Friday, March 30, 2012

Forget something?

Sorry for the long delay but I've been working on another project lately.

I found this article in the Opelika-Auburn newspaper the other day on my favorite subject: bad history.  The Lee County Historical Society in Loachapoka runs "Pioneer Park", exhibits about what its creators believe 1850s to 1920s East Alabama resembled.  They have a blacksmith's shop, weaving, quilting, spinning, a one-room schoolhouse, a log cabin, an early doctor's office, a dry goods store, and how to do laundry.  They even have a Native American exhibit.

What's missing from this?  The above may have been parts of life in Lee County, but at least half of the population would not have enjoyed their benefits.  Those people were the enslaved workers in the parts of Tallapoosa, Macon, Russell and Chambers counties formed into Lee County in 1866.  Slaves may have worked as blacksmiths, weavers, spinners, laundresses or even in stores, but the above exhibits present them as if they were part of a kinder, gentler age.  They appear as if east Alabama was a self-sufficient, self-reliant area untouched by the outside world.  Well, this is wrong.  The area was, in fact, a major cotton producer and exporter, shipping bales of cotton picked by slaves either by rail to Savannah or Mobile, or by water down the Chattahoochee River to Florida.  Over 100,000 slaves resided in the area, around 50% of the population.  Their lives aren't being presented here.  Where's the auction block or whipping post?

There is a good reason for this, a common one in history: local people prefer an acceptable and tolerable past.  No one likes to be the bad guy in the past, especially in ways they can control.  Lee County is no different than other places that I have seen, such as Russell County Museum in nearby Fort Mitchell, AL, Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta, Heritage Park in Calgary, AB, or Lower Fort Garry in Manitoba.  Each sanitizes the past of conflict, racism, and exploitation in search for a usable past.  Everyone should read Cathy Stanton's The Lowell Experiment for how this worked in a park created from a old Massachusetts mill town.

Sadly, the desire of people to maintain a usable past works against a fuller understanding of history.  It'll be a hard, long fight but it can happen.  I urge patience.


  1. I do not know what is more irritating. When historical representations in places like this leave black people out altogether, or when exhibits try to paint a portrait of slavery that was entirely benign - or even a pleasurable experience.

  2. I totally agree, Keith, it's hard to choose. Either way, this usable past is designed to reduce guilt about past actions - guilt over economic stratification caused by market forces and the varied effects on men and women of various races, classes and ethnicities. If they ever produced an accurate display, the past would probably horrify the public. This is why I envy Holocaust history - no matter how terrible their presentations are, the public remains fascinated. If only other topics could do the same.


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