Bring Your Black Friends to Civil War Events

by Scott Manning on August 2, 2013

After several people recently lamented the lack of black people at Civil War events along with potential reasons why this is the case, Jimmy Price described an experience at the macro level that I have experienced on a micro level. Quite simply—black Americans, especially men, are just as interested in discussing the topic of war, especially the Civil War, like any other man.

USCT Grand Review

We talk about grand schemes of incorporating the black experience and slavery into Civil War tours and events while hiding Confederate flags to make it somehow “their war too.” This is the “build it and they will come” mentality. Yet my experience with individuals is you just have to broach the topic. Pull out a map, a minie ball, and some photos, and then talk strategy and tactics. Tell a story. Watch how any adult male will become instantly fascinated, regardless of nationality or ethnicity.

I am not saying that you should ignore or hide race; I am just saying you do not necessarily have to lead with it. The topic of war is inherently fascinating to virtually all men, they just need the right person to introduce them to the topic. That person is you, Civil War buff.

In the course of dragging more than three dozen friends, family members, and coworkers to the battlefields over the past four years, I have been fortunate to bring along a variety of perspectives—Pakistani, Indian, Canadian, and Australian. With my black friends, the topic of the Civil War has led to battlefield tours, museum tours, one trip to the Grand Review of the USCT, and a continuous conversation about the war.

One coworker-turned-friend stays in touch even after I switched jobs. He likes to text me obscure Civil War facts, trying to trip me up. After one of his birthdays, he joked, “Who would have thought a white Texan would be giving me a copy of Frederick Douglass?”

Price is fortunate to talk to groups of black Americans about the USCT. However, the rest of us all know black people at work and in our neighborhoods. Approach them. Ask them, “Hey, have you ever been to <INSERT BATTLEFIELD>?” Forget their race for five minutes and talk to them about the Civil War as you would with anyone else. Show them your passion. Watch their eyes light up.

Yes, the Civil War deals with race and slavery. Yes, black people have traditionally avoided Civil War events and battlefields. But that does not have to remain the case and each of us can do on a micro level what Price is doing at the macro level.

Approach your friends and coworkers. Talk Civil War. The experience will be rewarding for you and them.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bob August 2, 2013 at 10:41 AM

The same is true for Revolutionary War history and reenactments. One, which I am sure you are familiar with, The Battle of Germantown is in a black neighborhood. Every time I have attended as a participant over the past 30 years, I have noticed the virtual absence of black spectators. In my opinion, there are many reasons for this lack of interest. First and foremost, and I can totally understand this fact, black Americans, generally speaking, do not feel connected to the history because of the lack of historical African American participation, short of the Rhode Island Regiment, USCT, Buffalo soldiers, etc. of the original events. It works both way too. How many white Americans (reenactors and historical enthusiasts) visit the African American Museum in Philadelphia? Very few, if any, I would wager. Secondly, most blacks do not have the interest or the curiosity to even read the history as compared to white Americans. I would apply that assumption to black American history as well. Over the past 50 years, with the downplaying of historical education in schools, this interest has been tamped down even more so which is part of the problem for all Americans, black and white. The black intelligentsia may read or have an interest in history but for them, in many cases, it is usually skewed to an anti-American, anti-white, viewpoint. I hate to seem as if I am a defeatist, and I think it is a worthy endeavor to pursue, but I do not think attitudes regarding American history will ever significantly change within the black community.

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2 Scott Manning August 2, 2013 at 12:04 PM

Bob, thank you for the frank perspective. You are approaching the topic from a macro-level and I guess where I am focusing is more of a micro-level, an individual basis. Will we somehow see black Americans more interested in these wars and commemoration events? I don’t know. However, I think we can approach our friends and coworkers on an individual basis. Do you have an one-on-one experiences with trying to bring black people to battlefields or events?

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3 Bob August 2, 2013 at 3:47 PM

Interestingly enough, all of my black friends/acquaintances I have met through the world of history, so they are already aware and appreciative of American history, irrespective of the racial content of the history. Scott, why do you think that the black community does not relate to American history when compared to the white population? I must admit that I have very rarely, if ever, approached black co-workers regarding history and suggesting a more active participation in it in some fashion. Now that I have read your article, I will try that approach.

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4 Scott Manning August 2, 2013 at 4:23 PM

Bob, it’s a great question. From a Civil War perspective, David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory does a great job of exploring the fact that many of these events historically featured whites only, purposefully excluding blacks. Frankly, I think when the country moved away from that paradigm, there were not enough whites reaching out to blacks to invite them along.

However, not all Civil War sesquicentennial events have been monochrome. For example, Philadelphia’s opening parade and review in 2011 featured a variety of ethnicity.

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5 Bob August 2, 2013 at 3:48 PM

One more question. How will the micro approach be accomplished if the macro is not overcome?

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6 Scott Manning August 2, 2013 at 4:31 PM

Bob, another great question, but I would flip it–How will we overcome the macro problem of too few blacks at Civil War events if we do not start on a micro level by inviting every black person we know individually? For the most part, I think we have tried to solve this entirely from a macro perspective by incorporating slavery, USCT, and other stories of blacks into our interpretations. Yet this “build it and they will come” approach will not get the job done by itself. We history enthusiasts need to take the next step and bring our friends. Obviously, you and I are just two people, but we have to start somewhere!

