Today we share the last of our conference reports on the November 2018 annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association, held in Birmingham. Thank you for following along with us as these four reporters shared details about these fascinating and thought-provoking panels.
When one attempts to explain to non-historians that their high school knowledge about the American Civil War and Reconstruction was not a simple recounting of facts, but instead the product of subsequent eras of remembrance and silencing shaped by political exigencies, one comes to appreciate in a very real way the compelling power of myth and memory. My audience is not usually undergraduates. As an historian of institutional history, it is more often administrators, board members, and alumni who themselves are shaping a contemporary political narrative in intentional and unintentional ways.
A panel on “Memories and Commemorations of Abolition in the Post-Emancipation Era” at the 2018 Southern Historical Association annual meeting offered some new perspectives on how myths and historical narratives serve the time in which they are invoked, politically and personally. The three panelists focused on events some fifty years after Civil War and Reconstruction. Whether it was disagreements in Richmond over the meaning of emancipation, stories that ex-Confederate soldiers used to justify a pension application, or comparisons to the end of serfdom in Russia–a nearly contemporaneous event–these papers offered a glimpse into the moment of public debate and the contest over popular memory between the races and between generations.
In “The Greatest Exposition Ever: Black Richmonders and the 1915 Emancipation Exposition,” Hilary Green, associate professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama, focused on how African Americans remembered and commemorated the American Civil War and its legacy. In 1915, the city of Richmond prepared to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation with a Great Exposition that would showcase the city’s progress in uplift and racial relations. The planning committee chair, Giles B. Jackson, had been born enslaved and was a proponent of Booker T. Washington’s ideals of racial uplift. Jackson was determined to demonstrate the successes of his race and to challenge the increasingly pervasive Lost Cause myth of white supremacy. The exposition ultimately failed, despite Jackson’s ability to secure the endorsements of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Virginia governor Henry Stuart.
The entire article can be viewed on The Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.