Reflections on History, Truth, and Reconciliation

This past week the University of Nebraska Department of History hosted its 5th Carroll R. Pauley Memorial Symposium. The subject was “History, Truth, and Reconciliation.” Speakers included Elazar Barkan, Jim Miller, Alexander Byrd, and Christina Schwenkel. The keynoted was delivered by Charles Villa-Vincencio on “Can Africa Heal Itself?” The symposium as a whole explored the ways communities and states address traumatic histories–from Vietnam to South Africa, Canada, and the United States.

Alexander Byrd, whose work is closest to mine, explored the consequences of desegregation in the city of Houston, Texas. He argued that desegregation as it unfolded in the aftermath of Brown v. Board allowed Americans to comply with the decision yet maintain what they “liked best” about segregation–racial separation. Byrd is asking important questions about the losses incurred in desegregation. He has focused on black teachers in particular. In Houston, he maintains, the black teachers in 1955 were better educated, with more experience, and higher qualifications respectively than their white counterparts. Desegregation displaced, and replaced, these teachers. In Virginia a similar pattern emerged–there were over 6,000 exceptionally well-qualified black teachers in black schools in the 1950s. Understanding their experience seems especially valuable today. And the process Byrd is studying in Houston took place elsewhere–indeed, not only in the South but also in urban systems across the U.S.

The symposium led to considerable discussion about the politics of memory, apology, and truth. Several participants emphasized the importance of politics and political power in any negotiation over the contested meaning of traumatic history.

Alexander Byrd, for example, showed one photograph from Moton High School and discussed briefly the student strike of 1951 led by Barbara Johns. Although we did not discuss the recent experience of the Moton Museum (on the same site as the school), clearly political power and authority determines to a great degree how well such museums fare. The failure of the National Museum of American Slavery, proposed for Fredericksburg, Virginia, offers another important example.

Christina Schwenkel examined the development of war tourism in Vietnam and the way remembering the Vietnam conflict has shifted both in Vietnam and in the U.S. Her work raises important questions about competing truths and how histories are fashioned from and in commemoration and memorialization. She has documented the unofficial restoration of ARVN cemeteries in Vietnam, and the development of American war tourism in Vietnam, especially at Khe Sahn.

Jim Miller discussed the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in Canada aimed at healing the wounds of “residential” boarding schools in which Native students were abused. The resulting litigation led to an official state apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Several participants commented that the U.S. rarely apologizes and more broadly that the powerful rarely apologize. The state of Virginia was the first in the U.S. to address its role in slavery, but Virginia, which passed the measure in 2007 unanimously, offered “profound regret.” Indeed, Virginia Governor Mark Warner in 2002 apologized for the state’s role in eugenics.

Elazar Barkan offered one of the most far reaching lectures in the symposium about the many ways that the creation of norms in addressing traumatic histories can have unexpected, counterproductive effects. One of the predicaments, Barkan suggested, descends from the idea that all perpetrators must be brought to justice. Yet, deNazification was known more for its failures than successes, and it unfolded as a staggered, ad hoc process. Most violators were never brought to justice. Barkan argued that we do not usually accept collective guilt because criminal law is usually applied only to individuals. All Germany was not at fault or held accountable for the Holocaust, but individuals were and could be held accountable. So, Barkan is interested in how collective guilt is managed and adjudicated. He suggests that reconciliation has to be among groups, and that group narratives (histories) need to be acknowledged and resolved. The process he says is multi-generational and decades long. Barkan holds up the work of historical commissions and the importance of empirical accounting through old fashioned, positivist historicism. His chief example: the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship.

These talks revealed the importance of understanding collective traumatic events in American history in similar terms. Slavery, in particular, stands as the most traumatic collective experience in American history, and we might re-examine the lost opportunities to achieve reconciliation as well as the moments in American history when local, individual, and familial reconciliation over this trauma either faltered or advanced.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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