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The Problem With Georgetown’s “Old South Ball”

Because a dance is the best way to learn about this dark time in U.S. history.

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Civil War Camp Meeting
Flickr Creative Commons | GeraldBrazell

The city of Georgetown decided to kick off the new year by organizing a ball for January 30 at the Williamson County Courthouse. The theme and name of the ball? “Old South Ball: A Civil War Soiree.” The “soiree,” listed as the Civil War Ball on the Williamson Museum’s event calendar, invites people to attend in period attire and “enjoy the music of the 1860s” for just $25 per person and $40 per couple. According to a report by the Austin American-Statesman, Georgetown City Council helped promote the ball with a grant of $1,500.

There are several things wrong with this, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. A group called Positive Change for Georgetown has gathered more than a hundred signatures on an online petition asking the Williamson Museum to reconsider the ball’s theme. According to the petition, honoring the Civil War, “one of the darkest times in American history,” with a ball is chock full of white privilege.

Although the phrase “privilege” is often confused to mean that something extra or beneficial is given to a certain group of people (and, yes, that can sometimes be the case), it usually means that certain people  enjoy the benefits of not dealing with difficulties or obstacles that other groups encounter. In this case, white privilege comes into play because white residents aren’t living in a city in which their local government celebrates an era when people who looked like you were enslaved with a ball. Maybe the organizers had good intentions, but these intentions didn’t give enough thought to the variety of residents in the city and county. Why would black residents want to attend a party with a Civil War theme? Why would anybody?

As Lou Snead, a retired minister, told the Statesman, the ball “ feels like it’s a party for white folks, although they probably didn’t intend it to be that.”

I’m assuming Mickie Ross, an executive director of the Williamson Museum, most likely doesn’t agree with that statement, since she’s somehow surprised that there’s opposition to the event. Ross told the Statesman that the ball is a “very simple dance” in conjunction with the Civil War exhibit currently in the Williamson Museum. “We are not promoting slavery. We’re not even promoting war,” she said.

Even if it isn’t directly promoting slavery or war, a ball certainly doesn’t accurately convey the seriousness and gravity of either. The Civil War was a grim period in history, and you don’t need live music and cocktails to “tell the story of the people who lived during the Civil War.” You can do that with something like, oh I don’t know, a museum exhibit. But you step away from the informative and into the celebratory when you organize something with alcohol and costumes and decide to call it a soirée. To plan such an event around a real war is a remarkably flippant thing to do. To have a Civil War ball sponsored in a city in Texas—which already has a problem with denying the role of slavery in the U.S.—shows a real disregard for its black residents.

This isn’t much of a surprise from a museum that describes the motives of the Civil War only as “still debated” in the online description for their exhibit. Tommy Gonzalez, a City Council member who supported the ball and also donated artifacts to the museum’s exhibit, told the Statesman that the Civil War Ball is “an old Southern custom” and inaccurately compared it to quinceañeras and debutante balls. Last I checked, those dances weren’t about wars caused by states fighting to own slaves.

Southerners, including Texans, still have a problem with acknowledging how rooted “Southern” customs, legacy, and pride are in the enslavement of black people. Let’s not forget that Northern and Southern states were also divided into “non-slave-holding states” and “slave-holding states.” Those who want to argue that the Civil War was caused by Southern states fighting for states rights mustn’t fail to mention that the right in question was the right to own slaves. To try to reduce the significance of slavery in the Civil War is nothing short of ahistorical. Especially in Texas, a state that “mentioned slavery 21 times” in its declaration of secession in 1861, as the Houston Chronicle points out.

Even without downplaying the role of slavery in the war, a Civil War ball in Williamson County makes even less sense given its unique role during the era. As the petition explains:

We are a County and City that did not actually support the inclusion of Texas into the Confederate Union. To quote the Texas State Historical Society: Unionist sentiment was strong in the county, and a resolution denouncing secession was adopted by a Texas Constitutional Union party meeting in Round Rock in 1860. One of the county’s delegates to the secession convention, Thomas Proctor Hughes, was among the eight who voted against the ordinance of secession. When the ordinance was referred to a statewide election, Williamson County was one of nineteen counties to oppose it, rejecting secession by 480 votes to 349.

