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The complicated legacy of the Pilgrims is finally coming to light 400 years after they landed in Plymouth
The 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ voyage to Plymouth will be celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic with a “remembrance ceremony” with state and local officials and a museum exhibit in Plymouth, England. IBM has even outfitted a replica of the Mayflower with an AI navigating system that will allow the ship to trace the course of the original journey without any humans on board.
Yet as a scholar of early 17th-century New England, I’ve always been puzzled by the glory heaped on the Pilgrims and their settlement in Plymouth.
Native Americans had met Europeans in scores of places before 1620, so yet another encounter was hardly unique. Relative to other settlements, the colony attracted few migrants. And it lasted only 70 years.
So why does it have such a prominent place in the story of America? And why, until recently, did the more troubling aspects to Plymouth and its founding document, the Mayflower Compact, go ignored?
Prophets and profits
The establishment of Plymouth did not occur in a vacuum.
The Pilgrims’ decision to go to North America – and their deep attachment to their faith – was an outcome of the intense religious conflict roiling Europe after the Protestant Reformation. Shortly before the travelers’ arrival, the Wampanoag residents of Patuxet – the area in and around modern day Plymouth – had suffered a devastating, three-year epidemic, possibly caused by leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that can lead to meningitis, respiratory distress and liver failure.
It was during these two crises that the histories of western Europe and Indigenous North America collided on the shores of Massachusetts Bay.
Despite a number of advantages, including less competition for local resources because of the epidemic, Plymouth attracted far fewer English migrants than Virginia, which was settled in 1607, and Massachusetts, which was established in 1630.
The Pilgrims, as they told their story traveled so they could practice their religion free from persecution. But other English joined them, including some migrants seeking profits instead of heeding prophets. Unfortunately for those hoping to earn a quick buck, the colony never became an economic dynamo.
A shaky compact
Plymouth nonetheless went on to attain a prominent place in the history of America, primarily due to two phenomena: It was the alleged site of the first Thanksgiving, and its founders drafted the Mayflower Compact, a 200-word document written and signed by 41 men on the ship.
Generations of American students have learned that the Compact was a stepping stone towards self-government, the defining feature of American constitutional democracy.
But did Plymouth really inspire democracy? After all, self-governing communities existed across Indigenous New England long before European migrants arrived. And a year earlier, in 1619, English colonists in Virginia had created the House of Burgesses to advance self-rule in North America for subjects of King James I.
So American self-government, however one defines it, was not born in Plymouth.
The Mayflower Compact nonetheless contained lofty ideals. The plan signed by many of the Mayflower’s male passengers demanded that colonists “Covenant & Combine ourselves into a Civil body politic, for our better ordering, & preservation.” They promised to work together to write “laws, ordinances, Acts, constitutions.” The signers pledged to work for the “advancement of the Christian faith.”
Yet as the years after 1620 bore out, the migrants did not adhere to such principles when dealing with their Wampanoag and other Algonquian-speaking neighbors. Gov. William Bradford, who began writing his history of Plymouth in 1630, wrote about the Pilgrims arriving in “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men” even though Patuxet looked more like a settled European farmland. The Pilgrims exiled an English lawyer named Thomas Morton, in part because he believed that Indigenous and colonists could peacefully coexist. And in 1637, Plymouth’s authorities joined a bloody campaign against the Pequots, which led to the massacre of Indigenous people on the banks of the Mystic River, followed by the sale of prisoners into slavery.
The Compact was even used by loyalists to the British crown to argue against independence. Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts, pointed to the Pilgrims as proof that colonists should not rebel, highlighting the passage that defined the signers as “loyal subjects” of the English king.
History told by the victors
After the American Revolution, politicians and historians, especially those descended from Pilgrims and Puritans, were keen to trace the origins of the United States back to Plymouth.
In the process, they glossed over the Pilgrims’ complicated legacy.
In 1802, the future President John Quincy Adams spoke at Plymouth about the unique genius of the colony’s founders and their governing contract. He announced that the Pilgrims would arrive at the biblical day of judgment “in the whiteness of innocence” for having shown “kindness and equity toward the savages.”
In the mid-19th century, the historian George Bancroft claimed that it was in “the cabin of the Mayflower” where “humanity recovered its rights, and instituted government on the basis of ‘equal laws’ for ‘the general good.’”
Nineteenth-century anniversary celebrations focused on the colonists, their written Compact, and their contribution to what became the United States. In 1870, on the 250th anniversary, celebrants struck a commemorative coin: one side featured an open Bible, the other a group of Pilgrims praying on the shoreline.
Missing, not surprisingly, were the Wampanoags.
A more nuanced view of the past
By 1970, the cultural tide had turned. Representatives of the Wampanoag nation walked out of Plymouth’s public celebration of Thanksgiving that year to announce that the fourth Thursday in November should instead be known as the National Day of Mourning. To these protesters, 1620 represented violent conquest and dispossession, the twinned legacies of exclusion.
The organizers of an international group called “Plymouth 400” have stressed that they want to tell a “historically accurate and culturally inclusive history.” They’ve promoted both the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and an exhibit featuring 400 years of Wampanoag History. Unlike earlier generations of celebrants, the organizers have acknowledged the continued presence of Native residents.
Prior celebrations of Plymouth’s founding focused on the Pilgrims’ role in the creation of the United States. By doing so, these commemorations sustained an exclusionary narrative for over two centuries.
Perhaps this year a different story will take hold, replacing ancestor worship with a more clear-eyed view of the past.
FOR THE REAL HISTORY, READ: *WHITE TRASH - THE 400-YEAR UNTOLD HISTORY OF CLASS IN AMERICA" BY NANCY ISENBERG
The Troubling History — and Unfinished Work — of the Suffragists
THE CENTENARY OF the 19th Amendment’s ratification, which granted female citizens the right to vote in 1920, will be marked with monuments. On August 26, 100 years to the day since women’s suffrage went into legal effect, a statue will be unveiled in Central Park depicting three prominent suffragists: Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The monument will be the first in the park to feature nonfictional women. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, a putrid misogynist and statue fetishist, has thrown his support behind a bill to create a monument to suffragists in Washington, D.C.
In one sense, at a moment of reckoning around which statues and monuments get to occupy public space, stone edifications of women who struggled for suffrage are a welcome and overdue addition to a terrain too often held by desecration-worthy slavers and colonizers. Both the New York and D.C. sculptures feature Black suffragists, like Truth, alongside white women, like Anthony and Stanton, who have been accorded disproportionate credit compared to their nonwhite counterparts. Yet, the suffragist monuments, like so many statues, obfuscate and reduce a complex and troubling history plagued by racism.
It is a problem with the practice of monumentalization more broadly, that statues suggest an idea of finished and settled history — indeed, narratives set in stone. This is no time to consider the fight for universal suffrage as a closed history, worthy of uncomplicated commemoration. Trump’s ever-growing efforts toward election sabotage are just the tip of the iceberg in a nation that systematically disenfranchises millions along indisputably racist lines. It’s no surprise that Trump would support efforts, however well-intentioned, to confine the struggle for voting rights to commemorable history.
As Melissa Gira Grant wrote in a recent essay, “The women who remain locked out of the franchise are the fractured legacy of a fractured movement.”
Over 6 million people in the U.S. are currently disenfranchised due to laws relating to current or former felony convictions; that’s 1 in 40 adults. Given the vicious racism of our carceral system, the racial bent of disenfranchisement is profound: One in 13 Black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, according to a 2016 study by the Sentencing Project. This disenfranchisement is further compounded by voter intimidation and laws requiring voter ID (which disproportionately shut out poor Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as trans individuals). The problem is not specific to women in these communities, but we are nonetheless talking about millions of women denied the vote, a century after their right to it was constitutionally affirmed.
One could argue that the centenary commemorations are a reminder that the historic struggle for universal suffrage goes on: The promise of the 19th Amendment remains worthy and yet to be realized. This would be American mythmaking par excellence; the sort that lionizes the universalist claims of the nation’s founding documents, but forgets, for example, that the Declaration of Independence described Indigenous people as “merciless Indian savages.” A state built on stolen land, by the labor of people owned as property, cannot at the same time be a nation founded on the principles of universal rights. It is high time we reject narratives that claim the struggle for equality and justice as the fulfillment of the great American promise. Equally, for many prominent white, middle-class suffragists, the promise of the 19th Amendment was never intended toward universal suffrage. “Women’s suffrage,” for them, meant middle-class white women’s suffrage by design. To a major extent, this includes Anthony and Stanton, whose tome on the movement, “The History of Women’s Suffrage,” all but erases the work of Black women like Truth, even though the three women did correspond and, at times, worked in concert.
Yet Stanton and Anthony were unambiguous with their wish for an “educated” female franchise — an ostensibly race-neutral framework that effectively excluded most poor, Black women. Stanton particularly turned to explicit racist epithets in her argument that the women’s vote should come before that of Black men. As Brent Staples noted two years ago in the New York Times, Stanton “embraced fairness in the abstract while publicly enunciating bigoted views of African-American men, whom she characterized as ‘Sambos’ and incipient rapists in the period just after the war.” The decision to sit Stanton and Anthony next to Truth, a formerly enslaved abolitionist, reflects the fact that the three had worked together but ignores their split over Stanton and Anthony’s opposition to the 15th Amendment. “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” Anthony famously proclaimed. The planned D.C. monument will also feature, among other renowned suffragists, Ida B. Wells, a journalist and anti-lynching campaigner, who refused to march at the back of a racially segregated march for suffrage in 1913.
