The Revisionist Narrative of the North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh

Posted on
Feb 16, 2016
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Posted in: Museums

I really think this should say “Loyalty to Country or to Slavery?”

 

Late last year, Rand and I visited Raleigh, North Carolina, and after reading glowing online reviews for it, I spent an afternoon at the North Carolina Museum of History.

I was appalled by it.

I’ve heard of revisionist historians, of people who claim the Civil War was about something other than slavery, but I figured they lurked in shadowy corners and hid their true intentions, the way cartoon villains did. I didn’t think they would openly proclaim their ignorance and bigotry proudly. I certainly didn’t think they’d be curating museums.

There is more to the history of North Carolina than I will discuss today – it was one of the original 13 colonies; it was home to the lost colony of Roanoke; it was a participant in the genocide of indigenous peoples that happened under President Jackson’s Trail of Tears.

I am focusing exclusively on slavery in this post because that’s the chapter of the state’s history that the museum focuses extensively upon. It is also a chapter of history that I know enough about to safely say that the museum grossly misrepresents the truth. It tells an apologist narrative, repeatedly making the claims that “it wasn’t about slavery” and that things in North Carolina “weren’t that bad.”

The Confederate flag was everywhere. Interestingly, I later learned it wasn’t the official flag of the Confederacy, but gained popularity among racist groups in the aftermath.

The museum’s viewpoint is a dangerous one, because it enables us to downplay the horrors of slavery, to ignore the fact that it played a pivotal role in making America what it is today. Not having to pay for labor put our fledgling nation at a financial advantage. It’s an ugly truth, but it’s one that we need to stop ignoring.

And we need to stop ignoring the legacy of slavery – that the ramifications of it are still seen today in every facet of our society and most of us are complicit to this in our silence.

Also, George Washington was an asshole.

But the North Carolina Museum of History ignores those realities. And because of the inherent authority that comes with being a museum, people listen. Including school group after school group of children. They sat quietly, watching films that described the bravery of Confederate soldiers fighting for their rights (a narrative that was somehow delivered without acknowledging even a hint of irony) and they clapped afterwards.

“That was a good movie,” one little girl said after it was over, smiling brightly.

Here are some of the specific claims made by the museum, and my thoughts below. (Forgive me if the structure of this post is all over the place. I was trying not to turn in a tornado of sputtering rage).

—————
Claim: “It wasn’t just white people who owned slaves!”

The museum makes it very clear that slave owners (a term that is virtually unused in the museum) weren’t just white people.

I have tried to find evidence supporting this, and most of the sites that do are, I shit you not, thinly veiled white supremacist websites (note to my husband: I am really, really sorry for this means for my web search history). I can’t find any reputable websites that support the claim that there was black slave owners, but the more salient point is this: the overwhelming majority (if not all) slave owners were white people. And even if they weren’t, THAT STILL DOES NOT MAKE SLAVERY OKAY.

—————

Claim: “There were very few plantations in North Carolina!”

This was repeated ad nauseum throughout the museum; other sources I’ve found suggest it isn’t true (noting that North Carolina had an “extensive slave plantation system” and was a major exporter of cotton and tobacco, and other crops that were grown with slave labor). So while there were plenty of plantations in North Carolina, there were fewer than in neighboring states. And let’s be very clear: the reason there were fewer plantations wasn’t because of some sort of moral opposition to them – it was because the terrain of the state didn’t allow for it.

—————

Claim: “North Carolina had fewer slaves than neighboring states!”

This, too, was repeated again and again. Like, “Hey, everyone! We aren’t that bad! Just look how many slaves those people have!” WHICH IS NOT A VIABLE ARGUMENT. And considering that the neighboring states were South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, it doesn’t seem like much to brag about. And, again, it wasn’t because of some sort of moral opposition to slavery – it was because the state didn’t have as many plantations, and because North Carolina’s shores weren’t safe enough for the slave ships to land. Because of this, a lot of slaves in North Carolina were sold to other southern states that required more labor.

