ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog
I remember taking my kids to visit Stone Mountain in Georgia around 1991. At the time, the “park” was a sort of Confederate Disneyland that mixed faux Civil War history with a whitewashed depiction of “Antebellum Life.” One central feature was a recreated plantation made up of buildings from around Georgia that invoked the gracious living of Gone With the Wind. Beautiful gardens were set near an imposing plantation manor, a second Tara that could be visited by the masses. Nearby, in a place of honor, was a rustic, but neat and well-furnished building identified as “Mammy’s Cabin.” The cabin demonstrated the honor accorded to the Black women who cared for the children of the White plantation owners. The restorers of the cabin no doubt hoped that visitors would envision Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy” coming through the door.
Doing a little investigation I found that this pretty retreat was never “Mammy’s Cabin.” It was the home of a doctor, built in 1826, near Atlanta.
After visiting this Potemkin Village of a plantation, we went on a train ride taking us through the Civil War as told by the scions of the Lost Cause. No mention of slavery. Just a lot of hokey “down-home” distortions of a war that took more than 700,000 lives.
I thought we might find a refuge at the park’s Civil War museum until we reached its door and saw that it was named “Confederate Hall.” Any hope we might learn about the sons of Georgia who fought in the United State Colored Troops was quickly set aside. This was a government-supported propaganda site, not a place where history could be encountered and wrestled with.
That was just three decades ago, and long after the Civil Rights movement confronted Americans with the racially distorted images crafted out of our past. Yet in a state-owned park near one of the largest Black metropolises in the country, the African American past was ignored or distorted. That is why Black History Month is so important.
At the time Confederate gunners opened fire on Fort Sumter, 44% of Georgia’s population was Black, but you would never know that from the state’s most visited Civil War attractions. The annual insistence every February that Black History be placed on the country’s agenda is one reason why the old Stone Mountain laser-show lionization of Stonewall, Bobby Lee, and Jeff Davis now leaves such a bad aftertaste. Young people know the real history and they can’t swallow the distortions.
While Black History Month has helped to change a lot about how students learn about the American past, it has a lot of long established institutions to push up against. Stone Mountain is one of them, obviously. The State of Georgia expended taxpayer funds to support the touristization of this non-battlefield site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Heck, the Federal government designed half-dollar commemorative coins in 1925 with Lee and Jackson on the face to boster the finances of the site. Over a century of Lost Cause socialism couldn’t be erased with a few Black History Month bulletin boards.
During the 1920s, the Sons of Confederate Veterans began acquiring battlefield land at Bull Run to grant eternal fame to the Confederates who won two of their cause’s signal victories there. Those sitting on the board of “Manassas Battlefield Confederate Park” had to demonstrate that they were “orthodox” believers in the “vindication of the…Confederate government” to serve. The park, which was centered on Henry Hill, was never intended to tell history. It was designed as a propaganda vehicle for the Lost Cause. To ensure that no miscegenating ideas infiltrated, the trust’s membership was open only to whites. Even as small an honor as granting honorary memberships to donors was reserved for members of the white race! When the Sons later turned the land over to the National Park Service, it was with the understanding that Stonewall’s stand on Henry Hill in 1861 would be the central story told, bringing this narrative forward to the time when I first visited Bull Run in the 1970s.
Black history was set aside in Alabama as well. The Alabama state archive, under its second director Marie Bankhead Owen, spent more of its resources documenting the four years of the Confederacy than it did on the more than two-centuries of Black history in the state. Bankhead Owen, an important figure in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was so opposed to the recognition of the state’s Black people that she fought against votes for women because she thought that excluding Black women from the vote was “essential for the preservation of social order and the maintenance of white supremacy,” according to a group she led.
This is why Black History Month is so important. Blacks were not just ignored in the telling of the story of the United States, their history, their contributions and struggles were plowed under to hide them from the historical record. When Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson began advocating for a Negro History Week, which was later expanded to a Black History Month, he understood that an annual commemoration would push the story of African Americans to the fore, in a country that sometimes seemed like it wanted them to disappear. At the same time that Woodson proposed Negro History Week, the all-white legislature of Mississippi passed legislation requesting that the Federal government obtain land in Africa to deport Mississippi’s Black population to. Woodson knew that as America’s Black past was obscured, Blacks could be seen as a people without a history, without roots in the land that their families had inhabited for generations. The struggle for a truthful telling of Black History was a basic fight for survival.
This is also why, nearly a century after the first Negro History Week, we still see so much opposition to the very mention of Black History.