I belong to a Facebook group that shares thoughts about local history in and around Fredericktown, Missouri, the small town that figures in the setting of my novels. Most of the posts to this group are of the “who remembers that quaint cafe on the corner?” or “does anyone recognize the man in this photo?” variety, but yesterday, one of the members posted this sobering reminder that the little town we bathe in nostalgia also participated, like the rest of the slaveholding part of the country, in the great evil that tore the country apart. It’s disquieting to remember, yet with only the slightest effort, such reminders are all around. A recent moment’s idle curiosity into the origins of some old-time songs led to some intense discomfort at the astonishingly racist lyrics of turn-of-the-century popular songs. And I recall a time, some years ago, when I was editing a manuscript of the journals of an early citizen of the Arcadia Valley, reading with horror his childhood account of a lynching on the railroad bridge over Stouts Creek. The horror was particularized because this was a bridge I had idly viewed from my car window hundreds of times.
The task for anyone interested in history is to see it whole, not just the parts that reflect well upon our forbears. I’m reminded of that whenever I give a talk about Missouri during the Civil War, because just about nobody of that era comes out well in the moral light of the present day. People will tell me with an element of pride, “My family never owned slaves” or “My family owned slaves, but treated them well” as though those conditions made them exemplary. Let’s face it, owning a human being pretty much rules out the “treated well” claim, and the overwhelming majority of Missourians didn’t object to the practice of slavery, whether they owned slaves or not. Apart from a handful of abolitionists, and the slave families themselves, most Missourians accepted the practice either explicitly or implicitly, with even those who were against slavery holding only the vague hope that it would wither away somehow in the future.
What does this tell us? Not that our ancestors were evil, necessarily. But that they were flawed, and that they countenanced evil things…..just like us.