Historical memory... the prize in a struggle between rival versions of the past


Reading Memory in Black and White

This morning, I read the first few chapters from Memory in Black and White by Paul A. Shackel. This material is background for the second round of revisions to my study of Baltimore’s Confederate Monuments which I’ll be presenting before the city’s special commission on Thursday, October 29, 2015.

Race as a social/historical construct

the conflict over racism and slavery has never really been resolved. In 1865, the Civil War was over and the issue of united states was settled. What the war did not accomplish was to change the racial ideologies that had developed in American culture over several centuries. (p.1)

Several centuries later, the creation of the concept of race changed the way people perceived human differences. It imposed social meaning on physical variations between human groups and served as a basis for structuring the total society. It became prominent in the structuring of inequality in the American colonies, and it soon spread to other parts of the world when they too were colonized by western Europeans. (p.3)

  • 1663: Maryland legislature declared that “Negroes were to serve ‘Durante Vita,’” their entire lives
  • 1681: Maryland act described mixed marriages as a “disgrace not only of the English butt also of many other Christian Nations.” After 1691, marriages between enslaved people and freedmen became illegal.
  • 1710s-1720s: Dramatic surge in racist legislation in Maryland, masked as a naturalizing ideology.
  • 1728: Act passed “for the punishment of negro women, having bastard children by white men; and for as much as such copulation are as unnatural and inordinate as between white women and negroe men”

(pp. 5-6)

Meaning, memory and power

Traditions, meanings, and memories are invented, and they become legitimate through repetition or a process of formalization and ritualization characterized by reference to the past. By implying continuity with the past (and sometimes that is a matter of forgetting a past) or by reinventing a collective memory, these traditions reinforce values and behavior.

Public memory is more a reflection of present political and social relations than a true reconstruction of the past. As present conditions change socially, politically, and ideologically, the collective memory of the past will also change. (p. 11)

Public memory can be viewed as a tactical power that controls social settings. Competing groups battle ceaselessly to create and control the collective national memory of revered sacred sites and objects. (p. 13)

History, memory and racism

The exclusion of blacks from the national consciousness was an active process that was reinforced through written symbols, material symbols, and commemoration. While all blacks were American citizens from the time of the Reconstruction Amendments, it was close to a hundred years before they could gain inclusion in the collective memory of the United States. (p. 14)

Shackel notes changes in textbooks after mid-1960s; stamps after 1965 (notably the Black Heritage stamp series after 1981); National Black History Month in 1976; Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1986; National Historic Landmark designations after 1970. (p. 15)

Even though two peoples may share a common history, it does not mean that they shared a common experience. Material culture, be it in the form of statues, monuments, museums, artifacts, or landscapes, has some ascribed meaning (past and present) associated with it, and these meanings vary among individuals and interest groups. This material culture can be transformed into sacred objects when it serves the goals and needs of any group. Governments use objects and material culture to perpetuate a national heritage. … Often, race is at the center of the struggles for the creation of power and meaning. (p. 16)

Early Memorialization and resistance

Shackel quotes David Blight (1989) writing:

Historical memory… was not merely an entity altered by the passage of time; it was the prize in a struggle between rival versions of the past, a question of will, of power, of persuasion.

  • 1869: Southern Confederate generals founded the Southern Historical Society in New Orleans; later moved to Richmond by Jubal Early; published The Southern Magazine

Southerners immediately created a Confederate memorial movement to mourn the war dead. Communities created Confederate cemeteries, erected monuments in these cemeteries, and instituted a memorial day for the dead. These activities “offered a vague hope of vindication,” and the “Confederate dead became powerful cultural symbols within the New South—gave power, in other words, to the ghosts of the Confederacy.” (Foster 1987) … Mourning became a significant social, cultural and spiritual duty in the old Confederacy, and women acquired the role of grieving and memorializing. (p. 23-24)

The Lost Cause was rooted in churches and secular institutions and shaped by journalists and fiction writers from the die-hard Confederate apologists and novelists who appealed to a national audience. They believed that the South fought for a just cause and lost only because it succumbed to overwhelming numbers. … This rhetoric strengthened by the mid-1870s, and a revitalization movement proposed the legitimacy of secession. (p. 27)