But don’t kid yourself: North Carolina may have had fewer slaves than its neighbors, but it still had a sizable population. There were nearly 40,000 slaves in the state by 1767. In 1860, there were more than 300,000 slaves in North Carolina- more than a third of the state’s population.

—————

Claim: The South was Oppressed by the Federal Government

People still utter this today when talking about the Civil War – it had nothing to do with slavery! It was about states rights! But the main “right” in question was whether or not the states could own slaves. Don’t kid yourself – the south was a slave society. It was the foundation of the economic and social structure of Southern States.

And it’s interesting that numbers line up so perfectly – people claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, yet every single state that seceded had slavery. That’s not a coincidence.

The museum actually uses the term “Federal Occupation” when describing the government’s attempts to stop secession.

But let’s talk about the chutzpah here: slave-owners were claiming that they were being oppressed. Some of the placards in the museum talked about how the Federal Government stopped ships from entering the harbor, which meant that North Carolinians had to go without necessary goods like coffee (ever resilient, they boiled chicory instead).

Wow. How brave of you to forgo your latte while you fight for your right to own other people.

This chain was whittled by an imprisoned Confederate soldier who apparently didn’t understand the meaning of irony.

One of the videos talked about how many North Carolinians were shocked that Abraham Lincoln had been elected – his name hadn’t even been on the ballot in their state. It painted the election of Lincoln as a sort of unjust dictatorship that had been foisted upon the people in North Carolina (when in actuality, he was left off the ballot by many southern states so that votes could not be cast in his favor).

Let me reiterate that: southern states left Lincoln off the ballot so that he couldn’t receive any votes, and then people in the south felt slighted when he was elected because he wasn’t even on the ballot.

—————

Claim: Southerners are super brave and resilient!

The entire narrative that the museum tells is from this viewpoint. There is no real mention of the horrors of slavery. No graphic depiction of people who were whipped and maimed, of families torn apart, of women raped. Nope. The only images we see of slaves are idyllic ones. I mean, look at how peaceful her expression is:

 

But look how much suffering is etched onto the face of this white woman who had all her free labor taken away from her:

 

The museum goes on to describe how Confederate soldiers died bravely, far from home. How many returned home maimed or wounded, and found they no longer had homes to go to.

There are countless buildings, streets, and monuments in North Carolina named for Confederate soldiers like Charles Frederick Fisher. On this sign, he is described as a hero.

A prosthetic used by a Confederate soldier whose leg had been amputated.

Again, no mention of the horrors of slavery; the museum just focuses on the suffering of white slave owners.

The depiction of life after the war was that Southerners had it incredibly difficult while things for black families was easy and idyllic. (Completely ignoring systemic racism, Jim Crow laws, etc.)

 

Oh, and then the entire exhibit ends with a KKK mask. It’s a replica (the original belonged to a confederate soldier). The placard talks about how the KKK operated on fear, omitting the fact that they also operated on violence, torture, and murder.

—————

I realize that I am basically standing on a soapbox and calling out the North Carolina Museum of History for this, but this ugly, dirty reality that the museum is running away from? It doesn’t just belong to North Carolinians. It belongs to all Americans. Even if your family fought for the Union instead of the Confederacy, even if they came to America in 1980 instead of 1780, we still live in a country that was built on slavery and we need to acknowledge that. We need to look at that ugly truth square in the face and try to understand how it shapes America today (because holy shit does it ever). And we need to talk about how to make things better.

But the North Carolina Museum of History does not do that. It tells a cowardly, inaccurate, and apologist history of the Civil War.

I walked out of the permanent exhibit stunned. I couldn’t remember seeing something in a museum that was more shocking or biased. And that was when I saw this:

An entire special exhibit dedicated to Billy Graham. A huge, sprawling gallery lauding the life of a homophobe who said, “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare.”

A museum praising the legacy of someone who believes that conversion therapy can undo homosexuality. That homosexuality is something that needs to be undone in the first place.

The exhibit featured quote after quote from Mr. Graham (carefully omitting any discussions about homosexuality or women’s rights), and video recordings of his sermons blaring at high volumes. They were all playing concurrently, and because the gallery had no walls, the sound of all of them blended together in an incomprehensible noise. A disembodied voice yelling at me from every direction.

