By Eric Goldscheider
AP photo by Matt Rourke
[Civil War] During most of the 150 years since the Battle of Gettysburg, says Ronald Bailey ’75, the history presented at the Civil War landmark has been primarily about glorifying soldiers—on both sides—and reconciling divisions between white Americans.
Questions about slavery and emancipation rarely intrude.
Bailey wants to contribute to a national discussion about slavery.
As president of the Gettysburg Black History Museum, an institution more notional than actual until recently, Bailey is intent on seeing beyond “the bullets and bayonets, canons and military tactics” that brought some 200,000 tourists to the Pennsylvania town this summer to mark the battle’s anniversary. He also wants to contribute to a national discussion about the meaning and legacy of slavery.
Bailey, a businessman and evangelical minister, became the museum’s first president in 2010. His passion for the project comes out of his trips to West and Central Africa, where he became increasingly aware of his physical resemblance to Ashanti shipped to the Americas in bondage. He also witnessed the Truth and Reconciliation process while living in South Africa.
He believes that white America has yet to take full responsibility for the cruelties and dehumanization wrought by turning human beings into cargo: “How could we have taken millions of people and reduced them to the level of chattel? And we still haven’t taken those chains off, even today.”
Someday soon, he hopes, the Gettysburg Black History Museum will be a physical museum, but for now he is more interested in propagating ideas than in displaying artifacts. “Our physical city is a standing, living museum,” he says. He wants visitors to hear stories of slave catchers coming to Gettysburg to abduct free blacks, for example, and of confederates searching house-to-house during the battle “to find black people who were considered contraband.”
The museum has acquired a 600-square-foot space in the Gettysburg tourist district to welcome guests and advertise dramatizations and lectures that will be central to the museum’s living history program. At the moment, visitors can contact the museum (www.gettysburgblackhistory.org) to book a 90-minute black heritage tour that draws on the local African-American experience.
For example, guides describe how slaves in the 1700s built some of the historic structures that tourists now flock to. In the 1800s, Gettysburg—which is only seven miles from the Mason-Dixon line—was home to a small community of successful free blacks, including Daniel Alexander Payne, a minister and educator who became the first president of Wilberforce University. “There is a major humanizing story here that plays against the whole history of dehumanization,” says Bailey.
As the only black member of the Gettysburg Adams Chamber of Commerce, Bailey often hears laments that the area attracts few African-American tourists. That will change, he predicts: “We will bring a whole new demographic to Gettysburg. The tourists are asking for this.” Among the special events he envisions is an annual Sept. 22 ball that commemorates the preliminary issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.
“I am not seeking to be divisive; I am seeking to create community by exposing reality,” Bailey says.
“White America is ready to hear this story. As we reveal these truths, it sets two [groups of] people free.”