The photograph below is from a New York Times article Jeff Sessions, a Lifelong Outsider, Finds the Inside Track.
The headline describes a former US District Attorney and sitting US Senator, now our Attorney-General designate, as an outsider. Strange.
What interests me about this article is the photograph of our racist President-elect greeting our racist Attorney-General designate.
Does anything about this scene strike you as odd?
Black woman on the right in Southern Belle costume?
You are correct.
Consider how odd this is. Whoever organized this tarmac greeting knew that the colorful Alabama greeting shouldn’t be composed of just white people. They arranged to dress the three young women in supposedly representative ante-bellum plantation style; Gone With the Wind ball gown plantation finery. It’s Alabama history, who could object?
Except that it is not Alabama history.
The 1860 US census found nearly a million residents in Alabama, 964,201, of whom 435,080 were black slaves. Forty-five percent. There were nearly 34,000 slaveholders out of a free population of 529,121. Thirty-five percent of families, I presume this refers to white families, owned slaves.
I’d guess that in the decades before the Civil War in Alabama a few women wore such dresses at important social events. They were expensive. Only slave-owning planters’ wives and daughters would ever have worn such dresses. No black slave woman would ever have worn such a dress, but some house slave women would have helped white women to don one of them.
We can be confident that Trump, Sessions, or his wife, or the organizers of this Alabama welcome event thought that they were displaying Alabama history, not celebrating white supremacy and slavery. How can we understand this blindness? Well, Trump is an ignoramus, a racist, and a Yankee, so he’s easy to figure out. He never gave it a moment’s thought. But the Southerners did.
I’ll show you how this happens. I hate to quote this source, but here’s a story from 2015 that appeared on Breitbart. ‘It Is not Appropriate for Us to Erase History’. Alabama Republican Governor Robert Bentley decided to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol’s grounds. Sessions began by asserting that the Confederate flag had been ‘”commandeered” by those opposing the civil rights movement.’ Then Sessions said:
“I’m not criticizing the governor,” Sessions said. “You know the Confederate battle flag. I believe in history. We can’t erase history. But I do know that a lot of our good citizens feel like that was kind of commandeered as a symbol of anti-civil rights, and those kind of things. So I can be sensitive to that and working on that. What I do think is that it is not appropriate for us to erase history and who we are and our ancestors. I had ancestors – my great grandfather was killed at Antietam. I don’t think he was an evil person. He was called to serve his country as he knew it at that time and he did his duty leaving my grandfather, a baby, at home.”
“So this is a huge part of who we are and the left is continually seeking in a host of different ways it seems to me – you know, I don’t want to be too paranoid about this, but they seek to delegitimize the fabulous accomplishments of our country by finding all the problems and highlighting them continually and ignore the tremendous achievements we’ve obtained.”
Sessions says that waving the Confederate Battle Flag to honor his great grandfather for loyally serving his country as he knew it at that time is an innocent matter, and that people who wave the Battle Flag to express their opposition to civil rights for black citizens are “commandeering it as a symbol of anti-civil rights.” But, in my opinion, it is Sessions who dishonors his ancestor by denying the cause for which he and hundreds of thousands of Southern white men fought and died, which was the support and spread of the Southern slave system, the South’s Peculiar Institution. Yankee that I am, I’d describe his great grandfather, not as loyally serving his country, but as allowing himself to be swept up in an armed rebellion against the government of the United States, which was his country.
Sessions says that we must not forget or erase history, a sentiment with which we can all agree. It is, however, Sessions who is rewriting, erasing, and forgetting history. Keep in mind the 1860 census data, and then re-read “… it is not appropriate for us to erase history and who we are and our ancestors.” The “us” refers, I think, to all of Americans today, but to whom does “we” and “our” refer? It cannot be all Alabamans because nearly half of Alabamans in 1860 were black slaves. Those two pronouns refer to white Southerners remembering their ancestors. Why would a black Alabaman whose great-grandmother was a plantation slave want to wear a dress to show us how the daughter of a slave-owning planter would dress for a summer’s ball? A dress paid for by her father, who stole the fruits of his slaves’ labor to provide for her gracious life. Why would a black Alabaman of today want to celebrate the planter father’s and his son’s war service intended to keep that black man’s great grandfather in slavery?