At least admission was free. It meant that I didn’t have to ask for my money back.

—————

P.S. – This was a difficult post to write because it is not my story to tell.

I am a very privileged white woman, married to a very successful white man. We live in the northwest. We don’t experience racism or bigotry, other than to benefit from our own white privilege (something we don’t usually notice because, as someone once brilliantly put it, “Fish don’t see water.”) My viewpoint has been heard before. If you need a specific source, take a look at all of history, ever.

There is no way for a white person to discuss slavery or racism without being inherently hypocritical. I can scream about injustice in the world and still remain a beneficiary of a system that is inherently racist in my favor. And admitting that doesn’t absolve me of anything, either. Even my criticism of the status quo is a privilege, because I know that my criticism will be heard. That I can shout it from rooftops and know that my wealth and race protect me.

That is profoundly fucked up. But refusing to admit it doesn’t make it any less true.

Leave a Comment

  • You should definitely read Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, which is one the books I’m currently reading. It talks a lot about revisionist history of the Civil War, and how/why people have these beliefs, and worse how we get taught them in institutions of learning, like schools and museums. In general, I’ve felt most of my life that my own education was crappy, but I’ve learned things along the way, but then I keep reading things in it that make me go “WHAT?!”

  • Daniel Thies

    There were indeed black slave owners, though, as you stated, that doesn’t justify anything or absolve anyone. I highly recommend the book “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones. It’s a fantastic (fictional) examination of this particular subject.

    • Many of those “black slave owners” they talk about owned their wives and children so that a white man couldn’t legally grab them and claim them as his property. It was about getting it on paper. In this slave society, children of slave mothers were considered slaves, regardless of the status of their fathers. So if you didn’t buy your wife (well, consort – as blacks weren’t really able to officially marry) the kids would be born into slavery.

    • Ron

      Careful, she’ll get confused by the facts

    • Ashley H

      I love that book!

    • Dvandemon

      The thing is that’s entirely impertinent either way. It’s basically “everybody’s doing it” as a moral argument.

  • Scott Weigle

    It’s very interesting that the declarations of secession of all or most of the southern states specifically say that slavery is the cause of them leaving. This directly contradicts the “it wasn’t about slavery” arguments.

  • Stacy Egan

    When I visited Andrew Jackson’s house, I felt like some of the visitors were hoping to see slavery through rose colored glasses. Even though the house gave a tour about slavery and talked about it openly, people still made comments about “loving” Alfred, a slave who had voluntarily stayed on to work at the house after he was emancipated. I was annoyed by that because I felt like these visitors used the story of the one slave that chose to stay on as a paid employee as “proof” to support their incorrect and dangerous worldview that slavery was somehow “not that harmful.” The day disturbed me because Jackson’s life was so well documented, but I didn’t think they mentioned enough of his role in harming both slaves and Native Americans.

    • Yeah, it’s as if they never heard of STOCKHOLM SYNDROME

      • Not even that, necessarily – it may not have been that Alfred ever “loved” Jackson or his family, but rather that he simply had no idea how to live in a world that he had been raised very purposefully to not understand. He may just have not known what to do if he DID walk away, and knew this way at least there would be basic shelter and food for him.

        I hate the idea that the few slaves that chose to stay were somehow proof that slaveowners weren’t “bad” or slavery “wasn’t always awful” for the slave. Yes. Yes it was. Across the board. Always.

        No matter how well the person in question was treated, they were ALWAYS also treated as property. There is no way to understate the erasure of agency and self that living that way would cause. No matter how “nice” the slaveowner was.

        • True, same happens in jail today. Lifelong criminals know no other way, some get themselves thrown back in jail because they feel safer there. If not safer, at least… easier.

          • Yes, exactly – better the devil you know, and all that.

            Especially considering freedmen were facing violence and hatred everywhere they turned – Alfred may have been terrified to try and travel north, unsure if he would even make it there, and afraid of what he might face once he got there.

