John Buell of our History Department has been sharing vignettes of African American History on the morning announcements periodically this month. This is a new venture for us here at the Sound School and it is turning out to be a successful one…including audible applause at the conclusion of some of the pieces! Many people have requested that John’s stories be part of the electronic version of our announcements, so I am sharing them here. Thanks, John!
Black History Month – First Installment
Hi this is John and as many of you know, I teach history around here.
Today is February first and this day marks the start of Black History Month. Now many of you might wonder – why do we have Black History month? Why not White History month or indeed Hispanic, Asian, or Native American history month? Why only a month? These are good, hard questions that are wrapped up in the issues of race and identity that have been a part of the story of America since the first Europeans arrived at these shores. The fact is that the story of America is everyone’s story and all of it needs to be told.
However, there are some special reasons why – at least for a month – Black History – African American History – makes sense to pay some special attention to.
First: Black history is American History – indeed the full sweep of American History. African Americans were here at the creation – providing labor and even owning land – in the English colonies of North America within decades of their founding. Africans were here before the Pilgrims found their way to Plymouth Rock. For the next 400 years African Americans and the question of race and identity raised by their presence were central to America’s economic, social and political development.
Second: Black history is inspiring – it is tragic, it is dramatic, it is full of joy and hope. It is the story of the underdog, It is history from the bottom up. To put it simply these are great stories.
Finally, Black History Month is not make white people feel uncomfortable and guilty month. It is a time to reflect on how broad the questions of race and identity are. It is a time to realize how many of our ancestors shared a common struggle for equality and opportunity. Consider this: for much of the 19th Century, Irish Americans were not considered white. They were considered an inferior race and were even used in the South when slavery was still legal for jobs that were considered too dangerous to risk the lives of valuable slaves. Early in the 20th Century, laws were passed to limit immigration because the Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans coming into the country at that time were considered to be an inferior race. Even right now there is a push to limit legal immigration that makes use of arguments that are all too familiar.
So from time to time over this month I will come on during the morning announcements and tell some stories. I hope you’ll listen, enjoy and reflect.
Black History Month – 2nd Instalment
Our first story is about a man – Anthony Johnson – who was a lucky man. Now that might be a strange way to describe someone who was captured in Africa and transported as a slave, but he was brought to Virginia in 1621 and that was lucky. He could have ended up in the Spanish or Portuguese colonies working on a surgar plantation; instead he was brought to Virginia which at that time had no slave law. The only legal way his labor could be used was as an indentured servant and when he went to work on a tobacco plantation, almost all indentured servants in Virginia were white. Indentured servants contracted to work usually for seven years. In return they were given passage to America, food and shelter and most importantly, freedom and land upon the completion of their contract. At this point then, Anthony’s status – although only a servant – was in no way defined by his race.
Now most indentured servants in those days didn’t survive their contracts. They died of disease, maltreatment, and Indian attack. But Anthony survived. Several years later, a woman described in the records as "Mary a Negro" was brought in to work on the plantation — she was the only woman on the plantation. At the time, Virginia was populated almost exclusively by men. Still, Anthony and Mary became husband and wife, and they had four children and completed their contracts. By the 1640s Anthony and Mary lived at their own place, raising livestock. By the 1650s, their estate had grown to 250 acres and he had at least four indentured servants working for him some of whom were white. For any ex-servant — black or white — to own his own land was uncommon for an ex-servant to own 250 acres was rarer still. Nevertheless court records reveal that he had the respect of his community.
By 1665, Virginia was changing. It passed laws that began to distinguish between black and white servants. First landowners were allowed to keep blacks as servants for the rest of their lives. Then that status was deemed transferable to offspring. Race based slavery had become the law and it spread to all the English colonies by the end of the 1600s. Anthony and his family sold their 250 acres and moved to Maryland, where they leased a 300-arce tract of land. Anthony died five years later, in the spring of 1670; That same year, a court back in Virginia ruled that, because "he was a Negro and by consequence an alien," the land owned by Johnson (in Virginia) rightfully belonged to the Crown. This is the first time his status as a Black man was ever used against him in court.
Anthony Johnson lived a long life when, in America, there was a terrible transformation. His experience represented a hope of a different path, one that was closed off for the next several hundred years.
