On Museums and History: The Case of Clarence Thomas

Whenever a museum recording the history and culture of its subject opens, we are eager to see the stories they tell, in large part because musums are more than the mere display of artifacts. Museums, like books, tell stories, and all narratives are inherently interpretive and represent choices with consequences.

Not everyone will agree with the result, as we saw at Gettysburg when the new visitors center and museum opened several years ago. I understood and sometimes agreed with the critics of the museum, although I think some of those criticisms were overstated. At the same time, I knew that the museum was tasked to do something more than to recount the events of July 1-3, 1863, and November 19, 1863, in isolation, bereft of any context. Yet I also knew that the context would represent interpretive choices that would be open to analysis and criticism.

So it comes as no surprise that some people are not too keen on everything they’ve seen in the Smithsonian Institution’s new museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Of especial note is the claim made in some corners that the museum more than slights the career of current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, supposedly, one infers, because of Thomas’s conservative political views.

You know what’s going to follow this report: whining about political correctness and the supposed political agenda of supposedly left-wing academics made by right-wing scholars, buffs, and “observers” (advocates) who claim that their adherance to their own political points of view is an expression of their dispassionate objectivity about the American past. We’ve seen that exercise in projection all too often.

Having not yet visited the museum (I haven’t been to DC since it opened, but it is first on my list for my next visit), I can’t testify as to the particulars of the case. Nor do I know how the museum treats other divisions among African-Americans over time, whether it be Frederick Douglass versus Martin Delaney, Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. DuBois, or Martin Luther King, Jr., versus Malcolm X, all of which have been traditional (and overused as well as sometimes distorted or misunderstood) ways to view aspects of African American history. And that’s just for starters.

That said, one hopes that in recognizing the diversity of the American past through focusing on the African American past, the museum also embraces telling the story of the diversity within the African American past … and present. Part and parcel of that discussion is an exploration of black conservatism as demonstrating that African Americans are far from a unified bloc when it comes to many issues. At the same time, one should not make more of something than is appropriate … we’ve seen that in the discussion of whether Africans Americans served in significant numbers as soldiers in the ranks of the Confederate army. I note that when it comes to that issue, those gallant defenders of historical accuracy often shed their disguises to suggest that, regardless of what Confederates themselves said at the time, such people were soldiers and should be recognized as such … a position that reflects their own presentist attitudes and political agendas. Others just let that issue go unexplored lest they offend their fellow travellers.

Not that we’re about to hear those storied critics of political correctness hold themselves to the same standards they demand of others. No way. Otherwise we might have heard a reaction to this.

So let’s actually visit the museum before we pass judgment. Otherwise we’re little more than a clipping service bound to our personal prejudices.

Confederate Heritage Advocates: Angry at a Black Man

After some discussion, the University of Louisville has decided to remove a Confederate statue on campus grounds. Professor Ricky L. Jones weighed in on the issue as part of the debate.

It appears that Confederate heritage groups did not like Professor Jones’s position. We’ll leave it to you to imagine why, especially in light of what they said should happen in this case.

Oh, those Virginia Flaggers … yearning for the days of lynch law to keep order.

The Flaggers Want You to Remember White Supremacy

The Battle of Liberty Place took place on September 14, 1874 in New Orleans. White supremacists, known as members of the White League, attempted to overthrow Louisiana’s Republican regime, and in so doing, attacked the city police, led by none other than former Confederate general James Longstreet, who was wounded in the ensuing clash. Three days later United States forces broke up the White League offensive and restored a semblance of order to the streets of the Crescent City.


Although the coup d’etat effort failed, many white Louisianans remembered it fondly,  and in 1891 they erected a monument commemorating the clash at the head of Canal Street.


By the middle of the twentieth century, residents of New Orleans were increasingly embarrassed with this tribute to white supremacy in the midst of their city. Efforts were made to conceal the monument with vegetation, and eventually it was removed from Canal Street. One needed to walk north of Canal Street to find it in a location near a parking lot (which is where I encountered it years ago). The  monument’s been in a relative state of disrepair, and graffiti artists and others have vandalized it more than once. New markers attempt to explain the monument in context, but that has done nothing to erase it as a point of controversy.

