So, when I “wore a younger man’s clothes” I was a grad student in Richmond working on a degree and as a seasonal and part-time ranger for the Richmond National Battlefield Park. For some extra money, I took a job one day-per-week giving bus tours to tourists, visiting the major sites and battlefields around Richmond. Monument Avenue was of course the centerpiece of the tour, so I have visited and given interpretation of the monuments there many, many times.
I watched online today as the process of taking down the statues began. Honestly, even though we’ve known this was coming, I am feeling kind of stunned. Too stunned to have anything profound or interesting to say about it.
Today’s target was Stonewall Jackson. I’m guessing the others will soon follow. Where they are going is unclear for now, except that they will be stored somewhere until all the legal and financial matters connected with their removal can be worked out.
I’ve been on record in the past as favoring the contextualization of these and other rebel monuments, but as I indicated in a recent post, I think that ship has sailed. I now believe these things have got to continuing coming down from their places of honor. And I have enjoyed watching it happen.
Still, I think they should not be destroyed or hidden away forever. I’d love to see them eventually re-emerge at historic sites or places where they can be brought down off their pedestals (literally and figuratively) and interpreted.
I doubt it’ll ever happen, but I think there would be real value in interpreting these statues, from the cultural forces of the Lost Cause movement that erected them, to the cultural forces of the Black Lives Matter movement that got them dismantled. That’s a darn good and important story to tell.
In my mind’s eye, I see the Lee statue (not on a pedestal) out on the Malvern Hill battlefield, (site of where his characteristically aggressive battlefield tactics led to the slaughter of thousands of Confederate soldiers in a doomed assault). J.E.B Stuart and Jefferson Davis would fit nicely near their graves in Hollywood cemetery. I see Stonewall, at his death site, which is preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service, or perhaps behind his home in Lexington, Virginia.
Perhaps one day.
But for now, I’m going to be stuck with the image of a large crowd that watched and cheered, and endured a steady rainstorm as Stonewall was lifted off his pedestal. It was definitely surreal that the rain began almost at the moment when Jackson was lifted, and it thundered as he was brought down to applause.
Once he was down, most of the crowd headed home to get dry. But there was a young rain soaked black woman berating folks for leaving before Jackson was hauled away. A local news crew caught her on camera as she shouted, “They said we couldn’t accomplish anything with these protests. Well, just look! And I’m staying out here until this is finished, because my ancestors were out here picking cotton, even in the rain. They didn’t have the option to go up to the big house to get dry!”
And suddenly I am reminded, that in all those bus tours I gave on Monument Avenue, I never once had a black passenger.
For years, University of Alabama Associate Professor Lawrence F. Kohl (author of the brilliant and historiographically important The Politics of Individualism) taught a popular class on the life of Abraham Lincoln as an intense, three week, upper level undergrad course every May. When he retired, one of his former students, Rachel K. Deale, took it over for one summer before becoming an Assistant Professor at Barton College. When she left, I was determined to keep the unique class going.
Turns out it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my 20+ years of college teaching. It rejuvenated me.
I’ve always loved my job and wake up every morning excited to get to do it (yes, I know I’m lucky). But this course was special. Like Dr. Deale, I chose to teach it as a full month course in June, meeting for one hour and 45 minutes every day of the week. That made for a busy month, but an extremely fun one hanging out with Abe and the students (mostly history majors).
The prep work for any course you’ve not taught before can be intense, but especially when it meets every day of the week. I wrote lectures and built image-heavy Powerpoints the night before delivering them, all while keeping up with the reading schedule assigned to my students and quizzing them on it.
I’m confident I taught the students many things about our 16th president and his era that they didn’t know and that will stay with them. Sticking mostly to Kohl’s tried-and-true course outline helped me craft lectures that I feel worked well and kept students engaged in classroom discussions, shedding light on Antebellum and Civil War America, as well as the ways Lincoln’s life prepared him for the role of our leader during America’s most divisive time.
I did alter and add to Kohl’s basic structure, including the role that public history sites, monuments, and movies have played in shaping how Americans have remembered and mythologized Lincoln. We also read about and discussed the differing ways Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon and his White House secretaries (Nicolay and Hay) shaped the memory and historiography of Lincoln.
We also had “Lincoln in the News” assignments (a variation on an assignment I have in my survey courses), requiring students to find and analyze current news stories demonstrating how Abe’s legacy and myth are often used by modern politicians and pundits for both liberal and conservative agendas. We considered how and why the Lincoln myth causes politicians of all stripes to tie their ideologies to his. This allowed for a bit of memory history, but also a discussion of the dangers of “cherry picking” primary source evidence by both historians and others looking for a usable past. (Ironically, Lincoln himself did this when tying his views against the expansion of slavery to the views of the Founders).
In short, although using a narrative approach to the course (each day I essentially told stories about his life), my students and I accomplished more than just learning basic facts about Lincoln. Besides history, we dealt with public history, memory, historiography, and how historians use and misuse primary sources —all within a narrative framework. Abe himself would have appreciated the use of personal stories as a means of painlessly pulling my audience into considering more complex themes and concepts.
Thus one of the things the class taught me was the usefulness of a biography course. The students stayed engaged as we followed his narrative. Tracing the personal developments in his life, I asked students to consider how those things shaped his career, political beliefs, and perceptions of the events of his time.
