Historian and Author Tom Perry's thoughts on history and anything that comes to mind.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Talking at the Mount Airy Museum

I spoke at the Mount Airy Museum yesterday about African-American history and the civil war. Here is an article about it from the Mount Airy News. Thanks to Jon Peters for covering the event. This event raised money for the museum. Next Saturday is the symposium to raise money for the Bassett Historical Center.

Many discussions regarding the Civil War focus on the politics of the era, or the military campaigns of the conflict.

Sunday, local historian and author Tom Perry gave a different look at that era, talking a little about what life might have been like for African-Americans in local communities during the time period, and highlighting the words of significant figures in the fight for civil rights in America.

His comments came during a presentation at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History Sunday afternoon.

Perry, who is well-known in the area as an historian, writer, and the man behind the preservation and establishment of JEB Stuart’s birthplace in Laurel Hill, Va., said he has spent much time studying local history during the Civil War era.

“There’s no way you can study Civil War history, and be honest about it, without looking at African-American history,” he told nearly two dozen people gathered for his talk Sunday.

He began his discussion with a quick look at several people he believes have been instrumental in African-American history and the march toward equality in American. Among those were Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, John Hope Franklin, and Martin Luther King Jr. ’s

He particularly singled out King for his courage in leading non-violent protests in support of civil rights.

“It takes courage to keep doing what you’re doing, knowing people are trying to kill you,” he said of King, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Perry said had things been a little different in 1865, King might not have needed to fear for his life.

“If the Civil War had ended like it was supposed to, if the U.S. government had done what it was supposed to do with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (to the U.S. Constitution), would Martin Luther King have needed courage? I don’t think so. Civil rights would have been more than just words. Martin Luther King would not have been killed.”

His words referenced the fact that those amendments guaranteed the full rights of citizenship, including freedom and the right to due process, to black people and all other people after the Civil War, but those rights were often withheld from African-Americans — sometimes violently so — until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Perry’s presentation also took a look at what life was like for African-Americans who were free prior to the end of the Civil War. Much of his research comes from Patrick County, Va., where original courthouse records dating back to 1791 are still intact, but he said “I don’t think Patrick County was really exceptional. I think Surry County was very similar.”

He said free black people had to be registered as such, and carry documentation which showed they had been granted free status. Perry said such people also were required to renew those papers, and pay a fee, every three years and to appear in the court which granted their emancipation papers every three years.

“Imagine what life would have been like. Everything you did, as a free black person, would have been under suspicion ...If you lost those papers, you could become a slave again.”

During the Civil War, he said slaves and free blacks were often pressed into service for the Confederacy. Not as soldiers, but as wagon drivers, ditch and latrine diggers, and any number of other support roles behind the front lines.

And, with a majority of white men off fighting, communities such as Patrick County, and presumably Surry County, often found themselves with more slaves within its borders than white people. White men who were left behind were sometimes put in patrols with broad policing powers.

“I don’t want to say this was a precursor to the (Ku Klux) Klan, but they were to patrol the county,” he said, to keep the black population under control.

Of course, Perry said no Civil War discussion could be complete without looking at President Abraham Lincoln, who presided over the war from the White House.

Perry said Lincoln deeply believed America could not survive with some states allowing slavery and other states disallowing the slave trade, and with his own personal distaste for the practice, he naturally pursued a nation with no slaves.

Perry called Lincoln a masterful politician. He said the president managed to get South Carolina troops to fire on federal troops at Fort Sumter, thus they could be branded rebels before the war began. And Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation, which Perry said freed no one. That document called for the freeing of all slaves in Confederate held territory, which at that time was not under United States jurisdiction and thus the proclamation had no authority there. It did not, notably, free slaves in states still aligned with the United States.

What that proclamation did, Perry said, was make the war, at least in public opinion, about freeing slaves, thus making it politically difficult for European nations to aid the Confederacy.

While African-Americans in the South were pressed into support roles, some in the North were allowed to join Union ranks as soldiers, at great risk to themselves. Perry said Confederate commanders would often execute black Union troops who were captured, as well as their white officers.

In the end, though, he said the conflict did bring about change.

“What comes out of the Civil War? The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments ... it took another hundred years, and some would way we’re still not there yet, before black people were given (equality),” he said

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