DECATUR — The Confederate states went to war with the Union over state’s rights.
At least that’s what Lindsay Tipsword, a 2011 graduate of the Lutheran School Association in Decatur, says she and many other downstate schoolchildren were taught. “Our state is split,” she said. “Philosophically, Southern Illinois is still largely a part of the South.”
That insight is not something Tipsword learned in a classroom, however.
A secondary education and social sciences major, Tipsword was one of seven Millikin University students who traveled to Charleston, S.C., during the last two weeks of their winter break in January to earn college credit by experiencing the culture.
All the students were taking a brand-new immersion course on the American South before and after the Civil War and taught by Dan Monroe, associate professor and chairman of Millikin’s history department. Many were also taking another taught by Bobbi Gentry, assistant professor of political science, on the politics of the South.
The small, intensive classes are offered both during the holiday and summer breaks, and immersion director Randy Brooks, dean of arts and sciences, said they not only let students earn extra credits but also let instructors try new subjects and approaches.
About one-quarter of this winter’s immersion offerings were travel courses that gave groups of faculty and students the chance to learn in such far-flung places as Europe, Africa and South America.
Monroe said he believes Southerners have been slow to accept that their forefathers fought a war to preserve slavery and white supremacy because of the intense interest in heritage and historical preservation that goes along with an agrarian society.
“Most people want to think well of their ancestors, and there’s a certain pride in being the underdog and fighting against what they perceive as a superior force,” he said.
Ian Connor, a senior history major from Arcola, said it amazed him to see how much people in Charleston, S.C., where the Civil War started, remain so connected to that time period.
“If you have 10 Southern men in a room, odds are two or three of them still have a Confederate uniform,” he said. “But if you ask people in Illinois, odds are we don’t have a Union uniform in our closet or anything.”
Gentry, who is originally from Charleston, S.C., said the culture in the South has also been shaped by the decades of poverty that followed the collapse of reconstruction efforts in the 1890s.
Stops included Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, Middleton Plantation and the Charleston School of Law, where Debra Gammons, director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives, told the group that she experiences more prejudice for being a woman than she does for being black.
Students also said the tour given at the plantation soft-pedaled how slaves were treated, that they repeatedly heard the Civil War referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression,” and that the prevalence of Southern hospitality cannot be overstated.
Other students on the trip included William Harms, a senior communication major from Benson; senior history majors Joseph Kuczynski of Algonquin and Thomas Wieneke of Issaquah, Wash.; and Olivia Waszczuk, a sophomore biology major from Roselle.
Max Couch, a senior history major from Bolingbrook, added that the food was fantastic, especially the ubiquitous sweet tea and the shrimp and grits.
“You can learn only so much in a classroom,” Couch said. “I didn’t see the poverty or the typical redneck hillbilly kind of thing I expected. It was more upscale and very nice.”