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BlackCommentator.com: Before Freedom Came And After - The Museum of the Confederacy Part 4 of 4 By Edward H. Sebesta, BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator

   
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[This is Part 4 of a 4-Part series]

On 3 November 1999, Pacifica Radio’s "Democracy Now" the author discussed then Texas Governor George W. Bush’s support for the Museum of the Confederacy’s (MOC) annual Ball, in 1998 titled the Lone Star Ball, at which period-costume wearing guests dance amidst Confederate flags. [1]  Speaking on the program, I criticized Bush for supporting the MOC. The other guest, James M. McPherson, author of Battlecry of Freedom (1988), further commented that “Some [MOC]  supporters I'm sure, and some of its sponsors, some [of] its members of the board of trustees are undoubtedly neo-Confederates,” yet the eminent Princeton University history professor then exonerated the MOC by referring to its 1991 “Before Freedom Came” exhibit as demonstrating that the MOC had transformed from a shrine to the Confederacy into a “professional museum in the same category as other highly regarded museums around the country.” McPherson continued:

back in 1992 and1993 the Museum of the Confederacy had a special exhibit on slavery and on the relationship of slavery and the Civil War which the old guard in Richmond who identified with the Confederate heritage were very angry about because that exhibit made all the same kinds of points that either Ed Sebesta or I would make about the Civil War, that slavery was at the root of the conflict that led to the war. That slaves played a major part as [a] slave force for the Confederacy but also a major part as soldiers for the Union. …[2]

In this, the fourth part of my examination, I argue that it is on the strength of the 1991 “Before Freedom Came” exhibit and its accompanying book, both now twenty years old, that the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) gained legitimacy as a professional organization within the historical profession and continues to be insulated  from criticism. Indeed, in December 2010, when I announced on my blog that I  had sent certified letters to the MOC asking that The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader not be considered for any MOC award [3] some Civil War historians were irate. Well-known Civil War blogger Kevin Levine (www.cwmemory.com) in his posting, “The Ed Sebesta Circus Continues,” referred to the Before Freedom Came  book stating, “It’s obvious to me that Sebesta does not own a copy nor is there any indication of its contents.” [4] Levine called on James Loewen, my collaborator on The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, “to reign in his erratic co-editor.” Brook Simpson, member of the editorial board of Civil War History, joined in the denunciation.[5]

Given that the MOC’s 1991 “Before Freedom Came” exhibition and its accompanying book[6]  continues to define the museum’s image, an examination of  both is warranted. Indeed, this is particularly pertinent because, as stated in Part I, Ludwell Johnson III, a prominent neo-Confederate, hardly felt that the exhibit represented a rejection of the MOC’s past; rather, it was an adaptation to the present, and a rebuttal to criticism of the Confederacy, which he called the “Carol Moseley-Braun syndrome.”

REVIEWING BEFORE FREEDOM CAME

Gregg D. Kimball, then an employee of the Library of Virginia, visited the MOC’s “Before Freedom Came” exhibit, assessing it in the American Historical Association’s publication Perspectives in a 1992 article.[7] He commented:

The Museum of the Confederacy’s executive director, Louis Gorr, vowed not to let the show be “a ‘whitewash’ of the horrors of slavery” and he succeeded, but the struggle to have the exhibit accepted took its toll on the interpretation. The exhibit scrupulously avoided controversy by rooting itself firmly in a positive story of cultural survival, and by avoiding some tough historical issues of the relationship between blacks and whites.... “Before Freedom Came” is emphatically about the transmission and survival of African culture in the American South. …Against a background of the horrors of slavery, “Before Freedom Came” uses objects, visual evidence, and individual testimony to tell of a story of daily endurance and cultural survival.

Towards the end of his article, Kimball quotes James Horton’s and Spencer Crew’s commentary on a survey of African-American interpretation in museums,[8] in which they state, “A temporary exhibit may not have a long-term effect on museum exhibition policy.” Kimball then concludes:

I share these concerns. The real challenge to the Museum of the Confederacy is to continue to improve the history they have presented in Before Freedom Came into their permanent galleries on the Civil War and the interpretation of the White House of the Confederacy. By viewing African-American history in the larger context of the coming of the Civil War, American race relations, and Southern culture, the Museum of the Confederacy could provide a continuous story in their changing and permanent exhibits.

In summary, Kimball asserts that the exhibition was designed so as to avoid controversy, and that the MOC needed to explicitly connect slavery to the Civil War, the Confederacy, and the history of the South. These are all things that the MOC still does not do and, in many cases, actively avoids.

