The Mystique of the Confederacy is on Life Support in Genealogy

June 3, 2017

by — Posted in Genealogy, the stuff in between

Heritage not hate, “Good to their slaves” narratives, and Scarlet O’Hara dreams have the death rattle. It’s time to get ourselves together.

I’ll always remember the day I found out that Santa didn’t exist. Me and a friend were swimming in the pool and having the usual conversations 7 and 8 year olds have. Out of nowhere, I recall her saying “You know Santa’s not real. Santa is actually your parents.” At the time, I was floored. I retorted “There’s no way! My parents wouldn’t lie to me like that!” My friend, apparently wise beyond her years, said “But they did. It’s because they want you to enjoy Christmas.” I still denied it. Adamantly. My clever friend then said “If you don’t believe me, wait until Christmas time. Around then they’ll start buying stuff and hiding it. You’ll see I’m not lying. It will be everything on your list.” 

So, I waited. And waited. It was summer, you know? Late November rolled around and I remember being told to go and retrieve something from my mother’s closet while she was in another room. I quickly got the item, but noticed several bags on the floor. I curiously peeked in them and saw SEVERAL things I had asked for on my Christmas list like the Girl Talk Date Line board game.

Later, I snuck and took a deeper dive into the bags and solidified the fact that my friend didn’t fib. What was I going to do though? Christmas was weeks away and I knew I couldn’t tell that I had snooped but I also didn’t want to ruin things for my parents. For some reason, they were REALLY into Santa this particular year. So I did what most people would do. I acted. Like, real hard. As I opened up gifts, I pretended as though I had never even seen them and they were the best thing I had ever received. I’m talking the way kids act on toy commercials obnoxious. LOL

I kept up the lie because it was too hard for me to let my parents know I knew the truth and that I was ashamed I snuck around to find it. I knew they’d probably feel bad because I found out they were lying the whole time and I didn’t want them to feel bad because I felt bad. It’s a double edged sword that presents itself every single year in millions of families yet, it’s totally normal and everyone and everything seems to move on unscathed despite it. 

Genealogy and the Lure of the Confederacy

I tell this story because it ties closely to how genealogy researchers cling to the decades old Confederate narrative despite what the evidence, historians, and scholars have told us about that time period. Like my seven year old self, those who hold on tightly to the “It was about states rights,” “Heritage, not hate,” “My ancestors were good to their slaves,” etc. narratives have never moved beyond denial to discovery because it’s uncomfortable. Perhaps they feel as though they are dishonoring their ancestors or that they become traitors if they question their elders or ancestors motives then in the present time. We could speculate forever on the reasons why. While it can be hard to leave long told stories or accounts behind – especially if beloved ancestors are involved – conducting family history research for any length of time will prove that clinging onto “what they said” too tightly can a questionable research project make.

Unless you’ve been under a rock, the last few years has been tumultuous when it comes to some of the most beholden pieces of the Confederate memory; from Bree Newsome in South Carolina to the tearing down of the monuments in cities across the country, the reign of the mystique Confederacy is ending just like my childhood belief in Santa.  It’s brash, it’s sudden, and while all the evidence is around us proving why keeping these things around is wrong, millions of folks choose to put on a show, just like I did on Christmas Day, because it’s too painful to address the truth and thus change the narrative for future generations. 

Not Talking About Slavery Doesn’t Make it Go Away, Ever

In the genealogy community, many want to separate the current racial climate out of anything genealogy related. They believe it’s not relevant or needed and that we can focus on doing what we love, researching our families, without the need to get political. For those folks, I offer this video, and especially the comments on it that follow by the general public. If you want to know why we won’t EVER stop talking about slavery? Why we won’t EVER stop calling for the Confederate flag and monuments to be removed or why the Confederate mystique is being forced into death? Read the comments on the video.

Americans are in such denial about the ramifications of slavery that they can’t even handle a man talking about his family history, in his own way, which includes slavery. One where his ancestors were sold by one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, who admits that they did such a horrible deed, that he works for now. These same Americans likely have relatives who are researching their families.