We all love the juicy and personal details of famous lives, but perhaps this is even more true for a generation that’s grown up watching reality TV. It seems my students’ fascination with Lincoln’s personal life helped keep them engaged as we drifted into those discussions of memory, public history, and historiography, and as they read and analyzed his own writings.
Of course these are the same reasons that biographical books are so effective as a lens for examining a particular historical era, but my experience teaching the Lincoln course convinces me that history departments should consider offering an array of biography courses. It might just be one way we can start attracting more students to upper level history classes, and thus to win back the number of history majors the field has lost lately.
If you’re a professor or teacher, I encourage you to think about historical figures you’d love to teach a course on and then do it! I believe students might more eagerly sign up for a course on Joan of Arc than they would the 100 Years War, or one on Ronald Reagan more readily than a class on Post-WWII America. How about Elizabeth I instead of Tudor England? Frederick Douglass instead of Antebellum Slavery?
But Lincoln showed me much more than just the advantages of teaching history through biography.
When planning, I intended to focus on Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery. For this reason I chose Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery as my main text. On our first day I made clear that students should pay attention to Lincoln’s evolution in regards to slavery and race. By the end of the course, however, following this theme brought me to a realization I had not anticipated.
As we know, judged by the standards of our time Lincoln was racist. But historians often stress that from the perspective of his time he held fairly progressive ideas about African Americans and slavery, and those sentiments evolved over the course of his life, especially during the war. A man once holding views about racial inferiority that were fairly consistent with that of other whites of his time eventually became the first president to openly call for suffrage rights for at least some categories of African Americans (and it cost him his life) and perhaps would have eventually pushed for more than just that.
As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his speech at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument, Lincoln’s evolution was slow in the eyes of abolitionists and radical Republicans, but perhaps it was exactly the pace needed so that public opinion would grow to support emancipation and the 13th amendment. The war’s contingencies, and Lincoln’s responses to them, set and controlled that pace.
Using Foner and selected writings and speeches by Lincoln, I guided students thru Lincoln’s change and pace, showing how and why they happened. When discussing “cherry picking,” we noted how easily it is for people today with varying agendas to find Lincoln’s own words at different times in his life that they can use to “prove” differing points.
Of course this is true with other historical figures, because people’s thoughts and opinions often change over time. That’s the nature of maturing and viewing the world through a larger lens of knowledge and experiences. This is just one reason that context is so important when using primary sources.
The first Lincoln writing we read was his 1832 announcement that he was running for state office. In it, Abe clearly delineates his Whig party political sentiments, but concludes by promising that if he were to one day “discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”
A statement of open-mindedness like that is laudatory, and while over Lincoln’s life he clung to most of his core principles, he certainly proved willing to change his mind and evolve, not just in regards to his ideas about slavery and race, but also military strategy. I told my students I feel this was Lincoln’s true greatness; in an age when political partisanship ripped our nation apart, his willingness to change his views based on events, contingencies, and experiences is what saved the Union.
And yet, what struck me by the end of the course was that we often don’t allow our politicians to grow and evolve like that. How frequently do we criticize them for holding a position or beliefs years ago that seem at odds with their current ones or that are now contemptible? In an attempt at a “gotcha” moment, we criticize them for hypocrisy, or allege they only changed their mind out of political expediency. (Lincoln himself faced such criticisms).
Sadly, it seems to me, this plays at least some role in the partisanship preventing the compromise between parties that democracy requires. Why would a politician be swayed by debate or new realities if changing their mind or compromising their positions leads to ridicule and charges of hypocrisy by pundits and political rivals?
As a result, they don’t change their minds or obfuscate in an attempt to hide it when they do. They refuse to admit when they were wrong or refuse to compromise, and we get gridlock. Wouldn’t it be wiser to support politicians willing to renounce their opinions if they discover them to be erroneous, or allow them to evolve with the changing times? If we praise them for doing so, wouldn’t it actually encourage more open mindedness?
Yet in our current political environment it seems we only want politicians that unwaveringly stand firm to convictions, or that come out of the womb with fully formed values and beliefs that match with our current values and standards.
Imagine if Lincoln had never changed his mind about slavery and race. He would have never used emancipation and black troops as a means of winning the war and would have continued to promote the colonization of African Americans outside the country. Had he not shifted on these positions, debatably he would have lost the war. Certainly he would have never promoted any form of black citizenship and would have been happy to see slavery die out over the course of a century or longer.
Thus had he been uncompromising and ideologically consistent to the last, I wonder how we would remember Abraham Lincoln today. He certainly would not be the “Great Emancipator,” and likely would have overseen the destruction of the Union rather than been its savior.
On the last part of our final exam I had students write a “self-reflective” essay in which they considered whether there was anything in Lincoln’s life they found “usable” in their own. The result was interesting, as students remarked on things as varied as Lincoln’s rags-to-riches background, his grief and depression, his leadership qualities, and the value of using simple and relatable language when addressing complex ideas and concepts. Happily, none agreed with labeling Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” but most clearly demonstrated they understood the essential and crucial role he played in the complicated process and pace of emancipation.
And thus I consider the class to have been a great success, and I hope I’ll I continue to be able to teach it. I learned some valuable things right along with my students, growing and improving as an educator and in my open-mindedness.
