Civil rights quest born in Civil War
The civil rights movement and the American Civil War are joined at the hip.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that well, and made it a cornerstone of his Lincoln Memorial speech during the March on Washington 50 years ago in August.
These days, that linkage seems less well-known. But in recent weeks, two public forums in the Fredericksburg area strove to help people see those events as ends of a spectrum—with emancipation (150 years ago this year), Reconstruction and the Jim Crow period in between.
The two wide-ranging Black History Month discussions—which may be without local precedent—included civil rights leaders who made some of that history.
One participant, the Rev. Lawrence Davies, expressed concern that children today learn little about Dr. King beyond a few sound bites.
“How many youngsters now know anything about Dr. King other than he went to Washington and had an oratorical victory with a speech called ‘I Have a Dream’?” Davies asked. “They don’t know what the dream was, they don’t know what it was all about, they don’t know about his nonviolent approach to things.”
Davies, who helped lead the Fredericksburg area peacefully through King’s tumultuous era, was part of the program “Freedom and Equality: Emancipation to the March on Washington” held Feb. 18 at Germanna Community College’s Fredericksburg Area Campus in Spotsylvania County.
The other forum, “Civil War to Civil Rights,” was held Feb. 9 at the John J. Wright Educational Center near Spotsylvania Courthouse, complete with a color guard provided by the 23rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops, a locally based re-enactment unit. Together, the events drew more than 110 people for heartfelt history and candid dialogue. Here are a few nuggets, to be supplemented by future blog posts.
At Germanna, faculty member Edwin Watson—director emeritus of the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center—moderated. He was joined, in addition to Davies, by Gaye Adegbalola, James S. Price and Stuart Smith III.
Gaye Adegbalola, the acclaimed singer and former member of Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women, shared her experiences in the careful protests that forced Fredericksburg’s segregated restaurants and theaters to accommodate blacks.
She also expressed skepticism about the African–American history taught in classrooms and textbooks.
“I found in my early 20s that, basically, blacks were written out of the history books,” Adegbalola said. “Things about us, and by us, were totally neglected. Even to this day, most history is written by old white men. That’s just what is.”
JAMES S. PRICE
Spotsylvania historian Jimmy Price, author of “The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword,” sketched how black soldiers fought in the Civil War and later U.S. conflicts, hoping battlefield valor would translate into greater rights in peacetime.
They were disappointed again and again—until President Truman integrated the armed forces in the late 1940s and the 1960s’ civil rights movement vanquished white supremacy, said Price, an adjunct professor at Germanna.
STUART SMITH III
Stuart Smith III, also a history faculty member at Germanna, described how—and why—President Lincoln used his wartime powers as commander in chief to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862.
“The proclamation, as law, is either valid or it is not valid,” he wrote in August 1863. “If it is not valid, it needs no retraction. If it is valid, it cannot be retracted any more than the dead can be brought to life.”
Yet, Smith explained, Lincoln’s fear of emancipation being declared unconstitutional led him to urge passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery (as depicted in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”).
The earlier discussion at the Wright Center—co-sponsored by Germanna—was kicked off with a salute to the colors by the 23rd USCT and a living-history skit by Terry Miller, the museum’s executive director. She portrayed Auldie Mathews, a 20th-century Texan coming to Virginia to research her ancestors.
Other speakers followed:
JOHN J. HENNESSY
John J. Hennessy, chief historian and chief of interpretation at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, traced the long arc between emancipation and Jim Crow in the early 20th century.
He spoke of how “history is a tide that begins in one place and carries us to someplace else,” albeit with eddies, flotsam, ugliness and diversions along the way.
“In the last five years of my life, it has become so apparent that one of the great tides in American history is toward equality and freedom,” Hennessy said. “It is inexorable.”
JAMES S. PRICE
Price, who began and ended the Wright Center forum, sketched the life of Henry Jarvis, a Virginia slave who lived off the land for three weeks and borrowed a canoe in 1861 to sail to freedom at the Union’s Fort Monroe in Hampton. Jarvis tried to enlist there, but the commanding officer, Benjamin Butler, told him the conflict was for white soldiers only.
“Jarvis told him it would be a black man’s war before it was through,” Price said.
He spent two years in Cuba and Liberia, returning to Boston in May 1863 to discover his prediction had come true. Jarvis enlisted in the 55th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry—because the ranks of its predecessor—the 54th, of “Glory” big-screen fame—were full.
A participant in the Battle of Olustee, Fla., mentioned by President Lincoln in Spielberg’s movie, Jarvis “was an eyewitness to some of the most important events on the crooked path from Civil War to civil rights,” Price said.
JOHNNY P. JOHNSON
Local artist Johnny P. Johnson, who worked closely with then-Councilman Davies to integrate Fredericksburg, related his experiences during the lunch-counter sit-ins and later human rights campaigns. White students and faculty from Mary Washington College, and leaders in the Chamber of Commerce aided black activists in some of those efforts, he noted.
Johnson recalled tense times, especially when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
“They talked about how dim things looked at that moment,” he said. “To pull people together, people marched in a memorial procession from Mount Zion Baptist Church on Wolfe Street to St. George’s Episcopal Church and made goodwill speeches. Things worked out well after that.”
Horace McCaskill Jr., a retired Army colonel, spoke of going to high school in segregated Tallahassee, Fla., and seeing public transportation denied to blacks.
Consulting a master’s thesis he wrote, while in the military, on race relations and Pan–Africanism, he explained the roots of Black History Month and the different approaches to achieving change taken by black leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
“Look at the makeup of Congress now and our first African–American president,” McCaskill said. “All of that was made possible by people who struggled during the 19th and 20th centuries, and even now, in the 21st century.”
JESSE J. JOHNSON JR.
Fredericksburg resident Jesse J. Johnson Jr., the moderator, summarized the feelings of several people who spoke during the question-and-answer session after the panel discussion..
“I’m beginning to see that race is a human construct,” Johnson said. “ There really isn’t any such thing as race. They are cultural differences, different ways of talking, ways of being with each other. But if you peel back that skin, underneath, we’re all the same.”
Wright Center: http://jjwmuseum.org/
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029