Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Hey, I Know that Guy. . . .

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on January 8, 2012

While looking for something else, I came across this photo of Steve Perry, a.k.a. “Uncle Steve Eberhart,” and another, unidentified man at a Confederate reunion in Houston, Texas. The image is undated, but I believe it to be from the time of the big United Confederate Veterans reunion at Houston in October 1920. Although Perry appeared as “Uncle Steve Eberhart” at reunion activities for more than 20 years, his costume here closely matches that worn in photographs of him like this one, appearing in a 1922 history of Rome and Floyd County, Georgia. In that book, Perry is quoted as saying about the 1920 Houston reunion,

I want to thank the good white people of Rome for sending me to Texas to the Old Soldiersā€™ Reunion. I am thankful. I shall ever remain in my place, and be obedient to all the white people. I pray that the angels may guard the homes of all Rome, and the light of God shine upon them. I will now give you a rest until the reunion next year, if the Lord lets me live to see it. Your humble servant. Steve Eberhart.

As I’ve said before, such framing is painful to modern ears, but it reflects the difficult line African Americans had to tread not so many generations ago. It makes clear how these men, even as they swapped old tales and enjoyed themselves with the white veterans, were also expected to reinforce specific, stereotyped roles of African Americans in the Jim Crow South — obsequious, grateful, and non-threatening to the status quo antebellum. It’s a difficult, multi-layered dynamic that defies simple tropes of egalitarian patriotism.

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Image credited to Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library.

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7 Responses

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  1. Matt McKeon said, on January 8, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    What we do to get by…

    I have a lot of thoughts, but I can’t seem to articulate them. The society that requires such a statement is not to be mourned.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 8, 2012 at 12:55 pm

      It’s very hard to articulate, but one needs at least to think on it. Those who don’t look past the pictures to the rest of the historical record that surrounds them, aren’t doing those men any favors, and certainly aren’t honoring them in any way that matters.

      I’m convinced that Steve Perry understood well that he was performing a role, and made his own calculations. I wouldn’t be too sure of the quote, either; we rarely hear these mens’ voices that they’re not filtered through (and for) a white audience.

  2. Margaret D. Blough said, on January 8, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    I find it sad beyond words that any society would require this of people in order to survive. I’m not going to judge Mr. Perry for the choices he made. The price for a black man of his era and decades thereafter who was seen as not “knowing his place” could be death by lynch mob. Emmett Till showed that.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 8, 2012 at 8:06 pm

      There are some things that seem to be consistent of African Americans who participated in Confederate reunions.

      First, as far as I can see they were almost invariably former personal servants of one sort or another. You don’t see, for example, former conscript laborers or general teamsters at reunions, even though they must have been far more numerous. This suggests to me that the main dynamic that got these men invited to these reunions is the personal relationships with white veterans, more than any abstract “service” they gave to the Confederacy, or recognition of their wartime status.

      Second, I use the word “invited” above intentionally. When you dig into the accounts of reunions, you almost always see (and with Perry, here) that their presence was sponsored, either by individuals or groups (a UCV camp, small town, etc.) Part of this is obviously financial, but it’s also usually mentioned that these men are present due to the actions of one or more patrons. (For former slaves who attended reunions with their former masters, there’s a very real status-showing going on for the latter.

      Third, at large reunions, and in parades, the old African American men were often grouped separately for the purpose of parades and other big public events, often carrying chickens or leading goats, etc. in “recognition” of their role as foragers. They were not, typically, marching in the ranks, side-by-side with the white veterans.

      Fourth, though they were present, I don’t recall any example of an African American man being elected to a leadership role in the organization, or really taking any active part in the (many) business meetings that happened at these reunions.

      Now, no question these African American men willingly participated and no doubt often enjoyed themselves. It gave them an opportunity to travel, renew old acquaintances, and swap stories about old adventures. But their presence also put a real, live face to the “faithful slave” meme so central to the Lost Cause, and who (like BCS today) serve as a highly-visible deflection away from the harder questions about slavery and its role in the Confederate war effort.

  3. theravenspoke said, on January 8, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    “I am thankful. I shall ever remain in my place, and be obedient to all the white people.”

    Not wanting to read too far into this, the phrase “obedient to all” suggests Uncle Steve may have wanted the record to speak for him after he departed this Earth.

    “…if the Lord lets me live to see it…”

    There’s an air of malicious compliance. The elderly black gentleman, broken by Jim Crow, gives 110% obsequiousness, perhaps thinking this was the best testimony for posterity.

  4. Jeff Bell said, on January 10, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    I’m not sure Steve was interested in posterity as much as he was in playing his role to the hilt. He took the hand he was dealt and became one of the best at what he did. Andy, do you know if guys like Steve received anything in the way of compensation at these events?

    • Andy Hall said, on January 11, 2012 at 7:54 am

      I haven’t seen a reference to men like Perry being paid a fee outright, but there are often references to collecting money or donations for the purpose of attending reunions. The linked book on Rome and Floyd County makes a couple of mentions of it specifically in Steve Perry’s case, saying (p. 370) that “in his attempts to attend every reunion of the Boys in Gray [he] collects a lot of money under various false pretenses, and gets away with it.” This is demeaning language, the way one might misbehaving child whose actions are deemed more humorous than malicious, but it does indicate that there was a low-level, informal exchange of funds going on. I would not be at all surprised if men like Perry, acting out their roles at Confederate conventions, came in for a lot of small donations — whether one would consider these “gifts” or “tips” or “gratuities” is a bit fuzzy — from white veterans. It’s entirely plausible that for men like Perry, participation in these events brought with it some level of informal, ad hoc remuneration.


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