In watching many of the iconic events of the civil rights era on television; James Meredith enrolling in the University of Mississippi; Medgar Evers’ murder; the March on Washington, and the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four girls, they became part of my own story. Slavery and Public History showed me the shortcomings of my public education, succumbing to the trap of thinking of slavery as an antebellum, pre-Civil War institution. The dichotomy of John Michael Vlach’s story captures the dilemma of public history with the dramatically different responses to “Back of the Big House.” Opposition and support for the project were not divided along racial lines. Neither were the emotional responses. The dialogue that took place from beginning to end demonstrated the best tool for treating such volatile topics.
I personally connected to Edward Linenthal’s epilogue. Whether Linenthal was talking about Jim Carrier’s A Traveler’s Guide to the Civil Rights Movement or Richard Rubin’s Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, I saw my own experiences in their stories of the ordinariness of the places where extraordinary things occurred. I lived in Memphis in 1971, three years after Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. I drove by the motel on a couple of occasions. In a dumpy part of town, it was so incredibly ordinary. While on a run around the old city of Charleston I stopped at plaques and historical markers, such as looking out Fort Sumter, or interesting looking antebellum homes. I unexpectedly came across a section of cobblestone street. Looking around I was startled to see a building labeled “The Old Slave Mart.” My first reaction was one of disgust, but when I saw that it was a museum, I looked in the windows and grabbed a piece of literature from the display outside. This former slave auction house, in an otherwise nondescript location, was now a museum.
Screen shot from Google Earth, 2017
Not every event in history needs to become a NPS site, a museum or have a plaque. However, things which are recognized as important must have the whole story uncompromisingly told. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the “law and order” rhetoric, the events of the past year highlight our need to address this story, whether we want to or not.
The topic of slavery is a difficult one regardless of background and personal experiences. I agreed whole-heartedly that Americans know little about history, slavery in particular. My own experiences attest to that. I attended K-12 grades in California and Nevada, much removed from issues concerning the Civil War, segregation, and slavery. I received the standard glossed over narrative of the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. Last semester, taking the History of Race and Rights class, I was embarrassed by the amount of information that was unknown to me. I left that class with a much deeper understanding of contemporary issues that others are clueless about. I know I’m not the only one with this experience, and I think it shows the holes in public education. I also agree with the statement that history must be taught in various non-academic settings. Many of the examples shown in the book represent exhibitions appearing on the eastern side of the country. That is problematic because it further distances the information from people like me, who have never traveled east of Utah (besides Florida, but it was only for a day so I don’t count it). It’s important for these exhibits to tour the country to reach people who otherwise would only receive the national educational standard version of the South, supplemented by Gone With the Wind. Although I wonder if it is futile to try to reach the Southerners who so deeply believe that the war isn’t over and that slavery did not cause the Civil War.
Within the reading I was interested in how the power of places was presented. This was profoundly present in the Williamsburg slave auction and with “Back of the Big House”. By removing Williamsburg from the slave auction, and replacing it with a mall, the power of the dramatization is completely lost and becomes a farce. It amazes me that when planning such an event, people were blind to the lost context that came from the site itself.
I’m curious how the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture last fall has presented the difficult topic of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow oppression. I have not heard much outcry, which makes me wonder if it’s not as “shocking” as it should be. Like the book suggests, race and slavery within American memory risks provoking defensiveness and confrontation. I’m also curious if the museum utilizes any participation elements that we’ve previously discussed. I would hope that whites take advantage of the opportunity to visit the museum and hopefully fill in some of the gaps in their understanding of history. It is so important to continue to find ways of discussing race and slavery.
I think it’s also noteworthy that the museum is on the National Mall down the road from monuments and buildings honoring the very men who owned slaves.
