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America at the Centennial
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Page 1234

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The Problem of Race

[Picture of discussion group]

Miller: If you open the door, the trap door to the unconscious, the trap door down into the past, what would fly out in 1876? What are these unresolved problems that are going to just haunt the conscience of the nation?

[Picture of an African American family]

Martin: Well, I think one is very clear, the problem of race. I mean, 1876, we're at the end of Reconstruction. Technically, slaves have been freed, but what you begin to see with the decline of any kind of commitment to Reconstruction and the demise of Reconstruction is a turning back of any kind of modest clock in terms of any kind of progress. I think when you talk about Civil War, emancipation is a transformation. It is a revolution. Freedom for the ex-slaves is an important accomplishment. But what you discover is that Reconstruction does not provide the economic wherewithal, the political wherewithal, to ensure the freedom of the ex-slaves. And so, in 1876, it's not surprising to me that the struggles and the "progress" of African Americans or the ex-slaves in particular, is pushed off into the side because it's not seen as simple.

Miller: What's happening here?

Masur: Well, I think there is this tendency towards historical amnesia. And let bygones be bygones. Forget about the past. "Why grope among the dry bones of the past?" is a famous line from an Emerson essay. And there's that sense that America is about the future. And that one leaves one's past behind as you succeed, you need not revisit those things. Of course, there is a price that's paid for that kind of amnesia, for that kind of erasure.

[Picture of Professor Brinkley]

Brinkley: But the abolition of slavery did take place and you do have a new sense of unionism in 1876. So when you're at that Centennial, you can say, hey, we made it for 100 years. And we're looking to the future. Believe me, there's a lot of patriotic gore in 1876 celebrating that 100th anniversary -- and I think even travesties like the Civil War, which turn out to be good for the country in the sense of unifying the nation, getting away with the slavery issue finally, and the new technologies that came out of the Civil War, whether it's technologies with machine gunnery for war, or medicine in war, or submarines, or photography, or more improved communication cables with the telegraph. Pretty soon, instead of just telegraphing around the country, we'll be telegraphing to Europe. [Picture of railroad construction]The building of the trains in the middle of the Civil War, while North is fighting South, Abraham Lincoln is signing the bill for the Transcontinental Railroad connecting the East with the West. And so much of the next decades after the Civil War building and connecting the country together through the railroads. So, it's a kind of time I think of new energy and optimism for a lot of Americans. Yet at the same time, it's still a period, as Waldo was saying, where we are free from slavery. Thank Goodness. But we still don't have equal rights. But everybody still seems to think that there is a chance of a better life somehow.

[Picture of Professor Scharff]

Scharff: Well, I think it's hard to talk about everybody at that point because the news arrives at the 1876 Centennial Exposition that the Custer debacle has just occurred at the Little Big Horn, that the allied troops of various Plains Indian peoples have massacred and slaughtered all of the Seventh Calvary. And this is a devastating military loss for the United States, and it's a great victory for the people on the Plains. They don't want to be a part of the United States. They don't want to be a part of this incorporated republic that builds an iron railroad across their land, that splits up the buffalo herd. And this is a moment for them when they suddenly think, they think maybe we can fight it back. There is still a war going on. It's not a war for the South. It's not a war to bring the South back to the Union. But it's a war in the West to incorporate those Western territories into the United States and even as late as 1876, that's not a done deal. That's not a guarantee.

Miller: But here, after the Civil War, you've got this giant engine that you describe, this industrial engine. A country that had already mobilized for war, knew had to fight a vast war, a continental scale war. Boom. They go out West. And it's all over. It's all over by the 1890s.

Martin: I think there's a different way to think about this. Because, I think, there is a longer-term historical problem here and that is that the peoples that Virginia is referring to have been there for a while. And they have seen struggle over a long term. And it strikes me that the short term victory of "Manifest Destiny" is just sort of one part of a longer stream of struggle that a lot of these people have seen. They did not disappear. They did not vanish. They are still there. They have chains. They have been altered.

Miller: The Indians were caught in a juggernaut.

Martin: But why does victory come to be the standard of judgment? Why does victory come to be the way?

Miller: It's not the standard of judgment.

Martin: But it's strikes me.

Miller: It's what happened.

Martin: But see victory is sort of, history is written by the victors. I mean, history is written by "the people with history." The people without history, the native peoples, don't write the kind of history that we come from.

Masur: But Waldo, you keep saying "the native peoples" as if they are one group of people that are native. But if we tell the story as a story of conflict, as a story of contested values, as a story where there are native tribes who are being, perhaps, invaded. There are workers on the railroad who are being exploited. There are battles among the capitalists themselves. You know, this isn't just the story of capital against somebody else. Somebody wins and somebody loses.

Maier: And the triumphalism that Waldo is objecting to obviously comes out of the position of those who are triumphing, in effect. It's the sense that they are bringing civilization and progress.

