What To Do With History?

Last week, I wrote about my wife’s incredible plan to get me to a research library, The Kenan Research Center, located at the Atlanta History Center in order to give me a thoughtful gift, linking me to my beloved grandfather, Glen Pollard. I am no stranger to the History Center as I have been a participating member for years, but I had never been to the research arm.

My history professor at Emory, Bell Wiley, introduced me to several Atlanta history royals such as Franklin Garrett and my dad’s friend, Bev Dubose. Both of these men of distinction have contributed mightily to the Atlanta History Center. Later, my Civil War Roundtable friend, Bill Scaife, would join me there in its hallowed halls, with maps of the Atlanta battlefield. It’s a fine resource for one wanting to dive into the heritage of this city, including the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and the emergence of the spiritual base for Civil Rights . Recently, it added the famed painting of the Battle of Atlanta, formerly housed in the Cyclorama, located in Grant Park.

I have a photo of my mom and myself as a child, produced from one of those photo booths that would crank out four sequential pictures in black and white. I don’t know my exact age, but it was my introduction to the lore of the Civil War. I would later return many times with my grandfather to “do” the tour of the painting, led by a docent…before I knew what a docent was. He or she were the persons who talked about the battle, while pointing to corresponding parts of the diorama with an ingenious tool for it’s time, a flashlight with the tip of an arrow fashioned to focus the light.

One would emerge onto a platform, inside a building that housed this ginormous painting…..it was so large that I stooped to employ the word “ginormous”. Lord have mercy.

The painting has an amazing history itself, having been painted during the 1880’s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin ( I note that this is one other thing we “took” from Milwaukee, including our Atlanta Braves!). This painting was produced during the heyday of “cyclorama”, picturing all kinds of historical moments, even Custer’s Last Stand, the Chicago Fire, and one that would have been popular with the South of God crowd, Christ’s Triumphant Entry Into Jerusalem. But fresh from the Civil War, what better scene than a battlefield. It was sort of the IMAX of the day, giving a 3-D experience not unlike the stereoscope view, the ViewMasters of the time. At the time of its painting, in the North, it was to commemorate a battle that sealed the fate of the Southern revolution, not to praise the rebels, the losers with a capital L.

Like every media platform, cycloramas saw its day, enjoyed it, and then receded in popularity. The painting itself was used in a Presidential campaign of Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate, who was painted into the historical painting to show him as a hero in the battle, even though he had not been present. Lying is not new to presidential politics. It is reported that it gave him the electoral votes due to the vote in Indiana where the painting resided at the time, publicized by the newspapers. Even though he did not win the popular vote in America, Indiana gave him the electoral victory, reminding me of another trend that is not new to our day. The deception was discovered after the election, causing great consternation resulting in the firing of the manager of the Cyclorama, but with the Presidency remaining in the imposter’s hands. Here I note the actual antipathy caused by deception from a campaign, an art that we have obviously lost.

As the popularity of cycloramas faded, the painting was sold in 1891 to a third-rate P. T, Barnum promoter from Georgia, Paul Atkinson. He moved it to Chattanooga which happened to coincide with the emergence of The Lost Cause phenomenon, as people in the South sought to rewrite history. Rather than being fought over slavery, the war was recast as a battle over states rights, most egregiously framed as the War of Northern Aggression. The original painting was to depict a significant turning point in the war, a time when morale was flagging in the North, and Lincoln’s chances of reelection was questionable. Instead, Willian Tecumseh Sherman’s victory in Atlanta and subsequent march to the sea proved to be a turning point in the war, most importantly boosting Lincoln’s political status, allowing him to stay in office to finish his work. But as the painting came to Chattanooga, the painting was hawked as “the only Confederate victory ever painted”.

