CRM Journal

Book Review

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory

Edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton. New York, NY: The New Press, 2006; 272 pp., illustrations, notes, contributors, index; cloth $25.95.


Slavery and Public History cover

On the dust jacket of Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, a beautifully framed photograph of slaves hangs above what appears to be a psychiatrist's couch. Certainly, the presence of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom and the continued angst of that historical contradiction may require a great deal of therapy for historians, public historians, and the American public. The essays collected and edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton reveal, however, that some healing is underway, and public history plays a central role in that process.

The quality of the essays in Slavery and Public History is uniformly impressive, although the first two by Ira Berlin and David W. Blight are elaborations on their earlier works. The third chapter, by James O. Horton, establishes the contextual foundation for the next seven chapters, moving the reader from themes of history and memory addressed in the early chapters to the struggles faced by historians and public historians as they attempted to enlarge the American story to include slavery.

From the Library of Congress and Monticello, to My Old Kentucky Home and Brown University, to the Liberty Bell pavilion, Civil War battlefield parks, Confederate memorials, and cemeteries, the stories in these chapters relate efforts to incorporate the history of slaves and slavery into public presentations of American history. None of the attempts were easy, and all faced some form of resistance, although some of the sources of resistance might surprise.

Essay contributor John Michael Vlach's proposed Library of Congress exhibition on plantation slavery, for example, lasted less than a day when African American employees protested. The exhibit eventually found a home in the District of Columbia Public Library, and a subsidiary exhibit emerged at the Historical Society of Washington. Both institutions celebrated the exhibit, and Vlach received positive responses from whites and blacks alike. It is curious, however, that in concluding his essay, Vlach dismisses black employees' rejection of the exhibit at the Library of Congress as "aberrant," when their reaction illustrates the difficulty many people have in dealing with the topic.

In her essay, Joanne Melish describes the efforts of Eric Browning to develop an alternative historical tour script at My Old Kentucky Home, only to be rejected repeatedly. She compares this episode with efforts to revise interpretation at the John Brown House in Providence, Rhode Island, and continued debates at Brown University over issues of reparations. Like Vlach, she finds misunderstanding and deep-rooted suspicions thwarting efforts to expand the dialogue about slavery. These issues and their consequences, however, are unresolved.

Mary Tyler McGraw relates the role of monuments in "healing" as a heritage tourism theme in Richmond, Virginia, and how the furor over a proposed Abraham Lincoln monument threatened that healing. Richmond's struggle relates not only the multiple audiences that must be addressed, but the various actors involved in making decisions about the representation of slavery in public spaces. From residents to Southern heritage groups to business progressives and city government officials, balancing constituencies became an important factor in offering any memorials. As McGraw appropriately concludes, "heritage tourism cannot be a pilgrimage to an unchanging shrine, and sites are going to be forums, not temples."

Gary B. Nash scrutinizes the contradiction and resulting conflict that emerged when the National Park Service selected the historic site of the Masters-Penn House, in which George Washington, his family, and his slaves lived during his presidency, as the location for a new Liberty Bell pavilion symbolizing American freedom. Nash does not find the struggle over interpretation disconcerting, however. He writes that "it is not unhealthy in a democracy that a tension between the commemorative voice and the historical voice should manifest itself in public history sites…"

While all of these essays touch upon historic site interpretation, several of them move beyond interpretation and explore public memory. Lois Horton explains how Monticello has addressed the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings story, but also the many ways in which older understandings of Jefferson have been reconciled with new DNA evidence. Dwight Pitcaithley takes on the attempts by neo-Confederates to define the causes of the Civil War narrowly as a dispute over states' rights, and he outlines how national battlefields have responded. Bruce Levine expands upon that theme by analyzing the myths of black Confederates, how neo-Confederates employ those myths to perpetuate their traditional interpretation of slavery and the Civil War, and why it is crucial to correct such myths.

The case studies collectively demonstrate what Horton has concluded elsewhere, that reactions to public discussion of slavery are intense because "the history of slavery confronts traditionally positive self-perceptions, forcing a concentration on issues that contradict the sense of national heritage in fundamental ways."(1) Yet, none of these stories ends with failure. Some successes are small, merely opening the door for future interpretative changes. Others are dramatic turns of events, making evident the public's willingness to consider slavery within the larger American narrative.

In some regards, however, the case studies argue against the larger theme of the book—that the history of slavery is a "fishbone in the nation's throat," as Ed Linenthal phrases it in a thoughtful epilogue. In every case, there are audiences that reject interpretations of, and even the topic of, slavery, but they are only successful for a short time before exhibitors, site interpreters, federal historians, and scholars move the topic forward. The essays collectively show an expansion of interpretation and audiences. While our empathies may be with historians who are working towards incorporating new research and more complex interpretations into the narrative, the true heroes in this collection are the public audiences that made these efforts worthwhile.

If there is a conceptual weakness in this collection, it is exposed by Nash's comment about commemorative and historical voices. Most of the authors assume that the tension between the two perspectives must be resolved in favor of the historical. Even Nash succumbs to this in his final line that "the old cracked bell will toll symbolically for all the people, and the scholars' history will become the public's history." While the public's opposition or reluctance to engage the history of slavery may be frustrating, the desire to impose the scholars' narrative can be just as single-minded as that of Southern heritage groups or neo-Confederates or informal groups of African Americans. Whether erected by heritage groups or historians, monumentality strives to erase ambivalence. But the institution of slavery has always created ambivalence, both in the past and in modern debates. As McGraw demonstrates, a compromise between heritage and history is possible, even with its coexistence of opposing attitudes and feelings. While it may not meet the standards of scholarly historians, it may be sufficient in bringing the history of slavery into the public dialogue.

Craig Thompson Friend
North Carolina State University



1. James Oliver Horton and Johanna C. Kardux, "Slavery and the Context for National Heritage in the United States and the Netherlands," American Studies International 42 (June 2004): 52.