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Wednesday, May 28, 2003  

Neo-Confederates promote happy slave myth. . .
Wilder plans alternative

Until March of 2002, the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, seemed about to catch up with reality. The director, Robin Reed, had begun to treat slavery, the Civil War and related issues in a way that was inching toward matching the historical record instead of promoting a romanticized view of the slave-holding South. However, that ended when the neo-Confederate movement succeeded in having a director of its choice installed. The flag that symbolizes racist terror was hung in front of the museum. The museum's literature began to call the Civil War the War Between the States. The little steps toward modernity took a giant step back.

Now, Salon reports, in a three page article by Louise Witt, the museum is presenting an exhibit heralding one of the tropes of the neo-Confederate movement -- that the slaves were happy. That claim is important because it recasts a history that ended only 138 years ago and paves the way for a return to if not chattel slavery, limitations on the rights of African-Americans. Right after the 'slaves were happy people' assertions in neo-Confederate discussions comes 'Blacks are unhappy now. They had it better back then.'

Salon has been to Richmond.

It's a complex exhibit and one that does not gloss over the existence of slavery. But its underlying narrative on that disgraced institution is simple: Yes, many slaves opposed slavery and fled North at the first chance, but other slaves, whose voices have been lost to history, did not. They included "some black Confederates, and not just slave laborers, but men who actually through their own free will supported the Confederate cause," says John Coski, the museum's historian.

The mainstream historical record says otherwise. The men some of the neo-Confederates began presenting as black Confederate soldiers about five years ago were actually slaves who acted as valets to their soldier masters, cooks, musicians and laborers for the Confederate Army. They had no choice in the matter.

A Virginia historian doubts any black men actually served as soldiers for the Confederacy in its capitol state :

"If you can show me that quotation where these units went into action, I'm sure I and the other historians throughout this country, throughout the world, will be very interested in it, because nobody's ever seen it," says author, educator and historian Doctor E. Curtis Alexander.

When a window of opportunity opened many of the slaves working for the Confederates fled to the Union Army. They became the backbone of black units that helped defeat the South.

Former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder is disgusted with the neo-Confederates' efforts to rewrite history to serve their racist aims.

It [the claim of slaves happy with their condition] is the kind of observation certain to leave many people incredulous. Among them is former Gov. Doug Wilder, a Democrat who at 71 is old enough to be the grandson of slaves. When Wilder hears such sentiments -- and they are not entirely rare in modern Richmond, the capital of the Old South -- it reinforces his conviction that Virginia, and the entire nation, need a museum of American slavery to fully comprehend the institution's complexities.

Wilder would like to counter the neo-Confederate's misrepresentation of slavery by building a museum that will present American slavery as it actually occurred. The succesful establishment of a National Museum of Slavery would be an antidote to the influence of the neo-Confederate movement's impact.

It has been an eventful, and largely losing, year for the neo-Confederate movement. Their senator, Trent Lott, who narrates the recruitment video for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was removed as majority leader after expressing rote neo-Confederate views in public in December. A leader in the SCV and the League of the South, neo-Nazi associate Kirk Lyons, was linked to espionage. A memorial to Abraham Lincoln, the president they revile, opened in Richmond despite their best efforts to prevent it.

Wilder spoke to reporters about them after the unveiling of the Lincoln statue.

"Time marches on and leaves many in its wake," said Wilder, one of the guest speakers at the statue unveiling. "And fortunately, the wake lessens with the passing of the years. There are not many people who will continue to live in the past."

The latest blow to the neo-Confederates is that Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, elected as a result of appealing to neo-Confederate sentiments, was unable to bring back the Confederate battle flag insignia on Georgia's flag as they believe he had promised.

The city of Richmond has also changed in ways they don't like. Many of them drive in from the suburbs or bordering states for their various protests rather than live there.

Richmond has seen dramatic changes since the Civil War. More than half of the city's 197,790 residents are black. Richmonders have elected majority black City Councils with black mayors and vice mayors. And Wilder became the first and only black governor elected in the United States, while he was living in Richmond.

The opening of the exhibit celebrating slavery gives the neo-Confederates both something to crow about and an opportunity to poke the opposition in the eye.

Wilder has lived half the time since slavery ended. His grandparents were slaves. He hopes his latest plan will bring people to consider the meaning of human bondage in America and its continuing contemporary effects.

Wilder's idea, somewhere between a dream and a firm plan at this point, is to help resolve the still open wounds of slavery by confronting them head-on and at a $200 million National Slavery Museum on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Va. Sitting in his office at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he's a professor of public policy, Wilder talks about how he believes such a museum will do more than preserve the artifacts of the slave trade. It will show the grim facts of how slavery shaped the nation -- and how it haunts the American dream.

"The slavery museum, in brief, should be able to cause people to reassess their attitudes about human beings, particularly about human beings of color," Wilder says. "If it does not, then perhaps nothing will."

Witt says that Wilder, a canny politician with a penetrating intelligence, knows his plan for a National Museum of Slavery will discomfit some people, and not only latter day Rebels.

Wilder recognizes some Americans may not want to unearth slavery's past. The sad truth is that the United States, to a large extent, was built by slave labor and its history as a nation was shaped by slavery. A convincing case can be made that, if not for slavery, the U.S. might not be the world power it is today. In that sense, slavery has indisputably shaped and influenced every American's life. Yet, because it affronts our sense of our country's idealistic precepts that "all men are created equal," and because it creates in both blacks and whites a deep sense of shame, we're reluctant to talk about it, let alone build a museum that commemorates the enslavement of other human beings.

Some folks will doubtlessly argue that building a comprehensive museum of slavery will reopen old wounds. However, the wounds have never closed. The American legal system's efforts to apply sutures has been sporadic and plodding. The proof of that is the long list of inequities between black and white Americans, ranging from infant mortality to health and age at death. Until the vestiges of slavery that plague black Americans are honestly assessed and addressed, talk of closed wounds and color-blindness is empty rhetoric. The museum Wilder may live to see open would be a significant step in binding up our wounds.

2:47 PM