Reprinted from Consortium News
Whenever there's a suggestion that the Confederate battle flag should be retired to museums or that the name of Confederate President Jefferson Davis should be removed from major highways, there comes the predictable accusation that such moves amount to "rewriting our history" -- but nothing could be further from the truth. It's a case of recognizing the real history.
What America needs -- perhaps now more than ever -- is a serious re-examination of its true history, not the pleasant palliatives offered in textbooks approved by Southern-dominated boards appointed by right-wing politicians. Under such benighted tutelage, popular U.S. history as taught in public schools has become primarily a brainwashing exercise, an ideological foundation for "American exceptionalism," the jumping-off point for today's endless wars.
A June 24 column by Harold Meyerson cited a recent book -- The Half Has Never Been Told by Cornell University history professor Edward Baptist -- that explodes the enduring white Southern myth of the kindly and beneficent plantation. Baptist argues that even the word "plantation" should be tossed into the trash bin of historical euphemisms, replaced by the more accurate phrase "slave labor camp," albeit one with a large, pretty house in the center.
"Torture" is also a word that should apply, Baptist argues, with African-American slaves routinely whipped for falling short of their production quotas. This behavior was not just common among the most ignorant of Southern slaveholders but was a practice employed even by Thomas Jefferson.
According to documents at Monticello, Jefferson had slave boys as young as 10 whipped. In another important book that strips away the excuses employed to ameliorate the evils of slavery, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by historian Henry Wiencek disclosed a plantation report to Jefferson explaining that his nail factory was doing well because "the small ones" -- ages 10, 11 and 12 -- were being whipped by overseer, Gabriel Lilly, "for truancy."
Jefferson and other slaveholders in the older slave states like Virginia, where the soil had become over-farmed and depleted, also found financial salvation in breeding slaves for the newer (and even more brutal) slave states of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Jefferson even calculated that a fertile female had a higher financial value than a strapping male in the fields, all the better to help him pay for his extravagant lifestyle and cover his mounting debts. (According to Wiencek's book and many other accounts, Jefferson also personally contributed to the breeding process by imposing himself sexually on his female property.)
The Deep South
Baptist's book provides an overview of the slave economy as more than 800,000 slaves from the Mid-Atlantic region were sold to the Deep South's cotton planters who employed even a crueler system than in Virginia and Maryland. Slaves often were forced to travel by foot and in chains and worked under the constant "threat of torture."
Even after slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment at the end of the Civil War, Southern whites refused to accept their guilt in the atrocities inflicted on African-Americans. Many whites fancied themselves the victims of "Yankee aggression" as they replaced slavery with another grotesque system, Jim Crow segregation often enforced by lynching blacks.
Around 1920, at the height of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, the Daughters of the Confederacy honored Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who before the war had been a prominent Mississippi slaveholder, by naming major roadways in the South after him, including stretches of Route 1 in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
That roadway skirted some historic African-American neighborhoods settled by slaves freed by President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Many ex-slaves -- escaping the Confederacy -- ended up in a refugee camp called Freedman's Village not far from the current site of the Pentagon.
During the Civil War, the area also was the location of Camp Casey, a training base for U.S. Colored Troops who then marched south to fight to end slavery. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Mystery of the Civil War's Camp Casey."]
Under orders of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his War Department, captured black Union troops were not to be treated as soldiers but rather as slaves in insurrection, meaning that they could be executed or put into slavery regardless of their pre-war status. In several battles late in the Civil War, surrendering USCT solders were murdered, apparently including some of the soldiers from Camp Casey at the Battle of the Crater.
So, the message of Jefferson Davis Highway was always a warning to African-Americans that they were never too far from the hand of white power. The message of Southern white defiance was repeated in 1964 when Jefferson Davis's name was added to a stretch of Route 110 near the Pentagon as a Virginian riposte to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.