"Slavery is by far the most sickening stain on our County's history; and yet, to this very day, especially in Southern schools, slavery is considered to be but a minor academic issue in American history and is given only a slight mention is general daily studies." - Kent Allen Halliburton
Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton, Eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Slavery is a very difficult subject to talk about in public. It is one of those topics that almost always draws out the deepest of emotions in people. It is able to do this because its very nature is in direct violation of the tenants of such famous documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that are supposed to dictate the freedom and liberty for all those persons who seek it. How have public institutions addressed the issue of slavery in the past? What changes are being made in the present? What is the hope for the future? In Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, eleven essays, two of which are authored by the editors themselves, do a very good job of answering these questions and more. They offer perspectives on the issue of slavery in public history that are both encouraging and thought provoking.
The first essay was written by Ira Berlin and is entitled “Coming to Terms with Slavery in Twenty-First-Century America.” In this essay, Berlin noted the only recent rise in the public’s interest in slavery, noting slavery’s presence on the radio, on the internet, at monuments, in museums, in books, on television, and in countless other public venues. He also traced the development of slavery from the entrance of slaves into the earliest colonies, what he calls the ‘Charter Generation,’ to the slaves that were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, what he calls the ‘Freedom Generation.’
The second essay was written by David W. Blight and is entitled “If You Don’t Tell It Like It Was, It Can Never Be as It Ought to Be.” In this essay, Blight discussed public memory and it’s relation to history. He opened with a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which the main character, Buendia the Silversmith, lost the ability to remember. As he slowly forgot everything, though, he did whatever he could to give himself reminders about what everything was. Blight also quoted St. Augustine in Confessions. In this text, Augustine described memory as the ‘vast court,’ the ‘treasury in the mind,’ or ‘a great chamber.’ Blight offered such quotes to demonstrate the importance of memory throughout history.
The third essay was written by James Oliver Horton and is entitled “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue.” In this essay, Horton discussed the near non-existent nature of slavery education in the past, reasoned why this was so, and then offered some suggestions for how to overcome this and inform the people. He pointed out that to begin with, while most people do react powerfully to slavery, they do not truly understand it. This is because education in public schools and other institutions has been absent or very poor in the past. He also pointed out the poor state of race relations as a reason for the uncomfortable nature of the topic of slavery.
In the next four essays the authors showed, through practical experience, how the issues of dealing with the public presentation of slavery have been addressed. Consider John Michael Vloch’s “The Last Great Taboo Subject: Exhibiting Slavery at the Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress asked him to make an exhibition out of the book that he wrote, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery, which was based on their collections. Then, when some among the library’s staff declared their offense, the exhibition was taken down. After a big press issue ensued, the D.C. Library picked up the exhibition. Was the exhibition truly offensive? No, in fact, the African American population of D.C. was grateful for its honesty.
Further, consider Gary B. Nash’s “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll? From Controversy to Cooperation.” He showed how the citizens of Philadelphia handled the National Park Service’s initial refusal to adjust its presentation of the Liberty Bell, but how, in the end, both sides benefited from cooperation. The new Liberty Bell Center is making good progress, it will draw in more visitors than was originally expected, and the public will be better informed about an important part of their history. The house that now stores the Liberty Bell served as the first President's House from 1790 to 1800. The house was served by a staff of slaves. The first President, George Washington, used his own slaves. Afterwards, slaves were rented from local slave owners. Joanne Melish, in “Recovering from Slavery: Four Struggles to Tell the Truth,” offered similar looks into the ground work involved with this issue. The most interesting of the stories that she told was that of Eric Browning who, as a young college student, did a great deal of work to adjust the presentation of the slaves’ lives that were lived at the old plantation home of former US Senator John Rowan of Bardstown, Kentucky.
The final of these four essays is “Avoiding History: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Uncomfortable Public Conversation on Slavery,” by Lois E. Horton. In this essay, Horton addressed how the public perceived Thomas Jefferson as a slave holder. She also discussed how they viewed his relationship with the slave Sally Hemings and how they felt about the possibility of her children being fathered by Jefferson. In order to determine how people felt on these issues, she conducted private interviews at the museum that resides at Jefferson’s old home, Monticello. In these interviews, she found out some interesting things. She found that most people accepted Jefferson’s role as a slave holder, but then offered some sort of excuse for his actions. The most interesting thing that she discovered, however, was that how people felt about Jefferson and his connection to slavery was not based on their race, but rather, on their age. Older people were more willing to accept his owning slaves, as well as, his relationship with Hemings, as a normal way of life, despite the contradictions.
The next three essays are an interesting lot, in that they show that the debate over slavery is still not over, and that despite the progress that has been made in facing the issue of slavery, there are still people that refuse to face slavery in a mature and realistic manner. Marie Tyler-McGraw, in her essay “Southern Comfort Levels: Race, Heritage Tourism, and the Civil War in Richmond,” showed how a diverse city dealt with attempts at revival and the retention of its history. The central issue was a controversy over the placement of a statue of Abraham Lincoln on the city’s riverwalk. Southern heritage organizations, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, argued that this would be similar to placing a statue of Osama bin Laden in New York City.
Organizations like this played similar roles in the next two essays. In Dwight T. Pitcaithley’s, “A Cosmic Threat: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” persons from such organizations argued that including a discussion of slavery at battle sites would take away from what actually happened at the battle itself or was hateful ‘South Bashing.’ In his essay, “In Search of a Usable Past: Neo-Confederates and Black Confederates,” Bruce Levine discussed such organizations using poor evidence or twisted facts to support the existence of black Confederate combat soldiers. He, obviously, was not convinced.
What are all of the authors in this book showing? They are showing that in the past, and that past is not all that long ago, as late as the early 1990s, slavery was addressed very little or not at all at public historical sites; but since then, this has begun to change. Examples of these changes are the work that John Michael Vloch did with the D.C. Public Library, the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia and its inclusion of the ‘President’s House’ exhibit, and the museum at Monticello, home to Thomas Jefferson and his many slaves. They also show, however that there is much work yet to be done to overcome the recalcitrant attitudes that are the legacy of four hundred years of slavery and one hundred and fifty years of extended poor race relations. Looking at the issue, Slavery, ‘directly in the eyes,’ through proper education and public discourse, at every level, is the only way that Americans will be able to reconcile their differences and move on as one united people.