The accompanying Before Freedom Came book does not avoid the horrors of slavery. Charles Joyner’s chapter “The World of the Plantation Slaves,” amply documents the sexual abuse of slaves, but fails to use the term “rape.” Joyner does have a paragraph where he suggests that some slaves “may have given their sexual favors more or less willingly,” but is a slave really able to give consent to an owner that can whip the slave with impunity? This is what slavery was about: after you were worked sun up to sundown, were whipped and subject to abuses, mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives were raped, and the slaves were powerless to do anything about it. Drew Gilpin Faust, now Harvard University president, surprisingly asserts in the collection that paternalistic ideas of slavery “ensnared white southerners in a web of duty and imbued slaves with a doctrine of rights.”[9] Dismaying also is that Eugene Genovese, despite his extensive contributions to Southern Partisan magazine and his other writings and support of neo-Confederate ideology, was referred to as a credible scholar.[10] Finally a continuing irritation in this book, and in much of writing about slave owners, is the reference to some slave owners being kind. Kind or good masters are those who let their slaves go free such as George Corbin who denounced the injustice of slavery and set 22 of his slaves free, otherwise some masters are just crueler than others.[11]  Overall, however, the book largely recounts the horrors of slavery, and details things like the selling of slaves separating families and other atrocities of Antebellum slavery. Yet, despite these elements, one gaping omission is discussion of slave mortality. Such documentation would make it clear how severe slavery was, and that in some cases it was a charnel house of death. In addition, neither the Museum of the Confederacy exhibit nor the book explicitly connected slavery to the establishment of, and rationale for, the Confederacy. Being that the White House of the Confederacy was the residence of Jefferson Davis it might have been useful to have something about the short lifespan of Davis’s slaves on his Mississippi plantation and Davis’ vigorous efforts to defend slavery and prevent the United States from acting against the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Robert E. Lee only comes up once in Before Freedom Came, in reference to a picture of one of his slaves formally dressed in a uniform and holding an accordion; there is nothing in the book about Lee whipping his slaves, nor that he rented out his slaves, was a strong supporter of slavery, and a white supremacist (see part 2 of this essay).[12] On the topic of the relation of other leading Confederate figures to slavery, Before Freedom Came is silent. The fact that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave dealer might have been mentioned. Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander H. Stephens’ infamous ‘Cornerstone’ speech stating that the Confederacy was based on the principal of white supremacy could have been incorporated, as could some of the Declaration of Causes or Resolutions of the seceding states such as this extract from the Declaration of Texas:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.[13]

Before Freedom Came was, after all, displayed at the Museum of the Confederacy. Slavery may be somewhat condemned by the exhibition, but the Confederacy escapes unscathed. Indeed, the exhibition’s primary focus on the survival of African customs among African American slaves necessarily means not having a primary focus on the horrors of slavery. These are put in the “background” as Kimball stated. An Associated Press story made clear that the theme of the exhibit is that it was all good in the end: “The Human Spirit Triumphs Over Slavery.”[14]

The strategy employed by the MOC in “Before Freedom Came” is one that enables the museum to use artifacts that compose a counter-narrative to the one silently embodied in the shackles displayed in the exhibit and the abuses of slaves described in the book. The cover illustration of the Before Freedom Came book is indicative. It is a carving of a freed slave, Nora August, which the MOC was thought to have been “likely done” by an African American Union soldier. Ironically, therefore, this is an artifact from after freedom came, not before freedom came. It is an artifact entirely of the world of freedom where Nora August would have freedom to choose her activities and pose for a carving by an African American soldier, a world of freedom in which there are African American soldiers. It was not an artifact of the world of slavery. It does provide an engaging cover for a book about slavery rather than, for example, a picture of a slave’s scarred back, but again it is an artifact of freedom, not slavery (though it was reported such a photograph of a slave’s scarred back was in the MOC exhibition[15]). The back cover of Before Freedom Came pictures a quilt, and the book’s other color illustrations are nostalgic, forming a counter-narrative to the text of the book. A frontispiece after the table contents is pastoral and bucolic, making slavery seem so idyllic that one author of a modern proslavery book, “Antebellum Slavery: The Orthodox Christian View” (recommended and sold by the Sons of Confederate Veterans) used the same image for the cover of his book.[16]

Both the Before Freedom Came book and MOC exhibition, therefore, simultaneously document slavery but exonerate, largely through omission, the Confederacy. Thus, it must be asked, how seriously the administration, officers, and trustees of the MOC themselves regarded “Before Freedom Came”? Recognizing that slavery was a great evil should, I suggest, preclude wanting to identify with, and encouraging others to identify with, a slavocracy fighting for slavery, namely the Confederacy. Yet the MOC continues to encourage people to identify with (and dress like) a slave owning elite fighting to sustain slavery, not least at its annual “Celebrate South” gala. Other MOC events still see color guards and attendees in Confederate uniforms and period costumes. Typically, numerous Confederate flags are hung.[17]

Such MOC celebrations equate the whole South with the Confederacy, and assume support for the latter was homogeneous throughout the former. The MOC galas function to have attendees adopt Confederate identities to the extent that “Celebrate South” is really a “Celebrate the Confederacy” event. In 1996, five years after “Before Freedom Came,” the New York Times, reported on the MOC’s “Celebrate South”:

Seeking to win a new generation of devotees, officials of the [Confederate] White House plan to hold a Confederate ball featuring hoop skirts, Rebel uniforms, and a color guard’s presentation of the Stars and Bars.

