So my daughter and I have become interested in the Civil War (even though we do not have ancestors who were involved in any way). We're not experts, believe me, but we visited the Petersburg, VA, battle sites, and we have both read a number of books and taken a few classes.
A couple of weeks ago, while my daughter was in New Orleans, she stopped in to see the Louisiana Civil War Museum. She was disappointed, however, because it isn't really a museum of the Civil War. It is a museum of the Confederacy. It displays Confederate uniforms, weapons, documents, memorabilia -- and virtually nothing about the cause of the war or the experience of the black population.
For my own trip south, my daughter gave me a book called Denmark Vesey's Garden by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts. Denmark Vesey was a free black man who led a slave rebellion in Charleston, SC, in 1822. The rebellion failed before it even got started, and Vesey and more than 30 co-conspirators were swiftly tried, convicted and executed.
The book is not about the rebellion itself. It's about the legacy of slavery, and how the Lost Cause movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries molded our view of history -- and to this day influences our understanding of the Civil War and the South.
We know that African Americans were freed in the Civil War and soon after were able to take part in civil affairs. By the end of the 1860s South Carolina had a black majority in its state legislature.
However, in 1877 when the government removed federal troops, the white planter and commercial interests took back power. Reconstruction was over, and a series of Jim Crow laws segregated the South for another hundred years -- and one could argue that much of the South, as well as the rest of the country, is still segregated today.
|Charleston's Confederate Museum|
The Lost Cause presented the Civil War as a battle between the underdog South and the much larger North, for states rights and the preservation of the traditional Southern way of life. Slavery was rarely mentioned, and when it was, it was blamed on the North, since most slaving ships came from New England. Besides, this version went, even some blacks themselves had slaves, and plantation owners were paternalistic and supported African Americans with room and board and everything else.
For a long time, up until the 1960s and into the 1970s -- and even in certain respects up until today -- the history of Charleston, and the South in general, was told by white Southern families. Historical sites mostly included Confederate statues and historical homes once owned by wealthy planters and traders. As tourism became a bigger industry in the 1900s, the picture presented to visitors from the North and elsewhere was a Gone with the Wind version of the South.
Even today, the tallest statue in Charleston shows slaveholder and secessionist John C. Calhoun towering over Marion Square, which itself is named after another slave owner, Revolutionary war general Francis Marion. The Confederate Museum stands at one end of the historic old Central Market. And like the Louisiana Civil War Museum, it focuses on the Confederate army and the Confederate cause.
The Charleston museum is owned and operated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which makes a point of denouncing hate groups, but affirms that "Confederate memorial statues and monuments are part of our shared American story and should remain in place." So you can take that for what you will.
|The Old Slave Mart Museum|
Tourism is Charleston's biggest industry. As a tourist, I'll appreciate getting the full story of South Carolina's history, not just the antiseptic version that was created to make Southerners and white tourists feel better about themselves.
As Kytle and Roberts conclude, we should not be held responsible for the moral failings of our European ancestors, nor should Americans today feel guilty for the sin of slavery. But getting the past right and remembering slavery honestly will inform our approach to race and inequality today. This honesty can help us understand the people whose ancestors felt the pain of the whip and the shame of servitude, and make us appreciate the resiliency of those who for generations have fought for freedom and equality.