Category Archives: Public History

The Distance from Slavery

I read1 an article today as I was skimming through Civil War related news stories, and one caught my attention. This was a littleittybitty story out of Oklahoma –  about a group of fifteen-year-olds parading a Confederate flag around town, occasionally stopping to educate passers by on its true meaning. As you might guess – their mission was to distance their cause from slavery and emphasize secession for the preservation of “state rights.” The opposition confronted the group of Confederate apologists at least once, they had a amiable discussion, and they eventually agreed to disagree and parted ways.

I’ll commend the members of both small groups for not allowing passions to escalate into a more heated…potentially violent exchange. But I can’t help but wonder…why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, do Confederate apologists insist that secession was not linked to the preservation of slavery? I know I know…state rights. But which ones?

I’m reminded this morning how the state rights argument is a compelling one for many. As I re-read Tony Horwitz’s acclaimed, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, and plan a class project that engages the text and public history, I can only recall my own upbringing. At a young age, I learned the persistent myths that involved my family, the state of Alabama, and the “noble cause” of state rights for which my ancestors fought. It made the very young me feel great about my state…which had stood defiantly against “oppression” and the tyranny of the federal government. But if they had added the preservation of slavery to the mix, well, that would have ruined everything. Of course slavery was something real, and living breathing slaves something tangible. Confederate apologists work best with abstractions – often conveniently ignoring what was actually happening. The good news – I soon overcame my indoctrination, as it were, into the church of the Confederacy – but only after looking at the evidence and drawing the most irrefutable conclusion.

So to my Confederate apologist readers: I understand why you do not want to associate secession with the preservation of slavery. But how – I mean really how can you not? Speeches, the contemporary press, even the secession documents themselves easily refute your claims. Yet you persevere. I am looking to hear from you. Which specific state rights did the southern slave states secede to protect?

With compliments,

Keith

High School History Students and the Federalists

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 4.53.20 PMGreetings all – while it would be cool if all I did all day was bang out Tweets and post pics to Instagram, I do have to earn a living. And…since I do not see eye to eye with the powers that be in the Ivory Tower (and they don’t see eye to eye with me…) I teach AP US History (and other stuff) privately here in Los Angeles. I answer to no one and I don’t give a shit about tenure. It’s good work if you can get it.

Here’s something I have noticed. High school kids really relate to the Early Republic Federalists. At first this struck me as odd…I mean, in general, they seem so…government. I would expect them to gravitate toward the idealism of Thomas Jefferson. But no. Centralization? Check. National Bank? Check, Internal Improvements? Check. Tariffs? Check.

I asked around about this and what I found is that perhaps the kids are latching on to the idea of stability, logic, and rationality – on clear ideas: solutions to problems, when their own futures are pretty uncertain. I’m not entirely convinced that any movement or faction can take the credit for any of these things, including the Federalists. But it just seems that this is how kids understand and make sense of the Federalists in the most general way.

This is just an observation…what do you all think? I am especially interested in hearing from other high school history teachers.

With compliments,

Keith

Digitized Green Books from the New York Public Library

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 10.01.09 AMI’ve just learned this exciting news – Jim Crow era Green Books are now available in digitized form courtesy of the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture – a fine institution to be sure.

Green Books were travel guides for black families traveling through the segregated nation. By the 1940s, the guides included the mid-Atlantic, the South, The Midwest, and the West Coast.  The books provided information on establishments such as hotels and restaurants that catered to black folks – and thus people were able to avoid confrontations with the proprietors of  “white only” establishments.

You can find this profoundly significant resource HERE.

With compliments,

Keith

Confederates in My Neighborhood

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 4.05.57 PMThis morning, Kevin Levin called on public historians to do their jobs. He is wondering what folks are doing to “help their communities make sense of the relevant history behind our ongoing and very emotional discussion about Civil War memory.”

I especially like the idea of public historians acting in their own neighborhoods. So here is what I am doing. I live very near the famous Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You’ll note that I have posted about this cemetery several times over the past years concerning its many Civil War connections, both to history and popular culture.

Right at the entry off of Santa Monica Boulevard is a somewhat unassuming memorial to the Confederate  soldiers who, after serving their cause, relocated to the west coast and lived out their lives in the great City of Angels. I know that some who regularly visit this monument would hope that Confederate commemorative efforts on the grounds go unnoticed. A representative from the United Daughters of the Confederacy once told me, and I am not making this up, that the neighborhood had “gotten a little dark…if you know what I mean” and that Confederate ceremonies could be asking for trouble. Well, I did know what she meant but in all honesty, I suspect that most people who live in this primarily Latino part of town don’t give a shit about your monument.

But…the location of the monument is right smack in the middle of a heavily trafficked area swarming with tourists looking for Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Dee Dee Ramone, Vampira, and about a zillion other celebrity graves.

Until lately I would have thought nothing of it. But with the controversies surrounding Confederate symbols and monuments very present in the media, I think it time that tourists, not suspecting that they will happen upon a monument to the Confederacy in Hollywood, get a little contextual history.

I have written to the office staff at Hollywood Forever asking how we might proceed with a small interpretive plaque. As I have mentioned, I think these, coupled with QR codes linking to some sort of site with historical information, would be very helpful in parsing through the more contentious elements of Civil War memory. I will keep you posted on what happens.

I will note one last thing. In this cemetery, you will find a  recently erected commemorative stone honoring Hattie McDaniel, the actress who played Mammy in Gone with the Wind and the very first black person to ever win an academy award. She died of breast cancer in the early 1950s and wanted to be buried at Hollywood Forever. But she is buried elsewhere in Los Angeles. In the 1950s, Hollywood Forever was a white only cemetery. So, it seems that at one point the cemetery director thought it fine and dandy to honor those who fought against the United States, but not black Americans. Go figure.

With compliments,

Keith

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Gettysburg Sacred Trust Weekend: Summary Recap

IMG_4219Greetings!

As you all most certainly know, especially if you follow me on Twitter and Instagram, I have spent the last few days in Gettysburg participating in the Gettysburg Sacred Trust talks and book signing event. I met a number of captivating people on and off the battlefield, took part in a great panel discussion featuring a lengthy and engaging question and answer section,  and I signed a shit ton of books. I could not have had a better time.

Though I have been to Gettysburg many times over the years this was the fist time I have  been during the anniversary of the battle. I was surprised that there were so few people on the field itself. Folks with whom I spoke said that interest had died down since the 150th anniversary. Go figure. The people I did meet on the field had quite a bit to say, what with the flag controversy and all. Let’s just say there were strong opinions all around and leave it at that.

I took about a zillion photos and videos – here are a few highlights:

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With compliments,

Keith