The problem, as many of my classmates have already stated, is that changing minds about slavery and racism is often like talking to a brick wall. Ideas about race have passed down through generations and sometimes you’re a victim of backwards ideas just because of the place in which you were born. And, forgive me for the gross stereotyping, but the people who often need their minds opened the most, are the least likely to hit up a museum on a Saturday afternoon. So how do we educate and tell the real stories without “ostracizing” large groups of people or going to war with school boards?
I’m all for heavy, uncomfortable dialogue. These stories need to be told. Make white people feel awful about slavery. We deserve it. And I’m all for two-sided arguments. Slavery doesn’t get to disappear into the abyss as an alternative fact – the very least we can do on the road to reparations is just admit to the brutal, ugly reality of what was done. Berlin’s quote from Garrison Frazier in 1865 hit me so hard that I had to put the book down and walk away for a moment. He defined slavery as “receiving by the irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent” (5). His definition highlights the pure simplicity of the matter: labor was needed, and using human beings against their will for capital gain was totally okay. And it had been totally okay for hundreds upon hundreds of years.
In some places, it’s still okay. And that’s half the reason we need to keep talking about it.
I am rather fortunate, in that aside from a few trips back east and to the south, I have never been forced to confront slavery head on. Academically I’ve considered it, particularly when studying the Civil War and the rise of its romanticism in the south. I’ve read through databases of shipping manifests from Trans-Atlantic slaving companies and looked at plantation agriculture from an environmental perspective. However, living in the west for my entire life, I’ve been rather sheltered from the ever-present knowledge that this country that so loves its freedoms (or claims to, anyway) was built on the backs of those who had every freedom stripped from them. This series of essays was eye-opening to me, as I had never had to consider what difficulties interpretive sites in formerly slave-holding areas would have to confront in telling the story not just of our soldiers or presidents but of the people they owned as well.
This made me rethink the last trip I took, which was not to a place where slavery was legal for a time, but to the battlefield at Little Bighorn. It was quite a few years ago, but I seem to remember that it had surprisingly little information on Native Americans for a site commemorating a cavalry unit that was ambushed by them. I have a more difficult time remembering the Civil War sites I visited (that trip was nearly 15 years ago), but I don’t recall seeing much on slavery at any of them, either in the North or the South. I certainly have a new appreciation for the difficulty the National Park Service has in attempting to present a factual and uncontroversial site. Unfortunately, it is clear from these essays that some controversy is going to be unavoidable, whether you choose to only present the positive or appealing history of a place, or attempt to include all of it, and I agree that we should be working toward a more inclusive and accurate depiction of our own history.
I must say that one of the most intriguing ideals of this book is the irony of a country “pining for freedom” yet so quick to take it from those they can. Slavery is still such an issue today because, well because it really always was. Personally I do not encourage anyone to live a life filled with guilt and regret about something that they themselves did not take part in, but… I do feel it is important to see why African-Americans see the deck as always stacked against them. It kind of always was. Having been to multiple places throughout my life where racism is not only prevalent but unfortunately it winds up really being the only thing to do for many people on a Saturday night, I find the shock of Caucasians that African-Americans are still not “over it” appalling. The largest problem that I see is that we, as historians, are constantly trying to battle against a group that has a firmly held belief with logic. To me this is no different than trying to argue with a fundamentalist Christian that God doesn’t exist. Although I agree with the Ira Berlin completely when he states, “All of which is to say that what is needed are not only new debates about slavery and race but also a new education— a short course in the historical meaning of chattel bondage and its many legacies.”(5) The problem I see is that education does not always change people’s minds.