            I always recommend the book “The Warmth of Other Suns” to anyone who hasn’t read it. While it’s more 20th-century-based, it’s about the huge migration of black people post-Civil-War through the Jim Crow era from the South to the North, Midwest, and Western states. It is a HUGE sea change from how we talk about “modern” history, how we are taught to think about it as white people. If you haven’t read it, definitely pick it up. It’s an amazing work.

  • GreenWyvern

    This deliberate distortion of the truth by a museum is disgusting. it’s on a par with anti-evolution museums that depict Adam and Eve with dinosaurs.

    I’m also glad that you mentioned that George Washington was an asshole. He was.

    Americans generally don’t realize that their ideas of the American Revolution are pretty one-sided and distorted, and that the British actually had a valid point of view. There’s something else for you to research!

    Taxation? The net flow of tax money was from Britain to the US colonies. Samuel Johnson said he would be glad to “see America return half of what England has expended in her defence”. The British didn’t see why Americans shouldn’t pay taxes like everyone else.

    No taxation without representation? The British Parliament had been perfectly ready to set a up a system of elected representation for America – but their offer was ignored.

    Then the Americans allied with the French against Britain. The French were the worst enemies of Britain, and up until then, of the American colonies as well. The Americans changed sides, and Britain regarded this as the worst kind of treachery, betrayal, and ingratitude.

    Americans usually don’t like to acknowledge the fact that they would have lost the War of Independence if it hadn’t been for the help of the French, as well as the Spanish and Dutch. It was the blockade of the French navy that forced the British surrender at Yorktown – where nearly half of the troops on the ‘American’ side were French, and Rochambeau proved to be a far better military commander than Washington. Large quantities of military supplies were sent to the America by the French, Spanish and Dutch, without which they couldn’t have won the war.

    Royal tyranny? Here’s an example of the kind of tyranny Americans objected to. In 1763, George III issued a decree stating: “The several Nations or tribes of Indians with whom We are connected … should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them … as their Hunting Grounds.”

    George Washington wrote that he could “never look upon that Proclamation in any other light, than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.” Washington’s Indian name was ‘Town Destroyer’ because it was under his direct orders that 28 out of 30 Seneca towns were totally wiped out, as well as all the towns of the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Cayuga.

  • Considering how openly the secession documents of most of the major Southern states state that the reason for secession was that the Federal government was threatening to undo slavery, the whole “States’ Rights” fiasco is such an obvious distortion/distraction.

    Yes, they were fighting for “states’ rights” – their “state right” to own slaves. Stop trying to make the flowery language take away the impact of what was happening. It’s disrespectful to slaves AND to the soldiers who fight on both sides.

    The myth of the Lost Cause has done an incredible amount of damage over the years. And it’s really built heavily into the Southern understanding of history.

  • Mother of Dragons

    Can you try not to speak for all white Americans, some who can not afford to feed their own child when you say they can never have a conversation about race without being hypocritical? I am sick to death of limousine liberals somehow feeling like they can speak for ALL white americans when it comes to race when you fully admit you have a financially privileged background and likely live in an area where most americans – of all races – would never be able to afford to live or eat a decent meal (and were probably recently pushed out by bleeding heart liberals who are not cognizant of the fact that they’ve taken away generational homes of poor people while yelling at other people about privilege and outbidding each other on row homes – I am looking at you San Fran!). Have you ever had a negative checking balance, been two months behind on rent, having no idea where your next meal would come from? Those people are anxiously awaiting for their skin color privilege check to arrive at the door – they’ve been hearing so often about how easy their lives should be and it isnt making sense to them to hear this ranting from a woman who admits she is “very” financially privileged. You are free to speak for other white “very” privileged people with “very” successful husbands. However, do not get on your soapbox to tell an entire nation of impoverished white americans they are not entitled to have a conversation without being hypocritical when you literally have no idea what it is like to be that person. I agree with the rest of your article fully and wholeheartedly, but you do not get to steal the validity of speech from people you do not know and certainly do not understand the depths of their problems. This country needs to focus on class warfare and the shrinking middle class, debtor society, and your bullshit final paragraph rant alienating poor people from each other based on skin color would make MLK’s skin crawl.