Currently New Orleans is debating what to do with several Confederate monuments as well as the Battle of Liberty Place monument. Despite the protests of those advocates of Confederate heritage who seek to deny any connection between the Confederacy and white supremacy, one could say that what happened in 1874 was a continuation of what had been going on in Louisiana for years … the use of violence to secure a white supremacist order (as the New Orleans riots of July 30, 1866, as well as the Colfax Massacre of April 13, 1873, and the Coushatta Massacre of August 25, 1874 suggested … the last-named served as a prelude for White League paramilitary operations the following month in New Orleans).

It was left to our favorite Confederate heritage group to deplore recent vandalism to the Liberty Place monument.

Liberty Place

It is interesting to note that the Virginia Flaggers finally admit that a monument to white supremacist violence is part of the Confederate heritage they desire to honor. Rise up Dixie, indeed.

Oh … and just so you know … Susan Hathaway lives in Sandston … so guess who posted this? Remember that the next time someone tell you that she doesn’t celebrate white supremacy. All lives matter, indeed. Tell that to the victims of white supremacist violence during Reconstruction … for those lives didn’t matter, least of all to the Virginia Flaggers.

Trump and Carson: Failing American History Again?

UPDATE: Kevin Levin takes a nine iron to thump Trump.

It is a commonplace observation that a sound knowledge of history can be of use to a person who wants to be president of the United States. Many people also claim that a flawed understanding can do much harm.

And then there’s Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who seem intent on showing that ignorance of history is no barrier to popularity among a certain group of voters.

News comes this week that Mr. Trump is an active Civil War preservationist, although the land he preserved (by turning it into a golf course) happens to have had next to nothing to to with the war other than it oversees the Potomac River. However, Trump has proclaimed that  one can see “The River of Blood” from where he has placed a plaque celebrating his devotion to remembering America’s past (between the 14th and 15th hole).

river of blood
Courtesy New York Times.

Let’s just say that it’s a good thing he has not explored the possibilities of building a casino in the Gettysburg area (as others have). That would result in a different sort of tasteless tower dominating the skyline.

As for Ben Carson, following a lull in his litany of errors, he decided to come back strong on the Sunday news programs by declaring that Thomas Jefferson crafted the Constitution.

James Madison must be fuming. He always has to play second fiddle to the man from Monticello (although Madison did not write the Constitution, either).

It’s not the first time Carson has been charged with having erred on matters pertaining to American history, although it is reasonable to respond that in this case the word “craft” is not quite the same as “compose,” and that it refers to Jefferson’s interpretation of the document — or, according to this commentary, Jefferson’s correspondence with Madison on the document. That’s a more difficult case to make, as Jefferson’s assessment came largely after the document was composed. You can see some of the correspondence during the deliberations here: note that it includes only one letter from Jefferson to Madison during the convention.

I would tell you which Confederate heritage blogger has already come out in favor of Trump, but I’d rather have you guess. She must have forgotten that he’s a Yankee.


The Grant Memorial Restoration


You see it frequently, although you don’t always know it, and sometimes you don’t recognize it. It’s the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington, DC. Located just west of the Capitol, at the eastern edge of the Mall, the general today looks out across a reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Often one sees the monument in the foreground of a shot of the west face of the Capitol building.

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On Moving and Returning Bodies: The Case of Nathan Bedford and Mary Ann Forrest

By now most readers of this blog have heard about the continuing discussions in Memphis and elsewhere on the fate of the bodies of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife Mary Ann. Debate over the Forrests, a monument commemorating the general, and the park in which they are currently buried commenced before the Charleston murders, with the name of the park being changed to “Health Sciences Park” (really?) on Union Avenue (that should bring a smile to some faces). In the wake of those murders and the discussions that have ensued, the Memphis City Council took the next step, proposing to remove the Forrests’ bodies and return them to where they were originally buried, a place Forrest himself chose–a Confederate cemetery.

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On Moving and Removing Monuments (and a poll!)

Just because the Confederate Battle Flag no longer flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state house does not mean that the debate over the display of Confederate flags, icons, and symbols is over … including monuments to Confederate leaders and soldiers. Today we consider the last category.

Monuments are creatures of the place and time when they are erected (and where) just as much as they are ways of paying tribute to a person, event, cause, soldiers … whatever the subject of the monument. They tell us as much about the people who erected those monuments as they do about the subject of the monument. One need only recall the history of the major monuments in Washington, DC, as well as the debates over more recent monuments placed in the nation’s capital to understand this point. Even ugly monuments (see here) have their own special message, although in some cases I believe the monument may actually mock or denigrate its subject (see there).

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