Although Berlin is clearly an expert on the subject of slavery, I was disappointed that his description of slavery as, “the story of the power of liberty, of a people victimized and brutalized,” seems to just outright stop at the end of the Civil War until the last paragraph of the essay. (13th,14th and 15th amendments)In may ways, sharecropping was just as brutal and victimizing as slavery was. Sure African-Americans were now “free” but really what does that mean if many are in no better condition than they were before? This too, I believe, adds to the “deck is stacked against us” attitude that one can see in many African-Americans even today. Even when their freedom was realized, the face of oppression simply changed. This being said, I found at least some solace in the essay by James Oliver Horton. He addressed the idea that slavery had a long lasting reputation (at minimum) well into the 20th century( by looking at Bill Clinton and J.F.K.) and by so doing explains in some ways why it is still a conversation. The only thing that I can add to this is the idea that slavery and its legacy reached well into the 20th century and the idea that we as a nation should just forget about it makes me cringe…
The book Slavery and Public History, describes the events and individuals involved in slavery, and how these events transpire and helps how we, as historians, interpret today. The history begins with how African slaves were used as a cheap labor force to help grow cash crops such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton. Kidnapped Africans were mistreated poorly for the benefit of the white man’s wallet. In order to decipher these racist patterns, editors James and Lois Horton categorize the slaves into different human generations to discuss how their fates as indentured servants and freedmen came to be: Charter, Plantation, Revolution, Migration, and Freedom. These stages of African American status in society detailed their rise from indentured servitude upon arriving in the colonies, to the rebellions and abolitionist causes after the American Revolution, and eventual free status after the defeat of the Confederates in the Civil War. Poetry about the tragedies of slavery is one way for people today to understand how slavery caused such miserable suffering to African Americans and their future descendants, such as the poem Middle Passage written by the poet Robert Hayden. His poem describes how African Americans were ripped from their native homeland, put in chains, sailed across a perilous sea by European traders, and then forced to work on plantations for the rest of their lives. The conditions from their cruel abduction to the hard labor of plantation work was under horrible conditions. If someone got sick on the journey to America and died, their bodies were simply thrown overboard. It is something in history that will never be forgotten as it was both the reason for Atlantic colonial stability with free labor and unimaginable human cruelty to African Americans.
Even before the end of the Revolutionary War, the issue of slaves being free men was being considered the American Congress. American Quakers even attempted to put to a vote to ban their members who were current owners of indentured servants during the American Revolution, and many of the British, along with the Quakers, began putting together a society that would become the first in abolitionism and that was the beginning of the abolitionist movement that would take years and thousands of committed people and a civil war to realize success. Slavery provided both political and philosophical topics to the discussion of race relations, even after the American Civil War. However, it was rarely discussed in schools throughout the United States, certainly not taught in school textbooks. In the south, it was a taboo subject. Novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought to light the true nature of the institution of slavery and exposed its true ugly nature, detailing how awful the slaves in the south were mistreated. Along with public education, private organizations have also put together information now being used by schools today that could help in educating young people and amend bridges between blacks and whites amongst many years of hostilities.
I have read many intriguing facts in Slavery and Public Life, but the life of John Brown was the most influential about learning of the slave trade in America. John Brown was known for being a pro-slaver, having sailed slave voyages, and was put on trial by his Quaker brother for illegally giving arms to slave traders in American ports. The Rhode Island Historical Society eventually claimed ownership of the Brown House in the 1940s, in order to detail one of America’s patriot families, despite their checkered past in abolitionism and slave trading.
Slavery has been a questionable history when it is brought up in the public spectrum do to its uncomfortable and conflicting history. When I say conflicting it’s due to the individual you are talking to. If a you talk to most white southerners, as I have, while livening in the south, you get conflicting answers to the race question. John Vlach states “when discussing the history of racial slavery in the United States can be traced, suggests James W. Loewen, to the inadequate textbooks that they are compelled to read while in High School.” I agree that the true reason we still have racial inequalities in the nation is due to the inaccurate history. In order to find a common ground of tolerance education is needed through the eyes of the oppressed in order for some kind of change to happen. All I see happening from the past during the civil rights movement to today is young white and black youths have a common misconception of the past that is conflicting the future. “When students are fitted with intellectual blinders, they are likely to become citizen’s incapable of understanding why we remain a divided nation.”
