Here’s a thoughtful, confessional essay on Vox: Confessions of a former neo-Confederate, by William Black.
He reports on his Southern upbringing, and his youthful views about Southern white society and its past. He tells us how he became disillusioned. It’s worth reading.
William Black writes, “But most people don’t think about such questions that deeply, and they just assume that what they’re taught is the objective truth.”
And some people are congenitally unable to think about anything deeply. Them we clearly have to forgive for never having gotten past believing what they’d been taught – that slavery wasn’t all that bad. Our minds are filled with things before we have a chance to reflect capably. And very few people have the insight, capacity and courage to take a public stand on moral grounds against nearly everyone around them. Until recently in human history, if you chose to separate yourself from your group you would likely soon die.
I’m happy that the writer got past what he was taught. I feel I’ve gotten past most of the overt racism I absorbed from around me when I was a child. But it took me a long, long time, and it still leaps out again sometimes, from a dark hole, as a reflex reaction.
Advertisers do well these days to show successful people of all races and nationalities. Young minds are getting the right impressions. We’re only 150 years removed from legal slavery after who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of years of slavery everywhere. We’ll get past it in time as a species. I support and applaud all efforts to get there faster. But I still believe, as you know, that we don’t gain much by condemning long-gone people who were born and brought up on the wrong side and never got past it in their lifetimes.
As for your first paragraph and your quotation from the essay, I agree with you, as the fact that Hillary Clinton is only a few percent up on Donald Trump in national polls shows you both are correct. I think that in thinking about these issues, it is worth distinguishing our opinions of people of the past and of people today.
As for people of the past, I agree with you that as a matter of fairness, and to avoid anachronism, we should judge them by the standards of their day, to begin our thought about them. Thus historical accounts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert E. Lee should not omit, as they long did, the fact that they were slave owners. In the case of Robert E. Lee, Southern apologists for slavery deliberately white-washed and lied about his attitude toward slavery. Consider Woodrow Wilson, who grew up in southwestern Virginia. Until people began raising a fuss about his racism, Princeton University, where he was a distinguished history professor and the President of the university, never mentioned that he segregated the Federal Civil Service, thirty years after it had been created without regard to the race of civil servants. Or that he arranged for a special White House showing of The Birth of a Nation, pronouncing it great. Yale University never found reason to mention just who John C. Calhoun, the namesake of one of their dorms, was and why he was famous or ended up with the building named for him.
Not only should our histories include accurate portraits of our ancestors, they should include balanced descriptions of the events of the past, and the context of the struggles of the past.
This, however, leaves the question of honoring people of the past in public spaces. While this bears on proper accounting for the past in its own terms, it has to do with what people today think about the past. Black children throughout the South attend schools named for Nathan Bedford Forrest. White children too, of course. Forrest was not just a slave owner he was a slave dealer. He was an important Confederate cavalry general, and a founding leader of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Of course we shouldn’t erase him from the history books, museums, or battlefields. But if we chose to describe his role in battle, we need to mention that he was the commanding general at the Confederate attack known as the Ft. Pillow massacre, during which surrendering US Colored Troops were shot down in cold blood by his soldiers.
See this interesting account of Jacksonville’s Westside High School, known as Nathan B. Forrest High School from its founding in 1959 until 2014. Be sure to read the History paragraph. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westside_High_School_(Jacksonville)
I haven’t heard from the Gamble Plantation Park manager in response to my e-mail from a couple of weeks ago, so I sent him a note.
You will see there that I don’t urge removing Judah Benjamin from the park, which he couldn’t do anyway, but that he add to the material at the park new information that fully describes who he was, and who the United Daughters of the Confederacy are. (And note their role in the naming of Nathan Forrest High School. While this high school’s name is now changed, its two feeder middle schools are J. E. B. Stuart Middle School and Jefferson Davis Middle School. One of the former’s elementary schools is named for Stonewall Jackson.) Generals Stuart and Jackson had nothing to do with Florida. They didn’t live here. They didn’t fight any battles here. I’m not aware that they ever visited here. (But they may have fought in the third Seminole War, in the 1850s.) The same for Jefferson Davis. He had nothing to do with Florida. He definitely didn’t fight in either the second or third Seminole Wars. In his travels during the Civil War, he did not visit Florida. These men should be in school history books, of course, but there is no reason for Florida’s government to honor them.
You will recall that my suggestion to the Hillsborough County officials about the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Tampa was not that they destroy the monument. I suggested that if they intended to leave it in place, then they should add explanatory material. First they should point out that the Monument does not and was never intended to honor all of the Florida men who fought in the Civil War. The Monument honors only white Confederate soldiers. The Monument omits the several thousand white Florida soldiers who fought for the Union, and it omits the several thousand slaves who escaped to Union lines and enlisted in US Colored Regiments to fight for their freedom and that of their still enslaved brothers and sisters. Second this would, in my opinion, also require an explanation as to why Hillsborough County has such a monument to only part of the Florida residents who fought in the War. That explanation should be posted next to the historical sign that explains the origins of the monument in efforts by the United Daughters of the Confederacy around 1910.
I also distinguish between the common soldier and leaders in thinking about what we, today, should be doing and thinking about the past. It’s fine to honor the honor and valor of the common soldier, as long as we honor all of them. But not the leaders. Why are immense figures of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson carved into Stone Mountain near Atlanta? Why are those men honored by their states with statues in the U. S. Capital’s Statuary Hall?
Another interesting fact, relevant both to consideration of the leaders and their men and to your proposal that they ought not be held responsible for their choices because these choices were only the result of their education and upbringing, is that many white Southern United States military officers did not resign their commissions and fight for the South. The Lost Cause people and various neo-Confederates wish to maintain the falsehood that the South (southern whites really) were unanimous in their opposition to the United States. But every state in the Confederacy, except for South Carolina, had enough soldiers in the Union Army to form at least one regiment (about a thousand soldiers) and often more. Thus, there were plenty of Southern white men embedded in the same culture as those who fought for the South, who fought for the North. If those who fought for the South were merely swept up by their culture and education and society, how can we explain those who fought for the North but came from the same culture?
As for the border states, we have four slave states that remained in the Union: Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Tennessee was taken into secession by plantation owners with political power, but most of eastern Tennessee maintained Union sympathies against Confederate attempts to enforce agreement. Thousands of Tennessee men fought in Union regiments (and thousands of others fought for the South.) In Virginia, people who lived in western counties rejected the state’s secession, and seceded from Virginia. The Confederate government sent Robert E Lee, before he commanded the Army of Virginia, to bring them back, and he fought George McClellan, before he commanded the Army of the Potomac, in some battles that led to the Confederates abandoning their attempt to keep the western counties.
Thus I am arguing for fully contextual history, on the one hand. And for some sense in who the government chooses to honor, as opposed to just remembering. What possible reason is there that a major U S Army base is named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg? Will we next name a base in New York State after Benedict Arnold? It doesn’t make sense.