Confederate Statues and Lost Educational Opportunities

At first glance, it’s easy not to muster up any sympathy for the college student who traveled to Charlottsville in Confederate garb, heavily armed, to salute the statue of Robert E. Lee.  The student was subsequently kicked out of Pensacola Christian College.  True, it was an exercise in poor judgement to rush into town in the aftermath of a violent neo-Nazi demonstration.  And the student’s understanding of the Civil War is flawed, to say the least.  However, having gone to high school in the South, I’ve experienced how that flawed understanding of the Civil War is promulgated by that region’s educational institutions.  This incident is not just a personal failure in judgement, but an institutional failure as well.

During my time in the South, I met countless characters like the student in question.  Steeped in the mythology of the Lost Cause, a viewpoint that the Civil War was a war of Northern Aggression, that the South was defending its economy against oppressive tariffs.  Slavery?  Nah, that had nothing to do with it.  Often the individuals I met who doubled down on this to the point where it was a major component of their self-identity, came from the lowest rungs of white Southern culture.  How does this happen?

Part of it is the promise that if you adopt this cultural outlook, you’ll move up in the ranks of society.  Go along to get along.  That’s a con, of course.  Once on the bottom, always on the bottom, no matter how furiously you double down on that.  For me, that was easy to figure out.  I moved down South my sophomore year in high school.  I could see the trajectory my Northern friends were taking in high school and compare to mine.  While strongly encouraged to adopt that same neo-Confederate self-identity as a means to fit in, I could clearly see my future consisted of menial labor unless I physically expunged myself from that situation.  What if I did not have that external social network to recognize that?  That is an alternative universe I am grateful never to have to visit.

I took American History in my third year of high school.  Thankfully, I had an African-American history teacher who had no interest in promoting the Lost Cause of the South.  That, however, is an anomaly.  Beyond the confines of that class, the societal/educational institutions of the South are geared towards a revisionist history of the Civil War.  While we can hold individuals accountable for a deeply flawed take on the Civil War, we also need to hold educational institutions accountable as well.  What changes need to be made?

A constructionist study on the causes of the Civil War should be implemented in American History courses.  Rather than lecture to the students, have the students take a look at the historical documents directly.  A good start are the Declaration of Causes of Succeeding States which, in plain language, describe the reasons the South succeeded from the Union.  There will be a lot of political/societal resistance to this.  And that is why it is important for students to examine the actual historical documents firsthand rather than play a game of which authority figure to trust on this.

In addition, a sequence on racial violence should be introduced.  Most of the Confederate statues in question were built during a wave of racial violence from 1900-25.  When I went to high school, this period of violence, which included riots with fatalities into the hundreds, was expunged from the history texts.  I did not learn of the Tulsa riot of 1921 that killed over 300 in high school.  Nor, for that matter, the Houston riot of 1917 that killed 17 in one night even though I went to high school in that city.  The real revision of Civil War history took place during this era.  An understanding that the cause of Southern succession was an reassertion of white supremacy is merely a restoration of history.

Another focus for educators is the matter of self-identity.  While it’s great to study history and understand how we got to where we are, it has to be emphasized to students it’s a mistake to base your self-identity on the past.  You can’t bask in a historic figure’s victories, nor take the hit for their faults.  Someone born in the present day South is not responsible for past slavery, anymore than I am for slavery that existed in New York prior to its abolition in 1827.  You only become complicit in past sins when you personally, knowingly or not, perpetuate the cause.  You have to establish your own life’s legacy in the here and now.  Education is not just delivering subject content, but building a student’s sense of self.  We need to be cognizant of that.

If educational institutions are going to expel students for adopting a neo-Confederate outlook, we have to be accountable to those standards as well – notwithstanding the intense political pressures that come along with that.  That goes for both the North & South these days.  During the late 70’s as I flew back and forth between the two, I was often reminded of the Byrds’ song Eight Miles High on the surrealism of flying between two culturally distinct regions.  Those distinctions have largely dissipated.  Today, you’re as likely to see a Confederate flag in Upstate New York as you are in Texas.  Lots of work needs to be done all the way around on this matter.


