Tuesday, August 22, 2017

My Southern Heritage: A Perspective of a Democratic Educator from the South

My Southern Heritage
A Perspective of a Democratic Educator from the South

by Charles L. Lowery

My Southern heritage is not embedded in the so-called heroes of the Confederacy—my understanding of Southern history is not limited to the 4 years that many Southerners dissolved their political union with the United States, or the so called "right to property of slaves" that stained the Southern economy for years after most Northern state constitutions had outlawed it (Vermont was the first entering the Union in 1791 with a state constitution from 1777 that banned slavery; Pennsylvania was the last in 1850, over a decade before the Civil War).

No, instead, my Southern heritage is marked by work ethic, family values, the brotherhood of mankind, hospitality to my neighbor and visitors, and a love both for nature and for the nation. For me, the South is and always has been great only because it is a vital part of the United States of America with dedicated, hard working people of all creeds, classes, and colors who are first and foremost "Americans." If it makes me a "snowflake" simply because I take offense from racist symbols and I speak out against the atrocity of slavery, secession from the union, and a war that destroyed families and brothers, then so be it.

From my perspective being Southern and being a Texan I don't have to align with supremacists, or with any stance that attempts to justify slavery as a means to preserve the elevated socioeconomic statuses of Southern aristocrats. I don't have to associate myself with rebellious revolution or seditious secession to voice pride in my heritage.

But since there has been so much focus on Confederate battle flags and statues of Confederate Generals (who, by the way, were not considered U.S. veterans until 1958*) let us talk about this for a moment. All of the adoration for Robert E. Lee and the outspoken protests to the removal of his statue and/or name for government facilities made me start reflecting on some things. With all the focus on Lee people might think he’s the only “hero” my folks in the South have to venerate. Therefore, I wanted to talk about a heritage in the South that many people overlook or ignore--the Unionist and Abolitionist heritage of the South.

One does not have to look too hard to find major historical figures from the South that were Unionists, that neither supported secession and remained loyal to the U.S. Constitution and flag during the Civil War.

Some notable are:

  • Robert Jefferson Breckinridge (b. Kentucky) - Politician and Pastor
  • Emerson Etheridge (b. North Carolina) – Tennessee Senator and Representative
  • Andrew Jackson Hamilton (b. Alabama) – Texas Attorney General, Texas Representative, & 11th Governor of Texas 
  • Joshua Hill (b. South Carolina) – Georgia Senator
  • William Holden (North Carolina) – 38th and 40th Governor of North Carolina (Does this South Carolinian hero abolitionist have a monument? Well... it’s about the size of any other rectangular tombstone in the cemetery where he’s buried. At the very bottom of the faded grave marker are the words “A STAUNCH SOUTHERN FRIEND OF THE UNION”…).
  • Joseph Holt (Kentucky) – 18th U.S. Postmaster General
  • Newton Knight (Mississippi) – Farmer and Confederate soldier who deserted the Confederate troops to stage resistance against them
  • B(artholomew) F. Moore (North Carolina) - Attorney
  • Montgomery C. Meigs (Georgia) – Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during and after the Civil War (Meigs died in 1892, and was buried in Section One of Arlington Cemetery, less than one hundred feet from the rose garden that was planted by Robert E. Lee's wife).
  • George Henry Thomas (Virginia) – Union General, who like Lee was born in Virginia and also fought in the Mexican-American War (A petition has been made to add his name to J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax Co., Virginia. If the petition were to be honored the school would be renamed Stuart-Thomas High School. Major General George H. Thomas does have a monument…not in Virginia but close. His memorial is in DC—it’s the Thomas Circle Monument). 
  • James Madison Wells (Louisiana) – 20th Governor of Louisiana
  • Sam Houston (Virginia) – 7th Governor of Texas, Texas Senator, 1st & 3rd President of Texas, and 6th Governor of Tennessee. (Sam Houston does have monuments—in Texas, in Tennessee, and in Virginia. What many people, Southerners included, do not know about Houston is that on March 16, 1861, he was evicted from his office as governor for refusing to take the oath of loyalty to the Confederacy).
  • Andrew Johnson (North Carolina) – 17th President of the United States; Tennessee Representative & Senator; 15th Governor of Tennessee (other than Sam Houston and George H. Thomas, Andrew Johnson represents the few Southern Unionists that have a major monument or memorial honoring him in the South).
But some of these names that I’ve listed did not really have what I would call “hero” status. Some of these Unionists were still notable slaveholders, for example Sam Houston and Andrew Johnson. So, this made me think instead about the strong Abolitionist heritage of the South. Some may be surprised to find out many Southerners, especially those who were Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quaker ministers, were abolitionists. 

To name a few:

  • Moncure Conway (Virginia) - Minister
  • John Rankin (Tennessee) – Educator & Reverend, who would later relocate to Ohio to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad
  • Levi Coffin (North Carolina) – Relocated to serve on the Underground Railroad in Ohio and Indiana
  • James G. Birney (Kentucky) - Attorney
  • James Thome (Kentucky) – Pastor and professor
  • Charles Osborn (North Carolina) – Founded a Quaker-based Abolitionist movement in Tennessee in 1815, moved to Ohio a year later to publish an antislavery paper called "The Philanthropist."
  • Angelina & Sarah Grimke (South Carolina) – You’ve heard of the Brothers Grim, well meet the Sisters Grimke, these women were instrumental not only in abolitionism in the South but also women’s rights and women’s suffrage.
  • Hinton R. Helper (North Carolina) – Author, in 1857, he wrote and self-published a book called The Impending Crisis of the South. While Helper’s tone was not one of altruism for the freedom of slaves in and of itself, an example of his writing shows his clear stance:  "Freesoilers and abolitionists are the only true friends of the South; slaveholders and slave-breeders are downright enemies of their own section. Anti-slavery men are working for the Union and for the good of the whole world; proslavery men are working for the disunion of the States, and for the good of nothing except themselves." 
  • William Williamson (Virginia) - Reverend
  • John G. Fee (Kentucky) – Educator & Minister, founder of Berea College in Kentucky
  • John Van Zandt (Kentucky) – A former slaveholder who freed the slaves initially held in his captivity and who then moved to Ohio where he aided and harbored escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. He is the basis of the character Van Trompe in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

