Child’s Play is Not Child’s Play on a Civil War Era Plantation

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“But seriously… did you have to go there?”
Source: Image of Miss Ophelia and Topsy from Selection from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Digital Critical Edition: “Topsy”: Houghton, Osgood & Co. “New Edition,” 1879

Sometimes a game is not a game. Susan Snow, a former enslaved woman, learned this the hard way during the Civil War.

Snow was one of many former slaves who was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. During her interview with a Project writer, she recalled an incident from the War, when she was in her early teens:

I was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1850. W.J. Snow was my old marster. He bought my ma from a man named Jerry Casey. Venus was her name, but dey mos’ly called her ‘Venie.’

“I got more whuppin’s dan any other Nigger on de place, ’cause I was mean like my mammy. Always a-fightin’ an’ scratchin’ wid white an’ black. I was so bad Marster made me go look at de Niggers dey hung to see what dey done to a Nigger dat harm a white man.

“I’s gwine tell dis story on myse’f. De white chillun was a-singin’ dis song:

‘Jeff Davis, long an’ slim,
Whupped old Abe wid a hick’ry limb.

Jeff Davis is a wise man, Lincoln is a fool,
Jeff Davis rides a gray, an’ Lincoln rides a mule.’

I was mad anyway, so I hopped up an’ sung dis one:

‘Old Gen’l Pope had a shot gun,
Filled it full o’ gum,
Killed ‘em as dey come.

Called a Union band,
Make de Rebels un’erstan’
To leave de lan’,
Submit to Abraham.’

“Old Mis’ was a-standin’ right b’hin’ me. She grabbed up de broom an’ laid it on me. She made me submit. I caught de feathers, don’t you forgit it.

“I didn’ know it was wrong. I’d hear’d de Niggers sing it an’ I didn’ know dey was a-singin’ in dey sleeves. I didn’ know nothin’ ’bout Abe Lincoln, but I hear’d he was a-tryin’ to free de Niggers an’ my mammy say she want to be free.

The “Jeff Davis” in Snow’s song is Jefferson Davis, who was the president of the Confederate States. The ‘Pope’ in her song is probably John Pope, a Union general who served along the Mississippi River during the early part of the War. The term “singing in their sleeves” was probably a slang term for “this is something we don’t say in front of white folks.”

From that short passage, I gathered the following about Snow and her life on her plantation:
o Susan Snow was the subject of constant beating/physical abuse
o Slavery as practiced on her plantation employed such violence to control enslaved men, women, and children.
o White children and enslaved children engaged in play that referenced the war
o Snow and other slave children had some knowledge and understanding of the Civil War, including the names of a few political and military leaders
o Young slaves, such as Susan Snow at the time, did not have the fullest understanding of what the war was about or what it meant for them
o The slaves (except for Susan Snow, much to her misfortune) knew that they should keep quiet when speaking favorably about the Union or the Yankees – lest it result in physical reprisal or other actions
o Snow’s mother, at least, believed the war would bring freedom to the slaves.

That’s a lot of information in one small passage of text.

When Snow told her story, she was 87. But her memory of that incident was strong, perhaps because of the unexpected and harsh licking she got. Snow might not have understood that Confederates were very sensitive to any talk from their slaves which seemed to favor the Union. Or that making fun of the Confederacy was no laughing matter to white southerners in any event. Snow learned her lesson the hard way.

Snow’s full interview is included in the Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves.

This Friday evening (8/22/2014) on C-SPAN3: Slavery in Cinema

The C-SPAN network will air a trio of shows tonight that focus on the depiction of slavery in film:

The Civil War: Slavery & Cinema (8PM ET 8/21/2014; 11:42PM ET 8/21/2014)

A panel of history professors traces the evolution of slavery as depicted in film since the 1930s. Drawing examples from films like “Mandingo,” “Amistad” and “12 Years a Slave,” panelists discuss how filmmakers have framed the idea of slavery. They also describe changes in race relations and gender portrayals in films and how slave characters have shifted from the background into leading roles. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

Hollywood and the Passage of the 13th Amendment (9:30PM ET 8/21/2014; 2AM ET 8/22/2014)

Professor Matthew Pinsker talks about Stephen Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, analyzing what is fact and what is Hollywood fiction. The video for this should be available online by Tuesday, August 28, 2014.

Civil War History and the Film Gone With the Wind (10:20PM ET 8/21/2014; 1:12AM ET 8/22/2014)

Jeffrey McClurken talked about the 1939 movie “Gone with the Wind,” looking at it as a source on southern culture during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and reflective of the Depression era in which it was created. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

These three videos will be useful for folks interested in slavery and the way that slavery and emancipation have been portrayed on film, especially by Hollywood.

Also of interest is this article on Examiner.com: Black slave movies are proven winners in Hollywood, which identifies the most popular slave movies to date.

Scenes from The Camp William Penn Sesquicentennial Commemoration: Bringing History to the People

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Reenactors/Living Historians at the Commemoration events for the 150th anniversary of Camp William Penn. The Camp trained 11 regiments of just under 11,000 men that were part of the United States Colored Troops.

