Selling the Civil War to African Americans

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Going to elementary school in Michigan in the 1980s, Geoffrey Blair learned about the Civil War: a story of Lee vs. Grant, North vs. South. He learned about Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Manassas, and Antietam. And he learned that President Lincoln had freed the slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation. But no one ever told him about the nearly 200,000 black soldiers who fought in the war. “I was never taught that blacks actually had a role in the Civil War,” says Blair. “It wasn’t until I had my first college history class that I realized.”

Today he’s president of the 102nd United States Colored Troops, Co. B, a Detroit-based reenacting group that keeps alive memories of those black soldiers without whom, Lincoln once said, the Union couldn’t have won the war. Although the historically liberal 1989 film Glory brought a new awareness of black soldiers to many Americans, “we still do get looks,” says Blair, who portrays a corporal in the unit. “We get questions like, ‘Where do they come from? I didn’t know there was a black regiment that fought in the war.’”

But while Blair’s avocation is unusual, his experience is not. Historians, educators, and politicians worry that many blacks don’t know and don’t care much about the Civil War—even though it’s the pivotal moment in African-American history. So with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War beginning this spring, they’re pushing for ways to make sure the black community is invested in commemorating the war, including a new emphasis on the role of slavery as the primary cause of the war—pushing back Confederate apologists who insist the war was fought over states’ rights....

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