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The 'Very Particular' History Being Presented At Confederate Sites


This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest, Brian Palmer, is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker who directed the film "Full Disclosure," based on his time embedded with Marines in Iraq. Now he lives in Richmond, Va., where he focuses on cleaning up cemeteries where African-Americans are buried. He's found that many of these cemeteries where former slaves are buried have been neglected, while the graves of confederate soldiers are well-maintained, often with public funds. Palmer has toured several Confederate historic sites and monuments across the South and found a distorted message that celebrates the Confederacy and often omits any mention of slavery.

He recently co-authored an article with Seth Freed Wessler about the substantial government funding that goes into these sites, including the home and library of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, in Biloxi, Miss. The story, called "The Costs Of The Confederacy" was a project of Type Investigations, Reveal, which produced a radio version, and the Smithsonian Magazine, where the print version appeared.

Well, Brian Palmer, welcome to FRESH AIR. You describe in this article visiting the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Mississippi. And you go on Muster Day, which is a day when re-enactors are there for some action. Just kind of tell us about it. Set the scene for us.

BRIAN PALMER: It is a really remarkable place. It's a 50-acre campus, a lot of new construction, a big, new library and also these old cottages, one of which Jefferson Davis lived when he wrote his memoirs. And he actually - that was the last place he lived. But I arrived on a day called School Day. And I witnessed about 600 to 700 kids - public school kids - black, white, Asian, Latino - wandering around this site outside. You had a lot of white people dressed up in 19th century garb, the uniforms of Confederate soldiers. And you had sutlers. Those are the people who sold provisions to folks. So it was - you know, it's a full-on weekend of Confederate re-enactment.

On the inside of the Jefferson Davis Library and Museum, there are displays about Davis, about the Civil War, various things. And they're a very particular kind of historical interpretation. You have to look very, very hard to find anything about slavery, the African-American experience, the enslavement of African-Americans. There's a little panel by the elevators that talks about a couple of formerly enslaved people who actually came back to the Davises after the end of slavery, which is very interesting. Those are true stories. And yet what they leave out is - there's a tremendous sin of omission. They don't, for example, talk about the huge number of enslaved people who escaped from Jefferson Davis' plantation. So that really caught my eye, along with all of these black children learning this Confederate mythology.

DAVIES: So what was the view presented of the issues the war was fought over?

PALMER: So states' rights is at the top. They never mention what the rights they were fighting for were, which is the right, generally speaking, to own other people. They talk about fighting for their heritage, their homeland, fighting against Northern aggression, all of those various things. And you can't tell an honest story about the Civil War and the period before the Civil War and Reconstruction without including African-American testimony and particular facts in your story. So the idea that we only get the perspective of the so-called loyal slaves - when I was there in between the musters, I saw some panels about black Confederates.

Now, this is something that's been disputed and debated hotly, but all of the scholarship is on the side of, there were no regiments. There was no substantial fighting force of black Confederates. Now we can look on the United States side, and we've got about 187,000 soldiers, including my great-grandfather. So that's what we're not hearing. So we're kind of circulating through this space and hearing these stories about what the power brokers were doing. The power brokers were clearly fighting to preserve the right to enslave other people.

DAVIES: You know, 50 years, when the South was segregated, you probably wouldn't have seen black people visiting such a site. You did. I'm wondering if you observed interactions between either black school kids or adults and, you know, the guides and re-enactors and whether there were interesting exchanges.

PALMER: When my partner Seth Freed Wessler talked to an African-American mother, she was aghast at what her daughter, her African-American daughter, was being told. She was being told this incomplete and this rather romantic picture of what the South was like under slavery. Her mother told her that she would've been property of Jefferson Davis. So this talk about, you know, Jefferson Davis being benevolent and so on and so forth - the people he owned were property just like any other slave owner.

DAVIES: So who runs Beauvoir, this Jefferson Davis home? And how are its operations funded?

PALMER: Beauvoir is run by the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is a chapter of the national Confederate heritage group. It's funded by donations by members. And then there's the $100,000 it gets every year from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. That money is earmarked for preservation of the historic aspects of Beauvoir. So that's the cottages that were built in the 1850s by the Brown family and that Jefferson Davis and his family lived in. So that $100,000 is supposed to go to that.

But what we found - what Seth and I found in our work was that there were tens of millions of dollars that went into the newer stuff at Beauvoir, including that $8 million library. And that was federal money. So Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of what was at Beauvoir, including their library museum. Rather than rebuild or renovate, they built an entirely new facility. So a huge amount of money has gone to Beauvoir in the past - well, since around 2005, 2006. We were curious about the messages that were being subsidized by tax dollars. And what we found, again, was something that was not history - was closer to ideology.

DAVIES: You write about efforts made to preserve and care for the graves of confederate soldiers and that in Virginia a lot of that money was routed through the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Tell us a little bit about that group.

PALMER: Every single person's ancestor deserves to be memorialized and deserves to have his or her final resting place taken care of. What we were looking into was the differential - the disparate funding for Confederate graves and cemeteries and the complete lack of funding for historic African-American cemeteries. So that's how I came to this story. I was actually working and doing documentation on restoring black cemeteries. And just down the street, there was Oakwood Cemetery. It's got a Confederate section. It's beautiful. It's pristine. It's well-maintained. Well, the city has a special deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They have a special right of entry agreement. And every year, the Sons of Confederate Veterans get a certain amount of money to maintain graves there. That money, as you said, Dave, is channeled through the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which is one of the main purveyors of this lost cause narrative. That money has been dispensed by the General Assembly since 1902. That's a pretty heavy-duty investment in one people's set of ancestors when cemeteries like East End and Evergreen and hundreds of similar cemeteries across the South - black cemeteries have been neglected. They have not been the beneficiary of these public funds, and that's the point. They were sending the money to the Confederate cemeteries, and they were starving these other places and other institutions across the African-American community.