If we, as the custodians of our family story, who are steeped in history day in and day out, can’t address that family story with truths, especially around separating lies from truth regarding our ancestors involvement in the Confederacy or the slaveholding system, how in the world can we expect for the average person to do so?

We cannot separate race from genealogy. Just like we can’t choose the families we were born into, we also can’t choose the race we are born as or the one society lumps us into and neither could our ancestors.

Along the same lines, a recent blog post created quite a bit of dialogue within the genealogy community on this very subject. It questioned whether or not researchers should honor their ancestors who fought on the side of the Confederacy on Memorial Day. When the author was challenged on why they chose not to honor their fallen ancestors on Confederate holidays, the author noted:

“I do not wish to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day and honor my Confederate relatives on these days, not just because I don’t live in the South, but because I do not relate with the Confederate cause. I don’t want to join a Confederate heritage association nor fly the Confederate Flag. I just want to honor my relative’s humanity.”

I admit it’s hard for me to understand how to honor your relative’s humanity as a solider when it came at the detriment of millions of others who were held in bondage to the cause they fought to keep alive, but apparently me and a few others are in the minority.  There are A LOT of people who are for “honoring” the Confederate dead on Memorial Day. Have a gander at the comments section on The share of the post by the National Genealogical Society to see what I’m saying.

 

Posting the words of the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, couldn’t change Confederate mystifiers minds even though he said that slavery was the reason for the war. Reminding them that the mere creation of the Confederate States of America was treasonous so their veterans shouldn’t be honored couldn’t do it either. The mystique was thick in those parts.

I share these two scenarios not to get folks riled up, but as a call to action to the work that is needed by OUR community. The personal nature of family history can educate in a way like no other, but if the Confederate mystique continues, we’re just another generation passing down another set of lies because it’s comfortable, hoping that our ancestors are proud of us for protecting their misguided narratives and misdirected issuance of deity status when it was clear that their behavior was trifling.

In the last two weeks…

Those four bullet points are why we need to work our sphere of influence, as genealogists, to change the narrative. We can’t change everyone or keep every hate crime from happening, but trying is better than nothing. 

By no means am I advocating that their stories not be told at all. We are multi-layered, nuanced people and so were our ancestors. The stories and the history needs to be preserved. On the other hand, when’s the last time you saw a “Whites Only” Or “Colored Entrance” sign at Target or Walmart? You haven’t. It’s because they’ve been placed in environments that discuss their impact, relevance, and historical aspects and the same should be done regarding anything to do with the Confederacy or slaveholding system, including family trees and genealogy research projects.

Eventually I told my parents about me finding out about Santa. It wasn’t as hard as I thought, but I didn’t know that until I actually was brave enough to try it.

Take a risk. Change the narrative.

 

Featured Image: Confederate Family Record. , . [No Date Recorded on Shelflist Card] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003674740/. (Accessed June 03, 2017.)

 

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Nicka Smith
Genealogist, Photographer at Who is Nicka Smith?
Nicka Smith is a professional photographer, speaker, and documentarian with more than 18 years of experience as a genealogist. She has extensive experience in African ancestored genealogy, reverse genealogy, and family reunion planning and execution. She is also an expert in genealogical research in the Northeastern Louisiana area, sharing genealogy with youth, documenting the ancestral journey, and employing the use of new technology in genealogy and family history research.

14 thoughts on “The Mystique of the Confederacy is on Life Support in Genealogy

  1. Great article, Nicka,
    Of course we in the genealogy community see many such discussions all the time, and from the Confederacy to the current administration that has made American hate again—we also see in our community constant reminders that many embrace the myth of the “good” slave holder–an oxymoron if there ever was such a thing. Good to bring it to discussion, but we know that some topics are beyond discussion. Many truly believe that their cause was just and that their “heritage” rooted in a secessionist “country” that did not even last 5 full years.
    At least with the defenders just as with the defenders of 45–we know who they are and what they believe. Sometime, just knowing that alone, can be life-saving.

  2. Nicka, thank you for your courageous honesty. I am a son of the white officer class of the CSA, its African slaves, and the Native people from whom the whole was stolen. I take great joy in confronting those who claim the “heritage of pride” but whose only real connection is a presumed European ethnic purity that, as an true Louisianian knows, is more than likely fallacious. I grew up with a wad of Confederate money among our family treasures and would never EVER fly that cursed flag although I would have every right to do so, were I so wrongly inclined—hence my pleasure in challenging the rebel pickup riders around NE LA and my schadenfruede at the sight of Lee finally falling from that place of honour in what I truly hope becomes Laveau Circle, or Place Pinchback, very soon.

    1. Thanks but for commenting with your story!!! You’re from my family’s stomping grounds then! East and West Carroll, Concordia, and Catahoula Parishes over here!

    2. Lee never wanted monuments memorizing him. He wanted the country to come together and heal after the war. I think he’d be rather glad his statue was removed.

  3. Great piece. Wondering, as a genealogist, how you engage white folks who owned your ancestors, in a candid conversation? Or, do you? I am particularly interested in how to get the information we need from white families (because let’s face it, they oftentimes have documentation we need and otherwise cannot get) who are either not interested in connecting with us or who simply want to construct a sanatized narrative of their family’s involvement with slavery. Would love to hear your experience or your readers’ experience with this.

    Thanks again for the great post.

    1. Thanks for the comment Christie! What you shared is exactly why I wrote what I did. My experience has been largely good although I have had a few incidents where it didn’t turn out well. I also tell folks to lay all your cards down and see what happens. Let the folks you reach out to know where you’re coming from at the beginning. They can either accept you or deny you. Always approach with respect of course but don’t accept disrespectful behavior either. The power may not be in the documents they have but in how you’re changing and informing the narrative in your family. Unless they are just not good people, what they did won’t sit well with them even if they act like it does. Good luck and keep me posted on what happens!

  4. Historians and genealogists are charged with portraying history accurately. There were more issues involved besides slavery before and during the Civil War. I had a lot of Confederate soldiers in my family. Not one of them owned a slave. They were dirt poor farmers with families and they fought to protect their families and their land. There were terrified that the Union was going to come through and take everything away from them. Did they believe that slavery was okay? Probably. Was that the reason they were fighting? Probably not. How about the atrocities that were carried out against Confederates in the Union prison of war camps? Was that justified? The vast majority of those soldiers never owned a slave. What about the Union soldiers coming through the south burning everything in their way including the homes of the families of the soldiers that were away? How about setting up blockades and taking possession of food stuffs starving out woman and children? There was evil on both sides.

    Those Confederate monuments… Let me counter with something. Why don’t you want the Jefferson Memorial removed? How about the the Washington Memorial? Both Jefferson and Washington owned slaves. There were 12 presidents that own slaves and these presidents have monuments, roads named after them, parks named after them etc. How about Ulysses S. Grant, union general? He was once a slave owner.

    To the south those monuments represent a lot more than slavery. For the north they are reminder of their victory over slavery. Either way, trying remove everything that represents our volatile past doesn’t make it go away.

    1. Thanks for commenting Michele. You’re right, there were atrocities on both sides, although something that is missing from your discussion is the fact that remnants from the war were used to terrorize people of color for many decades after. They still are. The flag and the monuments were used as tools of intimidation. That is the difference between the two. With regard to the other monuments, I think those should come down as well. I’ve never advocated that they shouldn’t. I think schools should be renamed as well. We have local heroes who deserve the honor of having either in their name. Let’s do that instead.

  5. My ancestors came from Britain and had to live in squalid shanties while working in the North. They were also starving and no care if they became ill. Should I be protesting about inhumane treatment and another form of slavery for my ancestors? You can’t delete history, no matter how ridiculous it was.