The racism that pervaded the suffrage movement cannot be excused by virtue of it taking place in a different era. Abolitionist suffragists like Truth, Wells, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper were in the struggle at the time and emphatic that the battle for liberation must be intersectional. It was a choice, and a shameful one, for white suffragists to align with white supremacy, both explicitly and tacitly; the 53 percent of white women voters who cast their ballot for Trump in 2016 took part in that same indefensible legacy. Any commemorations of the 19th Amendment’s centenary must reckon with this unbroken history of white women’s racism. It is of note that original plans for the Central Park monument featured only statues of Anthony and Stanton, alongside a scroll containing quotations from more than 20 other suffragists, including Truth. After some high-profile criticism, Truth was added as a figure. Unfeatured, though, are the fraught antagonisms between those women’s political visions.
“You can’t ask one statue to meet all the desires of the people who have waited so long for recognition,” said Pam Elam, the president of Monumental Women, the fund partly behind the statue, in defense of its original design. She’s right. But what women engaged in antiracist, anti-patriarchal struggle, in the legacy of Truth and Wells, also know is that waiting for recognition from a white supremacist state is a losing strategy indeed. In this way, the thousands of women who have taken to the streets this summer to fight for Black lives have honored the memory of abolitionist suffragists more than any statue could.
Presidents have a long history of condescension, indifference and outright racism towards Black Americans
The fury over racial injustice that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing has forced Americans to confront their history. That’s unfamiliar territory for most Americans, whose historical knowledge amounts to a vague blend of fact and myth that was only half-learned in high school and is only half-remembered now.
If their historical knowledge is lacking, Americans are not any better informed about the role of presidential leadership – and lack of leadership – on racial issues. They may have heard that five of the first seven presidents owned slaves, and they know – or think they do – that Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves.”
But even those tidbits of fact are incomplete. Several other presidents, including Ulysses Grant, owned slaves. And Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation was more symbolic than practically effective, hated slavery but never considered Blacks equal to whites.
An honest assessment of American presidential leadership on race reveals a handful of courageous actions but an abundance of racist behavior, even by those remembered as equal rights supporters.
Our book, “Presidents and Black America: A Documentary History,” examines the record of the first 44 presidents on racial issues and explores their relationships with African Americans. What emerges is a portrait of chief executives who were often blatantly racist and commonly subordinated concerns for racial justice to their own political advantage.
Here are a few examples:
• Rutherford Hayes, president from 1877-1881, claimed to be a friend of African Americans’ rights. At his inauguration, he said “a true self-government” must be “a government which guards the interests of both races carefully and equally.” But he cut a shady deal to win the presidency in the 1876 election, whose result was as hotly disputed as the 2000 Bush-Gore contest. In that deal, he agreed to withdraw federal troops from Southern states where they’d been protecting Blacks from the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist depredations. Over the next two decades, Southern whites drove virtually all Black elected officials from office, often by fraud and sometimes at gunpoint, and about 1,500 Southern Blacks were lynched.
• William McKinley, president from 1897-1901, delivered an inaugural address extolling equal rights and declared, “Lynchings must not be tolerated.” However, he remained silent when white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina, staged an 1898 coup that ousted all Black elected officials and killed at least 60 Blacks. His lack of response to lynchings prompted a Black-owned newspaper to observe, “The Negroes of this country turn with impatience, disappointment and disgust from Mr. McKinley’s fence-straddling and shilly-shallying discussion of lynch law.”
• Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1901-1909, believed in white superiority while simultaneously advocating educational opportunity regardless of race. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “Now as to the Negroes! I entirely agree with you that as a race and in the mass they are altogether inferior to the whites.”
• Woodrow Wilson, president from 1913-1921, promised fair treatment for African Americans in his 1912 campaign. But once elected, he defended his Southern Cabinet members who segregated workers in federal departments that hadn’t been segregated, writing, “It is as far as possible from being a movement against the negroes. I sincerely believe it to be in their interest.” Black Democrat Robert Wood of New York unsuccessfully urged Wilson to reverse the segregation policy: “We resent it, not at all because we are particularly anxious to eat in the same room or use the same soap and towels that white people use, but because we see in the separation in the races in the matter of soup and soap the beginning of a movement to deprive the colored man entirely of soup and soap, to eliminate him wholly from the Civil Service.” In a testy White House exchange, Wilson chastised William Monroe Trotter and other Black leaders, asserting that, “Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen. If your organization goes out and tells the colored people of the country that it is a humiliation, they will so regard it … The only harm that will come will be if you cause them to think it is a humiliation.”
• Franklin Roosevelt, president from 1933-1945, was widely admired among African Americans. While his New Deal programs did not benefit Blacks and whites equally, Blacks did receive benefits. But FDR’s actions were always guided by his need to appease Southern segregationists in Congress to pass his other agenda items. And his attitude could be condescending, as when he met with Black leaders about integrating the military. He advised a gradual approach, particularly with the Navy: “We are training a certain number of musicians on board ship. The ship’s band. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a colored band on some of these ships, because they’re darn good at it.”
Political calculation has always been at work in presidential dealings with African Americans, from George Washington to Donald Trump.
But often, those dealings also reflected condescension, indifference, racial bias and outright racism in chief executives who took a solemn oath to serve all American citizens equally.
A horrifying chapter from U.S. history: “Wilmington’s Lie” details white supremacist attack on African Americans in 1898
The last few months have brought national attention to Tulsa, Oklahoma, as plans were unveiled to begin digging there in April in suspected mass graves — locations where corpses may have been dumped almost a century ago, after white mobs attacked and burned a black district of the city, leaving as many as 300 African Americans dead (and perhaps 10 to 20 whites).
What’s known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is generally considered the single worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history. The attack on the Greenwood section of Tulsa, home to a prosperous African American community in the segregated city, left over 35 blocks burned to the ground and over 10,000 people — most of them black — homeless.
But in his new book, Pulitzer Prize winning author David Zucchino re-examines a white attack on another black community — in Wilmington, North Carolina — that in many ways was far more insidious than the spontaneous outburst of violence in Tulsa.
In “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and The Rise of White Supremacy,” Zucchino chronicles an openly orchestrated effort by leading white politicians, newspaper publishers, and citizens in North Carolina — almost all Democrats in those days — to take control of the state and of towns like Wilmington that were led by Republicans, who in turn had the vast amount of support from black voters.
In a race-baiting campaign that went on for months, white supremacists declared they would regain the upper hand “by the ballot or bullet or both” and eliminate blacks from public office, especially in Wilmington — and then they did just that, in the process killing at least 60 African Americans, burning homes and businesses and driving hundreds of other blacks from the city forever.
As Zucchino’s searing narrative details, the attack on Wilmington’s black community ushered in decades of white dominance in North Carolina, as voting rights for blacks were stripped away. Other Southern states also used the Wilmington coup as a model for quashing the African American vote and restoring racism as official policy.
And well into the 20th century, the planned violence was portrayed in newspapers and history books as a “race riot,” in which unruly and criminal blacks, ultimately deemed unfit to vote or hold public office, had to be confronted by liberty-loving whites to restore “freedom” and keep the peace.
Zucchino, previously a reporter and foreign correspondent for the The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers, won a Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches from apartheid South Africa. He brings a journalist’s immediacy to “Wilmington’s Lie” while also laying out the historical background for the 1898 terror, as well as the incomplete efforts in the city today to come to terms with this grim past.
His book looks at how, in the advent of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War, blacks made some gains in the South, winning the right to vote as well as some elections to state and local offices (and in a few cases to the U.S. House of Representatives). Many of these political gains were rolled back over the next couple of decades, however, as former Confederate leaders took control of the levers of government.
Yet more and more blacks were registered to vote, and a solid black working class and middle class began to emerge in Wilmington. By 1880, Zucchino writes, Wilmington, a shipbuilding center along the Cape Fear River in southeastern North Carolina, had the highest proportion of black residents — close to 60 percent — of any Southern city. African Americans also served alongside whites in a number of positions in local government, including on the police force. Blacks and whites in some cases were neighbors — a situation some whites could not abide.
A violent coup
By 1898, Democrats controlled much of the South, but North Carolina had a Republican governor, Daniel Russell, elected with strong black support, especially from Wilmington. Democrats became determined to oust him and to put an end to black voting itself.
“[T]here is one thing the Democrat Party has never done and never will do — and that is to set the negro up TO RULE OVER WHITE MEN,” wrote Furnifold Simmons, chairman of the state Democratic Party and a leader of the white supremacist campaign. “[N]egro rule is a curse to both races.”
As Zucchino outlines, white newspapers and Democratic leaders pounded on this theme for months. At a huge rally of whites in Wilmington, one speaker thundered that blacks and the “handful of white cowards” who led them would be defeated “if we have to choke the Cape Fear with carcasses!” Gun shops reported record sales to whites but refused to sell weapons to blacks.
In August, Democrats found another way to stoke white rage. Alexander Lightfoot Manly, the editor of a black newspaper in Wilmington, The Daily Record, responded to calls for lynching black men accused of raping white women with an editorial that said white men raped black women with impunity. The piece also suggested some white women loved or even lusted after black men, upending “the core white conviction that any sex act between a black man and a white woman could only be rape,” Zucchino writes.
