witnesses and take it to police even if you suspect they will ignore it: continue to demand that the system operate properly. Call your representatives constantly to register your opinions (it matters– most get fewer than a dozen calls about issues at hand).

And I can’t applaud this last bit enough:

“And try to stop demonizing political opponents who fall within the normal political spectrum so we can all stand together against those who are trashing our institutions and our legal system. There are both Republicans and Democrats in my FB feed and you have far more in common than you are different, I promise you. What no one on my FB feeds wants, though, is for this nation to commit suicide, and if those of us who believe in America turn against each other, we will permit precisely that.”

If Heather Cox Richardson is on that list, I think we all should strive to be on it too. 

Musings on The Birth of a Nation and Nat Turner’s rebellion

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(-Disclaimer: I fully understand why many people are reluctant to see and support this movie given the  allegations swirling around Nate Parker’s past. My review, however, is focused on the film itself, and should not be seen as a statement about the alleged legal and moral transgressions of the film’s creator).

I have many thoughts about Nate Parker’s controversial new film, The Birth of a Nation, so bear with me. Before getting to the mild spoilers below, let me say right off that the film has a TON of historical inaccuracies that will anger and frustrate many historians, myself included. Yet the key to appreciating this very powerful film is to understand that it is “based” on a true story (as the opening credits proclaim), only using the broad outlines of Nat Turner’s rebellion to tell its largely fictional tale. While the most provocative aspects of the event are missing or obscured, other important dynamics of it are not, and the film delivers them exceptionally well.

I often have my classes read about the 1831 rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, write an essay on it, and engage in a discussion of whether or not Nat Turner was a “hero.” Was he a murderer or a warrior in a justified war? This almost always leads to interesting exchanges. I had hoped that this film would leave audience members pondering the same thing, believing that if it did so, it would blow their minds and induce some deep and dark questions about antebellum slavery. Unfortunately, the film does not do that, giving us an interpretation of Turner that was embraced by 1960s black radicals–an almost wholly heroic man waging a war against slavery and the brutalization of black lives.

In doing so, Parker has to omit important historical details and distort others, stripping the Turner rebellion of what I think is its most important consideration: What does the hatred unleashed during the revolt reveal about the institution of slavery? Southampton County was dominated by small farms and enslaved blacks that had close personal connections with whites that most of them had known their whole lives. Their workload was relatively lighter than those on larger plantations, and especially in the Deep South. Many, like Nat, were routinely allowed to travel throughout the community to visit friends and family members on other farms, and masters were somewhat indulgent of minor transgressions. And yet, in a volcanic eruption of rage, enslaved blacks let loose a hellish and unspeakably horrific orgy of violence that involved the use of axes, clubs, and other instruments to decapitate and bludgeon some 60 whites into bloody pulps–a large number of them women and children (and in one instance, an infant in its cradle). Surely, such fury tells us much about the true evils of slavery. If we condemn Turner and his rebels, I often tell my students, we must in the same breath condemn the institution that created the anger and hatred revealed in the brutal nature of the murders.

Sadly, The Birth of a Nation does little to force audiences into the moral dilemma of considering whether or not Turner was a hero, because it opts for depicting all the standard slavery horrors that we normally get in movies (depicting an “every South” rather than the particular dynamics in Southampton), and the rebellion itself is given short shrift. We only see the whites that seemingly deserved it the most get killed.

Further, Turner is not depicted as motivated by a lifelong mystic faith that he was called to a higher purpose (though the opening scene and other vague dreamlike sequences suggest it). Rather than the supernatural voices and strange visions that Turner was convinced frequently spoke to him his whole life, it is the rape and brutal beating of his wife, the rape of a close friend’s wife, and a whipping he suffers, that instigate his rebellious plans. In truth, Turner’s motivations were deeper and more psychologically disturbing than the film demonstrates, which weakens what the movie could have said about the institution of slavery.

And yet, the film brilliantly presents a story that is powerful in and of itself. This is a excellent film, with beautiful cinematography, pitch perfect use of sound and music, and near uniformly superb acting. Much like the writings of Frederick Douglass, Nate Parker’s movie demonstrates that slavery tainted everything it touched, including seemingly “good” masters.