Black leaders expressed astonishment and outrage, asserting that the event would resurrect ghosts of a shameful era.

“This peels the scab off a sore that is trying to heal,” said L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who grew up in segregated Richmond and became the country’s first black elected governor. “That era is gone. You want it to regrow? It’s history, sure. But it’s a history of denying basic human rights.”

The ball’s supporters claimed that their intentions “were innocent and honorable” and were needed to recruit MOC supporters,[18] but on NBC television, the New York Times reported, Gov. Wilder “compared people in Confederate costumes to ‘jackbooted Nazis’ ... [and] suggested that organizers put a slave ship outside and manacle people to it. Organizers of the ball, who had been worried about breaking even, sold out of tickets after [Wilder’s] television appearance.” Wilder continued, “This does not speak for Virginia. Let this be a measure of how far we still need to go.”

The MOC’s supposedly progressive leadership at the time, under Director Robin E. Reed, disregarded Wilder’s complaints.[19] Fourteen years later, in 2010, “Celebrate South” continued little-changed at the MOC, as reported in the Richmond Times Dispatch:

Formally opening the program was a presentation of the Color Guard of Virginia comprised of 15th and 21st Infantry re-enactors lead by Ramsey, of the Fighting First Regiment. … Eighty of the 120 guests were attired in reproduction uniforms and shimmering ball gowns of the era – many handmade by the wearers.

The participants performed dances of the Civil War period with “toe-tapping” music supplied by The Hardtack & Sowbelly String Band. Re-enactors, “in full character” appeared as members of [Robert E.] Lee’s Lieutenants and Confederate spy Belle Boyd.[20]

In short, 1991’s “Before Freedom Came” exhibit did not prevent the next twenty years of continuing MOC celebrations of the slave-holding Confederacy nor, as detailed in Part II of this essay, two more decades of hagiographic portrayals of Confederate leaders, the people who fought for slavery, as heroes.

VISITING THE MUSEUM OF THE CONFEDERACY

Eric L. Muller is the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics and Associate Dean for Faculty Development at the University of North Carolina School of Law. He also has experience working in museums and interpreting exhibits. He visited the MOC in August 1999, and posted a review of the MOC online at , Trip Advisor:

I took the tour of the White House [of the Confederacy] and found it quite fascinating, though not in the way the museum undoubtedly intends. 

I am still trying to decide what the creepiest moment in the tour of the Confederate White House was.

Was it (a) when the guide boasted that Abe Lincoln visited Richmond in early April 1865 and left unscathed, only to be assassinated in his *own* capital city a few weeks later?

Or (b) when the guide kept referring to "Henry and Spencer" as the building's two genteel "butlers" without noting that they were both Davis family *slaves*?

Or (c) when I realized that the only black person I'd seen on the entire premises (including the adjacent Museum of the Confederacy) was the gentlemen whose job was to follow behind the all-white tour group to tidy and close up each room on the tour as we left it?

Or (d) when the guide, in her very last words of the tour, without even a touch of irony, chose to quote Jefferson Davis's very last official communication to the people of the Confederate States of America, in which he urged them to continue resistance: "Let us but will it; and we are free?"

Or (e) when the guide, in describing what happened to the White House after April 1865 when Jefferson Davis fled (or "left to establish the third capital of the Confederacy in Danville," as she euphemistically put it), spoke of "Reconstruction -- or Occupation, depending on which history books you like to read."

I am not sure I have visited a historical site that tries harder to paper over the uglier aspects of its history (the importance of white supremacy and human chattel slavery to the failed secessionist project) than this site does.

Don't get me wrong: the house is very historically significant, and quite beautiful. Many of the stories that the tour guide narrates are quite interesting. Some are also touching.

But the whole narrative of the visit (from the moment you step in until the moment you make your way through the rows upon rows of Confederate-battle-flag-embossed items in the gift shop) is a re-polishing of the Confederate "Lost Cause" myth.

I'd recommend this visit to a friend because the site is significant -- but visitors beware!

The MOC responded to Muller on Trip Advisor, primarily by avoiding the issues raised and responding with claims and irrelevant assertions. One part of the MOC’s response is revealing:

Of course the museum shop sells items with the Confederate Battle Flag on them. We also sell items that do not have the battle flag on them. The shop sells what is bought, that’s how we bring in some of the funding to the museum.[21]

It reveals an institution that that has no interests other than institutional self-interest and utterly indifferent to the ethical questions raised by selling the Confederate battle flag.

After this MOC reply, however, the exchange disappeared from the Trip Advisor website (the complete exchange is in the Appendix) and the MOC, in a somewhat disturbing tactic, sent Muller a letter critical of him but marked “confidential and personal,” legally preventing Muller from making its contents public. To mark a document pertaining to a discussion about history “confidential and personal” to preclude it from public debate, against Muller’s wishes, is outrageous. Unless the MOC makes this letter public, their ethics certainly can be questioned: they are not operating in good faith. The MOC should make public their letter to Muller.

