Remembering the past

I visited Civil War battle sites on my honeymoon:  Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg.  It was early May and they were beautiful places.  Lush fields, trees, wild flowers – and graves.  Hundreds and hundreds of men had died there fighting for both sides.  I doubt that many were particularly political.  They were recruited into adventure or a sense of honor.  Perhaps someone they admired was building a company from the small town where they lived.  Most New England towns have a Civil War monument.  I’ve seen them in Ohio and Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.  Oh, certainly the politicians and some of the men at the top – the generals – believed in the cause.  That is their job.  But the ordinary soldiers went because someone asked them or because all their friends were going or they got paid to enlist and the family needed the money.

The current desire in a lot of places, Richmond and New Orleans to name two of them, is to remove the statues of the generals and politicians.  I lived for many years just blocks from Monument Avenue in Richmond.  The large monuments stand in circles that can be difficult to get to depending on the traffic:  Jeb Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson.  Plus the explorer Matthew Maury and tennis great and local hero, Arthur Ashe.  (Ashe was added after a great deal of controversy.)  Most Richmonders probably couldn’t name all the statues and likely don’t know who any of these men are.

The Boston Globe had a feature story on July 4th.

Ana Edwards stood on Monument Avenue, one of America’s most elegant boulevards, and stared with disbelief at the inscription on the 67-foot-tall memorial to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate government that was based here during the Civil War.

“Exponent of Constitutional Principles,” the inscription said about Davis. “Defender of the Rights of States.” There were no words explaining Davis’s role in the enslavement of hundreds of thousands, no hint that much of the nation’s slave trade was conducted here in Richmond, at a time when black lives plainly didn’t matter to many, except as human chattel to be exploited or sold.

Instead, emblazoned in stone, was Davis’s assertion that he acted “not in hostility to others.”

Edwards had never read the description and I hadn’t either.  And neither had the Mayor of Richmond, Dwight Jones.  But unlike many in Richmond and other places across the South, I don’t think the statues should be moved or put in museums or crowded together in a kind of Confederate History Park.  I believe they need to be used as teaching tools.

Earlier this spring, my husband and I were in Annapolis where there is a prominent statue of Roger Taney on the grounds of the State House.  Taney was the Chief Justice of the United State Supreme Court and wrote the infamous decision in the Dred Scott case declaring slaves were not citizens and couldn’t sue in federal court.  Instead of removing the statue, there are signs that explain who Taney was, who Dred Scott was, and why the decision mattered.  I like this approach much more than taking down the statues and putting someplace where most people will not see them.  Annapolis also has a new memorial to Kunte Kinte (subject of Alex Haley’s Roots) on the City Docks where he landed as a slave.

The controversy over Monument Avenue comes at a time when there is a fight to prevent development in Shockoe Bottom where there were a number of slave jails and auctions.  I wrote about the preservation effort back in April.

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Slavery is an ugly part of our past and the men who believed in it, the Jefferson Davis’ and Roger Taneys need to be remembered.  We can’t forget who they were and what they did, any more than we should forget the slave auctions.  Richmond, and other parts of the south have a prime opportunity to educate.  Put up some markers, publish some informational materials.  Make sure that all those bicyclists and spectators at the big race in Richmond in the fall know who Jefferson Davis was and what he did, but leave the statue.  Leave the statue as a reminder of our dark past.  Leave the statue so we don’t forget.  And make sure they, and other visitors to the City know about Shockoe Bottom.

We can’t always be proud of our history, but we do need to remember it.

 

Remembering slavery and our history: saving Shockoe Bottom

Many of us don’t want to think about the past, especially the unpleasant and embarrassing parts of the past.  Not wanting to remember also applies to thinking about history.  I was reminded of this the other day when I came across Maurie D. McInnes’ essay in the New York Times “Disunion” series. 

We don’t know exactly when the last sale of enslaved persons occurred in Richmond, Va., known as “the great slave market of the South,” but it must have taken place before April 3, 1865. On the previous day, the order had come to evacuate in advance of the arrival of Union troops who liberated the city.

Amid the chaos, a slave trader named Robert Lumpkin still had a jail full of people he was hoping to sell. According to the journalist Charles Carleton Coffin, who was there to witness the fall of Richmond, after learning of the order to evacuate, Lumpkin “quickly handcuffed his human chattels,” about 50 men, women and children, and marched them four blocks south to the Danville-Richmond Railroad depot on the banks of the James River. He was hoping to whisk them away, and find buyers for them in another city.

When they arrived, however, “there was no room for them on the train which whirled the Confederate Government from the capital. Soldiers with fixed bayonets forced them back. It was the last slave gang seen in this Western world.” Lumpkin was angry, but there was nothing he could do. So, “with oaths and curses loud and deep,” Coffin reported, Lumpkin was forced “to unlock their handcuffs and allow them to go free.” These 50 people were worth about $50,000, according to Coffin, “but on that Sunday morning were of less value than the mule and the wagon which had drawn the slave-trader’s trunk to the station.”

