Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Note on the Type


Personal attacks on the blog authors' character WILL NOT be tolerated. We aim to have a forum of ideas, not one of name calling. Please keep the conversation civil. Criticism and discussion of the ideas being presented here is heartily encouraged. Name-calling is not.

Also, I will openly admit to having a bias. Show me an historian who claims to not have a bias and I'll show you a liar.

Montgomery: The Murals in the Dome

A broad sweeping portico looms behind the gay couple riding horses on a summer's afternoon. The man wears a brown coat and tall black top hat. The woman dresses in the finery of the turn-of-the-century. A hunting dog stands at attention as the horses stride across the plantation's spacious lawn. Back on the porch, a black "mammy" figure watches over a young girl.

The scene is one of eight which adorns the dome of Alabama's State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. The mural, titled, "Wealth and Leisure Produce the Golden Period of Antebellum Life in Alabama, 1840-1860," is the work of Roderick MacKenzie, a London-born artist and adopted son of the Cotton State. MacKenzie was born in 1865, his family emigrating to Mobile, Alabama at the tail end of the reconstruction period. After his mothers' death, his father broke the family up, sending the fifteen year old Roderick to an orphanage, run by the Episcopal Church. The young man took to art, developing an eye for industrial scenes of slag pits and foundries.

In 1926, MacKenzie was chosen to paint the eight murals which adorn the Alabama Capitol's dome. Among the scenes are Hernando de Soto meeting with Chief Tuscaloosa, the British surrender to Jackson in 1814 and the drafting of the state's first constitution at Huntsville.

But the most interesting set of images are the final three in MacKenzie's series. I noticed the odd grouping when I visited Montgomery this past August, taking refuge in the Capitol during a late summer thunderstorm. The three images, taken as a group, struck me as oddly symbolic.

First is the aforementioned, "Wealth and Leisure Produce the Golden Period of Antebellum Life in Alabama, 1840-1860." Next, comes, "Secession and the Confederacy, Inauguration of President Jefferson Davis, 1861." Finally, rounding out the dome and sitting jarringly beside both Davis and de Soto is, "Prosperity Follows the Development of Resources Agriculture, Commerce and Industry, 1874-1930."

The three murals span nearly a century of American and Alabamian history. MacKenzie painted the images in the heart of the Civil War's memory period, as reunions for the 75th anniversary of the war's battles were coalescing. But MacKenzie also crafted the images in the heart of what Rayford Logan and James Loewen call the nadir of American race relations. The paintings stand as brilliant encapsulations of the view of the antebellum, bellum and postbellum landscape as seen from the American South in the 1920s.

Jefferson Davis stands as a signpost between the two stages of the South, leisure and work. The war years are represented by that hopeful moment when Jefferson Davis took an Oath of Office to a nation not yet won, on the steps outside the building. No bloody struggle, no military defeat or victory is depicted, just a hopeful tableau of Davis, the only President of the Confederacy.

The leisure of the first image of the series, that of, "the Golden Period of Antebellum Life," gives way to a bustling scene of dock workers loading baled cotton onto ships. But the image on Davis' left hand of dock workers is eerily much like that on Davis' right of plantation leisure. The workers on the dock, although strong and powerful, are subjugated black men depicted with low clothing and deep grins on their faces. The men resemble caricatures of blacks from American minstrelsy and it's decedents, with the broad toothy grins of the, "happy darky." The dock worker hoisting a dolly particularly, is contorted in a manner which struck me instantly as akin to Stepin Fetchit, the stereotypical character played by black actor Lincoln Perry beginning in 1925.

But the scene of leisure from the antebellum period had a similar scene buried behind its layers of paint and canvas. When I looked at the scene of the "big house" and the couple out for a Sunday jaunt on horseback, I saw what lay behind the house. Slaves, toiling in cotton fields and over stoves. I saw them feeding horses fodder in the stables, shoveling the shit away to clean the barns for mistress' dainty feet as she walked to her mount for that stroll, the tawny men and women themselves dying in filth and stink under the hand of oppression.

The dock workers, likewise, shouted "oppression" at me as I stood in the rotunda. The smiles, which MacKenzie manufactured for them, hid the disdain of loading cotton, staple of the insidious sharecropping system which helped the institution of slavery live on in modified form for nearly a century after the guns of freedom ceased. The only labor in the image is black, lower class. Missing from the image are white laborers. The message was clear to me: they're still subjugated, still a lower class of being. Somewhere behind those ships and those workers was a couple still riding their horses, leisure on the backs of oppression and inequity.

But missing too from the image were Benjamin Turner and Jeremiah Haralson, both former slaves who served as United States Congressmen for Alabama in the post-war period. They were certainly no man's property. Missing too was adopted Alabamian Booker T. Washington, himself a former slave who served as the first President of Alabama's nearby Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. In the late 1920s, during the nadir of race relations and the violence of the second Klan's reign in America, MacKenzie depicted the neo-slave of Alabama, still toiling at the feet of the President of the slave nation, Jefferson Davis.

It may seem like I could be jumping to a lot of conclusions in my analysis. I could be. But below those 1920s murals, on the lower level of the rotunda, hangs an equally jarring portrait. George Wallace, governor of Alabama from 1963-1987 (intermittently), stands defiantly on one wall, a giant smile on his face. On his desk sits a Bible and small statue of liberty. Behind his right shoulder hangs an American flag. Behind his left, nearest his head, hangs the Confederate. The man once called Alabama the, "very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland," and declared that he would, "draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny... and I say... segregation today... segregation tomorrow... segregation forever." Here he stands, immortalized in oil and hanging on the wall. He hangs along with MacKenzie's murals, the pitch perfect image of his dream of the American South.

Before I left the deserted Rotunda on that rain soaked afternoon, I quietly held up my middle finger at Wallace's grin and stood there transfixed for a moment. I felt invigorated at my act, like I had just stood in a schoolhouse door and was off to conquer the world.

I shudder now. That's a frightening feeling.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Montgomery: Jeff Davis' Seal of Solomon

Set into the marble steps of Alabama's Capitol building is a brass star. Gleaming against the white stone, the star stands at the top of the stairs on the Capitol's west face. The star reads, "Placed by Sophie Bibb Chapter Daughters of the Confederacy on the spot where Jefferson Davis stood when inaugurated President of C.S.A. Feb. 16. 1861."

The star is a queer memorial to the President of the Confederacy, queer because of its phrasing. The star is as much a memorial to the women of the south who placed it there, the Montgomery-based Sophie Bibb Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. This boosterism seems almost gratuitous.

The spot was venerated by the UDC as a holy shrine. In the opening of the minutes of their seventh annual meeting in 1900, held in the Montgomery Capitol, the UDC noted that, "all the Daughters' hearts were filled with emotion as they approached the first Capitol of the Confederacy, and with reverence they each stopped and viewed the gold star inlaid in the stone in the balcony by the Sophie Bibb Chapter in commemoration of the spot where President Jefferson Davis delivered his inaugural address."

Bible upon which Davis
swore the Oath of Office
/ PD / AL Dept. of Archives
Later in the proceedings, a local pastor read, "parts of two chapters from the Bible on which Jefferson Davis took the oath of office when he was inaugurated President of the Confederate States."

The man read aloud to the women from 26th Matthew. He told the women of Christ, anointed by a woman with, "precious ointment," from, "an alabaster box." Upon seeing Jesus being lavished with fine oils, the disciples chastised their teacher, telling him that the, "ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor." The section of Matthew concluded with the trite query from Christ: "Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me."

Whether the minister intended to strike a blow at criticism of Confederate Memorialization or not with his choice of reading from the Book of Matthew, the passage raises an interesting question. Why were these women pouring out hundreds of dollars, dollars which could be used on the poor, to memorialize a cause lost? Was the pastor's comparison of Jefferson Davis to Christ intended to be overt or was the reading's content a simple coincidence.

This past August, I found myself in Montgomery. I was driving back toward my hotel in Auburn from Selma. I had the opportunity to speak with interpretive staff on the Selma To Montgomery National Historic Trail as part of a project for work. These interpreters are both sharp and brave, staring down the tough stuff of history every day.

I was not going to drive through Montgomery without at least laying eyes on the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. I knew it would be closed, I simply wanted to see the building itself. But as I began snapping a few photos, the first drops of rain began to hit my camera. A massive thunderstorm was rolling in from the west. Noticing a few tourists at the top of the stairs of the State Capitol opening the door and heading in, I had at least found a dry spot to wait out the torrent.

On my way up the steps I spotted the brass star sunk into the marble. I snapped a quick picture, and charged indoors out of the elements.

I am a New Yorker. I'm used to the Capitol at Albany, where visitors need to pass a gauntlet of metal detectors and security checkpoints to go even a few steps inside the door. As I opened the door to Alabama's Capitol, an elderly man stood up from his chair in the foyer's corner, handed me a map and told me the building closed in an hour. I was floored at how open the building was. I self toured the broad corridors for a time, waiting for the rain to subside.

