This Friday evening (8/22/2014) on C-SPAN3: Slavery in Cinema

The C-SPAN network will air a trio of shows tonight that focus on the depiction of slavery in film:

The Civil War: Slavery & Cinema (8PM ET 8/21/2014; 11:42PM ET 8/21/2014)

A panel of history professors traces the evolution of slavery as depicted in film since the 1930s. Drawing examples from films like “Mandingo,” “Amistad” and “12 Years a Slave,” panelists discuss how filmmakers have framed the idea of slavery. They also describe changes in race relations and gender portrayals in films and how slave characters have shifted from the background into leading roles. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

Hollywood and the Passage of the 13th Amendment (9:30PM ET 8/21/2014; 2AM ET 8/22/2014)

Professor Matthew Pinsker talks about Stephen Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, analyzing what is fact and what is Hollywood fiction. The video for this should be available online by Tuesday, August 28, 2014.

Civil War History and the Film Gone With the Wind (10:20PM ET 8/21/2014; 1:12AM ET 8/22/2014)

Jeffrey McClurken talked about the 1939 movie “Gone with the Wind,” looking at it as a source on southern culture during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and reflective of the Depression era in which it was created. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

These three videos will be useful for folks interested in slavery and the way that slavery and emancipation have been portrayed on film, especially by Hollywood.

Also of interest is this article on Examiner.com: Black slave movies are proven winners in Hollywood, which identifies the most popular slave movies to date.

Camp William Penn to be Commemorated with Parade, USCT Living History Association Conference – 9/20 & 9/21

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Flyer for Camp Penn Commemoration activities

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Second flyer for Camp Penn Commemoration activities

Camp William Penn, the US Army enlistment and training site for African Americans from the Philadelphia, PA/Delaware Valley area during the Civil War, will be commemorated with a number of activities on Friday, September 20, 2013, and Saturday, September 21, 2013 in Fort Washington and Elkins Park, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. This will include a parade on Saturday at 10 AM. Alongside the commemoration events, the United States Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA) is holding its Annual Meeting and Banquet.

Information about the events is provided on the flyers above, and more info is here on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/USCTLHA#

A number of people have come together to organize these activites, including the 3rd and 6th Regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT) Reenactors, Citizens for the Restoration of Historic La Mott (La Mott, PA, is the site of Camp Penn), the Camp William Penn Museum, and the USCTLHA.

The USCTLHA Annual Meeting activities will include a conference on Friday, September 20, at 4PM and a banquet on Saturday, September 21, at 6PM. The USCTLHA is a non-profit national organization “whose purpose is to promote and accurately interpret the history of the United States Colored Troops of the American Civil War and those that supported their efforts to abolish slavery and preserve the Union and to educate the public and promote research of the history and legacy of those who served in the Civil War.” Their website is here.

I will not be able to attend the event, unfortunately for me. I wish the best to those who are conducting and participating in these activities.

What if Slaves Wrote the History of Georgia?


A slave family in Georgia, circa 1850. How would they write the history of Georgia?
Source: New York Historical Society

As the historian Melvyn Stokes has observed, “the traditional focus” of American history has been “on the centers of political, economic, and social power and the doings of elite white men.” He also observed that in the last several decades, historical study has turned its eyes on groups that had largely been “ignored and misinterpreted.”

The history of the United States with respect to the role of enslaved people is a case in point. Much of US history, in our schoolbooks and popular culture, has been told from the perspective of white slaveholders and nonslaveholders; the viewpoint of slaves themselves was often ignored. There has been, though, a sea change in this since the 1950s, thanks to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the growth of an educated African American middle class, and modern historians of all races and backgrounds.

But it’s not as if, throughout history, African Americans have made no attempt at their own telling the story of America. One example of this is the 1890 book A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890, written by Edward A. Johnson (1860-1944). Johnson was born enslaved, and grew-up to become an educator, historian, attorney, and politician. As noted by Andrew Leiter at the Documenting the American South website,

Edward Johnson wrote this book in 1890 to counteract the lack of African American representation in textbooks, or to correct, as he says, “the sin of omission and commission on the part of white authors.” He offers sketches of slavery as it existed in the colonies–northern and southern. He presents the accomplishments of some of the most distinguished slaves, including poets Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton, as well as the mathematician and astronomer, Benjamin Banneker. Johnson is particularly interested in presenting the valorous roles African Americans played in America’s various wars…

The latter part of Johnson’s book is devoted to the progress of the African American race since Emancipation. He describes the early successes of reconstruction despite southern white resistance… Johnson includes this information on the progress of the race in his textbook “to inspire new zeal and fresh courage, that each one of you may add something more to what has already been accomplished.” Johnson concludes his book with a collection of sketches of notable secular and religious African Americans.

