The 2011 Black History Month theme, African Americans and the Civil War, offers rich opportunities to anyone interested in the truth of American identity.The American Revolution set the effort to create a democracy in motion, but it was the Civil War of 1861-65 that responded to the critical contradiction at the heart of that Revolution: the idea that a state founded on the principle of equality could countenance the notion of one human being owning another.
As the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter that signaled the start of the Civil War approaches, it's not surprising that across the United States, scholars, re-enactors and others are holding public programs, mounting exhibits and even organizing controversial "secession balls" to mark the beginning of the hot conflict that some neo-Confederate diehards still cal the "War Between the States."
Many of today's public policy debates have their origins in the arguments of the Civil War era. The human rights activism of that day, and constitutional amendments passed at the end of the Civil War laid the tactical and legal foundation for the civil rights laws of the 1960s. More recently, conservative interpretations of the 14th amendment, particularly, have led some to argue against birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants, and produced Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's recemt declaration that there is no constitutional basis for laws banning sex discrimination.
That connection between past and present is even more visible and personal in the stories of the combatants and their descendants. Consider, for example, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, the leader of the Fort Sumter assault long lionized as the defender of the Confederacy. If you visit New Orleans, which I did recently, you will find streets named for him, and you can visit his beautifully-appointed home in the French Quarter, known as the Beauregard-Keyes house. But if you visit the house, or read a biography of Beauregard, there is an aspect of his story you are unlikely to learn about the children he had by one of his slaves, Susan.
Beuregard's great-great granddaughter, Adrien Wing, the Bessie Dutton Murray Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law, is an internationally known human rights advocate who helped write the constitutions of post-apartheid South Africa, post-genocide Rwanda and the Palestinian authority. She also studies and advocates for women's rights and works extensively with anti-gang programs in Los Angeles and throughout the United States. Wing has written about her family's struggle to integrate her infamous ancestor's legacy into her understanding of herself.:
"When I made my first trip to New Orleans, my mom's family encouraged me to visit this house. "You've got to see it!" they said. I will never forget the guide dressed in a splendid antebellum gown, who showed the small group of tourists the very dignified portraits of the general and his lovely family. I will also never forget the guide's face when I told the group that those women on the wall were not the general's only family. He had Black descendants as well, and I was one of them. She blanched and said that she knew that the general was like the other southern gentlemen of his time, but she was not allowed to talk about that. Then she hurried us on to look at the cookbooks.
"I was dismissed. My family's claim was dismissed. I mused that miscegenation was not a proper topic for a tour as we walked into the bedroom containing an actual bed of the general's. Did my great-great-grandmother Sally Hardin sleep in that bed? Or did she sleep in the former slave quarters in the back? The guide said that 20 slaves/servants had lived in the slave quarters at one point to take care of the needs of the few whites living in the main house. Was my great-grandmother Susan Beauregard conceived in that very bed, or in the slave quarters that later became a stable, and then a garage, and eventually a study for Mrs. Keyes?"
The 2006 Colorlines essay from which that quote was taken, "From wrongs to rights: as "internally displaced people, what protection under international law is available for victims of Katrina?" clearly illuminates the connections between the personal and political, the local and global, and the history and its contemporary ramifications. And although it doesn't touch specifically on her Civil War heritage, this oral history interview with Wing provides further insight on how one American grapples with the freighted meaning of our history in her daily life:
Let me offer another. Meet Fred Minus, a retired mechanic who is part of a group of Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactors dedicated to preserving the legacy of black soldiers in those conflicts. Minus is a descendant of one of the 209,000 black soldiers who fought to end slavery and preserve the Union. I shot this photo of him in April, 2005, when his regiment of the US Colored Troops participated in a restaging of the final battle of the War and the surrender at Appomatox in 1865. Minus and the men who work with him have used re-enacting as a way of engaging black boys, especially, with the study of American history while providing them with an opportunity for constructive mentoring by older men.
Minus and his colleagues show up in Ken Burns' documentaries and other commemorative efforts. But I know from personal experience that even people who claim to be knowledgeable about the Civil War either don't know or minimize the contributions of African Americans and women, too, for that matter. Here are some great links to verified historical information about the War, highlighting the contributions of African Americans and women:
- ASALH Black Americans and the Civil War
- National Archives gallery: Discovering the Civil War
- African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
- National Library of Medicine: Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine
- Elizabeth Varon, New York Times, Women at War
- New York Times Civil War 150th Anniversary blog, DisUnion
- Washington Post Civil War 150th Anniversary coverage: A House Divided
- History News Network blog on the Civil War anniversary and Black History Month
Finally, it just feels right to end this post with a reading of the iconic "Ain't I A Woman Speech" by Sojourner Truth, delivered in April, 1851 at the Women's Rights Conference in Akron, Ohio. As historian Nell Painter has documented, the words that Truth actually spoke at that convention are a matter of dispute. However, as with the larger story of abolition and the Civil War, the meaning made by the reporters and interpreters of those words over the years reverberates into the present. Blogher CE Mata H. explored some of the fact and legend of Truth's life in a post last year on the Secret Life of Sojourner Truth. The reader is noted actress Alfre Woodard.
(Full disclosure: I am a proud member of the Advisory Board of ASALH. My perspective on ASALH and the relevance of Black History Month is the focus of this 2010 post, Why Black History Month Still Matters.I
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