The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory
By W. Fitzhugh Brundage. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005; xiii + 418 pp., illustrations; cloth, $29.95.
The readers of this journal probably take for granted that historical memory has important implications in the present. However, W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s analysis of the contested nature of the southern past in the United States brings this truism home with tremendous power. The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory is highly recommended for all historic preservation and cultural resource managers concerned with the broader social implications of the work they do on a daily basis.
In this volume, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, the William B. Umstead Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, builds on the notion that representations of history have always been, and still are, used as instruments of social power. He deftly chronicles the evolution of historical memories in the American South from the Civil War to the present. What is immediately clear is that struggles over the meanings and uses of the southern past mirrored the racial divisions of southern society.
As a recent transplant to Charleston, South Carolina, this reviewer can attest to the almost palpable presence of the past and its importance to identity and culture in the South. While many writers—William Faulkner among them—have appreciated the importance of the southern past in the present, few have acknowledged its contested and malleable nature or approached it as an object of study in and of itself. This work joins Brundage’s earlier edited volume, Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity, and monographs such as Stephannie E. Yuhl’s A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston, in analyzing the uses of history and manipulation of memory in the South.1
In the introduction, Brundage defines the South’s past as a contested landscape of the mind where recent controversies over continuing use of the Confederate flag, the names of schools, commemorations of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and other issues are only the latest manifestations of an ongoing struggle over regional identity and heritage. The legacies of slavery and the plantation economy, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, for instance—all emotionally loaded and meaningful to different segments of the population—are bound up in defining the region’s past and what it means to be a Southerner. Brundage argues that these concerns, as they have played out over time and into the present, are ultimately about who has the power to determine what we collectively remember (and forget) of the past, and whether that remembrance will honor all Southerners or only some of them.
Alternating his focus between white and African American efforts to honor the past, Brundage works chronologically from the immediate post-Civil War period to the present. He describes the postbellum rise of white women’s groups as organizers and fundraisers who successfully filled public spaces throughout the South with monuments to the glory of the Confederacy. He then describes African American celebrations of emancipation (Emancipation Day and Juneteenth events), which, he notes, “mobilized black communities to recall and reflect on the possible meanings of their past,” and how such efforts lead to an alternative understanding of the past.
Brundage goes on to discuss the rise in the early 20th century of formal state institutions for promoting the study and preservation of the past (historical commissions, archives, museums, and so on) under the leadership of an emergent class of white male professionals who claimed authority and credibility by virtue of their academic credentials. Voluntary commemoration was no longer sufficient to advance the interests of white elites, and new state institutions provided the resources to insure that a particular version of the past was the one influencing public education and policy.
Brundage next examines the nature of African American remembrance in the context of Jim Crow segregated education. Teachers struggled to provide a history that was both meaningful and inclusive when almost all the resources available to them described a past in which the black experience was—at best—non-existent. A black history movement that celebrated African roots acted as a counterweight to some of the most insidious aspects of these white versions of the past.
Brundage then turns to Charleston’s preservation and emergence as a tourist destination. For white Charlestonians, the city’s heritage in decorative arts and architecture reaffirmed the civilized quality of the Old South. Offsetting the efforts to preserve and romanticize the city’s colonial past were the struggles to save African American neighborhoods and institutions from wholesale “urban renewal” in the 1960s. The author reminds us that, “blinded by both hubris and racism, whites ignored the wholeness of black community life in targeted areas and saw only degraded environments that impeded their ambitions for their cities.” The massive damage wrought is termed “a type of genocide of social life” by one observer.
In the final chapter, the author considers how African Americans have extended and consolidated political influence since the Civil Rights Movement to challenge white privilege and control of public life. The African American past has arisen as distinct from, yet intertwined with, the earlier white-controlled narratives.
In concluding, Brundage notes that the struggle over control of the southern past is not over. “[Claims] to material resources, political power, and moral high ground,” he writes, “are at the center of contemporary debates over the South’s history…there is ample reason to conclude that struggles over historical memory will remain conspicuous in southern public life.” However, his assessment, though prescriptive, is optimistic—
Yet if southerners speak freely, respect difference, deliberate collectively, and reject categorical claims that employ stark oppositions, they may avoid the divisions that have contaminated southern public life for most of the past century and a half. . . as long as white and black southerners do not succumb to nostalgia, do not idealize an exclusionary past, and do not presume the inherent virtue of their idealized historical identity, they may fashion a fully democratic civic culture, an accomplishment that generations of southerners have longed for.
While Brundage’s analysis is specific to the American South, he tackles fundamental issues of power, memory, and identity that are not—and never really were—regional concerns. Many of the same considerations affected the controversy over New York City’s African Burial Ground, where the local African American community wrestled control of ancestral remains and the story they tell from the U.S. General Services Administration, putting them in the hands of scholars the community trusted.2 If all history, as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal said of politics, is local, the historic preservation and cultural resources managers ignore these fundamental issues at their own peril.
John P. McCarthy
1. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Stephanie E. Yuhl, A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
2. See, for example, John P. McCarthy, “Who Owns These Bones?: Descendant Community Rights and Partnerships in the Excavation and Analysis of Historic Cemetery Sites in New York and Philadelphia,” Public Archaeology Review 4 no. 2 (Spring 1996) 3-12.