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Why is it important to study how we remember the Civil War?

P1014795In the last two decades the scholarly study of how Americans remember the American Civil War has become something of a cottage industry in the profession.  I admit that at times I grow a bit skeptical about it, even as I am intrigued by some of the findings.  It’s not as if other historians have not written about memory before: the work of Merrill Peterson and Norman Cantor comes to mind.  At times some studies simply employ in rough fashion the process of deconstruction evident in literature studies, and at times the conclusions reached in some of these studies seem to belabor the obvious.  Indeed, it may well be time to take a step back in order to see how this field is progressing, and to do so with a little care and discernment, instead of rushing heedlessly ahead to find something else to dissect.  That said, what I thought was obvious may strike others as new, and in any case I like that more people are approaching sources with a critical eye.

That said, there’s still a good reason to study how Americans remember the Civil War era, including the decades leading up to the war and the Reconstruction period.  That’s because today we see people engaged in the misuse of the past to justify present political beliefs and some rather deplorable prejudices.  Take, for example, this little affair, which Kevin Levin brought to my attention on Civil War Memory:

Some still mad about Founders speech

By Julie N. Chang and Sharon McBrayer
Published: June 03, 2010
Morganton (NC) News Herald

VALDESE — A church pastor’s speech at the Founders Day Festival outraged some listeners who remain upset nearly a week after the event.

According to eyewitnesses and from others who heard about the speech from their children or grandchildren, the Rev. Herman White of Archdale made racist remarks, asserted that slaves before “the War of Northern Aggression” had more rights than African Americans have today and disparaged the Gettysburg Address as “political garbage.”

School and town officials said they have fielded dozens of complaints. However, one of the event’s organizers said he received only one complaint and an official in the organization that recommended White as a speaker said he thought it was “a pretty good speech.”

A woman who answered the phone at White’s residence said the minister would not comment until he spoke with festival officials, because he was their guest speaker.

White’s audience included hundreds of eighth-grade students from the Burke County schools. In what has become an annual excursion, each paid $1 to attend the 2½-hour-long festival that commenced with White’s speech.

One student was Leatrice Taylor’s grandson, Chris Rutherford, who said he started paying attention to the speech after another student’s mother called White a racist and took her child and left. Chris said he heard White saying things like black people should still be slaves and that the races should not mix. None of the students talked about it afterwards, Chris said, but some talked about it on the bus he rides home from school.

His grandmother wondered why teachers and school officials didn’t take the students away immediately.

“To me, it was irresponsible and dangerous,” Taylor said.

Schools Superintendent Art Stellar heard part of White’s speech and said it was “certainly inappropriate.”

“The message that was conveyed has been interpreted different ways,” Stellar said, “but it was certainly out of the bounds of what would be appropriate for school.”

Gretchen Costner, director of the Waldensian Heritage Museum, was working directly behind the speaker. She said she didn’t listen intently, because she was busy setting up the museum’s booth, but heard White constantly referring to slaves and black people. She remembers him saying black people had more rights during slavery than they have now.

She doesn’t remember any clapping or cheering after the speech; instead, it was really kind of quiet. She said there was no reaction during the speech either. She said some Heritage Middle School teachers told her that they couldn’t believe what was being said.

The Rev. George Logan of New Day Christian Church in Morganton said, “I was quite surprised at the content.”

He recalled it as “a glorification of the South and the Confederacy and not really balancing it out with the ills that took place.”

Logan said White seemed to excuse slavery because some African chiefs sold their own people into slavery.

“I just thought it lacked… It was very, extremely insensitive to the history of slaves in this country,” Logan said. “Whoever was responsible for allowing him to speak, at the very least, I think, it was probably irresponsible that they didn’t delve a little bit and find out what was going to be said.”

Logan’s son was there and told him he didn’t quite understand what White was saying, but “it didn’t seem right.” Logan believes most of the students probably felt the same way.

Chris Rutherford, too, said, “It wasn’t right.”

Logan continued, “I think it was innocent on the schools’ part, just like I didn’t know what was going to be said — almost to the point where we were stunned and couldn’t act soon enough.”

Other school and town officials didn’t hear the speech, but heard about it from parents and other citizens.

School board chairman Buddy Armour, said, “I’ve had parents and community leaders calling me as to how they were greatly offended and surprised and disappointed in the school system. That we didn’t put the kids back on the bus and take them back to school.”

Valdese Mayor Jim Hatley said he received six or eight phone calls. After hearing several recount the same information, Hatley believes what he was told is accurate.

“As the mayor of the town of Valdese, I’m appalled by what he has done,” Hatley said. “It makes Valdese look like we support what he said.”

Hatley said the town of Valdese isn’t racist and he pointed out that the Waldenses who founded Valdese were persecuted and faced prejudice and always fought it.

He doesn’t want people to think the town had anything to do with the event or the speaker. He said Valdese doesn’t fund the festival.

“I just can’t say this enough, I’m appalled and I’m embarrassed,” Hatley said.

The mayor told Town Manager Jeff Morse to investigate the matter.

“The mayor’s outraged,” Morse confirmed.

He, too, said town officials don’t want people to associate what happened during Founders Day with Valdese. He said they want to get the message out that the town doesn’t condone it.

The Waldensian Trail of Faith, a local nonprofit organization, sponsors the Valdese-Waldensian Founders Festival. The association’s president, State Sen. Jim Jacumin, said the Burke County Tigers, a Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) group, recommended — “raved” about — White as a speaker.

Jacumin said, “We don’t research. That’s something we don’t do. We don’t have the money or the time to do that… It’s like a pastor who comes to your church and preaches, you don’t research him.”

According to Tigers’ chaplain Larry Smalls’ introduction, White is the pastor of Archdale Church of God, has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in ministry and is working toward his doctorate. He said White is a state and national SCV Life Member and has been the SCV N.C. Division chaplain for six years.

“(White) is a purebred unreconstructed Southerner and not ashamed to say so,” Small said, “and Dixie burns in his heart.”

Tigers’ adjutant Elgie McGalliard said the organization did not know specifically what White would speak about, but knew he focused on the history of the South.

“He’s a minister; he just talks what’s in his heart,” McGalliard said. He said the Tigers didn’t inform the schools about the speech because they didn’t know what White was going to say.

Jacumin said he did not hear White’s speech, because he was “busy trying to get everything moving at the festival.”

McGalliard heard it and “(I) thought he made a pretty good speech.”

“He was insinuating the proper history tied to the South,” McGalliard said, “and the teachers are not teaching it like it should be taught.”

McGalliard said White encouraged students to get on the Internet and read “the true version of Southern history.”

“Over the years, the real, true history of the South has not come out in the books they teach in schools,” McGalliard said.

He declared that the Burke County Tigers have no ties with white supremacist groups, nor do they condone them.

“We are in no way a racist group or intend to be,” McGalliard stated emphatically.

He said the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ purpose is to keep their heritage and history going.

The Waldensians founded Valdese in 1893, 28 years after the end of the Civil War.

The Rev. Kevin Frederick of Waldensian Presbyterian Church what struck him about White’s selection as a speaker is that the festival is supposed to celebrate the town’s founding.

Frederick also said the church is absolutely against what White said, which is so opposite what the founders stood for.

He said Trail of Faith board of directors have assured him they will push to have the festival’s emphasis put back on the town and not the Civil War.

Costner, the Waldensian Heritage Museum’s director, said the museum didn’t participate in last year’s festival because of negative feedback about Civil War re-enactors at the festival. She said White’s speech definitely was not appropriate for a Founders Day event. A speaker who talks for 20 minutes on Waldensian history makes more sense, she said.

Armour, the school board chair, questioned why students were there at all.

Armour said the board does not require students to attend the festival and, “in fact … I requested that they not have to go, particularly because it occurred in the middle of testing week.”

“If the subject matter is potentially volatile, our kids don’t need to be in the middle of that,” Armour added. “My strong recommendation to teachers and principals would be to put the kids on the bus immediately and let’s go back to school.”

Stellar said, “You want to support local venues, but you also have to look at the content and the messages that are being conveyed.”

He said, “What we’re going to do at this point is rely upon our teachers to work with the classes in terms of what they heard and how they interpreted what they heard and how to resolve that.”

Stellar said the schools would “revisit the whole issue of attending” the festival in the future.

Barbara Myers, president of the Burke County chapter of the NAACP, said she heard some “troubling” verbal allegations about what occurred at the festival and the chapter will investigate what happened before it decides on any future action.

Hmm.   So much for some groups that say they are devoted to “heritage, not hate” and who claim a devotion to historical accuracy over “political correctness.”   Perhaps the best reason why one should study how Americans remember the Civil War is to remind us that some people still remember it as Rev. White (oh, the irony!) does.  I’m sure “Dixie burns in his heart”; I came away from reading his remarks with images of burning crosses and hoods.  That said, I applaud the outrage that greeted these remarks.

Comments (2) to “Why is it important to study how we remember the Civil War?”

  1. Sad to say we probably won’t get any follow-up reports to learn the final outcome.

  2. So this is a town that was founded by religious dissenters 30 years after the end of the Civil War, the festival is designed to spotlight the town’s history (one assumes that in North Carolina there must be a few residents of African-American and/or southern Unionist ancetry), and they allow the SCV to select their keynote speaker?

    And the person responsbile for the seclection – a state legislator – can’t be bothered to figure out that his keynote speaker, allegedly a Christian clergyman – is a flaming racist?

    Wow… just wow…