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Monday, 13 February 2012
In honor of Black History Month...
Shiloh Baptist (Old Site), Fredericksburg, VA
Here is an excerpt on Shiloh Baptist (Old Site) as well as a link to a PDF of the entire chapter. SBOS is the first and oldest African-American church here in Fredericksburg and one of the congregations profiled in my book Historic Churches of Fredericksburg, Houses of the Holy.
Located at 801 Sophia Street, Shiloh Baptist Church was sold to its black congregation by the resident white church for a sum of $500. Shortly after gaining its independence, the African American congregation flourished, building a large membership of both free and slave members. After the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, the congregation appointed its first black pastor, Reverend George Dixon. When the Civil War ended, members who had fled north to escape the fighting returned and the church once again thrived. Today there are two Shiloh Baptist Churches in the Fredericksburg area (Old Site and New Site). During the Civil War, the original Shiloh Church served as a hospital for Union soldiers.
As presented in the previous chapter, Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) evolved from the integrated Fredericksburg Baptist Church. The original congregation included both white and black members, and by the 1840s over 75 percent of the eight-hundred-member assembly was black. Not surprisingly, the archived transcripts recalling the division of the church and the sale of its building to the African American membership differ greatly in tone between the two races. This is completely understandable, given the time in American history when they were recorded. Although both churches share a historical bond today, this was not always the case during the racial strife of the pre–civil rights period.
In the late 1800s, the white congregation of Fredericksburg Baptist Church acknowledged the racial tensions leading up to the separation, but presented the split as a magnanimous gesture on their part. The African American records, on the other hand, negatively recall the terms of dismissal and financial debates that occurred over the property. Therefore, as the white members’ point of view has been outlined in the previous section, the following recollections present the other side of the story, as written by the black congregation.
After growing in numbers for several decades, the Baptists recognized an escalating problem with the space limitations in the old building used as the first Baptist Meeting House. Both white and black members initiated a pledge drive to gain the finances that were necessary to construct a much larger sanctuary. Despite their limited resources when compared to their white counterparts, the African American population subscribed the impressive amount of $1,100 in financial support. As written in the congregation’s minutes dated September 28, 1855, the church’s “colored brethren and sisters” pledged the sum to assist in the “construction of a new building.”
At the time it is said that there were at least 625 African American members at Fredericksburg Baptist Church. This included John Washington, who escaped the bonds of slavery after crossing the Rappahannock River and entering the Union army’s encampment, which was located at Falmouth. He then proceeded to Washington, D.C., where many other members of his church had fled and established a new Shiloh Baptist Church in the nation’s capital. After the war, he wrote and published a fascinating collection of memoirs detailing his escape in 1862.
Despite worshiping together for years, tensions between the two races heightened in 1854, nearly ten years before the War Between the States would erupt over states’ rights and the institution of slavery. It was at this time that the groups began to worship separately, with the black members meeting on Sunday afternoons as opposed to the mornings. Eventually the idea of building a newer church “in town” for the white congregational members and leaving the riverside building in the hands of the black members was approved. In September of 1855, the church secretary recorded, “It has always been our intention to give up our old house of worship to the colored portion of our church.” This decision came on the heels of the pledge drive in which the African Americans had vowed to provide a large gift.
A feud ignited over what financial obligations were to be fulfilled. The white committee members insisted that no property would be officially transferred until the beneficiaries fulfilled their “moral obligation” to make good on all pledges up to the proposed sum of $1,100. After much discussion, a compromise of $500 ($400, according to Fredericksburg Baptist Church accounts) was reached between the two parties. According to the church minutes taken on February 3, 1856:
Resolved, that we shall still consider our coloured brethren as part of our church and feel it to be our duty as well as pleasure to aid them in any way we can to build up the cause of our divine master and to secure to them the peaceable occupancy of the house they now worship, with all the privileges as a branch of our church which the laws of our state extend to them.