The Lost Cause movement is not my heritage. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, as it is often called, serves to dismiss or simply ignore the embarrassing aspects of what so many of that era tried to justify--slavery, supremacy, sedition. For Southerners, the Civil War was itself a lost cause. Slavery was a lost cause. Supremacy was and is a lost cause. In other words, the Robert E. Lees, the Albert Sidney Johnstons, and the Stonewall Jacksons were not symbols of the independence of southern states--they have been for years symbols of slavery, supremacy, and a nation divided by secession. I argue that a Southerner's heritage shouldn’t be about losing or rebellion, but instead it should be about liberty and rebuilding. 

I know a lot of Southerners will read that last paragraph and say, “No! It wasn't about slavery. It was about States’ Rights” (i.e. the Lost Cause intellect). Well, I ask them this: “States’ Rights for what?” Did the States themselves not declare that it was due to the States’ Rights to Property of Slaves? I find it ironic that so many people turned off by being politically correct are the first to employ the euphemism "States' Rights" when referring to slavery. But don’t take my word for it, read the Declarations of Causes of Secession from the Confederate States themselves and those documents will make it very clear their motives. Ninety-four (94) times some form of the word “slave” is used in just the secession statements of South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas alone. That’s a history not easily forgotten albeit somehow too easy to ignore, when we as educators in the South do not teach this in our history classes. And I don’t see many monuments commemorating that factoid. Regardless this i not a part of history that I want defining "my heritage."

Instead I ground my heritage in the estimated 100,000 Southerners enlisted and served in the Civil War on the side of the Union. As some historians have noted, as many as 42,000 Union soldiers were from East Tennessee, 22,000 from Virginia (which then included West Virginia), and around 25,000 from North Carolina. Even 2000 young men left Texas to go serve the Union in the struggle to preserve the nation. One of the most renowned units of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army was the First Alabama Cavalry. These Alabama Southerners fighting for the United States were instrumental in Sherman's 1864-65 campaigns through Georgia and the Carolinas.

Southerners should take pride in this heritage of loyalty to their country—as did entire geographical regions of the South. For example:

  • Jones County, Mississippi (historically a haven for soldiers that had grown disillusioned with the Confederacy and that had come to recognize the war as a "lost cause").
  • Winston County, Alabama (their delegate to Alabama’s secession convention was jailed for speaking out against secession)
  • Scott County, Tennessee (95% of Scott County residents voted against secession)
  • The Texas Hill Country (it is estimated that approximately a third of Texans continued to support the Union after secession and many of that population was among the residents of the Texas Hill Country. Many Texans of German descent viewed slavery as immoral and refused to swear loyalty to the Confederacy)
  • Southern Appalachia (throughout West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, counties in the Mountain South were deeply split over secession and slavery)
  • Kentucky and West Virginia (Let's not forget that neither of these Southern states ever seceded from the Union, even though the Confederacy often included them as though they had) 

Again, my Southern heritage is about hospitality to neighbors and visitors; it’s about Friendship (you know, the motto of Texas); it’s about fellowship and work ethic. It’s Friday night football and Sunday dinner. It’s not putting men on pedestals but humbly realizing the fact that “there but for the grace of God go I.”  It's about admitting when you were wrong and taking responsibility for your mistakes--no matter how severe. These things do not depend on the names or statues of people like Robert E. Lee or Sam Houston. Instead, it honors the names and memorials of the Grimkes and the Thomes, the John Van Zandts and the John Rankins, the Montgomery Meigs and the Hinton Helpers.

It also honors the names of many other individuals that helped to make the South a prosperous place and a vital region of the U.S. But I wonder how many people in the South that claim to be concerned about Southern history know these people or what they contributed to history and our collective heritage.  Do they know who Denmark Vesey was? Or what was significant about Nat Turner? How many have actually sat down and read the biography of Harriet Tubman or read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave? How many Virginians know who William Ash was? Do my fellow Texans so concerned about their own history even know who Barbara Jordan was? Do any of them at all know who Solomon Brown was? These individuals are "Southern" heroes that are too often overlooked and too often absent from the history books.

These great Southerners are the people who overcome bias and gave their lives for justice and in doing so have given me reasons to be proud of my Southern heritage. Taking down statues of stone and changing names of sites that were named in opposition to the early stages of the civil rights movement may erase the heritage of some but will in no way even smudge mine.

* * *
Recently the University of Texas at Austin determined to remove statues of Civil War "heroes" that were, in the words of University President George L. Fenves, "erected during the period of Jim Crow and segregation [that] represent the subjugation of African Americans." A young man claiming to be a student at the University of Houston was there to protest was reported to have commented, "I hate the erasure of history and my people's history...people of European descent who built this country." It was this statement made by this unfortunately misdirected young man that prompted me to write this blog.