    • Everywhereist

      Actually, I’ve had plenty of financial challenges in my life, and believe me when I tell you: things have not always been as they are now. I could go into all the annoying cliches (we didn’t have enough money to buy groceries! My friends would volunteer at the foodbank and then bump into my family), but I’m not going to insult anyone by trying to pretend that my struggle wasn’t easier than other people’s. There is no question that things would have been harder had my mother been a single black mother in the south trying to raise two children, rather than a single white mother trying to do it.

      Your comment, and your defensiveness, are everything that is wrong with the world right now. I’m not even sure what to do with it.

      • Mother of Dragons

        I am not what’s wrong with the country simply for having a voice and you don’t have to do anything with it… I do not pretend to be able to speak (or take the voice from) others simply because I share the same color of skin. You are literally advocating the immediate discredit of an opinion based on skin color (I imagine the immediate discrediting of a Supreme Court justice without any consideration of the nominee by the senate is abhorrent to you but the discredit of a voice different from your own simply for having white skin seems ok). You do not get to tell an entire race of people their opinions are hyprocritical and meaningless because of their skin color. Like I said, I completely agree with the rest of your post and seriously love your blog. Since when is discourse harmful to progress? You don’t get to discredit a diverse set of people for the sole reason their opinions are different from your own solely due to the color of their skin – is this 1950? Why do you get to be the decider of what is right or fair and how could you possibly when you immediately discredit Opinions not in line with your own.. I’m not at all defensive because I’m not poor or disadvantaged so I have nothing to be defensive about. My mother is a cashier making $10 per hour and my father has a GED and works unloading ships with a permanently windburned face. I do passionately fight every day for the plight of the economically disadvantaged of any race and can only imagine we will be equal as a society when everyone in said society can have a discussion about it. I am certainly not what’s wrong with the country, that I can be entirely sure of. I can also be certain that I don’t have the answers as to what is wrong with the world as you claim to (that’s giving me quite a bit of power). I look forward to your future posts and sincerely appreciate your writing and contributions.

        • Everywhereist

          Wow. You’ve done some serious mental and verbal gymnastics to make yourself a victim and to demonize people who are pointing out white privilege. That’s … that’s actually an accomplishment.

          My point has been to note my privilege, and to note that even when I speak of injustices, I do so knowing that I face few ramifications for it, and no injustices because of my race. That I can talk about slavery and I know that I will never, ever know that kind of injustice, and that even my rage is something of a right, because there have been generations of people of color killed for expressing even a hint of displeasure at the status quo.

          I’m just going to leave this here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-crosleycorcoran/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person_b_5269255.html

          • Mother of Dragons

            How exactly am I making myself a victim? Please explain it to me? I feel that nothing in my post was at all akin to victim mentality for myself. Now, you and I both in our posts took a broad brush and made a victim out of an expansive group of people which is a bit preposterous when you think about it, no? When a white person can disagree with your opinions and not be silenced and called a racist, we can probably move to a more equal society. Until then, you will always have african americans feeling like victims and white american feeling either privileged and guilty or full of resentment because they seemingly have no other options available to them. You literally say, without qualification, that if a white person disagrees with your view on racism, their opinion is hypocritical. Without hearing what any of those people even have to say, you dismiss them. How do you not see the irony in that when you are spouting off about the injustice of a group that has been silenced in this nation in an institutional sense for generations? You’ve given yourself quite a bit of power from up on your soapbox. Please also explain to me how your constant clamoring of “I am so privileged and at least I shout it from the rooftops” is at all improving the lives of every day African Americans? Seriously, what exactly is that doing to help poor black people? How is saying my husband and I are VERY successful but we understand all of our success is because of our privilege helping anyone? A frank conversation between a poor white american and a poor black american, who will understand each other on a level of how am I going to feed my family this week, will do more for progress than TumblrInAction and consistently letting everyone know how privileged you are will do in ages. When we can not openly talk about things, progress is impossible.