The American Eclipse of 2017

On November 18, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition explored Cape Disappointment off the Pacific coast in what is now Oregon.  This concluded an 18 month journey to reach the Pacific Northwest.  Today, the Cape is home to a state park which includes the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.  On August 21, 2017, some 150 miles south, a solar eclipse will begin its race across the United States eastward until it exits into the Atlantic at Charleston, South Carolina.  If you intend to travel to view the eclipse, several spots along the path of totality offer short day trips to some interesting historical spots.  With proper planning, you can combine science and history in your trip.

Google and NASA has put together a neat interactive map for the eclipse that allows you to determine the time of totality for any given location.  Below is how the eclipse enters the United States in Oregon starting at 10:15 A.M. PDT in the morning.

Credit: Google Maps
Credit: Google Maps

“men appear much Satisfied with their trip beholding with estonishment the high waves dashing against the rocks & this emence ocian.” – Lewis and Clark Journal, November 18, 1805.

If you are not from the Northwest, you might think this was a poor spot to view the eclipse as the climate is notorious for rain.  However, most of the rain falls from October to March and the eclipse occurs during the driest month of the year for this region.  Salem averages less than half an inch of rain for the entire month of August compared to over six inches in December.  Salem will experience 1:53 of totality compared to 2:00 in the center of the shadow.  This site has the added benefit of a major airport in Portland 45 miles north.  And north of Portland, you can trace the trail of Lewis and Clark as they reached the Pacific along the Columbia River in the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.  From there, you can move on to Cape Disappointment to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to take in the Pacific at the North Head Lighthouse.

North Head Lighthouse at Cape Disappointment. Credit: Wiki Commons

After Oregon, the path of totality enters Wyoming just south of Yellowstone National Park then eastward.  The city of Casper is near the center of the path and will experience totality for 2:25.  Casper is also very dry in August, averaging less than an inch a rain during the month.  The airport in Casper is serviced by Delta and United Airlines with the major connections at Denver and Las Vegas.  While in Casper, you can visit the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center which has exhibits on the Oregon, California, Mormon, and Pony Express Trails.  If you are feeling adventurous, there are several spots in Wyoming where the ruts of the wagon trains are still embedded in the ground.  One such spot is the “Parting of the Ways”

Parting of the Ways, Credit: National Park Service.

“If any young man is about to commence the world, we say to him, publicly and privately, Go to the West” – Horace Greeley in the New Yorker, August 25, 1838.

There is a bit of a historical dispute on this spot.  Some claim this is where the Oregon and California trails branched off.  The more accepted version is the right fork was the Sublette Cutoff which was a shortcut, but presented 50 miles of waterless trails.  The left fork led to Fort Bridger and was a longer, but less riskier passage.  Either way, it is an awesome piece of natural preservation.  This is pretty rugged territory and a four wheel drive is recommended along with stocking up on supplies as there won’t be a 7-11 around the corner.  Directions and background on this site can be found here.  The Parting of the Ways is a four hour drive from Casper.

Credit: Google Maps.

History always has two sides, and the other side of the westward expansion can be found 200 miles north of Casper at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.  Here is where Cheyenne and Lakota forces defeated General Custer’s 7th Calvary Regiment.  The site houses memorials to both sides of the conflict.  Millions of Native Americans were eventually killed as a result of war, disease, and forced relocation over the course of several centuries as European descendants made their way westward into the Americas.

After Wyoming, the path of totality barrels through Nebraska including the town of North Platte, also part of the Oregon Trail.  Then through Missouri, the eclipse travels over the northern part of the Metro Kansas City area including the Harry S.Truman Library and Museum in Independence ten miles east of the city.  Totality lasts about a minute over the museum, to experience over two minutes of totality, you’ll want to head towards the center line in the map below.  St. Joseph will enjoy 2:38 of total darkness.  As you move east, the climate gets wetter, meaning cloud cover becomes more of a possibility.  Kansas City averages almost four inches of rain in August.

