Black Confederates and the Fourth of July

Published:July 13, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Photograph of a purported black Confederate veteran.

The thing I love about BackStory is that they’re great at stirring the pot. Take their recent show on Independence Day. It prompted this comment on the website:

I found several aspects of the piece on the Declaration rather sensational and disingenuous—a rather second year way of making things look important.

It goes on, but I like that phrasing: “a rather second year way.” That’s so very University of Virginia.

Anyway, farther down the page is this:

Please don’t play dumb. The three of you have PhDs in US history. You know very well that you can devote an hour to the 4th of July. Historians of the 20th century are not totally ignorant of the 18th century. When you play dumb, you assume that I am dumb. I am many things, but dumb is not one of them.

For that matter, I hope you’re pretending to see the Revolution as a war between the Americans and the British. When you do that, you imply that loyalists were not Americans. Many, many, many Americans opposed the Patriots. It’s much more accurate to describe the Revolution as a civil war. Don’t let nationalism cloud your analysis.

Of course, such comments appear after the episode. What goes on during the episode can be just as interesting, of course. The Chronicle of Higher Education just posted a great article on the show that includes this anecdote:

On a recent episode, Mr. Ayers interviewed Britton Frank Earnest Sr., a leader of a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The professor asked him what he says to black Americans when they object to seeing him waving a Confederate flag. “There are misconceptions about it,” said Mr. Earnest. “I say, ‘Read and study and find out the truth.’ Not only did conscripted slaves fight on both sides, but . . .”

“No, sir. No, sir. No, sir. This is not true,” broke in Mr. Ayers, firmly but politely. “We won’t argue about this on the air, but we can’t go down this road of all these black people fighting for the Confederacy.”

“So no black people ever fought for the Confederacy?” asked the guest.

“Any number of those are trivial compared to the four million people held in slavery for 200 years and the 180,000 who fought for the Union, OK, so it’s a trivial thing.” said Mr. Ayers. “So I’m just going to ask the question again.”

It’s a moment that Mr. Field [the show’s producer] is proud of.

And he should be. It’s not about who’s right—Ayers or Earnest—but rather that this stuff get discussed in a respectful and straightforward way, in public, by people like Ayers who have the authority to make assertions about this history. These kinds of discussions don’t just make for good radio or interesting websites; they’re good for our civic culture.

IMAGE: A purported black Confederate veteran