A Student of History

November 23, 2007

The NPS and Slavery

Filed under: Early America,Historic Places — John Maass @ 1:04 pm

At the AHA’s website is an interesting article (Nov. 2007) on how the National Park Service approaches its role in educating the public in the field fo history, particularly its interpretation of the American Civil War.  The piece traces how the NPS dealt with the matter of slavery and the war, and how this approach has changed over time.

The writer concludes:

Conversations about slavery in today’s society are contentious precisely because understanding the role slavery played in American history is important to understanding today’s society. If talking about slavery is difficult, we need to talk about it more, not less. Attending to the public’s knowledge of slavery is a shared responsibility. Public historical agencies and scholars alike have parts to play in sharing with the public their excitement about the past and the seductive, and never-ending, pursuit of historical truth. Federal historians and academic scholars should aggressively seek opportunities to speak to public audiences. Addressing various publics is not only exciting, it makes us better historians. Hostile audiences force us to hone our speaking skills and choose our words even more carefully. Public history is not just for public historians. Academic historians, as Joyce Appleby and James McPherson have noted, also can feel the rush of being active in the public sphere.



  1. This is exactly the right thing to say. But I wonder what will really happen in the field, where summer employee interpreters with 3 semesters of undergraduate history meet League of the South dads with their talking points cribbed from the web? The movement to distort the Civil War seems to be growing stronger, with their vanity press publications and legions of imaginary black confederates. The long-standing pro-Confederate bias of NPS Civil War sites will not be corrected without a fight.

    Comment by Larry Cebula — November 23, 2007 @ 4:13 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    In some ways, the NPS has bitten off quite a bit here, if they intend to interp the HUGE story of why the Civil War happened at all of their Civil War related parks, or even most of them. It needs to be told, however, or else the battles will seem to have happened for no reason, in a vacuum. On the other hand, does every Revolutionary War battlefield tell each and every visitor about the Sugar Act, in order to interp the action on the field? No, perhaps because there is not as much need to do so given the lack of controversy @ the causes. Rev War parks don’t have to put up with the equivalent of “it was states’ rights” bullshit from semi-knowledgable tourists, although they do have to dispell many popular myths.

    Comment by John Maass — November 23, 2007 @ 4:42 pm | Reply

  3. Economics are another enemy here. Overhauling exhibits is expensive. I had the opportunity to discuss the new Gettysburg interpretation with a well-known historian who had been on the committee for the new exhibits. He said that the old exhibits were really old, reflecting a 1920s Lost Cause take on the war. I asked what it would take to bring the rest of the the NPS cannon ball parks up to speed, expecting a long talk about the politics of history. Instead he just laughed and said “One hundred million dollars.”

    I do think we need to discuss the big picture at every site. Not talking about the causes of the Civil War in itself introduces a pro-Confederate bias.

    Comment by Larry Cebula — November 24, 2007 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

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