In his book, Johnson provides a brief history of the state of Georgia. Compare this to what you’ve learned and know about the state from school and other sources:

GEORGIA.

From the time of its settlement in 1732 till 1750 this colony held no slaves. Many of the inhabitants were anxious for the introduction of slaves, and when the condition of the colony finally became hopeless they sent many long petitions to the Trustees, stating that “the one thing needful” for their prosperity was Negroes.

It was a long time before the Trustees would give their consent; they said that the colony of Georgia was designed to be a protection to South Carolina and the other more Northern colonies against the Spanish, who were then occupying Florida, and if the colonists had to control slaves it would weaken their power to defend their colonies. Finally, owing to the hopeless condition of the Georgia colony, the Trustees yielded. Slaves were introduced in large numbers.

The famous minister, George Whitfield, referring to his plantation in this colony, said: “Upward of five thousand pounds have been expended in the undertaking, and yet very little proficiency made in the cultivation of my tract of land, and that entirely owing to the necessity I lay under of making use of white hands. Had a Negro been allowed I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans, without expending above half the sum which has been laid out.” He purchased a plantation in South Carolina, where slavery existed, and speaks of it thus: “Blessed be God! This plantation has succeeded; and though at present I have only eight working hands, yet, in all probability, there will be more raised in one year, and without a quarter of the expense, than has been produced at Bethesda for several years past. This confirms me in the opinion I have entertained for a long time, that Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without Negroes are allowed.”

Prosperity came with the slaves, and, as in the case of Virginia, the colony of Georgia took a fresh start and began to prosper. White labor proved a failure. It was the honest and faithful toil of the Negro that turned the richness of Georgia’s soil into English gold, built cities and created large estates, gilded mansions furnished with gold and silver plate.

(James) Oglethorpe (who founded the colony) planned the Georgia colony as a home for Englishmen who had failed in business and were imprisoned for their debts. These English people were out of place in the wild woods of America, and continued a failure in America, as well as in England, until the toiling but “heathen” African came to their aid.

Cotton Plantations were numerous in Georgia under the slave system. The slave-owners had large estates, numbering thousands of acres in many cases. The slaves were experts in the culture of cotton. The climate was adapted to sugarcane and rice, both of which were raised in abundance.

As they say, this puts a whole different spin on things.

“Ask a Slave” Asks, Can Slavery be Funny?

This is Episode 2 of the Web-based comedy series “Ask a Slave.” Azie Mira Dungey plays show host Lizzie Mae, who fields questions about her experience as slave to Martha Washington (George Washington’s wife).

Actress and slave enslaved-person reenactor Azie Mira Dungey is trying her hand at comedy which tackles a very difficult subject: American slavery. The website Ask A Slave: A Comedy Web Series features videos based on her experiences portraying slaves at Mount Vernon, a historical site in northern Virginia that preserves the estate of George Washington. Episode 2 of the show is shown above.

On the “Ask a Slave” website, Dungey discusses the genesis for her project:

I must have played every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Caroline Branham– Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid… Studying American history and the lives of these women, while virtually living in their heads and experiences each day, made me feel like I was in some sort of twisted time warp. This was also the time of Barack Obama’s first term in White House and his subsequent run for a second term.

I ask you to remember the racial tension that was all around. We had people saying that the President would be planting watermelons on the White House lawn. Emails were forwarded proclaiming that this was the beginning of a race war and the end of the country as we know it. People bought guns. (A lot of guns.) A scientist reported the evolutionary explanation as to why black women were the least attractive of all the races. The Oprah Show ended. It was mass chaos.

And in the midst of all this, I was playing a slave. Everyday, I was literally playing a slave. I mean, I was getting paid well for it, don’t get me wrong, and we all need a day job. But all the same, I was having all these experiences, and emotions. Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.

So, I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.

While all of that does seem like fertile ground for further exploration, making a comedy about slavery seems like a tough sell. Even today, slavery is an extremely sensitive subject that raises feelings of anger, guilt, and shame. It is perhaps the ultimate taboo topic in American history. I wonder how far the series can go before the treatment of the subject becomes, as one 19th century girl said about Civil War-related entrainment, “too perfect for enjoyment.”