As was often the case during this period, the Caucasian majority frequently took a paternalistic approach to its African American neighbors who were less rooted in recognition of equality and more rooted in the moral obligation to assist those souls held in bondage. Additionally, whites often perceived blacks, especially slaves, to be both ignorant and living in a state of irreligion. In their minds, even slave owners were answering the call to “go forth and make disciples of all nations,” which included those who they ironically deprived of the ability to read and write. In essence, the denial of an education in any form prevented blacks from getting out from under the intellectual shadow of the white population.
Racism obviously posed a conflict of conscience for many practicing Christians, as the very same people offering spiritual nurturing to their “coloured brethren” were often slave owners themselves. This represented a paradoxical relationship that existed between devout believers and their servants. The majority of whites appeared to have been benevolent at best about racial equality. Many citizens, even those who opposed the institution of slavery, still did not consider the black population to be equal. To some, the path to freedom for blacks meant colonization. To others, slavery had been ordained by their personal interpretations of Biblical scripture.
However, white supremacy was not embraced by all of Fredericksburg’s citizens. A local Presbyterian woman named Mary B.M. Blackford recorded the hypocrisy that she witnessed during worship as well as one minister’s efforts to seek colonization for freed blacks. She wrote:
[Slave traders] have been using the town jail for their purpose, though it is expressly contrary to law, there being no one possessed of moral courage enough to go forward to have this abuse corrected. The town jail faces the Presbyterian Church and I have sat there during the preaching and looked out at the innocent prisoners peeping through the iron bars, and have thought that they were kept there for the crime of designing to be free and to return to those God commanded them to protect and care for. The words would occur to me as I looked around on the worshippers in the Church, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen, to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke.” At the time when my heart was weighed down by watching each day the progress made in building the brick wall that was around the negro jail spoken of above where guiltless prisoners were to be immured, and I looked around in vain for a remedy. (My dear husband did all he could do to stop it.) I was called to the door to see a plain looking country gentleman who wished to see Mr. Blackford on business. I told him Mr. B. would soon be at home and asked him to be seated. On entering into conversation with him, I discovered he had been directed by the good and holy man Father Kobler (a Methodist Preacher) to get advice from my husband as to the steps necessary to be taken to procure a passage to Liberia for a young woman, the only Slave he possessed. He told that he was about to remove with his family to Illinois, and he wished to give her her freedom and every advantage. He could have gotten, he told me, four hundred dollars for her in the neighborhood. This act of disinterestedness cheered me; it was the green spot in the moral desert I had been wandering through. I thank God for showing me just then that there were some who felt for the oppressed; it cheered and refreshed my spirits, and I can better bear to witness the progress of the jail, though I trust I shall never be hardened to such sights. The young woman who was liberated by the gentleman…was sent to town to the care of the Female Colonization Society, and was sent to Liberia by them under the protection of some missionaries who were going to that place. Along with her we sent another freed girl manumitted by Mr. Morton.*
Read entire chapter (*copy continues on page 6 of pdf)
Friday, 10 February 2012
Why they want to change history...
Protesters against the Texas schoolbook debacle in which ultra-conservatives
approved making radical changes to state education history curriculum.
I am seriously considering writing a piece titled The More History You Learn, the More Liberal You're Likely to Become. As one progressive historian put it, the 'far right' may win some battles, but they always have, and always will, lose the war of ideas.
