tags: Civil War, memorials, public history, teaching history
Greg Downs is a professor in the department of history at the University of California, Davis. Hilary N. Green is an associate professor in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama; she tweets @HilaryGreen77. Scott Hancock is associate professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College; he tweets @scotthancockOT. Kate Masur is associate professor of history at Northwestern University; she tweets @katemasur.
At a moment of intense protest against racial injustice, when history and historical monuments have emerged as key flashpoints in political and social debates, the four of us wanted to demonstrate that historians can offer clear, concise examples of good history. On September 26, 2020, we, and dozens of other historians, participated in the Civil War history day of action. At historic sites across the United States, participating historians presented evidence to disrupt, correct, or fill out the oversimplified and problematic messages too often communicated by the nation’s memorial landscape. Organized under the hashtag #WeWantMoreHistory, the event provided a vehicle for some historians to step into the role of public intellectuals, connecting them with a long tradition of historians engaging with the civic lives of their communities. The day of action also connected historians with each other, building a community of scholar-activists online and off.
The plan began to germinate soon after July 4, 2020. Motivated by both recent Black Lives Matter protests and the planned descent of far-right militia members on the Gettysburg battlefield over the holiday weekend, Scott and some friends stood near the monument to Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg National Military Park. The group held signs that challenged a false but popular narrative about Lee and emphasized that Lee was a slave owner who was often cruel to the people he enslaved. Scott’s approach to intervening in the dominant historical narrative was born from his ongoing efforts to insert Black history into spaces dominated by white supremacy.
Their peaceful demonstration met with resistance from the assembled militia members amid an environment that exceeded the National Park Service’s (NPS) ability to respond. In response, Patty Hancock, Scott’s spouse, suggested the possibility of a similar nationwide public event. Scott reached out to Greg and Kate, editors of the Journal of the Civil War Era, about taking the demonstration national. The journal’s blog, Muster, edited by Hilary, became our chief organizing tool. We issued a call for action on Muster and held a Zoom webinar in which Scott offered his expertise based on his years of similar actions at Gettysburg. About 80 people registered on a Google sign-up sheet for updates.
For the September 26 event, Scott gathered three dozen people at Gettysburg National Military Park, including an agricultural worker, IT experts, an accountant, a retired state trooper, a lawyer, a grocery store manager, a nurse, a personal trainer, a retired college president, a pastor, two elementary school teachers, a counselor, a stay-at-home dad, and a few elementary school students. They held signs with statistics from primary sources about how many Black people were kept as property by Lee and slaveowners in different states, as well as quotes from southern leaders that made clear their perspectives on the centrality of slavery as the war’s catalyst. Scott and Greg offered informal presentations that drew on the work of their fellow historians, teachers, and National Park Service educators. The group called for more public attention to the history of slavery and emancipation in hopes of both improving the public’s understanding of the past and motivating visitors to work toward a more just future.
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