But I did enjoy the first two episodes of the show, and I look forward to more. I am very interested in seeing how the creative team is going to approach the character and the content for the show. In the first episode, show host Lizzie Mae becomes somewhat flustered at the not-too-smart questions she’s getting, and comes off seeming like – dare I say it – an Angry Black Woman. I think the anger is righteous, and I like the satire in it, but some members of the audience might be turned off. The second episode makes more use of deadpan and irony, and I thought that it was funny and more palatable for a wide audience. Time will tell what kind of groove the creators will get into. I’ll certainly be watching to see how it goes.

For those who are interested:  Azie Mira Dungey is scheduled for an interview about her series on National Public Radio’s national midday show Here and Now. The show is expected to air on Friday, Sept 6th. Check your local NPR station for scheduling.

PS: I do disagree with a critique that blogger Kevin Levin has about the show. He did not find the show to be funny, and that’s OK; comedy, as with many things, is a matter of taste. But he also said this:

There is no exploration as to why some of these questions are problematic. She merely pokes fun at the visitors’ questions. I suspect that there are any number of factors beyond mere intelligence that shapes the kinds of questions posed to reenactors at historic sites. I wonder what the staff at Mount Vernon thinks of this.

I think that’s the wrong way to look at this series. I don’t see this show as having a pedagogic intent, that is, it’s not about providing teaching moments or insights into the thought processes of visitors to historic sites and their notions of slavery. It’s just a comedy show. I don’t hold this show accountable for addressing the issues that Mr. Levin suggests. In the same way, I don’t hold Saturday Night Live’s news segment accountable for thoughtful and nuanced information about current events. I just hope they’ll be funny.

Having said that: the creative team does have a challenge to face. Their job is to get the history right – they can’t make fun of the kinds of questions they’re getting, if they get the history wrong in the answers they give. I hope they understand that they have this responsibility, and I hope they deal with it in a righteous manner.

“Battle of Manassas,” by Tom “Blind Tom” Wiggins

This is Battle of Manassas by Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, circa 1861. It might take two or three listens to “get” this piece, but once you get it, you might find it moving.

Tom Wiggins was black, blind, brilliant, autistic, artistic, and enslaved. His life defies our imagination, yet, there he was, and one of his gifts to us is his piano mashup “Battle of Manassas.”

As told at the website BlindTom.org, Tom was precocious child who defied the term “handicapped”:

Blind Tom was one of the nineteenth century’s most extraordinary performers. An autistic savant with an encyclopedic memory, all-consuming passion for the piano and mind-boggling capacity to replicate – musically and vocally – any sound he heard, his name was a byword for eccentricity and oddball genius.

Blind Tom was born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in 1848. His master, Wiley Jones, unwilling to clothe and feed a disabled ‘runt’, wanted him dead and, if not for vigilance of his mother, Charity, Tom would not have survived his infancy. But when Tom was nine months old, Wiley Jones put the baby, his two older sisters and parents up for auction, intending to sell the family off individually and not as a unit. The chances of anyone buying blind infant were remote – his death was as good as certain.

Tom’s life was again spared, thanks to the tenacity of his mother. A few weeks before the auction, Charity approached a neighbor, General James Bethune, and begged him to save them from the auction block. At first he refused her, but on the day of the sale, the lawyer and newspaperman turned up at the slave mart and purchased the family.

Apart from his blindness, Tom was ‘just like any other baby’ at first, but a few months after arriving at the Bethune Farm, things began to change and the toddler began to echo the sounds around him. If a rooster crowed, he made the same noise. If a bird sang, he would pursue it or attack his younger siblings just to hear them scream. If left alone in the cabin, he would drag chairs across the floor or bang pans and pots together – anything to make a noise.

By the age of four, Tom could repeat conversations ten minutes in length, but expressed his own needs in whines and tugs. Unless constantly watched, he would escape: to the chicken coop, woods and finally to the piano in his master’s house, the sound of each note causing his young body to tremble in ecstasy. After a string of unwelcome visits, General Bethune finally recognized the stirrings of a musical prodigy in the raggedy slave child and installed him in the Big House where he underwent extensive tuition.

Music saved – and changed – Tom Wiggins’ life. He went on to become a great performer, something akin to the Fats Waller or Liberace of his era. His unlikely combination of blackness, autism, virtuosity, and creativity made for an irresistible combination on the stage. According to one source, he was the first African AMerican to perform at the White House, when he performed for president Patrick Buchanan (who preceded Abraham Lincoln in office).

