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Historical Memory and the Race Relations Institute

This post was written by guest blogger Dr John Giggie. Dr John Giggie is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and Director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South. He served on the editorial board for the Adam Matthew resource Race Relations in America, and his research specialises in the American South, African American history, and American religious history.

Publicity material for the 1969 Race Relations Institute, available in Race Relations in America. Image © Amistad Research Center, further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image.

Recently the issue of race and public memory has ignited long-simmering passions in American cities and states over how to properly record and represent the past. On May 18, 2017, the mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana, Mitch Landrieu, finally achieved his goal – the removal of the 80-foot statue of General Robert E. Lee from a downtown site; the last of four towering monuments to the Confederacy that had stabbed the skyline for over 130 years. All now gone, the other three included Confederate president Jefferson Davis, General P. G. T. Beauregard, who was in charge of the first shots fired in the war, and a general commemorative statue to the 1873 bloody overthrow of the post-war bi-racial government by white supremacists. The workers removing the statues had received death threats, and so operated under the cover of darkness, wore bulletproof vests, and were protected by police. Shouts of support and anger filled the air as protest groups gathered to voice their opinions. Mayor Landrieu defended his actions by arguing that “these monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for." How Americans literally remembered the truth about the past was at stake. As Landrieu argued, putting “the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past.” [1]

At the same time, the neighboring state of Alabama passed a law forbidding such events. The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act prohibits any governmental entity from removing historical monuments older than 40 years, including but not limited to Confederate ones, as well as from renaming a building or street. On the occasion of the bill’s signing, its chief sponsor, State Senator Gerald Allen of Tuscaloosa, stressed that the Act “is intended to preserve all of Alabama’s history ― the good and the bad ― so our children and grandchildren can learn from the past to create a better future.”[2] Earlier he had said that he hoped that the Act would end the “wave of political correctness” engulfing the nation. 

Extract from publicity for the 1969 Race Relations Institute, available in Race Relations in America. Image © Amistad Research Center, further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image.

These two dramatically different views of how the past should be interpreted bring me to the Race Relations Department, founded in 1942 by the American Missionary Association as a response to rising racial tensions in mid-twentieth America. The records of the Department have been digitized for Adam Matthew's resource, Race Relations in America. A central mission of the Department was to fundamentally change how citizens understood the place of race and black Americans in the nation’s history. It recognized that history itself – or rather an honest portrayal of the struggle and successes of all Americans – was a powerful antidote to currents of racism that flowed through the public. To that end, it regularly hosted the Institute of Race Relations at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and offered coursework and lectures aimed at demonstrating the ill effects of racism on America’s past and the need to remember it more accurately. In this brochure advertising the Institute’s annual session for 1969, the “Purpose” section testifies to the historical need to “create a society free from ‘the sins of caste.’” Participants would confront “the growing struggle to achieve power and pride by Black Americans, Spanish-speaking Americans, and Indian Americans.”

Advert for the public evening lectures available during the 1952 Race Relations Institute, available in Race Relations in America. Image © Amistad Research Center, further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image.

Central to this task was to teach about the racial sins of the past. The Race Relations Department and its Institute eventually became the Amistad Research Center in 1966, among the very first organizations dedicated to preserving the history and memory of the African American past. Its mission of teaching about the variety of American experiences is as vital today as at its founding, as we struggle to accurately represent historical truth and fact in our public lives. 

Race Relations in America is available now. Full access to this resource is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a licence. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to info@amdigital.co.uk.


Endnotes

[1] The full speech can be found here: http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2017/05/mayor_landrieu_speech_confeder.html [Accessed 4 July 2017]

[2] Senator Allen's words can be read here: http://uk.businessinsider.com/alabama-confederate-memorials-bill-2017-5?r=US&IR=T [Accessed 4 July 2017]





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