The constant struggle to try adapt to the struggle race causes issues. As a white male, I cannot begin to assume or perceive how that life was even as a descendant of Irish immigrants. In order to become a more unified country we as all people need to find common ground and respect the pasts of oppressed nationalities. The constant adaptation of racial segregating laws or ideals will be the down fall of our union.
 James Oliver Horton, and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and public history: The tough stuff of American memory. New Press, The, 2006.Pg. 57.
 James Oliver Horton, and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and public history: The tough stuff of American memory. New Press, The, 2006.Pg. 57.
Uncomfortable national dialogue is so important. I think bringing up history that is hard to talk about is one of the most important jobs a historian can have. Our academic training puts us in a great position to be able to talk about issues that are swept under the rug or skirted around in general. Slavery is one of these hot button issues that in my opinion, shouldn’t be a hot button issue.
Through all of these essays in Slavery and Public History a general theme kept popping up in my head. This theme was that it is okay to critique America and admit that our country has committed atrocious acts of violence. By admitting this through public conversations, museums and exhibits, classroom settings in college and throughout k-12 education. As John Hope Franklin said, “we should never forget slavery. We should talk about it every morning and every day of the year to remind this country that there’s an enormous gap between its practices and its professions.” (pg. 37)
As long as public history displays and reenactments are done in a matter that is accepted and approved by the people it is about, I think painful reenactments can be useful. Public history efforts that are meant for audiences to be made uncomfortable can start conversations and affect people on a personal level. Exhibits, displays, and reenactments shouldn’t exist just for shock value exclusively. They should exist to change perceptions, popular belief, and deep-seeded personal prejudices. By displaying or teaching about the painful truth in historical homes and adding historical black figures to the history of places and objects like the Liberty Bell and the first White House, all spark important conversations about race relations in America and bring forth an inclusive historical narrative. This inclusive historical narrative is the most important factor lacking in American culture. Historians shouldn’t just focus on making sure that people know who owned slaves and where they slept at night, but we should also be educating people on black excellence and the ways that they shaped America in general. Black history shouldn’t be contained to a month, it should be deeply ingrained in every aspect of American history.
I am sure it is no accident that we are reading Slavery and Public History at the beginning of Black History Month. It has always perplexed me as to why the society we live in views rights and recognition as a zero sum game. The Nash article, describing the fight between local Park Service people, and historians highlights this point. It also, again not surprisingly, addresses some of the same issues highlighted in Letting Go? specifically the role of museums (but in this case, it’s a historic site) and whether it should be a shrine to past events, or whether it should be a forum to discuss those past events, and how they effect the present.
I had read “Southern Comfort Levels” previous to this, and it made me as mad then, as it did this time around. I understand the reasons for not punitively punishing the South after the war, but it is my humble opinion that it was the wrong decision. And things like “Monument Street” in Richmond is evidence of this point. No such monuments exist in London for Guido Fawkes, instead he is burnt in effigy every year. There are no statues of Cornwallis, Burgyone, or Benedict Arnold in New York City (which remained firmly in the British camp through the Revolution). Because they lost. For me it’s too close to those fascist $&@#%€£ who claim that everything is the Jews’ fault, or immigrants are a problem, or any of those other things that they say. These people/ideas need to be discussed, but in a way that shows them as they really are, not for what they pretend to be. (And I expect my own ideas and such to be put under the same scrutiny.)
Which brings me back to Black History Month, and the “zero sum game” theory. As historians we need to be willing to wade into these troublesome issues. But as Joanne Melish’s article about the John Brown house pointed out, we need to be able to do it expecting nuance and a more complex narrative.
I saw this advertised on the public library’s facebook page for anyone who is interested in participating.
Here is the description and link:
The Library! at Collister invites you to bring a friend or family member to interview you, or be interviewed by a library staff member about a story from your life. Interviews are recorded on the Storycorps app and may be shared on the storycorps.me website. All published stories are archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. A staff member will sit in to make sure the recording runs smoothly. Enjoy this opportunity to document your experiences for future generations! What is your story?