Monday, February 06, 2012

Slavery: Not Quite Gone with the Wind

I met up with a teacher the other day that has the privilege of introducing the Civil War to her fourth graders each year. 

The word “introducing” is a little misleading, however.  I live in Georgia where natives, no matter the ethnicity, are born with “The War” ingrained in our souls.   We can’t escape it, we can’t deny it – it’s always there.   Some of our earliest collective memories are filled with the statues around the town square, old family photographs; we hear the stories and see the preserved battlefields that dot our landscape.

I haven’t met a fourth grade student yet who doesn’t know something about the Civil War, but the fourth school year is designated by the Georgia Social Studies curriculum to formally learn about the war in an academic setting.   My own personal experience indicates students are eager to begin the process.   A formal study helps them connect to family stories still lingering around the Sunday dinner table and helps them sift through the facts and myths they already know.

I asked my teaching friend how she taught her Civil War unit.   Even with today’s mandated standards every teacher has his or her own personal methods that make each lesson unique.  I was interested to know the ingredients to her Civil War unit.

My colleague responded, “Well, we read the text, I add in some graphic organizers, we build a word wall, and I have some really great Civil War worksheets.”  

I really hoped that wasn’t everything so I asked, “What is the focal point of your unit….or better yet, what is the culmination of your unit?”

“Well…..I wrap it up by showing Gone with the Wind over a few days.  I give the unit test, and we move on.”



Now, I like Gone with the Wind as much as the next southern belle, and I really don’t mind students watching the movie, but I have a real problem when teachers allow the movie to stand in the place of real content.   They are merely passing along myths of the “Old South” instead of correcting them.   A formal academic view of the Civil War should help students connect to the prevalent myths, but it most certainly should correct them as well.   The movie can be shown, but the proper context should be present.

Gone with the Wind, the movie, is Hollywood entertainment at its very best with a few facts thrown in.   Gone with the Wind, the book, by Margaret Mitchell, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and yes….there is a reason why I present the word “fiction” in bold face.

There ARE historical inaccuracies with Gone with the Wind. 
From the website Internet Movie Database we find there are inaccuracies with dates.   When Mr. O’Hara announces the war is over because Lee surrendered the movie makes no note that Lee’s surrender had no real effect on Georgia.  In fact, Georgia state troops didn’t surrender until the following month, and General Kirby Smith’s surrender in Texas on May 26 is considered the end of the Civil War.  

When Melanie is nursing a soldier he tells her he hasn’t heard from his brother since the Battle of Bull Run.   A Confederate soldier would never have referred to the battle by that name.   It was known in the North as the Battle of Bull Run, but Southerners knew the battle as The Battle of Manassas.
When Frank Kennedy is killed we assume he and other men in Atlanta were attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting, but the group is never identified. They are mysteriously absent yet were part of the true story.

Margaret Mitchell was dismayed at the scale of the Tara and Twelve Oaks sets.   She advised, “I grieve to hear that Tara has columns.  Of course, it didn’t, and looked nice and ugly like Alex Stephens’ Liberty Hall in Crawfordville, Georgia.”(See image here)  Mitchell advised nothing like the movie versions of Tara and Twelve Oaks were ever seen in Clayton County and advised further, “When I think of the healthy, hardy, country and somewhat crude civilization I depicted and then of the elegance that is to be presented, I cannot help yelping with laughter…”  

IMBd also advises the problems regarding the scene commonly referred to as “the Burning of Atlanta.”  It was not the actual burning of the city by General Sherman in November, 1864.  Instead, the scene represents the night, two months earlier, when the retreating Confederate army torched its ammunition dumps to keep the Union army from capturing them.

Then there are the convicts Scarlett O’Hara leases from the state to work at the sawmill.  Discussing this with students would provide an opportunity to connect the end of slavery to the next unit of study regarding Reconstruction.  If you go back and watch the scene the convicts are depicted as white prisoners.  In truth this is very incorrect.   It is highly likely that the workforce Scarlett would obtain from the convict lease program would have been black and the charges that had resulted in their incarceration would be highly suspect today.

Convict leasing became a common practice following the Civil War.   In his book titled Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation, Joseph T. Hallinan advises, “After the war, many Southern states strapped for cash, leased their convicts to private businesses.   Their best customers were those that offered some of the worst work:  railway contractors, coal mines, and lumber and turpentine companies.”   

 I agree with Hallinan…..unfortunately, the lease system largely resembled slavery.   Hallinan advises, “Most Southern convicts after the Civil War were black and under most lease systems employers virtually owned the convicts they leased.  They were free to move them around the state unsupervised.  The system led to horrible abuses, many inmates were flogged, shackled or placed in the stocks.   Inmates were often ill clothed and ill fed, and many of them died.   In Louisiana, as many as 3000 inmates died under the convict lease system.”

I’m almost certain there is a reader out there wondering the two words that signify indifference, so I’ll insert them here:

So what?

I can see your point.   They were prisoners.   Murderers, rapists, thieves, and were just getting what they deserved, right?