“Don’t think ever that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours,” Manly wrote. “You sow the seed — the harvest will come in due time.”
Though some whites immediately called for destroying The Daily Record office and lynching Manly, Simmons and other white supremacist leaders urged restraint, saying payback would come at the ballot box. So on election day, Nov. 8, some 2,000 heavily armed white men, collectively known as “Red Shirts,” were essentially deputized as militia and flooded Wilmington. Federal troops, some just back from fighting in the Spanish-American War, were also on hand to help keep “order.”
Not surprisingly, black voters barely showed up at the polls, and the Democrats swept almost all state and local offices in North Carolina. Actual violence had been fairly minimal, but Red Shirts and other whites in Wilmington, Zucchino writes, were still “eager for a confrontation.” They provoked one on Nov. 10 when, responding to rumors of gatherings of hostile blacks, they began shooting African Americans throughout the city, causing hundreds of others to flee to swampland outside of town. Vigilantes also torched The Daily Record office, but Manly, the editor, had already fled.
Zucchino’s account makes for harrowing but can’t-turn-away reading; he basically describes an armed overthrow of a lawfully elected government and open murder of innocent people. Yet this violent coup was celebrated by white supremacists not just in North Carolina but throughout the South (“Old North State Redeemed From Negro Rule At Last” read a headline in the Atlanta Constitution) and even in other parts of the country.
U.S. President William McKinley, whom black leaders had implored to intervene in Wilmington, did nothing, according to Zucchino, and none of the white killers was ever prosecuted. The Republican governor, Daniel Russell, was too frightened to intercede. Afterwards, efforts to disenfranchise African Americans in the state through other means — poll taxes, literacy tests, voter-roll purges — reduced registered black voters from 126,000 in 1896 to 6,100 in 1906.
By contrast, a number of leaders of the Wilmington coup rode their fame straight to prominent positions in state and federal government, including Simmons, the Democratic Party chairman; he became a five-term U.S. senator. The African-American presence in Wilmington was permanently reduced, notes Zucchino. Today, just 18 percent of residents are black.
“Wilmington’s Lie” is one of the most disturbing and frightening books I’ve ever read. It should be required reading for whites who scoff at the idea of white privilege.
In Pulaski, Tennessee, a group of Confederate veterans convenes to form a secret society that they christen the “Ku Klux Klan.” The KKK rapidly grew from a secret social fraternity to a paramilitary force bent on reversing the federal government’s progressive Reconstruction Era-activities in the South, especially policies that elevated the rights of the local African American population.
The name of the Ku Klux Klan was derived from the Greek word kyklos, meaning “circle,” and the Scottish-Gaelic word “clan,” which was probably chosen for the sake of alliteration. Under a platform of philosophized white racial superiority, the group employed violence as a means of pushing back Reconstruction and its enfranchisement of African Americans. Former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was the KKK’s first grand wizard; in 1869, he unsuccessfully tried to disband it after he grew critical of the Klan’s excessive violence.
Most prominent in counties where the races were relatively equal in number, the KKK engaged in terrorist raids against African Americans and white Republicans at night, employing intimidation, destruction of property, assault, and murder to achieve its aims and influence upcoming elections. In a few Southern states, Republicans organized militia units to break up the Klan. In 1871, the Ku Klux Act passed Congress, authorizing President Ulysses S. Grant to use military force to suppress the KKK. The Ku Klux Act resulted in nine South Carolina counties being placed under martial law and thousands of arrests. In 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Ku Klux Act unconstitutional, but by that time Reconstruction had ended and the KKK receded for the time being.
The 20th century witnessed two revivals of the KKK: one in response to immigration in the 1910s and ’20s, and another in response to the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Various chapters of the KKK still exist in the 21st century. White supremacist violence, in general, is again on the rise in America. Several high profile events, including the 2015 Charleston church shooting; the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting; and the 2019 shooting in an El Paso, Texas Walmart were all fueled by white supremacy and racism.
Ku Klux Klan
Founded in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) extended into almost every southern state by 1870 and became a vehicle for white southern resistance to the Republican Party’s Reconstruction-era policies aimed at establishing political and economic equality for black Americans. Its members waged an underground campaign of intimidation and violence directed at white and black Republican leaders. Though Congress passed legislation designed to curb Klan terrorism, the organization saw its primary goal–the reestablishment of white supremacy–fulfilled through Democratic victories in state legislatures across the South in the 1870s. After a period of decline, white Protestant nativist groups revived the Klan in the early 20th century, burning crosses and staging rallies, parades and marches denouncing immigrants, Catholics, Jews, African Americans and organized labor. The civil rights movement of the 1960s also saw a surge of Ku Klux Klan activity, including bombings of black schools and churches and violence against black and white activists in the South.
Founding of the Ku Klux Klan
A group including many former Confederate veterans founded the first branch of the Ku Klux Klan as a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865. The first two words of the organization’s name supposedly derived from the Greek word “kyklos,” meaning circle. In the summer of 1867, local branches of the Klan met in a general organizing convention and established what they called an “Invisible Empire of the South.” Leading Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was chosen as the first leader, or “grand wizard,” of the Klan; he presided over a hierarchy of grand dragons, grand titans and grand cyclopses.
The organization of the Ku Klux Klan coincided with the beginning of the second phase of post-Civil WarReconstruction, put into place by the more radical members of the Republican Party in Congress. After rejecting President Andrew Johnson’s relatively lenient Reconstruction policies, in place from 1865 to 1866, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act over the presidential veto. Under its provisions, the South was divided into five military districts, and each state was required to approve the 14th Amendment, which granted “equal protection” of the Constitution to former slaves and enacted universal male suffrage.
Ku Klux Klan Violence in the South
From 1867 onward, African-American participation in public life in the South became one of the most radical aspects of Reconstruction, as black people won election to southern state governments and even to the U.S. Congress. For its part, the Ku Klux Klan dedicated itself to an underground campaign of violence against Republican leaders and voters (both black and white) in an effort to reverse the policies of Radical Reconstruction and restore white supremacy in the South. They were joined in this struggle by similar organizations such as the Knights of the White Camelia (launched in Louisiana in 1867) and the White Brotherhood. At least 10 percent of the black legislators elected during the 1867-1868 constitutional conventions became victims of violence during Reconstruction, including seven who were killed. White Republicans (derided as “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags”) and black institutions such as schools and churches—symbols of black autonomy—were also targets for Klan attacks.
By 1870, the Ku Klux Klan had branches in nearly every southern state. Even at its height, the Klan did not boast a well-organized structure or clear leadership. Local Klan members–often wearing masks and dressed in the organization’s signature long white robes and hoods–usually carried out their attacks at night, acting on their own but in support of the common goals of defeating Radical Reconstruction and restoring white supremacy in the South. Klan activity flourished particularly in the regions of the South where black people were a minority or a small majority of the population, and was relatively limited in others. Among the most notorious zones of Klan activity was South Carolina, where in January 1871 500 masked men attacked the Union county jail and lynched eight black prisoners.
The Ku Klux Klan and the End of Reconstruction
Though Democratic leaders would later attribute Ku Klux Klan violence to poorer southern white people, the organization’s membership crossed class lines, from small farmers and laborers to planters, lawyers, merchants, physicians and ministers. In the regions where most Klan activity took place, local law enforcement officials either belonged to the Klan or declined to take action against it, and even those who arrested accused Klansmen found it difficult to find witnesses willing to testify against them. Other leading white citizens in the South declined to speak out against the group’s actions, giving them tacit approval. After 1870, Republican state governments in the South turned to Congress for help, resulting in the passage of three Enforcement Acts, the strongest of which was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.
For the first time, the Ku Klux Klan Act designated certain crimes committed by individuals as federal offenses, including conspiracies to deprive citizens of the right to hold office, serve on juries and enjoy the equal protection of the law. The act authorized the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and arrest accused individuals without charge, and to send federal forces to suppress Klan violence. This expansion of federal authority–which Ulysses S. Grant promptly used in 1871 to crush Klan activity in South Carolina and other areas of the South–outraged Democrats and even alarmed many Republicans. From the early 1870s onward, white supremacy gradually reasserted its hold on the South as support for Reconstruction waned; by the end of 1876, the entire South was under Democratic control once again.
Revival of the Ku Klux Klan
In 1915, white Protestant nativists organized a revival of the Ku Klux Klan near Atlanta, Georgia, inspired by their romantic view of the Old South as well as Thomas Dixon’s 1905 book “The Clansman” and D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” This second generation of the Klan was not only anti-black but also took a stand against Roman Catholics, Jews, foreigners and organized labor. It was fueled by growing hostility to the surge in immigration that America experienced in the early 20th century along with fears of communist revolution akin to the Bolshevik triumph in Russia in 1917. The organization took as its symbol a burning cross and held rallies, parades and marches around the country. At its peak in the 1920s, Klan membership exceeded 4 million people nationwide.
The Great Depression in the 1930s depleted the Klan’s membership ranks, and the organization temporarily disbanded in 1944. The civil rights movement of the 1960s saw a surge of local Klan activity across the South, including the bombings, beatings and shootings of black and white activists. These actions, carried out in secret but apparently the work of local Klansmen, outraged the nation and helped win support for the civil rights cause. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a speech publicly condemning the Klan and announcing the arrest of four Klansmen in connection with the murder of a white female civil rights worker in Alabama. The cases of Klan-related violence became more isolated in the decades to come, though fragmented groups became aligned with neo-Nazi or other right-wing extremist organizations from the 1970s onward. In the early 1990s, the Klan was estimated to have between 6,000 and 10,000 active members, mostly in the Deep South.
