As part of our partnership with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond and Civil War Monitor, we’re pleased to introduce the next of our “Emerging Scholars,” Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders. Ashleigh will be presenting her work at the museum’s Grand Opening May 4.
While current discussions over Civil War memory have centered on Confederate monuments, memorialization and the lingering vestiges of the Lost Cause, my research highlights African American Civil War memory. It would be difficult to understand the current moment of activism against monuments without first understanding African Americans’ long struggle to assert their own ideas about the Civil War and to counter the Lost Cause.
My dissertation covers African American Civil War memory from 1865-1965. My work begins with examining African American thoughts and ideas about the war during its duration. African Americans linked the war to freedom early, and it guided their thinking about the war’s purpose and legacy for decades after its end.
My talk at the museum, however, will cover 1915-1965, which I believe are crucial years for understanding the persistence of African American Civil War memory. First, the decades post-1915 are not as widely covered in studies of Civil War memory. Second, these years are crucial and vibrant years for African Americans’ long freedom struggle. During this half-century, African American activists and organizations confronted violence and discrimination in the South and North. African Americans leaned on the emancipationist narrative of the Civil War to guide their activism and to confront the United States on the lost promise of emancipation and citizenship.
Historical studies of the Lost Cause demonstrate that it was a movement and phenomenon beyond just memorialization—it was dynamic and multifaceted. The Lost Cause influenced how the Civil War and the history of slavery were taught, how politicians and white southern leaders drummed up political support for segregation and violence, and how its narratives went hand in hand with white supremacy. Though African American Civil War memory has never been able to match the power and influence of the Lost Cause, it has been an ideological bedrock through the past 150 years of African Americans’ struggle to attain fully realized citizenship.
My talk will cover a few ways that the memory of the Civil War guided African American life and activism from 1915 to 1965 and how it became a crucial part of a “usable past” for African Americans as they approached and lived through the most formative period for African American freedom since Reconstruction—the Civil Rights Movement.
About Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders
As a “born and raised” South Carolinian from the Lowcountry, the history and contentious memory of the Civil War has been at the forefront of my life for as long as I can remember. The war began in Charleston, but so did some of the most notable, early moments in African American Civil War memory. I grew up literally down the street from the site of one of the most notorious 1876 election year riots in Cainhoy, S.C. The 1990s battles over the Confederate flag in South Carolina occurred when I was in middle and high school and were formative for my interest in historical memory.
I am currently a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Rutgers University and finishing my dissertation, “Confronting the Rebel Yell: How African Americans Created and Contested Civil War Memory, 1865-1965.” Before coming to Rutgers, I worked at The American Assembly at Columbia University and in the HIV/AIDS section of UNICEF. I received a B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from Wake Forest University and a M.A. in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, where my Master’s thesis explored efforts to bring the truth and reconciliation model to the United States.
When I came to Rutgers, I knew I wanted to continue to work on African American memory and, after reading some stories about African American reaction to the Civil War sesquicentennial in my home state of South Carolina, I turned my attention to the long history of African American Civil War memory. My dissertation examines American Civil War memory by centering the construction and meaning of Black memory and counter-memory of the war from 1865 through the mid-20th century. I argue that African Americans not only created their own Civil War narratives, but also combined their activist traditions with opposition to the dominant narratives of the war that excluded African American experiences and contributions. While confrontation with white Southern Civil War nostalgia and the Lost Cause movement is a large part of the story, my dissertation also reveals that African American ideas about the war were also important within the Black community as a means of crafting a usable past for racial uplift.
This fall, I will be starting as an assistant professor of African American History at the University of Dayton and beginning work on a book project based on my dissertation.