Brand new American Civil War Museum, right next door to the National Park Service’s Richmond Battlefield Park Visitor’s Center (building on the left), at Richmond’s historic Tredegar Ironworks.
Back in May, I got to visit the new American Civil War Museum at the Tredegar Iron works. Like many of you, ever since it was announced the Museum of the Confederacy was joining forces and bringing their collection to the project, I’ve eagerly awaited the grand opening. So much so that I got there as soon as my teaching schedule allowed, which thankfully was only two weeks after they first opened the doors.
But really, I’ve been waiting even longer than that. Fresh out of college I moved to Richmond in 1993 to get a masters degree at VCU and explore all of Virginia’s historic treasures. While the Commonwealth itself did not disappoint (and still doesn’t), I admit Richmond was a let down.
Monument Avenue’s Lost Cause statuary was impressive, of course, as was the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, and Hollywood Cemetery. But beyond that, the pickings were slim for a Civil War buff expecting a lot more, and wanting something that wasn’t steeped in the Lost Cause.
The Lee Statue on the famous (now infamous?) Monument Avenue.
Even the Richmond National Battlefield Park was a disappointment, with its very outdated exhibits at the site of Chimborazo Hospital (and a film focused on the plight of a middle class white Richmond family during the war), and only small bits of preserved battlefield lands scattered around the eastern suburbs with minimal interpretation—-and that interpretation mainly focused on the Confederate perspective.
It was not the Richmond of which I’d daydreamed.
Fortunately, that began to change just as I arrived. I volunteered and then got a summer seasonal job with the park service, and over the next 8 years got to witness exciting and near constant changes at the park, as a really great staff of historians got more funding, installed more interpretive signs and trails in the park, acquired more land (they now have dang near all of Malvern Hill and Glendale, and an ever increasing amount of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor), restored historic landscapes, and created a beautiful, cutting-edge visitor’s center in one of the remaining buildings of the historic Tredegar Ironworks.
Just as I left the city to return to Alabama to work on a PhD with Dr. George Rable, Richmond itself got in the updating game, cleaning up and restoring the historic canal walk on the river, repurposing crumbling old warehouses into modern apartments, and cleaning up the surrounding areas around the James River. Then the American Civil War Center opened up next door to the NPS visitor’s center at Tredegar.
The city had become much more of what I envisioned before going there, including now even a monument commemorating Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the city with his son just as the Capital of the Confederacy fell to Union forces.
Tad & his dad in Richmond
Monument Avenue still lingers, but more inclusive stories are being told, with less Lost Cause distortions. There’s even interpretation of Richmond’s slave pens and markets.
And yet, something has still seemed missing. While the NPS center at Tredegar is great, it appropriately focuses on Richmond and the battlefields, and while their neighbor, the American Civil War Center, was telling a comprehensive story of the war in general, it was heavy on interpretation and light on relics.
Thus when it was announced that the museum was spending around 25 million to build a new, high tech, 28,500 square facility (much of it underground) in and around the Tredegar site, and that they would be incorporating relics from the Museum of the Confederacy, excitement was high that Richmond would now become THE premiere place for Civil War public history interpretation (as it should be).
Well, yes, and no. Let’s just say this, it has enormous potential.
Just inside the front doors.
First off, after walking through its beautiful entrance and lobby that encloses Tredegar ruins that were long exposed to the elements, and then past visually stunning enlargements of colorized war-time photographs (featuring a diverse cast of wartime faces), I was ready for an amazing visit.
Because of poor signage, however, it was difficult to figure out which door to walk into for the main exhibit gallery. I started to go in the “out” door, as did many others that I observed. That should be an easy fix though.
Once inside, I was surprised by how small the permanent exhibit space actually is. Having recently visited the two new Revolutionary War museums in Philadelphia and in Yorktown, I was perhaps expecting too much, as those facilities are huge and nicely spread out. This one takes you from 1861-1865 at comparatively warp speed.
Further, there was curiously little interpretation of the causes of the war, which was contrary to everything I expected considering all the hype about taking the war away from Lost Cause interpretation.
But here is the main problem: the museum is making great effort to tell a more inclusive and diverse narrative of the war, and the written interpretation does so. But the artifacts they have now are just not yet helping them tell that story.
Solid interpretation. But unfortunately, few of the relics help tell this story
Yes, you won’t find many Civil War museums with an audio and visual presentation telling the story of an enslaved girl that was brutally whipped for allegedly poisoning her owner, or that displays slave shackles, or that interprets the post-war years by featuring a Reconstruction era KKK hood and garment.
Not exactly a common site in a Civil war museum, though it should be.
The African American story, as well as the Union story, are both featured throughout the exhibits. There is also homefront and gendered history, but with few exceptions (like the ones just mentioned) the artifacts packed behind the glass cases are overwhelmingly the treasures from the old Museum of the Confederacy.
But Oh! What a collection it is! I won’t spoil it for you by naming too much, but you’ll be stunned at the personal wartime possessions on display that were owned by the pantheon of Confederate luminaries, from Jefferson Davis, to Lee, to Stonewall, to Jeb Stuart. (You know, all those dudes out there on Monument Avenue.)