READ MORE: How 'The Birth of a Nation' Revived the Ku Klux Klan
A brief history of the "Lost Cause": Why this toxic myth still appeals to so many white Americans
...Origins of the Lost Cause
In many ways, the Civil War was the prototype for 20th century-style warfare. The military technology that was developed immediately before and during the war vastly outpaced the archaic Napoleonic tactics used during the first several years of Civil War battles. The new rifled musket was capable of firing conical Minié ball rounds faster, farther and more accurately than the old spherical rounds, yet massed armies continued to march in long lines of battle, shoulder-to-shoulder, within close range of the other side, causing a bloodbath of unprecedented magnitude.
Photography, another relatively new technology at the time, would deliver the images of mangled casualties to the public for the first time, leaving no doubt as to the mind-blowing devastation of war. Likewise, nightmarishly awful trench warfare emerged in 1864 — a "dress rehearsal" for World War I, as historian Shelby Foote once described it — adding to the ugliness and carnage. The Victorian "picnic" at Bull Run in 1861 would quickly evolve into the apocalyptic trench combat of Spotsylvania Courthouse and Petersburg three years later.
After the war, while the task of reunifying the nation began to take shape, few observers and participants forgot about the grisly horror show that had occurred. (Contemporary historians suggest that around 750,000 men died in the war, a larger number than was understood at the time — and by far the largest body count of any war in American history.) Someone would have to pay for the carnage, Northerners commonly believed. From there, several schools of thought emerged about how best to handle reincorporating the former Confederate states back into the Union. Radical Reconstructionists wanted to punish the South, executing the perpetrators of secession and redefining the Southern way of life so that secession could never happen again. Others wanted a more moderate, or more conciliatory approach, including Abraham Lincoln and his ham-fisted (not to mention overtly racist) successor, Andrew Johnson.
While Northern politicians and Union generals engaged in shepherding the policies of Reconstruction, authors, journalists and special interest groups sympathetic to the South began work on the reunification of hearts and minds: This was what would eventually emerge as the Lost Cause, a term first coined by Southern author Edward Pollard in 1866. In other words, revisionist historians began to address the task of reunifying white people of the North and white people of the South following so much brutality, with a clear motivation to exonerate Southern whites.
The myths of the Lost Cause
The central thrust of the Lost Cause was to reframe the animators of secession — Southern landowners and politicians, along with the insurgents who formed the Confederate military — as having fought for the more "noble" cause of Southern states' rights. The goal was to erase slavery as the obvious and express intention of secession, even though the preservation of slavery is clearly enumerated in the Confederate constitution.
When Donald Trump defended the names of U.S. military bases named for rebel generals, he borrowed directly from the Lost Cause mythology: "These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom." The Lost Cause was all about rebranding traitors and racists as having fought bravely for ideals like "heritage," "freedom" and "nobility."
Again, it's entirely counterfactual, transforming greedy villains who were responsible for the subjugation of African Americans and the deaths of hundreds of thousands, into kinder, gentler souls who were only interested in defending their cultural heritage and the absolutist interpretation of the 10th Amendment. It's not exactly a shock to learn that Trump and other Republican leaders subscribe to this "cultural heritage" fiction.
As bad as all that sounds, the subsequent myths of the Lost Cause are far more sinister and inexcusable.
One of the most dominant prongs of the Lost Cause was the characterization of Blacks as a common enemy of both northern and southern whites. Mythologists believed that if white people were fighting Black people, then white people wouldn't fight each other again. The goal of smearing African Americans as the enemy of white America involved the whole-cloth fabrication of cultural myths about African Americans, emerging at the dawn of the 20th century and beyond. Architects of the mythology felt that Black people didn't possess a cultural identity and therefore identities could be entirely invented for them by white supremacists.
Prime movers of the Lost Cause taught, therefore, that slaves actually liked being slaves, and were treated better than some whites. Likewise, the myth of Black Confederates, fighting willingly alongside their owners, emerged from similar sources. (In reality, while thousands of Black men accompanied their masters into the Confederate army, they were "camp slaves," not soldiers. There is no reliable evidence that any Black people, free or enslaved, voluntarily fought for the rebel cause.)
Publications and, later, films would portray Black men as unpredictable thieves or as lazy and shiftless "takers," as well as wanton rapists and subjugators of white people.
D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent classic "Birth of a Nation" is the best known cinematic example of Lost Cause myth-making, though other silent films of the early 20th century were arguably more insulting, with titles and plots too horrendous to publish here.
The white protagonist of "Birth of a Nation," fictional Confederate veteran Ben Cameron, invents the Ku Klux Klan to take back his southern heritage. Cameron's KKK is portrayed as an avenging army of swashbuckling heroes who swarm to the rescue of a white woman being surrounded in her cabin by a platoon of lascivious Black soldiers. Naturally, these soldiers are played by white actors in blackface who behave in offensively stereotypical ways.
Black Union soldiers, meanwhile, are shown suppressing and intimidating white voters during Reconstruction. In one scene, several bayonet-wielding Black men disenfranchise white voters at a polling place. Black politicians, including the Silas Lynch character, are unanimously elected to the state legislature via the intimidation of white citizens at the hands of Black troops. The all-Black legislature then goes on to pass laws that strip white people of their right to vote. The politicians, meanwhile, ogle and harass white women in the street, but only when they aren't getting drunk and eating chicken legs.
Given the pernicious vilification of Blacks during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it's no surprise that in the United States between 1882 and 1968, white people lynched more than 4,400 African-Americans, in large part based on racial resentments and prejudices driven by the fiction of the Lost Cause.
Similarly, the epidemic of police violence against Blacks also has its roots in the Lost Cause.
In addition to the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, these myths were heavily borrowed to justify Jim Crow laws, which were specifically designed to oppress Southern Blacks. In Douglas Blackmon's groundbreaking 2009 book, "Slavery by Another Name," the author documents the symbiosis between Jim Crow laws, law enforcement and "neo-slavery" that lasted well into the 1940s and beyond. Blackmon detailed how nonsense laws against things like "vagrancy" were used to supply backwoods plantations and mines with slave labor. In the Jim Crow South, cops would arrest Black men for, in one example, not carrying proof of employment, then hustle them through kangaroo courts and eventually disappear them into a new and supposedly legal form of slavery in which many African-Americans were worked to death. The practice survived until Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the FBI to shut it down at the outset of World War II, yet forms of slave labor continue to exist within the modern prison-industrial complex today.
Blackmon's stories of "vagrancy" arrests and the like also call to mind the atrocious "papers, please" policy enacted by Arizona's SB 1070 law in 2010. (It was partially, but not entirely, struck down by the Supreme Court two years later.)
The Lost Cause in the modern era
The modern Republican "Southern strategy" has been all about exploiting Lost Cause myths to scare white people into voting for GOP candidates. The Reagan-era notion of "welfare queens" played up the "lazy and shiftless" stereotypes of the Lost Cause. The "makers and takers" slogan is a less overt iteration of the same thing.
The so-called "war on drugs" turned out to be just another excuse to lock up African Americans. Blacks arrested for possessing crack cocaine, for example, ended up serving longer prison sentences than whites arrested for possessing the same quantity of powder cocaine.
In 1988, Republican political strategist Lee Atwater, along with George H.W. Bush's media consultant, future Fox News founder Roger Ailes, devised the infamous Willie Horton commercial in order to scare white people into voting against Michael Dukakis. Two years later, the late Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina rolled out his famous "white hands" commercial, which cautioned white people that affirmative action would allow black people to take their jobs.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright's "God damn America" video was exploited by Fox News and far-right media to scare white people into voting against Barack Obama, who had just about every Lost Cause trope catapulted at him throughout his two terms.
Fox News celebrities like Bill O'Reilly have routinely employed racist myths to attack the Obamas. O'Reilly once defended "the white power structure that controls America." He also said about Michelle Obama, "I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels."
Social media memes of Barack Obama dressed as a witch doctor or the Obamas as monkeys or the Obama-era White House lawn littered with watermelons were all pure turn-of-the-century Lost Cause stereotypes.
All told, the Lost Cause has been one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in world history. Its themes continue to be intrinsic to the white misperception of post-Civil War racial history, including Trump's "heritage" defense of military base names, his defense of Charlottesville white supremacists, and his fetish for law enforcement violence. Likewise, his routine attacks against African-American journalists (e.g., Yamiche Alcindor of PBS and Don Lemon of CNN), athletes (e.g., former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick) and lawmakers (e.g., "Low IQ" Rep. Maxine Waters) invariably echo the stereotypes of the Lost Cause.
It's no wonder Trump is a proud student of its fiction. The Lost Cause has been so completely absorbed by the confirmation bias of white racists that its lies have become inextricably bound to conventional wisdom, printed and distributed as legitimate history for way too long. This is why it's been so difficult to shake loose, and it's why there's such a powerful movement now against police violence and the continued lionizing of Confederate insurgents. It's taken more than a century to finally begin to pull down some of the literal monuments to the Lost Cause, as well as to successfully achieve bans against the Confederate battle flag.