THE MOC’s ELISION OF SLAVERY

One regular MOC strategy, utilized in both the Trip Advisor exchange and Before Freedom Came exhibition, is to separate slavery from the Confederacy. This tactic is continuously and commonly employed. In the recent Winter 2011 issue of MOC Magazine, for example, the cover depicts sheet music for the piece, “Grand Secession March,” and tells readers that this music was “composed for & dedicated to the Charleston Delegation.” The caption and subsequent magazine contents avoid the topic of slavery as the reason for secession. Amidst a series of somewhat trivial articles, only John M. Coski’s “Letters Reveal Passions that Heated Up the ‘Secession Winter’,” seems like it might discuss slavery in relation to state secession and the foundation of the Confederacy.  Indeed, Coski begins, “These letters collectively offer insight into what a handful of military officers and businessmen believed to be the reasons why secession was necessary.” Yet, from the outset, Coski avoids quoting the declarations issued by the seceding states which are clear in asserting that protection of slavery and the maintenance of white supremacy are the reasons for secession. Here the MOC collection is used to obscure and not enlighten and by choosing them as a subject, the historical record of the reasons for secession are avoided.  Instead, Coski focuses on what these few individuals thought were reasons to secede, and further obfuscates these commentaries by explaining the disruption to business, expectations of peaceful dissolution of the United States, preparations to defend Fort Sumter, and other items. When letters are quoted, the quotation obscures the issue of slavery, such as this example of a letter by a Mr. Lelland in Montgomery:

“You say these are troublesome times and you favor our country, That will depend utterly on Your section, if they will Let us go in peace all will be right if not, to the victor the spoils. As for us we are conserned we prefer to be Blot[t]ed out from existence rather than give up our rights or to be ruled by a sectional party, give us our rights that is all we ask, and to be let along[.]”

One letter does mention slavery. South Carolinian Bernard Bee is quoted as saying:

… I want the whole south to go together, having first stated firmly but courteously to the northern states their ultimatum on slavery – this being rejected the Southern Confederacy would embrace every southern state and would be magnificent …

But from another letter, by South Carolina civilian Daniel H. Hill, Coski quotes complaints about the issue of slavery in a way that suggests that Hill supports secession to support slavery, until Coski’s commentary explains otherwise:

Although he betrayed an obsession with the Republican Party’s avowed hostility to slavery, Hill did not regard the issue about slavery, per se, but about defending his wife and children and resisting the domination of government by a party “whose avowed policy is murder.” By “taking up arms against the Black Republicans,” Hill explained, “I am engaged in the holiest of causes.”

Thus Coski reiterates an old Lost Cause rationale, namely that secession was not about slavery, but defending hearth and home. The article, in sum, quotes and describes only one person (Bee) as thinking slavery was a reason to secede, others seeming support for slavery being explained away by Coski. That slavery and secession were fundamentally intertwined is left as a minority view; indeed, it is the opinion of just one quoted contemporary, Bernard Bee. The MOC Magazine, thus keeps the Confederacy safely away from the issues of race and slavery.

CO-OPTING THE CIVIL WAR HISTORY PROFESSION

Another program of the MOC, which has also helped rehabilitate its image in the eyes of professional historians, is giving books the Founders’ or Jefferson Davis awards. When John M. Coski emailed me in response to my certified letters asking not to be considered for any MOC book award, he stated, “Incidentally, you may wish to consult the list of past winners to get a better idea of the kind of books that tend to receive the award” and referred me to an MOC website. [22] It is instructive that so many prominent historians, some whose work I respect highly, are willing to accept an award named after Jefferson Davis, a white supremacist. Other winners, I would suggest, are neo-Confederates such as James I. Robertson (who praised Southern Partisan magazine) and Frank Vandiver. Yet, such awards are another way in which the MOC glorifies the Confederacy and its leaders, and generates legitimacy as a serious institution respecting current historical scholarship. 

Recipients of the MOC’s Jefferson Davis award include distinguished historians Joseph T. Glatthaar, Eric H. Walther, and Bertram Wyatt-Brown. The Founder award has been given to books by Ira Berlin and John W. Blassingame. I was relieved that Leon Litwack has never received an award from the MOC, but pained to see that Chandra Manning had received honorable mention for the Jefferson Davis Prize. Each historian whose book receives an award gives credibility to the MOC and restrains criticism of the MOC by others. A prominent historian, I was told, laughed “five times” when he heard that I was opposed to receiving an MOC award. Yet, the MOC has power: an author not wanting to receive an MOC award or criticizing the organization could be understood to be implicitly criticizing scholars who did accept MOC awards, scholars who are on editorial boards, peer review articles, or are otherwise influential. Most MOC award winners  just haven’t asked critical questions about the museum. Too quickly, Civil War historians simply recall “Before Freedom Came,” give the MOC a free pass, and avoid controversy, avoiding any critical assessment of the MOC and its operations.

