News item: The governor of Virginia declared April Confederate History Month. His initial proclamation made no mention of slavery. After a national outcry, he backed down and issued a revised proclamation acknowledging the immorality of that institution, and its close connection to the Confederate cause.
I lived in Savannah from 1949 to 1955, formative years from age 7 to 13. We lived in a small three-bedroom house on East 54th Street, a few blocks south of Daffin Park and Grayson Stadium. We walked three blocks to take the 20-Parkway city bus (“Whites sit from front to back. Negroes sit from back to front.”) to the Charles Ellis elementary school. I went there through the seventh grade. Our house was the first one on the east side of a bamboo hedge that set us apart from an extensive tract of rental duplexes populated by people who were poorer than we were (but all white; the neighborhood now, including our old house, is largely black, and still middle class east of the bamboo).
I didn’t know then that those were the last years of uncontested segregation. The key Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1954. I don’t recall being aware of it at the time. I had a fine public school education, including an accelerated eighth grade summer course that put me into ninth grade a year early. I never gave much thought to what kind of education my black contemporaries were getting.
We learned a good deal of history, and a lot of it was about the War Between the States. We learned that Robert E. Lee was a better general than any of the Yankee generals, but he finally lost because they just had more troops and cannonballs than we did. Sherman was a vicious butcher, from whom the Savannah city fathers saved the city by surrendering. The War was primarily about States’ Rights, and the unconstitutional interference of Abraham Lincoln in what were properly matters for the individual states. Slavery came into it later because of Lincoln’s cynical desire to sow discord in Southern society. The slaves were happy until outside agitators like the reprehensible John Brown stirred them up.
I really don’t know what the black kids were learning about history. It’s hard to believe that they would have accepted the version I’ve just described as the whole story. On the other, blacks had little or no control over the school curriculum at that time. I suppose they just took it with many grains of salt, like anything else the white folks told them.
Savannians ten years younger than I will have grown up in integrated schools with, I hope, a more thoughtful history curriculum. They may find my story hard to believe. But note the recent controversy in Virginia about the governor’s declaration of Confederate History Month, referred to in the news item at the top. Many white Southerners even today think they can somehow celebrate the glories of the Confederacy while ignoring the oppressive, inhumane institution at its roots. I certainly thought so back then. It was a glorious lost cause; implicitly, the country would have been better off had the Confederate rebellion prevailed.
Now, I know much more about slavery and what it did to African Americans. I have learned (no thanks to my elementary school curriculum) about the multiple ways in which the white South contrived (with the complicity of the white North) to keep blacks down and out after the Civil War. I know more about my own Georgia and Florida ancestors, some of whom owned slaves. I haven’t found any big planters yet, but one forefather owned a woman in her thirties and several children. No adult male. I probably have some black relatives somewhere. I don’t know who they are because the U.S. Census only counted slaves for the constitutional purpose of allocating representation and taxation. Each slave was worth 3/5 of a free person. And for those purposes, the Census didn’t need the slaves’ names.
I’ve never lost my affection for Savannah; in a childhood of multiple moves, it was the closest I ever had to a hometown. Whenever I’m passing through, I always contrive to stop by and look around. But I’ve had to rethink a lot of the history I learned there. Today, most white Southerners consider themselves conservative, but no longer racist. But when I see the governor of Virginia thoughtlessly glorifying the Confederacy without any reference to slavery, I wonder.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University