While on vacation this summer, my husband and I went to the small, old Baptist Cemetery in Georgetown, South Carolina on the hunt for the grave of Joseph H. Rainey. Born into slavery 187 years ago in Georgetown on June 21, 1832, Joseph Rainey later became the first African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. When I visited the local Rice Museum in his hometown, I was introduced to his story. I had already been by his house which had a historical marker outside of it. Now, I wanted to see his grave.
But our hunt among the few graves was unsuccessful. No obvious gravestone. No historical marker listing his name outside the cemetery. No trace of this man who had risen from slavery to an elected position in my home state.
Joseph H. Rainey did not get to choose how history would remember him.
Yet neither did freeborn, influential, impactful, well-known Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
It might surprise you as it did me that Robert E. Lee did not want to have statues of himself erected. He wasn’t merely being humble; he was seeking national healing and peace. Consider what he said about Civil War memorials in a letter in 1869: “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” However, once Lee breathed his last, he did not have a choice how history would remember him.
Growing up, I naively thought history was just a bunch of facts. In recent years, I’ve become more aware that the historical facts we receive also include the perspective, values, and opinions of the one handing down and preserving those facts. In a nation, those individuals and organizations with a voice, power, money, or influence choose what to emphasize and what to de-emphasize historically.
As we study history, visit monuments, search graveyards, and tour historic homes, I would encourage us to remember this subjective element of history and be discerning.
We might not be able to choose how we are remembered, but we do have the freedom to consider how we will remember those before us. History is not just a bunch of facts.