          • Ron

            Sadly Mother of Dragons, you won’t win this one. When you have to try and reason with a racist elitist 1%er bitch like this who believes revisionist history, gets confused by facts, conveniently ignores history, and hates her own skin, all they do is get mad when you disagree with them.

            The hypocrisy is stunning isn’t it? She, a white liberal millionaire racist puppet of the progressive movement says that white’s can’t comment on slavery, then she writes an entire blog on it.

            Fact is, black people owned black slaves too in America. Some black slave owners owned tens of thousands of black slaves, and white ones, and Indian ones, and Irish ones (I guess they’re white though so it’s okay, this 1% bitch hates whites). And the confederate flag is racist? WTF? Who told you that, Kanye West? That tells me that you have zero clue what you’re talking about. It’s a cultural icon, not a racist one. Study up, read a book, learn your own history. Every skin pigment has owned every other skin pigment as slaves, all throughout history, including American slave history.

            This dumb ignorant bitch believes anything Obama and Beyonce tell her to believe.

            Fact is whites and black fought to end slavery and whites and blacks owned slaves. The issue is valueless people act in valueless ways (just like Ferguson and everywhere else) today. It has zero to do with skin pigmentation and EVERYTHING to do with culture you wanker feminist stick up your ass 1% imbecile.

            Say hi to you chauffeur for me too, he’s probably a white man. And you hate him. Because he’s white. And a man. Do the world a favor and shut the fuck up.

  • Jonathan Seckler

    I love all your articles – the funny ones mostly but I appreciate your viewpoint as well. I do disagree with one thing though – just because a person is white shouldn’t deny them a place at the racism table. I do believe white privilege exists and that it shields us. But I also think that it is because of that privilege that whites have a duty to confront/discuss/acknowledge/ and even challenge these issues and to be a part of the dialogue and eventual resolution. It doesnt make us inherently hypocritical. if I’m being optimistic, the shield of privilege gives whites the opportunity (and the duty) to make a change for the better.

    WRT North Carolina Museum of History – wow, what a wasted opportunity for the state to do something for its people.

    • Everywhereist

      I think that it’s important to bring up and participate in the dialogue of slavery, but I need to realize my place and my role in it. I benefit, every single day, from white privilege, and even in calling it out I know that I can do so safely. I see the inherent hypocrisy because IT’S IN THE SYSTEM (white people have the privilege to point out their privilege! They can more safely complain about the ill-effects of racism because a RACIST STRUCTURE HAS MADE IT SAFE FOR THEM TO DO SO), and to fail to acknowledge that only furthers the status quo.

      My hope is to make change for the better, in some incremental way, and I am attempting to do that with this post, and also by acknowledging my privilege.

      Also, we totally agree: the museum is a waste, on a lot of levels.

  • Wow, what an amazing post. This is the kind of stuff that you often hear people talk about, like “of course my father was in WW2, but he didn’t do anything bad”. Oh, really? While I understand this kind of response to horrible events coming from an individual who can’t come to terms with the fact that his/her own father might have done some evil shit, I find it unbelievable that a cultural institution would try to whitewash history like that. I’m glad you wrote this.

  • Shanna S

    Thank you for writing this thought-provoking essay. I always love your writing. In this piece it’s your heart that shines. Also thanks to the other commenters for the resources they’ve shared. Here is mine: http://www.c-span.org/video/?299487-7/economics-emancipation. This 30 minute video astounds me. Slavery is appalling, and I agree 100% with you that we as a society should face its consequences even now. On the other hand, however, it is also shocking to imagine the consequences of the economic sea change Southerners feared at the prospect of losing 90% of their assets. I understand their fear. They had built lives the economic system they had; they didn’t design it. Many questioned it, including George Washington. You’ll remember that the issue of slavery was debated at the Constitutional Conventions but not included in the Bill of Rights due to the upheaval it would create. That upheaval was recognized as inevitable but the upheaval was put off another 100 years and nearly broke the nation in two. Think about how the extent to which a
    comparatively miniscule amount of economic uncertainty (like tax rate changes of a few percent on actual, already-realized income) affects people’s
    political ideology today. Human beings were extremely valuable to own, and priced accordingly. They cost roughly 10 years wages, depending on the era, so in a sense slave-owners had in many cases pre-paid for that labor, though at a discount. Of course the payments didn’t go the slaves! Personally, I am happy to have the luxury of distance with which to examine this particular issue. I’m ethically torn, and sometimes helpless ans heart-broken, about so many issues facing the world today.

