Friday, January 30, 2009

From Eye of the Beholder to Presenting History Accurately

As a born and bred Southern woman with a long line of dirt poor farmers in my past, and as a teacher and writer of history charged with presenting the truth, I often find myself in the sticky conundrum of a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation regarding historical events as well as the social/cultural ideals that still haunt and permeate my southern homeland.

I’ve written here before regarding the yearly pattern of Open House at the beginning of the year when I inevitably have white parents wanting to know if I teach the truth about the Civil War, and I have just as many black parents wanting to know the same thing.

Basically they want to know if I’m going to teach their children whatever it is that they believe regardless of the truth.

Some want to make sure I teach that the issue of slavery and only the issue of slavery caused the terrible split in our country that resulted in so many lives lost and the destruction of so much property….not to mention rifts that continue even to this day.

Others want to make sure I’m someone who really knows the truth…the war was all about economic differences and that damn tariff.

Both sides have a point…both sides are right.

The Civil War was not caused by one single thing, but a list of many different things.

Some get too caught up in the romanticism of the Lost Cause moping about as if they are Ashley Wilkes while others are Big Sam or Pork (refer to Gone With the Wind if these names aren’t familiar to you) still looking for the forty acres and a mule. Those romantic types find it hard to accept and qualify the facts that slave holding was not a charitable occupation taken on by well meaning whites. It was a horrendous and nasty business that resulted in splitting families, forcible rape at times, unwanted and sometimes unaccepted bi-racial children, and a long list of other social by- products that sadly in some cases still exist today.

Not only do we wrangle over how Civil War issues are taught….we wrangle over how they are remembered as well. Some feel those in the South are wrong to erect monuments to Confederate dead….name schools and other buildings after slave owners…while many strongly advocate for their rights to remember Southern officers, officials, and leaders.

While every aspect of an event should be analyzed by students in a history class, at what point do educators move from presenting material to be analyzed in a fair and equal manner to presenting material that is compromised with personal viewpoints or too much information leaning towards one side?

At what point do we sacrifice true and honest historical remembrance for what we think we believe…for what we want to believe….for what might fit a certain modern agenda without thinking about the context of the times?

Finally, I have to ask….when we depend upon those maintaining historical sites to provide locations for students to learn about history where the history actually happened are we making sure those sites present a whole story or are we satisfied with just a story that sounds nice to make some people feel better?

During some recent research I stumbled upon a situation in Georgia during the 1840s that split the United Methodist Episcopal Church into northern and southern factions. The cause of the split was opinions regarding slavery.

The location in question is Oxford, Georgia….a place Dr. Mark Auslander discussed in his paper, Paradoxes of Blood, Law, and Slavery in a Georgia Community (2001). Oxford , as Dr. Auslander refers to it, is the birthplace of Emory University. The grounds are now the home to Oxford College and is a designated “shrine” of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

In his paper, Dr. Auslander, goes on to relate the tale of James Osgood Andrew, first president of the board of trustees of Emory College, who was at the center of the split in the Methodist Church in the 1840s. I have written more about the church split over at Georgia on My Mind in my post The Methodist Split According to Andrew.

From that particular post I relate:

We end up with a clergyman who finds he owns slaves but didn’t purchase them…yet he can’t free them because he will then be in violation of state law and subject to fines and arrest. He could sell the slaves under his ownership, but they might wind up in a worse condition with a with a master who would treat them poorly…as if being a slave wasn’t poor treatment enough. To make matters worse Bishop Andrew then becomes the focus of the split of the Methodist Church.

Bishop Andrew did lead the Southern churches in their split. Later he became the first bishop of the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church, South. During the Civil War he resided in Alabama and retired from his post in 1866. Bishop Andrew is buried in Oxford, Georgia and is remembered as the namesake for Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia.

Dr. Auslander’s paper zeroes in specifically on one particular mulatto slave Andrew inherited when she was twelve years old named Kitty. Today, visitors to Oxford can visit Kitty’s gravesite located in the long segregated white cemetery where many white citizens insist Kitty is the only person of color buried in the cemetery. In fact, the memorial headstone placed there was done by an all white private foundation and is known as “Kitty’s Stone.” Per Dr. Auslander’s paper the stone was updated in the 1990s.