Have you ever heard of the Black Codes?  Those were laws passed in the South immediately following the war that controlled the labor and migration of newly freed slaves.    This newspaper article advises most of the convicts were charged with minor offenses such as jumping a freight train, adultery, or gambling.   Many were merely deemed to be vagrants – a person without a settled home or work, and when they couldn’t prove they were employed the state sentenced them to many months of hard labor.  At that point their contracts were sold to private companies under the convict lease system.

In his book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Douglas A. Blackmon advises The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company was one of the largest users of convict leasing for coal mining labor in Alabama.  Eventually TCI was bought by U.S. Steel   During their first year oownership…..1908…..almost 60 convict workers died from workplace-related accidents. 

One of the U.S. Steel mines….the Pratt Mine in Birmingham…..had over 1,000 men working the mine requiring them to dig and load coal.   Their daily quota was 8 tons or they could expect to be whipped.   They were chained at night.  The men suffered from disease and when they died they were dumped in shallow graves.  Most worked off their sentences at the rate of $12.00 per month.

Blackmon’s website seen here discusses the term “neoslavery” – a term that encompasses all of the various ways black men across the South were sold into bondage or involuntary servitude.

During an interview with NPR, Blackmon advised:

On July 31, 1903, a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt arrived at the White House from Carrie Kinsey, a barely literate African American woman in Bainbridge, Georgia. Her fourteen-year-old brother, James Robinson, had been abducted a year earlier and sold to a plantation. Local police would take no interest. "Mr. Prassident," wrote Mrs. Kinsey, struggling to overcome the illiteracy of her world. "They wont let me have him. . . . He hase not don nothing for them to have him in chanes so I rite to you for your help." Like the vast majority of such pleas, her letter was slipped into a small rectangular folder at the Department of Justice and tagged with a reference number, in this case 12007. No further action was ever recorded. Her letter lies today in the National Archives.

In a Newsweek interview Blackmon was asked why the U.S. government allowed “neoslavery” to continue even though it was investigated as early as 1903.  Blackmon responded:

All the investigations that began in 1903 failed for various reasons, but the main one was that it wasn't a crime in America to hold a slave. The 13th amendment passed in 1865 made slavery unconstitutional. There was no federal statute that made it a crime to hold a black person as a slave. When the U.S. attorney general in the South began investigating slavery in 1903 and attempted to bring charges, they realized they did not have a clear federal statue. So the prosecution was brought under other crimes that were similar but in the end all the prosecution failed because the laws were not applicable and no [Southern] jury would convict a white man for any crime against blacks.

Blackmon was also asked the connection between the end of neslavery and the beginning of World War II.   He responded:

The end of neoslavery came as a direct result to the attack on Pearl Harbor. When President Franklin Roosevelt convened his cabinet to discuss retaliation, the main issue was propaganda and the Japanese ability to effectively embarrass America for the treatment of blacks in the South. Immediately President Roosevelt passed a congressional law criminalizing lynching. Four days after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. attorney general ordered a memorandum that instructed all federal prosecutors to aggressively prosecute all cases of involuntary servitude.

Reading the textbook, throwing a few worksheets around, and showing Gone with the Wind does not teach students about the war. It merely marks time until the next unit leaving students to own the myths they had when they walked into the classroom.   Find out what they already know or THINK they know and move from there. Provide opportunities for students to discover the truth.
PBS will be airing a documentary based on Blackmon’s book on February 13th.  The documentary is a mix of interviews with historians, dramatic reenactments filmed in the Deep South, and emotional testimony from descendants of both enslaved blacks and their captors….”

I strongly urge educators to watch.

The Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia is currently showing an exhibit inspired by Douglas A. Blackmon’s research created by Robert Claiborne Morris using mixed media such as portraits of the enslaved, maps of the slave mines, newspaper articles and letters to the Department of Justice.   This link takes you to more information regarding the exhibit.

The black and white photos with this post came from Douglas A. Blackmon's website.


the art of learning said...

Thank you for upholding truth in history ... the Civil War was not a fairy tale for anyone involved, North, South, Free, Slave. The romantic ideas we have of men defending their homes without real consequence, slaves being freed, the North and South reuniting effortlessly, people being suddenly equal ... all goes against the reality of neoslavery, racism, the horror of war, American's largest death toll, segregation, and Jim Crow laws that culminates sadly almost 100 years later in the Civil Rights movement. I can remember as a high school student being upset at my previous teachers when I realized how recently efforts for equality truly have been attempted.

Unknown said...

Wonderful post! I especially appreciate the information regarding Pearl Harbor and the end of punching and reenslavement. Very helpful!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! My husband and I have been beside ourselves since hearing this week (19 Oct. 2015) that our daughter’s 6th grade World Cultures class in a Texas public school had been discussing the transatlantic slave trade in superficial, distorted terms. The 1-page worksheet she came home with one day was bad enough, but a day or so later, we learned that the teacher briefly discussed how “slavery wasn’t that bad for some slaves” and then showed a clip from Gone With the Wind to illustrate the point! (The scene were Mammy is trying to lace Scarlett into her corset after Scarlett had given birth and found that she lost her wasp waist, if anyone wants to know the scene.) THIS is what passes for history education in Texas. Disgusting.