    • Everywhereist

      I appreciate the diplomacy with which you approach this issue, but I just can’t bring myself to feel empathy for people who were worried about the fate of an economic system built on owning other people. I don’t mean to sound self-righteous, but I can’t do anything but vilify Southerners. I suppose the issue is more complex than I’m making it out to be, but alas. That’s where I am. Fuck the threats to economic stability.

      Either way, we agree that this is our history and we need to own it.

      With regards to Washington, I don’t know how torn he was. While he eventually came to accept slavery as evil towards the end of his life (and freed all his slaves upon his death), he never spoke out publicly against it, and he took some extensive measures to make sure that his slaves stayed in bondage (the laws on the books were that slaves who were in a free, northern state for 6 mos would be granted freedom; Washington would travel to the north with slaves, but after 5mos and 20-odd days would head back down south for a little bit and then drag them back up to the north, so he never had to free anyone).

      • Shanna S

        I struggle with how to own the present. Thinking about the past injustices helps put that in perspective. Data and prices give comparisons: for example, the amount we pay the families of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Here’s a quick link to the British rates: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/feb/28/coalition-payouts-afghan-civilian-casualties. USA rates are similar, somewhere between $2000 and $10,000. It’s not that I empathize with slave owners. I don’t. I’m just coming to terms with how sometimes regular people are swept along in an asshole wave and hold to current systems. Again, thanks for your great work and continuing a great discussion afterwards.

  • Stelian Mezin

    There are many attempts to revision different parts of history. Some are terrifying, like claim that Hitler didn’t kill any Jew. Not a single one. Those interpretations of history comes from idiots who probably want to become popular. But, when it comes from an official cultural institution, that have a special weight. And if you are the first person complaining, that is a sign of deep problems inside United States (or at least North Carolina).
    I disagree with you about these colonels. They fought and died to defend their homeland. That makes them patriots and heroes. Regardless of the politics of their state.
    And why was George Washington an asshole? You have not explained from which points of view he was asshole.

    • Everywhereist

      I don’t think that this qualifies as an official cultural institution.

  • Meg B

    My friend uses this brilliant analogy about how some people are the type of people who, if they were crew on the sinking Titanic, they would say, yeah yeah the boat’s going down, but what the hell we are out of shrimp, someone get more shrimp cocktail!

    That’s how I feel about some of these comments: Blah blah slavery was bad and all but there is no such thing as white privilege. Bull. Shit. I have two little boys that I will be able to send out in the world when they are teenagers wearing hoodies and stupid slouchy pants and when they walk into a store they won’t be given an extra side eye because of the color of their skin. I won’t have to worry about the police shooting them if they are unarmed. I don’t have to worry about getting pulled over in my upper middle class neighborhood because of my skin color.

    As to this post, I live in the Midwest, so I sometimes forget there are people who believe this bullshit. People who actually spend money to curate such a terrible museum. I am appalled by its very existence. Thank you for this post, for bringing this stupidity out in the light of day for people like me who would never know about it otherwise. Everything, including your post-script, was well written and thoughtful. So thank you for that.

    • Everywhereist

      Thanks, Meg. I spend so much time bogged down in the negative comments (which I ended up deleting, per Rand’s suggestion and repeated request, and I have to admit, he’s right) that I don’t spend enough time reading through comments like yours, which make this blog a better place.

  • Melissa

    Thank you for this post. I would like to say, for the benefit of all (and Mother of Dragons), that your experience DOES help everyone. We now have a greater awareness of the pervasiveness of revisionist representations and can avoid bringing our children and families to such places. You’ve helped me realize that even “museums” that seem legitimate can be dangerous. In avoiding such places, we avoid perpetuating the problem. That helps EVERYONE.