DIFFERENT FACES FOR DIFFERENT AUDIENCES

As reported in Part I in this essay, when the MOC flew a Confederate battle flag at the Museum they had an African American board member to speak to the media to justify this display. This is a developing strategy of the MOC, namely to have African American employees, board members, and students, that they can showcase. When Eric Muller commented on the roles he observed of the MOC’s African American employees, the MOC responded: “The African-American you saw following the tour is the Assistant White House Supervisor. That is just one of his functions here. He also travels extensively giving talks on the museum and the White House as well as its occupants. His last lecture was in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.”[23]

The MOC has recently announced a partnership with the historically black North Carolina Central University to provide training for student interns in exchange for their work.[24] In June 2011 the MOC offered an African American walking tour of Richmond,[25] and began participating in Civil War Emancipation Day in the city.[26] 

Yet, the employment of African Americans by the MOC and these other recent activities do not  change  the primary function of the MOC. They do not mean that the MOC has stopped working or trying to work with neo-Confederate organizations, glorifying Confederate leaders, or sacralizing the Confederacy; it is merely the projection of an image to obscure these primary functions and legitimize the MOC with its members, professional historians, and the public. In turn, these images deter critical inquiry into what the MOC does.

In a 2003 Richmond Times Dispatch article on the Confederate Nation exhibit, the MOC’s Vice President for Research, John M. Coski commented on slavery being the cause of the Civil War:

Anyone who says the war was all about this or all about that – that’s an oversimplication. It wasn’t about just one thing. Our purpose is to address that and invite them to understand the complexity of all history and this history in particular.[27]

Yet, in 2011 Coski seemingly rejected this position. In an panel discussion at the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting, Coski agreed with James Loewen and Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, the latter having commented “that of the 65 constitutional amendments proposed in 1860-61 to defuse the crisis, 95 percent dealt with slavery.”[28]  At the event, Coski “noted the MOC’s agreement with [the AASLH panel’s] take on the cause of secession and also spoke about other Richmond institutions and their agreement”[29] yet also asserted that, “as they moved beyond their K-12 schooling, some adults, including [historical] site managers, feel a need to move beyond "slavery" as "the cause" of secession, leading them astray.”[30] 

The question is which Coski is to be believed: the Coski in the 2003 Richmond Dispatch article, the Coski at the 2011 AASLH meeting, or the Coski writing articles for the MOC Magazine obscuring slavery as the cause of the Civil War? The answer lies in the respective audiences.  The Richmond Dispatch article would be read by MOC members and local residents, but not by many professional historians; the AASLH comments would be heard by professional historians who would welcome confirmation that the MOC is not a Lost Cause institution, by not by MOC supporters or neo-Confederates. The MOC Magazine is primarily read by the museum’s supporters and Civil War enthusiasts.

If Coski, the MOC’s Vice President for Research, believes that the cause of secession was to preserve slavery, and that slavery was the reason for the Confederacy, then why does the MOC promote Confederate identity, sell Confederate flags, and promote Confederate leaders as near-flawless heroes? The answer, is that it is expedient to say and do different things  for different audiences.

CONCLUSION

The MOC primarily functions to reproduce Confederate identity to be consumed by its members and the public and it does what is necessary to support itself, which is to navigate between modern twenty-first century sensibilities about race and yet appeal to its financially-supporting base of Lost Cause enthusiasts. Thus, the MOC works with neo-Confederate organizations and individuals, giving them credibility, and is led by S. Waite Rawls a member of a neo-Confederate organization, the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It glorifies Confederate leaders and is a reliquary of the Confederacy, sacralizing this short-lived, slave-holding, white supremacist nation.  Yet, it avoids criticism of these activities by putting on “Before Freedom Came,” an exhibit about slavery twenty years ago, giving book awards to prominent historians, and showcasing activities with African Americans. However, although the MOC’s agenda is promoting itself, it must be asked to what extent its self-legitimizing activities have been helped along by a historical profession which has chosen not to look too closely at the MOC. 

Such a history profession, namely one which aids and abets the MOC and thus its wider Confederate nationalist agenda, ill serves the nation. Promoting Confederate identity, working with neo-Confederate groups, and glorifying Confederate leaders, works against America being successful as a multiracial democracy in a multipolar world. Those who wish to have some claim to a concern for civil rights and justice should avoid getting an award from the MOC or, if they have gotten one previously, should publically reject it. Professional historians should stop enabling the MOC, stop participating in its programs, and stop making apologies for it. A critically informed examination of the MOC is long overdue - and, in the four parts of this essay, it is one that I hope to have initiated.

Click here to read any of the parts in this series.

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Edward H. Sebesta, is co-editor of Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction (University of Texas, 2008) and The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The ‘Great Truth’ of the ‘Lost Cause’ (University Press of Mississippi, 2010) Click here to contact Mr. Sebesta.

APPENDIX:  COMPLETE EXCHANGE BETWEEN THE MOC AND ERIC MULLER

Eric's Trip Advisor review:

I took the tour of the White House and found it quite fascinating, though not in the way the museum undoubtedly intends.

