Illinois University Dialogue Assesses African-American Impact on Civil War

MACOMB, Ill. — S’thembile West has taken notice of a generation gap between her and her niece. The salt-and-pepper-haired professor of African American studies, Women’s Studies and English described this gap to a group of about 20 people at a Civil War discussion on Thursday evening in the Western Illinois University (WIU) Malpass Library.

“She’s 35, and she still asks me, ‘Why you always got to talk about all that Black stuff?’” said West of her niece. “But, for me, coming from a time when I still remember having to ride in the back of the bus, I can see that we’ve never really dealt with the issue of the Civil War and the enslavement—or the gradual enslavement, rather—of Black people.”

Thursday’s discussion “War and Freedom: How Did African-Americans Affect the Civil War?” was the final in a series of “Making Sense of the Civil War” talks, sponsored by the WIU Department of History and University Libraries through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association.

Throughout it, West and the other participants, ranging in experience from elementary school student to professor emeritus, hashed out the implications, both successes and shortcomings, that the Civil War had in terms of the struggle for African-Americans coming from post-slavery, through the Civil Rights era, to the election of a Black president.

At one point, West said she believed African-American Civil War heroes were written out of history, a problem that may have stunted the progress of the United States becoming what it could have become.

“I would have liked to have seen our country go a lot further, but the voices that are not there were truly significant,” she said. “And I really don’t think the nation can ever fully heal with the absence of those voices.”

Phyllis Self, dean of libraries, agreed and took the point slightly further.

“We have not had sufficient debate and change on culture and social injustice issues of race during the past four decades,” she said.

Other topics discussed included the widely supported post-Civil War policy of the colonization of former slaves to West Africa, which, by today’s standards, participants agreed, is now “laughable.”

“The idea of shipping African-Americans back to Africa was Lincoln’s way of kind of resolving this problem of what to do with Blacks once they were emancipated,” said local historian Marty Fischer. “Of course we can see a problem with this, but Lincoln was rationalizing it as the right thing to do.”

In mentioning President Abraham Lincoln’s erroneous logic, Self brought up Frederick Douglass and his insistence on leaving former slaves to their own devices, with suffrage alone.

But she and most others agreed on a lack of “tools to work out their own future” given to African-Americans, a shortcoming that prevails today.

“They were ill-prepared for freedom and lacked the education and skills necessary to take advantage of their new freedom,” said Self.

University librarian Felix Chu, a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan, answered her assertion with a differing perspective.

“What I’ve noticed is the White majority wants to prevent me from failure,” he said. “But I need to learn to fail and how to deal with failure if I want to succeed.”

The discussion also turned to the issue of “why change is so slow,” and why, 150 years later, racial inequality continues to pervade.

“You can’t legislate justice,” said West. “Some enforcer’s not standing over each of our shoulders. … Laws ultimately depend on the citizenry’s willingness to follow them.”

And a reoccurring theme in the discussion was that of “the icon,” as evidenced by post-discussion opinions from discussion participants.

“Our discussion of icons was important and was a neglected topic until last night,” said Self. “Lincoln was simply a man who was given great responsibilities. … We should not think of him as a man all knowing and doing all the right things.”

Discussion moderator and associate professor of history Tim Roberts said he was “struck” by attendees’ comments regarding Lincoln and Douglass and that, although a mere discussion in a university library hardly brings the nation closer to racial Utopia, he does hope the dialogue continues.

“I liked one participant’s comment that ‘no one is an icon,’” said Roberts. “I hope the discussions may somehow get us to think about how knowing about the Civil War not as iconography but as lived history, trials, triumphs, and errors can improve our perspective on where we are today in our race relations.”