More impressive, it successfully depicts how important black families and personal relationships were to enduring enslavement. The first hour of the movie centers on a tender love story that blooms within the confines of an evil system. The love offers a light in a dark world, and aside from Roots, we rarely see this depicted in films about slavery. Further, the film makes it clear that an enslaved individual’s quality of life was influenced by the type of master they had, and that this could vary from farm to farm. One scene that will long haunt me involves a sadistic master’s brutal treatment of a slave that refuses to eat, and it is all the more powerful because it does not involve the typical whipping scene we so often get. In the end, the film leaves us with an image of the Old South that is far from moonlight and magnolias.

****Here come very mild spoilers in a discussion of the film’s inaccuracies. Skip to my last two paragraphs if you want to avoid spoilers ****

The historical inaccuracies, distortions, and omissions in this film are numerous and frustrating. Some are only minor, but still annoying. For instance, slave patrollers would not have tried to kill a surrendering runaway slave, nor raped and beaten a slave on her master’s property, as they would have then owed financial restitution to the master. Turner’s mother had been brought directly from Africa, but in the film she has no African accent, nor do we see her infuse her son’s religion with African traditions.

We can forgive many of these inaccuracies, such as the simplification of Nat’s ownership. As property, he was transferred between masters several times, and yet the movie depicts him as the lifetime property of a man that he grew up playing with as a child. This is a case of a screenwriter justifiably condensing things for the sake of streamlining the story, and depicts a situation that was true for many slaves.

However, bigger problems involve the rebellion itself, which is largely sanitized (yes, it was even more brutal than what is seen on the screen). There is no orgy of violence that shows slaves chasing down, beating, and chopping to death women and children. The only slayings we see are folks that the film has depicted as wholly bad (except Nat’s owner, but he had recently angered Nat by requiring his friend’s wife to sleep with a visiting guest, and also had recently given Nat a brutal beating).

In truth, a large percent of the victims were women and children, including those at a boarding school that the rebels butchered and threw on a pile. Further, Nat is shown directly involved in the killings, when in fact he murdered only one person (a woman he chased down and beat to death with a fence rail). Instead, we see him kill his master and a slave patroller that almost killed his father and that raped and beat his wife (neither of which actually happened). There is no moral dilemma in these killings, they are an act of justice.

Further, there is also a pitched battle in the town of Jerusalem that did not happen, as the militia was able to keep the rebels out of the city. Nat’s rebels are always under his control, steadfast, and resolute, when in fact, he lingered behind during their march of bloody vengeance and many of his cohorts fell into pillaging and drunkenness that slowed them down.

But the inaccuracy and omissions that weaken the film the most are in the ending. In the film, Nat turns himself in when he discovers that innocent blacks are being murdered until he is found. He heroically sacrifices himself by walking boldly into town to surrender to a mob. In fact, Turner hid for months in a couple of dugout spots in the woods, and was captured by accident by a man that stumbled upon him. Parker’s portrayal, of course, is meant to give Turner a heroic finale, but it does not match the reality.

Most frustrating of all is that the movie robs us of Nat’s courtroom and jail cell confessions. Here was the moment when we could hear Nat’s eloquent words about why he did it. Nate Parker’s screenplay could have quoted Turner directly, condemning an evil institution and revealing his belief in a divinely ordained mission to eradicate slavery. And yet, we get nothing but his (accurate) last words of “I’m ready,” and a Christ-like depiction of martyrdom at the end of a noose.

****Spoilers over***

Despite these historical inaccuracies, this is a film that gets a lot of things right. Yes, as other reviewers have pointed out, slave women are largely depicted as needing a savior and are not front-and-center during the rebellion—but much else about the rebellion is wrong, not just the omission of women. Still, enslaved women are an integral part of the film. They are portrayed as the core of slave families, responsible for instilling the self esteem and self worth that the institution of slavery seeks to destroy. The enslaved community and its culture is shown as important to survival by creating camaraderie, love, and hope, elements that are sadly missing in many current slave movies. Yes, the film needs more of this, as do many of our other presentations of slavery (and if you have read much of my writing you know this is one of my pet peeves), but this film is about a true instance of violent rebellion, not day-to-day slave resistance.

Further, the broad details of Nat Turner’s rebellion are correctly depicted: Turner is motivated by the wrathful God of the Old Testament; his preaching gives him many advantages that other slaves did not have; yet he leads a rebellion that shatters the image of happy and contented slaves (as it did at the time). The Old South we see in the film is a strange, complex, nay schizophrenic world, with a mixture of sadistic and more benign masters, tender, affectionate, and sometimes joyful slave families, and yet a palpable sense of dread and foreboding hovers over it all.