When I returned to the door to the portico where Jefferson Davis took another fateful step toward war and attempting to tear a nation in twain, the elderly docent was peaking out the window at the rain, slowly abating.

"So Jeff Davis was inaugurated out on the steps?" I asked, making small talk with the man.

"Yup. Out there on that gold star is where OUR first and only President took the oath," the man replied proudly, with puffed chest.

I saw the pride in his eyes at Jefferson Davis' stand against the Federal Government. I saw the reverence with which he looked on that act. It was the same type of pride the UDC felt when they stepped across that threshold in 1900, after venerating that star. Their savior, Jefferson Davis, anointed with ointment and fine perfume. I couldn't resist.

"Where," I asked the aged Alabamian, "did Martin Luther King speak from?" I knew full well the answer.

The man scowled. "Down in the street," he snarled.

I struck out into the rain quickly. Meet the New South, I thought, same as the Old South.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why It's Interpretive: Bid 'Em In

Aside from our Tuesday-Thursday posting schedule, we'll be tossing in interesting bits here and there as they strike us. This is one of those.

Browsing the provocative blog "Jubilo! The Emancipation Century" recently, I came upon a post featuring a curious YouTube video. I've embedded it below:

(If you've problems playing the video, you can head to the YouTube page)
(For an equally meaningful schoolkids' version of the song, see this video)

So why did Bid 'Em In speak so deeply to me? I think it's because it places you in the shoes of the 15 year old slave woman being auctioned. It's not an intellectual investigation of slavery. It's not an historical narrative written after the fact of a particular event. It's visceral.

I first watched the video with headphones on. The auctioneer's voice echoes in your ears like you're standing on the stage alongside him.

The objectification of the woman as she's described like a head of cattle is powerful. But the climax of the piece is the dove, flying away to freedom as the young woman's spirit is crushed and she is sold away. One commenter (soundwave0138) agreed with my feelings, remarking that, "damn, that bird parts gets to me everytime." The commenter continued, noting that it's, "Shameful that all the copies of this have such a low number of views." Another user (buddahmunk99) noted, "the bird flying away, u cant get any simpler with that image."

But simple works. You are, for a moment, living in that poor woman's shoes as she is auctioned off like a piece of meat. That's the power of interpretation. Too often we get bogged down trying to recreate vast battle movements or reading page long descriptions of battle and politics at a visitor. We speak at the visitors about the past. Instead, we need to offer visitors more opportunities to feel the past in their gut.

When I go to a historic site, let me feel why I might wish and hope and dream of owning a slave if I am a white yeoman farmer in the 1850s. Likewise, let me feel why I would be impelled to run away from not only slavery, but everything I've ever known in my life; why I would run away from my family, friends and relatives and into the unknown. Don't explain to me. They don't learn by being spoken at, they learn by being spoken with. People don't learn by hearing, they learn by feeling. Let me feel what it's like to walk a mile in another man's shoes.

That's why Bid 'Em In works. It doesn't explain. It lets you feel it. It places you barefoot on an auction platform and commands: "walk!"

The most profound statement that can be made about this simple piece of art comes from user david13gaspar: "I wish this never happend"

Me too, David. me too.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Lincoln Prize: Eric Foner Awarded Coveted Prize for "Fiery Trial"

Gettysburg College's Civil War Institute has announced the 2011 Lincoln Prize winner. See press release below. (The Washington Post has coverage here)

Gettysburg College News Release

Book that explores Lincoln’s views on slavery wins 2011 Lincoln Prize

GETTYSBURG, Pa. – A compelling and insightful book that explores Abraham Lincoln’s evolving ideas about the institution of slavery and the roles of African-Americans was chosen out of 106 top-notch submissions as the 2011 Lincoln Prize recipient.

Eric Foner will receive the $50,000 Lincoln Prize for his book, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” (Norton), as well as a bronze replica of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ life-size bust, "Lincoln the Man." Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. The Prize, sponsored by Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, will be awarded May 11 at the Union League Club in New York, less than a month after the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War....

In the book, Foner offers a nuanced analysis of a man willing and able to change in response to forces beyond his control. He depicts the sweep of Lincoln’s career as a fascinating collision of moral judgments, political expediency, and military necessity. Foner traces the way that Lincoln grew and developed and was ultimately able to accept a biracial democracy when so many other Americans did not. He also deals subtly with Lincoln’s views on race, demonstrating that we are far too presentist in focusing on Lincoln and race and that Lincoln is less concerned about it than we are.

