“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” President Abraham Lincoln famously said upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1862.
Of course, we cannot know for certain if these were Lincoln’s exact words to Stowe, but the quote endures, even if it is folklore, because it expresses a fundamental truth about the popularity and the persuasiveness of Stowe’s book, which, at that point, was more than a decade old.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a phenomenally successful book. In its first year, it sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States, the equivalent of around 4.1 million copies today (though if you adjust the number to account for the proportion of the population who could legally purchase a book in 1852, it’d be at Harry Potter levels).
Its influence and its lasting legacy are impossible to overstate. A year later, in 1853, Solomon Northup published his memoir 12 Years a Slave, which he dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe and which sold a respectable 30,000 copies in its first year.
Both of these books changed the course of American history, and although Stowe’s book was a work of fiction and Northup’s an autobiography, they were both set in plantations located less than 50 miles apart, on opposite sides of the Red River in Central Louisiana.
I was born and raised in Central Louisiana. My great aunt Sue Eakin spent 70 of her 90 years on this planet researching and championing Solomon Northup’s story, ensuring that his powerful testimony would not be lost to the dustbin of history. When Steve McQueen, the director of the movie 12 Years a Slave, accepted the Academy Award for Best Picture, he thanked Aunt Sue, who had since passed away, from the stage and in front of millions of people across the globe.
Yet even today, despite the global success and acclaim of McQueen’s film, there is not a single monument or a single street or a single public building in the entire state of Louisiana named after Solomon Northup. Harriet Beecher Stowe has been resigned to the footnotes as well. Her name appears only briefly in a couple of brochures promoting tourism in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
William Tecumseh Sherman, the controversial Union general, was the founding President of what is now Louisiana State University, and there isn’t a single monument or street or building in the entire state of Louisiana named after him either. LSU may be proud of its football team, but they’ve never been particularly proud of the Yankee general who fathered their school.
Sherman wasn’t the only famous Union general who lived in my hometown. General George Armstrong Custer settled in Alexandria for several months in 1865, and similarly, his name has been scrubbed from local history.
A block away from Lee Street in Downtown Alexandria and on the grounds of the Rapides Parish Courthouse, there is a prominent monument to the Confederacy. An hour to the west, the seat of Vernon Parish is named Leesville, honoring a man who had never even visited the place. An hour south of Leesville and you’re in Jefferson Davis Parish, named after a man whose only real personal connection to Louisiana was through the family of his in-laws. Sherman and Custer may not be deserving of an honorific, but their connection to Louisiana was much more personal than Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis, men whose names are practically ubiquitous in the state.
We need to put all of this in perspective.
In Louisiana, for far too long, we have refused to tell the whole story. We’ve honored traitors who never lived here, and we’ve celebrated a brief four years of failure and violence as if it is somehow the most important chapter in our entire history as a people and a state. And in so doing, we have ignored and denied dignity to the stories and the legacies of so many brave and patriotic citizens of our great state who fought for civil rights and equality.
In New Orleans, small children and elderly grandparents, among others, were stripped completely naked, forced to stand on the auction block, subjected to molestation and assault, and then sold like chattel to white people who forced them to work without pay in antebellum concentration camps, who separated them from their families, who raped them, who lynched them, and who frequently murdered anyone merely for having the audacity to decide to learn how to read.
This happened to more than one million people who were just as much of an American as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. It was an experience shared by tens of thousands of people, over the course of multiple generations, who had much more of a connection to New Orleans or Louisiana than Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis ever had.
If you seriously believe that the monuments celebrating white supremacy and the white heroes of the Confederacy are an important part of the built environment of the city of New Orleans or the state of Louisiana, please spare all of us the lectures about “learning from our history” or the revisionist drivel about how the Civil War was about economics and not slavery. It’s only about economics if you subscribe to the evil belief that human beings could ever be conflated with property.
This is not too complicated. The Civil War was fought over slavery. Period. And anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to themselves and to the world in order to justify some sort of misplaced nostalgia they were taught to have for a past they believe was genteel and simple but was actually unforgivably brutal and deranged.
And if you truly care about defending Louisiana’s history, then you should resist those who fetishize or romanticize the Confederacy, because those four pathetic years do not deserve sentimentality; they do not warrant public glorification or validation.
Let us instead celebrate the lives and the legacies of those among us who were brave enough to tell their stories of enslavement, and, in so doing, bend the arc of history toward justice.
Let us honor, instead, those among us who fought to perfect our union, not those who battled to preserve pernicious and institutionalized cruelty against our own citizens.