Illinois University Dialogue Assesses African-American Impact on Civil War

Article excerpt

MACOMB, 111. - S'thembile West has taken notice of a generation gap between her and her niece. The salt-and-pepper-haired professor of African- American studies, Women's Studies and English described this gap to a group of about 20 people at a Civil War discussion on April 5 in the Western Illinois University, or WIU, Malpass Library.

"She s 35, and she still asks me, 'Why you always got to talk about all that Black stuff?"* said West of her niece. "But, for me, coming from a time when I still remember having to ride in the back of the bus, I can see that we Ve never really dealt with the issue of the Civil War and the enslavement - or the gradual enslavement, rather - of Black people."

The discussion "War and Freedom: How Did African- Americans Affect the Civil War?" was the final in a series of five "Making Sense of the Civil War" talks, sponsored by the WIU Department of History and University Libraries through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, or NEH, and the American Library Association, or ALA.

The Western Illinois University Libraries system was one of 65 libraries or library systems awarded a grant last year when the NEH and ALA launched the "Making Sense of the Civil War" project to commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial.

Throughout it, West and the other participants, ranging in experience from elementary school student to professor emeritus, hashed out the implications, both successes and shortcomings, that the Civil War had in terms of the struggle for African- Americans coming from post-slavery, through the civil rights era, to the election of a Black president.

At one point, West said she believed African- American Civil War heroes were writ- can-American Civil War heroes were written out of history, a problem that may have stunted the progress of the United States becoming what it could have become.

"I would have liked to have seen our country go a lot further, but the voices that are not there were truly significant," she said. "And I really dont think the nation can ever fully heal with the absence of those voices."

Phyllis Self, dean of libraries, agreed and took the point slightly further.

"We have not had sufficient debate and change on culture and social injustice issues of race during the past four decades," she said.

Other topics discussed included the widely supported post- Civil War policy of the colonization of former slaves to West Africa, which, by todays standards, participants agreed, is now "laughable. …