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Sunday, 4 October 2009
Race and remembrance
This weekend I spent a wonderful, albeit exhausting day at the Virginia State Fair. As expected, this event drew thousands of visitors and was spread out over 300+ acres at the Meadow Event Park near Kings Dominion. There was a carnival midway with lots of games and rides, an agricultural and equestrian fair, and most importantly, tons of fried food. Of course we were there for the kids so the majority of the day was spent watching them ride all kinds of nausea-inducing attractions while eating artery-clogging delicacies.
The addition of seeing a 1,000+ lb. pumpkin, meeting Lady Luck from the VA Lottery, and cheering on a lumberjack competition made the 9-hour marathon very satisfying. (We also saw a "snake woman" in the Side-Show Attractions that blew my mind and may have permanently traumatized my youngest daughter. The things they can do with smoke and mirrors nowadays...at least I hope it was an illusion!)
I was very pleased to see both a large Civil War camp, as well as a strong presence represented by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in both the Heritage Village and Convention Center. Everywhere you looked people were wearing rebel flag stickers (including yours truly) supporting Confederate Heritage Month. The re-enactor's exhibits, artillery firings, and camp life demonstrations were excellent. There was however, no Federal representation on site, which I found to be a bit odd. I have never been to a CW event where only one-side was represented.
Additionally I saw large crowds gathered at the Confederate Camp, Indian Village, Virginia Dept. of Historical Resources and VA Game and Fish Wildlife Pavilions, but very few people near the African-American History Shelter. What I found most odd was that the crowd as a whole was very diverse, yet I saw very few African-Americans stop at the exhibit. As I was watching an American-Indian tribal dance demonstration, I was facing toward the shelter and observed dozens of people of all colors walking right past it in favor of other exhibits. I counted 4-6 people total enter the tent. Later as I wandered from site to site, I was one of only 2 people (at the time) to peek in at their exhibits. There were some great educational pieces on the African-American struggle in early Virginia.
Presentation was certainly not the problem as they had some wonderful exhibits and artwork. Volunteers were not absent either as people were standing by for questions. Location wasn't an issue as they were literally the first stop at the top of the hill as you entered the footpath towards the village. So why did they appear to have so few visitors? And why so few African-Americans?
As the Vice-Chairman of the National Civil War Life Foundation, I sit on a very diverse board, which has vehemently pledged itself to preserving and presenting the Civil War-era histories of ALL participants. We take this directive very seriously. As a result, race in regards to visitation has become an important part of our focus. Nowadays I find myself being more aware of it when I visit battlefields, museums and other history-related events.
Unfortunately, now that I am paying attention, I see very little diversity around me on tours. On a personal level, I have maybe a handful of white friends who show an interest in history, but as one who spends a great deal of time at places like the Fredericksburg Battlefield and Monticello, I see very few minorities there when I visit.
My friends at The Jefferson Project have also opened my eyes to the differences in the ways whites and blacks view and acknowledge history. Some have told me very candidly that in their opinion, younger African-Americans today don't have an active interest in their people's story. Recently, I had a local black historian tell me that kids just don't care about their roots like they used to. He added that their attention is focused on today's athletes and entertainers because they are far more exciting than civil rights leaders who they can't relate to. Older people, in his mind, don't seek out black history because the past can be painful.
Whatever this gap is, I witnessed it on Saturday, at least for the time I was there. Perhaps the problem is in the presentation (or lack thereof)? I know that Gettysburg and Mount Vernon for instance; have made an effort to diversify their programs.
I would love to hear from my readers of all colors (especially you curators or NPS folks) if they have experienced or observed similar situations. Is there a racial difference in the general public's pursuit of history and is there a quantifiable lack of interest among any ethic communities when compared to others? My query is not just in regards to Civil War history either; I am speaking in regards to all periods that are presented today. A future post will be provided compiling the responses.
What are your thoughts?
Friday, 2 October 2009
Agreeing to disagree
Lately I have noticed that there are a lot of debates going on, some heated at times, all across the CW blogoshpere. The topics igniting these exchanges range from historical interpretation, to political perspectives and blogging etiquette. What I find so interesting is that neither side ever changes the other's opinion. There is both a passion and stubbornness to the process and I find it both educational and entertaining.
The reason I feel inclined to comment on this today is that beyond the blogosphere, America as a whole seems to be fully engaged in this type of behavior. The divide in our nation, whether political, cultural, racial, spiritual, economical or any other "al" is clearly on the rise. The recent elections and cut-throat partisanship that is going on in the government, coupled with biased media coverage has seemingly enraged citizens everywhere. Everyone has an opinion, or an argument to voice and cynicism is en vogue. In a way, the very freedom to fight with one another is what America is all about, yet at the same time the idea of a "united" states speaks to a sense of unity.
We all have the right to disagree, but I often wonder how far a society will fan the flames of dissent before any kind of compromise or agreement can be reached. It begs the question will the government ever be able to cross party lines and work together? Or will liberals and conservatives ever agree on anything? From the days of the Continental Congress to the syndication of the Glenn Beck show, America has always fought hard for its beliefs, especially at the podium.