We're making progress now, but how many African Americans and other people of color have been stripped of their constitutional rights along the way? How many have suffered and died as a consequence of these fictitious justifications for American racism, especially for our history of secession and slavery? The white supremacist mythmakers believed they were keeping the (white) peace after four gruesome years of war, but all they were doing was rationalizing more death — not to mention injustice — at the hands of racist vigilante groups, cops, politicians, corporations and scores of white supremacist followers, all brainwashed by these 155-year-old lies passed off as "history" and "heritage."
Why the Confederate Flag Flew During World War II
In July 1944, one month after the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, the 79th Infantry Division drove Nazi troops out of the French town La Haye-du-Puits. A young officer from Chattanooga, Tennessee, reached into his rucksack and pulled out a flag that his grandfather had carried during the Civil War. He fashioned a makeshift flagpole and hoisted it up, so that the battle-worn Confederate flag could fly over the liberated village.
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps recently decided to ban the Confederate flag from military installations, and the Army is considering renaming 10 bases named after Confederate generals. But if you want to understand how the U.S. military came to embrace the Confederate flag in the first place, the answers lie in World War II.
When white southern troops went overseas during the war, some of them carried Confederate flags with them. As American forces took over Pacific Islands or European towns, the troops would sometimes raise the Confederate flag alongside or instead of the U.S. flag to celebrate their victory. The Baltimore Evening Sun described this as a “recurring phenomenon which has been observed in areas as widely separated as the Southwest Pacific, Italy and France.”
A major from Richmond, Virginia, raised the Confederate flag over a house after the U.S. Fifth Army captured the Italian town of Rifreddo. He told Stars and Stripes, the official military newspaper, that he’d brought a cache of flags with him and that he had already hung the Confederate flag in Naples, Rome, and Leghorn. “This is one war we’re gonna win,” he said.
In the Pacific, Marine Colonel William O. Brice of South Carolina dubbed himself the “commander of Confederate forces” in the Solomon Islands and flew the Confederate flag on the islands’ base. The Charlotte Observer praised Brice and other white marines, soldiers, and sailors for being “descendants of men who wore the gray [who] have not forgotten in the turmoil of battle, their reverence for those heroes of the [1860s].”
When the Allies secured military victory over Germany, a tank officer carried the Confederate flag into Berlin. As the USS Mississippi steamed into Tokyo Bay after Japan’s surrender, it was flying the Confederate flag.
After the war, a white sergeant from Kentucky wrote home to ask his mother to send a Confederate flag to display in a French school. “I believe we will influence the teaching of the War Between the States,” he wrote. Two former Army pilots returned from overseas and formed a “Confederate Air Force” for white southern pilots in New Bern, North Carolina.
The white troops who raised the Confederate flag during World War II argued that they were honoring the military service of their forefathers. “In its day, this flag stood for much and waved over the heads of the same type of men that made America great,” the Charlotte Observer argued. “Deep in the hearts of all Americans, the Confederacy now is merely a part of ‘One nation indivisible.’”
Not all Americans agreed. When Army Lieutenant General Simon Buckner Jr., himself the son of a Confederate general, saw a Marine unit flying the flag at the battle of Okinawa, he ordered it removed. “Americans from all over are involved in this battle,” he said.
For black Americans especially, the Confederate flag was a symbol of decades of racism, hate, and white supremacy. They fought against it being displayed before, during, and after the war. Before Pearl Harbor, for example, the Baltimore Afro-American successfully protested a plan to use the flag as the insignia of Army quartermasters stationed in Virginia at the base named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The embrace of the Confederate flag by white troops, politicians, and civilians made it clear to black Americans that many of their fellow citizens understood the goals of the Second World War in very different terms. As black Americans fought a Double Victory campaign over fascism abroad and racism at home, most white Americans understood the war only to be about defeating the Nazis and Japanese military, a “single V” abroad and the status quo at home. Edward Moe, a federal investigator who surveyed racial attitudes during the war, found that many white people believed that World War II was about preserving things “as they have been in America.” “White folks would rather lose the war than give up the luxury of race prejudice,” NAACP Secretary Roy Wilkins quipped.
While white officers and enlisted men had no difficulty displaying the Confederate flag at home or overseas, Senator Millard Tydings, a Maryland Democrat, wanted to ensure they could do so officially. In 1943, he introduced a bill to allow Army units to carry Confederate battle streamers. “The sons of those who fought on the southern side in the Civil War ... at least should have the right to carry these streamers as a matter of maintaining military morale,” he argued. The Chicago Defender, a leading black newspaper, struck back immediately, calling the bill a “master stroke of hypocrisy” that proposed to have “American troops carrying the banner under which bitter war was waged for the perpetuation of slavery, into a so-called fight for democracy.” Among Tydings’s opponents, the Defender reported, there was talk of amending the bill to call for German Americans “to enter battle under the swastika, right next to the old Confederacy’s Stars and Bars.”
Tydings’s bill was eventually signed by President Harry Truman in March 1948, which opened the door for the official display of Confederate symbols in the U.S. military. The policy was implemented just four months before southern segregationists formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, the “Dixiecrats,” and nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for the 1948 presidential election. “The Southerners want the State right to continue to deny Negro citizens the right to vote,” the black journalist P. L. Prattis remarked.
The Dixiecrats displayed the Confederate flag prominently at campaign events, which sent sales of Confederate flags skyrocketing nationally. “The Confederacy fought to destroy the United States … how in heaven’s name can those who profess loyalty to the United States of America be loyal to the Confederacy?” asked E. Washington Rhodes, publisher of Philadelphia’s largest black newspaper. “Thousands of men suffered and died to make the stars and stripes supreme in the U.S. There is but one American flag. We are either Americans or something else.”
As the Tydings bill and the Dixiecrats led a surge in the popularity of the Confederate flag, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, committing the government to desegregating the military. The committee Truman organized after the war to study civil rights concluded that discrimination in the military was unacceptable: “Any discrimination which, while imposing an obligation, prevents members of minority groups from rendering full military service in defense of their country is for them a peculiarly humiliating badge of inferiority.” While many white military officers and enlisted men resisted the order, by the end of the Korean War in 1953, the military was almost fully integrated. Black activists fought for this policy for more than a decade, and it was one of the first major victories of the modern civil-rights era.
In the decades after World War II, the U.S. military became one of the most racially diverse institutions in the country and offered social mobility to generations of black Americans. At the same time, the military allowed the display of the Confederate flag and related racist symbols, which have no place in our military.
More than seven decades after the Confederate flag became intertwined with the U.S. military, it is well past time that these ties are severed.
racism thru silence!!!
Excerpted from "The Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold" by Dan C. Goldberg. Copyright 2020. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
It all looks so familiar. The images broadcast around the world of buildings in flames, of protesters confronting police clad in riot gear may be in response to recent events but they are also part of a uniquely American long-running series, the extension of riots and protests that date back generations.
Nearly 80 years ago, at the height of World War II, police brutality, mob violence and the pervasive belief among African Americans that the government did not value their lives led to racial tensions so fierce that riots spread across the country, threatening war production and national security at a time when Americans were told that only a united force could defeat fascism.
Then, as now, critics of the president felt he was indifferent to their suffering and more concerned with alienating his base than using the Bully Pulpit to bring the country together.
The theme that ties these protests together across generations is not one incident — but rather one incident that happens again and again.
During World War II, local police murdered black soldiers in Columbia, South Carolina and Little Rock, Arkansas. Little more than a month after Pearl Harbor, military police in Alexandria, Louisiana, attempting to arrest a black man, triggered a race riot, during which 28 black men were shot. Nearly 3,000 black men and women were detained in the city's "Little Harlem" section. The city's entire supply of tear gas was used on black soldiers, almost all of whom were from the North, principally New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
If an African American soldier or sailor didn't personally experience the bigotry, he could read about it in the black press. A "U.S. Army uniform to a colored man makes him about as free as a man in the Georgia chain gang," one soldier told the Baltimore Afro-American. "If this is Uncle Sam's Army then treat us like soldiers not animals or else Uncle Sam might find a new axis to fight."
Just a few weeks after Alexandria, the black press screamed the story of Cleo Wright, a 30-year-old cotton mill worker in Sikeston, Missouri, who allegedly assaulted a white woman and stabbed the arresting police officer. Wright was shot during the scuffle but survived. On Sunday morning, a mob of more than 300 grabbed Wright from his jail cell, tied him to the back of a maroon-colored Ford, and dragged his near-naked body through the black section of town. They stopped to force his wife to view his bloodied body. Then they doused him with gasoline and set him on fire in front of two black churches, where the pews were filled with men, women, and children who had come for services.
Truman Gibson, Hastie's aide, commented that so many black men were bludgeoned to death in the South that it would only be a "slight exaggeration to say more black Americans were murdered by White Americans during World War II than were killed by Germans."
The following year, deadly rioting broke out in Beaumont, Texas and Detroit, Michigan where, in early June, more than 25,000 white workers went on strike after the Packard Motor plant promoted three black men to work on the assembly line beside white men. One striker shouted, "I'd rather see Hitler and Hirohito win the war than work beside a n***er on the assembly line."
On June 20, a 90-plus degree day, nearly 100,000 men, women, and children went to Belle Isle, a municipal park on an island in the Detroit River, seeking relief from the sweltering heat.
