In April, when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a proclamation reviving Confederate History Month in the commonwealth, he reminded us once again of the Confederacy’s staying power. Wittingly or not, McDonnell demonstrated that historical “memory disputes” are always about the present, as he spoke in the tradition of a long line of Southern leaders beginning with the founders of the Confederacy itself.
Immediately, Civil War causation and slavery became the lightning-rod issues as McDonnell’s defense of his proclamation flashed all over American media.
“There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states,” he said. “Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”
It involved slavery. In that throw-away phrase, the governor spoke volumes, even if he didn’t know it. To put it simply, yes, slavery was the cause of the Civil War.
For those of us who work with historical photographs (particularly images from the nineteenth century, when the medium was still in its infancy) there are few things more thrilling than stumbling on an image we didn’t know existed. But finding and then identifying historical photographs with any certainty, particularly the subjects in them, is tricky business. Retrieving the story behind the image—who took it, of whom, and why—can often be near impossible.
So I was surprised last week to see an AP story about a “rare” photograph of slave children. The accompanying image—purportedly of two boys, either enslaved or just recently freed, from North Carolina taken in the 1860s dressed in ragged clothes, seated on a wooden barrel, posed for the camera—intrigued me for several reasons. For one, my own reading of the image was quite different from what was described in the wire article and subsequent reports (recent sleuthing by collectors supports my suspicions, as I’ll explain). Second, the eagerness to accept the authenticity of this image as a reflection of daily life in the South in this era is based on, at best, a shallow reading of the history of black children in the photography of this period. Finally, the shock the image of “slave children” seemed to give reporters and readers, and even some experts, makes it clear that the picture of antebellum slavery most people hold in their heads is an outdated one. If they imagine Southern plantations were sustained largely by the sweat and blood by enslaved adults, the work of recent historians has brought another view to light, one in which young people made up the majority of the enslaved…
Read the rest at the History News Network: Portrait or Postcard? The Controversy over a “Rare” Photograph of Slave Children.
Abstract: Diverse college and university campuses with origins before Emancipation embody a potent paradox. Architecturally and spatially, they present tangible models of idealized utopian spaces, earthly apparitions of the promise of Heaven. Yet these utopian imagined communities rest, at times uneasily, upon under-acknowledged histories of violent coercion, in the form of slavery and slave trades. This essay explores slippages and fissures in the landscape of memory on the university campus and its environs, with particular attention to the town of Oxford, Georgia, the birthplace of Emory University. Memorial spaces associated with institutions of higher learning are sites of potent ideological contestation. At one level, college-related cemeteries may present seemingly coherent narratives of regularized order within an established racial hierarchy. Yet such cemeteries and related memorial practices may also trigger critical modes of consciousness, catalyzing poignant challenges to the established order of things.
Read the rest at Southern Spaces.