Richmond was a major slave trading hub and Robert Lumpkin, one of the most prominent traders.  His jail and auction house were located in Shockoe Bottom, a low point along the James River.  Abigail Tucker wrote about the archeology of the site and Lumpkin in a 2009 Smithsonian Magazine article, “Digging up the past at a Richmond jail”.  She writes

Lumpkin, a “bully trader” known as a man with a flair for cruelty, fathered five children with a black woman named Mary, who was a former slave and who eventually acted as his wife and took his name. Mary had at least some contact with the unfortunates her husband kept in chains, on one occasion smuggling a hymnal into the prison for an escaped slave named Anthony Burns.

The slave trade was important to the economics of both North and South before the Civil War.  McInnes reminds us

The economic engine of the slave trade helped to fuel America’s prosperity. The profits from the trade in enslaved people flowed to many places. Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for the people they sold. Slave owners in the Lower South profited because the people they purchased were forced to labor in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad and shipowners who carried enslaved people.

Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled the exchange of money for people, or in insurance companies that provided insurance for the owners’ investments in enslaved people. So did foreign investors in Southern securities, some of which were issued on mortgaged slaves. The hotbed of American abolitionism — New England — was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of the enslaved people forced to pick cotton. The story of America’s domestic slave trade is not just a story about Richmond or New Orleans, but about America.

When I read McInnes’ column the current controversy about preserving the site of Lumpkin’s jail and auction house came immediately to mind.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation explains

Today, Shockoe Bottom is an urban archaeological site imminently threatened by “Revitalize RVA,” the controversial plan to construct a minor league baseball stadium, a Hyatt hotel, a Kroger grocery store, and residential and commercial office space at the site. The ill-considered stadium project, which is heavily promoted by the mayor of Richmond, members of the City Council, and influential real estate developers, threatens to destroy the remarkable archaeological remains which survive below the asphalt.

ShockoeBottom_Douglas_5.24.1866_crPreservationVirginia

The cruelty of slave traders like Robert Lumpkin, the wealth America enjoys, and the stories of the men and women held in the jail and sold at Shockoe Bottom deserve to be remembered.

I can’t remember another time I have used this blog to urge readers to take action, but I hope you will go the the National Trust link and sign on to save Shockoe Bottom.

 

Reproduction of Douglass note from Preservation Virginia.

Remembering Poe

Edgar Allan Poe died today, October 7, 1849 in Baltimore.  He was 40 years old.

My first introduction to Poe was “The Tell- Tale Heart”.  I think was in maybe the 5th or 6th grade when the teacher read it to us.  I found it frightening.  And then there were his other storied like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and his very bad poetry.  I had always thought he was from Richmond – or maybe Baltimore, but have since learned he actually lived all over and went to school both at the University of Virginia and West Point.  After I moved to Boston, I found out that he had been born there.  I went looking for the tiny plaque in an alley honoring him.  There was also a reference in one of Linda Fairstein’s mysteries to the Poe cabin in the Bronx which is how I first learned of his New York connection.  So lots and lots of places claim him and there are at least three Poe historical sites:  Richmond, Baltimore and the Bronx.

But he and Boston had a terrible relationship.  According to the New York Times

Poe sneered at the city’s luminaries. Riffing off the Frog Pond in the Boston Common, Poe called the local swells “Frogpondians,” their moralistic works sounding like the croaking of so many frogs. As for residents here, they “have no soul,” he said. “Bostonians are well bred — as very dull persons very generally are.”

The Boston Globe explains that his relationship with “…with the city’s literary elite was famously tense…”

But now Boston has joined Baltimore, Richmond and New York with a tribute to Poe.  The New York Times quotes Boston’s Mayor

“It’s time that Poe, whose hometown was Boston, be honored for his connection to the city,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The Times describes the statue

Now the city is burying the hatchet, and not in Poe’s back. On Sunday [October 5], civic and literary folk, including Robert Pinsky, a former national poet laureate who teaches at Boston University, are to unveil a bronze statue of Poe near the Boston Common and, they hope, usher in an era of reconciliation.

The statue captures the writer in a purposeful stride, his cape billowing out to his left. On his right is an outsize raven, uncoiling for flight. Poe is toting a suitcase so overpacked that various manuscripts — “The Tell-Tale Heart” among them — are spilling out. Also popping out is a heart.

He is heading toward the house, two blocks away, where his parents lived around the time he was born, though it has since been razed.

So the only person to write a poem that became the name of a football team, the Baltimore Ravens, has finally been honored in the city of his birth.  I wonder what Poe would make of it.

Photograph:  DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF