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Slavery museum needed
The National Slavery Museum would help Americans understand the Civil War.

Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 12/20/2002


AFTER hearing historian David W. Blight speak last month at a Library of Congress symposium in Washington, I bought a copy of his "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory."

Blight goes into great detail to prove that while the North won the war, white Southerners triumphed in the battle to create and sustain a memory of what the war was about.

From the end of the war in 1865 down through today, people have perpetuated the myth that the Civil War was not about race--and specifically not about the enslavement of blacks.

The war "haunts us still" because we feel it without facing what it was about, Blight wrote. Race, he argues, has consistently gotten shoved into the historical background by people who talk about various other issues, including states' rights and President Abraham Lincoln's invasion of the South.

A complex mix of causes did spark the war, but slavery was the essential issue that caused a conflict in which 600,000 Americans died.

Four million black people were set free by the war, and yet there was no room for them in the post-war discussion about what had happened. Nor did the theme of emancipation comfortably fit into a largely mythical story line created by many Northerners as well as Southerners so the two regions could reunite in a newly sealed Union.

Blight writes that "race was so deeply at the root of the war's causes and consequences, and so powerful a source of division in American social psychology, that it served as the antithesis of a culture of reconciliation."

White people spent little time celebrating emancipation. In reality, equality for black people was delayed for another century. It took the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century to achieve full rights for black Americans.

The struggle over memory is still going on, writes Blight, an Amherst College professor whose book was published last year by Harvard University Press. "And as long as we have a politics of race in America, we will have a politics of Civil War memory."

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