Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Unvarnishing Virginia History

The Feb. 28, 2007, issue of STYLE Weekly featured a Back Page a piece by yours truly, "Unvarnishing Virginia History." A couple of years ago, a retired educator gave me the history book mentioned. I hope he enjoys seeing what his gift inspired. Click on the link or read it below.

Unvarnishing Virginia History
by F.T. Rea

Having grown up in Richmond, I’ve been steeped in its dual sense of bitterness and pride over matters to do with, and stemming from, the Civil War. Perhaps thinned out somewhat by time, it remains in the air we breathe at the fall line of the James River.

Most of my life has been spent in the Fan District, which is home to four statues honoring heroes of the Confederacy. Beyond monuments, to know what it was like in Richmond in the past, we look to history. It comes to us in many ways — stories told, popular culture and schooling among them.

In 1961, my seventh-grade history book, which was the official history of Virginia for use in public schools — as decreed by the General Assembly — had this to say about slavery at the end of its Chapter 29:
...Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.
In 1961 I had no reason to question that paragraph’s veracity. Baseball was my No. 1 concern in those days. Now those words read quite differently.

Living through the Civil Rights era, with its bombings, assassinations, marches, sit-ins, boycotts and school-closings, did much to show me a new light, to do with truth and fairness. However, for me, there was no moment of epiphany, no sudden awareness I was growing up in a part of the world that officially denied aspects of its past. More than anything else, it took time. Life experience taught me to look more deeply into things.

Now I know that dusty old history book was a cog in the machinery that made the Jim Crow era possible.

Nonetheless, that same history book’s view of how it was for those enslaved is one that some Virginians still want to believe. It’s probably what they were taught as children, too. Some call it “heritage.” Many of this persuasion also cling to the bogus factoid that since most Southerners didn’t hold slaves, the Civil War itself was not fought over slavery.

Which is preposterous.

Of course poor Southerners, those who weren’t plantation owners, had little to do with starting the Civil War. Generally speaking, poor people with no clout don’t launch wars anywhere; rich people with too much power do.

So, for the most part, the men who fought in gray uniforms were doing what they felt was expected of them. As with most wars, the bulk of those who fought and died for either side between 1861 and 1865 were just ordinary Joes who had no say-so over declaring war or negotiating peace.

In Virginia, many who chose to wear gray did so to reverse what seemed to them to be an invasion of their home state.

Yet, if the reader wants to understand more deeply why Virginia eventually left the Union, to follow the secessionist hotheads of South Carolina and Mississippi into war, here’s a clue from Chapter 30 of that same history book, which opened with this:
In 1790 there were more than 290,000 slaves in Virginia. This number was larger than that of any other state...
Those 290,000 slaves were worth a lot of money to their owners.

Thus, the largest part of the real blame for the bloodshed of the war, and the subsequent indignities of the Reconstruction era, probably rests with wealthy slaveholders who would not give up their investments in cheap labor without a fight.

Readers interested in how much the official record of the Civil War has changed over the decades since the Civil Rights era should pay a visit to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. Its telling of the story of the Civil War is now based on the unvarnished truth.

Moreover, I am proud to be a Virginian. There’s plenty of Virginia history that has nothing to do with picking sides in the Civil War. My ancestors go back to the 1600s in this commonwealth. But I will not stand with anyone who chooses to stay the course with the absurd of denials of history — to do with slavery — that were crammed into that old public school textbook.

Even the Museum of the Confederacy, for now still housed in what was the Richmond home of the president of the Confederate States of America, is apparently poised to change its name to reflect its modern mission — telling the history of that time accurately, rather than to simply memorialize the Confederacy.

As for my friends in Richmond who haven’t had a fresh thought on matters racial since they were seventh-graders, well, I don’t want to pick a fight with them. So mostly we talk about other things — baseball still works.

All that said, Robert E. Lee, whose spectacular monument I see every day, remains a Virginian I admire. The dual sense of tragedy and dignity his statue conveys is striking. In his time and place, Lee clearly did what he saw as his duty. How can an honest person not respect that?

After the war Lee urged his fellow Virginians to let it go — to move on. That was good advice in 1865. It still is.

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