Black History Month – 3rd Installment
So it turns out that teaching and learning about the history of slavery in America is actually really hard. A new report commissioned by the Southern Poverty Law Center entitled Teaching Hard History: American Slavery explores, and to a great extent confirms, that fact. The report also finds high school students are woefully ignorant about the most basic facts about slavery.
One of the reports authors puts it this way:
"Slavery is hard history. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it."
Because of those realities, many teachers find it painful and embarrassing to teach the harsh realities of slavery. Students can get uncomfortable, defensive and confused. And for good reason. Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history at American University states: “Saying that the deadliest conflict in American history [the Civil War] was fought over an effort to keep people enslaved conflicts with students’ sense of the grandness of America, the grandness of American history and, therefore, the grandness of themselves as Americans”
So what should we know about American slavery and how do we avoid the myths and pitfalls that can get in the way of true understanding? Here are a few basic realities to consider:
· Slavery was not just a Southern problem. First there is the fact that slavery was legal throughout the North for over a hundred years. But even in the years before the Civil War, the North profited mightily from slave labor. The vast majority of white northerners were fine with slavery – as long as it stayed in the South. It was mostly racist attitudes that fed opposition to its spread.
· Slavery was totally dependent on the ideology of white supremacy, which was widely accepted throughout the country – even by many of those who opposed slavery.
· Although it is certainly important to pay attention to the inspiring stories of people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and the abolitionist movement – those who escaped and those who fought back – but for the vast majority of slaves it was violence, exploitation and dehumanization with simply no way out.
· By the eve of the Civil War there were 4.4 million African Americans living in the United States and almost 90% of them were slaves. Essentially that meant to be Black in 1860 almost certainly meant having the status of a slave.
So what are we to do this harsh reality? Many of us have ancestors who were either slaves or slave owners. Do we allow feelings of guilt, shame, and anger to cause us to turn away? No. We are not the victims or the perpetrators of these terrible crimes. The lessons of history are often harsh, but they should inspire us to ensure that it is never repeated. There is still greed. There is still exploitation. There is still racism.
We have to confront the full reality of slavery because it is the truth. And we must always remember that the truth will set us free.
Black History Month – 4th Installment
Today I want to tell you the story heroism and sacrifice. It’s the story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in the Civil War. When the Civil War began, President Lincoln who was newly elected and politically weak made it quite clear that it was a war to save the Union, not a war to end slavery. Free Blacks in the North were not encouraged to enlist and when they tried they were turned away. At a time when the very idea of manhood was tied up with ability to perform as a soldier, most whites even in the North simply couldn’t accept the idea of blacks in Union blue. But then the war ground on into its 3rd year with mounting casualties and the politics began to change. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and opened up recruitment to black soldiers. It was now a war to end slavery and – this is really a big deal – African-Americans were for the first time given a chance to fight directly against their oppressors.
Led by an abolitionist governor, strongly anti slavery – Massachusetts was the first to organize a unit – the 54th Regiment – that was to prove all the racist doubters wrong. It’s commanding officer was 25-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw, a passionate abolitionist who fully understood the essential symbolism of his mission. The unit faced discrimination – black soldiers did not receive equal pay, were denied, for a time, proper equipment and all officers had to be white. To make matters worse, the Confederate Government announced that all black soldiers that were captured would be turned into slaves or – and this was more often the case – simply killed outright. Nevertheless, the regiment was trained, equipped and ready when it was sent down to assist with the Union siege of Charleston, South Carolina.
After distinguishing themselves in a minor action, Col. Shaw volunteered the regiment to lead the attack on Ft. Wagner – one of the forts protecting the entrance to Charleston’s harbor. It was a frontal assault on a fully manned heavily fortified position and before it was over, half of the 600 members of the Regiment’s attacking force had become casualties. Col Shaw himself was killed on the fort’s parapets. Nevertheless, the 54th managed to open a way into the fort and only the lack of a coordinated follow up forced them to retreat. Sergeant William H. Carney won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics and the story of the battle – which got a front page spread on Harpers Weekly – put an end to all talk that African-Americans could not perform heroically as soldiers.
The story of the 54th is a great one and if you want to learn more I highly recommend the movie Glory staring Denzel Washington that tells the story of the regiment and it’s attack on Ft. Wagner. It is partially fictionalized, but like all great historical fiction it captures the truth of those times brilliantly. By the end of the Civil War, 178,000 black soldiers had served in the Union army – about 10% of all Union troops and Lincoln claimed that without those troops the North could not have won the war.