Servants versus Slaves–More than an issue of semantics

On Sunday the Library of Virginia is closed, so I took the afternoon off to see some Richmond sights. I picked the Museum and White House of the Confederacy as my first entertainment. Since Richmond was the capital of the CSA for most of its short existence, I wanted to see how this museum portayed the South and its cause.

I must be clear about this. I think the Civil War is among the greatest tragedies of our country’s history. I also think slavery was at the root of the conflict and that those who fought for disunion were doing so in part to protect their ecomonic security. I also tend to think of characters like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as traitors, not as brave men fighting for a Lost Cause. But enough about that.

The Museum itself is three floors of Confederate memorabilia, with only a small corner of space dedicated to the lives of African-Americans before and during the war. Visitors can give money to preserve Confederate flags and can buy ties with the Stars and Bars. I found the celebration of “Confederate Nationalism” a tad tasteless…One exhibit, focusing on the lives of Confederate soldiers, was titled “The Hope of Eight Million People.” That would be, for all who are not aware, eight million WHITE people. The approximately four million enslaved African-Americans were presumably not so excited about Johnny Reb.

The second portion of the Museum is the actual White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis and his family lived from the autumn of 1861 until they fled the city in April 1865. The tour was led by a volunteer docent.

I became aware almost immediately that the tour was slanted to give much more information about the house’s white occupants. In fact, the docent repeatedly referred to the family’s “servants,” who cooked and cleaned and guided guests to the appropriate parlors. After a few rooms of this, I asked the docent if when she said “Servants” she was referring to “slaves.”

“Well,” she responded, a little flustered I think, “we prefer to refer to them as servants on this tour.”

“Oh,” I said. “You mean these people were paid wages, could go home at night, and never had to be afraid of having their families broken up when one of them was sold down the river.”

“Well, no,” she said. And promptly took another question from a woman about the provenance of a particular oil painting.

After that, I must say I made a nuisance of myself. Everytime she said “servant,” I coughed loudly and said “slave.” I think everyone else on that tour was very glad to have it done with, although with typical Southern manners no one said anything to me.

At the end of the tour I asked the docent where the slave quarters had been. She pointed out the location, and I asked why there was no memorial. She shrugged. I inquired as to where Jefferson Davis’s slaves had come from. Her response (and this is a direct quote), “Oh, he brought fifteen or twenty nigra servants with him from Mississippi.”

My jaw dropped open. I was so appalled I could scarcely contain myself, but at the same time didn’t know quite what to say. The docent wandered off and a left in a hurry. I am sure I was red in the face and deeply embarassed just to have heard such a word, let alone to have actually been talking to a person who would use it to described enslaved African-Americans.

Some might suggest that the issue of whether or not you refer to human property as a servant or a slave is a silly thing to quibble over. But the real problem here is that by referring to slaves as servants this docent rendered slavery benign and harmless, pushing it to the background of a conflict she wants to believe was about law and secession. She wished to inculcate in visitors a vision in which the plantation South was full of happy black people who served their masters faithfully. For her, slavery wasn’t a tragedy at all. And therein, I think, lies the key to understanding America’s continuing race problems. Until Southerners can be brought to understand why slavery was such a disaster, I fear there is no end in sight to racism.

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