Shaping Public Remembrances of Abolition and Emancipation: Memory in the Post-Emancipation Era at the 2018 SHA

Shaping Public Remembrances of Abolition and Emancipation: Memory in the Post-Emancipation Era at the 2018 SHA

Today we share the last of our conference reports on the November 2018 annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association, held in Birmingham. Thank you for following along with us as these four reporters shared details about these fascinating and thought-provoking panels.

When one attempts to explain to non-historians that their high school knowledge about the American Civil War and Reconstruction was not a simple recounting of facts, but instead the product of subsequent eras of remembrance and silencing shaped by political exigencies, one comes to appreciate in a very real way the compelling power of myth and memory. My audience is not usually undergraduates. As an historian of institutional history, it is more often administrators, board members, and alumni who themselves are shaping a contemporary political narrative in intentional and unintentional ways.

A panel on “Memories and Commemorations of Abolition in the Post-Emancipation Era” at the 2018 Southern Historical Association annual meeting offered some new perspectives on how myths and historical narratives serve the time in which they are invoked, politically and personally. The three panelists focused on events some fifty years after Civil War and Reconstruction. Whether it was disagreements in Richmond over the meaning of emancipation, stories that ex-Confederate soldiers used to justify a pension application, or comparisons to the end of serfdom in Russia–a nearly contemporaneous event–these papers offered a glimpse into the moment of public debate and the contest over popular memory between the races and between generations.

In “The Greatest Exposition Ever: Black Richmonders and the 1915 Emancipation Exposition,” Hilary Green, associate professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama, focused on how African Americans remembered and commemorated the American Civil War and its legacy. In 1915, the city of Richmond prepared to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation with a Great Exposition that would showcase the city’s progress in uplift and racial relations. The planning committee chair, Giles B. Jackson, had been born enslaved and was a proponent of Booker T. Washington’s ideals of racial uplift. Jackson was determined to demonstrate the successes of his race and to challenge the increasingly pervasive Lost Cause myth of white supremacy. The exposition ultimately failed, despite Jackson’s ability to secure the endorsements of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Virginia governor Henry Stuart.

Part of the opposition to Jackson’s plans, Green told the audience, came from a younger generation of African Americans. With no direct experience of slavery or emancipation, they found more appeal in the work of Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson and the Association’s other co-founders shaped a different narrative of emancipation, one that placed it within a greater history of African achievements through centuries, and which foregrounded the agency of African Americans.

Conflicts over identity played out in other arenas as well. Once former Confederates had regained political power in North Carolina in 1901, they carried out a campaign promise to loosen the requirements for pensions for Confederate veterans. In “The Lying Cause: Falsehoods, Exaggerations, and White Supremacy in Lost Cause Memory,” Adam Domby, assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston, focused on the stories told by pension applicants. Domby’s deep research into the pension narratives and additional records revealed that men sometimes exaggerated and lied about their wartime service in order to be approved. Some applicants asserted that they had served throughout the war, for example, when in fact they had deserted after a few months. Some claimed to have been fervent Confederates when they had been active Unionists, erasing the memory of that past to present a face of united loyalty to the state. Some men, who deserted the Confederate cause and later fought on the Union side, applied for both pensions. Financial need aside, Domby argues that other motivations for this behavior included the desire to be seen as a loyal Confederate in a society that increasingly embraced the Lost Cause narrative. This assertion is reinforced by the fact that pension applications that challenged this myth were often rejected. In erasing and rewriting their own history, Domby observed, pensioners inadvertently reinforced the Lost Cause myth, erasing the history of internal dissension over the war.

At the same time as Americans re-wrote and re-remembered their own history of abolition and emancipation, they compared themselves to a similar narrative–that of the abolition of serfdom in Russia. In “Commemorations of American Slavery and Russian Serfdom on the Fiftieth Anniversaries of Abolition,” Amanda Brickell Bellows, adjunct assistant professor at the New School, shared some of the parallels and contrasts between the two moments in 1911 and 1913, respectively. Despite the differences between the two events, both nations remembered parallels–the subsequent assassination of both leaders, the impulse to see both as progress towards modernization, and the disagreement over the relative success of each endeavor. Bellows explained that Vladimir Lenin depicted the end of serfdom as a failed revolution, one that had not gone far enough and had only succeeded in enslaving serfs in a new kind of forced labor. The parallels to the United States and the failure of Reconstruction, Bellows argued, was in the ways that African Americans at the same time contested the meaning of emancipation and the Lost Cause narrative, likewise pointing out the lack of advancement toward full equal rights.

Barbara Gannon, associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, introduced the topic and the panelists. Comments came from Karen Cox, professor of History at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and Ethan Kytle, professor of history at California State University-Fresno. Drawing on their own scholarship in memory and popular culture, they provided useful observations and challenging questions for the panelists.

Cox asked Bellows to consider how, despite the commonalities between the American and Russian narratives, if it was possible that one was more about class and the other more about race. For Domby’s pensioners, she posed the question of the accuracy of memory some fifty years after the fact, and suggested he consider the possibility that the popular narrative had reshaped personal memories, so that these narratives do not so much shape memory as reflect it. Green’s generational divide among African Americans, Cox posited, might have also showed a tension between northern and southern black experiences and political interests.

Kytle (in comments read by his colleague Blain Roberts, professor of history at California State University-Fresno) noted that Domby’s work with pension narratives offers fresh insight, but wondered if narratives were publicly available at the time. Domby noted that pension stories were published in obituaries and other newspaper accounts, and that family and neighbors would been familiar with them. In Green’s description of the conflicts over planning the 1915 Exposition, Kytle saw the limits of the emancipationist tradition and how Woodson’s emerging narrative offered a broader way for African Americans to think about a shared cultural past. For Bellows’s paper, he asked the author to consider more differences between the two ways of commemoration.

Kytle, Gannon, and Cox all emphasized the importance of this work. There is much to learn about Civil War memory and the panelists’ scholarship shows the interest in and dynamism of the field of memory studies. All of these papers are based on forthcoming books. The panelists are informed by the rich body of scholarship that precedes them, including the work of Gannon, Cox, Kytle, and Roberts. Their work is also timely in real ways. What I wish for when I talk with administrators and alumni is for them to understand that the Lost Cause myth was never settled, always contested, and is often revised to fit the moment. Sometimes, great myths serve to justify great injustices. Within the field, scholars continue to debate and explore critical questions of remembrance, public commemoration, and political power. As was shown by the attendance for this panel, their work will continue to attract the attention of multiple audiences.





Cecelia Moore

Cecelia Moore is University Historian and Project Manager for the Chancellor’s Task Force on University History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of The Federal Theatre Project in the American South: The Carolina Playmakers and the Quest for American Drama (Lexington Books, 2017), and co-author of UNC A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina Press, expected 2019).

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