The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory
Cambridge, MA, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005
Reviewed by Jennifer Kilgore
The seven chapters and 23 illustrations alternate between white memory and black memory, and the author guides the reader through each race’s attempts to construct identity through memory. His objective stance provides criticism of all parties, whether it be Thomas Owen, the white archivist of Montgomery, Alabama who excluded black materials, seen in a 1915 photo , or the founder of the Journal of Negro History and Negro History Week, Carter Woodson, a leading figure to whom all young black history scholars needed to give allegiance.
As soon as you pick up this book you are reminded that memory is no easy subject, here demonstrated by “the struggle for the control of the memory” in the South [back cover]. The front cover contrasts white women in long dresses of the lost plantation era (a 1930 photo from Natchez, Mississippi) with black men carrying “I AM A Man” signs while walking past soldiers holding pointed rifles with bayonets (a 1968 photo from Memphis, TN). The introductory pages explain that Southern heritage is generally thought to be rooted in the defeated Confederacy, linking white heritage and Southern identity, where “the adjective ‘southern’ [… ] does not apply to African-Americans who live south of the Mason-Dixon line” .
The first chapter details the role of white women in maintaining the honor of the defeated Confederacy. Individual women’s groups collected funds and contracted for war memorials, and were involved in social issues. The Nashville Ladies’ Hermitage Association did not want President Andrew Jackson’s home used “as a facility for indigent Confederate Veterans” . The Mary Washington Monument Association of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was created to protect a grave they thought would be auctioned. In 1905, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (formed in 1891) “assumed responsibility for the languishing Alamo, the famed shrine to the martyrs of the 1836 Texas Revolution” . Women were the instigators of the Confederate Memorial Day. Such women, whose influence gradually declined after the Great War, “succeeded in their goal of filling the civic spaces of the South with monuments glorifying the Confederacy” .
Since pertinent details about war monuments are given here, a few photographs of them would also have been useful. Whereas governments in Europe often dominated the choice of monuments for public spaces, in the United States, the tradition of limited government meant that, “cultural voluntarism, rather than state intervention, prevailed” . “Even the most striking and enduring invented tradition of the late nineteenth century—the Pledge of Allegiance—was instigated by earnest grassroots activism; the federal government gave nothing more than its tacit approval” .
Southern women organized nostalgic pageant days, such as when one group in Texas, fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, organized “Slavery Days” featuring spirituals and sketches, “The Pickanines in the quarter” and “The Black Mammy and her white chillin” [32-3]. When the idea of “a national monument to black mammies on the Washington Mall” was considered by Congress in the 1920s, it was only to mask anxieties about current race relations: “the representations of black mammies and carefree slaves suppressed those concerns by extolling the memory of slavery as a golden age of race relations when love and ‘familial’ duty bound the races together” .
Since Langston Hughes is named later , the author might have footnoted that the nostalgia for slavery days that motivated white women to revive mammy relationships and Congress to consider a monument to mammies undoubtedly contributed to the inspiration for the “Cultural Exchange” section of Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), in which “colored children have white mammies.”
Meanwhile, what were Southern white men doing? Perhaps because defeat loomed so large in the Southern past, the sons of the Confederate generation looked elsewhere for less ambiguous sources of male power and status: “Athletic, political, and financial exploits, not cultivation of the past, were the preferred means through which fin-de-siècle men defined themselves” [21-22].
Chapter two, “Celebrating Black Memory”, focuses on the efforts of African-Americans “to acknowledge and ennoble what James Weldon Johnson called their ‘gloomy past’” . From 1865, Juneteenth celebrations were held to recall the reading of the Emancipation proclamation. Black leaders such as Alexander Crummell were already insisting that, “historical consciousness was critical to any struggle for equality” . Whites “understood that the rituals of black remembrance represented a form of cultural resistance”  and referred to Juneteenth as “coonday” . “Public ceremonies, which became the preeminent forum in which blacks displayed their recalled past, enabled vast numbers of blacks to learn, invent, and practice a common language of memory” .
With a largely illiterate population, memory was transmitted primarily orally (the author mentions little of the African-American fiction that emphasizes oral memory, such as the works of Ernest Gaines, but Zora Neale Hurston is named as one of the women scholars that Woodson sponsored) . Rather than literary, Brundage’s focus is on historical accounts like William Still’s Underground Rail Road (1872), which did not sell to a poor, largely illiterate target audience . So it was that public ceremonies provided a vehicle for memory, requiring “neither literacy nor large sums of money” and reaching both the elite and the rest of the community . Besides Juneteenth, Washington’s birthday was celebrated, along with Independence Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, and Decoration Day in late May (which evolved into the present Memorial Day). The fourth of July was celebrated by Blacks in the South–to the extent that whites often remained indoors and resentful: “We were not allowed to go out much on the ‘glorious Fourth,’ for the negroes took it over as their day of revelry” is one white viewpoint . Civic displays were important moments for opposing stereotypes of black identity. “Parades took on added significance in the age of segregation because they offered African Americans a unique opportunity to present complex self-portraits of their communities that were largely unmediated by white interference” .
