Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Self Fulfilling Prophecy of Black Participation in the Sesquicentennial

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.

For instance:

- 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.

Sadly, McPherson’s perspective would seem to leave little room for such edification.


  1. I am an African-American genealogist who has been teaching others to research their AA roots for 14 years now, and I absolutely can attest to your experience. Most of my students and beginners in genealogy are not aware of the huge role that AA's played in the war, the large number that participated & the complex but direct role it played in their freedom. I recently told a cousin about his gggrandfather being a soldier in the Civil War and he and his wife were amazed. It is a topic I have developed greater interest in over the years & I will be buying your book! I am also writing smaller articles in genealogy journals about the AA soldier's from the counties I am researching. I was surprised to find that many in the Mont County, MD where some of my ancestors are from served in the 30th, a regiment that was at the Battle of the Crater. I think making people aware of that personal connection to their family helps to make real the Civil War.

  2. Hi Robyn,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, and thank you for doing the hard work of researching these forgotten stories. While the subject matter is usually painful, I feel like ignoring the African American Civil War history because of the unpleasantness of the topic is unwittingly practicing something akin to the ancient Roman practice of “damnatio memoriae” – purposefully erasing someone from history.



  3. I am an African American and I can attest to the fact that many African Americans have little to interest in the Civil War, however the reason is because neither they nor any one else read about or heard of the role they played in the Civil War before the movie "Glory" came out. I am 64, there was never ever any mention of African Americans in the Union Army or Navy in any class that I was in from 1955-1970 when I finished college. Not even in my ROTC classes in college.

    None of my elementary, high school or college texts were written by African Americans. I grew up in the south, so if there were books that talked about the AA contribution to the Civil War in Fla where I grew up in the 1950' and 60's, those books would not have been used in the school system.

    One thing of note is that NOW African Americans who find out a little what to learn a lot. It will take a lot work to bring them in but once there, they come back and want more. I have a what I call an African American Military History Museum. It is made up of GI Joe figures dressed in period uniforms from the Am Revolution to present day. I take it around to schools and churches. It is quiet large but I can break it up to fit the size of places where I am invited to put on a program. Please check out my website I have tried to make contact with places like the Nat Park Service, but they have shown no interest, so from my experience. when you say some organizations are having difficulty attracting African Americans to their programs, my question would be are they really trying?

    Love your blog, will continue to follow.

    Rob Williams

  4. Hi Jimmy,
    I have specific question about the participation of African American soldiers at the Battle of Chickamauga. I know there were no African American regiments there, but have been reading specifically about the 125th Ohio under Colonel Opdycke. There is mention of an African American recruited into the ranks as a company cook during the spring of '63. Do you know if ad-hoc (as it were) African American's fought in 'white' regiments before the end of 1863 in the western theatre? I'd be grateful for your views,
    Richard Buxton