The museum’s Civil War exhibit is titled “Courage & Contradiction,” and the description—though slightly flawed as I mentioned earlier—notes that the county was “a place with Union sympathies in the midst of the Confederacy.” How does this narrative of a county trapped on the wrong side of the Civil War call for what the petition describes as a “slaver’s plantation ball”? It doesn’t.

There are many considerate, informative ways to learn more about the lives of people in Williamson County during the Civil War without marginalizing a portion of the county’s residents and misconstruing history. The Old South Ball isn’t one of them.

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  • Jeff in Austin

    Oh my gosh. Another PC patrol out determining what we all should think over a war that ended 150 years ago. Doyin Oyeniyi, this opinion article really is pathetic. Before I have to read any more from you, will you please tell me all about your dysfunctional life history so we can understand why you qualify for doing this absurd article in the local paper that is all but going out of business because no one reads it? Your facts are very wrong about anyone’s motives about this little bitty nothing fund raising event in Williamson County. Everyone, try googling, “The Cause Was Not Slavery” to overcome the lies that have been perpetrated in our schools since the 1960’s. Mr. O, just like the prez O who you can tell he is lying only when his mouth is moving, try studying the facts about the American Civil War that really could have been avoided if the angelic Prez Lincoln elected by 40% of the popular vote had not been supported by the northern industrialists who wanted to dominate and crush the southern farmer economy with a 35% tariff if they shipped goods to England and France. The American Revolutions was fought over 2% to 3% tariffs, but wowy be the Southerners wanting to not be screwed by the Northern politicians. It was not just over slavery & slavery would have ended soon with real leaders. Get the chip off your shoulder after 150 years and move on to something else more productive like stopping black on black gun violence and decades and decades long social policies that have caused generations of people dependent on the government and complaining about it every step of the way.

    • José

      “The Cause Was Not Slavery”!?!? (Snicker, snicker) No! Of course not! The status of those “workers” (as Texas schools now like call our special guests from Africa) had NOTHING to do with the southern states trying to do a cut and run. Friend, did you ever read the secession documents that were so proudly and publicly waved by the Confederate states in 1861?

      • WilliamRD

        If slavery was the cause of the war then the Southern States would have accepted Lincoln’s offer to enshrine slavery into the United States Constitution. . Does the Corwin Amendment mean anything to you?? Doubtful!!

        No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize
        or give to Congress power to abolish or interfere, within any State,
        with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held
        to labor or service by the laws of said State.

        http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2013/02/18/the-other-13th-richard-albert

        If the Southern States had agreed and the amendment was confirmed by the States slavery could technically exist today.

        Truth be told the war was fought over taxes.

        https://mises.org/library/lincolns-tariff-war

        • Texas Savvy

          Except, it wasn’t just about slavery, but the right to expand that disgusting institution into the newly formed and forming states. Southern interests (and some Northern ones, as well) would not accept ANY restrictions on slave ownership. It had become the highest valued asset of any category in the country at that time. Just goes to show you how easy it is for a bad thing to grow out of control; the original compromise that was necessary to the construction of a nation turned to be the force that nearly destroyed it—and haunts it to this day.

          • José

            Right. And it is awfully hypocritical for the apologists to claim that the South fought for the cause of “states rights” when they actually opposed the right of any new state to be free.

          • WilliamRD

            But if it was about slavery why would Lincoln offer slavery forever to the seceding states. They would always be able to keep their slaves.

            In 1860 the main source of revenue to the government in Washington came from the collection of tariffs on f imports. The south exported cotton to England and the rest of Europe. In exchange they bought cheaper made manufactured goods from Europe. Northern states being industrialized wanted high tariffs to protect their manufacturing economy. The south’s economy was 90 percent agricultural and paid 80 percent of the tariff revenue to the Federal Government. In short the northern states were engaged in an economic war against the Southern states.