Of course all this was on display at the old Museum of the Confederacy, but it makes it no less amazing to see them again, especially in this more inclusive context and in the new digs. You’ll find yourself staring in awe at such things, seemingly tucked away in the corners.
This display, for example, is a Stonewall Jackson fan’s dream come true.
Here’s a big tip: DO NOT rush through this museum. Read EVERY description of EVERY relic. What they have will blow your mind. Just one small example: the sword Lewis Armistead used to urge rebel soldiers forward into Union lines just as he was mortally wounded during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg. But you’ll miss it and other jaw-dropping possessions if you aren’t paying attention.
And yet, as amazing as these things are, they are just not helping the museum to tell the story it strives to tell.
The battles themselves get shunted away to high tech electronic video boards that visitors can interact with, which is fine, I’d rather see visitors get out to the battlefields themselves if that is what they are looking for. But theoretically that means the museum should be focused on social and cultural history, and most of the interpretation is, but yet the most attention-grabbing relics are largely battle-related accouterment from southern soldiers and officers.
My guess is that the museum’s folks are aware of this problem, and that the acquisition of other relics must become their number one goal now that the space has been constructed and the doors open. (I hope they are aware of this auction, for example). Having such stunning possessions from Lee, Jackson, and et. al, makes it all the more glaring that there is essentially nothing from Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln or etc. on display. What few Union relics are on display are related to POWs that were penned in Richmond’s warehouse prisons.
How nice would it be, for instance, to juxtapose the relics of Robert E. Lee, with those of Union General George Henry Thomas, contrasting the two Virginians and drawing attention to a southern white man that unlike Lee, refused to break his vow to the U.S. military to fight the constitution’s enemies, “both foreign and domestic.”
And there are precious fewer artifacts telling the African American perspective on the war. Don’t expect to see many rifles or other possessions carried by the USCTs that were among the city’s first liberators, for example. If you saw Harriet Tubman’s shawl at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, or Nat Turner’s bible there, you won’t find similar items here, despite the fact that the museum’s objectives and narrative would make those types of relics a perfect fit.
I really don’t want this to sound like a negative review, however. There is so much room for growth in this facility. Over time, I have no doubt that future acquisitions and perhaps loaned items will help the American Civil War Museum tell the story it is telling.
And I especially do not want to discourage anyone from visiting the museum in its current incarnation. On the contrary, go now and ASAP. I promise you will be awed by the facility’s location, design, and the amazing relics on display. And you’ll be impressed by its interpretation.
Let’s please give the American Civil War Museum all the support, encouragement, and positive “word-of-mouth” we can, as they are trying to tell important stories that will move Richmond, and us, even more away from the Lost Cause.
Yes, that’s a rebel flag, but it is one that Tad Lincoln took home with him as a trophy after he and his father visited Richmond. How cool is that? Now THAT is the perfect context for displaying that thing.
City workers covering up a Confederate memorial in Birmingham
UPDATE on 1/15/2019: my prediction below that Birmingham would win the court fight turned out accurate, although I am pleasantly surprised that it didn’t require a higher court than the Jefferson County Circuit Court to strike down the stupid state law.
We all know the debate over Confederate monuments has gone white-hot, especially after the events in Charlottesville.
I have weighed in on this debate several times in the last year (and have no stomach for the argument that removal is “erasing history,” as I argued here) and I am firmly on record as favoring contextualization rather than removal, either by placing them in a museum (as the University of Texas did), or leaving them where they are and putting up new signs that explain the reasons the monuments were put up in the first place (like the University of Mississippi did). I also favor counter-monuments that help diversify the history we choose to remember and memorialize.
But above all, I favor letting local communities decide for themselves what they choose or don’t choose to memorialize.
However the events of the last couple of days, and Trump’s stunning reaction to them, started pushing me closer to supporting full removal.
Last night, I emotionally felt pretty much exactly as did CNN’s Van Jones:
But because I have been asked, I want to weigh-in again on this issue by focusing on part of what Trump said, and specifically on two cities that are very close to my heart: Richmond, Virginia, (where I got my masters degree, worked at its National Battlefield Park, and lived for eight years) and Birmingham, Alabama (my hometown).
Richmond of course, is famous for its beautiful Monument Avenue, featuring enormous and imposing statues of rebel leaders such as Jefferson Davis, JEB Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson. This summer, city leaders formed a commission to discuss how to best contextualize, but not to remove, the statues. They held a public hearing to discuss options, and what followed was predictable mass chaos. The audience seemed to disregard the fact that removal was not on the table, as it turned into a fight over whether to remove the statues or not. Not surprisingly, it quickly turned into a fight over what caused the South to secede. It got ugly.
I was not there, but I have a friend and fellow historian that was, and based on his emotional and mostly sensible Facebook posting that night, it was an unmitigated disaster that probably only hardened people’s hearts and opinions, frustrating everyone.
After the stunning events of the last few days, Richmond’s mayor has decided that removal IS now on the table, and has instructed the commission to add that option to its deliberations. He made it clear he personally now favors removal. Even more powerful, two great, great grandsons of Stonewall Jackson have called for removal in a powerful plea.
I can’t say I blame any of them, as my emotional reaction to Charlottesville, as I said above, was also to take all these rebel monuments down.