One of Wiggins’ most memorable performances was “Battle of Manassas.” Dedicated to the July 1861 Confederate victory in Northern Virginia that made Stonewall Jackson famous (it was also known as the Battle of Bull Run), it combined music from several songs and his own unique arrangement and vocalizations to produce a stunning work. As described at Blind Tom.org,

Tom’s impressionistic musical description of the battle pits the harmony of the right hand against the discord of the left. An insistent bass conjures the trudge of marching columns, tonal clusters evoke the roar of cannon and musketry. A brooding soundscape then ducks, weaves and punches its way into a medley of popular and patriotic songs – Yankee Doodle, Dixie, The Star Spangled Banner and Le Marseillaise – discord tugging at the heels of the melody until it finally implodes into the chaos of a harem-scarem finale. “In an age before recorded sound, Blind Tom’s Battle of Manassas was perhaps the only reference point whereby soldiers, citizens and slaves could make sense of the aural assault”, said biographer Deirdre O’Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom.

The song is a fine piece, but it might take several hearings to fully understand the depth and imagination of the piece. What Jimi Hedrix’s Star Spangled Banner was to the young generation of the 1960s and 1970s, Wiggins’ Battle of Manassas was to the Civil War generation. Its stunning, bombastic end properly recalls the boom of war, and then some.

The website BlindTom.org is an excellent way to learn more about Wiggins. This web video gives a quick recap of his life:

A different view of secession


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.

Like Father, Like Sons: An African American Civil War Sailor and His Heirs

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Photograph of Union Navy veteran William B. Gould with his six sons.
This photograph of the Gould veterans originally appeared in the NAACP’s magazine, Crisis, in December 1917. All of the sons were veterans of World War I except William B. Gould, Jr., a Spanish-American War veteran. William B. Gould, already in his 80s, is seated wearing his GAR uniform. Standing behind elder Gould are, from left to right: Lawrence Wheeler Gould, James Edward Gould, William Benjamin Gould, Jr., Ernest Moore Gould, Herbert Richardson Gould, and Frederick Crawford Gould. (GAR = Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans)

William B. Gould was born a slave, but that would not define him or confine him. By the end of his life, he would leave a legacy of service for which any American would be proud. And it seems his sons learned from his example.

Gould grew up in the North Carolina port city of Wilmington, NC (which is now famous for its movie industry and for being the hometown of NCAA/NBA great Michael Jordan). On September 21, 1862, Gould and seven other men liberated themselves from captivity by navigating a boat down the Cape Fear River. Gould and the others were picked up by the USS Cambridge, and he became a member of the ship’s crew.

Gould was literate, and kept a diary of his days as a Union sailor. One of his descendants, William B. Gould, IV, used that diary to form the basis of Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. This is from the press release for the book:

The heart of this book is the remarkable Civil War diary of the author’s great-grandfather, William Benjamin Gould, an escaped slave who served in the United States Navy from 1862 until the end of the war. The diary vividly records Gould’s activity as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia; his visits to New York and Boston; the pursuit to Nova Scotia of a hijacked Confederate cruiser; and service in European waters pursuing Confederate ships constructed in Great Britain and France.

Gould’s diary is one of only three known diaries of African American sailors in the Civil War. It is distinguished not only by its details and eloquent tone, but also by its reflections on war, on race, on race relations in the Navy, and on what African Americans might expect after the war.

The book includes introductory chapters that establish the context of the diary narrative, an annotated version of the diary, and a brief account of Gould’s life in Massachusetts after the war.

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The elder Gould was clearly an inspiration to his sons. They enlisted in the US Army, and became part of the next generation of African American soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I.

As an accompaniment to the book, Stanford University hosts the website Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. The site features primary sources and photographs that tell the story of Gould in an interesting and compelling fashion. I very much enjoyed the site, and I look forward to reading the book. Highly recommended.

Jump Jim Crow

A short video showing images of Thomas Rice as “Jim Crow,” minstrel inspired toys, and clips from minstrel performances. Video features the “Jump Jim Crow” tune. Video created by Office of Diversity and Inclusion in conjunction with the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University ( http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/ )

The term “Jim Crow” is commonly used to refer to the period of racial segregation that lasted from the end of Reconstruction Era (around 1877) to the 1960s, when judicial decisions, congressional legislation, and executive actions officially ended the practice of separate and equal – a practice which almost always resulted in the separate and disciminatory treatment of African Americans.

But where did the term “Jim Crow” come from? It appears to come from the “blackface” minstrel performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice, who darkened his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork and danced a jig while singing the lyrics to his song, “Jump Jim Crow.”

The Jim Crow Museum website provides some details:

“Come listen all you galls and boys,
I’m going to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”

These words are from the song, “Jim Crow,” as it appeared in sheet music written by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice. Rice, a struggling “actor” (he did short solo skits between play scenes) at the Park Theater in New York, happened upon a black person singing the above song — some accounts say it was an old black slave who walked with difficulty, others say it was a ragged black stable boy. Whether modeled on an old man or a young boy we will never know, but we know that in 1828 Rice appeared on stage as “Jim Crow” — an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character.

