For 46 years, Dorothy Tolliver has lived down the street from the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview. When her two children were young, Tolliver, who is black, remembers playing with them on a swing set next to the site’s monument on sunny afternoons.
“They were content to be where they were because they were enjoying the atmosphere,” Tolliver, 68, said. “They really didn’t want to get up and go home.”
Tolliver acknowledged the irony of having so many happy moments near a monument commemorating an oppressive figure to some African-Americans. The park was established by Confederate veterans in 1924. In 46 years, Tolliver had never seen an event or program focused on African-American life there.
In February, that changed. The group Female Re-enactors of Distinction, or FREED, hosted a program at the park focusing on African-American life during the Civil War. The female re-enactors, each of whom is black, portrayed women of the era in period dress and with period speech.
Snapping photos in the crowd, Tolliver felt a rush of excitement; she never expected to see a black history event at the park in her lifetime.
Park Manager Ron Sydnor organized the event for the FREED re-enactors, who are affiliated with the African-American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. He said he thought it was a great success.
“One of the things that made me feel good was that the audience was almost evenly split between blacks and whites,” Sydnor said.
This weekend, the park will host an event of a different flavor — the commemoration of Davis’s 203rd birthday. This birthday celebration, offered since the early ’60s, coincides with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. There will be two battle re-enactments, a Civil War ball, presentations on Davis and Robert E. Lee and artillery salutes to Davis.
Sydnor, who is black, said there will be very little focusing on African-Americans at the event. He said he wants future birthday celebrations to incorporate a broader range of perspectives.
“What I want to get into with (the event) is implement stuff about the homefront from the white side of the fence and the black side of the fence,” said Sydnor, who has been park manager for more than a year.
Race has been a pervasive element in sesquicentennial celebrations around the South. In December 2010, there was a ball in South Carolina celebrating the anniversary of the state’s secession from the Union. The NAACP protested the ball, saying it celebrated slavery.
In February, the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed sponsoring a series of state-issued license plates for each year of the sesquicentennial. They proposed the 2014 plate would feature Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Sydnor said he often feels alienated from Civil War celebrations. Many Civil War celebrations around the South, he said, mostly focus on Confederate culture without much regard for the black voice.
“The problem is who is in the position to tell the story,” Sydnor said. “If the person is white, then the person is going to tell it from that perspective, and they aren’t going to think about the black experience because that is foreign to them or is going to make them uncomfortable.”
Dr. Robert Hunt, who teaches several courses in Civil War studies at Middle Tennessee State University, said many Americans tend to highlight certain aspects of the Civil War and leave others out. The resulting myths, such as the romanticized portrait of the American South perpetuated by films like “Gone with the Wind,” are falsehoods, he said.
“The moonlight and magnolia perception is a society that never existed,” Hunt said. “It is kind of like the romantic idea of the Wild West.”
One problem with the sesquicentennial celebration, Hunt said, is the way many event organizers have failed to acknowledge the complexity of the Civil War, which he teaches as an American revolution that changed society indelibly. The idea of celebrating the war at all, he said, is a strange one.
“I don’t think anyone is coming to terms with what the war was really about,” Hunt said. “(Celebrate) is an entirely inappropriate word. You remember it, you learn from it, but I don’t want to celebrate it.”
Hunt served on a committee that organized sesquicentennial activities in Nashville. He said there were African-Americans on the committee and much effort to diversify the celebration. With other activities around the country though, programming will differ according to the organizer, he said.
Gary Polete sits on the committee that organizes the Trigg County Civil War Days festival each year in Cadiz. Polete said committee members have discussed ways of incorporating a black perspective into the festival, but haven’t come up with anything yet. He said they have had some black re-enactors participate in the battles, and hopes more will attend future festivals.
A former re-enactor himself, Polete said the aim of the festival isn’t to glorify the Confederate way of life, but to educate people about the history of the era.
“We’re not setting out to set the Confederacy as the right side or the Union as the wrong side,” Polete said. “The majority of re-enactors are there for the history.”
The Rev. Lisa Lewis-Balboa, pastor of Lane Tabernacle CME Church in Hopkinsville, said she thinks the black perspective has been left out of the Civil War commemorations. Many people, she said, tend to romanticize the South and ignore the role of blacks in the war.
“We paint the picture that we want people to see, with the long dresses and men going off to war,” Lewis-Balboa said. “We rarely hear of the black soldiers that did fight. I think blacks really feel like we are left out.”
Lewis-Balboa, a native of Trenton, remembers the Civil War centennial celebration of the early ’70s as a community event in Todd County that brought all races together. She said she wishes the sesquicentennial events could have the same effect.
“If we are going to celebrate this, we need to do it as a community,” Lewis-Balboa, 43, said.
Bernard Standard, chairman of the Hopkinsville Human Relations Commission, said he sees no harm in Civil War re-enactments, but thinks they might distract from problems of racism that still exist in American society.
“I’m sure there are some who celebrate the dance, the music, the culture,” Standard said. “The important question to me is what have we learned from that and have we improved relationships since the Civil War? If we haven’t improved, then that is a real problem we need to work on.”
Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.