            In 1828 congresses passed the Tariff of Abominations which caused a secession crisis. The first time northern states engaged in economic warfare against southern states

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tariff_of_Abominations

            This is a horrible article and political correctness is cultural Marxism.

    • Jed

      “Get the chip off your shoulder after 150 years and move on to something else more productive”

      sage.

    • Texas Savvy

      Jeff, your history is either home-grown or FOX fostered. Also, you ramble. I give you an F. But you are not alone, alas, in your lack of understanding and literacy, as evidenced by some of the other replies, below.

      • Jeff in Austin

        And you didn’t read the referenced book either so that means you only know what they told you in the 4th grade. I don’t care about your grade. You really said nothing so run along. I have forgotten more about the history of Texas, the South, and USA than you know.

    • space2k

      “In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color–a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”

      https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/secession/2feb1861.html

  • Whip_Lash

    “Although the phrase “privilege” is often confused to mean that something extra or beneficial is given to a certain group of people (and, yes, that can sometimes be the case), it usually means that certain people enjoy the benefits of not dealing with difficulties or obstacles that other groups encounter.”

    Privilege is Latin for “private law”. The thing you are suggesting it’s confused to mean is what it means. I appreciate that you have another concept that perhaps legitimately needs a different name, that you would like to apply it to, but that definitely is not the usual usage except at cocktail parties and university fundraisers.

  • Liam

    Next, folks will be telling us that Civil War reenactors are perpetuating the vileness of the times. Here’s the thing, I am betting that balls like this took place in Williamson county, and in the other 18 that voted against secession. These balls were a way for people in the community to connect and share news with friends and neighbors that they weren’t able to see all that often.

    Let go of the sentiment that you hold so dear to your heart. Next thing I know, you’ll be telling people who study and recreate medieval European times are perpetuating the vileness of those times, too.

    • José

      It would be a different matter, celebrating the white antebellum Southern society as a remote historical era, if we were no longer feeling the effects of the institutionalized racism that it spawned. But slavery and Jim Crow are facts, ugly scars of our nation’s past. I grew up in a period of forced segregation and any honest person must admit that even today in America a person’s skin color alone will shape their life’s experience in many ways. So yes, a lot of people see this kind of event as insensitive.

      Lots of other Americans have bruised feelings for a number of other reasons, and oftentimes for things that don’t affect them directly. Some don’t like the fact that two people of the same gender can be legally joined in what is called a marriage. Some don’t like it when Muslims build a house of worship. And lots more. Do you look down from your lofty perch and tell them to stop complaining as well? I think they are much more deserving of your unsolicited advice than people who still fight racism on a daily basis.

      • Liam

        As a matter of fact, Jose, I have said pretty much the same thing on the other topics that you brought up. I also face discrimination and persecution because of my religion. And the only way that stops is by standing up to it.

        Keep in mind: if people hold onto the injustices of the past like a blanket, they’ll never be let go of. The organization is a museum. These are things that a museum are supposed to do. Teach people about history, not hide from it. If you don’t like the concept behind the dance, don’t go.

        Does skin color matter? No to me. Does Gender matter? Not to me. Does faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation matter? Not to me. What matters to me is the person…

        • José

          The organization is a museum. Very true. But that’s not the subject of the controversy and it’s misleading to suggest so. The problem is the event, a festive ball that certainly appears to celebrate a heavily sanitized view at a time not really that long ago.

          Museums are supposed to teach history instead of hide it, you say. Great! Wouldn’t it be something if the party included separate facilities and activities for reenactors of the, ahem, staff? Upon arrival each guest would be randomly assigned to either of two groups and be required to stay for the entire time in that role. They could even have an old-fashioned whipping post with actual demonstrations using a guest from each group, one master and one naughty servant. Now THAT would be educational. And fun!

          • Jed

            no need for random assignment.

            just throw the people of color out into the parking lot.

      • Jeff in Austin

        You do not know my circumstances so just shut it. Spouting off this abridged history does no one any good.

      • WilliamRD

        You’re an idiot.

