Today I came across an essay that deals with a question that has plagued Civil War battlefields and museums for decades – how do you attract African Americans to your sites and events?
Having been in the field of public history since 1998, I have heard frustration over a lack of African American participation and enthusiasm voiced over and over again…and no matter how hard sites try to bend over backwards to attract and accommodate a black audience, results never seem to match expectation.
Well, today on a blog operated by the Atlanta Journal Constitution,Natasha McPherson of Spelman College chimed in on this dilemma.
Here’s how she framed her explanation:
“First, this wasn’t our war. Many African-Americans fought and died on both sides of the conflict, but they were excluded from the decision-making process.”
She went on to pose an astonishing question with an even more problematic answer: “But the Civil War led to the abolition of slavery, right? Maybe.”
I would posit that these two quotes from her larger explanation of why African Americans are unconcerned with the Civil War actually raise more questions than they answer.
- Is she giving credence to the Black Confederate myth when she declares that blacks “fought and died on both sides of the conflict”?
- What body of evidence is there that would imply that the Civil War didn't really abolish slavery?
McPherson begins her essay by stating “most African-Americans regard the Civil War with relative indifference.”
This leads to the issue I allude to in the title of this post – is there any wonder that blacks would be indifferent when the war is framed within this negative and pessimistic context?
The implication is that there is nothing that blacks can take away from the Civil War experience that they can be proud of – it was all too horrible, so why go back and retread such awful and painful ground?
McPherson obviously brings an entirely different set of experiences to her observations and that is fine – I just can’t help but feel different based on my experiences speaking to African American groups and attending living history events with the 23rd United States Colored Troops.
In my experience, the question I hear repeated over and over again within these communities is – why didn’t anybody tell me about this?
At a recent event with the 23rd, I had the pleasure of talking to an African American couple who had driven many miles just to see and talk to the members of the 23rd because they had no idea what USCTs were or how large their participation in the war actually was. They were completely intrigued.
When I was done talking to them, they were literally giddy with what they had just learned and couldn’t wait to go home, buy some books, and learn even more. And this was not an isolated incident. Many African Americans I have spoken to feel a sense of loss that they have gone their whole lives without hearing about black participation in the Civil War.