Of course it was about slavery

Of course it was about slavery

There has been a major resurgence in pro-Confederacy rhetoric on social media lately. The public’s increased awareness of the fact that a white supremacy based sub-culture is alive and well in America has produced a backlash against the symbols of the Confederacy that dot the Southern United States.

Heritage not Hate has become a rallying cry that completely misses the point. Honoring your individual ancestors is a personal matter. Using public lands and money to celebrate their rebellion and what it represented is an entirely different matter.

If the Confederacy was built on a foundation of love, it was a love for the status quo at a time when men and women could be property and the wealth resulting from the use of their minds and bodies could be collected by the people enslaving them.

Rewriting History

Rewriting History

The various states that attempted to secede from the Union each individually codified and publicized their reasons for forming a new nation and a major theme that ran across most of them was the passionate desire to keep the institution of slavery safe from limits that might be imposed by the newly elected Republican President and keep the institution growing into new lands to the west. (see: The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States)

There are other reasons that states and individuals supported secession but those were in addition to the preservation of slavery, not instead of it.

Some of the people in charge of elementary and high school history curriculum have done a great disservice to the nation. For almost a century now we have worked hard to insulate students from the harsh realities of nineteenth century America. As a result, we now have adults walking around who think that the causes for the war are unknown and only exist in a murky realm of debatable  opinion. We know the facts, but the facts are rarely presented clearly alongside the supporting documentation that removes a lot of that murkiness.

The same Internet that helps draw these pro-Confederacy activists together provide easy access to primary source materials that let us fully understand what has happening before and during the war if we just open our eyes.

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Miscegenation Seems Here to Stay

Miscegenation Seems Here to Stay

The historical taboo among American whites surrounding white-black relationships can be seen as a historical consequence of the oppression and racial segregation of African-Americans.

In many U.S. states interracial marriage was already illegal when the term miscegenation was invented in 1863. The first laws banning interracial marriage were introduced in the late 17th century in the slave-holding colonies of Virginia (1691) and Maryland (1692). Later these laws also spread to colonies and states where slavery did not exist.

The bans in Virginia and Maryland were established at a time when slavery was not yet fully institutionalized. At the time, most forced laborers on the plantations were indentured servants, and they were mostly white. Some historians have suggested that the at-the-time unprecedented laws banning interracial marriage were originally invented by planters as a divide and rule tactic after the uprising of servants in Bacon’s Rebellion. According to this theory, the ban on interracial marriage was issued to split up the increasingly mixed-race labor force into whites, who were given their freedom, and blacks, who were later treated as slaves rather than as indentured servants.

By forbidding interracial marriage, it became possible to keep these two new groups separated and prevent a new rebellion.

Repealing the Anti-miscegenation Laws

Most states in the Northeast, Northern-Midwest, and Western states with these laws repealed them by 1967 with some, including Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Maine, and Ohio, within a generation of the end of the US Civil War.

Repeal Over TimeThe final blow to these laws came with Loving v. Virginia, a landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court, that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

The case was brought by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, who had been sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for marrying each other. Their marriage violated the state’s anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited marriage between people classified as “white” and people classified as “colored”. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision determined that this prohibition was unconstitutional and ended all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.

Ku Klux Klan, [between 1965 and 1980]

Ku Klux Klan, [between 1965 and 1980]

In 2013, it was cited as precedent in U.S. federal court decisions holding restrictions on same-sex marriage in the United States unconstitutional, including in the 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges.

There are still plenty of non-governmental organizations opposed to interracial relationships.

Bob Jones University banned interracial dating until 2000 and segregationists (yeah, they still exist), including modern Christian Identity groups, have claimed that several passages in the Bible should be understood as referring to miscegenation with certain verses expressly forbidding it. Most theologians interpret these verses and references as forbidding inter-religious marriage, rather than interracial marriage.

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25,000 Lomax Manuscript Pages Online

25,000 Lomax Manuscript Pages Online

Today the American Folklife Center announced the online publication of the Lomax Family manuscripts. This project begins today, with access to 25,000 pages created primarily by Alan Lomax during the 1940s and 1950s on the LOC website here.