Yet stepping back from those emotions causes me to feel that of all southern cities, Richmond is probably the one in which it is most important that they stay up.
As the Capital of the Confederacy, (sitting within easy driving distance of some of the war’s most important and preserved battlefields), the city is perhaps the only one that people actually travel to just to see the monuments. (No one is going to New Orleans, or Baltimore, or Nashville, JUST to see rebel memorials).
And from an educational and public history perspective that is a GOOD THING. The city has done an exceptional job over the last decade to create institutions, memorials, and other public education endeavors, telling the WHOLE and diverse story of the Civil War and the Confederacy, and the connection of both to the institution of slavery.
The monuments not only draw people to these educational opportunities, but they themselves are important educational tools for demonstrating how previous generations chose to interpret the Civil War in an effort to promote the “Lost Cause.”
Most rebel monuments were originally placed as means of denying that the South had seceded in order to preserve slavery. Their purpose was to glorify and distort the causes of the Confederacy’s attempt to break from the United States, painting it as an effort to defend “States Rights.” (Just how successful that effort was has been made all the more clear lately—-that Richmond public hearing, for example).
At the same time, they are monuments to white supremacy and resistance to efforts at racial justice. This chart detailing when most of these monumnts and memorials went up, demonstrates this very effectively. Thus, the erection of the monuments has a history and purpose all their own.
If you want the perfect classroom for exploring the Lost Cause, its meanings, and its successes, there is no better one than standing at the base of the Lee monument, or especially the one of Jefferson Davis. Contextualization in those spots could be a powerful way to educate the public about the white supremacist movements that for so long successfully distorted America’s understanding of the Civil War for their own political agenda. (And which has once again reared its ugly and violent head).
So I favor contextualization in Richmond, and the addition of more monuments that tell a more inclusive story (how about one to the African American troops that played a large role in reclaiming the city for the United States, for example?). Of course the problem is that most people view the monuments as they ride quickly by in cars or tourist buses, and thus I’m not sure how much contextualization signs would be visible and/or effective. This is definitely a problem.
Still, I think this is the right solution for Richmond, and they, above probably all other cities, have the ability to set the model for how these rebel monuments can be used to educate the public about how and why so many people are misinformed about the causes of the Civil War, and how those efforts were tied to resistance to black progress and racial justice.
I hope they get it right.
And then there is my hometown. I took a lot of pride when it was announced in January that Birmingham’s Civil Rights district was being turned into a national park. The Confederate memorial near this area creates a strong contrast to the newer (and increasing) memorials and interpretive signage marking the pivotal events that occurred in Birmingham, especially those in 1963 that played a prominent role in pushing President Kennedy into proposing the Civil Rights Act. Make no mistake, the new park is preserving an American battlefield for racial justice:
The events in Charlottesville had me feeling that rebel monuments in Birmingham should come down, as they are an insult and black-eye on this historic district. Yet, a local news story may have pushed me back the other way again.
In the wake of what happened in New Orleans, the state of Alabama passed a ridiculous law making it illegal for local communities to remove rebel monuments. The hypocrisy here is amazing, considering that Republicans stand on the principle of power resting in the hands of localized government (a concept I have been mostly sympathetic to most of my life). Of course this is akin to the hypocrisy of Republicans calling for a small federal government that does not involve itself in our lives, and yet wanting one that legislates morality. If there is one thing the Republican party needs right now, it is consistency of principle.
Anyway, the city of Birmingham’s mayor and city council has decided to figure out some way to challenge this law, maybe by removing the statues and fighting it in the courts (I think they would win in the higher courts), or just paying the fine. In the meantime, they have opted for covering up the monuments, first with a tarp, and now with some plywood.
UPDATE on 1/15/2019: my prediction that Birmingham would win the court fight turned out accurate, although I am pleasantly surprised that it didn’t require a higher court than the Jefferson County Circuit Court to strike down the stupid state law.
What struck me in a local news story, however, was a reporter mentioning that the monument is in the shadow of the places dear to the Civil Rights movement. For instance, the A.G. Gaston motel where Martin Luther King stayed during “Project C” is within a rock’s throw of the rebel monument. Here he and other heroes coordinated their assault on Birmingham’s white supremacist laws and racial injustices, right near a monument to the very forces they sought to destroy. And it was here that dynamite was thrown into the building in an effort to kill these Civil Rights leaders.
Does not the presence of this Lost Cause monument make what King and the hundreds of Civil Rights footsoldiers did in Birmingham even more profound? Would we not lose part of the story if we move the Confederate monument? Is it not a perfect symbol of everything that the Civil Rights movement fought against and brought to its knees in Birmingham?
Properly interpret that monument, in the context of its purposes and also within the Civil Rights movement, and you’ve got a powerful public education tool. Removal takes that away.
So I stand for leaving it up.
ON THE OTHER HAND, you should read this op-ed by Mississippi State University Professor Anne E. Marshall, who argues that she once stood for contextualization, but has changed her mind after seeing its failure in Louisville, Ky. I can’t say she doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yet I still think Richmond, as well as Birmingham, are different cases than Louisville—Which only reinforces my conviction that this is best left to case-by-case decisions from within the effected communities.
And then there’s Trump. I am not going to comment on how sad I was to hear our president say that there were good people in a crowd organized by white nationalists. Honestly, I can’t add anything to the outrage that has already been expressed.
