Posted by: Mysteries&Conundrums | March 17, 2011

Something awry: a telling question

From John Hennessy:

A few weeks ago my colleague Steward Henderson and I gave a tour, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg.” Though we gave the tour first over the summer as part of History at Sunset, this particular program was for 70 people from three historically black churches in town. It was almost entirely an African-American audience. The tour went well–I think most of the sites and material was new to much of the audience. The energy level was high all around. In the midst of it, a gentleman pulled me aside and said, “Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.

The comments speak loudly to how at least a small corner of Fredericksburg’s African-American community (which probably reflects a much broader view) perceives the role of the NPS in the interpretation of the Civil War. We can hardly fault the perception–for many decades, such a tour would simply never have been done. But, the comments do suggest that while we have done much to broaden our understanding and interpretation of the Civil War and its implications for all Americans, some people still see the NPS as, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, hostile to an interpretation of the war that goes beyond traditional bounds. I am not discouraged by this, but this little whack upside the head is a reminder that we have much work yet to do.

As an interesting aside, earlier this week I did a talk focused on the evolution of interpretation at NPS Civil War sites. While preparing, I came across this quote, from Bill Vallante, “Not every ranger or guide exhibits hostility to all things Confederate. But, the National Park Service, as a governmental agency, IS avowedly hostile, and plans to present the story of the War Between the States as a simple conflict between good and evil….” (You can find Mr. Vallante’s essay here.)

It is an interesting time to be working in the field of public history as it relates to the Civil War, is it not?


  1. […] weeks ago in Fredericksburg Remembered John Hennessy offered a thoughtful post on the experience of leading a tour of slavery-related sites in Fredericksburg to a group of […]

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