I recently interviewed a former high school history teacher who taught at a public school in North Georgia. He was kind enough to tell me about his teaching experiences as well as his family history. I will call him Mr. Brown, as he wishes to remain anonymous.
Mr. Brown and I went to college together many years ago and we have been friends since those memorable days, both sharing a love for history and a passion for truth. He’s told me many stories about his frustrations as an educator, but he enjoyed the experience nonetheless. Clearly, teaching is a mixed bag, as with anything. Mr. Brown, however, has a unique perspective. He is a predominately African-American male who is also what we might call a Civil War buff. His students may have expected the go-to narrative wherein the war is blamed on slavery, but, to Mr. Brown’s credit, he gave his students a more balanced version of events. Here is what he said on the subject:
I taught the Civil war very much as white teachers had taught it to me. I taught that slavery, particularly the extension thereof was a central factor of what happened during the Civil War. But I also taught that it wasn’t the only factor. There was also the friction from sectionalism, the deaths of men like Stephen Douglas, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay, the emergency of the Republican party…etc. The Civil War didn’t occur in a slavery vacuum, and that’s what I tried to impress on my students.
Mr. Brown also has a unique perspective on the so-called black experience, for his family has a unique history. I remember the day he told me that not all blacks were slaves, that some black families even owned slaves themselves. He suspected his family was such a family. Why? They weren’t like the other families; they had money. How did they get it?
There were always whispers and rumors about how my grandmother’s family came by it’s land and money. Whenever we’d talk about history my grandmother would urge me to remember that black people owned slaves as well, I asked her, before she died, if our family owned slaves. She said that we don’t talk about that, and we never did again. What I do know is that my great-great-grandfather rode around in a buggy loaning money to blacks and whites. My great-grandfather owned a huge part of the county that they lived in and he sent all of his children to college. They had a large amount of money, property, and power at a time when most blacks were sharecropping. Were they slave owners? I don’t know, but they were doing something…
Of course, the next logical question is this: Was your family always free?
I don’t know if my family was always free in this country. My great-great-grandfather on my father’s mother’s side appears in the 1870 census. That’s as far back as that part of my family goes. There’s a Bible with the names and dates of the people born in that part of the family going back to almost when they came here in the 1700’s, but it’s so old that the ink has run… It was always said that at least by the outbreak of the Civil War, my dad’s mother’s people were free and thriving.
What are my conclusions? History is infinitely more complicated than we have been told. To pretend anything about the American South is as plain as black and white is a gross oversimplification. When the latest Hollywood release or the newest political bandwagon tells you otherwise, question the narrative. When another Confederate statue is thrown down the memory hole, think about Mr. Brown’s surprising family and the lessons they hold for us all. Think of the white indentured servants whose necks were red from working the fields while their cracker families cracked corn because there was nothing else to eat. No, history is never as simple as black and white.