It is, in essence, what we Americans do best, and the fact that we come from a lineage of instigators who stood up whether it be for independence, or secession, or civil rights, proves that the act of debate is one of the most precious freedoms that we possess. There was a time in our nation's not-so-distant history that men who came from the same land stood across from one another on a battlefield and killed each other. Be thankful that today, we can fire as many volleys as we want at each other across cyberspace because we live in a free society that encourages debate.
Thursday, 1 October 2009
Today I started reading a book by Gary Wills titled "Negro President" Jefferson and the Slave Power. It has been sometime since I read a book for pure pleasure and I am REALLY looking forward to doing so. Unfortunately the newspaper that I periodically write book reviews for is undergoing budget cuts. (Those of you who were expecting reviews, I ask that you please remain patient as I have a great working relationship with the editor and will most likely be back in the future when their resources for freelancers are restored.) As a result, I am going to take some ME time and simply read for fun.
Last Christmas I snagged a hardback copy of this title at a used bookstore to add to my ever-growing collection of books on Thomas Jefferson. There is no other individual in our nation's history as brilliant or complex as TJ and I remain in awe of this man. Anyone familiar with my work with The Jefferson Project knows that I have a newfound fascination for examining the difficult issue of slavery and Jefferson - not only in regards to how Jefferson himself viewed race relations - but also how we today, as people of different colors reflect on his views.
According to Amazon, Wills' book is "a richly detailed study of the United States' tragic constitutional bargain with slavery, and meanders through the lives of several key figures in antebellum American history along the way." This includes issues surrounding the influence of slavery in the U.S. between 1790 and 1848.
In addition to Jefferson, fellow Founder John Quincy Adams and federalist/abolitionist Timothy Pickering also play major roles in this study. The underlying conflict here is a key component in the Civil War. That is the political struggle between Northern versus Slave-State powers which began at the time of Jefferson and erupted with the South's secession. Although I have no intention of working with this material in any formal capacity, I hope to gather some new insights to share with you here.
Beyond the subject matter, "Negro President" looks to be an enjoyable read. Gary Wills is a tremendous historical writer. He won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, which describes the background and effect of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.
This past summer I read Joyce Appleby's Thomas Jefferson and I have been casually working my way through The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography and Public and Private Letters. It will be nice to read something that I can wrap my little brain around. I am also planning a trip back to Monticello in the fall to photograph the leaves and check out the new Visitor's Center. Perhaps this time I will have a different perspective as I walk Mulberry Row?
I will say that I am entertaining the notion of (someday - off in the future...) writing a lengthy piece on Jefferson's experiences here in Fredericksburg where, at an establishment known as "Weedon's Tavern," he met with his political contemporaries in 1777 and agreed to author a bill for religious liberties in America.
Today, the Religious Freedom Monument stands proudly as a testament to that event. Jefferson himself proclaimed this bill to be one of his three proudest achievements, alongside authoring the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia. In fact, these three accomplishments are the only ones that he deemed worthy enough to inscribe on his grave marker at Monticello.
BONUS: Gary Wills discussing this book on NPR’s Tavis Smiley Show LISTEN HERE
Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Mosby the Republican?
This week I have been busy researching and writing a piece on John Singleton Mosby for a client. To be completely honest, I was not all that familiar with the man, although I have spent some time with Mosby historians at the Gray Ghost Winery and I am familiar with his famous raid in March of 1863 when he captured three high-ranking Union officers at Fairfax Courthouse, including Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton.
From what I gather, Mosby is one of those “larger than life figures” whose military contributions are still debated by experts to this very day. I asked my friend Eric Wittenberg of his thoughts on the legacy of “The Grey Ghost.” He stated that Mosby’s contributions were, in his opinion, more of a psychological deterrent and nuisance, and less of a tactical benefit in the grand scheme of things.
In January of 1863, Major General J.E.B. Stuart tasked one of his most gifted scouts, First Lieutenant John Singleton Mosby, with forming and leading a new group of southern horsemen known as the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry. Acting under the permission of General Robert E. Lee, and in accordance with the Confederate Congress’ Partisan Ranger Act of 1862, this group was christened “Mosby’s Rangers.”
Throughout the course of the Civil War, “The Grey Ghost” and his men continued to make life miserable for Union suppliers and couriers. Despite never taking part in any major engagements, their reputation continued to spread across the Old Dominion. Following the South’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, Mosby begrudgingly disbanded his troops, vowing to never surrender formally.
Ironically “The Grey Ghost” went on to become a Republican campaign manager in Virginia for future President Ulysses S. Grant. With regard to his background with the Confederacy, Mosby wrote, “I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery — a soldier fights for his country — right or wrong — he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in...The South was my country.”
This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mosby’s life as his postwar politics did not sit well with many of his peers. I liken this to James Longstreet’s participation in the Republican Party and the backlash that he experienced. As a result, I am now interested in Confederate officers who chose to enter the political sector following the war and especially those who gravitated toward Lincoln’s party. I hope to explore this topic in more detail as time permits and invite your thoughts on the subject.
Monday, 28 September 2009
I have been participating in some online discussions posted over on The Jefferson Today blog dealing with the featured topic of Church and State. This is the official online community of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and directly tied to the Monticello website. Their ABOUT states the site is “a forum where scholars, public figures, and the general public can debate and interpret Thomas Jefferson’s ideas...” I am really enjoying the exchanges and hope to become a topic primer someday.
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 11:09 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 28 September 2009 11:14 AM EDT
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