  • 1877: Election of Rutherford B. Hayes and the restoration of white rule in the South, reconciliation became a fashionable idea
  • 1882: Union and Confederate veterans first meet at Gettysburg; at least 19 Blue-Grey reunions occur over the next 5 years
  • 1889: United Confederate Veterans (UCV) is organized; at the group’s height, between 1898 and 1912, 1 in 3 living veterans (160,000 men) were members
  • 1896: Former Confederate General Bradley T. Johnson (a native Marylander) spoke at the dedication of the Museum of the Confederacy at the former home of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia emphasizing in his speech that, “the greatest crime of the century was the emancipation of the Negro”

Frederick Douglass in 1884:

It is not well to forget the past. Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is… the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future.

In a speech in Washington, DC in 1889, Douglass said:

Well the nation may forget, it may shut its eyes to the past, and frown upon any who may do otherwise, but the colored people of this country are bound to keep the past in lively memory till justice shall be done them.

Shackel notes with the rise of the Lost Cause ideology (and support from Theodore Roosevelt among many others):

An integrated collective memory became unacceptable to the majority of white Americans. They interpreted the war as a test of a generation’s valor and loyalty toward a cause. The Lost Cause mythology argued that Confederate were never defeated but rather were overwhelmed by numbers and betrayed by some key generals.

Changing location/subject for Confederate Monuments

Dates Description
1865-1885 >90% of Confederate monuments contained some form of funerary design; a majority of these (70%) stood in cemeteries.
1885-1899 55% of new Confederate monuments erected in cemeteries; 40% of new monuments used funerary designs. Towns chose to locate monuments in public places (streets, courthouse lawns)
1900-1912 60% of all Confederate monuments before 1913 are erected in this period; only 25% used funerary design; 80% depict a lone Confederate soldier; 85% located in public areas

(pp. 24, 36-37, 39)

Applied Approaches to Challenging the Official History

Strategies that different organizations have implemented to establish alternative or multivocal histories at sacred places.

Should local, state, and national parks continue to support a memory of the era in which historic sites were created—in the name of American heritage—or should these sites be seen as dynamic, fluid, and changing places that serve the needs of contemporary society?

Refuse to be subsumed by the dominant ideology

Labor v. Capital at Lawrence Massachusetts

  • National Park Service at Lowell

Use an interdisciplinary approach to build a case for inclusiveness

  • Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Accept minority views as equal

Tradition v. Scientific methods at Sand Creek, Kiowa County, Southeastern Colorado

  • Sand Creek National Historic Site

Make a moral lesson out of a national disgrace

  • Manzanar, Eastern Sierra near Town of Lone Pine, California

Persistence in lobbying

Making the women’s suffrage movement part of the official memory in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Compromise with minority groups

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, West Potomac Park, Washington, D.C.

Understand the poewr of dissenting groups

  • Enola Gay Exhibit, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

Idea that American history produces obedient, patriotic citizens. Michael Frisch, 1989 “The argument has traveled a long way from its humanistic origins, arriving at a point where education and indoctrination—cultural and political—seem almost indistinguishable.”

Ignore minority viewpoints

  • Don Juan de Onate Statue, Alcalde, New Mexico

The debate over how to present the story of Onate to the public is not only about the past but also about how a group chooses to remember a past. It is about how neighbors view and treat each other and how they view themselves.

Legitimization of American heritage

John Quincy Adams, “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals. It bears the head of no man on a coin.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that Americans were “emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race.”

Mark Leff, 1995:

This epithet, “revisionist,” … may be the key to understanding the current crisis of history. “Revisionist” meant the displacement of the more happy-faced, elite oriented view of American progress and destiny to which most Americans, particularly those raised on “consensus history” textbooks, had became accustomed. At the same time, the use of “revisionist” as a term of abuse suggests a reaction of the very notion of historical reinterpretation, under the assumption that the displaced version of history had been objective and factual, while the revisions were subjective and faddish.

“Subordinated groups may subscribe to the dominant interpretation, ignore the dominant view, or fight for representation in the public memory. Transforming the public memory of any sacred place does not come without persistence, hard work, and compromise. While there are often strong movement to eliminate subordinated memories from our national collective memory, some minority groups battle to have their histories remembered.” (p. 209)