“Eric Foner has written an outstanding book focused on Lincoln and slavery from Lincoln’s earliest days until the day of his assassination,” said Lewis Lehrman. “In it he sums up the finest historical research on the subject, unearthing interesting new material. ‘The Fiery Trial’ is beautifully written, in a clear, direct style characteristic of the author’s work.”

"I am pleased that Eric Foner's book, ‘The Fiery Trial,’ on Lincoln and the end of American slavery, has been honored as the 2011 Lincoln Prize recipient," said Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs. "Foner provides great insight into Lincoln’s developing position on slavery and rise as leader of the new Republican Party."

Honorable Mentions this year included:
  • Robert Bray (Reading Lincoln Southern Illinois University Press), 
  • Lorien Foote (The Gentlemen and the Toughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army New York University Press), 
  • Mark W. Geiger (Financial Fraud and Guerilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War, 1861-1865 Yale University Press), 
  • Stanley Harrold (Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War University of North Carolina Press), 
  • Kate Masur (An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. University of North Carolina Press)
  • Howard Jones (Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations University of North Carolina Press)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lee Chapel: Lost Cause Artifact and Culture Shock

I had the privilege to accompany a group of undergraduate students recently on a whirlwind tour of the Wilderness, Richmond and Appomattox. Our tour took us along the I-81 corridor on the way back to Gettysburg, so why not stop in Lexington for a Civil War two-fer.

CC / "Reflection" by Claire McDonough

Lexington is home to both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson's grave site. Stonewall deserves a blog post all his own some other time, so I'll focus on "Marse Robert" today. And what a focus it will be.

Walking into Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University (formerly Washington College), you feel like you are stepping into a bank vault which has been sealed for years, dusty and musty and old. It felt like I was Geraldo Rivera, peering into a vault locked under a Chicago hotel. Like Geraldo, my gut fell at what I saw.

For the first time in my life, I have a clear image of the Lost Cause. It is the Lee chapel. Thomas Connelly did great justice to unfolding the space's meaning in his 1977 work The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and his Image in American Society. I am not going to do nearly as much justice today, but that'll never stop me.

Lee's cenotaph within the chapel sanctuary lies at the head of the church, atop the altar. I grew up Catholic. I find it interesting that Lee sits where the tabernacle typically lives in a Catholic church, holding the sanctified body of the Christian savior. The giant white marble statue is imposing, placed there in the 1880s along with an addition to the church to house the bodies of the Lee family. The guide was quick to note that it's not a dead Lee, it is simply the man resting on a camp cot. The entrance to the alcove featuring the napping Lee is flanked by a few flags, the American on stage right as is called for by custom. But within the alcove, the Confederacy reigns supreme. Reproductions of battle flags (the originals now in the Museum of the Confederacy) adorn the walls. Lee is lying tucked in under a blanket, his Officer's coat peaking above the blanket to show the three stars he wore during the Civil War. His hand lightly grasps a sword.

PD / Detail of Lee Chapel Cenotaph from HABS/HAER

I was shaking. I'm sure this is the reaction of many true Southerners when they enter the hall, humbled by the cold sleeping form of the great Confederate general. But I was shaking in anger and distress. As the docent rattled off interpretation which was decidedly pro-Lee, I leaned to one of the students and coldly noted that, "Oliver Cromwell did much the same thing, and he was exhumed and posthumously beheaded for the trouble." It's a gross simplification, I know, but one man tried to disrupt and destroy an entire country and had his head displayed on a pike for two and a half decades. The other, for the same act, gets a giant marble statue of him sleeping. [see note 1]

I've made a big point of his sleeping. The guide did too. Lee is NOT dead in the marble likeness, simply snoozing on a camp cot in his tent between battles. But what battles are left to fight? Why was Lee crafted in easily woken sleep and not interminable death in 1883?

The point was stressed by the docent, who inevitably had the point drilled into her head, that visitors should be told Lee is but sleeping on his cot. Was she aware of the implications of the artist's choice? Was she even thinking about its meaning? I looked at the statue and saw Lee, ready to spring to action once again, grasp his sword tightly in his hand and ride off to avenge a broken and battered South from the ravages of black rule and Reconstruction politics. Like the crucified Christ which traditionally hangs at the head of a church sanctuary where the marble man sits in Lexington, Lee only waits for resurrection and ascension to this plane, to judge the living and the dead. The Lost Cause waits for the day when Lee's kingdom shall have no end.

