African American Civil War Memory and Twentieth-Century Struggles for Freedom

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 3:00 PM - 3:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Civil War and Reconstruction; Public History and Memory


Focusing on the period from the early 1900s to the height of the Civil Rights movement at mid-century, this panel explores the importance of African American Civil War memory in the contexts of social justice, education, and everyday life. We consider in particular how efforts to promote and preserve African American memories of this transformative nineteenth-century event often served dual purposes. First, these memories stood as a bulwark against the “propaganda” of racist visions of Civil War memory. Second, African American memories of the war served a more inward-looking purpose in helping to develop ideas of freedom, community, and intergenerational solidarity among African Americans in activism and everyday life. In the early and mid-twentieth century, as black activists struggled against racial violence, school closures, land seizures, and disenfranchisement, African Americans continued to hold freedom parades, publish memoirs, and produce writing in black newspapers that celebrated the legacies of emancipation. The presenters on this panel will discuss how the specific context of the years between 1900 and 1960 shaped how black communities thought about, and made use of, Civil War memory. Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders’ paper considers twentieth-century school textbooks as battlegrounds for fights over both history and memory. Focusing on Black-authored texts, Lawrence-Sanders demonstrates how these school materials were important as “counter propaganda” materials and as documents intended to pass the “true” history of the Civil War and emancipation on to the next generation. Drawing on two powerful case studies, Hilary Green’s paper explores how black women used Civil War memory as a tool to strengthen the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. With attention to questions of gender, Green demonstrates the inextricable link between black Civil Rights struggles and fights over how the end of slavery was remembered. Ben Davidson’s paper focuses on ways in which memories of childhood and emancipation were linked for those African Americans who had grown up during the Civil War. He contends that memories specifically from childhood served an important role in preserving broad notions of black freedom in an era of political disenfranchisement. Thavolia Glymph and Fitzhugh Brundage, the chair and commentator respectively, have both contributed essential scholarship to the study of African American Civil War memory, and will add key insights to our discussion. This panel will seek, then, through conversation among the presenters and with the audience, to better understand how African Americans’ ideas about the meanings of the Civil War shaped debates over questions of race, freedom, and equality. In addition to engaging with key questions in the fields of African American history, memory, the Civil War, emancipation, gender, and age, this panel fits well with the 2021 conference theme of “pathways to democracy.” Amid controversies and debates over Confederate monuments, the presentation of slavery in today’s school textbooks, and the sesquicentennial of the Reconstruction Era, it is imperative that we reflect on the history of black efforts to preserve an emancipationist vision of Civil War memory as part of a long struggle for the equal rights necessary for true democracy.

Papers Presented

Writing a ‘Child’s Story’ of the Black Civil War: How Black Historians Challenged the Lost Cause in Black-Authored Textbooks

W.E.B. Du Bois warned in his oft-quoted last chapter of Black Reconstruction about the dangers of the “propaganda of history.” Black historians have always had the dual role of both debunking the racist histories written about Black Americans, while also creating, researching and writing their own histories. In the battle against the proliferation of the Lost Cause in primary and secondary textbooks, this was particularly true. This paper explores the work of several organization and individuals, including those who worked within the Association for Study of Negro Life and History and the NAACP, to challenge the myths of the Lost Cause in primary and secondary education. The central element of this counter-propaganda work was the creation of textbooks and other Black-child focused works aimed at correcting the narrative. These Black-centered and Black-authored works were created to contest not just history but also memory. This paper will focus on how these authors discussed African Americans and the Civil War and how their work provided an important corrective to the ways in which the war, and Black Americans’ roles in the war, had been distorted by the Lost Cause-infused narratives in many American textbooks. These authors saw it as their mission to counter the powerful impact that these educational materials had as propaganda by writing books that focused on “true histories” including the “true” history of the Civil War and its legacy.

Presented By
Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, University of Dayton

A Woman’s Work: Black Women, the Press, and Civil War Memory during the 1950s

This conference paper explores the role of black women in promoting Civil War memory as tools of empowerment in the modern Civil Rights Movement struggle. Using their local newspapers, Edna Knapper of Chambersburg, PA and Zadie Jones of Tuscaloosa, Alabama pushed the oral traditions from segregated spaces to the forefront of public consciousness by publishing a series of articles. Knapper, an educator and descendant of one profiled family, published a series of articles about prominent black Chambersburg residents in the mainstream newspaper in 1956. She hoped that this memory would encourage activists in their struggle against persistent discrimination endured in the Pennsylvania-Maryland border community. Likewise, Jones, an educator and descendant of the profiled individual, wrote a two-part biographical sketch of Jeremiah Barnes for The Alabama Citizen, a black newspaper published in Tuscaloosa. Jones hoped that black Tuscaloosans would employ this collective memory in their demands for a more inclusive public commemorative landscape that recognized their emancipationist tradition. As the preservers of black Civil War memory, this conference paper argues that these black women played an essential role. They exploited the persistent oral tradition, the press, and national Civil Rights Movement for advancing Civil War memory as a tool in struggle for achieving social justice.