After 1942, when Congress cut off the Library of Congress’s funding for folk song collecting, Lomax continued to collect independently in Britain, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain, as well as the United States, using the latest recording technology, assembling an enormous collection of American and international culture. In March 2004 the material captured and produced without Library of Congress funding was acquired by the Library, which ‘brings the entire seventy years of Alan Lomax’s work together under one roof at the Library of Congress, where it has found a permanent home.’

God moves on the water

Lightnin’ Washington (vocalist), John A. and Alan Lomax, recordists. Lightnin’ Washington was an African American prisoner in the prison hospital at Darrington State Farm, Texas in 1935 when this was recorded.


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“…confining the negro to the soil…”

“…confining the negro to the soil…”

Growing up in both the North and the South,  I was exposed to a lot subtle and not-so subtle views about the Civil War, but about the South’s side in particular.  One recurring theme I picked up from adults, at an almost subconscious level, was a sort of dismissive view of the moral and ethical standards of Southern whites and reasons why the Civil War and slavery were not REALLY their fault.

The idea I absorbed was that they should all be forgiven because they did not know any better. Slavery was just part of their world. They inherited it and took it for granted for the most part.

Either that, or they were actually benevolent altruists who were taking hell-bound savages from Africa and teaching them the gospel alongside employment skills  all while and feeding and clothing them and keeping them out of trouble.

To be honest, I think many of the adults I picked this up from did not really know any better themselves.  My schools did a pretty lousy job of teaching anything about life in the south beyond that of the wealthy landowners.  Everything possible was done to make live in the 19th century South happen in the passive voice.  There were slaves and there were plantation owners but the fact that people owned slaves was incidental… “James Smith owned and operated a large cotton plantation in Mississippi… and oh yeah, he also owned some slaves. ”

My schools taught me little or nothing about the scale of slavery in the South.  We never learned how many slaves were needed to produce the kind of wealth enjoyed by the Southern aristocracy.  The way I was taught made it easy for me to accept the narrative that slavery was on its way out and that the South was not really fighting for the right to own slaves in the Civil War.

Diving into primary sources from the mid-19th century changed all that.  There is plenty of evidence that there were concerted efforts in place designed solely to bolster the slave-owning status quo.  The article below penned by a judge in Mobile, Alabama provides an excellent example of the mindset held by some in the South at the time.

It proposes a way to increase support for the institution of slavery among non-slave owning whites by legislating a mandatory class division between blacks and whites by ensuring that black labor is only used for farm work (and presumably domestic work) so mechanical or trade work would be open exclusively to lower classes of white citizens.

Judge Hopkins is very clear in his proposal that creating this divide should win support for slave-ownership by giving white people in the trades a position in society firmly above that held by black workers. (more…)

Life in the Jim Crow South

Life in the Jim Crow South

Behind the Veil is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in life in the south as experienced by African-Americans struggling to make a life for themselves under unfair and repressive laws.

Behind the Veil

The Behind the Veil Oral History Project was undertaken by Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies from 1993 to 1995. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the primary purpose of this documentary project was to record and preserve the living memory of African-American life during the age of legal segregation in the American South, from the 1890s to the 1950s.

Herbert Block, 1958

Herbert Block, 1958

Over the span of three summers, teams of researchers conducted oral history interviews with more than one thousand elderly black southerners who remembered that period of legal segregation. The tapes and selected transcripts of the 1,260 interviews in this collection capture the vivid personalities, poignant personal stories, and behind-the-scenes decision-making that bring to life the African-American experience in the South during the late-19th to mid-20th century. It is the largest single collection of Jim Crow oral histories in the world.

Four hundred and ten of the 1,260 interviews have been digitized and made available on this site totaling about 725 hours of recorded audio. One hundred and sixty five of the interviews include transcripts comprising more than 15,000 pages of text.

Source: About – Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South – Duke Libraries

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