Rice, a white man, was one of the first performers to wear blackface makeup — his skin was darkened with burnt cork. His Jim Crow song-and-dance routine was an astounding success that took him from Louisville to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and finally to New York in 1832. He also performed to great acclaim in London and Dublin. By then “Jim Crow” was a stock character in minstrel shows, along with counterparts Jim Dandy and Zip Coon. Rice’s subsequent blackface characters were Sambos, Coons, and Dandies. White audiences were receptive to the portrayals of blacks as singing, dancing, grinning fools.

By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as nigger, but similar to coon or darkie. The popularity of minstrel shows clearly aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racial slur. This use of the term only lasted half a century. By the end of the 19th century, the words Jim Crow were less likely to be used to derisively describe blacks; instead, the phrase Jim Crow was being used to describe laws and customs which oppressed blacks.

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They are coming!


Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C., circa 1900
This is one of many photographs of African Americans that was assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition by W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway. This picture is in the on-line archives of the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-35752; click here for more details.

THEY ARE COMING
by Josephine Heard (1861-1921)

They are coming, coming slowly -
They are coming, surely, surely -
In each avenue you hear the steady tread.
From the depths of foul oppression,
Comes a swarthy-hued procession,
And victory perches on their banners’ head.

They are coming, coming slowly -
They are coming; yes, the lowly,
No longer writhing in their servile bands.
From the rice fields and plantation
Comes a factor of the nation,
And threatening, like Banquo’s ghost, it stands.

They are coming, coming proudly
They are crying, crying loudly:
O, for justice from the rulers of the land!
And that justice will be given,
For the mighty God of heaven
Holds the balances of power in his hand.

Prayers have risen, risen, risen,
From the cotton fields and prison;
Though the overseer stood with lash in hand,
Groaned the overburdened heart;
Not a tear-drop dared to start -
But the Slaves’ petition reach’d the glory-land.

They are coming, they are coming,
From away in tangled swamp,
Where the slimy reptile hid its poisonous head;
Through the long night and the day,
They have heard the bloodhounds’ bay,
While the morass furnished them an humble bed.

They are coming, rising, rising,
And their progress is surprising,
By their brawny muscles earning daily bread;
Though their wages be a pittance,
Still each week a small remittance,
Builds a shelter for the weary toiling head.

They are coming, they are coming -
Listen! You will hear the humming
Of the thousands that are falling into line:
There are Doctors, Lawyers, Preachers;
There are Sculptors, Poets, Teachers -
Men and women, who with honor yet shall shine.

They are coming, coming boldly,
Though the Nation greets them coldly;
They are coming from the hillside and the plain.
With their scars they tell the story
Of the canebrakes wet and gory,
Where their brothers’ bones lie bleaching with the slain.

They are coming, coming singing,
Their Thanksgiving hymn is ringing.
For the clouds are slowly breaking now away,
And there comes a brighter dawning -
It is liberty’s fair morning,
They are coming surely, coming, clear the way.

Yes, they come, their stopping’s steady,
And their power is felt already -
God has heard the lowly cry of the oppressed:
And beneath his mighty frown,
Every wrong shall crumble down,
When the right shall triumph and the world be blest!

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The Kings, Queens, and Martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement

MLK-Memorial
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC,
Source: National Park Service

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. His leadership, intellect, courage, and ambassadorship to white America and the world at large make him deserving of all the recognitions and honors that he’s received.

Yet, I am filled with ambivalence every time we come to another MLK Jr Day. Yes, Dr. King was a great man. But he was not an army of one.

The Civil Rights Movement had numerous heroes and martyrs. All of them deserve recognition. Rather than a day to celebrate the memory of King, I would have preferred a Nation Civil Rights Movement Day to celebrate all of those who were a part of the Movement.

For example, my other “favorite” super-hero from the Movement is Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She started

working in the fields when she was six, and was only educated through the sixth grade. She married in 1942, and adopted two children. She went to work on the plantation where her husband drove a tractor, first as a field worker and then as the plantation’s timekeeper. She also attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights, and voting rights.

In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. She and the rest of her family lost their jobs for her involvement, and SNCC hired her as a field secretary. She was able to register to vote for the first time in her life in 1963, and then taught others what they’d need to know to pass the then-required literacy test. In her organizing work, she often led the activists in singing Christian hymns about freedom: “This Little Light of Mine” and others.

She helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP.

In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant’s “whites only” policy, Hamer was beaten so badly in jail, and refused medical treatment, that she was permanently disabled.

Hamer is most famous for her work as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sometimes called the “Freedom Democrats,” in 1964. The Freedom Democrats challenged the seating of Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. The Freedom Democrats brought national attention to the plight of black people in the state, and led to reforms in the way persons are seated at the Democratic Convention.

In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, by a vote of 116 to 0. This was an extraordinary recognition, given the state’s resistance to integration. Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977.


Fannie Lou Hamer, Freedom Democrat (Library of Congress photo)

To me, no understanding of the Movement can be complete without knowing her story. But as I talk to people about Civil Rights history, especially young people, I am saddened that they have little or no idea of who she was or what she accomplished.

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From ZoNation: Stars & Stripes Forever – Time to Lower the Confederate Flag

Alfonzo “Zo” Rachel is a video blogger at the conservative blog Town Hall Patriots. In this video, Zo takes a college student to task for putting a confederate flag in his dorm room. The student (who is African American) argued that he was just showing his Southern pride. But Zo says that the student should fly the Stars and Stripes, “the only flag that should matter in America.”


 

Dr. John Rock, 1858: “The black man is not a coward… Of course they will fight.”


Dr. John Rock
Source: Harper’s Weekly, February 25, 1865; from Wikipedia

Dr. John Rock knew a war was coming. And he had no doubt: his people were ready to strike a blow.

John Rock was an American renaissance man. Born in 1825 to free black parents in New Jersey, he would move to Philadelphia and then Boston, becoming a teacher, dentist, doctor, lawyer, abolitionist, and orator along the way. Among his many accomplishments: he was the first black attorney allowed to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. To both blacks and whites, he was surely seen as a man of high standing.

On March 5, 1858, Dr. Rock delivered a speech in Boston as part of the annual Crispus Attucks Day observance organized by Boston’s black abolitionists in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. That decision infamously stated that the black race was “so far inferior they… had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” But John Rock felt inferior to no man.

Rock shared the platform that day with William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker, leading figures of the American abolitionist movement. Many abolitionists eschewed violence as a means of challenging slavery, and avoided references to violence in their writing and speeches. But the language of the Dred Scott decision amounted to fighting words, and Rock would have his say.

Rock’s speech is notable for its prediction of a civil war, and the prominent role that blacks would play in it; its expression of black pride; its call for black self-improvement; and its subtle or overt wit and humor. But mainly, it rails against the idea that the negro lacked the courage and will to seek his own freedom; this was a degradation that Rock could not tolerate. His talk appears below, with a minor abridgment. The whole speech is here.
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Ladies and Gentlemen: You will not expect a lengthened speech from me tonight. My health is too poor to allow me to indulge much in speechmaking. But I have not been able to resist the temptation to unite with you in this demonstration of respect for some of my noble but misguided ancestors.

White Americans have taken great pains to try to prove that we are cowards. We are often insulted with the assertion, that if we had had the courage of the Indians or the white man, we would never have submitted to be slaves. I ask if Indians and white men have never been slaves? The white man tested the Indian’s courage here when he had his organized armies, his battlegrounds, his places of retreat, with everything to hope for and everything to lose.

The position of the African slave has been very different. Seized a prisoner of war, unarmed, bound hand and foot, and conveyed to a distant country among what to him were worse than cannibals; brutally beaten, halfstarved, closely watched by armed men, with no means of knowing their own strength or the strength of their enemies, with no weapons, and without a probability of success. But if the white man will take the trouble to fight the black man in Africa or in Hayti, and fight him as fair as the black man will fight him there—if the black man does not come off victor, I am deceived in his prowess. But, take a man, armed or unarmed, from his home, his country, or his friends, and place him among savages, and who is he that would not make good his retreat? “Discretion is the better part of valor”… but for a man to resist where he knows it will destroy him, shows more fool-hardiness than courage.

There have been many Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Americans enslaved in Africa, but I have never heard that they successfully resisted any government. They always resort to running indispensables. The courage of the Anglo-Saxon is best illustrated in his treatment of the negro. A score or two of them can pounce upon a poor negro, tie and beat him, and then call him a coward because he submits. Many of their most brilliant victories have been achieved in the same manner.

Our true and tried friend, Rev. Theodore Parker said, in his speech at the State House, a few weeks since, that “the stroke of the axe would have settled the question long ago, but the black man would not strike.” Mr. Parker makes a very low estimate of the courage of his race, if he means that one, two or three millions of those ignorant and cowardly black slaves could, without means, have brought to their knees five, ten, or twenty millions of intelligent brave white men, backed up by a rich oligarchy. But I know of no one who is more familiar with the true character of the Anglo-Saxon race than Mr. Parker. I will not dispute this point with him, but I will thank him or any one else to tell us how it could have been done. His remark calls to my mind the day which is to come, when one shall chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight.

