Aside from a handful of professional historians, history buffs and perhaps a few fans of the movie “Glory,” most African-Americans regard the Civil War with relative indifference. We pay our respects to black leaders of the era, and we may even examine the major political debates that once divided a nation. For most African-Americans, however, the Civil War was a series of events that played in the background while the black liberation struggle occupied the main stage.
This year, as Americans commemorate the 150th anniversary of major Civil War events including the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg, let us examine the complex relationship between African-Americans and the Civil War. The war was a pivotal moment in history that gave birth to modern democracy and led to the emancipation of enslaved blacks.
So why don’t black folks care?
First, this wasn’t our war. Many African-Americans fought and died on both sides of the conflict, but they were excluded from the decision-making process. Without political representation at the time, African-Americans have come to regard the Civil War and its memory as the white people’s burden. The black historical narrative places less emphasis on the Civil War itself and tends to highlight actions of African-Americans in response to the war. This seems practical, considering the modern African-American experience emerged directly from individual and collective actions of blacks during and after the Civil War.
Exploring African-American perspectives on the war also means confronting the painful history of slavery. Certainly, the causes of the Civil War were many — preservation of the Union, conflicts over states’ rights and changing meanings of freedom. To be sure, slavery was at the heart of the conflict. For many Americans, slavery is still a sensitive topic, one that is often too difficult to discuss.
But the Civil War led to the abolition of slavery, right? Maybe. But abolition became possible only once the nation had been torn apart by war, violence and unimaginable bloodshed. For many, this hardly feels like something worth commemorating.
Even if African-Americans observed the Civil War as a proverbial launch pad for liberation, the path toward emancipation and equality has been long and arduous. Immediately following the war, the former Confederate states began enacting black codes to restrict the freedoms of slaves not yet fully emancipated. Jim Crow segregation quickly replaced slavery as the primary obstacle to freedom and citizenship for the next 100 years. For African-Americans, the Civil War and emancipation fell short of their promise.
But perhaps it is time to reexamine our relationship with the Civil War. It may not have been a magical moment for black liberation, but the war was a critical step toward achieving equality and full citizenship for all Americans, and that is definitely worth remembering.
Natasha L. McPherson is visiting assistant professor of U.S. and African-American history at Spelman College.