Telling the Hi[story] of Slavery

Monticello

A Painting of Monticello that includes slaves, courtesy of the library of Congress.

Why are there responses to #BlackLivesMatter with #WhiteLivesMatter? Why has an even more modern Civil Rights movement popped up? Because, “what we understand today as racism is largely a legacy of the slavery that formally ended nearly a century and a half ago. The history of American slavery is a shameful tale of inhumanity and human exploitation and of the attempt to hide national hypocrisy behind tortured theories of racial inequality,” (Horton & Horton, x) and well, because many Americans have still not come to terms with this reality. Slavery was and is horrific, and we are all glad that the formal practice has come to an end. But few Americans have had to come to terms with promises unfulfilled, white Americans at least. It is significantly harder for brown people, and specifically black people who were subject to slavery for much of the United States’ history, to turn a blind eye to the causes and history of the modern movement.

Many groups sympathetic to the Confederate cause in the Civil War, but especially neo-Confederates and revisionists, still maintain that “liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.” (Sons of Confederate Veterans) If we can not even get people to agree on the proven fact that the South seceded from the Union to preserve their “peculiar institution” how are we supposed to move forward? Some neo-confederates even contend that slaves fought for the Confederacy in large numbers. They use this “fact” to support their beliefs that the Civil War was not fought to protect slavery and that blacks were interested in preserving the southern cause. And in the same breath, “even as they hotly deny that the South fought for slavery, however, promoters of the black Confederate thesis commonly strive to improve slavery’s reputation.” (Horton & Horton, 191) For example, Donald W Livingston wrote in 2010, “if freed blacks were not to enjoy social and political rights and were to live as pariahs, which would push them into vagabondage and crime, then arguably emancipation in some cases would do more harm than good. If so, then slavery as a way of managing what was perceived to be an alien African population until some better arrangement could be found.” He wrote this in 2010 people, 2010! You can read more of his quackery here: http://www.scv.org/pdf/Livingston.pdf. But luckily Bruce Levine clearly and effectively repudiates each and everyone of the false arguments put forth by these groups of individuals who believe that slaves signed up in droves to fight for the Confederacy. As he writes on page 199, “from April 1861 through March 1865 the black men who actually served as Confederate soldiers never exceeded a small handful. Claims that thousands (much less tens of thousands and more) served rest on the same kind of wishful thinking, gullibility, and misuse and abuse of historical sources that characterize neo-Confederate Civil War revisionism in general.” He takes neo-Confederates to task in his book, which this shorter article is based on, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War.

As we read in Slavery and Public History it’s not all heads in the clouds, denial, and ignorance. Many sites and individuals are interested in hearing about slavery and its presence in American History. As we saw in the John Brown House, Monticello, and even Colonial Williamsburg, incorporating this history into their interpretation has generally been viewed positively. One would think the greatest difference would be between races, but, “the greatest differences in visitors’ views of whether or not it is important to talk about slavery at public sites and to discuss slavery as a part of American history were found among visitors in different age groups. Visitors sixty and older were less likely to see slavery as central, or even important, to America’s story.” (Horton & Horton, 148) Many of these sites have large budgets (Colonial Williamsburg), “but, I don’t think that the inclusion of more, different, and frequently disturbing and unpleasant history is something that always requires a large budget or a Rockefeller money.” (Historiann) More sites need to include this history, and it doesn’t cost money to ask your docents and volunteers to include information about slavery in their spiel. But there does have to be enforcement or at least a standard to ensure that some or all are not leaving out this valuable information. “It is important to disseminate the facts about these matters precisely because they are the facts — and because only an accurate understanding of history makes it possible to deal intelligently with the future.” (Horton & Horton, 211)

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