Memory in Black and White: Race, Commemoration, and the Post-Bellum Landscape
By Paul A. Shackel. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003; xvii + 243 pp., photographs, references, index; cloth $70.00; paper $26.95.
The history of historic places associated with the Civil War reflects an ongoing struggle over how to commemorate sites of conflict. Paul Shackel, a University of Maryland anthropologist, examines contested public memories of four historic sites associated with African-American history and the Civil War: John Brown's Fort and the Heyward Shepherd Memorial in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; the Shaw Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts; and Manassas National Battlefield Park in northern Virginia. In Memory in Black and White, Schackel emphasizes the importance of recognizing the role of conflicting memories in site management and interpretation.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park provides the setting for Shackel's first two case studies. He starts by looking at the history of the engine house of the town's U.S. Armory, used as a fort by the militant abolitionist John Brown during his 1859 raid. During the late 19th century, Shackel writes, "public memory [of the Civil War]…was being transformed from that of a conflict about abolitionist ideals to that of a war of bravery and loyalty to a cause." African Americans resisted this change, instead making the fort an icon of their efforts to remember slavery's causal role in the war. The 1906 Niagara Movement meetings—the precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—and nearby Storer College, an African-American institution, reinforced the fort's iconic status. Still, white writers and civic organizations used the fort as a symbol to denigrate the 1859 raid and its legacies.
Manager of the fort since 1955, the National Park Service moved the fort nearer to its original location in 1968. Shackel asserts that through the move the "federal government incorporated a fringe symbol into its main ideology" to assuage the racial tensions of the King and Kennedy assassinations. Shackel writes that today the fort is one of the few historic places in the United States where African Americans can "relate to the moral struggles of the Civil War."
Shackel also studies conflicts over the myth of the faithful slave represented in a memorial to Heyward Shepherd in Harpers Ferry's lower town. Members of John Brown's party shot Shepherd, a free African American who worked as a baggage handler for the railroad, as he investigated inoperative telegraph lines and train delays. After the war, Shepherd became a symbol used by white journalists to "justify the existing social system and to demonize John Brown." To this effect, in 1931 the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans placed a memorial statue near John Brown's Fort dedicated to Shepherd and enslaved African Americans who remained loyal to their owners during the Civil War. Immediately, the African-American press and the NAACP decried the memorial, which along with much of the lower town eventually became part of the park in 1953.
Shackel describes various treatments of the memorial, from covering it with plywood to uncovering and interpreting it with an outdoor interpretive panel. He also examines the efforts of various groups to influence National Park Service policies and interpretation, noting that as "long as the monument stands in Lower Town Harpers Ferry, its meaning will be contested and its place within the national public memory challenged."
Shackel turns to the conflicting interpretations of symbol and meaning in his discussion of Augustus Saint-Gaudens's memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment recruited during the Civil War. After discussing the creation of the 54th Massachusetts and its service during the war, Shackel considers public perceptions of the monument. Scholars and public figures see the Shaw Memorial as both racist and racially inclusive. Writing in 1913, art historian Charles Caffin viewed it as a racist sculpture because a white officer riding a horse above his marching black regiment creates an informal color line. Booker T. Washington viewed the monument positively, as a memorial to a man "idolized" by African Americans. According to Shackel, late 20th-century writers disagree with Caffin. Schackel cites Kirk Savage's claims that Saint-Gaudens's representation of the soldiers as individuals makes the monument non-racist.(1)
Shackel includes an extensive history of the monument's origins, noting that the Shaw Memorial is one of only a few 19th-century Civil War monuments depicting African-American soldiers. His discussion turns too quickly from the monument's 1897 dedication, however, to commemorative activities in the 1980s and 1990s, neglecting memories of the monument during the first eight decades of the 20th century. Was it a site of pilgrimage similar to John Brown's Fort? How did or does its northern location affect its place in public memory? How does the military status of Shaw and the regiment's volunteers influence perceptions of the monument?
Shackel's final study examines issues affecting the preservation and interpretation of Manassas National Battlefield Park. After describing the roles of race and Confederate memorialization in the park's history, Shackel draws on Joan Zenzen's 1995 administrative history, articles from local newspapers, period letters from the park's archive, and Confederate Veteran magazine to examine the effects of race on the preservation and interpretation of one of the park's most significant African-American resources, the Robinson farm.(2) The "white" Henry house, rebuilt after the war, receives more visitation than the Robinson farm site, which burned in 1993. Shackel believes that the Robinson farm is an excellent park resource that shows the challenges faced by African Americans living in the postwar former Confederacy. He wonders why the local African-American community remains disengaged from park interpretations, but offers no answers. A National Park Service website, activated since the book's publication, features the Robinson farm (http://www.nps.gov/archeology/robinson/index.htm).
Shackel concludes his book with a general discussion of public memories of conflict, especially the Civil War, at other historic places. He provides short summaries of how several neo-Confederate groups work to rebut efforts to diversify interpretation. An epilogue contains short descriptions of activities at historic places commemorating social conflict that challenge previously dominant consensus interpretations of divisive events. He also provides ideas for site managers and interpreters in shaping management approaches and creating programs.
Shackel reaffirms that different groups ascribe different meanings to the same historic places, a valuable lesson to reassert to historic site managers and interpreters. However, some poor editing and the use of older secondary source materials are disappointing. Nonetheless, Shackel's book provides inspiration for future research. Who are the "many" who consider John Brown "one of the most controversial abolitionists in American history"? Have unnamed park historians at Manassas truly been "unwilling to expand the interpretation of the park to include a more dynamic social history" of its 19th-century residents? Who were the "boarders who lived and worked in Harpers Ferry" in the 19th century? Shackel reviewed eastern sites; are his assertions relevant to western or southern sites, or to places important to other ethnic groups? The questions provoked by Shackel's work provide several directions for further research in the varied perceptions of cultural commemoration in the United States.
Edward J. Roach
National Park Service
1. Charles Caffin, American Masters of Sculpture: Being Brief Appreciations of Some American Sculptors and of Some Phase of Sculpture in America (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1913); Kirk Savage, Standing Soldier, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
2. Joan Zenzen, Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998). The most-often cited newspaper articles come from the Manassas Journal, and after 1951, the Journal-Messenger.