Why Don't African Americans Attend Civil War Commemorative Events?

Jun 1, 2015

Civil War re-enactors from 'Battery B' United States Colored Light Artillery visited Historic Stagville in Durham.
Credit Leoneda Inge

Events commemorating the 150th Anniversary marking the end of the Civil War are wrapping up across the south.  It is noticeable that most of the visitors attending these events are white.

But organizers at the Stagville State Historic Site in Durham made sure their event over the weekend would be more diverse.  They say “Freedom 150” focused on the lives of the former slaves once the Civil War came to an end.

It’s hot.  Sarah DeGennaro is pushing her daughter Ellie in a stroller across a large, bumpy, grassy field on what used to be owned by the Cameron and Bennehan families.  Now it’s called Historic Stagville.  At its peak, some 900 slaves lived and worked here.   Some slave cabins still stand today.

“It tells a really rich story about North Carolina history.  It’s tangible history," said DeGennaro.

DeGennaro loves this stuff, a real history buff.  As a matter of fact, in April, she and her family visited Appomattox Court House, Virginia where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. I asked DeGennaro if she saw many blacks at Appomattox.

"No! That’s a big difference is that you have engagement from the African American community in events like this.  Whereas, with the big battles, that’s a pretty white audience," said DeGennaro.

And that’s how it looked, not far from here, at Bennett Place.  A few weeks ago Civil War re-enactors in Blue coats and Grey coats also marked the 150th Anniversary of the end of the war.  The Bennett family farm is where the largest Confederate surrender of troops took place.  Again, it was easy to count the small number of Blacks who attended.

Joseph McGill is the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project in South Carolina.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see the diversity of people here. If it was not 50-50, I would say it was more like 75-25 African American," said McGill, smiling.

McGill works near Charleston, where the Civil War began.  He’s seen commemorations marking the 150th of the beginning of the war until now.

"I did not see a lot of African Americans participating in commemorating the beginning – although I saw some, but I saw far less commemorating the end, which should have been the total opposite," said McGill.

McGill says this is the war that officially granted slaves their freedom. 

“I know that I am very happy about emancipation.  I think that was an important step forward for our country," said Anna Agbe-Davies.

Anna Agbe-Davies is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill.  She specializes in the plantation societies of the colonial southeast.

She says this is a difficult history for African Americans, one that’s fraught with emotion – positive and negative.  

“I think that the focus on the war is perhaps less appealing to people of color because the way it is presented in schools, the war was about their fate but it was not driven by them," said Agbe-Davies.

Clarissa Clifton, from Archibald Smith Plantation Historic Site near Atlanta, cooks fried sweet potato pies at Historic Stagville in Durham.
Credit Leoneda Inge

At Stagville, seasoned African American interpreters were on-hand to tell stories of sharecropping and how many women made money, cooking after the war.

Clarissa Clifton is an interpreter at the Archibald Smith Plantation site in Roswell, Georgia.  She’s wearing a long dress, apron and head-wrap while making fried sweet potato pies.

“Basically the fried pies come about because slaves in the kitchen, when you’re making a pie you have to cut off the crust around it.  Of course their pies would have been much smaller than this, you would make the pies with the leftovers and make a sweet treat for your own family," said Clifton.

The two pit fires were full of black pots filled with frying pies, chicken, stewing lamb, beans, squash and greens.

Charlotte Chatfield of Durham is comfortable commemorating the end of the Civil War here.  A couple of years ago, she traced her family roots back to this site.

“It makes me feel connected to the history of this country.  Because a lot of people don’t realize, American history is our history, because we helped build the foundation of this country," said Chatfield.

There isn’t consensus about how one should feel about the end of the war.  But more and more Blacks are likely to participate in coming years.  Because after the war came Reconstruction, when many ex-slaves prospered.