I am still trying to decide what the creepiest moment in the tour of the Confederate White House was.

Was it (a) when the guide boasted that Abe Lincoln visited Richmond in early April 1865 and left unscathed, only to be assassinated in his *own* capital city a few weeks later?

Or (b) when the guide kept referring to "Henry and Spencer" as the building's two genteel "butlers" without noting that they were both Davis family *slaves*?

Or (c) when I realized that the only black person I'd seen on the entire premises (including the adjacent Museum of the Confederacy) was the gentlemen whose job was to follow behind the all-white tour group to tidy and close up each room on the tour as we left it?

Or (d) when the guide, in her very last words of the tour, without even a touch of irony, chose to quote Jefferson Davis's very last official communication to the people of the Confederate States of America, in which he urged them to continue resistance: "Let us but will it; and we are free?"

Or (e) when the guide, in describing what happened to the White House after April 1865 when Jefferson Davis fled (or "left to establish the third capital of the Confederacy in Danville," as she euphemistically put it), spoke of "Reconstruction -- or Occupation, depending on which history books you like to read."

I am not sure I have visited a historical site that tries harder to paper over the uglier aspects of its history (the importance of white supremacy and human chattel slavery to the failed secessionist project) than this site does.

Don't get me wrong: the house is very historically significant, and quite beautiful. Many of the stories that the tour guide narrates are quite interesting. Some are also touching.

But the whole narrative of the visit (from the moment you step in until the moment you make your way through the rows upon rows of Confederate-battle-flag-embossed items in the gift shop) is a re-polishing of the Confederate "Lost Cause" myth.

I'd recommend this visit to a friend because the site is significant -- but visitors beware!

The reply by the MOC by was as follows:

I have to respond to your comments about your tour of the White House of the Confederacy. I would like to respond to your comments using your list:

a) Lincoln entered a newly conquered city. There was much concern among his own military leaders about his visiting the city at that time. They were worried about possible hostile reaction to him. So, this is just a statement of fact and not an opinion. b) This, again, is a statement of fact. The men would have been referred to as “butlers.” c) The African-American you saw following the tour is the Assistant White House Supervisor. That is just one of his functions here. He also travels extensively giving talks on the museum and the White House as well as its occupants. His last lecture was in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. d) The war was not over and this, again, is a simple statement of fact and not an exhortation to people alive today. e) Once more, a statement of fact. Both of these can be found in history books and I don’t understand your astonishment at this.

Of course the museum shop sells items with the Confederate Battle Flag on them. We also sell items that do not have the battle flag on them. The shop sells what is bought, that’s how we bring in some of the funding to the museum.

May I ask you a question? Why are you telling people to “beware?” Of what are visitors supposed to be afraid?

Eric Muller’s response was as follows:

I will start with your final question. I think that from context (which is to say, the preceding sentences in my review), it's clear of what I'm telling people to "beware": a tour of an important historical building that is wholly steeped in the myth of the Lost Cause.

I am right now heading up the process of designing the permanent exhibit and introductory film at a new museum at a historical site in Wyoming (one of the Japanese American internment camps from World War II). So I have been reading and working extensively in the field of historical interpretation. The tour of your site simply took my breath away in its repeated appeals to the major tenets of the Lost Cause mythology and its shunting aside of any aspect of what went on at the site that would tend to complicate or undermine a narrative of Southern chivalry, decency, and commitment to principle (moral and political). Insofar as it touches on anything outside the personal stories of Jefferson and Varina Davis and their children, the tour is, in my view, not a historical presentation but Lost Cause propaganda.

As for your specific responses to my observations:

"a) Lincoln entered a newly conquered city. There was much concern among his own military leaders about his visiting the city at that time. They were worried about possible hostile reaction to him. So, this is just a statement of fact and not an opinion." When the tour guide theatrically raised her eyebrows and finished reciting these facts by saying, "Hey, I'm just saying. You can draw your own conclusions," *that* editorializing was most certainly intended to point the tour group to a particular idea, namely, that while Lincoln was received gracefully in the Confederate capital, he was unsafe up north. But even if she had not said these things and had not theatrically raised her eyebrows, there is no defending what she said on the basis that it is a "fact" that Lincoln was not shot in Richmond and a "fact" that he was shot a few weeks later in the federal capital. It is certainly a "fact" that Lincoln was not shot in Richmond. Yet it is also a "fact" that Lincoln was not invited to play the tuba in Richmond. There are many, many things that did not happen to Lincoln during his visit to Richmond. The only one mentioned on your site's tour was that he was not shot. What meaning does your site hope a visitor will attach to Lincoln's non-shooting there? Any doubt about the answer to that question vanishes when one realizes that the "fact" of Lincoln's non-shooting in Richmond is directly and immediately contrasted with the "fact" of his shooting a few weeks later in the federal capital. It vanishes further when one realizes that the tour guide *omits* a "fact" about the shooting in DC -- namely, that the assassin was an ardent confederate sympathizer outraged over the abolition of slavery and the extension of voting rights to certain freed slaves. I know from my own museum interpretive work that when a museum or historical site crafts its script, it sifts the relevant facts and presents those that most clearly relate to a handful of pre-selected themes. What is the theme that this particular concatenation of "facts" is designed to highlight?

