There are two ways of dealing with the aspects of our common American history that are unpleasant to face.
One way is to acknowledge the facts with honesty, understand them as part of a shared heritage and learn the needed lessons from them.
The other way is to ignore aspects of our history in favor of whitewashing events in an effort to make them more pleasant, or at least more benign than they really were. This approach is an attempt to bury those memories so nothing is ever learned or understood.
When trying to understand history, I favor the first method.
Unfortunately for Lake County history buffs, Angelo Kyle, president of the Lake County Forest Preserve board, seems to prefer the other way. To Kyle, the unpleasant facts of American history are to be put down a memory hole, as George Orwell used to say.
Compounding this unfortunate approach, Kyle has misused his position in an attempt to unilaterally decide the types of historical events Lake County residents can participate in.
At issue is the annual Civil War Days event set for July 13-14 at the Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda. At Civil War Days, residents can come and learn firsthand about the uniforms, the weapons, and the battle strategies used during a Civil War battle. It is a first-hand look at history that has been held for 27 years.
Without board input, Kyle attempted to cancel the event. Citing contractual obligations he reversed course and said the event would go on this year, but maintained that he would like to see it come to an end.
The Civil War is fascinating history for millions of Americans who want to learn more about the devastating war in an effort to understand our history. More books have probably been written about the Civil War than any other event in American history. But reading only takes one so far.
Thanks to the reenactors, I’ve personally come to better understand the life of my second-great-grandfather, who volunteered at age 16 to fight with the Fifth Wisconsin Light Battery to preserve the Union and free the slaves.
The reenactors work very hard to be authentic. They strive to bring history alive in an accurate presentation.
But Kyle has a problem with one aspect of Civil War reenactments. To be true to history, the rebels have to be involved with all their authentic relics of the era, including what has become known as the Confederate battle flag.
Kyle cited the flag as one reason he wants to cancel the reenactment. He also questioned the event’s value given that the war “didn’t end slavery”
“Slavery went on for another 100 years,” he told the Lake County News-Sun, referring to Jim Crow and discrimination. “And what do you think happened with the angry slave masters who just lost the war? Hundreds of slaves were killed, and chained and shackled. They took revenge out on the slaves.”
Kyle also questioned how Civil War Days fits in with the forest preserves district’s central mission of preserving natural resources and the environment.
I’m not a fan of the Confederate flag. I don’t think it should fly over state capitol buildings, or be waived at sporting events for teams called the Rebels. I don’t want to see it waved for sports stars from the South or at white supremacist rallies.
The flag belongs in museums. And Civil War reenactments are living museums. It is important for all Americans to understand what that flag stood for in 1860s America.
I understand why Kyle finds that flag hurtful and offensive, but there is a difference between history and white supremacist rallies.
In our common history of race relations in this country, we must come to understand that it is at times hurtful. We must embrace and understand all aspects of that shared history, and learn to come to some reconciliation over what was done.
By unilaterally trying to cancel the event, Kyle is making a big mistake and missing a unique opportunity.
As board president, Kyle does not have the power to unilaterally cancel individual forest preserve events. It’s a misuse of power. He’s wrong to not bring the issue to the full board and the full community for discussion and debate.
However, there is an opportunity for a leader like Kyle. The stories of African-Americans during the Civil War and in the years after can and should be a more central part of the event.
We need to see that history, all of us. We need to understand the stories of the African-American men and women who escaped from slavery, built the Underground Railroad, strived to preserve their families broken up by the slave trade, flocked to Union armies as potential liberators only to be labeled “contraband,” and eventually volunteered to fight for the Union while still being treated unequally.
Their story is often missing from these reenactments.
Instead of ending such events, Kyle would do better to seek to improve them and let the full story of those tragic times be told. We desperately need to hear the African-American voices of our common history.
Randy Blaser is a freelance columnist.