DAVIES: Brian Palmer is a journalist who's written recently about public funding for Confederate monuments and the ideology of some of the groups that maintain them. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Brian Palmer who's a journalist. He recently co-authored a story with Seth Freed Wessler for the Smithsonian Magazine about taxpayer funding for Confederate monuments and groups that portray the Confederate cause as noble and slavery as a benign institution.

You have an interesting personal story and connection with the South, as in you didn't grow up there. How did you get interested in what's going on in Virginia?

PALMER: I didn't have a very strong relationship with either my dad or the South until he passed away in April 2011. My wife and I came down to go through his stuff, and we found a picture of nine old black people, including an aunt and my dad, standing behind a handmade headstone with the name Matthew Palmer on it. I knew almost nothing about Matthew Palmer. No one in the family did other than he was my great grandfather. So I tried to arrange a trip to that cemetery 'cause I knew what the place was. It was Camp Perry. My dad had talked for years as I was growing up about getting thrown off the family land where they had a farm - they had animals - to create this military base. And it was a traumatic and riveting experience for him.

DAVIES: Did you ever find the headstone of Matthew Palmer, your ancestor who fought for the Union Army?

PALMER: Oh, absolutely. So that headstone is out in the open, and it's actually in a burial ground which is right next to a shooting range. So it's an area that's kept pretty clear. So I found it immediately. We were taken directly to it.

DAVIES: And what did you learn about your own ancestors there?

PALMER: Matthew Palmer who's the ancestor buried there - nobody in the family knew much of anything. We dug, and we dug. We found his Union pension application. We found a number of different pieces of his past. It's very difficult to assemble the story of someone - an African-American born before 1865 because they were - well, if you were enslaved, you were treated as property. So his history really starts from 1865, but he gets to tell this story in his Union pension application. So we were able to find out a number of amazing things, including the name of the last person who owned him in Goochland County, Va. So that's really what started us on this tremendous journey first to figure out who he is and then who Julia Fox Palmer was, my great grandmother, and then to figure out what happened to this community.

DAVIES: And when you said he has a Union pension, that's because he fought in the Union Army.

PALMER: Exactly. He - Matthew Palmer somehow made it from Goochland County about 50 miles east to Henrico County - Richmond somewhere - and enlisted. It was at the tail the very tail end of the war. He served mostly in Texas when United States Colored Troops - that was the segregated arm of the U.S. Army - were dispatched to Texas. So most people - they didn't do much fighting. They did a lot of dying from cholera and other diseases. And then he came back up to Virginia and moved to this place along the York River.

DAVIES: Wow. And so you decided to relocate, move to Virginia. This really took hold of you, didn't it?

PALMER: It did. I was in Brooklyn at the time. It's hard to communicate how fundamental the change was. But then when we did that digging, I learned about enslaved people who resisted, who voted with their feet and fled to Union lines. This isn't just a story about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. This is an entire narrative of hundreds of thousands of people. And I didn't know that narrative as an African-American on the verge of 50. So I was - really thought, that's pretty pathetic. These stories are our sustenance.

Yes, my great-grandfather - he was a private. He wasn't a general. But he was one among hundreds of thousands of people who fought to emancipate himself. My great-grandmother's family, the Fox family, they picked up from one side of the York River, where they were enslaved, went to the other side of York River, where they went to United States government camp and were growing food and vegetables for the troops. These are American stories. And they should be part of our discourse.

DAVIES: And so you spend a fair amount of time - you and your wife, as I understand it - just working on a volunteer basis - you and others - to rehabilitate and preserve these neglected African-American cemeteries. Just talk a little bit about how you do it. I mean, what - the physical work you do...

PALMER: Oh, goodness.

DAVIES: ...And then kind of how that leads you to researching all this stuff.

PALMER: When I got down on my hands and knees and started unearthing headstones from the dirt, from tangles of vines that had been covered for half a century, I realized that every headstone I reclaimed was a page in a story, a page in an untold or undertold story of Richmond's African-American community, of the nation's African-American community. That's pretty amazing to be able to reveal this history right in front of us simply by - well, not so simply, but - took a little work to hack away the vines, scrape away the soil, wash the headstone, scrub the dirt out of the crevices. This to us now is elemental, fundamental work - reclaiming this history.

DAVIES: Brian Palmer, it's been great. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PALMER: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Brian Palmer is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker. His article with Seth Freed Wessler in the Smithsonian Magazine is called "The Costs Of The Confederacy." On tomorrow's show, Terry talks with Jason Rezaian. He was the only American citizen reporting from Iran on a permanent basis when he was arrested in 2014, accused of being a spy and held in one of Iran's most notorious prisons. After 2 1/2 years, he was released thanks to the efforts of his employer The Washington Post, the Obama administration and his family. Rezaian is suing the Iranian government. And he has a new memoir. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Terry Gross returns tomorrow. I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.