Even if it was possible to have access to public spaces for parades, it was much more difficult to secure public space for permanent historical monuments. By 1900, “only three monuments depicted blacks in military service, and none of them were located in the South” . During the Spanish American War, revived patriotism among whites in the South, encouraged by the Daughters of the American Revolution, had blacks and whites competing for public spaces for their parades. “As a consequence, blacks and their festivities were pushed to the margins of the civic landscape” .
Appropriately entitled “Archiving White Memory,” the third chapter elaborates the following in richer detail. Until the Alabama Historical Commission was founded in December 1898, public documents were saved by chance. When the organization of archives began around 1900, primarily at first through the goading of the Alabama Historical Society, Alabama became the first Southern State to institute a Department of Archives and History in 1901. Soon other states, such as Mississippi and North Carolina, followed suit. There were connections “between public archives and the establishment of state power and administration” . Such places were used to trace “heroic narratives of white civilization” . The documents archived pertained to whites, while documents about blacks were not thought worth preserving. Meanwhile, the promotion of public history bred a new generation of professional historians from John Hopkins, Columbia, and elsewhere, whose necessary credentials included archival research, but researchers who questioned the ways of the old South or the legitimacy of secession, or dared praise Brooker T. Washington, were censured. Soon enough, amateur historians, women, and women’s voluntary historical organizations were viewed with suspicion. The public history movement flourished in the South, focusing only on white history, “until the latter third of the twentieth century” .
As a response, in chapter four, “Black Remembrance in the Age of Jim Crow,” Brundage pointedly remarks: “Many white Southerners would have been shocked to learn that Jim Crow Schools scattered throughout the South had become centers of black public life and vehicles for spreading history that contradicted white historical wisdom” .
This chapter will inform readers of Ernest Gains concerning Miss Jane’s obsession with education in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Jane remained illiterate, which is not surprising considering the statistics: 0.5% of eligible black children in the South attended secondary school in 1890; fewer than 3% were in attendance in 1910, and about 20% made it to high school in 1940 [141-43]. The inequalities in spending between black and white schools were flagrant: “As late as 1940, Mississippi spent only thirteen cents on black schools for every dollar it spent on white schools” . But for those who were able to attend school, there were some positive initiatives. One example is the career of Luther P. Jackson, son of former slaves, and first generation black historian. A popular teacher, he wanted students to be civically involved and had them write to their congressmen. He also influenced a generation of Virginia teachers, promoting curriculum reform and the teaching of Negro history. However, in spite of the brightening conditions for black historical researchers, few were motivated to risk “physical harm” by conducting research in the South .
Inspiration for black teachers came from the Journal of Negro History (1916-). In the 1920s Carter Woodson was able to raise more than 100,000 dollars from white philanthropists to finance the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). This happened in part “because he was convinced that the popularity of D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation was a shocking measure of public credulity for racist fantasies” . Carter Woodson launched Negro history week in February 1926, “in recognition of the anniversaries of the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two holidays already celebrated by blacks” . The Negro in Our History by Woodson would become “one of the most widely used black history texts” . By 1935, almost a third of black high schools in the South offered black history courses. Woodson managed to orchestrate Negro History Week through “his influence with black newspapers and educators” , as well as free pamphlets for teachers from the ASNLH. In 1929, “Monday was Literacy Day; Tuesday, Government Day; Wednesday, Arts and Science Day; Thursday, Business Day; and Friday, Education Day” . Students were encouraged to perform plays highlighting these various themes. Support and enthusiasm for the project came from black women who held the majority of school teaching positions (75% in black schools in Tennessee in 1936) .
W. Fitzhugh Brundage teaches in North Carolina, and the fifth chapter opens on Charleston’s reputation for glamour, which lay in “the legend of the plantation civilization of the old South” as Herbert Sass put it in The Saturday Evening Post . Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind and the movie furthered the legend. Between the wars, the tourism industry was involved in the making of memory—or at least presenting it as white southerners wished it to be understood, while African-Americans were not admitted as tourists on the hallowed grounds of white heritage. Charleston was one of the first cities to cash in on the tourism industry that improved transport (railroads and roads) made possible. During the 1920s and 1930s, Charleston marketed nostalgia. Automobile tours were arranged to “follow the roads of history” . In the early 1920s, Charleston adopted the slogan “America’s Most Historic City” . The city’s spending on promotion of the tourism industry paid off, from only “a trickle of tourists in 1916” to the 1930s, when some 270,000 people visited Charleston yearly .
In this version of the past, the people of Charleston were kind to their slaves and Denmark Vesey was never mentioned. While the March 1939 issue of House and Garden was devoted to the ‘historical grandeur’ of Charleston, “which was presented as an inspiration for all manner of interior and architectural design” , by 1940, the city had managed to relegate African-Americans to neighborhoods far from the special historic district.
