Sam Burnham, Curator
We might as well hit the ground running with a rebuttal early this year.
Georgia Public Radio’s show On Second Thought recently broadcast an interview with the authors of one of those studies that spring up here and there. Longtime readers will remember OST as the show I appeared on regularly in the old Breakroom days. So I want to say now that I’ve got a soft spot for the show and GPB and mean no ill will toward either in this rebuttal.
Back to the study. Well, it’s more of an article. To be specific, it’s an article by members of the Left-leaning organization The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. The article is called “The Costs of the Confederacy” and purports to be investigating the amount of tax money being spent on Confederate memorials. And it’s almost as contorted as an earlier story that OST did on a paper on the correlation between support for memorials and knowledge of Southern History. That paper was subsequently discredited in a two part series at ABG.
One more sidebar before we get into the study and interview - slavery was an issue that led to the Civil War. Slavery was an inexcusable injustice and a barbaric institution that we're all better off without. And while the recent push is to make the Confederacy about slavery and slavery alone in an effort to bury the other numerous issues that led to the war, we must never ignore the role of slavery or justify it in any way. Period.
Much of the article in question (and the interview) focuses on a visit the authors made to Beauvoir in Mississippi. I have never been to Beauvoir and I cannot really comment on that site. I'd also add that the audio of the woman describing slavery as "both good and bad" is a gross misrepresentation of the institution and the people involved in both sides of it. I can't even see where omitted context could have helped that statement. It was just wrong.
But then they bring up Mr. Stephens and that’s where I can’t just sit in silence. It’s all too predictable that they say “people who know about Stephens mostly know about this fiery speech...” blah, blah, blah. If the only thing you know about Alexander Hamilton Stephens is the so-called Cornerstone Speech, don’t go on the radio acting like you know something about Alexander Hamilton Stephens, because you don’t.
What is in question is funding for the state park that bears his name - the park built on what was once his estate, later entrusted to the state and converted into an 1,177 acre park with hiking and equestrian trails, camping, lodging, paddle boats, picnic shelters, a small Civil War museum, Liberty Hall, the home Stephens built and then rebuilt. There’s also a monument where he and his brother, Linton, are buried.
Here’s my beefs with what they say about this park:
First, they talk like all the money is going to the home, museum, and monument. The home is far from well kept, obviously suffering from a lack of funding. When we visited we had to call the park office and a park ranger drove down to unlock the buildings and provide us with a tour. The park is understaffed and no dedicated docent is available. There’s money being spent here but not on the things they’re claiming it is.
Next, they state that the enslaved people are not mentioned other than to speak of Stephens as a benevolent owner. In reality, the home of Harry and Eliza (yes, you even learn their names) is a major part of the tour. It’s one of just a few sites I’ve found that depict the homes of the enslaved people who lived at the site. You learn that the couple fell in love and that Stephens purchased Eliza from a neighboring plantation so she could marry Harry. Benevolent or not, that’s an oddity that shouldn’t be lost on anyone. It’s a picture of the reality of slavery. While you learn that Harry and Eliza, like almost all of the slaves at Liberty Hall, stayed with Stephens after emancipation, you also learn of their son whom Stephens paid to send to law school in the North as there were no law schools for blacks in The South - again, looks benevolent but it's really a picture of the reality of the lack of opportunity for blacks in The South.
For these two men to say they toured Liberty Hall and didn’t learn anything about the reality of slavery there isn’t just inaccurate, it’s blatantly dishonest. And the reason for the dishonesty is because the article is written with an agenda. In the authors’ minds there is no space for anything positive about The South or the Confederacy. And while a narrative of a guiltless Confederacy is inaccurate, to deny that issues other than slavery played a role in not only the war, but also the ways these leaders helped shape the path of the nation is just as inaccurate and just as wrong.
The mission must be to dig in, find the truth, and discuss it. If you have to lie, then there’s something seriously wrong with your position. And seeing the misrepresentation they are freely spreading, it makes me wonder what else in their findings is also dishonest. What else do they cover up or fabricate to steer the conversation?
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire