Conservatives are Once Again Trying to Erase Black HistoryRoundup
tags: Civil War, Southern history, Robert Smalls
Tyler D. Parry is assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
As Republican state legislators push laws regulating curriculum and Confederate monuments fall, the political battle over the nation’s history has intensified. Whose voices and perspectives are remembered has become a prime culture-war issue — one that conservatives seem determined to exploit.
The consequences of such actions are already being implemented, as two teachers, one in Florida and another in Tennessee, were fired for not conforming to the new mandates banning the teaching of “critical race theory” in K-12 schools. The fears about making an honest assessment of institutional racism, which drive such laws, have direct implications for how history is publicly displayed and commemorated. In fact, on hearing that the House of Representatives passed a measure on June 29 to remove Confederate monuments from the U.S. Capitol, the conservative pundit Matt Walsh claimed, “What Congress is saying today, is that Southern states simply are not allowed to honor anyone who lived in or served their state from the middle part of the 19th century up until the beginning of the 20th.”
But that simply isn’t true. In fact, there are millions of Southerners from this era worth honoring. Many of them, however, have been erased from our history because they were Black. K-12 education has long minimized their contributions and refused to understand them as “Southerners” who fought to make their birthplace a more just and equitable place for all of its inhabitants.
For over a century, celebrating Confederate history depended on erasing the many movements led by African Americans within the region. Writers in the Jim Crow era sketched a romanticized vision of the antebellum period that portrayed Southern Whites as gallant agrarians who simply wanted to live free from Northern industrialism. Those who owned enslaved people were represented as paternal figures who promoted Christian values, while people of African descent were portrayed as passive recipients of Christian civilization and rarely given a voice in this mythic narrative.
Yet, many Southern African Americans worked for social change and never surrendered to white supremacy or institutionalized racism. Examples of these efforts abound, but nowhere was this more prevalent or powerful than in South Carolina between 1868 and 1876 during the period known as “Reconstruction,” when Southern-born African Americans were at the forefront of the campaigns for societal improvement. Reclaiming these narratives brings both complexity and accuracy to our understanding of the past and of the South — and it challenges political efforts seeking to manipulate the past to advance White supremacy, then and now.
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