But when he says that “the black man would not strike,” I am prepared to say that he does us great injustice. The black man is not a coward. The history of the bloody struggles for freedom in Hayti, in which the blacks whipped the French and the English, and gained their independence, in spite of the perfidy of that villainous First Consul, will be a lasting refutation of the malicious aspersions of our enemies.

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African American Perspectives on the Civil War: A Study from Georgia

The period 2011 through 2015, commonly referred to as the “Civil War Sesquicentennial” or “Civil War 150”, marks the 150th commemoration of the Civil War, a watershed in American history. Throughout the country, national parks, battlefields, and other National Park Service (NPS) sites will offer interpretations of Civil War activity and reflect upon the theme “From the Civil War to Civil Rights,” an idea that requires specific recognition of the change in attitudes of groups impacted by the war over time.

In Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965, Robert Cook asserts, “…race was a principal fault-line. The centennial was built on a racially exclusive interpretation of the Civil War era. This interpretation denied agency to blacks and downplayed the significance of those events, notably emancipation and Lincoln’s use of African American troops, which dominated the marginalized black folk memory of the Civil War.”

Given the intersection of the centennial commemoration of the Civil War with the Civil Rights movement, the emancipationist narrative became lost in the pageantry of the Lost Cause and in segregationists’ attempts to link the glory of the past with the then present. This is evident in the multitudinous memorials and statues that commemorate the role of Confederate forces on the battlefields of Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, Shiloh in Tennessee, Vicksburg in Mississippi, and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial aims to address these issues of the past and to provide a means of ensuring that all histories are adequately represented for modern public audiences.

So begins the introduction to a report from the National Park Service, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, and the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University. That report, titled Assessing African American Attitudes Toward the Civil War; The War of Jubilee – Tell Our Story and We Will Come, offers a fascinating and thoughtful look at how African Americans view the Civil War, and also, the public spaces that commemorate the war. The report was issued in January 2011.

The study was prompted by the acknowledgement that in the past, the full story of the Civil War – specifically, the story of African Americans during the war – has been marginalized or even ignored by “public spaces,” such as national parks, battlefield sites, and museums. As a step toward developing programs – including tours, site markers, presentations, and printed materials – that reflect the full history of the Civil War, the staff at the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (KEMO) in the Atlanta area conducted research to assess African American views toward the War, and the Park. KEMO partnered with the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University to conduct the research.

{The Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is located in Cobb County, Georgia, which is in the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area. The Park area was the site of heavy fighting between Union forces led by Major General William T. Sherman, during his Atlanta Campaign, and Confederate forces led by General Joseph E. Johnston. KEMO is operated by the National Park Service.}

The study was conducted by holding several focus group discussions with African American organizations and groups in the Atlanta area. Comments from those group discussions are included in the study, and make for very interesting reading.

The research project developed a number of findings:

An analysis of the audio-recorded focus group sessions demonstrates varying levels of skepticism and optimism among respondents regarding the Civil War museum interpretations at Kennesaw Mountain National Battleffield Park and other historical sites. Initial skepticism about KEMO and NPS’s willingness to expand its interpretation is compounded by a suspicion of the nature of that historical interpretation. While the different groups demonstrated a strong desire to know more about the African American experience during the Civil War, there were strong feelings amongst the participants that the history of African Americans and the Civil War will continue to be misinterpreted in the South.

The predominance of the Southern Civil War “Lost Cause” narrative presented a second area of concern. The groups suggested that the Civil War, as it is taught in the South, offers a one-dimensional look at African Americans and reduces the conflict’s complexities to a “memorial” of a distant and better time.

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What’s My Name?

Since they were first brought to the shores of America, people of African descent have struggled with issues of identity.

Africans who came to America were de-cultured of their language, religion, family practices, and other customs and behaviors of their homelands. Their role as slaves led to them being seen as genetically inferior, Biblically shamed, docile, childlike, dishonorable, and otherwise degraded. Even free blacks were seen as inferiors who were denied citizen rights and subjected to discrimination. For almost all of their time in America, the identity of African descendants was established and controlled by European Americans, in a way that seemed to always work to the disadvantage of African peoples, and eventually, the growing number of people of mixed African and European descent.