Credit: Google Maps

“We must build a new world, a far better world — one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected.” – Harry S. Truman address to the United Nations Conference, April 25, 1945.

The Truman Library has exhibits on the end of World War II, including the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the start of the Cold War, and the upset win in the 1948 election as well as his formative years serving in World War I.  To learn more about Truman’s early life, there is the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site which was his home.  This site preserves over 50,000 objects related to Truman.

Harry S Truman National Historic Site, Credit: National Park Service.

Independence was also the starting point for the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe Trails.  This is commemorated in the National Frontier Trails Museum.  The museum contains pioneer narratives, a public research library, as well as a Lewis and Clark exhibit as the expedition stopped there early in their journey.

From Kansas City, the path of totality heads towards St. Louis and the Gateway Arch.  If you like country music, Nashville will experience totality, then the eclipse moves directly towards the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.  The best way to reach this region is to fly into Knoxville which is less than an hour away.  One caveat here, there’s a reason they are called the Great Smokey Mountains and that is because…they are smokey.  The region receives 50-80 inches of rainfall per year.  And this, of course, can reduce the visibility of the eclipse.

Credit: Gregory Pijanowski
Great Smokey Mountains, Credit: Gregory Pijanowski

Still, if you decide to go this route, you will not be disappointed by the scenery.  This is the most visited national park with over ten million taking in the vistas annually.  There is also no charge to enter the park.

Credit: Google Maps

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer on the first atomic explosion, quote televised in 1965.

Less than a half hour from Knoxville is the formally secret town of Oak Ridge.  Secret in that this was where uranium was enriched during the Manhattan Project for the atomic bomb.  The K-25 gaseous diffusion plant was a U-shaped building a half a mile long with some 2,000,000 square feet of floor space.  Eventually, 12,000 people were employed at the plant and was so designed that they were not aware what they were producing due to the secretive nature of the project.  The plant was demolished in 2014, but the American Museum of Science and Energy offers exhibits on the history of the Manhattan Project and nuclear energy.  The museum offers bus tours of the historic Oak Ridge facilities which are now part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Finally, the path of totality moves into South Carolina, over Charleston, and out into the Atlantic Ocean at 2:49 P.M. EDT, ninety-three minuets after touching down in Oregon.  Charleston will experience a minute and half of totality, situating yourself towards the center of the path of totality will stretch out total darkness for two and a half minutes.

Credit: Google Maps

“The last ray of hope for preserving the Union peaceably expired at the assault upon Fort Sumter.” – Abraham Lincoln, First Annual Message, December 3, 1861.

As anyone who has lived down South can tell you, Summer is the rainy season and Charleston is no exception averaging over six inches of rain in August.  Still, if you make Charleston your destination, there is an excellent historical district downtown and in the harbor, Fort Sumter National Monument where the Civil War started on April 12, 1865 when Confederate forces attacked the fort.

Fort Sumter, Credit: NPS

As the eclipse moves from Oregon, across the Great Plains, and through the South, its path crosses over or near some of the history that helped define the United States as a nation from our westward expansion, the Civil War, to the emerging superpower at the end of World War II.  Not all of the history has been pretty, the push west resulted in the deaths of millions of Native Americans.  Over 700,000 died in the Civil War that abolished slavery, but did not give African-Americans total equality, the atomic bomb ended World War II, but gave humanity the ability to terminate its existence.  Those events also gave us the great cities on the West Coast, our current African American president, and a peaceful relationship with a democratic Japan that has lasted since 1945.  With history, you take the successes alongside the failures.

*Image atop of post is solar eclipse on March 20, 2015.  Credit:  Damien Deltenre/Wiki Commons.