Dr. Auslander relates… the standard white version of the story, Kitty was inherited by an unwilling slaveholder….after she voluntarily refused manumission (conditional on transport to Liberia) at age nineteen in 1841 she was allowed by her benevolent owner to reside in a house that he built for her, adjacent to his own house. There, he alledgedly told her, “you may live as free as I am.” In time, the story goes, she married a free African-American man [by the name of Nathan Shell] and bore him three children before her death in the 185os.

Dr. Auslander explains that there are other tourist hotspots regarding Kitty including …the carefully restored house, in which Kitty alledgedly once lived…renovated by a predominately white local historical society. Both the home and the cemetery are often spoke of , by whites, as the most important historical sites in the county.

In white versions of the story, Kitty refused manumission when it was offered to her in 1841 and was allowed by her master, Bishop Andrew to reside in her own small cottage behind his mansion in de facto freedom. There, it is said, Kitty “looked after” local children, white and black, and treated them with warmth and respect.

Dr. Auslander further relates:

Not surprisingly, African American families in Oxford have a rather different relationship to the Kitty legend. My oldest African American informants recall hearing from the “old people” of the community that Kitty was Bishop Andrew’s coerced mistress, and that Andrew was the covert father of her children, whom he never acknowledged.

Some profess to be bored by the whole business, which they regard as a puzzling (or, at times, offensive) white obsession. Still others critique local white fascination with Kitty and with the restoration of her small house (referred to as “Kitty’s Cottage” by most local whites) as an attempt to paper over the horrors of slavery and evade the full accountability for the city’s antebellum slave-owning history.

Yet for all the manifest contrasts in white and African-American renditions of the narrative, and their strikingly different responses to spaces in which the story is memorialized, are these mythic accounts entirely distinct from one another?

In addition, many African American women and men with whom I have discussed the matter express a desire to see the matter closed, once and for all. A middle aged African American woman sighed, when the Kitty question came up, “Isn’t it time we all talked about something else? We have to get beyond all that”…An older African American man grew very quiet when the conversation briefly turned to Kitty. ….He noted softy, “Sometimes, you know, the dead just need to stay good and buried.”

Finally, Dr. Auslander discusses those in the African American community who are intensely interested in researching, uncovering and broadcasting the “true facts” of the Kitty case [stating that they] find themselves facing fundamental challenges of space and geography. Many note that whites have in effect, colonized the only places where Kitty’s story could be retold, especially her cottage and the supposed gravesite. As one African American woman remarked,”Ok, let’s say we really could prove everything about Kitty and Bishop Andrew, with DNA or whatever. Where in Oxford would we ever get to tell the truth? Put on a display? Where is there? You tell me.”

Since the 1930s, her “cottage” and grave have come to function as veritable pilgrimage sites for thousands of Georgia’s white residents, including weekly busloads of schoolchildren brought in for “educational visits” from throughout the state.

One female tour guide observed to a group of schoolchildren, “You know, Miss Kitty was loved by Mrs. Andrew as if she were her own flesh and blood. And Kitty felt the same way about the Andrew children. That’s the way it was in those days, people just took care of children your age, they could just go in and out of people’s houses like they were in their own, and be fed, and loved and looked after. That’s the way things are supposed to be. But is that how we live now?”

As one white woman noted, “Kitty’s story reminds us how families used to be, and how things still should be.” Since the late 1990s, many local white families have volunteered time, money, and effort to help restore Kitty’s former residence (a process that has so far, has not included any African American residents of the town.)

Somehow I don’t think Kitty’s Cottage is a place I would put on my list of approved field trips for my students unless I prepared them in advance to challenge the docents in their interpretation of slavery regardless of the bonds that might have and did sometimes develop between whites and blacks. I would also prepare my students to challenge statements made based on historical facts to back up so called stories no matter which side was painting the picture.

Where are the letters? Where are the diaries and journals? Where are bona fide interviews?

Most importantly……where are both sides of the issue?


Teacher Mom said...

This is an EXCELLENT and thought-provoking post. I listened to James M. McPherson on a podcast discussing this very issue with high school teachers. As a fellow Southerner, when I attended high school in the early 1980's, the focus was not on slavery. I completely agree with the philosophy of presenting historical truths - no matter what the issue - and all sides so the students can develop perspective and critical thinking skills.

