Historical amnesia about slavery and race takes very different forms in the northern and southern United States.

This week, that reality is demonstrated by a critical look at public history in Charleston, South Carolina.

Public history in the North and South

In the North, the dominant public understanding of slavery tends to focus on large-scale plantation slavery in the antebellum South. The North is generally seen as mostly free of slavery and its influences, a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment which would result in Union forces emancipating southern slaves.

Rarely does public history in the North confront the dependence of the region on slavery and the slave trade in colonial times, the vital role of slavery in the industrialization of the northern U.S., or the participation of the North in the Jim Crow century following the Civil War. In this regard, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, is a notable exception.

In the South, historical amnesia about slavery and race also involves minimizing the region’s involvement in slavery. For southerners, there is no escaping the historical reality of slavery, and so minimizing slavery tends to mean downplaying the horrors of chattel slavery in favor of a cheerful portrait of slaves as household servants and field hands who were treated as members of the family.

Historical amnesia in the South, however, also extends beyond slavery to its aftermath. All too often, public history in the South simply skips over the subjects of Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, and the variety of discriminatory practices before the 1960s which amounted to “slavery by another name.”

The Charleston Museum

This week, the Charleston City Paper has a candid feature story by Dan Conover on the painfully slow process by which the famed Charleston Museum has begun to acknowledge these often-suppressed aspects of southern history.

The Charleston Museum, nicknamed “Charleston’s Attic,” is the oldest museum in the country and is dedicated to the history of Charleston, S.C. and the South Carolina Lowcountry. That history, of course, includes being by far the primary destination for slaving voyages in the country, as well as being in many ways the epicenter of the horrors of American slavery.

The problem with the public history presented at the Charleston Museum, however, goes well beyond its traditional effort to minimize the importance and the evils of southern slavery. According to Conover,

the narrative history of Charleston, as viewed solely through the lens of the permanent exhibit at the Charleston Museum, ends abruptly with the fall of the Confederacy, followed by a few random artifacts from the late 1900s.

While it may be understandable that Charleston’s leading museum does not mention, for instance, the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969, it is positively stunning that its history simply ends in 1865. This approach has the effect of white-washing events critical to the nation’s past and to its present. It also has such unfortunate side effects as rendering black residents of the region almost invisible, except for depictions of life under plantation slavery.

Thus it was notable that the museum created a temporary exhibit, to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, entitled “From Slaves to Sharecroppers: African Americans in the Lowcountry after the Civil War.” Conover notes that this exhibit at least expands the museum’s coverage of black history by “a smidgeon.” It also temporarily offers visitors a glimpse of the region as a whole following the Civil War, including an artifact from what the article describes as “the state’s white terrorist paramilitary organizations between 1876-78.”

One Response to “Historical amnesia in the American South”

  1. bobbo says:

    Some years ago I enjoyed visiting some of the beautiful antebellum plantation living museums around Charleston. Magnolia Plantation was especially nice with local gals dressed up in the finest multi-layered petticoat fashions of the day.

    Always gave me a thrill the response I got to asking "Where are the slave quarters?"

    Also reminds me of a discussion in the 70's I had with my girlfriends father about the low academic performance of South Carolina secondary schools. His response was SC scored higher before they were required to educate the blacks. He looked just like the Magnolia Tour Guides when I asked him if the blacks didn't deserve an education as well.

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