The Interpretive Value of Different Perspectives

From John Hennessy. This is a reposting of the most popular post ever on Fredericksburg Remembered–it originally appeared on July 9, 2010 and received more than 2,000 reads in a matter of days. There’s no figuring what catches on……

Beaumont, Helen Bernard's occasional residence on the site of what is today the Burlington Coat Factory on Route 3 near I-95.

Let me share with you two narratives reflecting on the same moment in history: the arrival of the Union army opposite Fredericksburg on April 18, 1862.  The first is an account written by Helen Bernard, a white resident who lived just outside town (from Rebecca Campbell Light’s excellent War at Our Doors.).

Beaumont, Spotsylvania County.  Good Friday, 1862. I write while the smoke of the burning bridges, depot, & boats, is resting like a heavy cloud all around the horizons towards Fredcksbg. The enemy are in possession of Falmouth, our force on this side too weak to resist them…. We are not at all frightened but stunned & bewildered waiting for the end. Will they shell Fbg., will our homes on the river be all destroyed? …. It is heartsickening to think of having our beautiful valley that we have so loved and admired all overrun & desolated by our bitter enemies, whose sole object is to subjugate & plunder the South…..

Every word in that account is vivid and valid.  It is a powerful description of what the arrival of the Union army meant to most white residents in Fredericksburg.  It also reflects what has over the decades been our traditional understanding of the event hereabouts.

But here’s another description of precisely the same moment in time, written by another Fredericksburger, the slave John Washington.

April 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quiet…until every body Was Startled by Several reports of [Yankee] cannon…. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. [But] every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees, for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen.   I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt…like I Was certain of My freedom now.

Same event, powerfully described, but totally different in meaning to each writer.

I offer these up not as matters of history, but as matters of interpretation–the value and richness of differing perspectives.

Next:  Are we historians or memorialists?

At Mysteries and Conundrums: Precursor to Brooklyn–The Mystery of Washington Roebling’s Wire Bridge in Fredericksburg.

John Washington and the Emergence of a Voice for Fredericksburg’s Slaves, Part 1

From John Hennessy (for Part 2 of this click here):

Slaves in their cabin--attributed to Spotsylvania County

Silence was an essential  part of a slave’s life.  In the presence of a master or a white man or woman, silence was often a slave’s required condition.   Laws that denied slaves learning did so to render them silent.  The requirement that a white man be present at all gatherings of slaves or free blacks was intended to ensure a functional quietude–that whatever slaves said or decided would not threaten the society built upon and around them.

The silence imposed upon slaves extends onto the pages that have become history. The slave-owning world refused to recognize or record slaves’ births, marriages, deaths…or even their names.  With diligence, the genealogists of white families can penetrate their ancestry for hundreds of years.  For descendants of slaves, the search for roots most often encounters a wall of historical silence, beyond which little or nothing can be found except by good fortune.

While some view the void in the historical record as insurmountable, I would argue that the historical silence is an important point of departure for any public discussion about slaves and slavery in the Fredericksburg region, for it, by itself, hints at much that is important to understand: that imposed silence–part of a concerted effort to dehumanize–was an integral part of a society constructed to control and capitalize on slaves and their labor.

Still, there is no arguing that the rarity of lyrical narratives and essential records makes interpreting slaves and slavery to the public more difficult.  But a far greater barrier has been our collective unwillingness to make the attempt.  For more than a century after emancipation, the story of slavery was most often interpreted from the perspective of the owners (who, of course, left a rich documentary record) rather than the owned; or it was avoided altogether.

This is changing; a willingness to bring the story of slavery before the public has emerged.  Of course, we as a community still have a long way to go–there is a rich history out there still unspoken.  But the journey has begun:  an effort to characterize slavery accurately, to view slavery from the perspective of those enslaved, and to see slaves and slavery as a relentless struggle for freedom–for absolute freedom, certainly, but also for freedom within the bonds of slavery.

The emerging willingness to tackle the issue of slavery in a public way has, in Fredericksburg, coincided with what I think and hope is a decisive event for public historians working in the field:  the emergence of the memoir of John Washington, a Fredericksburg slave.

Of the perhaps nine million (or more) slaves who toiled in America during its history, David Blight estimates that only about 200 left behind a memoir or narrative that has been published.  Given the odds, Fredericksburg is truly fortunate to have one of the very best.  In “Memorys of the Past,” Washington recounts his 24 years as a slave–all but a few of them in a five-block area in downtown Fredericksburg.  And, most vividly, he recounts his constant struggle for both more freedom and, ultimately, absolute freedom.

Washington’s memoir was found at the Library of Congress in 1984 (23 years before it was published) and transcribed by local historians Barbara Willis, Ruth Coder Fitzgerald, and the late Dave Lilley of the NPS.  It’s likely that NPS historian Noel Harrison put it to use first, in his books on Fredericksburg area sites.  In the 1990s, we started incorporating parts of it into our programs, and in the last five years we have built more than a few programs around it almost entirely.  Those programs have been among the most powerful we have ever done.

But more than that, the emergence of Washington’s memoir has spurred a deeper look into the documentary record, and indeed much has emerged to complement Washington’s words: slave narratives recorded by the WPA, court cases involving slaves, important records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, and even simple work in the census that can tell us much.  Over the next week or so, we’ll take a look at Washington’s memoir and how the voice of slavery is starting to emerge in the Fredericksburg community–albeit perhaps not loudly enough (we’ll talk about that too)–and take a look at how visitors have responded and what the future likely holds.