As for honoring Alabama men who fought loyally for their country, Sessions erases from history the more than 2500 white men who fought for the Union, in the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment. This unit marched with Sherman on his way to the sea, fought in several battles along the way, and attended the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s surrender. More than 300 of these men died in service. Sessions erases the black men who fled slavery in Alabama to enlist in four Alabama infantry regiments, an artillery regiment, and a cavalry unit to fight for their freedom and that of their still enslaved brothers and sisters. These units all became part of the United States Colored Troops.
I say that, on this evidence, Sessions is a racist because he does not want to honor the heritage of all Alabamans black and white, but only those white Alabamans who owned slaves, or fought in the defense of slavery. Today the nearly 5 million Alabamans include about two thirds whites and one quarter blacks. Let them, and all of us, remember that the Civil War brought freedom to Alabama’s black people and all other slaves. Let us not “delegitimize” that great achievement of the United States.
Exactly eight years ago there was controversy over these women, who are known as the Mobile AL “Trail Maids”. Some people at that time objected to them marching in Barack Obama’s first inauguration parade. I did a Google image search on “southern belle costume black” and found this page. The returns from that search – as you can check for yourself – show black women in Southern Belle costumes only in this instance, which has repeated itself as your Sessions instance.
One might conclude from “you can’t erase history” that it’d be all right for Germans to fly Nazi flags on government buildings to commemorate their brave and dedicated men and women who fought in WW2. The rationale is exactly the same. But certain symbols do become accepted as forbidden in public, because of the extreme human damage done in their name. I for one accept Confederate battle flags displayed personally in commemoration of family members, but not by the people as a whole, i.e. not by the government in public places, at any level of government.
That’s a great discovery about Trail Maids.
You and I are old enough to remember President Ronald Reagan’s controversial visit to the Bitburg Cemetery. This cemetery in western Germany near Luxembourg has graves of many Waffen-SS men along with other Wehrmacht soldiers. The Waffen-SS was a military and para-military wing of the Nazi Party. A volunteer force, the fighters were committed Nazis. Many of the German’s worst war atrocities were Waffen-SS actions. Everything to the murder of Jews in the East, murder of villages in France, murder of American prisoners during the Battle of the Bulge, and others. While no one (as far as I know) objects to German citizens visiting and caring for their ancestors’ graves, for President Reagan to visit was another matter.
In Japan, there is the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. This is a Shinto Shrine where the spirits of many Japanese soldiers reside. The soldiers honored here are from more than a century of warfare. It turns out that among them are about 1000 war criminals including 14 Class-A criminals. When Japanese government officials visit this shrine to pay their respects, as our leaders visit Arlington Cemetery, other nations such as China and Korea object because of the honor shared with the war criminals.
My darling wife asked me how I think those young women might have been dressed, since I object to putting them in the costumes of the slave owners. To represent Alabama’s pre-Civil War history, inclusively, I’d say those women should have been in homespun. Like this:
Those colorful, frilly hoop skirts were special occasion dresses for the wealthy, not at all what the majority of Alabama women would have worn day to day. Slave women would not have had homespun because it was more labor intensive, and thus expensive, for the slave owner. He’d have bought inexpensive coarse cotton cloth known as osnaburg for the field hands. He’d have given his house servants somewhat better clothes. To the slave owner his economic calculation was as follows: He will steal the entire output of his slaves’ labor for his benefit. Food, clothing, and shelter for his slaves are costs of doing business for him that subtract directly from his income. Therefore, he will want these costs to be a low as possible consistent with the survival of his slave assets.
At places such as Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, and Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts, actors dress in period costumes to show us what life was like in Colonial times. But the interest of those who show us pretty young women in slave owners’ wives’ and daughters’ special-occasion dress is not to represent accurately Alabama’s past, but to honor the supposedly gracious and honorable life of pre-Civil War plantation slave-owning families, and to erase from memory the ordinary people of Alabama, white and black.