Slavery and Public History

Horton and Horton, Slavery and Public History

“American history cannot be understood without slavery.” (2) So, clearly ignoring slavery undermines the fabric of our country. And yet, people continue to ignore it. Slavery was different for every man, woman, and child and changed over time. According to Horton and Horton, thinking about enslaved persons as those who picked cotton, lived in the deep south, and embraced Christianity is not necessarily wrong. (7) But there is a bigger picture. Generations of slavery include the Charter Generation, the Plantation Generation, the the Revolutionary Generation, the Migration Generation, and the the Freedom Generation. (8)  The character of race changed and is still changing, and it will change in the future.

W.E.B. Du Bois explains how “we must face the fact,” as people became commodities in the African slave trade, he blames our ancestors for their carelessness. (23) Americans may deny slavery’s existence but it is up to the historian to engage in this fact and delay slavery no longer. Although there is a strong reaction when presented with slavery, it is the historian’s duty to address this ignorance, and not only in abbreviated form (41). Unfortunately, high school history teachers are not always educated in history enough to retell the truth. Horton and Horton find it quite alarming that a majority of college students could not identify Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson. But honestly, it is not surprising given the fact that at my high school, not one history class was mandatory in order to graduate. This is undoubtedly why protest groups often surround Southern Civil War sites. Ignorant protesters deem slavery as patronage institutions of yesteryear. But slavery was not a romantic Southern trait and should not be taught so.

Exhibitions of slave life show a “hunger for memory” and the truth of the past will “help explain African American’s prolonged victimization.” (72)  Again, Horton and Horton explain how the historian must not trivialize that past, nor, as NPS chief historian, Dwight Pitcaithley explains, must create exhibits that do not “make people feel good but do not think.” (86) It is shameful t lie about the past, and will only prolong victimization of black Americans. Like the Jefferson and the DNA controversy, the truth will make its way out in some form and historians have the power to control said form.  Historians of the Civil War have also neglected the true telling of black troops who served the Confederacy. The Sons of Confederate Veterans believe blacks fought with them for liberty and identified with the Confederates, and this view “marks a tactical shift in the way the Confederacy and the war is depicted and justified.” (190) While everyone has a different way to explain themselves, spreading a false history and denying that slavery “was the core of the antebellum South” is dangerous to society. (211) Ignoring pain is more comfortable than acknowledging it but through proper education it does not have to be that way.

Gordon, a Mississippi slave who escaped slavery and fought against the Confederacy


Photograph courtesy of America’s back Holocaust Museum

The Scourged Back: How Runaway Slave and Soldier Private Gordon Changed History

 Never mind the slavery, have you dipped a candle yet?

This blog explains how slavery is neglected or not even mentioned in seven of the twenty North Carolina plantation websites. Many public history sites and other exhibits whitewash history, but including everyone in public history benefits everyone, as the Historic Stagville Plantation has learned. Not everyone agrees.  One commenter points out how sanitizing the experience for the visitors’ protections makes history more cheerful. But denying brutality and violence does not serve anyone.


 At Gettysburg, Moral Panic Disguised as Historic Preservation

Kevin M. Levin’s website features Larry Cebula, who explains how developers are trying to build a casino near Gettysburg National Battlefield. The video presented illustrates “everything that is wrong with how we remember and memorialize our history in this country,” according to Cebula.

The issues include the video’s “fetishistic treatment of warfare as a sacred activity more meaningful than other human activity.” Also, there are many other commercial businesses the same distance from the battlefield, so why is gambling the only business that is protested? Cebula calls it a “moral panic being propagated by Puritan scolds.” After looking into Sarah Palin’s protest of an Islamic community center near ground Zero, point taken. Some commenters shame Cebula for “stirring the pot,” but thankfully, Levin may continue to discuss these controversial issues in his Civil War Memory course.







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