Why is this? Well...“Conservative tradition, custom, the status-quo always eventually gives way to liberal reason and rationale, to knowledge and scientific discoveries, to higher creativity and innovation, to expanded liberty and equality, and even to greater morality than the older way ever provided. Thus America broke away from England, though the conservatives were against it. In America, they were the "Tories", still the name of the ultra-conservative party in England. The liberal principles of greater liberty and equality had been unleashed. Non-aristocratic men became empowered within the social, economic and political system. A little later, in the American liberal tradition, these rights were given even to non-propertied men, the very serfs that the conservative feudal lords had exploited. Public education was enacted. Slavery was abolished. Women got the right to vote. Children were removed from workhouses. Workers unionized and won labor rights. Social Security came into existence. Black Americans received their full rights under the Constitution. Consumers won rights and protections. The environment and endangered species became something to cherish and protect as national treasures. Gay Americans received rights. Conservatives fought, viciously, against each and every one of these advances. In one instance, the issue of slavery, it took a Civil War, the bloodiest episode in American history, to roll conservative clan mentality back into the dark age from which it emerged.” – Conservative Myths
Thursday, 9 February 2012
This weekend I will be conducting my first battlefield tour of the 2012 season. The last AABT trip that I led was back in November, so I’ve been itching to get back out on our local hallowed grounds. This time I have the pleasure of guiding a very good friend of mine who is working on his PhD in History at Carnegie Mellon University. As he is not wheelchair-bound, there won’t be any limitations on where we can go. Therefore we will be doing an expanded version of my Fredericksburg Battlefield tour. Although the Civil War is not his specialty, he is slated to participate on several CW-related academic panels this year. My goal is to present the local events of December 1862 and the repercussions that followed.
It’s always a privilege to have an opportunity to work with professional historians and teachers as they truly have an elevated way of analyzing history and exploring how it relates to other topics. They also don’t get skewed by allowing their own personal views to dictate their conclusions (unlike the good ol’ heritage crowd). Their ability to interpret history in a sociological and philosophical manner is a learned skill that few of us public historians have. I certainly don’t. Most teaching historians like my friend are required to read close to a hundred books a year in order to teach their students. Add to that their own research and publishing projects and that equates to a helluva workload. Frankly, I have a newfound respect for these folks. With that said I hope to learn more from my friend than he will from me! (Recap of our experience to come…)
Saturday, 4 February 2012
Re-evaluating the U.S. Constitution
There is perhaps no other document in the history of American politics that is more hotly contested than the U.S. Constitution. For centuries historians and pundits alike have argued over the Founder’s intent and some have even questioned the Constitution’s validity in modern society.
Each election season candidates on both sides of the political spectrum refer to the Constitution in support of their platforms while the voting public, whose vast majority has never even read the document, are led to believe that it contains a timeless wisdom that is essential to maintaining a functioning democratic republic. Unfortunately, the term ‘dysfunctional’ seems more appropriate when describing American politics today.
Some politicians, mainly those on ‘the right,’ claim that in order for the nation to return to any level of prominence, an unwavering allegiance to the guiding principles of the Constitution is absolutely necessary. The Tea Party movement in particular maintains this stance. Over on ‘the left’ there is a more liberal, progressive portion who does not accept the inherent premise that all of the country’s problems can be remedied by simply returning to political philosophies from 1787. They call for reform in order to meet the ever-changing demands of today’s world. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between?
There is a trend among those who have studied both the origins of the U.S. Constitution and the resulting course of American history which proposes that the system put in place by the Founders was never really as ingenious as we were led to believe, nor was it an unquestionable and infallible way of governance. In other words, American politics has been dysfunctional from the drafting of the Constitution. Some critics cite the insincerity of the Founder's pledge for independence, while others contend that the two-party system's failures of today can be traced back to the limitations that were established by our very first government.
In retrospect the Constitution's preamble of "We the People" does seems quite absurd given the time period it was written when women and minorities had no civil rights whatsoever. We tend to forget that America was originally established by wealthy white men, for wealthy white men. They should be rightfully credited for gaining independence for the country, but not for its citizens. Therefore, the liberties and freedoms that we enjoy today came as the result of great struggles and sacrifices that were made by those who came after the Founders.