  • Anne Shirley

    I’ve been a huge fan of yours for a long time, Geraldine, and I think you’re spot on with this post. But your remark in one of your responses really bothered me: “I don’t mean to sound self-righteous, but I can’t do anything but vilify Southerners.”

    I’m a Southerner, though I now live on the West Coast. So, by the simple fact of my being born and raised in a place where slavery happened, you vilify me and every other Southerner? You have no idea what my belief system is, what my opinions are about the horrible history that happened in the South (like I said before, I think your post was spot on, and this museum sounds appalling), and yet you have no problem blindly judging me and millions of other people. By this logic, do you also vilify all Germans because of the country’s Holocaust history? Do you vilify all South Africans because of apartheid? I dunno, just seems really ironic that you spout off against the prejudice and close-mindedness of racism the museum, and then turn around and make a comment like that, blindly categorizing all people in the South as worthy of vilification. I can only hope that I read it out of context.

    • Everywhereist

      Anne –

      You did read that out of context, and I should have been much, much clearer. I’m sorry for the confusion, but I mean that I can’t feel empathy for slave-owning Southerners. I was replying to Shanna’s comment where she talks about how slave-owning Southerners were terrified of abolishing slaves because of the social and economic upheaval it would have caused, and how it was the only life they knew. And I told her I appreciated her empathy, but it was not empathy that I could extend to slaveholders. I am not referring to present-day Southerners.

      Also, I can’t believe how much time I’ve spent defending myself today.

      • Anne Shirley

        Cool, thanks for clearing that up. Re: defending yourself, just comes with the territory on a hot-button topic like this. Keep up the good work.

        • Everywhereist

          Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt and asking questions, Anne. I appreciate it a lot!

  • Tina

    This was an interesting post to me because we recently visited the Tennessee state museum in Nashville and came away with similar feelings that the representation of many things related to race and secession seemed off, although I did not document it very well or do as thorough a fact check as you have and I would say anything ‘off’ was less blatant than what you describe here. We also found the exhibit concerning Andrew Jackson to be much more positive than anything I’d ever seen about him before. I remember being struck that there was no mention of the Cherokee trail of tears; it was called something more neutral, like a ‘relocation’ during which people died. So I don’t have much to add to your very detailed post and discussion here but it got me remembering our visit to nashville….

  • Kathryn Casna

    Has anyone been to the Whitney Plantation Museum outside of New Orleans in Wallace, LA? They claim to be completely unique in the way they tell the story of slavery, and it does appear that way on their website and in a few local articles written about the place. But has anyone here been to see it?

  • ckokopuff

    Great post. Thought I’d leave this here as some comic relief. This woman worked at Mt. Vernon, re-enacting the life of a slave woman. Her videos are hilarious…and also a bit sad. http://www.askaslave.com/season-one.html

  • Ralph

    Washington was an “asshole”? Compared to whom? We’re not talking about an era when the concept of a republic was very well-understood. He may have been an average military leader, but he did give up power after 4 years and that set a precedent which we can be somewhat thankful for today.

    • Everywhereist

      He relinquished power over the country far more quickly and easily than he relinquished power over the slaves that he owned. He and Martha would take extensive steps to keep their slaves from being granted freedom (because they were in the north for long enough to have automatically been granted it). He was also incredibly taciturn and could be downright cold. But that comes in a distant second to owning slaves which, obviously, makes him a HUGE asshole.

  • Denise

    I visited the museum today and had the same thoughts. I searched expecting to find lots of conversation about it, and yours is te only post I’ve found!

    The only references to black people in NC throughout the museum is to note their relationship to white people, mostly as slaves. I looked for anything that told stories of black lives and history in NC but never found anything. The exhibit you mentioned that ends with a horrifying KKK mask begins with an entrance marked “white” and “colored” over separate doors as you approach the hostoric Woolworth counter. The whole exhibit has a romanticized feel about it. This is the southern racist museum.

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