  • TexasHorseLady

    People, IT’S A MUSEUM. This is what museums are SUPPOSED to do, show history. First there were demands that statutes of famous men, with characteristics and acts good and bad as everyone has (including those demanding their removal and the people they prefer – Martin Luther King, Jr., anyone?), saying they belong in museums where they said it would be more appropriate to preserve those things. Now a museum does exactly what a museum is supposed to do, and suddenly historical museums are not supposed to recognize these periods in our, guess what, history. And Texas Monthly, which has been sounding more and more like New York Monthly for quite some time now, panders to this nonsense? I’m embarrassed for you, and I see you as being representative of the saying “Those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” If you throw a hissy fit (you DO still know what a hissy fit is, don’t you, Texas Monthly?) over a museum doing something like this, you’re a prime example of that saying. Also, if you insist that all historical figures that did things that you don’t like or that were wrong are hidden in the basement, you’re going to have to remove all of them, even those you purport to admire.

    • Marjean Fieldhouse

      You can recognize history without glorifying or gee, perfect phrase, whitewashing it. Things happened, this is how they happened and show comprehensively how it affected ALL the people of the time in different ways. That’s how people learn what really happened in history, warts and all. Anything else is just propaganda

    • Jed

      Here are sentences three through five of the Texas Declaration of Causes for Secession:

      “She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association.”

      https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/secession/2feb1861.html

  • Donald Dickson

    The most shocking takeaway from this essay is that Williamson County may be more racially insensitive today than in the 1860s. If you go to the courthouse on the day of a criminal first-appearance docket call, at 8:45 am before the deputies have unlocked the courtrooms and everyone is in the hallways, your first thought will be that you didn’t know the county HAD this many people of color.

  • Dirty_Martini

    Pack up and move your libtarded asses out of Texas AND the United States, if you want to deny the history of the world.

    • José

      You are so right, DM! People deny history. It’s disgusting!
      http://www.southwestern.edu/live/news/4215-hidden-history

      • Jeff in Austin

        This article means nothing

    • enp1955

      It would seem to me that those that say the cause of the civil war is “still debated” are the ones trying to deny history.

      • WilliamRD

        That’s cause you don’t know any history

        • enp1955

          As the saying goes, “not exactly”. I studied American history extensively in high school, college, and graduate school. The economic and social systems of the south during the period leading up to the civil war were highly dependent on slave labor for viability. In particular, the agrarian economy of tobacco and cotton were built on the economics of slavery, and could not be competitive without same. As the north became more industrialized, slave labor was both less acceptable and less needed.

          But then, the issue of slaves actually goes back to the very beginnings of the country, where compromises were reached that simply delayed the conflict. Slavery is specifically called out in almost every southern state’s declaration when they left the union, so it is hard to argue anything else.

          The whole ‘states rights’ issue was ginned up much, much later. It has become the “junk history” equivalent of the studies by tobacco companies that showed that smoking was good for you. You really don’t have to look very far to find contradictions: The southern states attempted to push through federal laws that would have overridden the laws of the northern states concerning what happened when escaped slaves reached northern borders. That’s hardly a “state’s rights” position, is it?

    • Angelo_Frank

      Why are you so angry at everything?

  • Indiana Pearl

    This approach didn’t work very well for Paula Deen.

  • WilliamRD

    The civil war was fought over economics and taxation

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tariff_of_Abominations

    End of story

    Read the book from Tax Historian Charles Adams “When in the Course of Human Events:”

    http://fee.org/freeman/when-in-the-course-of-human-events-the-case-for-southern-secession-by-charles-adams/

    • Jed

      “tax” historian?

      this just in, frisbee historian claims it’s all about the frisbee.

      • WilliamRD

        You can’t refute one thing.

        • Jed

          if there’s one thing i can’t refute, it’s that.

  • Pontious

    I’m not sure what the big deal is … most of Georgetown’s residents were still alive during the Civil War anyway….

  • kentton77

    They denied the grant money because it was supplied all in $50s and had Ulysses S. Grant on them.
    Although this party will have an open door policy, the front door is for the whites and the back door is for the “help.” – D.Dudley & M.Bearden