Progressive historians are not the only ones who have taken a more critical stance on the origins of the U.S. Constitution. There have been some highly-respected political figures who were gutsy enough to acknowledge the Constitution’s flaws and antiquated principles. One of the most noteworthy of these was Thurgood Marshall who gave a highly controversial speech that was critical of the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution. Marshall was one of the few voices pointing out that the original Constitution required numerous amendments and came to a crisis that required a Civil War to solve.
In an era of obedient flag waving and patriotic rhetoric, Marshall’s comments were both disruptive and thought-provoking. They still are today. On May 6, 1987, Marshall presented his bicentennial speech at The Annual Seminar of the San Francisco Patent and Trademark Law Association. (Read entire speech here). Two main points in that speech outlined the popular misconceptions over the document:
Like many anniversary celebrations, the plan for 1987 takes particular events and holds them up as the source of all the very best that has followed. Patriotic feelings will surely swell, prompting proud proclamations of the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice shared by the Framers and reflected in a written document now yellowed with age. This is unfortunate, not the patriotism itself, but the tendency for the celebration to oversimplify, and overlook the many other events that have been instrumental to our achievements as a nation. The focus of this celebration invites a complacent belief that the vision of those who debated and compromised in Philadelphia yielded the “more perfect Union” it is said we now enjoy.
I cannot accept this invitation, for I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever “fixed” at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite “The Constitution,” they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago…
…The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 could not have envisioned these changes. They could not have imagined, nor would they have accepted, that the document they were drafting would one day be construed by a Supreme Court to which had been appointed a woman and the descendent of an African slave. We the People” no longer enslave, but the credit does not belong to the Framers. It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of “liberty,” “justice,” and “equality,” and who strived to better them.
And so we must be careful, when focusing on the events which took place in Philadelphia two centuries ago, that we not overlook the momentous events which followed, and thereby lose our proper sense of perspective. Otherwise, the odds are that for many Americans the bicentennial celebration will be little more than a blind pilgrimage to the shrine of the original document now stored in a vault in the National Archives. If we seek, instead, a sensitive understanding of the Constitution’s inherent defects, and its promising evolution through 200 years of history, the celebration of the “Miracle at Philadelphia” will, in my view, be a far more meaningful and humbling experience. We will see that the true miracle was not the birth of the Constitution, but its life, a life nurtured through two turbulent centuries of our own making, and a life embodying much good fortune that was not.
I could not agree more.
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 4:09 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 8 February 2012 11:16 AM EST
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Monday, 30 January 2012
They're not fooling anyone
WallBuilders web banner outlining their mission
When I was a senior in high school my history teacher asked us to write a paper about someone other than an American who had a definitive impact on history. Taking the villain route I wrote about Joseph Goebbels who was the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. I used Goebbels diaries as my main source, which to this day remains one of the most fascinating and disturbing things I’ve ever read. As one of Adolf Hitler's closest confidants, and as a man who killed six of his own children before committing suicide, Goebbels was equally as insane as he was intelligent. He was also a powerful propagandist who preyed upon the German population’s yearning for national pride. Without him, Hitler would not have cast such a spell over his people.
Goebbels proved that you can convince anyone of anything if they are woefully ignorant, or in desperate need of something to believe in. One of Hitler’s most powerful tools for capturing the hearts and minds of the German people was the manipulation of history to support his political agenda. By skewing the facts, misinterpreting meanings, and propagating fiction, the Nazi’s were able to create an alternate history of Germany’s origins. This fantasy later evolved into a form of patriotism that reinforced the Fuhrer’s vision for a supreme Aryan society.
Today, we have our own version of historically-slanted political marketing that is being disseminated by right-wing propagandists masquerading as historians. No one practices this crime more blatantly than David Barton‘s WallBuilders whose version of history paints America as a right-wing, ultra-conservative Christian nation that is embattled in a culture war for the very soul of the country. And although I am not equating the underlying efforts of this organization to the murderous evils that were perpetrated by the Nazis, I am comparing their practice of using history to support a political agenda. Just as Goebbels falsified Germany’s past; Barton and Co. have manipulated America’s for political gains. (What is really sad is the number of gullible folks who have been roped into believing it, although one peek at a Tea Party rally or Glenn Beck audience may explain why).