The Birth of a Nation is a fine and powerful film made with skill and passion. If you accept that it is merely based on a true story, and not actually the true story, you will be able to enjoy it and see it for what it is: another powerful and accurate depiction of the antebellum South that demolishes the lies of the Lost Cause and many of the Hollywood movies of the past.

Oh, and you’re gonna love that last shot just before the film fades to black.

My two-cents (I don’t speak for all historians!) on that Stanley Fish editorial

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So the New York Times has an opinion piece by law professor Stanley Fish in which he criticizes the “Historians Against Trump” group, and presumably the “Historians On Donald Trump” Facebook group as well. This has caused a lot of responses today from historians on social media, and I dare say that we will soon see a rebuttal piece published somewhere. However, I think many historians have had a knee-jerk reaction and are not getting at the heart of what he argued. Fish did not insist that historians can not have, and should not express, political opinions.  He writes: “I would have no problem with individuals, who also happened to be historians, disseminating their political conclusions in an op-ed or letter to the editor.” Yet much of the response from many historians is to insist that they have as much right to express political opinions as he does. I think he would agree. The problem, as he sees it, “is when a bunch of individuals claim for themselves a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.” So what he is REALLY arguing, is that historians should not form a consensus of political opinion and present it as such.

It is on those points that we should focus our rebuttals.

As he sees it, historians should not make the claim that they speak for the profession of history because, 1) if there are any historians who support Trump, it invalidates the claim, and 2)  “the profession of history shouldn’t be making political pronouncements of any kind.”

In regards to his first point: it makes no sense to claim that historians, like any other group, can’t form a consensus of opinion on a topic without that opinion becoming invalidated because some other historians disagree. That’s like saying that because a historian like Thomas DiLorenzo disagrees, it makes it invalid for historians to argue that history proves that secession was caused by the desire to preserve slavery . . . Or that slavery was not a benign institution. I think it is safe to say that a consensus of academic historians agrees that slavery caused secession and that slavery sucked. Can we not advance that as historical truth just because DiLorenzo disagrees? I guess scientists better back off of promoting global warming, or even evolution.

So, Fish’s first point is easily dismissed.

On his second point, that historians as a group should not make political pronouncements: listen, I am sympathetic to this argument to a degree. As I have written before, I think that historians should strive for objectivity in the classroom as much as possible, because we should not try to indoctrinate our captive audience with our own political agenda. I know that many historians will disagree with that statement, because every one of us has had professors that do it. They might insist that doing so helps to challenge the preconceived beliefs of the students, and that forcing them to think outside of their comfort zone is one of the most important things we do with our students. I totally agree, but I think that can be accomplished through an objective discussion and analysis of historical facts and interpretations. A dogmatic presentation of political opinion that runs counter to the beliefs of the student will only result in a knee-jerk hardening of their own position, and the outright rejection of anything that is at odds with it (way too much of that goes on in our nation’s political discourse). Thus, we accomplish little. (Ben Franklin has a lot to say about this in his autobiography. Check it out).

So, I try very hard to make sure that I am so objective in the classroom that my students have a difficult time figuring out whether I am a Democrat or a Republican. That has long been my goal and I pride myself on it. I think Fish would agree with this approach.  BUT, extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. Trump’s impending nomination by one of the major parties IS extraordinary (an historical consensus on that has emerged), and thus for the first time in my teaching career, I have made my political opinions (at least on him) known even to my classes, and frequently use lessons from history to denounce him. I make no apologies for it, and totally support the Historians Against Trump movement, as well as the Historians on Donald Trump group. Further, the groups are acting outside of their classrooms, not holding forth to a captive audience.

But to get back to Fish’s argument: he insists that the problem with the group is that they speak as a group, basing their authority on their academic credentials. He insists that once they create a group like this, they become  “a political organization whose arguments must make their way without the supposed endorsement and enhancement of an academic pedigree.” Their arguments, he insists, must then be judged by their strength or weaknesses, not by the fact that the group carries advanced degrees.

Ok fine, but doesn’t the strength or weakness of their argument come from their understanding of history? Doesn’t their scholarship lend weight and credibility to their opinions? If a group was created calling itself “Economists Against Clinton,” and it included some of the most well respected and accomplished economists, I know I might listen more closely to what they said than I would some blowhard TV commentator like Sean Hannity.  But based on the logic of Fish, such groups should not exist because not all economists would agree with their arguments, and because they should not use their advanced degrees in economics as a basis for lending weight to their conclusions. Perhaps Fish would agree with that, but it strikes me as utterly ridiculous and being a contrarian just for the sake of being contrary.