Now, of course, I am not talking about the historical Robert E. Lee. He died in 1870. By 1883, his opinions on the concept of Reconstruction and black equality were moot. Robert E. Lee does not lie in the Lexington Lee Chapel sanctuary, but instead what sits there is a base puppet of the post-war movement of memory. The South's constructed image of Lee as Lost Cause champion oozes from the pores of the Lee Statue in Lexington.

So, the biggest question is whether Washington and Lee University should interpret this fact or not. Right now, the chapel is memorial to Lee, a spot for veneration at the feet of the great (failed) liberator of the South. The museum exhibits laud the man as a paragon of the right. The reconstruction of his office is a historical freak show, there for staring, gape jawed wonderment and not reflection on the man's actions at all.

Yes, the chapel is part tomb. Yes, some respect should be shown, in spite of my personal judgments and northern sentiments.

But should Lee cum traitor be tackled? It certainly isn't to a great extent today. Should the action of resigning his commission in the United States Military explicitly to raise arms against that very military be given a deeper treatment? Should the museum and its staff discuss the chapel as tool of Lost Cause racism and hatred, as a rallying point for, to borrow a phrase from Frederick Douglass, the "blind, unreasoning prejudice," of post-Reconstruction America?

What is the burden of Public History? Do we as practitioners have a responsibility to take audiences beyond their comfort zone? Right now, those of us that view Lee as a traitor are challenged in our beliefs, shown Lee as a paragon of virtue. But do we as public historians have an inherent responsibility to offer those who view Lee as saint a moment to see him as demon?


1. To be honest, as an Americanist, most of my exposure to the Lord Protector's deposition of the English monarchy and subsequent reign comes from a combination of the Monty Python song named for Cromwell and the old children's rhyme ("Oliver Cromwell lies buried and dead / Hee-haw, buried and dead..."). Still, fighting perceived tyranny in the name of liberty, only intending to impose and buttress a tyrannical system yourself seems to be a common trait between Cromwell and Lee. But I digress.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"And You May Ask Yourself: Am I Right? Am I Wrong?"

This blogging endeavour is dangerous. Blogging, I believe, should be a personal medium, where you wear your heart on your sleeve and let the real "you" hang out. That's scary.

So who am I?

First of all, I'm a recovering student. I just went through the shock of leaving college for a second time. I attended Gettysburg College for my undergraduate education in History and Civil War Era Studies, graduating in 2007. That took me on a roller coaster year of figuring out the future, trying American University on for size and working as an interpreter with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in DC before I escaped the District and headed back to Pennsylvania. I just earned my Masters Degree in Applied History from Shippensburg University this past December, and so now I seem to float without any paper assignments or major research looming over my head.

The lack of constant academic stress seems sort of funny. It was a comfort to know that after this research project, another loomed on the horizon. But now it's work and slowly drifting away from the field of 'straight-up' history and into the messy world of interpretive theory and training. I miss my academic research safety blanket.

Which is where you come in, dear reader. I need an outlet for my historical stresses. Some of them are research based. Some of them are beefs with public history theory. Some of them are prodding at the system to see what shakes free.

I'm a trouble maker. I like to poke the bear, often simply to see what happens as a result. When I visit an historic site, I'm usually the one asking the Ranger about the ugly patches of our nation's history, just to see how they'll deal with them.

I'm opinionated. The Civil War blogging community, to me, is equivalent to historical punditry. Everyday, we all gather around the Sunday round-table and pick at one another like George Will and Gwen Ifill. We respect each other, but will also call a spade, a spade.

I'm eclectic. I like smatterings of everything from Tchaikovsky and Greig to Chuck Berry and the Who, from American Experience to American Pickers and from Denzel in Glory to Aykroyd in Ghostbusters. I'm just as apt to quote President Josiah Bartlet or The Talking Heads (as I did with this post's title) as I am to nod to President Abraham Lincoln or George F. Root.

I'm a racial historian. I see the world through glasses tinted by racial strife, particularly that of the 1860s and 1960s. I believe that much of America's internal conflicts can be traced back to the uneasiness of some folks around other folks just because they look different. I think racism is wrong and amoral, whether practiced in the past or today. I also think that the excuse of, "that's just the times they lived in," is complete hokum.

So what will you see from me in the coming months? Opinion pieces on when and when not to commemorate 150th events, accounts of my attempts to get myself killed while traveling across the American South, questioning of the sacred cows and holy relics of days long past and more are all coming down the pipe. I'll endeavour to be interesting and informative, while still keeping the tone a bit snarky and irreverent. Provocative is the name of the game.

I am, after all, just some punk kid trying to find my place in the historical profession.

-John Rudy