Unlike Goebbels, David Barton started out as a fundamentalist evangelist. He is a Texas minister, founder of WallBuilders and former co-chair of the Texas Republican Party. His books are dedicated to the idea that America should reject the concept of separation of church and state and institute Biblical law. He also maintains the notion that the Founding Fathers would be ardent supporters of the conservative movement if they were around today. Of course academically certified historians call Barton a Christian “revisionist” and constantly question the source of his many out-of-context quotes of American notables in his works. Not surprising, Barton rarely answers his critics with any credible sources for his historical claims.
Why should he? He is the unquestionable darling of the conservative and evangelical movements and the personal historian for right-wing mouthpieces Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee. In other words, there are plenty of rubes that adore him – and that makes him dangerous. Despite Barton’s lack of academic credentials and his sloppy scholarship, he has managed to create an important niche by traveling all over the country telling audiences that the Founding Fathers were evangelicals just like them, and intended to create a nation of, by, and for Christians.
In a report published by the People for the American Way Foundation titled *David Barton: Propaganda Masquerading as History those in the know take Barton to task: Academic historians, according to the New York Times, give Barton’s work at best a “B minus,” noting that while the historical facts he cites are more or less accurate, his biased interpretation of them is not. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty said that Barton’s work is “laced with exaggerations, half-truths and misstatements of fact” and the Texas Freedom Network calls him “a pseudo-intellectual fraud whose twisted interpretations of history are little more than propaganda.”
In 1995, Republican Senator Arlen Specter wrote in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy that many of Barton’s arguments “range from the technical to the absurd” and that they “proceed from flawed and highly selective readings of both text and history.” Specter went on to state that Barton’s “pseudoscholarship would hardly be worth discussing, let alone disproving, were it not for the fact that it is taken so very seriously by so many people.” (*See a list of Barton’s most ridiculous historical claims.)
WallBuilders mission statement reads:
WallBuilders is an organization dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined. In accord with what was so accurately stated by George Washington, we believe that “the propitious [favorable] smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation which disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained.” (Sounds like a blogger I know.)
This claim, like most of Barton’s claims, is absolute B.S. Their true mission statement should read like this:
WallBuilders is an organization dedicated to promoting David Barton’s book sales while manipulating American history in order to push our own conservative agenda on a highly gullible and susceptible portion of the American populace. By making up our own version of our nation’s origins and lacing it with outrageous religious claims, we hope to influence voters into supporting our own right-wing candidates, who in turn will support our own special interests upon their election into office. By mixing 1-part textbook and 2-parts bible, our special brand of psuedo-christian American history makes even heathen bastards like Thomas Jefferson look like devout, bible-thumping altar boys. PS. We vote like Jesus would.
For irrefutable proof of Barton’s dishonesty, I refer you to a 9-part video blog by Chris Rodda, author of the book, Liars of Jesus. In the video, Rodda attends a religious gathering featuring David Barton. At the conclusion of the meeting, Rodda approaches Barton and presents him with a copy of her book. A few months later, David Barton, on his radio program, mentioned Chris Rodda and portrayed the meeting as one in which Barton completely and utterly confounded the quote, "clueless" Rodda by expounding upon his wealth of historical knowledge. Rodda counters this claim by meticulously picking apart dozens of Barton's material with...get this, actual facts. (It is virtually impossible to watch this video series in its entirety and not come to the same conclusion.)
As a historian and as a Christian, I find the intentional politicization of my faith and the manipulation of my nation’s historical origins to be extremely offensive. I say watch out for the “David Bartons and WallBuilders” of the world. They are just as dangerous at skewing public perspective as the Goebbels. Stand up to them by speaking the truth in matters of both history and faith.
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