"b) This, again, is a statement of fact. The men would have been referred to as 'butlers.'" Here you're referring to my surprise that the tour guide did not mention that Henry and Spencer, the butlers, were Davis family slaves. It is certainly a "fact" that the Davis family would have referred to Henry and Spencer as "butlers." It is also a "fact" that the Davises would have referred to an item in their house as a "water closet," and they might also have referred to a female cousin in the family as "being in an interesting condition." I would not expect the tour guide to use these "factual" terms, though: I would expect her to say "toilet" and "pregnant." And there's a bigger reason to expect the term "slave" rather than, or in addition to, "butler": this is the executive mansion of the sovereign that fought a war to defend the institution of slavery from federal encroachment. If there were a moment in the tour when a visitor might expect *some* mention of slavery (and there is no other moment when slavery is discussed), the visitor might expect it *when the tour guide is explicitly mentioning the Davis family's slaves*. But the word "slave" did not come up.

"c) The African-American you saw following the tour is the Assistant White House Supervisor. That is just one of his functions here. He also travels extensively giving talks on the museum and the White House as well as its occupants. His last lecture was in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C." As I noted, this gentlemen was the only African-American I saw on the premises of either the White House or the adjacent Museum of the Confederacy. It is marvelous that he is so accomplished and well-traveled. But can it really be that the White House of the Confederacy really needs somebody to alert it to the symbolism of having the only African-American on the premises serve as the person who patiently and silently follows the (white) tour group and (white) tour guide around the building, turning off lights and closing doors?

"d) The war was not over and this, again, is a simple statement of fact and not an exhortation to people alive today." Here you refer to my discomfort with the tour guide's choosing to end the tour by quoting Jefferson Davis's final exhortation to southerners to continue armed conflict -- specifically, the words "Let us but will it; and we are free." (Lest there be any misunderstanding, the tour guide is careful to note that he issued this exhortation just days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox (a surrender that Davis vehemently opposed), as Davis tried to set up a government in Danville.) Set to one side the rich irony of citing the Confederate President's hope for "freedom" for whites, without noting for visitors (at any point in the tour) that the southern cause was centrally (even if not exclusively) about denying freedom to blacks. That is a layer of meaning that, by this point in the tour, I did not expect. Instead, just note that there are many thousands of words from Jefferson Davis's long career with which the tour might close. Your organization has chosen to end it with his final exhortation to continued armed resistance to federal power. Yes, it is a "fact" that he wrote those words. But surely the selection of those words must be based on something, and I would again imagine that the selection relates in some basic way to the themes the organization is trying to highlight. What is a visitor to make of the fact of your organization's choosing an exhortation to continued armed struggle as the final, tour-summarizing thought?

"e) Once more, a statement of fact. Both of these can be found in history books and I don’t understand your astonishment at this." What astonished me was the implication that whether the period in question is called "Reconstruction" or "Occupation" is a matter of evenhanded dispute, because after all there are books that use one term and books that use the other. There are books out there that continue to call civil rights marchers "rioters" and Martin Luther King a "communist." There are books that continue to call the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast an "evacuation." But the fact that these terms appear in books does not make them equivalent terms.

I hope these explanations give you a better sense of why I reacted to the tour as I did.[31]


[1] “The Museum of the Confederacy Annual Report, Fiscal 1997-1998,” photo of ceiling filled with flags and persons in costume on page 29, persons in period costumes including confederate page 12.  Listing of George W. Bush as donor to Lone Star Ball page 37.

[2] Goodman, Amy, “Democracy Now,” Pacifica Radio Network syndicated show, Nov. 3, 1999. Transcribed by Edward H. Sebesta who was a participant on the show as the person who had uncovered George W. Bush’s involvement with the MOC.

[3] Sebesta, Edward, H., “Trying to reject the Museum of the Confederacy,” with text of certified letters sent to the MOC, Dec. 3. 

[4] Levin, Kevin, “The Edward Sebesta Circus Continues,” Dec. 9, 2010, Printed out Nov. 5, 2011.

[5] Simpson, Brooks, D., “Edward Sebesta’s Publicity Stunt,” Dec. 9, 2010, printed 11/5/11.

[6] Campbell, Jr., Edward D.C., editor, “Before Freedom Came: African American Life in the Antebellum South,” Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond and University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1991.

[7] Kimbal, Gregg D., “Exhibit Review: Before Freedom Came: African American Life in the Antebellum South, 1790-1865,” from the Exhibitions and Interpretive Program column in the May/June 1992 Perspectives, a publication of the American Historical Association.

[8] Horton, James Oliver, Crew, Spencer R., “Afro-Americans and Museums: Toward a Policy of Inclusion,” in Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, “History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment,” 1989.