Viewed in the rearview mirror, it’s almost funny. The Union generals were repainted as monsters, butchers, invaders whereas the Confederate generals were airbrushed into dignified nobility with chiseled profiles, heroic in stature. One scene in particular is telling. In the original, a scene showed some Rebels in gray being taken prisoner. And in the hands of the captor Union soldier was a rumpled, muddied, captured Confederate flag, symbolizing the end of the rebellion and defeat. This did not jive with the image of The Lost Cause and the noble South, and so some blue paint was applied turning the captured Rebels into Union soldiers cowardly running away from the battle. There is history, and then there is interpretation. And whoever owns the canvas, gets to apply the paint.

Through several ownerships, the painting was moved to Atlanta itself, the place of the famed battle, in 1891. The Cyclorama lived in a building at the Grant Park Zoo, where it stayed until my birthday in 2015, June 30th. I really don’t know how many times I viewed it at the Grant Park location. I was fascinated with the musical bed of Dixie that would play, quickening a Southerner’s heart rate. And the lighting was my first experience of the effect of a rheostat to bring the lights up and down dramatically, with spotlights to guide one’s eyes to appointed scenes in the canvas, focusing awareness in a dynamic dance. To a young child, it was mesmerizing.

I remember an odd thing, a mannequin resembling Clark Gable, dead in the foreground diorama. How did he get there? By mentioning to the mayor that the only thing that would make it more enjoyable to the real-life Rhett Butler, that he be included. Like good, hospitable Southerners, they obliged….but I’m guessing not in the way he would have preferred, mounted on horseback on a white stallion triumphantly charging the Yankee headquarters. That is the Southern way, putting our arm around your shoulder as we kick you in the ass. During my fifty years, my experience of the Atlanta Cyclorama went from awe, to reverence, to questioning, to curiosity, and finally amusement. It was a lively if tragic part of my growing up in Atlanta. Like most of my life, as I keep finding, it was a mixed blessing.

The painting is three stories high, longer than a football field, and was placed in a cylindrical building. It reopened at its current site in Buckhead at the Atlanta History Center in 2019. It was restored to its original state, removing colors, Confederate flags, and Benjamin Harrison from the painting. Some old-line Civil War aficionados were bothered by the changes, but have seemed to survive the onslaught of accuracy . As the curator commented, the Cyclorama is no longer serving in the role of a barker’s attraction, or a political ad for The Lost Cause, but is being viewed an artifact of history, something that one might study in order to gain perspective, maybe even a lesson or two. The restorers were trying to go back to the original painting of 1886, to capture more of the truth that is beneath the canvas. Again, the one that owns the canvas determines tone of the painting.

It was in the shadow of rediscovering the Cyclorama, and its hidden history, that I found myself watching the amazing work of Henry Louis Gates on the period of history least known by me, Reconstruction. It aired on my local PBS station this past weekend, and I watched it for my third time.

The first was when it originally aired in 2019. And then I watched it again last year during my facilitation of an Episcopal program known as Sacred Ground, an experiential learning opportunity around race in this country. And again, for the third time, last weekend, in this peculiar time in the life of our country, where people seem frightened of looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly of our history.

Each time I watched this remarkable documentary, I was shocked at the history of the era that I had simply not heard that much about. The enormity of attempting to alter the Southern culture with mere changes in the law seemed to me destined for failure. Fail it did, reverting to a more subtle form of domination, again economically driven. We went from a half-ass try at Reconstruction, to the white South reclaiming its rightful superiority over inferior black, codified in the Jim Crow laws, and segregation. We seem to want to gingerly skip over the fact that an African-American was lynched, burned alive, or mutilated every week from 1890 for fifty years…FIFTY. I am offended when I read this statistic, troubled in my soul as I type it in 2022. But it is fact. It is our history. And it should not be ignored as we honor our high aspirations of “all created equal” while simultaneously getting real about how poorly we have performed in actuality at times. We can not hide from this history, repaint it so that it doesn’t bother our sensibilities. We must face who we have been as we celebrate our progress, all the while striving for better,

As a student of cultural change in organizations, I know change to be daunting, full of hazards, often failing. And the main reason is: Culture is powerful. It’s in the marrow of our bones, the values, the assumptions about reality. Culture exists just below the surface of any human grouping, be it a family, a city, an organization, a congregation, a state, a region, even a country. To suggest a change in that embedded culture evokes anxiety, then fear, and eventually anger over something that is being taken away from me. We often wind up unconsciously projecting that negativity on some “other” who is perceived as the enemy. Examples are as close as the front page of your newspaper, or leading story on your newscast, regardless as to the day.

