What historians do

On my website, Red River Historian, I haven’t often written about controversial topics in history because I tend to shy away from confrontation. Since my readers are mostly U.S. Americans from the South, there are certain historical events and themes that may be deemed safer if “buried in the past.”

However, I made a resolution to change this – I decided to not be timid anymore. I’ve finished a short article on Dallas’ segregated cemeteries and another one on the Colfax Massacre of 1873. Soon, I’ll be doing a lengthy piece on lynching in the Red River Valley, as for a while, the area had the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent places for African Americans in the United States.

Historians occupy an important role in our society; they confront the present with questions and observations about the past. It’s like they hold a mirror up to us so that we can question our own  prejudices and assumptions. Through their research, they challenge the way we view the nation. I think this is the most important task a historian has: to make the present ACKNOWLEDGE the past. And the past in the U.S. is fraught with all sorts of uneasy topics. Racism is BIG component, of course, as are other -isms like sexism, nativism, nationalism, capitalism (meaning, an economy built on slavery) and more.

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Here’s nativism, racism, and eugenics conveniently packaged in one illustration inside an early 20th century academic journal.

Acknowledgement is something Americans are really good at, even if pundits believe the opposite. History has shown that in the U.S., misdeeds do get remembered and controversial topics are eventually brought to the surface. Recent examples are acknowledgement of what happened at Wounded Knee in 1890, South Carolina removing the the Confederate flag from the state house, and uncovering the complicity of US academe in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.

In the U.S., the truth isn’t hidden for long. I like to think it’s because we’re a nation of seekers. Americans have certain freedoms, and responsibilities that come with those freedoms, that allow for the hidden past to become known. This is done through memory, research, and recording. Though the interpretation of the past might be faulty, all that the wrongness does is to create a dialogue; instead of censoring, we debate, negotiate and adapt.

Acknowledgement does not mean atonement, however. Often, being confronted with the bad parts of history makes people defensive and  dismissive. Denial is one of the five stages of coping, and sometimes, people get stuck in that stage. So, the only thing a historian can do is continue to expose the past… and help students of history eventually acknowledge it.

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Published in: on January 7, 2016 at 8:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Death Divided

I love strolling through cemeteries – the older and more overgrown, the better, of course. I’m not particularly ghoulish, though. I just enjoy the underlying history that cemeteries provide. Some of that history is relayed in tomb stones and monuments. Often, however, the history is contained beneath more subtle contexts: the layout of the stones, the level of ruin within the cemetery, the innocuous placing of a fence…

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See that fence in the background? It denotes the racial divide at Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Ladonia, Fannin County, Texas.

… that’s right – the South, which my website Red River Historian documents, still contains the remnants of segregation inside many of its cemeteries. Because even in death, the powers that be insisted that races had to remain separated.

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The cemetery in the ghost town of Cannon (Grayson County, Texas) became segregated after the Civil War. The segregation was denoted through a road that divided the two burial grounds, which is visible in the background. Before the war, enslaved people were sometimes interred with their white masters, but their graves were marked with wooden stakes. After the war, the first African American burials were also marked with wooden markers.

In the pre-Civil War period, segregated burial places were not needed, as blacks – most of whom were enslaved – were either buried without so much as a tomb stone, or were interred amongst their masters. There were some designated “slave cemeteries” in a few select locations – such as near large plantations or in the cities – but most of these burial places are no longer visible, as time, neglect, and outright disrespect have taken their toll on them.

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A wooden marker, most likely for an enlsaved person, at Kentuckytown Cemetery (Grayson County, Texas).

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This enslaved woman was interred with the white family at Vittetoe Cemetery (Grayson County). However, her tomb does not commemorate her name – it simply denotes what she was to those who owned her.

The few free people of color often confined their cemeteries within their church yards, such as St. Augustine Church near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

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A brick tomb at St. Augustine Church cemetery, which was founded by Creole families in the early 19th century, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.

In the period after the Civil War, which historians call “reconstruction,” Southern whites were unwilling to see their former slaves as equals. Cities and communities set aside portions of burial grounds for blacks, but these “Negro Cemeteries” (often deemed “Freedman Cemeteries”) were completely separated, usually by fences, or hedges, or pathways. With little money for upkeep and many African American families leaving the South due to racial violence and economic discrimination, their cemeteries became less maintained. Eventually, many of these boneyards were razed by construction projects or were just simply ignored.

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The “Negro Cemetery” near Central Expressway in the State-Thomas area of Dallas was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for the expansion of US 75.

History is lost this way. Of course, that may have been the reason behind the neglect and disregard.

Yet, especially in smaller communities, the “Negro Cemeteries” are still extant and active. Black cemeteries are extremely interesting to me, as their very existence lends an aura of defiance against the southern U.S. social structure. Though the tombs may not be as elaborate as those designed for affluent whites, black graves are just as loud – they serve as the final and eternal stamp on the world, indicating that the person buried there mattered as much as any other man or woman.

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While simple, this grave of a black man in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, makes sure to commemorate the person interred within. Tatums is one of Oklahoma’s historical all-black towns.

I plan on visiting and documenting many more black cemeteries. The southern, segregated graveyard is a fascinating aspect of history that tells a lot about not only the people interred there, but about the community in which they’re buried.