Yet I have been asked by past and present students, as well as friends, about my thoughts on one aspect of what he said. So I’ll comment briefly on that.
Trump, echoing many others, insisted that if we take down a monument to Lee and Jackson because they were slaveholders, this logically would lead us to take down monuments to other slaveholders, many of which were our founding fathers. Where would it end? There goes the Washington Memorial in DC!
Make no mistake: This is a proverbial red-herring that gets repeated over and over again by those who oppose the removal, or even the contextualization, of these monuments.
So let us be clear, despite Trump’s (and Fox News’) claim, the rationale for taking down the monuments is NOT based on the fact that the Confederate leaders were slaveholders. The logic behind taking them down (or contextualizing them) is that these were people who committed an act of treason against the United States to defend the institution of slavery and white supremacy. (In the case of Lee and Jackson, they broke sacred oaths they took when they joined the US military).
Washington and Jefferson and other founding fathers were certainly flawed men, guilty of America’s original sin of slavery (among other things), but they did not commit acts of treason in the name of white supremacy.
Oh, but they were treasonous, you say, because they rebelled against their government by breaking from the British empire.
I have LONG been sick of this argument. Washington and Jefferson rebelled against a government in which they had no representation, which, you know, was kind of the whole point. Don’t we learn in grade school, “no taxation without representation!?” They believed that taxes could only come from institutions in which they were represented (specifically, their own colonial legislatures).
Robert E Lee, on the other hand, rebelled against a government in which he had representation. In fact, because of the 3/5ths clause of the Constitution, southern white men like him were OVERLY represented in that government, which was pretty much the reason the Republican Party was formed in the first place—to bring down this overly-represented and overly-politically powerful “slave power.”
So there is a big difference between Washington and Lee. HUGE difference.
Please do not listen to Trump or anyone else when they insist that taking down rebel monuments would lead to pulling down all monuments to slaveholders or otherwise morally flawed leaders. It just isn’t so.
This is about the Confederacy and its causes. Insisting otherwise, or that the Civil War was not caused by a defense of slavery and white supremacy, is FAKE NEWS.
Bottom line: I am still for contextualization in Birmingham and Richmond. But if locals in those places and in other cities decide to take them down, I’ll shed no tears for the Confederacy, (unlike the real ones I shed after our so-called president’s response to Charlottesville).
UPDATE: I’ve now seen the film, and have a review here comparing it with the original.
We have a new Civil War movie going into wide release on Friday, June 30, and it has generated a ton of buzz after its premiere at Cannes. Director Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 film, The Beguiled (based on a 1966 novel), earned her the Best Director Award at the prestigious film festival, as she becomes only the second woman to win that particular prize. Reviews have also been strong.
If you have seen the original with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page (and FYI: if you haven’t, it is streaming this month on HBO GO), you know that the story is very strange, teetering somewhere between a perverse dark comedy, a character study, and horror. Pervading it all is repressed and unleashed sexuality, which is smolderingly handled even in the 1971 version (and includes some shocking incest). It is no masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good movie that will give you the creeps.
My sense is that this new version simply cranks up the sexuality for 2017 audiences, so I am going into it with some skepticism, as I almost always loathe remakes of good movies. Further, Sofia Coppola’s work tends to be hit-or-miss with me, though I did like her other stab at history, the unconventional Marie Antoinette (2006). That film featured Kirsten Dunst, as does this one, and she and the rest of the remake’s stellar cast (Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and Elle Fanning) are getting high praise for their performances, particularly Kidman (based on the previews, if nothing else it sounds like the southern accents were done much better than in most movies). So perhaps it will live up to the hype even for a skeptic like me.
Yet one thing is for sure, the Civil War is not really that much of a component of the film other than the fact that it creates the scenario where a Union soldier has been taken in by a women’s seminary behind rebel lines (Mississippi or Louisiana in the original, Virginia in the remake), where men of a certain age are hard to come by.
The original includes a black female character that helps the wounded Union soldier, but not in a way that accurately reflects the Antebellum and Civil War experiences of enslaved African Americans. Coppola chose to extract the character from her remake (which was a fairly minor role) because “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”
This is a shame, and disregards the fact that she could have radically improved the character from the original. Even just one well-placed and well-written scene involving an enslaved women helping an injured Union soldier could have included very meaningful and insightful dialogue. (Or perhaps also a scene of open defiance toward her masters in light of the nearby presence of Union troops. “Get it yourself! Them days are over, ladies!”) The fact that young girls watch her films is all the more reason to have included a bit of education about slavery and the Civil War, and to take a swipe, no matter how small, at the Lost Cause.
Look, not all Civil War movies have to include the African American experience or make a statement about slavery and the Confederacy (though they probably should). But aside from what I think was a poor choice by Coppola, what is really interesting to me about the controversy is that it is even a controversy at all. Would that have been the case even a decade ago? I’m not so sure.
Hollywood films are one of the most important reasons why the Lost Cause took root and became deeply engrained in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War and its causes. In an age in which Rebel monuments are coming down, have we now reached the point where it is unacceptable for a Hollywood movie set during the Civil War to not confront and highlight the Confederacy’s fight to preserve the right to enslave African Americans?