One only has to look around and open one’s eyes. But, like a fish who is merrily swimming along, we do not “see” or recognize the water that surrounds us. We take it for granted. (When I was a child, I remember saying mistakenly, “I take it for granite” being raised in the shadow of granite monolith of Stone Mountain. Looking back, there was deep insight embedded in my innocent words). We all live in cultures, that for the most part, of which we are unaware.

One might say that the Civil War was a cultural war, one that some might say we are still fighting. Recent polls show that many people in our country are expecting an armed civil war, as once again, an internal conflict emerges in a particular moment in history. But I’m not buying it. We are, at depth, better than that. We pull together in crisis, thrown together like belligerent children by their forceful Mother, when we face adversity. Pearl Harbor, 9/11 come to mind. What will it take today for disparate factions, who have toxic contempt in our hearts for one another that pull and drive us apart.

In Ft. Myers yesterday, where I have worked for the last seven years, President Biden and Governor DeSantis talked, affirming one another’s response to the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Ian, transcending, if but for a moment, the terrible partisan divide that tears at the heart of our country. Again, in the face of disaster unspeakable, recovery uncertain, we come together. Is it possible for us to look squarely at our history, world history, where we see patterns that repeat themselves over and over, recognize them, and then choose a better way?

Truly, I do not know. I find myself in despair more these days as I awake each morning to division. Our inability to listen carefully to one another seems habitual, like an addiction, a “jones” we can not kick . Rather than seizing on common aspirations, we choke on details as to how we might proceed in “purity”, as if we had a straightline to some authority we invoke. But I am committed to try to find a way through this dark night of our country’s soul. I am working by listening Care-Fully to others, finding a process of Creative Interplay by which we can learn to engage one another over things that matter to all people.

Humor helps me to make it through the day. My old friend, Mark Twain, chides me in my overwhelming seriousness. Carlin shakes me from my defensive resignation with his prophetic probes into my soul. But today it was the conservative wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill who is supposed to have said: Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing….after all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

He may or may not have said this. But as we say in the South, if he didn’t, he should have.

5 thoughts on “What To Do With History?

  1. David, thank you for your lesson in US History. I guess being from Flanders it will take me at least till next Thursday to digest this great introduction in what I thought being the Civil War and what is called in the South as ‘the Lost Cause’. So I am not able to give some decent comment on your brilliant blog that will give me supplementary insights, that nobody else could give me, about the different mindsets … Different mindsets that still divide the US. Different mindsets that gave birth, if I understood correctly, to different brands of Baptists… the North and the South…

    I am still puzzled by a lot of things about the History of the US and I thank you for the data you give me in your blog to start appreciatively understanding what’s going on over there…



  2. Love this one, David. . .

    Took me back to Lombardy and Monument Avenue in Richmond, where I spent the first five years if life and where ’The Parsonage’ was until my Grandfather died when I was 15 and the bottom dropped out for a while. Yep, the statue of JEB Stuart sat right outside all those years. Facing North because he died in battle. . .

    Somehow, like you, I managed to move through and beyond those heart-felt yet clearly-racist memes, like singing ‘Dixie’ in and meaning it. Thank GOD!

    But I am embarrassed beyond words for being totally unconscious of the evil in all that, even while living in a mostly-black neighborhood for my pre-teen years.

    Keep ‘em coming, man!




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