One consequence of this history has been an ongoing controversy within the African descent “community” over an appropriate collective name for themselves. Should they “accept” titles that had been chosen for them by whites, or should they choose a name that represents their own views and concept of themselves? And what is their own concept of themselves, anyway?

These questions and issues are reflected in the following comments from African descent persons that go back to the antebellum era, and come forward to today. They end with a salient note from W.E.B. DuBois, a leader of the “New Negro” movement, who tells a high school student “it is not the name — it’s the Thing that counts. Come on, Kid, let’s go get the Thing!”


Well, not only “colored”…
 

“A Subscriber” has suggested the appropriateness of the term “Afric-American.” The suggestion is as absurd as the sound of the name is inharmonious. It is true that we should have a distinct appellation we being the only people in America who feel all the accumulated injury which pride and prejudice can suggest. But sir, since we have been so long distinguished by the title “men of color,” why make this change, so uncouth and jargon-like? A change we do want and a change we will have. When it comes, we shall be called citizens of the United States and Americans.

- The Liberator, 1 Sept. 1831
Source: National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox – The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865

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The term “colored” is not a good one. Whenever used, it recalls to mind the offensive distinctions of color. The name “African” is more objectionable yet, and is no more correct than “Englishman” would be to a native-born citizen of the United States.

The colored citizen is an American of African descent. Cannot a name be found that will explain these two facts? I suggest one, and I beg your readers to reflect on it before you reject it as unsuitable. It is “Afric-American” or, written in one word, “Africamerican.” It asserts that most important truth, that the colored citizen is as truly a citizen of the United States as the white.

- The Liberator, 24 Sept. 1831
Source: National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox – The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865

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That we are colored is a fact, an undeniable fact. That we are descendants of Africans is true. We affirm there is nothing in it that we need to be ashamed of, yea, rather much that we may be proud of.

For ourselves we are quite well satisfied. And we intend, in all our public efforts, to go to the power-holding body and tell them, “Colored as we are, black though we may be, yet we demand our rights, the same rights other citizens have.”

- The Colored American, 6 or 13 March 1841
Source: National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox – The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865

1862
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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

More concretely, within the context of the racial looking glass, the question is whether one can make the word “Negro” mean so many different things or whether one should abandon it and use the words “black” or “Afro-American.”

This question is at the root of a bitter national controversy over the proper designation for identifiable Americans of African descent. (More than 40 million “white” Americans, according to some scholars, have African ancestors.) A large and vocal group is pressing an aggressive campaign for the use of the word “Afro-American” as the only historically accurate and humanly significant designation of this large and pivotal portion of the American population. This group charges that the word “Negro” is an inaccurate epithet which perpetuates the master-slave mentality in the minds of both black and white Americans.

An equally large, but not so vocal, group says the word “Negro” is as accurate and as euphonious as the words “black” and “Afro-American.” This group is scornful of the premises of the advocates of change. A Negro by any other name, they say, would be as black and as beautiful–and as segregated. The times, they add, are too crucial for Negroes to dissipate their energy in fratricidal strife over names.

But the pro-black contingent contends, with Humpty Dumpty, that names are of the essence of the game of power and control. And they maintain that a change in name will short-circuit the stereotyped thinking patterns that undergird the system of racism in America. To make things even more complicated, a third group, composed primarily of Black Power advocates, has adopted a new vocabulary in which the word “black” is reserved for “black brothers and sisters who are emancipating themselves,” and the word “Negro” is used contemptuously for Negroes “who are still in Whitey’s bag and who still think of themselves and speak of themselves as Negroes.”

This controversy, which rages with religious intensity from the street corners of Harlem to the campuses of Southern colleges, has alienated old friends, split national organizations and disrupted national conventions…

But it was obvious that the controversy touched deep emotions in the black community where many segments, particularly the young, are engaged in an agonizing search for self-identity and self-determination…

- Lerone Bennett, Jr., What’s In a Name? Negro vs. Afro-American vs. Black, Ebony Magazine, November 1967
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We’ve gone through the names-Negro, African American, African, Black. For me that’s an indication of a people still trying to find their identity. Who determines what is black?

- Director Spike Lee
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Dear Sir:

I am only a high school student in my Sophomore year, and have not the understanding of you college educated men. It seems to me that since THE CRISIS is the Official Organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which stand for equality for all Americans, why would it designate and segregate us as “Negroes,” and not as “Americans.”… The word “Negro,” or “nigger,” is a white man’s word to make us feel inferior. I hope to be a worker for my race, that is why I wrote this letter. I hope that by the time I become a man, that this word, “Negro,” will be abolished.

Roland A. Barton

My dear Roland: Continue reading