I am curious, how did you handle these conversations with parents? I am student teaching now and wondering about these kinds of touchy situations. I would think that just saying that historians consider multiple perspectives would be sufficient, but is that really the case when human emotions are involved?

EHT said...

Thanks for your comment, Teacher Mom. I was hoping this post wasn't all over the place because I'm still on meds from surgery I had on Monday. :) So...if it's lacking in something that is why.

We cannot make the issue of slavery a fuzzy, feel good issue for kids....especially here in the south where it took place. While I don't think my fourth and fifth graders need to know all the details they need to be exposed to the realities of the situation.

I handle the conversations with parents with as much diplomacy as possible. Take a breath, smile, and don't try to sound like you think you know it all (even if you do).

I usually recited the basic framework of causes that are discussed in class using the reason I anticipated they were looking for first on my list. Most stop listening to me once they hear what they want to.

Every once and awhile when I get a very involved parent who persists I pull out the standards and highlight the ones involving the Civil War. I advise that I'm contracted to to teach this information by the school system. This usually ends the inquiry.

You can also advise a parent who is overly concerned regarding how you will teach a segment of the curriciulum that they certainly have the right to teach their child in tandem with your lessons to make sure all the bells and whistles they want are included. I've even gone so far as to advise certain books, materials, and websites.

You are certainly correct regarding human emotions....and from time to time I have had parents I cannot satisfy no matter what I do.

Dan Edwards said...

Interesting post ! I hope you are getting better following your surgery!

Out here in the west, I occasionally get into conversations about Manifest Destiny and Mexico's loss of what is now the s.w. part of the USA. Some folks of hispanic heritage who subscribe to the "our land was stolden by los gringos" are fairly certain that those lands of Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California what were ceded to the US by the Mexican government should belong to Mexico. Viva La Raza ! My wife comes from an old New Mexican family that apparently lost land following the US occupation of N.M. Our courts, for those "Mexicanos" who chose to go to court to "fight" for their lands, usually said that if they couldn't produce the paper work proving "ownership", then it wasn't their land.

US authorities also pretty much put a stop to New Mexicans raiding the Navajo and Apache and enslaving children and young women. There were also a number of "Navajo and Apache" people who were former "New Mexicans" also, slave raiding was something both groups participated in. IIRC, the Compromise of 1850 forbid slavery in what became N.M. (Arizona was part of NM at that time) and California.)

All teachers of history should strive to make their students think, look at as much data and facts as possible, then make some assumptions or begin to formulate an opinion. IMO, this is one of the hardest things to do with students. But those who do it, learn. There will always be multiple sides to a story.....

I'd posted a response to this post earlier today, but blogger ate it. I don't know what happened.

Have a SUPER weekend !

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting post! As a former middle school history teacher and current social studies curriculum coach in Kansas, I've not had to deal with the specific concerns you've described.

But we've all had to deal with similar issues of fact vs. perceived fact. The concern is truly one of how to teach our kids to be good historians, training them to ask the very sort of questions that end your post.

And I am convinced that if we get our kids thinking as historians, they become so much more engaged as they begin to see how incredibly rich and complex history can be.

I've started using a book called "True Enough" by Farhad Majoo along with James Loewen's "Lies Across America" as way to help kids and teachers see the multiple facets of events.

Thanks again for talking about an important piece of history education.


Cotter Pen said...

I take this research and writing as positive indicators of your recovery from surgery. Welcome news. Of course, I am a history buff, but I am actually encouraged to think you are able to interest elementary students in anything not produced by Walt Disney. I am happy for you to prove me wrong.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

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Robert Brown said...


As a teacher and author myself I struggle with these same things. Is my interpretation really as accurate as I believe it to be? Is my knowledge as rock solid as I think? I argue with the history channel and books all the time, to the point where my wife (a yankee mind you, married to an unreconstructed southerner) thinks I am crazy. Then one day in my AP US class in discussing the Civil War (a misnomer I know), one of my better students said "Brown, it was all a power play wasnt it? Slaves, tariffs, money; just a power play" At that I had to just nod and felt a sense of relief that someone got it.