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7 JD August 2, 2013 at 3:48 PM

I wish it were this simple . . . what you want to address on the “micro level” will not come close to making a dent on the “macro level” . . . african americans will continue to be disinterested in american battlefields even if you bring every black friend you know . . . I’ve been to numerous anniversaries and it is always the same batch of old white guys . . . obvioulsy I didn’t go to a usct event.

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8 Scott Manning August 2, 2013 at 4:32 PM

Well, it won’t with that attitude!

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9 Kitty August 3, 2013 at 2:06 AM

Having lived in South Georgia for several years and have worked with Native Americans for even longer, there seems to be quite a separation between “whites” and those who have a different origin. I’ve taught Constitutional Government for many years and have had to literally fight to get some groups to recognize that this form of government h as led to the freedoms they enjoy today.

Let’s face facts. The original Constitution did not work for the slaves or the Native Americans. They feel they were not even figured into the equation. Why should they be vested in its presevation?

What we have to teach, is that when this country was founded, only landed Englishmen had a voice. Common white people had no voice. Our founders and acestors fought for a voice and won, in time. Black people began in this nation with no voice. Their ancestors fought to earn a voice and won. Same with Native Americans. It didn’t all happen at the same time, but it DID happen. Only in this country could all of this have been achieved.

We have to stop playing into the culture of victimization and allowing ourselves to be drawn into such. The Constitution works if we stop putting up roadblocks and allowing ourselves to be drawn into the “race” issue. This is OUR country. We run it! Black, white, native American, legal immigrant…It’s ours!

We all have the same history. We had to “fight” to get what is now ours!

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10 Bob August 4, 2013 at 10:20 AM

Well stated, sir.

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11 Bob August 4, 2013 at 10:22 AM

Sorry, Kitty, I meant to write, “madam”.

12 Jimmy Dick August 3, 2013 at 1:43 PM

What do you expect when so many public schools from K-12 still teach a white Eurocentric approach to American History? People whine about having to learn gender, race, class type history and then wonder why blacks or native Americans don’t participate in American History? There shouldn’t be a surprise here. Howard Zinn wrote a great book from the perspective of those on the margins of history and Mitch Daniels and other conservatives hate it because it doesn’t teach the version of history they want taught.

Washington’s army at Yorktown was composed of up to 25% black men. That fact was ignored for centuries because it conflicted with the white supremacist history that was taught and in many ways still being taught today. Black men fought in every war we had yet even the descendants of the black men who fought in the 54th Mass during the Civil War didn’t know about it. Native Americans inflicted a bigger defeat than the Battle of the Greasy Grass on American troops in the 18th century yet almost no one knows of it.

The whining about Hispanics in this country is downright effing ignorant when real history is examined because half of this country was claimed by Spain at various times. The American Southwest was not settled by Anglo-Americans until the 19th century, but Hispanics had been there since the 16th. That gets ignored all the time.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Until we start teaching some real American History that has the bullshit stripped out of it and shows all the ugliness of the past and tell the truth we’re going to keep seeing the lack of interest thanks to the liars who want a pretty sanitized white history taught.

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13 Brian W. Schoeneman August 6, 2013 at 9:45 AM

That’s the problem. Your version of “American history that has the bullshit stripped out of it” doesn’t mesh with actual history.

If you want history taught correctly, you can’t have quotas for black history, hispanic history or whatever. The fact that I learned about Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Simon Bolivar and others in grade school kind of blows up the idea that kids aren’t taught about non-white history. In high school we had plenty of world cultural history that wasn’t based on white America.

Howard Zinn’s book is awful, revisionist history. We should be teaching fact, not spin.

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14 Jimmy Dick August 6, 2013 at 4:19 PM

I use Zinn in my course for the first unit because the descriptive language suits what really happened when the two hemispheres collided. I find that Zinn’s history is the accurate history and is reflected in many textbooks including the one used at the school I teach for.
You may not like Zinn, but then you probably dislike the fact that he stood up for American values and advocated for positive change for everyone, not just rich white people.
I don’t know who uses quotas to teach history. I just teach it as it was and Zinn’s book is great for showing how history was for people on the margins.

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15 Brian W. Schoeneman August 6, 2013 at 4:57 PM

I dislike Zinn because what he wrote was bad history. It was riddled with factual errors, it was comprised of almost all secondary sources – no original research – and included things that have been proven to be false.

A textbook based off Zinn is as bad as one of those Texas textbooks that teaches creationism as science.

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16 Jimmy Dick August 6, 2013 at 7:53 PM

Zinn did not make factual errors in his history. That is a commonly held myth spread by those who didn’t like what Zinn wrote. Try reading the book and while you’re at it look at the notes. This is just the usual line of attack by those who don’t like Zinn’s liberalism.

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17 Brian W. Schoeneman August 7, 2013 at 11:36 AM

I’ve read some of it – we studied it in school.

http://phys.org/news/2012-12-zinn-influential-history-textbook-problems.html

I could care less about Zinn’s politics.

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18 Jimmy Dick August 7, 2013 at 1:55 PM

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