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.

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On Watch at the African American Civil War Memorial

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Marquett Milton, a Civil War reenactor, stands watch at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC. He is portraying a member of the United States Colored Troops, which was a part of the Union army during the Civil War. He is wearing a skyblue greatcoat, which was used during the winter months. Milton is also a volunteer at the African American Civil War Museum, which is across the street from the Memorial.

African American Soldiers on Guard for the Emanicpation Proclamation

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the (final version) of the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of the document was on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from December 30, 2012, through January 1, 2013.

A group of Civil War re-enactors stood guard over the document for this photograph at the National Archives Facebook page. The re-enactors are from B Company, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, US Colored Troops.

Outgunned: African Americans’ Separate and Unequal Experience with the Right to Bear Arms and Gun Control

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African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms. Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.

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A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the US Constitution

“The great object is, that every man be armed. [...] Every one who is able may have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry

“[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…”
– Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision

“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
– Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War

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The current debate about gun control, spurred by the Newtown Tragedy, causes me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.

A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”

Now wait! I’m not taking any position (in this post, anyway) regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.

What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.

There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.

For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. A useful book on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are availble via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.

I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.
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1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.

1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.

1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,

Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor efeectively with tha cane knives and axes they weilded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distictive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.

Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.

1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.

After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.

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Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” Hits the Big Screen

Back in March, I mentioned that filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Inglourious Basterds fame, was working on a movie about antebellum slavery wrapped in the format of a spaghetti Western. That movie, Django Unchained, hits the movie screens today. The film stars Jamie Foxx in the title role, and the cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson.

This is one of the trailers for the film.


 
  Wiki describe the genesis and plot of the film:

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino, speaking with The Daily Telegraph, discussed an idea for a form of spaghetti western set in America’s Deep South which he called “a southern,” stating that he wanted “to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.”

In December 2009, Tarantino revealed that he had another project but wouldn’t reveal any details except that it was less epic in scale and in a different genre entirely from Inglourious Basterds and that he could finish it in a five to six month period of intensive writing. On May 2, 2011, it was confirmed that project was the “Southern” that he had talked about in 2007, with the title Django Unchained, featuring the revenge of a slave on his former master.

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A Southerner’s Thoughts on Southern Heritage and the Confederate Battle Flag

I want to give a hat tip to the CWMemory blog for highlighting the following video. It is from YouTube member “D Ennis,” and discusses what Southern Heritage and the Confederate Flag (also called the Confederate Battle Flag, or CBF) mean to him.


 
I have two thoughts on this video. First, I hope it’s not interpreted as meaning that the author is expressing intolerance for Southern heritage, or is saying, for example, that he’s against people being able to display the Confederate flag, if they so choose. He’s simply saying that, the Confederate flag means one thing to some people and another thing to him; and that his own view of Southern Heritage and the CBF is a legitimately Southern one.

Second, I think it’s important to understand how the video author’s feelings came to be. He associates the CBF with segregation and massive resistance, and there is a reason for that. During the Jim Crow/Civil Rights Movement/Massive Resistance Era, many whites associated their behavior with the CBF, and used the CBF and Confederate iconography as their symbol. Consider the famous 1963 inauguration speech of Alabama governor George Wallace, in which he invoked the Confederacy as follows:

Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.

Note that Wallace explicitly draws a straight line from the creation of the Confederacy to the continuation of racial segregation.

Images such as the following one (Wallace in front of the CBF) caused segregation and massive resistance to be conflated with the Confederacy, in the minds of a lot of folks.
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Voter Suppression in North Carolina: Then… and Now?

Various news reports have raised the concern that deliberate steps are being taken to suppress the vote of people from low income or minority backgrounds in the 2012 elections. These concerns are discussed in the following video from the group Democracy North Carolina. Democracy NC is a nonpartisan organization that “uses research, organizing, and advocacy to increase voter participation, reduce the influence of big money in politics and achieve a government that is truly of the people, for the people and by the people.”

The video draws comparisons between what some see as today’s voter suppression tactics and those of the post Reconstruction era, when a numbers of methods – including violence – were used to prevent the exercise of black suffrage in North carolina. Those suppression schemes were specifically targeted at the state’s so-called Fusion Movement, in which a coalition of whites and blacks had great success placing its candidates into office in the 1890s. One key event in the backlash against Fusion politics was the so-called Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, also known as the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 or the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898. As noted in wikipedia,

…(the insurrection) occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898 and following days; it is considered a turning point in North Carolina politics following Reconstruction. Originally labeled a race riot, it is now termed a coup d’etat, as white Democratic insurrectionists overthrew the legitimately elected local government, the only such event in United States history.

Warning: folks of some political leanings might be off-put by the references to current-day politics, or, by what might be perceived as partisanship leanings by the filmmakers. If you wish only to explore the story of Nineteenth Century voter suppression, go to the 2:20 mark in the video. The video, Forward Together, Not One Step Back, is on Vimeo.

 

Virginia Brochure Touts “Richmond Burning”: Emancipation as a Tourist Destination


From the “On to Richmond.com” website.

I had to do a double-take when I saw it. In big letters and bold colors, this Virginia travel brochure seems to loudly – and proudly – say that, yes, Richmond burned to advance the cause of freedom – and you ought to come visit and check it out.

The above image is from a travel brochure by the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau in partnership with the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission and Petersburg Area Regional Tourism. In 2009, they launched the Web site OnToRichmond.com, which is titled after the Union battle cry, “On to Richmond!” The website has Civil War and Emancipation itineraries for landmarks and other items of interest in the Richmond/Petersburg area.

Two things are of interest to me. First, this brochure is not just marketing the Civil War to tourists; it is marketing the Civil War and Emancipation to tourists. They are positioned as two searate and equally important themes which might draw a visitor’s interest.

Second, I am surprised at how aggressively the Emancipation narrative is used to attract visitors. To be sure, many Confederate sites and landmarks are identified in the brochure; in addition to places related to slavery and freedom, such as the Richmond Slave Trail, the Slavery Reconciliation Statue, and the Black History Museum Cultural Center of Virginia. But, a travel brochure that seems to glorify the burning of Richmond to achieve the goal of freedom might be seen as incendiary to some folks; so, too, might be the use of a Union battle cry to name a site about southern tourism. Although I take no offense at these myself. (Note that, the cities of Richmond and Petersburg have majority African American populations.)

But I do think that this approach to promoting the Sesquicentennial, which offers inclusion for the African Americans and many non-southerners, is positive and useful. There is more to the Civil War than just emancipation and freedom; and there’s more to emancipation and freedom than just the Civil War. While these things are clearly related, and interrelated, there are aspects of each that deserve their own consideration, commemoration, and reflection.

I wonder how successful this particular promotional campaign has been in attracting visitors to the area? I suspect that the pull of such materials will get stronger as the anniversary of the final Emancipation Proclamation approaches, and as the role of black soldiers (who were not widely used as combatants before 1863) comes into focus.