If so, I consider that big progress.
I’ll be seeing the movie this weekend, so I will have more thoughts later. Stay tuned.
The ominous looking house where the infamous Borden Murders went down
A piece on Smithsonian.com reminds us that today is the anniversary of the acquittal of Lizzie Borden in the case of the murder of her father and stepmother. The article focuses on how she was largely a pariah in her neighborhood after the trial and for the rest of her life. It is a good short read, so check it out.
You should also check out this essay from last year on We’re History, discussing the little-known fact that in the years after the murder, Lizzie funded an animal rescue shelter, which still reaps financial benefits from the money she left the organization. (I am convinced that one of the things that set her off is that she had a pigeon roost her father hated, leading him to decapitate the animals. Nice guy. That’s enough to piss off any animal lover).
The case is a good window into Gilded Age America. As Steven Cromack points out, “the prosecutors and defense attorneys, representative of the wealthiest Americans, argued over whether wealthy, good-natured, upstanding people are capable of bad behavior. The poor watched bitterly as a rich woman seemed literally to get away with murder. For the nativist residents of Fall River, Lizzie’s actions were the result of immigration, as well as changing demographics and gender norms: Mr. Borden had bought a home in the wrong section of the rapidly changing town and thus, in Lizzie’s eyes, relinquished the family’s status. Feminists would use the trial as a rallying cry for representative juries.”
I visited the Borden house a few years ago with friends because I had long been fascinated by the case. This is due largely to an HBO show called Whodunit: The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries (anyone else remember it?) way back in 1979. I was just a kid only starting to get interested in history and the case fascinated me, inspiring a trip to the school library to find more about it. Tracking down info about this infamous true crime event was one of my earliest experiences at doing historical research, and was provoked by an HBO show. Ah, just another example of how pop cultural depictions of history can have an inspiring impact. I have no doubt that many of you have similar stories.
Anyway, while on a trip to New England a few years back, I convinced my friends to drive down from Boston to Fall River, Massachusetts, to check out the site of the murder (it was an easy sell). Unfortunately, we arrived in the late afternoon just as their last tour of the day was leaving.
I was in the final stages of my book’s publication, and discussing some urgent business with my publisher on the telephone just as we arrived. I was only on the phone for a few minutes in the car, but this prevented us from being able to depart with the tour. Despite being only a few minutes late, we were told that we could not join in.
I would not let it go at that, passionately explaining how I had always been interested in the case, that this was the only day of our trip we could do the tour, we were up from Alabama and had driven all the way from Boston, and would likely never be back in Fall River ever again. The young woman was rather rude, saying that I “must have a crystal ball” and could read the future since I was so sure I’d never be back (can you believe that?). Finally, someone apparently of higher rank came out and said that of course we could join the tour.
We were let in a side door, and instead of just discreetly slipping us in, the employee made a point of interrupting the tour, bringing up the alleged crystal ball, (I kid you not) and asking the guide if we could join in. The most frustrating thing of all was discovering the guide only had two people on his tour (there were four of us). I can tell you from my years as a park ranger, guides are more than happy to have folks added to a tour when there are such few people on it to begin with. (Oh, those one or two person tours. Yuck). He gladly welcomed us.
(For years I have been itching to publicly criticize this treatment, so thanks for letting me vent. In retrospect, however, perhaps it was appropriate that we were treated rudely by a young woman at the Borden house!)
The good news is that our guide had just entered the room in which Lizzie’s father was murdered and was only just then discussing it. So we missed nothing but details about the history of the house prior to the murder. The sofa in the room is not the original one on which Mr. Borden was found (but a perfect replica). We were welcome to sit on it, leading one of my friends to playfully recreate the hatchet murder crime scene. A bit macabre for me. I couldn’t even bring myself to have a seat.
Nope, I’ll stand, thank you.
We were then led upstairs, and I can tell you this was the first moment when the house really started to freak me out. There is a palpable sense of dread and sadness lingering over it and it became oppressive when walking into the bedroom in which Mrs. Borden was found with her face basically pancaked into the floor with an axe. The guide vividly described the brutal murder while standing in the spot where the body was found. I was taken aback when he told me I was likely standing exactly where the murderer delivered the first of eighteen blows.
Freaky. Get me out of here!
Here’s where Mrs. Borden was found next to the bed
The rest of the tour included Mr. Borden’s bedroom, where someone had stolen money from him a year before the murder (a crime the old man accused Lizzie of committing). We also saw the maid’s bedroom. She was outside washing windows during the murders, later testifying that she heard Lizzie laughing upstairs at around 10:30 AM on the day of the butcherings (Mrs. Borden was killed at around 9:30 AM, and Mr. Borden at about 11 AM). However, many speculate that the maid was in on it, or at least the cover up. Honestly, her room (which is in the attic) felt almost as creepy as the murder rooms. We wrapped up the tour in the kitchen where Lizzie was seen burning a blue dress days after the murder.
Our guide did a good job of covering the details of the crime and the evidence (or lack of) presented in the trial. It is often argued that Lizzie was acquitted due to the gender and class dynamics of the Gilded Age, but in fairness, the prosecution’s case was built largely on circumstantial evidence.
(If you are really interested, read her inquest testimony: she’s clearly lying her butt off, but the whole thing was deemed inadmissible in the trial).
