Thursday, February 10, 2011

Part 1 of African-Americans and the Civil War: "Tell Our Story and We Will Come"

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is, in many ways, metro Atlanta’s largest playground.

Every year, about 1.5 million visitors throng to the 2,900-acre park in Cobb County, taking advantage of its trails, picturesque views and grassy meadows.

Of course, there’s also history there.

A frontal assault by Union Gen. William T. Sherman failed in June 1864, producing 4,000 additional casualties in the bloody, but eventually successful, campaign to take Atlanta.

About 20 percent of the visitors come to learn about the Civil War, and they find plenty to delve into – from the film and visitors center to signs and monuments in combat zones such as Cheatham Hill, Kolb Farm and Pigeon Hill. Interpretive programs and living histories help tell the story.

International visitors, including a recent surge of people from Asia, find the war fascinating.

But one segment of American society feels the story is incomplete.

African-Americans have a complex connection to the Civil War, one that includes celebration of liberty and pride over their ancestors’ contributions, but also the lingering sting of slavery, the states rights argument and segregation.

African-Americans, as slaves, helped build the massive Confederate defenses at Kennesaw. They served as cooks and teamsters for the Union army. Thousands served in battles across the South, wearing blue as U.S. Colored Troops.

Stanley C. Bond, superintendent at Kennesaw, says many may not feel the Civil War is part of their story. They may not find enough pertinent information or interpretation during a visit, he said.

“The Civil War in our community is not a conversation we are happy to talk about,” says Deane Bonner (photo above), president of the Cobb County branch of the NAACP.

That attitude, she says, has begun to soften recently with an effort by Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park to expand its interpretation of the Civil War “to an inclusive model that is more culturally and ethnically diverse.”

The park, in a cooperative agreement with the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University, recently produced a report on African-American attitudes toward the Civil War.

Entitled, “The War of Jubilee: Tell Our Story and We will Come,” the effort stems from focus groups held last year with nearly 60 members of organizations that have primarily African-American membership.

It is being shared with other National Park Service sites and non-government institutions and museums.

The biggest challenge from Kennesaw and other National Park Service sites that are working under the theme, “From Civil War to Civil Rights”: Making programs and museum exhibits relevant to African-Americans, thereby increasing their attendance at such locations.

Some observations by focus group members:

-- “I learned in school that the North came to the rescue of the blacks in the south. I did not have a good understanding of what the Civil War was about ... because I did not know where blacks stood.”
-- “African American history is not a part of that park.”
-- “The Civil War is part of the South’s DNA.”
-- “We need a way to overcome the shame or embarrassment of slavery - to see humanity. [We] need a picture to see humanity.”
-- “There has to be a desire to see the human aspect of the Civil War ... including stories of African Americans in the war and afterwards.”
-- “Kennesaw was critical to the taking of Atlanta during the Civil War battles.”
-- "One thing I will give the Confederate advocates is that they really know how to get their point across. They know how to get it across to their children, their grandchildren, etc. It is keeping the memory alive. They are going off of their emotions, so facts are not always present. You will hear about the glory, locations, and you hear about who won and who lost and names. You won’t hear about concepts leading to what happened afterwards."
-- “Looking at the Civil War, it was a battle for cheap labor – low wage labor. In the south, the Blacks were working for free with a gun to their heads. In the North, you had the low wage Irish immigrants who came in and worked in the factories. After the war, the blacks still worked for low wages, cheap labor.”

The Kennesaw visitor center does tell some of the African-American story. There are displays on slavery, labor performed by African-Americans and their service in the military.

The park has oral interpretive programs, such as one scheduled for this Saturday (Feb. 12) on African-American soldiers interred in nearby Marietta National Cemetery (photo, right).

But Bonner and members of the focus group argue there could be more on the history of African-Americans in Cobb County, their role as civilians and soldiers and a fuller dialogue on slavery and its implications. They’d like more information on emancipation, post-emancipation and Reconstruction years.

“We fought too,” Bonner says.

The report says participants are willing to engage in a “tough dialogue” on the war and its legacy. On slavery, "The expectation is that it would convey a dynamic message of what is was like," says Hermina Glass-Avery, associate director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University.

“There needs to be a true accounting that it [the war] was about slavery,’’ says Bonner, who had never visited the park until a November reception given for those who took part in focus groups.

Although they weren’t part of Sherman’s combat troops during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, U.S. Colored Troops fought in Dalton, Ga., and helped occupy Kennesaw after the battle. A few were likely killed in skirmishes at Kennesaw after the battle, according to Bond.

Historian and park volunteer Brad Quinlin said two U.S. Colored Troops regiments served as guards over vital bridges and railroads in the Atlanta Campaign and two former slaves were wounded at Kennesaw near Pigeon Hill while serving as military stretcher bearers.

Glass-Avery (left) organized the focus groups and prepared the report.

“They were genuinely interested in the Civil War,” she says of the participants, who she believes are interested in “racial uplift.”

She believes some of the hesitation to visit Civil War battlefields may stem from perceptions following the war that African-Americans might not feel welcome at battlefieds. Blacks still remember that the Ku Klux Klan once lit fiery crosses on nearby Stone Mountain, she says.

“The [1961] centennial,” she writes in the report, “was built on a racially exclusive interpretation of the Civil War.”

“Back then we couldn’t speak up,” echoes Bonner, adding she is not overly optimistic that the 150th commemoration beginning this year will adequately tell the African-American story.

The report’s findings indicate some optimism among focus group participants, who feel the Park Service is interested in incorporating some of their opinions.

“They expressed overall elation to tell the story,” says Glass-Avery.

But there also was a sense of pessimism.

“How will other groups perceive not so much of a reinterpretation, but the addition of the African-American experience?” Glass-Avery asks.

Other findings include:

-- While the different groups demonstrated a strong desire to know more about the African American experience during the Civil War, there were strong feelings among the participants that the history of African Americans and the Civil War will continue to be misinterpreted in the South.
-- However, many individuals also expressed hope that a more accurate view of history could emerge if historians would move beyond traditional viewpoints and methodologies to capture stories told within African American families, churches and social organizations.
-- Still others used the focus groups as a forum to relate significant African American Civil War efforts. As the participants shared family memories and accounts of war activity, each of them reinforced the belief that their history exists and that it needs to be gathered piecemeal from their families and kinship networks.

In the strictest terms, what mostly occurred at Kennesaw was a ferocious battle. But as the Park Service’s key Civil War site in metro Atlanta, the staff is charged with telling more than what happened there in a few days in June 1864.

“We have a very diverse staff,” says Bond, indicating it has several African-Americans, including two interpretive rangers and one law enforcement ranger.

Bond believes the park can do a better job of reaching out to more visitors from all backgrounds. “We have to be relevant to all Americans,” the longtime National Park Service employee from Beaufort, S.C., says.

“It was a very complex time in history, and there were many voices,” he says. “People fought here for things they believed in.”

His hope?

“I want to see us a single, united nation. We went through a terrible split to come to that.”

Louis Walker, 67, a retired Cobb educator and member of Zion Baptist Church in Marietta, did not participate in the focus groups, but has been to Kennesaw and knows the story of U.S. Colored Troops.

Referring to the Civil War, he repeats a refrain heard on other subjects:

“You need to know where you come from as a group and where you are going.”

NEXT WEEK IN PICKET: Focus group recommendations for Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and what’s currently being done or considered.

More information on the Kennesaw battlefield

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