Ah, the Civil War: lest we forget, the bloodiest battle over the most embarrassingly despicable practice in American history. In Texas, there are dances named after it—and the latest, in Georgetown, has not necessarily been met with the warmest welcome.
Petitioners are calling the “Civil War Ball,” which is scheduled to be held at the Williamson County Courthouse on January 30, a “slaver's plantation ball.” In December, a group called Positive Change for Georgetown launched a petition on MoveOn.org asking the Williamson Museum director, Mickie Ross, to reconsider the “ill-advised” event. So far, it has 115 signatures.
“This is not an event that represents a living history of our community or county,” the petition reads. “There are many fine times and events that could be honored, times that do not smack of White Privilege and one of the darkest times in American history.”
But the way Mickie Ross sees it, she and the museum don't write the history—they just tell it.
The ball is supposed to be an event tied to the museum's current Civil War exhibit and a celebration of the time period—not slavery, Ross said in an interview with the Houston Press. There will be period dances, food from the day, and simple costumes reflective of what people would've worn to a party at a neighbor's home. “They're not Scarlett O'Hara ball gowns by any means,” she said.
Ross said that the people who made the petition never reached out to her to express their concerns and clear things up, and in fact, the petition's claim that Williamson County never even supported secession, and that therefore this ball is a wrong portrayal of local history, is incorrect. There were 900 slaves—20 percent of the county's population—at the time, according to Ross. While the county may not have supported seceding from the Union, that doesn't mean it was “anti-slavery,” Ross explained. There were five troops of Confederate soldiers from the area, she said.
Just because white people did in fact own slaves in Georgetown in the 1860s, does that justify a Civil War-era throwback party celebrating that history? Or, as one petitioner asked, "While a history museum must pay attention to the past, should it really honor the mistakes in the present?"
In fact, concerned that “Civil War Ball” might turn some people off, Ross said the museum originally called the event the “Old South Ball,” thinking it might be, as Ross put it, “a less incendiary dance.” “Obviously, that backfired,” she said—though it appears petitioners aren't necessarily worried about which sounds better.
“The 'Old South (Civil War) Ball' is a racist's event intended to glorify white supremacy,” one petitioner said matter-of-factly.
“Would you recreate an Austrian Ball from 1939?” another asked.
“It appears that the organizers of this event did not take into account how a black person who supports the museum might feel attending the the re-creation of an historical event which was segregated," another speculated.
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That last one isn't exactly true. Ross said she did call some of her African-American friends in the community to see what they thought. “They see it as what it was portrayed as by these folks, a slaver's ball—they had no idea that wasn't what it was,” Ross said. “But while they're not happy about it, it doesn't take away from their feelings about us. I will tell you we've had tremendous support. Every phone call we have received since Monday has been positive, more people buying tickets for the ball, more donations, because we have a great reputation here for telling the story. ...It's our history,” she added. “Why would it go away?”
So, Ross ran it by some of her black friends, who weren't thrilled about the ball—but apparently they support the museum nonetheless.
At the end of the interview, Ross, a native Houstonian and a supporter of the new mayor, Sylvester Turner, asked us if we thought it was a problem that Turner is African American. “It's kind of the same thing,” she said. “Obviously, that's going to create some racial questions.”
We're still not exactly sure what she means by that.