Civil War Day of Action: Filling Historical Silences

Civil War Day of Action: Filling Historical Silences

On the Journal of the Civil War Era national Day of Action. I am planning to join my former colleagues and community members in Elizabeth City, NC. Together, we are shedding light on the silenced diverse Civil War experiences, specifically freedpeople, USCT veterans and Grand Army of the Republic comrades.

The Civil War Era history of northeastern North Carolina is rich but sorely absent from the commemorative landscape.  When I joined the faculty at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), I was struck by the absence of public presentation of diverse Civil War experiences. African Americans served in the USCT regiments, Quakers abstained from the struggle, white men served in the Federal Army and Navy, and some white people engaged in guerrilla violence following the fall of Elizabeth City, but the only story told was of Confederates. The silenced African American experience was especially noticeable.[1]

This diversity of experience informed Civil War memory and shaped the uses of the downtown area from the time of the war to the 1911 placement of a Confederate Monument by the D. H. Hill chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.[2] African Americans regularly held emancipation day parades through the downtown streets and heard celebratory speeches from the Courthouse lawn.

Newspaper print text
The North Carolinian, January 4, 1888.

At the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the celebration featured a speech by Hugh Cale. Born enslaved in Perquimans County, Cale became active in post-emancipation Elizabeth City politics and served as a county commissioner and state legislator. In 1891, three years after the 25th anniversary, Cale introduced House Bill 383 in the state legislature and laid the groundwork for the founding of present-day ECSU. While emancipation day parades ended in the twentieth century, ECSU has continued the tradition established by freedpeople, USCT veterans, and Reconstruction era leaders by claiming the downtown streets for its annual homecoming parades. As an HBCU, they continue to carry on the legacy of the emancipationist Civil War tradition by educating underserved communities and occupying the space defined by the Civil War era parade routes.[3]

The African American Civil War veteran experience is another history to be told. USCT veterans and Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) comrades are interred at several local cemeteries. Their graves continue to be adorned with flowers and flags during major holidays. The history of the Fletcher Post, an African American GAR post, is better known but remains largely absent from the current commemorative landscape, except for their headstones in the Oak Grove Cemetery. The 1898 encampment of the Virginia and North Carolina Grand Army of the Republic is not widely known. Months before the Wilmington Massacre, white and black comrades celebrated at the Court House and received the shown printed program.[4]

GAR program cover
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Moreover, the Elizabeth City veterans continued to celebrate their Civil War experiences. As their numbers dwindled, they often joined the brethren in the Hamptons Road area for reunions, including a Norfolk, Virginia reunion captured in a photograph available at a University of Virginia archive. These men remained active in local and regional activities and celebrations even if meant riding in wagons and early automobiles or turning over the event planning to Spanish American and World War I veterans.[5]

Few markers exist. Many do not include this above history. On September 26, I plan to tell this history and amplify these voices. Using Canva, a free graphic design website, I have designed three posters that highlight research materials from an in-progress book on African American memory of the Civil War. I am excited to talk about the emancipation parades, the activities of USCT veterans, and even the 1898 GAR reunion held in a community where I lived, taught, and worked with Museum of the Albemarle and other community activists for several years. But, I will do so in collaboration with individuals who are doing important public history work on the ground.

ECSU faculty are and have been actively involved in eliminating the historical silences in the landscape. They are engaged with the Museum of the Albemarle, a local museum, on designing special exhibits, sustaining student internships programs, serving on its Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle group, and participating in public events. Glen Bowman and Melissa Stuckey regularly write history columns for the Daily Advance and the Virginian-Pilot. With their Digital and Public History concentration, Charles Reed and Latif Tarik are actively preparing students to use digital tools to make this history more visible. In the process, students are learning to appreciate their own institution’s role in African American education. Through several external grants secured by Melissa Stuckey, faculty, students and other campus stakeholders are currently preserving the campus Rosenwald school and developing the site into a public museum. As such, I have continued to work with them on their various public history initiatives from my current institutional home.

Since my sabbatical brings me to North Carolina, I will make the drive. By filling a void, we will tell and amplify the underappreciated history of the African American Civil War era experience and its legacy in northeastern North Carolina. Viking pride will be fully displayed on September 26, 2020.

Follow us at #wewantmorehistory.

 

[1] For an overview of the diverse Civil War experience of Elizabeth City, see Alex Christopher Meekins, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2007).

[2] “Unveiled Amid Inspiring Scenes,” Tar Heel, May 12, 1911, 1; “Pasquotank County Confederate Monument, Elizabeth City,” Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina,  https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/515/;

[3] “Local Briefs,” The North Carolinian, January 7, 1874, 3; “Untitled,” The North Carolinian, January 4, 1888, 3; “Our History,” Elizabeth City State University, https://www.ecsu.edu/about/history/; “Emancipation Day,” The Weekly Economist(Elizabeth City), January 4, 1901, 3.

[4] Department of Virginia and North Carolina Grand Army of the Republic, Twenty Seventh Annual Encampment Held in The Court House Elizabeth City, North Carolina, April 27, 1898. Records of 1897 and Journal of 1898.  (Hampton, VA. N. S. Press, Printer and Binders, 1898).

[5] Photograph of Grand Army of the Republic Reunion of African-Americans ca. 1910, Accession #11436, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA; “Negro Veterans of Two Wars Appear in Parade,” Independent (Elizabeth City), January 2, 1920, 1.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).