Friday's conference in Norfolk was outstanding. Overall, I don't think it was quite as good as last year's conference, but it was quite good nonetheless. Kudos to Norfolk State University for their excellent hospitality. I was very impressed with their Wilder Performing Arts Center; it is a very nice facility.
The morning session was good, although I was more interested in the afternoon session. Spencer Crew and Cassandra Newby-Alexander gave very good overviews of the Underground Railroad and its maritime counterpart. Edna Greene Medford's presentation on the quest for black rights in the midst of the Civil War was excellent. I must say, however, that I was most impressed with Ira Berlin's talk on African-American soldiers and the struggle for equality. His presentation was entirely off the cuff, with no notes and came across in a wonderful, conversational style that was just great. Bruce Levine's presentation titled "The Myth of Black Confederates" was also excellent, although unfortunately he was preaching to the choir. None of the folks who espouse the myth of black Confederates ever attend such academic gatherings.
Immediately following the lunch break, John Hennessy of the NPS site at Fredericksburg was honored with the first annual award for excellence given by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Committee. It was quite an honor for him and I'm glad I was present to see him receive the award. I just wish there had been something written in the program about it.
The afternoon session was everything I had hoped it would be and more. James McPherson's presentation on blacks in the Union Navy was good, though not quite as good as I had hoped. He certainly was the most polished, if a bit stuffy, of the afternoon presenters. David Blight was excellent, as usual. I could sit and listen to him talk all day long. I just think he's one of the best, most thoughtful speakers around. I was very impressed with Harold Holzer and not simply his presentation, but his involvement in the discussions as well. He interjected a lot of good commentary throughout the session. The only speaker on this session I was not impressed with was Jean Fagan Yellin. I felt she was certainly out of her league on this panel. Dwight Pitcaithley was also very good, though I wanted to hear more from him. I think most of what he has to say is very relevant and timely.
The one major disappointment to me with this conference was the moderator. I've heard James O. Horton speak at other conferences and he is generally very good. However, in my humble opinion, he failed miserably in his duties as moderator. Basically, he talked too much. Throughout the entire conference he interjected himself at times and in ways that I felt were just not as important as what the presenters were trying to say. I could see some of the afternoon panel members visibly getting tired of his interjections as well. By the end of the day, it seemed that every time he opened his mouth there was a collective sigh and eyeball rolling in the audience and to a lesser extent among the panelists. In some ways, he almost overshadowed the presenters, which is not what a moderator is supposed to do. Last year's moderator, Edward Ayers, was much, much better.
Next year's signature conference will be held on Saturday, May 21 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The theme is American Military Strategy in the Civil War. The list of speakers is impressive, to include Gary Gallagher, William C. Davis, Joseph Glatthaar, Richard McMurry, Steven Woodworth, and conference host James I. Robertson, Jr. among others.