On May 23 the authorities in New Orleans removed the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its pedestal. It was the last of four Civil War monuments that the city decided to remove. In the midst of this controversial campaign, Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans spoke eloquently about the reasons for taking this action. His presentation (see link below) is a remarkable reflection on the nature of history.
Unlike what exists in the popular wisdom, history is not fixed in the past. Doing history is not about developing timelines. That is chronicling, not history.
History, at root, is a dynamic conversation about the significance of what it means to be human between those of us alive at any one moment and people who have lived at another time and/or in another culture. Fundamental to this conversation, is the act of remembering. Remembering, and its companion act of forgetting, are selective processes not driven by evidence but by the filters of a particular moment. As Mayor Landrieu explains, a generation after the surrender at Appomattox, at a moment when the South fully embraced segregation, Southerners chose to selectively remember the role of Civil War political and military leaders while forgetting the stories of people of African and Native American descent.
Although Landrieu does not explore this, the same could be said of the ways that Northerners used the Civil War to absolve themselves of the complexity of America’s most contentious era. School text books are filled with maps of the United States in 1860 that are color coded to read “Slave” and “Free,” intended to reinforce the view that the victors were morally superior. But Northerners, for the most part, chose to forget that it was Ohio and other northern states that pioneered the Black Codes, which got imported and elaborated to the South in the 1890s as Jim Crow segregation. And although the Northern states gradually eliminated slavery between 1783 and 1865, racist assumptions and attitudes were almost universal. Even many Abolitionists, who boldly opposed the institution of slavery often rejected the idea that people of African descent were equal to those of European heritage.
Doing good history, telling an inclusive story in which multiple voices are incorporated is hard. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center exists to hold up a more complete, more challenging and ultimately more interesting history of America. We tell stories that reflect more than a generation of scholarship that emphasizes that African Americans were the primary actors in the Underground Railroad, beginning with enslaved individuals who risked everything to claim freedom, but also as the organizers and everyday workers who helped freedom seekers find safety and a new life. We make it clear that African Americans, whether they were enslaved, born free, purchased their freedom or claimed it by running away, were active participants in the dismantling of slavery.
By broadening the range of human stories told about the United States, we make history a force for the future.
Read and enjoy:
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center