“There is really nothing more to say – except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”
– Toni Morrison
In 1968, a dedicated group of Black students at San Francisco State College staged a protracted student strike and were the first to demand a Black studies program as part of their curriculum. Since then such programs have become commonplace at colleges and universities across America.
As a result of this trend to offer African-American studies, many Black graduates since the 1970s and a smattering of white students know Afro-American history well. Many of them are now in the vanguard of the efforts demanding social change against all forms of racism. Unfortunately, much of white America has not been exposed to Black history. Relying on secondary sources and historical myth, white citizens continue to have a misguided view of slavery, the political history of the Civil War, reconstruction, white supremacy, white privilege and modern institutional racism.
It is my view that before white Americans can effectively join the debate on the state of race relations and what to do to improve them, some education on our complex African-American history is an imperative. It is no longer acceptable to claim there is nothing to be gained by revisiting past injustices against Black Americans without knowing the history. It is equally wrong to argue the reverse, that reshaping public places by removing symbols of the Civil War destroys our heritage without first having a working knowledge of the path from slavery to our present racial dilemma.
Learning about Confederate atrocities against Black people helps one to understand the urgent call for removing southern symbols of the civil war. For example, Confederate leadership issued an edict to shot captured Black Union soldiers. Thousands of former slaves, captured in Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign, were returned to slavery.
Post Reconstruction, a lack of political will on the part of the North failed to solve the sectional wounds from the war. The elimination of the freed slaves’ newly gained civil liberties by Jim Crow laws guaranteed that long-term racial integration was impossible.
During the Jim Crow era, thousands of African-American citizens were killed in public acts of racial terror to establish white supremacy and segregation across the South. The influence of the Ku Klux Klan extended well into the North with KKK rallies being held in Washington County into the 1990s.
Before as well as long after the Civil War northern states encouraged legal codes that promoted racial segregation and Black disenfranchisement. The New York Times conducted a poll in 1964 that found a majority of White New Yorkers thought the civil rights movement had gone too far. Well into the 1960s, Washington County industrial concerns refused to hire Black workers, except as janitors.
The federal government was an active participant in perpetuating institutional racism. Southern senators, often with a wink and a nod from their Northern members, made sure that all affirmative action was “white.” Social Security benefits were denied to domestic servants and agricultural workers, many of whom were Black. The Federal Housing Administration allowed banks to refuse mortgages to people who lived in Black neighborhoods, a policy known as redlining. The Federal GI Bill was locally administered which gave racist local officials every opportunity to discriminate against Black people.
American colleges and universities do not have clean hands when it comes to racism in America. Most American colleges founded before the Civil War relied on southern money derived from slavery to grow their campuses. Yale University inherited a slave plantation, which it used to fund its first graduate programs. The Jesuits of Georgetown University sold slaves to stave off bankruptcy.
The above examples offer a few illustrations of a complex and tangled history. For those who wish to begin their personal journey of discovery, I will offer some possibilities. First, unlike efforts to modify uncomfortable history in other countries, hundreds of history books and thousands of articles have told the unvarnished truth about the Civil War, reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. Scores of them have been on bestseller lists and won awards. Many may be purchased for a pittance in the used book section of Amazon or are available at the local library.
Second, for those who prefer fiction as a path to learning about past abuses against Black citizens, the selections are plentiful. My sister has found the work of Toni Morrison to be helpful in her journey to understanding Black history.
Third, there is the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It is a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African-American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped shape this nation. When we visited in May 2019, most of the patrons were African-American. Hopefully, this will change as white America discovers a rich and thought provoking addition to learning about African American history.
The discussion over racism in America has never been more focused than in 2020. A little history goes a long way toward being an informed participant.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.