Lawrence-Sanders’ research looks at how Black memory exposes the ‘lost cause’ myth
Growing up in tiny, rural Huger, South Carolina, just north of Charleston, Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders was always interested and involved in Black history.
“It (the area) was bursting with history and Black history,” says Lawrence-Sanders, assistant professor of African American and U.S. History at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Black people in the area have deep roots.”
Both her parents were born in the state’s coastal “Lowcountry,” where they traced their families back to at least the early 1800s.
“I never thought the history that was being taught to me in school was as appealing as what I learned at home,” she says.
Her home state has long been at the forefront of the America’s battles over slavery and civil rights; the first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
“I grew up literally down the street from the site of one of the most notorious 1876 election year riots in Cainhoy, S.C.,” she writes on her personal home page. “The 1990s battles over the Confederate flag in South Carolina occurred when I was in middle and high school and were formative for my interest in historical memory.”
She studied politics and international relations at Wake Forest University as an undergraduate before moving to New York City, where she pursued a master’s degree in human rights studies at Columbia University. She also worked as a program assistant for the HIV/AIDS section of UNICEF and at The American Assembly, a Columbia-based think tank started by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Her thesis examined attempts in the United States to establish truth-and-reconciliation commissions like those formed in South Africa, Uganda, Peru and other nations to address America’s history of slavery and discrimination.
“I showed that people in the U.S. were falling into some of the same pitfalls, and some unique pitfalls,” she says.
After completing her thesis, she found herself more and more interested in historical memory and transitional justice.
“I was doing a lot of urban policy, some foreign policy, but quite frankly, I wanted something more fulfilling,” she says.
With encouragement of her advisor, Elazar Barkan, professor of international and public affairs and director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia, she decided to pursue a PhD in history at Rutgers University.
“The market was pretty bad for PhDs at that time. But I’d been employed for years, so if anything, I knew I could go back to that life if being an academic didn’t work out,” she says.
She’s never had to look back. After a stint at the University of Dayton in Ohio, she came to CU Boulder in 2021.
“I saw the opportunity to work alongside some really amazing historians in a really strong history department that valued both scholarship and teaching,” she says. “It’s a very supportive environment, very collegial, very supportive of junior faculty.”
In addition to teaching introductory African American history, she’s recently published opinion pieces in The Washington Post, Black Perspectives and elsewhere, and is expanding her dissertation into a book, tentatively titled They Knew What the War Was About: African Americans and the Memory of the Civil War.
African Americans’ reactions shed light on what was at stake in the historical memory of the war for African Americans.”
The book “argues that the words and actions of Black writers, intellectuals, activists and veterans presents a more complete narrative of Civil War memory than offered by those who focus solely on white historical memory of the war,” she writes.
It also explores how African Americans challenged the “lost cause” mythology that gained steam in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“African American criticisms of the lost cause, the movement by white Southerners to deny the true cause of the war and to enshrine mythologies around the South’s defeat, and other forms of white Civil War memory reveal the tensions between competing American visions of both the past and present,” she writes. “African Americans’ reactions shed light on what was at stake in the historical memory of the war for African Americans.”
Lawrence-Sanders admits she’s been shocked to see Confederate statues and flags actually coming down after years of false starts.
“I’m happy to be wrong about how quickly things have changed,” she says. “Monuments I thought would never come down”—such as a statue of John C. Calhoun in Charleston—“have come down.”
But she’s not at all surprised by the growing backlash to attempts to reckon with the nation’s racial legacy, whether through schools or the removal of statues.
“I take the long view as a historian, and this pattern has repeated itself many times. As one part of society is advancing, there is always this other part, a backlash to the advance,” she says. “People are now defending things that were clearly offensive 15 years ago. But I see hope as well. I don’t think we’re going back this time.”