The first interracial fights began around 10 p.m. Soon groups of white men and black men were fighting on the lawn adjacent to the naval armory. White sailors joined the fracas, fueling the hostilities.
Shortly after midnight, at a bustling nightclub in the heart of the black community, a well-dressed black man carrying a briefcase stopped the music, took the microphone, and said he had an important announcement to make. There was fighting between the races on Belle Isle; three black people had already been killed, and a black woman and her baby had been thrown over the Belle Isle Bridge and into the river. He urged everyone in the club—nearly a thousand people—to go home and get their guns. Now was the time to fight. In the white community, someone said a black man had slit a white sailor's throat and raped his girlfriend.
Neither story was true, but both were believed.
By 2 a.m., hospitals were reporting that they were receiving one new patient every minute. Twenty-five African Americans and nine whites were killed, and more than 750 were injured before the riot, the worst of the era, ended.
Letters poured into the White House demanding federal action, and Walter White, head of the NAACP, begged the president to intervene, to marshal the nation as he had done so many times before when a national crisis threatened to overwhelm the republic.
"No lesser voice than yours can arouse public opinion sufficiently against these deliberately provoked attacks, which are designed to hamper war production, destroy or weaken morale, and to deny minorities, negroes in particular, the opportunity to participate in the war effort on the same basis as other Americans," White wrote. "We are certain that unless you act these outbreaks will increase in number and violence."
But the White House made no move, paralyzed by fear of making the situation worse. For every concerned voice that demanded the President intervene to stop Jim Crowism and call for racial equality, there was an equally concerned voice saying it was the very push for racial equality that was causing all these riots, and that Eleanor Roosevelt, in her never-ending quest to promote black men in the factories and the fields, in the Army and the Navy, was responsible for the national discord.
"It is my belief Mrs. Roosevelt and Mayor [Edward] Jeffries of Detroit are somewhat guilty of the race riots here due to their coddling of negros," John Lang, who owned a bookstore in Detroit, wrote in a letter to FDR. "It is about time you began thinking about the men who built this country."
The Jackson Mississippi Daily News declared the Detroit riots were "blood upon your hands, Mrs. Roosevelt" and said she had "been . . . proclaiming and practicing social equality. In Detroit, a city noted for the growing impudence and insolence of its Negro population, an attempt was made to put your preachments into practice."
Inside the White House, the thought of devoting a Fireside Chat to the subject of race riots was deemed "unwise" by the president's counselors. At most, Attorney General Francis Biddle argued, the president "might consider discussing it the next time you talk about the overall domestic situation as one of the problems to be considered."
Roosevelt thought even that too much, and when he gave a Fireside Chat on July 28, one month after the Detroit riots, he devoted not one word to race.
In August, another large riot began—this time in New York City—when Margie Polite, a 35-year-old black woman, was arrested by Patrolman James Collins for disorderly conduct outside the Braddock Hotel on 126th Street in Harlem. Robert Bandy, a black soldier on leave, intervened. He and Collins scuffled, and at some point Bandy allegedly took hold of Collins's nightstick and struck him with it. Bandy tried to run, and Collins shot him in the left shoulder.
The incident was like a spark to kindling on a hot, sweaty night in the city, the kind where the air is thick and humid, and tempers rise to meet the mercury.
Men and women sitting on their fire escapes seeking relief from the stifling heat climbed down the ladders and formed a mob. They lived in those overstuffed, sweltering tenements because of the color of their skin, because the city wouldn't let them leave the ghetto. They were packed into apartments like animals, and now that they were ready to die so that the best ideals of their country might live their countrymen beat and slaughtered them like animals.
The Harlem Hellfighters, the black men who made up the 369th Infantry Regiment, had been sending letters home from Camp Stewart in Georgia in which they told friends and relatives, often in graphic detail, of the gratuitous insults and violence they endured. Harlem's black press reported on how soldiers were beaten and sometimes lynched in camps across the South. Residents knew of the riots in Detroit and Beaumont. They knew that airplane factories on Long Island, even though desperate for workmen and -women, would not "degrade" their assembly lines with African Americans.
It took 8,000 New York State guards and 6,600 city police officers to quell the violence. In all, 500 people were arrested — all black, 100 of them women. One week later, when the New York Times examined the causes of the riot, it declared that no one should be surprised: "The principal cause of unrest in Harlem and other Negro communities has been [the] complaint of discrimination and Jim Crow treatment of Negroes in the armed forces."
How one man fought South Carolina Democrats to end whites-only primaries – and why that matters now
A rusting chain-link fence represents a “color line” for the dead in Columbia, South Carolina. In Randolph Cemetery, separated by the barrier from the well-manicured lawn of the neighboring white graveyard, lies the remains of George A. Elmore.
A black business owner and civil rights activist, Elmore is little remembered despite his achievement. But a granite monument at his grave attests to the “unmatched courage, perseverance and personal sacrifice” that saw him take on the South Carolina Democratic Party of the 1940s over its whites-only primaries – and win.
Nearly 75 years after Elmore’s battle, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates made fervent appeals to African American voters in South Carolina ahead of the primary being held on Feb. 29. For some of the all white front-runners in the race, it could be a make-or-break moment – a failure to win over sufficient black support would be a major setback, potentially campaign-ending.
It is a far cry from the South Carolina of August 1946, when Elmore, a fair-skinned, straight-haired manager of a neighborhood five-and-dime store, consulted with local civil rights leaders and agreed to try once again to register to vote.
It followed blatant attempts to deprive African American citizens of their constitutional rights by white Democratic Party officials who would move voter registration books from store to store and hide them the moment a black voter entered.
When a clerk mistakenly allowed Elmore to register – thinking he was white, contemporary sources suggest – NAACP activists had a plaintiff to challenge the last whites-only primary in the nation.
‘Let the chips fall’
Excluding black voters at the ballot had already been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944’s Smith v. Allwright decision. But in defiance, the South Carolina General Assembly simply redefined the state’s Democratic Party as a private club not subject to laws regulating primaries. Gov. Olin D. Johnston declared: “White supremacy will be maintained in our primaries. Let the chips fall where they may.”
Elmore’s name was promptly purged from the rolls and a cadre of prominent civil rights activists arranged for the NAACP to plead his case.
Columbia civil rights attorney Harold Boulware filed the federal lawsuit. In June 1947, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter – like Boulware, graduates of the Howard University School of Law – argued Elmore’s case as a class lawsuit covering all African Americans in the state of voting age. The trial inspired a packed gallery of African American observers, including a young Matthew J. Perry Jr., a future federal district judge, who commented: “Marshall and Carter were hitting it where it should be hit.”
In July, an unlikely ally, Charleston blueblood Judge J. Waties Waring agreed, ruling that African Americans must be permitted to enroll. “It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union,” he concluded. “It is time … to adopt the American way of conducting elections.”
The state Democratic Party again defied the ruling, requiring voters to sign an oath supporting segregation. Judge Waring issued a permanent injunction in 1948 to open the voting rolls: “To say that these rules conform or even pretend to conform to the law as laid down in the case of Elmore v. Rice is an absurdity.”
In that year’s state primary, more than 30,000 African Americans, including George Elmore and his wife Laura, voted. Elmore remarked, “In the words of our other champion, Joe Louis, all I can say is ‘I’m glad I won.’”
His photos of the long line of voters in his community’s precinct are now in the archives of the University of South Carolina where I teach history.
In the years that followed, voter education and registration programs by civil rights organizations transformed the Democratic Party in the state, both in terms of the makeup of its membership and the policies it pursued. The move sparked the departure of many white Democrats to the Republican Party, including the segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Thurmond’s defection in 1964 legitimized the move for other white Democrats and hard-core segregationists who aligned themselves with an increasingly conservative Republican Party. Not surprisingly, some of the key architects of Richard Nixon’s invidious Southern strategy, which sought to weaken the Democratic Party in the South through the use of dog-whistle politics on racial issues, came from South Carolina.
As this year’s presidential candidates focus on South Carolina, it is clear that the racial makeup of the state’s electorate is vastly different than that in Iowa or New Hampshire, two of the states where the popularity of candidates has already been tested. But Democrats should view the South Carolina primary as more than a shift from voting in small, mostly white states. They should see the state as representative of the party’s strategic core, a strong African American constituency with diverse interests and perspectives.
African Americans in South Carolina have been fighting and winning legal and political battles for voting rights and electoral power since Reconstruction and as Democrats since the 1940s.
A personal price
After Elmore’s victory in 1947, state NAACP President James M. Hinton gave a somber, prophetic warning: “White men want office, and they want the vote of our people. We will be sought after, but we must be extremely careful who we vote for. … We must have a choice between those who have fought us and those who are our friends.”
George Elmore and his family paid a price for challenging the entrenched power of the white Democratic Party in 1946. In an interview with the University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research, which I lead, his 81-year-old son Cresswell Elmore recalled the retaliation the family experienced. Ku Klux Klan terrorists burned a cross in their yard and threatened their family. Laura Elmore suffered a nervous breakdown and went into a mental hospital. State agents raided Elmore’s liquor store, claiming the liquor he had bought from the standard wholesaler was illegal, and broke the bottles. Soda bottling companies and other vendors refused to send products on credit. Banks called in loans on their home and other property. Forced into bankruptcy, the family moved from house to house and the disruption scattered Cresswell and his siblings. When Elmore died in 1959 at the age of 53, only scant attention was paid to his passing.
