Martin Luther King and the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial

Martin Luther King and the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial

Sunset at Gettysburg

Today, on the threshold of the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we are fulfilling one part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”

It has taken 150 years, but both North and South are beginning to tell a more complete story of the War Between the States.

New Story Being Told
In December on my continuing travels with Journey through Hallowed Ground, I visited a good number of sites where plans are underway for special events to commemorate the sesquicentennial. Those with whom I spoke are determined to make the story one of inclusion–that the stories told this time will be about all people, not just the white people.

Montpelier Tells Stories of Several Eras
Of particular note are the happenings at Montpelier. Currently the site has underway a three-year archaeological excavation in the South Yard to uncover the homes of three groups of slaves: the house slaves, the stable and garden slaves and the houses of the field slaves. This project is partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and given the prestigious “We the People” designation.

The Montpelier Foundation has undertaken two other important projects nearby: They have fully restored the small home of freedman George Gilmore and his wife, Polly. Gilmore had been a slave at Montpelier until his emancipation. In 1870 the Gilmores built a cabin on the land they leased and farmed; by 1901 they could finally afford to purchase the 16 acres of land. Members of the family lived on the farm until the early 1930s, and the Montpelier Foundation has been aided by family descendants in interpreting the Gilmore story.

Jim Crow Era Represented
In 1901 William duPont acquired Montpelier, and by 1910, duPont had determined he wanted a more convenient commute between Washington where he spent the week and Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia, where he came for the weekends. In 1910 he had built a train depot convenient to Montpelier that could be used by all citizens, but it followed southern custom with two separate waiting areas for “white” and “colored” travelers. Until the late 1950s, these signs remained to identify the two separate waiting rooms; the spaces also differed in light and spaciousness.

Whether or not to depict the separate waiting rooms in the restoration was debated locally, but the Montpelier Foundation worked closely with the Orange County African-American Historical Society, and together the decision was made that the story had to be told accurately.

“They understood that we wanted to do it right, that we wanted the depot to be authentic,” says Tom Chapman, research coordinator for the foundation. “Segregation is a regretful chapter in our nation’s history, but children can learn from seeing how it was for the people before them.” The restored station was unveiled in February of 2010.

Monticello Rounds Out Their Story

This past year, Monticello added an interactive Crossroads exhibit that depicts the household activity that took place to keep Monticello running. The exhibit is located in the cellar level of Monticello. In this area, enslaved domestic workers would have received deliveries from local wagon drivers, taken care of the laundry, made clothing, overseen the wine collection, and prepared meals for the family.

A pathway from the central “crossroads” section leads to a series of small rooms referred to as the “dependencies.” A good number of these rooms have been restored, including the kitchen as well as the slave quarters used by the seamstress Betty Brown. Also in the plans at Monticello is a more complete interpretation of Mulberry Row, the section of the property near the gardens where Jefferson’s construction projects and household and manufacturing initiatives took place. Check out Monticello’s new website, too. They have an excellent section on slavery.

Looking Forward
But how well will we tell this story to future generations? The answer to this question determines whether the story becomes “our” collective story or a story about “us” and “them.”

Journey through Hallowed Ground has stepped forward to create a program to respond to this dilemma. “Of the Student, By the Student, For the Student” was created by JTHG and the program pairs schools with nearby historic sites in such a way that the students look at the stories and find ways to make them their own.

The pilot program was created at Harpers Ferry Middle School in conjunction with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Journey then took the program to Monticello where they involved the Sutherland Middle School. A program involving Manassas National Battlefield Park and Stonewall Jackson Middle School is currently underway.

The ultimate product of “Of the Student By the Student For the Student” is a film to share publicly with classmates and the students’ families. The children work in teams and do research, create scripts, and eventually film the story they most want to tell about the area. For example, at Harpers Ferry one group of students felt the most relevant story concerned John Brown’s children. When their father opted to lead a rebellion, what pressure did they feel to join him, and how did they respond to that pressure?

“The beauty of the program is that children from all backgrounds, many of whom start the program feeling, ‘that’s not MY history,’ soon take ownership of the American story they tell, and they love sharing the story with their parents through special screenings of the films,” describes Cate Magennis Wyatt, founder and president of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership. “This program offers a way to not only tell the American story but also to unify people from very diverse backgrounds.”

Several of the videos are posted on the JTHG website (and facebook and their YouTube channel). While the films are all admirable and quite enjoyable, I recommend to you “Jefferson’s Crib,” modeled after the show, “MTV Cribs.” I also urge you to watch through to the end of “The Choice that Jack Made.” The students’ initial inspiration was a Mother Goose rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built,” but they conclude the film with one of Jefferson’s slaves performing a splendid display of breakdancing on the front porch at Monticello, and it’s truly not to be missed. I can’t wait to see the stories that emerge from Manassas.
Despite these signs of encouraging change, we would be well-served to remember another quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes though continuous struggle.”

But at least we are on the way.

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