The white tourist industry that rehabilitated a nostalgic taste for Southern mansions is contrasted to the bulldozers that destroyed the mansions of the wealthy African-Americans of the Hayti neighborhood of Durham in chapter six. Hayti was disfigured in the 1960s, purportedly to make way for a highway , but the author insists this was because it was not seen as a neighborhood worth preserving: could black culture possibly be heritage material? Landmarks lost to the highway included the Primitive Baptist Church (founded in 1906), White Rock Baptist Church (a neo-gothic structure designed by black architect Sidney Pittman in the 1890s), the three storey brick building headquarters for the Royal Knights of King David (launched in 1883), the Regal Theater (where Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ethel Water, and Fats Waller had performed), The Lincoln Café, Wonderland Theater, and as a later casualty in 1978, the Biltmore Hotel [251-53]. Meanwhile, in Savannah, Georgia, a similar loss occurred during the city’s so-called restoration. White flight prompted by “the threat of integration of downtown schools following Brown v. Board of Education” led to an urban renewal and historic preservation campaign [255-56]. But “the destruction of historically black neighborhoods complemented the restoration of downtown Savannah” . To sum up, the sad irony of the 1950s and 1960s is that while the Civil Rights campaign was being won, the heritage battle was mostly lost with urban renewal “shrinking the inventory of sites of black memory” .
The concluding chapter, “Contested History in the Sunbelt South”, shows how the past is being revisited. In school books, museums, public spaces, “the recalled past that prevails […] is under broader revision than at any time since the Civil War. What once were exclusive and enduring preserves of white memory now increasingly acknowledge a past they had, for so long, both ignored and suppressed” .
This book provides a number of perspectives for further study and meditation. Any tourist in the South will now want to consider what stands behind historical landmarks from several angles. The remarks about urban so-called renewal and the destruction of black neighborhoods it has entailed may well be equally applicable to a number of cities in the North.
However, a missing element, from my point of view, is a detailed treatment of the perversions of memory. The KKK is not high culture (though plenty of the elite were once members), yet it seems to me a mistake to leave it out of this study. After the introduction [2-3], the Klan is referred to only once—page 248. Brundage omitted, or chose not to mention, the Ku Klux Klan at several evident junctures in this book, at the end of chapter one, when discussing male activity after the war (it was then that the seeds of the Klan were sown), and when referring to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation . Lest anyone think the Klan is ancient history, the London Times reported that in 2001, in Mississippi, “at the funeral of Byron De La Beckwith, the killer of Medgar Evers, […] they presented his son with a rusty sword and a Confederate flag” (March 30, 2001) . Maybe Brundage did not name the Klan because it seemed too obvious, or maybe he wanted to avoid generating controversy or hostility: after the introduction, he does not mention the battles waged over the flying of the Confederate flag either. However, since the Klan was also a powerful vector of distorted memory he might well have dwelt on the topic as a complete chapter—or at least referred the reader to his own Lynching in the New South (1993) or the book he edited Under Sentence of Death: Essays on Lynching in the South (1997)—which brings me back to Freakonomics. It is the kind of book that Academics save for the holidays, when a bit of entertainment may be preferable to hard work, but in its second chapter, “How is the Ku Klux Klan like a Group or Real-Estate Agents?” there is an engaging story about the Klan. Levitt and Dubner give a brief history of the Klan, “founded in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War by six former Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee” through its revival following Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915, originally called The Clansman) leading to a 1920s Klan membership of eight million men, raging against “blacks, […] Catholics, Jews, communists, unionists, immigrants, agitators, and other disrupters of the status quo” so that Will Rogers could state in 1933 that Hitler was “copying” the KKK . Flourishing on after the war, the Klan’s biggest blow came from the courageous antics of one Stetson Kennedy from Jacksonville, Florida (a man named after his ancestor that made the famous hat). Several of his family members had once been Klansmen, but Stetson’s positions were different, and he infiltrated a branch of the Atlanta, Georgia Klan as John S. Perkins. By leaking Klan passwords to the producers of The Adventures of Superman radio show in order that Superman, after fighting Hitler and Mussolini, could spend four weeks fighting against the Klan. After the very first show, the children of Klansmen were playing out Superman vs. the Klan, using the actual passwords. After the second show, when newly invented replacement passwords were also leaked, attendance at the local meeting of Perkins’s Klan branch had plummeted. Across the country, the Klan’s membership began to decline. In The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (1987), Stetson Kennedy was cited by historian Wyn Craig Wade as the most important preventive factor for a postwar revival of the Klan in the North.
Brundage, in contrast to the style of Freakonomics, avoids hype and sensationalism of all sorts—but the outer limits of such perfect objectivity may be a detachment from the outcome of the heritage battle. In the same vein, concerning subjectivity, The Southern Past might have benefited from more remarks about how the arts present Southern memory—both white and black: the key names in literature, with the exception of Gaines, are in the index already: Dunbar, Faulkner, Ellison, Hughes, Hurston, etc., but the passing allusions to these writers are too superficial. Not enough attention is drawn to the fact that the arts are a very powerful vector for memory, and that, ultimately, artistically embodied memory often lives longer than memory in other forms.