Miller: But what's the agenda of the country here? What's the agenda of the country?

[Picture of the Centennial]

Masur: It's an interesting question. Because, what has the nation just gone through is recently completed this Civil War that threatened to tear this nation apart. And you would assume that there would be lots of references to what the United States had been through from its founding. But the core of the Centennial is really an international exposition. Showing off industry, technology, and consumerism. And in all kinds of ways, if you were to go through that exhibition and look at what was displayed, the kind of goods, the kinds of products. It really is a celebration of technology and it harkens towards a future world separated from a past world.

[Picture of Professor Maier]

Maier: Well, Don, go back to this question of what's going on in 1876. I wonder if, to some extent, what we aren't all saying is that the issues have changed in some fundamental way. And I'd like to take exception with the notion that we have a historical amnesia -- 1876, I wonder if so many of those basic issues that had shaped politics and disputes before the war hadn't been settled. I mean, certainly, there was the whole question of union. This was there from the time of the Constitutional Convention. Could the Union hold together? I think Appomatix Courthouse settled that. You can't just leave the Union. There is no right to leave the Union. The cost would be tremendous. Now Waldo, I want to ask you something. It seems to me what is so interesting about the pre-Civil War period is that African Americans were active players. I mean, that they were in some ways the most ardent advocates of true universal rights and equality. And they were terribly important in part because they had allies. Abolitionists, for example. What's happened to them? Why are they less forceful? I can't think that the African American community has abandoned its championing of genuine equality and equal rights. Why are they less effective after the Civil War?

[Picture of Professor Martin]

Martin: This is a very compelling question. At least as I think about it, it's not that the voices are not there. The problem is that the issues themselves, as you suggest, have become more complicated. For example, you get the 13th Amendment which abolishes slavery. You get the 14th Amendment which clarifies the fact that African Americans are now citizens. And you get ultimately a 15th Amendment around issues of the vote, giving black men the vote. But these are contested issues and all along the way, the sort of defining citizenship, deciding who gets the vote and who doesn't get the vote. Some of the former allies are less enthusiastic about some of the ways in which those issues work themselves out, especially the vote. [Picture of African American men voting]For example, one of the places where you can see this problem is in the debate over the 15th Amendment, the effort to give black men the vote. There is a debate. There is a strong acrimonious, difficult debate. And ultimately there is a split between those who support the vote for black men, which excludes women, including black women. And there are those, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who split ways with someone like Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass supports the amendment which gives black men the vote, whereas, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton oppose it. And then they want to argue that, you know, women, especially white women, deserve the vote. So, ultimately...

Miller: Why did Douglass oppose that?

Martin: He didn't oppose that. It was just the notion that in any kind of political development there are going to be winners, there are going to be losers. You have to compromise. And his argument was, give black men the vote. Once we have the vote, we will continue the fight and join the fight to give women the vote. That's the next stage of the struggle. Now a lot of women and a lot of supporters of the other point of view felt that this was too big a compromise. That you do not, that was where you drew the line in the sand, so to speak. And you fought it out on principle. And that kind of idealism, that kind of belief, Douglass felt, had to be compromised at this point in time. But I do think that there is a sort of a declining idealism around issues of race.

Miller: I guess its a sense of inertia that sets in or just a feeling that how long can this thing continue.

Scharff: But I think that there...

Martin: The struggle for black rights. I mean how long can it go on?

Scharff: But some of it is about...

Miller: We're getting tired of this.

Scharff: Well, some of it's fatigue but some of it's a question of how far is this movement for a democracy going to go? And there is so much concern that that's just going too far. That is just too much. So that African American rights and white women's rights and black men's rights during this period will come to seem like, boy, that's just asking too much. One or the other. But not both.

Miller: Question for you on this issue that we keep talking about: We just fought a Civil War. Almost 500,000 Americans are dead. You know, a million Southerners killed, wounded, or missing in action. The whole South has been devastated by the Civil War. Literally reconstruction and physical reconstruction as well. A new generation is on the scene. Their fathers had fought the Civil War. A younger generation, rising business people like Carnegie, Morgan, who made money out of the war. Isn't it that the country wants to move on to something else? That it's tired, it's exhausted from the war. And from Reconstruction.

Martin: I think this is one good explanation. I think the war idealism or the war concern, generated about freedom for black people, does decline.

[Picture of Professor Masur]

Masur: In regard to this retreat from Reconstruction, it would be almost impossible for us to exaggerate the virulence of the racism that existed in the 19th Century. And for many of these activists and for many of these participants, liberty was one thing. Equality was something else.

Miller: Exactly.

Maier: And having gotten liberty, a lot of people felt, you know that that next step was too much of a... You know, Lincoln himself, while he's an opponent of slavery, favors colonization. There are all kinds of issues that were going around in this period in regard to this.



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