“Americans do not share a common memory of slavery,” write California State University, Fresno, historians Kytle (Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era, 2014) and Roberts (Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South, 2014) in this eye-opening history.
The authors point out the “whitewashed” and “unvarnished” versions of the American slavery story. The whitewashed version recalls benevolent masters and faithful slaves; the unvarnished describes the cruelties of enslavement. To recount the memory of slavery from its abolition in 1865 to now, the authors focus on Charleston, South Carolina, where the Civil War began at Fort Sumter and which became the “epicenter” of the Lost Cause gospel and longtime site of “Confederate veneration.” Making fine use of letters, diaries, and other sources, the authors offer a richly detailed, vivid re-creation of the entire era, showing how former slaveholders fostered romanticized antebellum memories while former slaves told the true story of slavery’s brutality. Tracing these conflicting narratives through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and recent years, the authors detail the roles played by the Charleston News and Courier, the Old Slave Mart Museum (long the only museum focused on American slavery, it argued slavery’s horrors were “greatly overstated”), and other institutions that made the city a “tourist mecca” after the Civil War, complete with visits to local gardens. “Few things troubled white southerners more than the notion that their ancestors had actively engaged in the sale of men, women, and children and facilitated the destruction of families,” write the authors. Those pressing for unvarnished memories countered a post–World War II campaign to “remove most traces of slavery” by providing black heritage tours, made slave spirituals part of the civil rights movement, and sought to memorialize Denmark Vesey, a former slave who planned a revolt in 1822 (and was honored with a statue in 2014). The authors note a “more truthful” memory of slavery has prevailed in Charleston since the early 2000s.
An important and fascinating examination of American slavery’s aftermath.