Civil War ceremonies seek to include blacks

Friday, April 15, 2011

CHARLESTON, S.C. — As cannons thudded around Charleston Harbor this week in commemoration of the start of the war that extinguished slavery, the audiences for the 150th anniversary events were nearly all white. Even black scholars lecturing about black Union troops and the roots of slavery gazed out mostly on white faces.

The reasons blacks stayed away are not a mystery: Across Dixie, Civil War commemorations have tended to celebrate the Confederacy and the battlefield exploits of those who fought for the South.

The National Park Service is trying to make anniversary events over the next four years more hospitable to black people.

"We’re trying to broaden the story to go beyond the battlefields to the home front and to talk about 150 years later, if much of the reason for the war was freedom for enslaved people, how far have we come?" said Carol Shively, a spokeswoman for the Park Service’s sesquicentennial in the Southeast.

The anniversary of the April 12, 1861, bombardment of Fort Sumter, which plunged the nation into its bloodiest war, was marked in Charleston on Tuesday by hundreds of people. Only a few blacks attended a pre-dawn concert or were on hand for a ceremony re-creating the first shot a few hours later. One of the black people present was a Union re-enactor.

"I think it’s very painful and raw" for blacks to attend such activities, said the Rev. Joseph Darby, of Charleston, who is black and was not there for the Fort Sumter commemoration.

On Wednesday, the Park Service sponsored events about blacks outside its Fort Sumter tour boat dock. It included lectures on slavery and on the Union 54th Massachusetts, the black unit depicted in the 1989 movie Glory . Out of about 50 people attending, though, there was only one black.

Dot Scott, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said even such programs might not be enough to get blacks involved in the anniversary events.

"It’s almost like celebrating with the enemy," she said. Both Scott and Darby credit the National Park Service with working hard to make events inclusive.

The Augusta Chronicle ©2011

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