Sadly, the employees (at least when we were there) are not exactly professional historians, and I got the sense the place is being run by folks focused on capitalizing on tourists who are more interested in the supernatural than in history. A quick view of their website seems to confirm this assessment, which is a shame.
Further, the gift shop peddles such things as Lizzie Borden bobbleheads (complete with a hatchet in her hand), mugs with the crime scene photos on them, and hatchet keychains.
Still, the house is a treasure trove, and as powerful an experience as it is to visit, I have to wonder how much better served it would be with professional historians interpreting events within the context of what they reveal about the Gilded Age and our fascination with violent true crime.
The Borden home is also now a Bed and Breakfast, and I have no doubt people love getting to sleep in the bedroom where Mrs. Borden was found. As for me, I was creeped out just by my 45 minute tour.
But if you are ever near Fall River, Massachusetts, do yourself a favor and travel down to see the place. Just don’t expect high quality historical interpretation, and for goodness sakes, make sure you are on time for the tour (the last one leaves at three!)
If not, you better have a crystal ball proving you will never be back that way again.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Forgive my cheesy selfie with Harriet Tubman, but after such a great experience, I just had to.
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.
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.
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.
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, a 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).
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.
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+.
Oh my gosh! Look at that man erasing history! NOT.
Quick thoughts on monuments in the news:
So, New Orleans has begun the process of taking down monuments, starting with one that is NOT a Confederate monument (no matter how it has been labeled as such by the media). They are set to remove three others that ARE Confederate monuments in the coming days. I really don’t have the desire to comment much on these types of removals, because I think I have made my position on this very clear in the past. Simply put, I prefer contextualization and/or counter monuments (which is a powerful way of confronting and challenging the iconography of previous generations in a way that is in itself educational) instead of removal. Yep, you heard me right. I do not think removal is the best way to deal with this.
BUT removing them is NOT “erasing history,” it is an attempt to be honest about it. If I hear or read another person claiming this is an attempt to erase history, I am going to have a full on conniption fit. As I have seen other historians say, don’t worry folks, we are not going to be letting anyone suddenly forget what the Confederacy was and what it stood for, I promise you that. It is what me and a great number of other people are paid to do, and we do it passionately. Research and teaching about the history of the southern confederacy and the Civil War isn’t going anywhere, monuments or no monuments.
So don’t worry, hundreds of Civil War books are going to keep coming out every year, the Civil War is still going to get taught in class, more and more battlefield land is going to be preserved (which has only increased in recent years), and historians are going to keep increasingly getting involved in public history and on social media.
But you say, it is erasing older interpretations about the Confederacy and the Civil War, and replacing them with ones you don’t agree with. Nope. We may be correcting/challenging older interpretations, but we aren’t erasing them. The fact that people once interpreted the Civil War in the ways reflected in the monuments is not going away either. It too is part of the story, and I can again promise you that historians are not going to let anyone forget how the Civil War used to be interpreted. This is called “historiography,” and every professional historian is trained in it. You can’t be a good historian without learning how events have been interpreted by others, and how that has evolved over time.
In fact, the removal of these monuments only adds to the story that historians tell about the Confederacy and the Civil War. In essence, it is Confederate history continuing to be made today. The removals are now part of a story that will never be erased. So please just stop saying that history is being erased. Just stop it, please.
But as to the removals, regardless of mine or anyone else’s opinions, these decisions are best left to local communities that have the right to commemorate or not commemorate whatever they want to.
Yet there are two things I find funny/hypocritical in the nationwide reaction to New Orleans’ decision. 1) We hear people say that Trump protestors need to “get over it” and move on. Yet the people that say that seem to be the most vocal against these removals, which is ironic given that the placement of the monuments themselves was done by people who couldn’t “get over” their loss in the war. It was their attempt to reframe what it was all about. (The “Lost Cause.”)
And 2) it seems that Republicans are the most vocal against these removals (like this clown pretending to be a southerner and running for governor of Virginia), which is ironic because they are supposedly the champions of letting state and local governments do most of our governing. So shouldn’t we let local governments/communities make their own choices about these monuments? I’m just calling for some consistency, . . . again.
And while we are on the Lost Cause, yesterday was “Confederate Memorial Day” here in Alabama. Ugh. But I take it as a sign of progress that the ceremony marking the day at our state capitol building was attended by a whopping 150 or so people. Nice. It is a good thing we have these people around to remind us of the Confederacy, since its history would apparently just disappear if they weren’t here to remind us.
Lastly for today, and on a different subject: Another news story that is all over the place is that a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence has been discovered in a British archive. Unfortunately, the story is getting blown out of proportion and/or misunderstood by people that are apparently inspired by that stupid Nicholas Cage movie. My local news got it all wrong last night, as has been the case all over social media. This is not an unknown second “original” copy of the Declaration. It is a handwritten copy that was made on parchment in the 1780s, which is rare indeed, but not exactly an original and/or something that should set off conspiracy theories. Researchers believe it was commissioned by James Wilson (who was the signer that was treated so poorly and portrayed so inaccurately in the otherwise awesome musical 1776). How did it wind up in Britain? That seems to be mostly a mystery.
(-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, TheBirth 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.
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.