This past weekend (September 20-21, 2013), the 150th Anniversary of Camp William Penn was commemorated with a number of events held in Cheltenham, PA, which is just outside of northwest Philadelphia. Camp William Penn was the first federal facility dedicated to training African Americans who enlisted in the United States Army during the American Civil War. Just under 11,000 men of African descent were trained at the site, and they formed 11 regiments in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), the part of the army which contained almost all of the US army’s black enlistees. Among the Union’s free states, more USCT regiments were organized in Pennsylvania than in any other state. At the time, Pennsylvania had the largest black population of any state outside the South (that is, states that did not allow slavery). These regiments also included men from nearby Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey.

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The events were organized, conducted, and sponsored by a number of groups, including Civil War USCT Living Historians for the 3rd, 6th, and 22nd USCT regiments (which were among the regiments formed at Camp Penn), and several others from across the country, as well as Citizens for the Preservation Historic La Mott and the Camp William Penn Museum. The activities included a parade, a learning camp where people could meet with living historians/reenactors to learn about the Civil War era, lectures, and a special opening of the Camp William Penn Museum. The Museum has been closed for renovations.

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Entrance to the Camp site.

I was able to attend several of the activities on Saturday (9/21) morning and afternoon, and I took some pictures which I am sharing here. Most of the photos were taken in the Encampment, the learning camp where Living Historians provided education about camp life, training, uniforms, weapons, and other aspects of being a Civil War soldier. As well, the role of USCTs in ending slavery and gaining full citizenship for African Americans was discussed.

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Mel Reid explains hardtack and camp life to a family of visitors.

It was a great event. The attendees included people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, and it was clear that under the right circumstances, African Americans will show as much interest in the Civil War and American history as anyone. One of the successes of the event was that, it was built around a neighborhood community center. As opposed to, for example, being organized around a far off battlefield. People could walk or drive or bus to the activities. So, the event came to the people, versus, people having to go far distances to attend an event. This is a very useful model for commemorating and presenting history, and I hope we see more of this in the future.

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That’s Joe Becton on the left, one of the event organizers. Much thanks to him and all the folks who worked so hard and extended their hospitality!

Lots more pictures are below the fold. Continue reading

Camp William Penn to be Commemorated with Parade, USCT Living History Association Conference – 9/20 & 9/21

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Flyer for Camp Penn Commemoration activities

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Second flyer for Camp Penn Commemoration activities

Camp William Penn, the US Army enlistment and training site for African Americans from the Philadelphia, PA/Delaware Valley area during the Civil War, will be commemorated with a number of activities on Friday, September 20, 2013, and Saturday, September 21, 2013 in Fort Washington and Elkins Park, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. This will include a parade on Saturday at 10 AM. Alongside the commemoration events, the United States Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA) is holding its Annual Meeting and Banquet.

Information about the events is provided on the flyers above, and more info is here on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/USCTLHA#

A number of people have come together to organize these activites, including the 3rd and 6th Regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT) Reenactors, Citizens for the Restoration of Historic La Mott (La Mott, PA, is the site of Camp Penn), the Camp William Penn Museum, and the USCTLHA.

The USCTLHA Annual Meeting activities will include a conference on Friday, September 20, at 4PM and a banquet on Saturday, September 21, at 6PM. The USCTLHA is a non-profit national organization “whose purpose is to promote and accurately interpret the history of the United States Colored Troops of the American Civil War and those that supported their efforts to abolish slavery and preserve the Union and to educate the public and promote research of the history and legacy of those who served in the Civil War.” Their website is here.

I will not be able to attend the event, unfortunately for me. I wish the best to those who are conducting and participating in these activities.

“Ask a Slave” Asks, Can Slavery be Funny?

This is Episode 2 of the Web-based comedy series “Ask a Slave.” Azie Mira Dungey plays show host Lizzie Mae, who fields questions about her experience as slave to Martha Washington (George Washington’s wife).

Actress and slave enslaved-person reenactor Azie Mira Dungey is trying her hand at comedy which tackles a very difficult subject: American slavery. The website Ask A Slave: A Comedy Web Series features videos based on her experiences portraying slaves at Mount Vernon, a historical site in northern Virginia that preserves the estate of George Washington. Episode 2 of the show is shown above.

On the “Ask a Slave” website, Dungey discusses the genesis for her project:

I must have played every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Caroline Branham– Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid… Studying American history and the lives of these women, while virtually living in their heads and experiences each day, made me feel like I was in some sort of twisted time warp. This was also the time of Barack Obama’s first term in White House and his subsequent run for a second term.

I ask you to remember the racial tension that was all around. We had people saying that the President would be planting watermelons on the White House lawn. Emails were forwarded proclaiming that this was the beginning of a race war and the end of the country as we know it. People bought guns. (A lot of guns.) A scientist reported the evolutionary explanation as to why black women were the least attractive of all the races. The Oprah Show ended. It was mass chaos.

