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.

Two Celebrations

This weekend, Americans will finally get to see what many of us have been waiting to explore: the opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’ll be at a conference at Illinois State University discussing the Supreme Court decision ex parte Milligan (1866), so I’ll have to wait my turn to step into this museum (I visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History for the first time in 1966, some fifty years ago, just two years after it opened).

To me, the new museum is for all of us, much as other Smithsonian museums are for all of us (the National Museum of the American Indian comes to mind) as well as other museums on the National Mall (as in the Holocaust Museum). I can’t wait to see what stories the new museum will tell and how they will be told.

That museum looks forward in part by looking backward, suggesting the journey ahead in part by reviewing where one’s been. Elsewhere, however, maybe a hundred miles to the south, people who look backward all the time will also be gathering that weekend. That’s right … the Virginia Flaggers will celebrate their fifth anniversary of existence and three years since the Comedy at Chester was first unveiled. I remember that day very well, and it always brings a smile to my face.

It’s a remarkable contrast to see the rest of America looking forward and learning some history while some folks remain stuck in a past they don’t actually understand very well. But we can always wonder who the Flaggers will invite to the picnic this year. Any guesses?

 

Heritage Hypocrisy

Over at Virginia Whine Country we’ve been hearing more complaining about political correctness and the bankruptcy of education … but nothing about the news that in Texas, “Five million public school students … will begin using new social studies textbooks this fall based on state academic standards that barely address racial segregation. The state’s guidelines for teaching American history also do not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws.”

That’s heritage correctness for you. Let’s just take out white supremacy (and insist that to include it is “political correctness” or a sign that one’s “obsessed” with the subject). None of that has any place in a historical narrative shaped by the (self-)righteous demands of heritage correctness.

And when it comes to the Civil War, children are supposed to learn that the conflict was caused by “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” — written deliberately in that order to telegraph slavery’s secondary role in driving the conflict, according to some members of the state board of education.

Slavery was a “side issue to the Civil War,” said Pat Hardy, a Republican board member, when the board adopted the standards in 2010. “There would be those who would say the reason for the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over states’ rights.”

Sure. Like the state right reflected in personal liberty laws that white southerners wanted to strike down in their effort to create a federal bureaucracy to recapture escaped slaves, even if that mean setting aside altogether the rights of the accused or a trial by jury?

Yup.

Maybe Stonewall taught his slaves that, too.

It’s not as if Confederate heritage advocates are not aware of what happens in Texas when it comes to the removal of Confederate statues at college campuses. Oh, that’s horrible. But when it comes to other distortions of history that favor their version of historical correctness?

Crickets.

Face it: Confederate heritage correctness is nothing more than political correctness as embraced by white supremacists, Confederate apologists, and the wonderfully ignorant. And its advocates are proud of it.

 

Trouble in the Land of Lincoln?

As a former member of the board of directors of the Abraham Lincoln Association as well as a researcher, I’ve visited Springfield, Illinois, many times since I first stopped by Roger Bridges’s office in March 1985. As part of my position I’ve had dealings with The Papers of Abraham Lincoln under various editors (in fact, in 1985 I was contacted about heading a Lincoln legal papers project in Springfield, but that job went to a far more capable editor; it was the forerunner of the current project). Just last month the project announced that it had secured a valuable grant to assist in its operations.

Thus it was with some surprise that I read that the project may have become a pawn in various political disputes (although, truth be told, even in 1985 I understood that any such project would have some political strings attached).

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A Dust-Up Over Lincoln and Colonization

For some time most Lincoln scholars have taken for granted the notion that the sixteenth president abandoned his notions about colonization with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. One Lincoln scholar, Mark Neely, took great pains to dismiss an account by Benjamin F. Butler that detailed Lincoln’s continuing interest in colonization as late as April 1865.

Philip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page have asserted that Lincoln continued to press for colonization after he issued the proclamation. Magness went so far as to challenge Neely’s treatment of Butler’s account, leaving the door open to the possibility that Lincoln did meet with Butler in a conversation where the subject of colonization might have come up. Magness also pursued the issue of James Mitchell’s role in Lincoln’s post-proclamation activities.

I found Magness’s work to be provocative, and I invited him to speak at the 2013 Benjamin P. Thomas Symposium of the Abraham Lincoln Association. At about the same time, Allen Guelzo offered a review of Magness and Page’s book to which Magness has taken exception. Basically, Guelzo dismisses a good deal of the book’s argument, while Magness suggests that certain documents whose existence are questioned by Guelzo do indeed exist.

As Magness has charged Guelzo with “professional misconduct” in offering a “willfully mendacious portrayal” of Magness and Page’s findings, this disagreement does not promise to fade away quickly. One hopes that those fireworks do not distract from the more important implication of Magness and Page’s work: that while Lincoln may have gone silent in public about colonization, he remained committed to it as an option (if no longer the only one) behind the scenes.

Dr. Thomas P. Lowry Responds

It’s been exactly a month since the National Archives announced that Thomas P. Lowry had confessed to altering the date on a Lincoln document so as to make it appear that the president signed the document on April 14, 1865, hours before John Wilkes Booth shot him at Ford’s Theater.  You’ll remember that Lowry recanted his confession.  The story would have gone away had it not been for a certain historian’s commentary on the piece in the New York Times.  There were people who were astonished by the report of Lowry’s behavior, and there were some people who stood up for him.

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Gettysburg College’s New Journal: A Personal Note

Gettysburg College has long been known as a center of Civil War scholarship, and not just because of the faculty who teach there.  The college’s Civil War Institute sponsors an annual summer seminar, and undergraduates can come to Gettysburg to be a part of the Gettysburg Semester.  Now the college has gone a step further in promotion undergraduate research in the field of Civil War studies.  The first issue of The Gettysburg College Journal of Civil War Studies has just appeared: you can download it here.

I confess to being particularly interested in this inaugural issue because of the lead article, “The Visual Documentation of Antietam,” by Kristilyn Baldwin.  That’s because Ms. Baldwin happens to be my student, and this article was one product of her work under my supervision.  Congratulations to her!