Listen, neither the “Historians Against Trump” movement nor the “Historians on Trump” Facebook group are claiming that they speak for ALL historians. Both groups contain some very accomplished historians that are speaking out about Trump, and their advanced degrees (and peer reviewed published works) denote a wealth of knowledge that adds weight to their opinions. It isn’t any more complex than that.

So let’s get down to what this is really all about: Stanley Fish is an anti-foundational professor. Instead of engaging with the strengths or weaknesses of the groups’  arguments, he simply closes his mind to their opinions by insisting that they have no right to claim to speak for all historians (which they never did), and that their opinions do not carry any more weight simply because they have advanced degrees and are some of our most accomplished and well respected historians (which is preposterous). I guess Fish would have been more open to their ideas had the groups chosen to name themselves “Some-(but not all)-Educated-People-That-Happen-to-be-Historians against Donald Trump.”

Or maybe he just doesn’t like any credentialed group with an agenda (be afraid, Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

Given that Trump’s entire campaign is built on getting people to vote for him based on emotions and anger rather than logic and intellectual thought, and is also rooted in tapping into anti-intellectualism and class resentments, Fish’s opinion piece will likely make perfect sense to Trump supporters. I just hope that Fish’s next diatribe will not include the by-line that he is a law professor. Is that supposed to add credibility to your opinion, Mr Fish? If so, why is it so wrong for a group’s credentials to add weight to their collective opinions?

Answer: nothing is wrong with it unless your logic is distorted by your own unobjective bias . . .  something that all professors in any field should fight against.

Good day, sir.

 

Heavy-weight historians take a stand against Trump

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Famed historians David McCullough has seen enough of Trump

My name is Glenn David Brasher, and I approve this message:

When I started teaching close to 20 years ago, I was determined that I would keep my own personal politics out of the classroom. We’ve all had classes in which the professor used their time in front of the class as a platform for political diatribes, especially in history or political science classes. That always angered me, and thus I decided that I would never do it. I think I have been very successful at that over the years, and take pride in the fact that most students can not figure out if I am a Republican or a Democrat. It isn’t very hard to accomplish this political ambiguity when you commit yourself to being as objective as possible.

But this past year is different, as I have found it near impossible to not lash out at Donald Trump’s candidacy. Any student that has had me in the last year knows where I stand on him, and why. In fact, it seems that pretty much every class (no matter the lecture topic) offers a lesson that seems appropriate when considering Trump. I make no apologies for it, and feel it is in some ways a duty. I do hate that it caused me to break my commitment, but I blame him and his popularity for that. I’ll go back to objectivity when he is defeated. To quote Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing: “make no mistake, he must be stopped.”

Anyway, I say all this because I am very proud to see that some seriously big-time historians have decided that they can not stand idly by and do nothing to stop a Trump presidency. Led by David Mccullough and Ken Burns, they have created a Facebook page called Historians on Donald Trump where they have posted short video diatribes against the presumptive Republican nominee (and will continually be adding new ones). I do not like that so far there is not a lot of diversity in the line-up (its largely older, white male historians), but perhaps that is exactly the demographic that we need to reach the most, because the bulk of his support comes from white males.

I have many Republican friends and family that confess that they too loathe Trump, but that Hillary Clinton would be worse. Trust me, I  REALLY understand their reluctance to support her, (if she were not such a weak/problematic candidate, we would not even be facing a possible Trump presidency) but I simply can not agree that she (or perhaps anyone!) would be worse or more dangerous. DANGER is the operative word I think we all need to consider.

All those that proclaim to rever historians,  history,  and history’s lessons, I implore you to check out the videos posted on this Facebook page. To throw my support in, I will start posting one of the videos with each of my postings, starting with the highly revered David McCullough:

(David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize — for “Truman” (1992) and “John Adams” (2001) — and twice received the National Book Award — for “The Path Between the Seas” (1977) and “Mornings on Horseback” (1982). His other acclaimed books include “The Greater Journey” (2011), “1776” (2005), “Brave Companions” (1991), “The Johnstown Flood” (1968), “The Great Bridge” (1972) and “The Wright Brothers” (2015). He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award).