And in the midst of all this, I was playing a slave. Everyday, I was literally playing a slave. I mean, I was getting paid well for it, don’t get me wrong, and we all need a day job. But all the same, I was having all these experiences, and emotions. Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.

So, I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.

While all of that does seem like fertile ground for further exploration, making a comedy about slavery seems like a tough sell. Even today, slavery is an extremely sensitive subject that raises feelings of anger, guilt, and shame. It is perhaps the ultimate taboo topic in American history. I wonder how far the series can go before the treatment of the subject becomes, as one 19th century girl said about Civil War-related entrainment, “too perfect for enjoyment.”

But I did enjoy the first two episodes of the show, and I look forward to more. I am very interested in seeing how the creative team is going to approach the character and the content for the show. In the first episode, show host Lizzie Mae becomes somewhat flustered at the not-too-smart questions she’s getting, and comes off seeming like – dare I say it – an Angry Black Woman. I think the anger is righteous, and I like the satire in it, but some members of the audience might be turned off. The second episode makes more use of deadpan and irony, and I thought that it was funny and more palatable for a wide audience. Time will tell what kind of groove the creators will get into. I’ll certainly be watching to see how it goes.

For those who are interested:  Azie Mira Dungey is scheduled for an interview about her series on National Public Radio’s national midday show Here and Now. The show is expected to air on Friday, Sept 6th. Check your local NPR station for scheduling.

PS: I do disagree with a critique that blogger Kevin Levin has about the show. He did not find the show to be funny, and that’s OK; comedy, as with many things, is a matter of taste. But he also said this:

There is no exploration as to why some of these questions are problematic. She merely pokes fun at the visitors’ questions. I suspect that there are any number of factors beyond mere intelligence that shapes the kinds of questions posed to reenactors at historic sites. I wonder what the staff at Mount Vernon thinks of this.

I think that’s the wrong way to look at this series. I don’t see this show as having a pedagogic intent, that is, it’s not about providing teaching moments or insights into the thought processes of visitors to historic sites and their notions of slavery. It’s just a comedy show. I don’t hold this show accountable for addressing the issues that Mr. Levin suggests. In the same way, I don’t hold Saturday Night Live’s news segment accountable for thoughtful and nuanced information about current events. I just hope they’ll be funny.

Having said that: the creative team does have a challenge to face. Their job is to get the history right – they can’t make fun of the kinds of questions they’re getting, if they get the history wrong in the answers they give. I hope they understand that they have this responsibility, and I hope they deal with it in a righteous manner.

US Postal Service Stamps Commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation

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1963 stamp, commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

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2013 stamp, commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

These are postage stamps commemorating the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s hard to imagine there was a time when stamps only cost 5¢. And I say that as someone who is over 55 years old.

The blog for the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Pushing the Envelope, has details of the First-Day Ceremony for the Emancipation Proclamation Commemorative Stamp. It also has some interesting stories and images about Postal Service commemorations of the Emancipation Proclamation, such as this one:

http://postalmuseum.typepad.com/.a/6a01157147ecba970c017ee7726ba2970d-popup

The Kings, Queens, and Martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC,
Source: National Park Service

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. His leadership, intellect, courage, and ambassadorship to white America and the world at large make him deserving of all the recognitions and honors that he’s received.

Yet, I am filled with ambivalence every time we come to another MLK Jr Day. Yes, Dr. King was a great man. But he was not an army of one.

The Civil Rights Movement had numerous heroes and martyrs. All of them deserve recognition. Rather than a day to celebrate the memory of King, I would have preferred a Nation Civil Rights Movement Day to celebrate all of those who were a part of the Movement.

For example, my other “favorite” super-hero from the Movement is Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She started

working in the fields when she was six, and was only educated through the sixth grade. She married in 1942, and adopted two children. She went to work on the plantation where her husband drove a tractor, first as a field worker and then as the plantation’s timekeeper. She also attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights, and voting rights.

In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. She and the rest of her family lost their jobs for her involvement, and SNCC hired her as a field secretary. She was able to register to vote for the first time in her life in 1963, and then taught others what they’d need to know to pass the then-required literacy test. In her organizing work, she often led the activists in singing Christian hymns about freedom: “This Little Light of Mine” and others.

She helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP.

In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant’s “whites only” policy, Hamer was beaten so badly in jail, and refused medical treatment, that she was permanently disabled.

Hamer is most famous for her work as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sometimes called the “Freedom Democrats,” in 1964. The Freedom Democrats challenged the seating of Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. The Freedom Democrats brought national attention to the plight of black people in the state, and led to reforms in the way persons are seated at the Democratic Convention.

In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, by a vote of 116 to 0. This was an extraordinary recognition, given the state’s resistance to integration. Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977.


Fannie Lou Hamer, Freedom Democrat (Library of Congress photo)

To me, no understanding of the Movement can be complete without knowing her story. But as I talk to people about Civil Rights history, especially young people, I am saddened that they have little or no idea of who she was or what she accomplished.

Continue reading