The monument at his grave was unveiled in 1981, at a ceremony attended by civil rights veterans including his original attorney, Harold Boulware.
As the Democratic Party and presidential candidates appeal to African American voters, they would do well to remember the remarkable fight Elmore and others waged against the forces of bigotry and injustice. These historical struggles illuminate both the gains made over many generations and the ongoing battle against inequities and voter suppression tactics that persist to this day in South Carolina and across the nation.
How Prohibition changed the way Americans drink, 100 years ago
On Jan. 17, 1920, one hundred years ago, America officially went dry.
Prohibition, embodied in the U.S Constitution’s 18th amendment, banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol. Yet it remained legal to drink, and alcohol was widely available throughout Prohibition, which ended in 1933.
I am reminded of how easy it was to drink during Prohibition every time I go to the hotel in New Hampshire that hosted the Bretton Woods Conference, which created the modern international monetary system after World War II. The hotel, now known as the Omni Mount Washington Resort, boasts a basement speakeasy called The Cave that served illegal liquor during Prohibition.
The last time I was in The Cave I began wondering, given how prevalent Prohibition-era speakeasies appear to have been, what effect banning alcohol had on consumption rates.
Moreover, are we drinking any more today than we did before prohibition?
Consumption begins to drop
The Prohibition movement began in the early 1800s based on noble ideas such as boosting savings, reducing domestic violence and improving family life.
At the time, alcohol usage was soaring in the U.S. Some estimates by alcohol opponents put consumption at three times what it is today. Activists thought that prohibiting its sale would curb excess drinking. Their efforts were very effective.
But while Prohibition is often portrayed as a sharp change that happened with one last national call for drinks just before the stroke of midnight, thousands of towns throughout the country had gone dry well before that. More bans took effect during World War I in an effort to save grain.
So to consider the impact of Prohibition on drinking habits, it’s a good idea to start in the years leading up to it. And given that beer, wine and spirits all have different alcohol content, we’ll use the number of “standard” drinks a person consumes to make our comparison. A standard drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. This is the amount of spirits in a 12 ounce beer, a five ounce glass of wine or a 1.5 ounce shot of hard liquor.
From 1900 until 1915 – five years before the 18th Amendment passed – the average adult drank about 2.5 gallons of pure alcohol a year, which is about 13 standard drinks per week. Consumption fell sharply by 1916, with the average falling to two gallons a year, or 10 drinks a week.
The Prohibition movement and the local dry laws that preceded it appeared to already be having an impact.
Tracking consumption gets a bit trickier after 1920.
Prohibition meant the federal government no longer had a way to measure how much alcohol people were consuming. So to get around the missing information, researchers have used data on arrests for drunkenness, deaths caused by cirrhosis of the liver, deaths by alcoholism and how many patients were admitted to hospitals for alcoholic psychosis. Put together, the numbers suggest alcohol consumption dropped sharply in 1920, falling to about one-third of what people drank before Prohibition.
Starting in 1921, however, alcohol consumption rebounded quickly and soon reached about two-thirds of pre-Prohibition levels. One likely reason is that the U.S. experienced a severe recession in 1920 and 1921. When the economy recovered in 1922 to start the roaring 20s people were more able to afford illegal liquor.
In the decades after Prohibition ended on Dec. 5, 1933, with the repeal of the 18th Amendment, consumption remained relatively subdued. But by the 1960s and ‘70s, Americans were swilling just as much alcohol as in the early 1900s.
Today Americans drink on average about 2.3 gallons of pure alcohol a year, which is about 12 standard drinks a week, about the same amount they drank before Prohibition.
The era of Prohibition left many legacies.
One result is American’s preference for pale bland beers. Drinking also moved from public spaces like saloons into the home.
More negatively, some claim it created organized crime as violence soared and mobsters enriched themselves. It also meant states and the federal government, which relied heavily on excise taxes from liquor taxes to fund their budgets, turned to income taxes to help make up for the gap. And ultimately it did not result in a significant or lasting drop in alcohol consumption.
For these reasons, many people believe it was a failure, which should give pause to policymakers and others pushing for a ban on smoking or vaping.
And even the person most responsible for drafting Prohibition legislation, U.S. Rep. Andrew Volstead, was no teetotaler himself, suggesting even those who push such bans can’t even abide by them.
So, as an economist, I believe if you want to stop people from doing something injurious to their health, raising the price works better than a ban. That’s how the U.S. cut the share of adult smokers from 40% in the 1970s to 16% by 2018.
The 100th anniversary of Prohibition reminds us that bans rarely work.
The truth about Columbus Day, explained
There are many good reasons as to why Columbus Day is such a controversial holiday. Like Andrew Jackson, Christopher Columbus is a historical figure who is celebrated as a mythical hero in the U.S. in spite of his genocidal, racist and pro-slavery legacy. As a result, a movement exists to replace the national holiday known as Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.
Here is the truth about Columbus Day, explained:
1. Christopher Columbus enslaved the Taínos he encountered in the present-day Bahamas.
When Columbus “discovered” the American continents in 1492 — millions lived there long before Europeans learned of their existence — he encountered a civilization of people known as the Taínos. By his own description, they were curious and friendly, eager to help the new group of people who had landed on their shores. Over time, Columbus enslaved and exploited them, thereby establishing a precedent wherein Europeans would come to the American continents, exploit natives and steal their land. His actions also laid the foundations for the Europeans to introduce African slavery to the American continents, and Columbus is known to have had an African slave with him on his so-called voyages of discovery.
2. Columbus was also a tyrant, generally speaking.
After becoming governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus let the power to go to his head, becoming a brutal autocrat who was eventually loathed by his own followers. When one man was caught stealing corn, Columbus responded by having his nose and ears cut off before selling him into slavery. When a woman claimed that Columbus was of lowly birth, his brother Bartolomé cut out her tongue, stripped her naked and had her paraded around the colony on the back of a mule. And these are just two examples of many. Eventually, the Spanish monarchs realized that Columbus had become power mad and ordered him and his brothers to return to Spain. He never regained his power, although his freedom was eventually restored.
3. Columbus Day was established to honor Italian Americans — but they deserve better.
When Italians first began immigrating to the U.S. in large numbers in the 19th Century, they faced severe discrimination and — quite often — violence. As a result, President Benjamin Harrison, who was an under-appreciated liberal, designated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival as “a general holiday,” describing the Genoan as a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” It eventually became a national holiday in 1937 as the result of intense lobbying by the Catholic fraternal organization known as the Knights of Columbus. Yet there is no reason why a genocidal tyrant should be a symbol of Italian American pride. I say this as a Jewish American who, though proud of his heritage, would never want a monster like Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin to be the symbol of my people’s contribution to the U.S.
4. Indigenous Peoples’ Day makes more sense as a holiday.
Like Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is celebrated on the second Monday of October and exists to honor the millions of indigenous people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere prior to Columbus’ arrival. It was first officially observed in South Dakota in 1989, with the California city of Berkeley deciding to adopt it in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Bahamas. As University of Louisville professor Frank Kelderman recently told the Louisville Courier Journal, “Indigenous Peoples' Day is an attempt to re-shift the focus of the history of conquest in the Americas, to the presence, culture and variety of indigenous lives. I think it speaks to a renewed interest in the traditions and rights of indigenous people in the general culture.”
5. Indigenous people are more interesting than Columbus, anyway.
When we speak of “indigenous people” or “Native Americans,” we frequently do so as if they were a monolith. However, this is a fallacy, analogous to referring to “Europeans” or “Asians” as a specific group. There are numerous European and Asian cultures, and few would argue that there are not meaningful differences between Russians and Spaniards or Italians and Norwegians, between Han Chinese and Tamils or Koreans and the Javanese in Indonesia. Similarly, there are massive differences between the Taínos who Columbus encountered and the Wampanoag encountered by the English Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony, or between the Aztec Empire destroyed by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Inca Empire which once stretched from modern-day Colombia and Peru to Chile and Argentina. Learning about the great historical contributions of this diverse network of cultures is far more interesting than reading about another egomaniacal despot.
RELATED: Columbus statues vandalized on US holiday named for him
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Several Christopher Columbus statues were vandalized with red paint and messages against the 15th century Italian navigator Monday when the U.S. holiday named for one of the fi ... (Associated Press)
Aaron Burr, vice-president who killed Hamilton, had children of color
John Pierre Burr, one of two children the former vice-president Aaron Burr is said to have fathered with a servant from India, was officially memorialized as a descendant of the founding father at a ceremony in Philadelphia on Saturday.
The elder Burr was the vice-president to Thomas Jefferson between 1801 and 1805 but is perhaps best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, an act which made him the villain in a hit Broadway musical.
The younger Burr, who lived from 1792 to 1864, was a prominent member of black society in Philadelphia. Rumored to be the vice-president’s son for several years, he was officially recognized by the Aaron Burr Association in 2018.
At Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia on Saturday, the not-for-profit association unveiled a headstone for John Pierre in a ceremony which featured a procession of men in tricorn hats, carrying flags.
The headstone identifies John Pierre as the son of Aaron Burr and reads: “Champion of justice and freedom, conductor on the Underground railroad.”
A descendant of John Pierre Burr, Sherri Burr, spoke at the ceremony, which came about largely because of her own work to determine whether Aaron Burr was John Pierre’s father.
