Let’s be clear. Our ancestors fought the American Civil War over slavery, one group of people owning another group of people as property.
At the Stowe Center we understand the deep, profound importance of this truth—because the issues Stowe wrote to bring awareness to in the 19th century persist in the 21st century. In other words white supremacy continues to flourish.
If we are going to work together for a just and equitable world, it is essential to understand the root cause of the many systems of oppression that continue to operate—systems that encourage dehumanizing and othering groups that are not your group and systems that deliberately work to keep those in power powerful. If we continue to side step the truth, we will never acknowledge it, face it, and fix it.
I was shaken when a presidential candidate cited states’ rights as the reason for the Civil War. When called out by a reporter who asserted the Civil War was fought over slavery, the candidate said: “I was thinking past slavery and talking about the lesson that we would learn going forward. I shouldn’t have done that. I should have said slavery. But in my mind, that’s a given that everybody associates the Civil War with slavery.”
Unfortunately that association of the Civil War to slavery does not include everybody. In fact, 55 to 75% of teachers, regardless of their race believe the Civil War was fought for states’ rights. James Loewen, a scholar of race, in his essay Getting the Civil War Right says: “Understanding why the Civil War began informs virtually all the attitudes about race that we wrestle with today. The distorted emphasis on states’ rights separates us from the role of slavery and allows us to deny the notions of white supremacy that fostered secession.”
Disinformation, misleading or straight-up wrong information, makes all of us victims of the loudest, most persistent voices. And our best defense against lies, fabrications, and white washing is increasing our personal knowledge. Read, read, read. Double and triple check the “facts” you are reading and hearing about. And then talk with others about what you learned or lived so we can learn even more from each other.
Harriet Beecher Stowe and her family regularly had debates over the dinner table, in letters, and on the front porch with neighbors. They informed themselves about issues, formed opinions, then tested those opinions in conversations, that undoubtedly sometimes became heated. Without this engagement—and the narratives of enslaved and self-emancipated people like Frederick Douglass, Josiah Henson, and Harriet Jacobs—Stowe would not have had the opportunity to hone her skills in persuasive (and emotional) literary activism.
In support of truth, I will reassert: Let’s be clear. Our ancestors fought the American Civil War over slavery, one group of people owning another group of people as property.
It is necessary to the equity and justice of our future as a nation to never “forget” or “move past” the fact that our nation was built on the backs of people whose rights were stripped from them.
As a nation, we continue to grapple with racism often so ingrained in our culture that we do not always recognize it. In order to move forward we must open our eyes, recognize, acknowledge, and take action. For the Stowe Center taking action means offering programing to build awareness and to encourage equity.
The author of the 2021 Stowe Prize for Literary Activism Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, Eddie Glaude quotes James Baldwin in 1980: “What we are dealing with really is that for Black people in this country there is no legal code at all. We’re still governed, if that is the word I want, by the slave code.”
Recommended Reading: Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie Glaude
Karen Fisk is the Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. The Stowe Center is committed to exploring Stowe’s legacy and demythologizing history so that we can work together to build a just nation.