by Tim Gilmore, 8/28/2016
“We don’t accept any government funding,” Evelyn Wright says, “because the government wants us to work from their script.”
We’re standing in the museum library surrounded by thousands of volumes of Confederate history told almost entirely by the Confederates. Nevertheless, Wright points to all 53 volumes of series one of The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and says, “Now that tells both sides of the story.”
Telling both sides is a recurrent theme in this two-room museum, as it is among Confederate apologists everywhere. So is the notion that American history as it’s taught today is “revisionist” and that those who find the Confederate flag offensive are ignorant of history.
According to a Sons of Confederate Veterans pamphlet by the front door, “The Southern Soldier fought for a just cause, and the light of their accomplishments can never be dimmed by any revision of History.” It’s this revisionist “politically correct world” that’s branded “the Confederate Soldier as a traitor. We see it differently.”
The library contains two shelves labeled “Black History,” but there’s no Frederick Douglass, no Sojourner Truth, no Civil Rights. There’s nothing on Jacksonville’s rich black history: no Eartha White, no Abraham Lincoln Lewis, no James Weldon Johnson, A. Philip Randolph or Blind Blake. There’s nothing on the blues and black music. These black histories were written by unremembered white writers.
For the G. Howard Bryan Museum of Southern History is less a museum of Southern history than a shrine to the Confederacy.
Its materials may boast, “We accept no government funding of any kind” so as not to conform to “politically correct” interpretations, but it nevertheless conforms tightly to its own “revision of History.”
If, for example, there are any Ku Klux Klan artifacts here, they’re not on display. Wright says the North had more slaves than the South, that the Civil War wasn’t fought because of slavery, and that Southern blacks largely defended the Confederacy.
This historical revisionism admits no representation of slavery or racism in its historical displays and responds to any mention of slavery by asserting the North not only had slaves, but more slaves. Sadly, it’s the 21st century vestige of that old Southern moniker for the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.”
So it’s somewhat surprising to see an old copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a glass display case, since Stowe was one of those Yankees who “meddled” in Southern affairs. Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more to turn the larger national mindset against slavery in the South than any other cultural phenomenon.
When I ask Evelyn Wright what the Civil War was about if slavery wasn’t a primary factor, she says, “Money. Isn’t that what people always fight about?”
She’s right in saying the Northern economy benefited greatly from that of the South, but then says the North fought the war in order to assume the South’s economic profits. “In fact, the South was fixing to get rid of slavery. It was expensive to have slaves. You had to feed ’em and clothe ’em and give ’em a place to live and pay for their doctors.”
If this “history” isn’t revisionist, it’s hard to imagine what is, and it’s full of a strange loser’s condescension: anyone who does not know these fictional facts is ignorant of history.
In a sense, though, it’s not the fault of the ignorant: “That’s just what they were taught,” Wright says, then adds, “None of us alive today were there.” That’s why we should read the Ordinances of Secession, in which every seceding state names slavery as its reason for leaving the Union.
So the displays of Civil War buttons and the battlefield dioramas of intricately painted and crafted soldiers and camps can only say so much about larger historical forces. And they certainly say very little, if anything, about slavery.
So I suggest, as I’ve told my students for more than a decade, that maybe the closest we can get to understanding the truth of another time is by reading the words people left for us when the past was present. It’s a ghostly act to run the very words of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography through our minds in 2016.
When I mention Douglass and Henry David Thoreau, Wright says she doesn’t know “those authors.”
Confederate historical revisionism makes no room for the best-known American writers. Douglass and Thoreau aren’t “politically correct” in the Confederate apologist narrative.
Obviously, Douglass’s writing of how little was spent to clothe, feed, and shelter himself and other slaves, his telling of learning secretly and against the law to read, his narrating the freedom he found in the North after escaping his Southern slaveowners, when he became one of the nation’s leading abolitionists —obviously, Douglass’s narrative, in this particular political space, is politically incorrect.
It’s politically incorrect for a Confederate apologist to read, “I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood.”
Beside a Confederate flag mousepad and a sticker warning, “This is not a gun-free zone!” Wright says, “The media” only show the “nutjobs” with Confederate flags, not the “nice people.”
“All the controversy about the flag began,” she says, with the Charleston Church Massacre, when Dylann Roof murdered nine black worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church just over a year ago. Roof was a white supremacist who’d posted pictures of himself with Confederate battle flags online.
“It just so happened that it was a Confederate flag,” Wright says. “It could’ve been a Nazi flag or anything else.”
When I ask her if she could understand why a black person might take offense to the Confederate flag, she says black people weren’t the only slaves, that Jews were slaves in Egypt in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Wright doesn’t want to force anyone to think any certain way, she says. People are entitled to their own opinions, and “I am not in control of how people interpret things.”
“Why do you think black people might be offended by the Confederate flag?” I ask.
“Because they see it as a sign of slavery,” she says.
“Are they wrong to do so?”
“There’s a lot more to the South than just slavery. The South has done a lot of good things.”
“What could black Southerners see in a Confederate flag and be proud of?”
“That they’re now American citizens,” she says, “instead of living in a hole in Africa.”
There’s a tense silence. I don’t mention that black Southerners became American citizens because the Confederacy lost the war, or that millions of modern urban Africans live better off today than many Confederate apologists do in the American South.
“That totally did not sound right,” she says.
We look at a folded American flag the museum claims is one of three laid across Abraham Lincoln’s coffin.
I think about the first black girl I kissed more than half my lifetime ago.
We note the decades-old sign for Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, named for the Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Once there were schools named for Forrest all over the South. Jacksonville’s Forrest was one of the last when it finally changed its name in 2014.
I think about my relatives from central Georgia, born in the 1920s, who joked about decapitating black people, how my father’s Uncle Phil, the police officer he so admired, knocked black boys onto the street with his night stick if he caught them walking on the sidewalk.
Wright holds up a piece of cotton and asks me to feel it, explaining, “We didn’t really need the slaves to pick the cotton. We could’ve done that ourselves. Where the slaves were really useful was in winnowing the cotton, especially after the invention of the cotton gin.”
There’s a fortified loneliness here. The building has no windows. Rarely is there more than one car in the parking lot. Wright drives an hour and a half in her pickup with its Trump bumper sticker to volunteer on Saturdays. While promotional materials indicate one of the museum’s main purposes is educating children, Wright says the kids who’ve visited are mostly home-schooled. Meanwhile, “The generation that cares about a place like this,” she says, “is older and is passing away quick.”
I let myself imagine a time when the South finally leaves the Confederacy behind and allows itself to surge free into a beautiful future.