[9] Faust, Drew Gilpin, “Slavery in the American Experience,” essay in “Before Freedom Came: African American Life in theAntebellum South,”  Campbell, Jr., Edward D.C., editor, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond and University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1991, page 8.

[10] Hague, Euan, Beirich, Heidi, Sebesta, Edward, editors, “Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction,” Univ. of Texas Press, Austin, 2008.

[11] The story of George Corbin

[12] Nolan, Alan T., “Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History,” University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1991, page 10. This is a book which I recommend highly.

[13] Winkler, William, “Journal of the Secession Convention,” (Austin: State Library, 1912), 61-65. The full text is online. William Winkler, Journal of the Secession Convention (Austin: State Library, 1912), 61-65.

[14] Brown, Heidi Nolte, “The Human Spirit Triumphs Over Slavery,” The Associated Press, Oct. 11, 1991.

[15] Conroy, Sarah Booth, “The Captive Nation of Slaves At the Museum of the Confederacy, African American Life ‘Before Freedom Came,’” Washington Post, August 11, 1991, Page G1.

[16] Campbell, Jr., Edward D.C., editor, “Before Freedom Came: African American Life in the Antebellum South,” Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond and University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1991, pages vi-vii, plate 2, collage by William Henry Brown. This is used as a cover illustration for the neo-Confederate defense of Antebellum slavery titled “Antebellum Slavery: An Orthodox Christian View,” by Gary Lee Roper, leader of the Council of Conservative Citizens, www.cofcc.org, and sold at the Sons of Confederate Veteran online web store as of 3/27/11.  It was endorsed by the Sons of Confederate Veteran’s Chaplain Corp in their newsletter.

[17] Photos of the ball are on various pages for different articles in The Museum of the Confederacy: Annual Report Fiscal 1997-1998, pages 4, 12, 29, 33. “A Weekend to Remember,” Dispatches: Development newsletter of The Museum of the Confederacy, Spring/Summer 2001,  cover and inside page, no pagination; “Another Wonderful Ball Weekend,” Dispatches: Development newsletter of The Museum of the Confederacy, Spring 2000, page 4; “Celebrate South: Grand Southern Ball,” The Museum of the Confederacy, Annual Report Fiscal 2000, pages 4-5; “Celebrate South Enjoys a Floridian Success,” Dispatches: Development newsletter of The Museum of the Confederacy, Summer 2003, no pagination ; “Georgia-Themed Weekend Declared a Real Peach!,” Dispatches: Development newsletter of The Museum of the Confederacy, Summer 2004, no pagination.

[18] Allen, Mike, “Confederacy Museum Provokes Dismay With Period-Costume Ball,” New York Times, February 11, 1996.

[19] Allen, Mike, “Dissent Doesn’t Stop Guests at Confederate Ball From Whirling the Night Away,” New York Times, 2/26/1996.

[20] Grossman, Marsha P., “What’s Happening: Old Virginia Soiree is held at Woman’s Club,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 18, 2010.

[21]No author, blog, The Faculty Lounge: Conversations about law, culture, and academia, “Cleansing History? Confederacy Museum (And Trip Advisor) Retouch the Past.

[22] The list 3/27/11.

[23]No author, blog, The Faculty Lounge: Conversations about law, culture, and academia, “Cleansing History? Confederacy Museum (And Trip Advisor) Retouch the Past.

[24] Williams, Michael Paul, “Historically black college, Confederate museum forge bond,” Richmond Times Dispatch, June 24, 2011.

[25] Craghead, Sam, “African Americans in Antebellum Richmond Walking Tour,” press release,  5/23/11.

[26] Email sent by the Museum of the Confederacy dated 4/14/11 to the author, from chyner@moc.org. Also, article on MOC website at from the Freelance Star, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, “Gray on Black,” April 15, 2011.

[27] Caggiano, Janet, “Exploring South’s Effort at Governing,” Richmond Times Dispatch, May 21, 2003, page E1.

[28] Loewen, James, “‘New Beginnings’ at the AASLH,” James Loewen blog at the History News Network, Sept. 21, 2011.  Loewen also refers readers to his Washington Post essay....... The panel in question, “Secession and the Confederacy: Issues for Local History Sites,” was organized by Marti Blatti of the National Park Service, currently president of the National Council on Public History.

[29] Loewen, James, email listed as a comment by Kevin Levin, for his blog posting, “Calling Out Ed Sebesta and Calling on James Loewen,”.  Kevin Levin stated in his blog, “I would like to invite Mr. Loewen to share his thoughts in the comments section below as a guest post on this site or even on his new blog at the History News Network.  Let’s end this nonsense now.” Levin sent an email and Loewen responded.

[30] Loewen, James, “‘New Beginnings’ at the AASLH,” James Loewen blog at the History News Network, Sept. 21, 2011. Loewen also refers readers to his Washington Post essay.......

[31]No author, blog, The Faculty Lounge: Conversations about law, culture, and academia, “Cleansing History? Confederacy Museum (And Trip Advisor) Retouch the Past.

 
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