  6. Your article addresses in a creative and challenging way what is a paradigm shift in the way our society, in general, perceives the Civil War. Having taught U.S. History until I retired in 2015, my colleagues and I discussed during my final decade as a teacher the necessity to de-mystify the Confederacy. At the same time our goal was to present the war through various perspectives during different historical periods: Before the war, during the war, and after the war. We wanted our Georgia public school students (50% black, 40% white, 10% Hispanic & Asian) to see how diverse our country was during the 1800’s. How odd to learn there were southern sympathizers in the north, white abolitionists in the south, blacks on plantations who, as overseers, were cruel to others of their own race, and the fact (not myth) that the vast majority of whites who fought and died were “dirt poor farmers” who saw it as a war of aggression as Union troops invaded their lands. Of critical importance was the goal of revealing the horrid reality of slavery both as a centuries-long worldwide institution and as a daily life of hell for the typical slave regardless of age and gender. I remember one student asking if rich white slave owners actually took up arms as Confederate soldiers or were able to “buy their way out of it.”. Having taken other history classes, most students grasped the concept of the privilege of wealth; not only in the past but in their world today. Students gradually learned the many complex issues relating to the Civil War and that many of those still exist: Violent protests / going to war against injustice… or civil disobedience and the hard work of diplomacy? Black Lives Matter along with Blue Lives Matter? How to reform the American justice system which has resulted in our country’s shamefully high percentage of inmates being black males, as well as how easy it is for wealthy white collar crime to go relatively unpunished. I think if the subject of Confederate memorial statues was addressed in a class I taught today, most of my students, regardless of race, would see it as a more complex issue than “Santa is not real.”

  7. Interesting blog. Have you seen an editorial by Kevin Ferris (Philadelphia Inquirer) titled ‘Another Battle Lost By The Confederacy’? He looks at the Constitution of the Confederacy to show that the war was to save slavery. I plan to carry copies to hand to people who make comments about treating their slaves well including my late mother-in-law’s comments about her family in Virginia.

  8. None of my people ever owned a slave. None of my ancestors thought slavery was a good thing. That being said, my people were from up north in Indiana. Slavery in any form is not right, however, there isn’t a race on this planet that hasn’t been enslaved at one point or another. Moreover, many of the slaves own people sold them into slavery. Erasing history isn’t the answer.
    Removing statues doesn’t change a thing. In fact, removing statues from towns and parks will do much to cause later future residents to forget all. To quote an old saying, “Those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it!” Editing one means you edit everything. If you are to remove all Confederate monuments, then you must equally remove ALL monuments (George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Gen. Sherman, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest, etc.) and that includes the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others including Benjamin Franklin. It is an all or nothing situation. Blinders don’t remove anything and by removing statues is the same thing as putting on blinders pretending nothing ever happened so there is no reason to learn or read about it. Slavery isn’t right, there is no argument here. Neither was it right for segregation of the races. If the fifties and the sixties taught us nothing else segregation is equal to slavery.
    Living overseas when I was a boy shielded me from segregation. I was a military brat. I never saw drinking fountains for whites only. There were drinking fountains to be sure but it was a one size fits all. There weren’t separate bathrooms, nor were there separate seating in theaters for blacks and whites. One could sit anywhere they wanted on a bus overseas. Front, back, middle it made no difference. You sat where you wanted or could find a seat. I was shocked when we returned to the States when I was ten. I was informed when I took my first public transportation bus to ride up town that I couldn’t sit in the back where I wanted to. That was reserved for blacks only… A nice black woman explained it to me when I moved. I thought it was terrible, I still to this day feel the same way. I remember seeing for the first time water fountains marked white only and colored only. How stupid! I still feel that way. Thank God things have changed. Thank God reason pushed through boundaries of ignorance and hate. My fear is that by removing the statues future generations will revert to old habits human nature being what it is. I pray not, but I fear so.

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