Extending the Civil War Day of Action

Extending the Civil War Day of Action

I had conflicted feelings when the controversy over the Confederate battle flag and statues commemorating Confederate traitors recently flared up once again. On the one hand, I was ecstatic this summer when I saw the spontaneous, collective work of art that activists created on the base of Robert E. Lee’s statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. This artistic embellishment offered a vibrant rebuke to the false historical narrative in which the statue trafficked, and made the monuments a foil for critical conversations about racism and inequality.  On the other hand, I can’t shake the words of my great aunt, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, who, in her late 80s, faced off against rebel-flag-waving Ku Klux Klan members from a lawn chair, but was indifferent about the rush to remove the Confederate battle flag from the dome of the South Carolina State House during the 1980s: “Leave the damn rag up there,” she said. “I’d rather see the Klan in sheets than in suits. As long as that flag flies above the State House, you know what’s in the hearts and minds of those inside.”[1] Toppling statues and yanking down flags feels inconsequential when fundamental problems persist. Even as I rejoiced when the flag was removed in 2015 after the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I recognized that it didn’t signal a commitment to addressing the persistent poverty, and social and economic hardships that many South Carolinians face. Like many scholars and activists, I have often viewed such efforts as distractions from more pressing political action.[2]

The Journal of the Civil War Era’s Call to Action and the opinions of other historians helped me reconcile myself to the fact that erasing silences from the public memorial landscape and from museums is critically important political work.[3] Broadening the public’s store of accurate historical knowledge and prompting critical thought contributes to a more informed citizenry and has the potential to inspire a healthy reimagining of our politics and institutions. The JCWE’s call for “more history” took on greater urgency last week, when President Trump announced plans to promote patriotic history. It should come as no surprise that he wished to elide the history of slavery to promote his racist political agenda; history has often been manipulated for political ends. Myths about American history have propped up and legitimized policies and ways of thinking that perpetuate some of our country’s most entrenched problems. That’s why a fuller accounting of our nation’s past matters if we have any hope of bringing about social justice and strengthening our frail democracy.

Modjeska Monteith Simkins House and historical marker, Columbia, SC

Academic and public historians have an important role to play in focusing on what’s missing from the memorial and historic landscape, bringing evidence-based history to the public. I had the opportunity to participate in such work at the recently renovated in Columbia, South Carolina, which, public health permitting, is tentatively set to open next month. Simkins, known as “the Matriarch of Civil Rights activists of South Carolina,” served as state secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and dedicated her life to social justice and human rights. As both a family member and as a historian, I met several times with my cousin, Henrie Treadwell Monteith, and with Robin Waites and Katharine Allan, two wonderful public historians at Historic Columbia, to contribute my own research and to make suggestions about the new exhibits.[4]

Now, more than ever, academic historians and public historians should step up our collaborations. Rebecca Capobianco Toy, a Ph.D. candidate at the College of William & Mary and a National Park Service (NPS) intern, shared several ideas with me about how academic historians can assist Park Service administrators, in particular.

First: Share your research

Because the NPS has moved away from hiring professional historians at national parks, academic historians have an important role to play. “Find out if there are stories that site administrators would like to know more about, but don’t have the time to look into,” she said. “In many cases, parks are dependent on a knowledge pool that was developed when the NPS still hired historians, but in a vastly different historiographical era.  What can you do to help expand that knowledge pool?” Swamped by day-to-day operations, Park Service employees often lack the time to conduct extensive research projects, and also lack the level of access to databases that academic historians have, Toy said.

Second: Have a community mindset

We can make our contributions longer lasting, and build trust with members of the public, by becoming a more consistent partners at historic sites.  “Academic historians can help by volunteering, whether that’s in a visitor center once a month where they interact with the public, or offering to help research new programs,” Toy said.

Third: Make parks your classroom and create opportunities for students

Toy also suggests building relationships with staff members at local public history sites by taking our students on field trips, developing research projects in which students spend a semester doing research that would benefit a local site. There is also room for colleges and universities to support public history by funding internship opportunities at historical parks, as Gettysburg College and West Virginia University do, so that students gain work as summer seasonal employees, and so that the parks and other sites have people freshly immersed in the latest historical knowledge who can, in turn, inform the public. I would add that our profession and the universities where many of us teach should incentivize and reward this work.

By extending the JCWE’s call to action, we have the opportunity to expose the public to long ignored stories that help people make sense of competing narratives about the past. Coming to terms with a more expansive and honest understanding of American history promises to encourage the public to think critically, but no less optimistically, about fighting for our democracy and achieving something concrete.

[1] Dawn Hinshaw, “KKK March to State House Greeted by Throng of Counterdemonstrators,” The State, July 4, 1988, 2B, NewsBank; Becci Robbins, Modjeska Monteith Simkins: A South Carolina Revolutionary (Columbia: South Carolina Progressive Network, 2014), 35. Simkins shared her views with activist Brett Bursey. See SC Progressive Network, “Modjeska Simkins on the Confederate Flag,” March 15, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqjqqu0l0VM&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2wQVvvlrWBvc5MQlwh8ktm85wI7cY5uMIv_IoTLEGo1RCWhE8MoUOls-U, accessed September 27, 2020. The rebel flag was removed from the dome of the state house in 2000 and moved to the grounds, where it remained aloft and unfurled until 2015.

[2] For example, see Miranda Baines, “Local NAACP leader says controversy surrounding symbols a distraction from the ‘real work’ that’s needed,” Gazette-Virginian, June 8, 2020, http://www.yourgv.com/news/local_news/local-naacp-leader-says-controversy-surrounding-symbols-a-distraction-from-the-real-work-that-s/article_2d6ea82a-a8fc-11ea-9eb9-871a9c1b80e9.html, accessed September 27, 2020.

[3] Robert Greene II, “It’s Time for New Monuments,” Current Affairs, January/February 2020, https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/06/its-time-for-new-monuments, accessed September 26, 2020.

[4] Adrienne Monteith Petty, “The Town and Country Roots of Modjeska Monteith Simkins’s Activism,” Agricultural History 93, no. 3 (Summer 2019): 452-476.

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