James Gill’s Dec. 6 column offered an instructive assessment of the controversy surrounding the removal of the names of slaveowners and Confederate heroes from New Orleans’s streets and public squares. Gill asserted that bias, inconsistency and insincerity characterizes the debate concerning the purging of names of the masters of the enslaved and their Confederate defenders. Cultural wars are never truly free of these vices and rarely employ the virtues of history.
Why are we so up in arms about slavery and a war that both ended 155 years ago? Isn’t this just history; something that happened a long time ago to other people, now dead and forgotten, and without any real bearing on our lives? This conception of history might be true if we simply learned history; if it was confined to the classroom, the library or archives.
History does not concern the dead, but people who were once alive, who struggled to understand the world they lived in, whose voices were too often muffled, whose choices often left them frustrated, even angry. Somehow, despite these impediments, they made a world that in small ways and large endured and that with effort we can recognize and understand. History is about understanding how people lived and what they lived for; what tried their souls; what made them happy; what inspired them. History concerns the present as much as it does the past. This is the reason history is important to the controversy over slavery and the Confederacy. It will not by itself resolve the controversy, but it may, if it rises above exposé, better inform our decision.
There is another reason why the history of slavery and the Civil War is important to us. The burden of slavery weighs heavily on us, four hundred years since arriving at our shores and sparking the controversy and anguish that caused our Civil War. That anguish nearly ended our republic and that war hardly began the work of lifting our burden. How do we begin lifting our national burden and continue the work the war only started?
In his famed and justly honored second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln suggested a way, prophetically offered as a fond hope and a fervent prayer. He acknowledged America’s responsibility for slavery’s many wrongs and injustices done to all the enslaved throughout the centuries and he wondered if the atonement of the Civil War was just payment. Neither he nor his generation of Americans lived to work out the answer.
History suggests, as Lincoln surmised, that the work of acknowledging and atoning is ongoing and that every generation must address these issues anew and in the open, most especially on the street corners and public spaces of America, including New Orleans.
TERRENCE W. FITZMORRIS
retired teacher, historian