Burr, an emeritus professor of law at the University of New Mexico and the third vice-president of the Aaron Burr Association, told the gathered crowd: “From henceforth I hope John Pierre Burr is never again referred to as ‘the natural son’ or ‘the illegitimate son’, but is simply referred to as ‘the son’,” the Washington Post reported.
Along with other evidence Burr found, a DNA test showed she was related to Stuart Johnson, another Burr descendant.
At the Aaron Burr Association’s annual meeting last year, members voted unanimously to recognize that Aaron Burr had two children – the other was Louisa Charlotte – by Mary Eugenie Beauharnais Emmons, who was from Kolkata, India, and was a servant in the Burr home.
The association was founded in 1946 and knew of rumors about John Pierre for more than a decade. In 2005, a black woman named Louella Burr Mitchell Allen came forward, claiming she had traced her lineage to John Pierre.
It was the work of Sherri Burr which swayed members of the association, a group of roughly 75 Burr descendants and history fans, to formally recognize the lineage. Historians told the Post the evidence Burr had found was convincing.
Sherri Burr is working on a book, Aaron Burr’s Family of Color. A historical fiction book about Burr’s “secret wife”, by Susan Holloway Scott, is due for release next month.
Close ties between the founding fathers of the United States and people of color, including the people they enslaved, have become a more prominent thread in public history.
In 2018, Jefferson’s home at Monticello launched an exhibit about Sally Hemmings, an enslaved women who had Jefferson’s children. The relationship was an open secret while Jefferson was alive but for two centuries it was largely avoided at historical sites and in school textbooks.
In 2017, the first comprehensive history of George Washington’s runaway slave, Ona Judge, was published by the historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Washington’s home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, hosted an exhibit about Judge.
The Aaron Burr Association timed its headstone instillation to coincide with the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to the US.
Point Comfort: where slavery in America began 400 years ago
The blue waters of the Chesapeake lap against the shore. Sunbathers lounge in deckchairs as black children and white children run and play on the beach. And close by stands a magnificent oak tree, its trunk stretching three great arms and canopies of leaves high into the tranquil sky.
Over half a millennium, the Algernoune Oak has witnessed war and peace and the fall of empires, but never a day like the one in late August 1619. It was here that the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer ship, landed at what was then known as Point Comfort. On board were more than 20 captives seized from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola and transported across the Atlantic. This dislocated, unwilling, violated group were the first enslaved Africans to set foot in English North America – ushering in the era of slavery in what would become the United States.
This site, now Fort Monroe in Hampton, southern Virginia, will host a weekend of 400th anniversary commemorations on 23-25 August, culminating in a symbolic release of butterflies and nationwide ringing of bells. Americans of all races will reflect on a historical pivot point that illuminates pain and suffering but also resilience and reinvention. Some see an opportunity for a national reckoning and debate on reparations.
For a people robbed of an origins story, it is also an invitation to go in search of roots – the African in African American.
“Once I learned that I was from there it changed something in me,” said Terry E Brown, 50, who has traced his ancestry to Cameroon and enslaved people in Virginia and North Carolina. “I have a fire in me to just learn about why and who I am. There’s something deep down and spiritual about it and I want to connect to it. I’m American, and I believe in this structure that we have, but I’m emotionally and spiritually tied to Africa now that I know where I came from.”
By the early 17th century the transatlantic slave trade – the biggest forced migration of people in world history – was already well under way in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1619 it came to the English colony of Virginia. The San Juan Bautista, a Spanish ship transporting enslaved Africans, was bound for Mexico when it was attacked by the White Lion and another privateer, the Treasurer, and forced to surrender its African prisoners.
The White Lion continued on to land at Point Comfort. John Rolfe, a colonist, reported that its cargo was “not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Merchant bought for victualls”. They were given names by Portuguese missionaries: Antony, Isabela, William, Angela, Anthony, Frances, Margaret, Anthony, John, Edward, Anthony and others, according to research by the Hampton History Museum.
The captain of the White Lion, John Jope, traded the captives to Virginians in return for food and supplies. They were taken into servitude in nearby homes and plantations, their skills as farmers and artisans critical in the daily struggle to survive. Slavery in America was born.
Yet it all requires a leap of imagination in the serenity of today’s 565-acre Fort Monroe national monument, run by the National Park Service, or in the low-key city of Hampton, home to Nasa’s Langley Research Center.
Brown, the first black superintendent at Fort Monroe, said: “The early colonists are trying to survive and they’re not doing it. They’re resorting to cannibalism because they just can’t figure this thing out. When the Africans show up, the game changes a little bit because they knew how to cultivate rice, sugar and cotton, all those things were perfect for this environment and for what they were trying to do.”
It would be another century until the formation of the United States. By 1725, some 42,200 enslaved Africans had been transported to the Chesapeake; by 1775, the total was 127,200. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the declaration of independence, which contains the words “all men are created equal”, was a Virginia slave owner and, by 1860, the US was home to about 3.9 million enslaved African Americans.
The events of 1619 are at once both remote and immediate in a state where white nationalists caused deadly violence in Charlottesville two years ago and in a nation where their enabler occupies the White House.
Brown reflected: “African Americans make up about 13% of the population and our young black men account for about 49% of America’s murders. People who look like me, about 41% of them are sitting in a jail cell. Now I can easily blame that on one thing but I can easily tie it to the very beginning of this country. It’s so easy to treat other people like they’re less than human if you don’t know them. So what I’m hoping this 400th will do is raise the awareness level.
“We’re not going to change people’s behaviour overnight but maybe if you sit back and think, ‘man, 400 years’, they were enslaved for 246 years so they lived under the most oppressive conditions imaginable but they managed to reinvent themselves …They created new music and new art forms and new families. It’s one of the greatest stories and it’s amazing that they survived it.”
Last month, Donald Trump travelled to nearby Jamestown to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first representative legislative assembly. The US president made reference to the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia, “the beginning of a barbaric trade in human lives”, but there are currently no plans for him to attend the commemoration at Fort Monroe.
Gaylene Kanoyton, the president of the Hampton branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said: “He’s not welcome because of everything that we’re commemorating, the arrival of slavery. He’s for white supremacy, he’s for nationalism, he’s for everything that we are against.”
Built by enslaved labour, the fort has a multilayered history, full of contradiction and paradox, like America itself. It witnessed the beginning of slavery but also the end: early in the civil war, three enslaved men seeking freedom escaped to Fort Monroe and were deemed by the commander as “contraband of war”, spurring thousands to seek sanctuary behind Union lines and ultimately a shift in government policy towards emancipation.
There are other threads from past to present. Among the Africans who arrived on the White Lion were Anthony and Isabela who, in 1624 or 1625, had a son, William, who was baptised. In a census they are identified as “Antoney Negro: Isabell Negro: and William theire Child Baptised.” They were living on the property of Captain William Tucker, so are now known by this surname, and William is often described as the first African child born in English North America.
A local family in Hampton believe they are his direct descendants. Walter Jones, 63, whose mother is the oldest living Tucker, said: “We traced as far as we could and then we had word-of-mouth records. We heard this years and years ago and so a lot of us have been through family history and we just never realized how significant it was. From what we’re able to dig up, everything still points to that.”
Jones and his relatives maintain a two-acre cemetery in the historic African American neighborhood of Aberdeen Gardens in Hampton, where many of their ancestors are buried. A simple grey monument is inscribed with the words: “Tucker’s cemetery. First black family. 1619.” A short distance away, a headstone says, “African American female. Approx age 60. Discovered July 2017.” Dozens of white crosses dot patches of grass and soil representing unmarked graves.
Can Jones, a retired software engineer, forgive the enslavers? “The way we were raised and the way I was raised is that we forgive all for some of the things that were done because it wasn’t just them. It was going on everywhere so it was unfortunate and in some cases Africans were also involved in some of the slave trade.
“There’s more discord to not being recognised as being such a vital part of our history and our nation’s history here and what was contributed. We didn’t come here by choice but we chose to excel and to build a country which wasn’t our own. So sometimes I think not having that type of recognition makes you a little bitter. If it hasn’t come by now, when will it? And now that it’s 400 years coming up, how many people truly will even recognise that?”
The Tuckers are not alone. The anniversary coincides with a boom in online and TV genealogy. Donnie Tuck, the mayor of Hampton, a majority African American city, took a DNA test earlier this year and found lineage in Nigeria and other countries.
“Now we look at progress and, with so many documentaries and programs where you’re exploring what slaves went through and the civil war and the period afterwards, I think there’s a whole new emphasis and we have more resources available to us. There’a a real hunger among African Americans to try and know our roots and our experience, our journey here to America and even that whole journey for the last 400 years.”
Some have taken the curiosity further and travelled to Africa. Last month, the congressman James Clyburn was part of a congressional delegation to Ghana, led by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, that visited Cape Coast and Elmina castles to observe the 400th anniversary. It was his second trip to the “door of no return”. “All I remember the first time I went there was walking through that door and looking out at the ocean and the impact that was,” he said in a phone interview.
Clyburn believes that America has still not fully confronted the issue of slavery. “It’s an issue that’s been avoided in this country as much as possible. If it were an ongoing process I think that we would be much further down the road on that. We continue to treat this whole issue with what I like to call benign neglect. We tend to feel that if we ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen, then it didn’t happen or if we don’t need to do anything with it then we won’t.”[...]
How the 2nd Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery