On nearly every tour of the slave quarters at the historic Stagville plantation in Durham, guides draw visitors close to the shacks' original chimneys. They point to red bricks that bear heart-rending imperfections: one where an enslaved bricklayer picked up a still-drying block, planting a finger groove that would persevere for 150 years; another that shows a relief of five delicate toes, attributed to the impulse of an impish child.
This is the part of the tour where elementary schoolers usually respond by asking probing yet innocent questions—were slaves really whipped? It's where some high schoolers tend to joke around with their classmates to allay their discomfort, says Kimberly Puryear, assistant manager for the state-owned site. It's the part of the tour where many adults go silent, their tears brewing.
When she applied for a job with the state, Puryear says she most feared being assigned a position at Stagville.
"I didn't know how to talk about slavery," she said. Not only was Stagville built on the backs of hundreds of enslaved workers, it belonged to the Bennehan-Cameron family, which by 1860 owned an estimated 30,000 acres and 900 slaves in North Carolina alone—among the largest holdings in the antebellum South.
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War commencing this spring, guides at Stagville and at hundreds of other sites throughout the South will describe the painful histories of slavery and war to growing audiences, and re-enactments of battlefield engagements will abound.
Just last Saturday, our state marked the anniversary of its secession from the Union with re-enactors in Confederate gray bearing fifes and muskets at the state Capitol. The event was orchestrated by the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources—which has been planning for the sesquicentennial anniversary for five years—with an acute awareness of the dichotomy in how Southerners remember the war: those who exalt Confederate leaders as defenders of liberty, limited government and states' rights, and those who regard the Confederate cause as an ignoble effort to perpetuate slavery.
"Most states are trying to reach broader audiences and be more inclusive," says Michael Hill, research branch supervisor with the N.C. Office of Archives and History. "We know there are some who have a deep investment in a certain narrative," he adds. Neo-Confederate groups, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, strive to "honor, venerate and uphold what they would see as traditional Southern values, which for many includes states' rights and a right to secede." But such groups won't find any publicly funded events that romanticize the so-called Lost Cause, which is regarded as a sublimation of the beliefs that propelled the South into a war it would inevitably lose—and which cost the lives of 625,000 soldiers and thousands more civilians.
"The Civil War is not something we ought to be commending," says the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. "It is something we ought to remember because it's a part of our history—you can't erase history—but we ought to do it with a deep sense of sadness, a deep sense of repentance and a whole lot of tears."
American memory of the conflict is now a central theme to Civil War study, a departure from decades spent recounting the tactical details of individual battles. Several scholars who have documented Civil War memory visited Raleigh's N.C. Museum of History last week for a day-long symposium exploring the American consciousness of the war and its causes, and how those beliefs have changed in the 50 years since the last major anniversary of the war.
At the time, the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission and its state counterparts were charged with planning events for the 100-year commemoration. The events were expected to generate tourism and patriotic spirit. But juxtaposed with the surging American civil rights movement, the events only intensified racial and political tensions and highlighted the inequities of segregation.
The story was told exclusively from a white perspective and downplayed the role of black Union soldiers, as British scholar Robert Cook notes in Troubled Commemoration, a full-length study on the failures of the centennial. As South Carolinians prepared to commemorate the attack on Fort Sumter—the event that precipitated the war—the state's leaders invited the national commission to meet at a Charleston hotel for the 1961 event. But the hotel refused to host a black commissioner from New Jersey, prompting pressure from President John F. Kennedy himself to change the venue. In many other instances, the anniversary was celebrated with whites-only parades and pageantry—revelry observed by many as "white people slapping themselves on the back for having created America, the modern U.S., but ignoring the real issue," says UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Fitz Brundage, author of The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory. By 1963, the centennial had declined into chaos, and not even the 100-year anniversary of emancipation in January of that year sparked widespread celebration, Brundage says.
The polarizing anniversary in some ways energized civil rights advocates, who were often taunted at public events by white opponents brandishing the Dixie flag. Just months before the 100th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and confronted a century passed: "One hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free," he declared.
Some historians glossed over the racism and hostility that tainted the observances. Even celebrated historian Bruce Catton—in his day as famous as Shelby Foote—produced an essay at the end of the centennial in 1965 that sold the idea that somehow, the war's commemoration had unified the country, says Yale University history professor David Blight, who delivered the keynote speech at last week's symposium on Civil War memory.
"He marveled in the piece at how Americans had 'healed'—that was his word," Blight says. "That a modern country could go back and commemorate its civil war and get through it somehow, especially at the time of the civil rights movement, he thought was marvelous." Catton wrote that the war had been a source of unity—not a divisive force. "When I first read that, I had that moment of thinking, 'Oh Bruce, say it ain't so.'"
Many contemporary Civil War historians now argue the opposite—that war-borne rifts were ever-present at the time of the centennial. Neo-Confederate groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans still champion the cause today, if only in the margins.
"The Sons believe they are defending the truth," Brundage says. They still hold private commemorations, but the doctrine no longer holds the same prestige it once did. "The Lost Cause exerts much less grip over the Southern imagination as it did," Brundage says.
Yet, 150 years later, the power struggles exemplified in Civil War history persist, say Blight and the NAACP's Barber. They may take new incarnations, but the ideologies, when dismantled, still resemble a Civil War-era credo.
"Those positions continue to permeate the courts, and our Congress and our laws," Barber says—positions rooted in racism and the Jim Crow era.
The NAACP has documented the proliferation of hate groups since President Barack Obama took office, Barber says. The country has been plagued by conspiracists who insist that Obama wasn't really born in the U.S., as cited on his birth certificate. Several states, including North Carolina, are working to implement strict identification requirements for voters. North Carolina's conservative lawmakers are also hoping to repeal the 2009 Racial Justice Act, a law aiming at correcting racial bias in death sentencing.
And just as in what some call the "war for constitutional liberty," dozens of states are still trying to wrestle free from the tyrants in Washington, Blight notes—perhaps most prominently with more than half of the states in the union joining a federal lawsuit against Obama's 2010 health care reform act. This year, state legislators in Georgia are hoping to override federal monetary regulation so that banks can accept payment in gold and silver. In Kentucky, state leaders have drafted a bill that would make the state a "sanctuary" from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Montana, along with other Western states, is considering a bill that would nullify the Endangered Species Act, Blight says, as well as a law that would require the FBI to get a local sheriff's permission to make an arrest in that jurisdiction.
"Think with me about a comparison we might make about secession in 1861 and our new nullifiers, or our new states' rights advocates of today, whether they're members of the Tea Party or some other group," Blight says. "Both, it seems to me, are distinct minorities of the whole of the American population. But nevertheless, of course, history shows us that distinct, powerful voting minorities can really change the history of the nation ... Both embrace a version of federalism we have some right to believe was buried in the mass slaughter and the bloody soil of the Civil War."
Alas, he says, history continues. And it repeats. Those legacies buried 150 years below the soil—or indelibly impressed upon tomato-red bricks—remain part of our foundation, whether or not we choose to look.