Presented By
Hilary Nicole Green, University of Alabama

Remembering and Remaking Freedom: African American Memories of Civil War Childhoods, 1910–1940

From 19101940, black members of the generation who had grown up during the Civil War invoked memories of their childhoods to emphasize the importance of emancipation. In the context of such momentous events as World War I, the Great Migration, and the Great Depression, this group fought to preserve memories of the Civil War as a war for black freedom using memoirs, newspaper stories, and oral histories. In these remembrances, linking childhood and emancipation served two purposes. First, it lent authority to the stories told by members of “freedom’s generation”: increasingly members of this group were the last people alive who had first-hand experience of the conflict, and their memories thus came to be seen as extremely valuable. Second, recalling childhood and emancipation together drew attention to family as a key site for constructing and preserving ideas of freedom outside of electoral politics. While accounts of those who had grown up during the war often highlighted the importance of institutional political rights, by emphasizing childhood experiences, these narratives broadened understandings of the possibilities of freedom to include considerations of everyday life, bodily autonomy, and the value of family and kinship. In addition, African Americans who remembered Civil War childhoods in an era when disenfranchisement remained rampant emphasized the role of young people as political actors. This range of ideas both resisted and circumvented dominant narratives in order to preserve hope for the futures of young people in the often difficult moment of the present.

Presented By
Ben Davidson, Saint Michael's College

Session Participants

Chair: Thavolia Glymph, Duke University
Thavolia Glymph is professor of history and law at Duke University, a faculty research scholar in the Duke Population Research Institute (DuPRI), and a faculty affiliate in the Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. Her research focuses on the nineteenth century South. She is the author of Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge University Press, 2008), a Philip Taft Book Prize winner and finalist for the Frederick Douglass Book Prize and The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming, February 2020). She is co-editor of two volumes of the prize-winning series Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 (Cambridge University Press) and has authored numerous articles and essays including “Rose’s War and the Gendered Politics of a Slave Insurgency in the Civil War” which won the George and Ann Richards Prize for the best article published in The Journal of the Civil War Era in 2013. She is currently completing two book manuscripts: African American Women and Children Refugees: A History of War and the Making of Freedom in the Civil War, (supported by a grant from the NIH) and Playing “Dixie” in Egypt: White Civil War Veterans in the Egyptian Army and Transnational Transcripts of Race, Empire, and Citizenship, 1869-1882.

Glymph is an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer, Senior Project Scholar at the National Constitution Center, an elected member of the Society of American Historians and the American Antiquarian Society. She was a 2018 Thomas Langford Lecturer at Duke and the John Hope Franklin Visiting Professor of American Legal History at Duke Law School in 2015 and 2018. Her work has been featured on NPR, BBC, and PBS, and in the New York Times, Slate and the PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” with Henry Louis Gates and she is a recipient of the “Award for Outstanding Scholarship Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War” from the National Park Service. She lectures widely in the U.S. and abroad and is currently president of the Southern Historical Association.

Commentator: William Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Since 2002 Fitz Brundage has been the William B. Umstead Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill.  His research interests are American history since the Civil War, with a particular focus on the American South. He has written on lynching, utopian socialism in the New South, and white and black historical memory in the South since the Civil War.  His most recent book, Civilizing Torture: An American tradition, is about torture in the United States from the time of European contact to the twenty-first century.  It was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History.

Presenter: Ben Davidson, Saint Michael's College
Ben Davidson is currently a Mellon Long-term Fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. He completed his PhD in United States history at New York University in 2018, and he held a James Smithson Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C during the 2018-2019 academic year. His book manuscript, Freedom’s Generation: Coming of Age in the Era of Emancipation, traces the lives of the generation of black and white children from across the nation who grew up during the Civil War era, exploring how young people learned persistent lessons, carried into adulthood, about complexities intrinsic to ideas and experiences of emancipation. In support of research for this project, Davidson has received long-term fellowships from the U.S. Department of Education and New York University, and short-term fellowships from institutions including the American Historical Association, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Virginia Historical Society.

Presenter: Hilary Nicole Green, University of Alabama
Dr. Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at The University of Alabama. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in 19th Century African American history, the American Civil War Era, Reconstruction Studies, Civil War Memory, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham University Press, 2016) as well as articles, book chapters and other scholarly publications. She is the co-series editor of Reconstruction Reconsidered, a University of South Carolina Press series, a book review editor for the Journal of North Carolina Association of Historians, and a regular contributor to Muster, the online blog for the Journal of the Civil War Era. She is currently at work on a second book manuscript examining how everyday African Americans remembered and commemorated the Civil War. 

Presenter: Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, University of Dayton
Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders is an Assistant Professor in the History department at the University of Dayton. She holds a PhD in African American History from Rutgers University. She received her B.A. in Political Science from Wake Forest University and an M.A. in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University. Her research and teaching interests include 19th and 20th century African American and United States history including Civil War memory, Black cultural and intellectual history, Black radicalism, and public memory in the United States. She is currently working on her manuscript, They Knew What the War Was About: African Americans and the Memory of the Civil War, which explores Black Americans’ long engagement with the legacy of the Civil War and the myths of the Lost Cause.