Thursday, April 8, 2010

Kennesaw battlefield conducting focus groups with African-Americans

Hoping to widen the scope of its exhibits, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is talking with African-Americans about their attitudes on the Civil War.

The park wants to know what would draw more African-Americans and what kind of exhibits or themes might better tell the black narrative on the conflict.

“The African-American side of the Civil War has been left out” at most sites, said Kennesaw Mountain (KEMO) Superintendent Stanley C. Bond.

The park, working with the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at nearby Kennesaw State University, will be hosting five focus groups this spring. Each group will have 8-10 participants. The groups will include officials and members of several organizations, such as the NAACP Cobb County branch.

KEMO’s recommendations and actions following the study will be shared with other federal Civil War sites later this summer. National Park Service sites are charged with discussing the causes and consequences of the war, Bond says. It’s part of the “From the Civil War to Civil Rights” initiative.

Bond says the popular suburban Atlanta battlefield does have some mention of the homefront and the African-American story during the Civil War, but needs to do more.

“We would like to see more people here for historical purposes,” says Bond, who contends about 80 percent of park visitors come for recreational purposes, such as hiking, walking and horseback riding.

Conducting the focus groups is Hermina Glass-Avery (above), associate director of the KSU center.

Glass-Avery contends that slavery, race and emancipation got short shrift during the nation’s 1961 observation of the Civil War centennial. She hopes that changes during the sesquicentennial commemoration starting in 2011.

A controversy this week has rekindled the issue of perspective.

Virginia Gov. Bob McConnell apologized Wednesday for failing to include slavery in his proclamation declaring April as Confederate History Month. He said he wanted the month to mark the valor of Confederate soldiers, but critics said he should have first acknowledged the ties between slavery and the war.

Bond and Glass-Avery cite the following as examples of little-known aspects of blacks in Georgia:

-- Some 250 African-Americans from the era, many federal soldiers, are buried at the National Cemetery in Marietta. One African-American, “Ten Cent” Bill Yopp, served with Confederate forces and is buried with them at the Confederate Cemetery in Marietta.

-- African-Americans, like their white owners and neighbors, suffered late in the war. “When Sherman went on the March to the Sea he took everything,” Bond said.

-- Large numbers of black women died in contraband camps because they were left without support when freed men joined the federal army.

-- Plantations symbolize the antebellum South. “You don’t hear from the silent hands that made them operate,” said Glass-Avery.

-- African-American soldiers “were present and agents of change for their freedom.” At least 200,000 served.

Glass-Avery and Bond hope their focus group findings may bring about new interpretive approaches and exhibits that could increase the number of black visitors.

“Their [African-Americans’] story is not held with the same respect as other narratives,” said Glass-Avery, who contends the election of President Barack Obama has made the time right to discuss the war, race and civil rights. She says the Compromise of 1850, Jim Crow laws, the Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Civil War all shaped the push for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

KEMO recently participated in the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era’s recent symposium, “Alternative Realities: African-Americans and the American Civil War: Freedom, Memory and Identity.”

Glass-Avery says the “Lost Cause” touted by many Southerners after the war and at the 1961 centennial has given way to the discussion of many other issues and beliefs related to the Civil War.

In the end, Glass-Avery hopes that Americans will be open to different views of history.

“It is ethical for us to be respectful of one another.”

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