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Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

 

1VAGazetteApril11737

April 1 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

Imagine the infrastructure that had to have been in place in 18th century colonial America before the American Revolution.  Take just one ship arriving in one port city in Virginia, like York or Bermuda Hundred, both on the James River, with a cargo of nearly 500 African slaves.

People would have been herded off the ship and placed into a holding pen of sorts to wait for up to two weeks or more as they are advertised like stock, which in fact they are considered, in newsprint and by word of mouth.  Before they were led out onto an auction block to be sold individually or in small groups they would have been examined intimately, as they had been on the ship, to confirm their health. A few behind the scene deals would be made, of course. Not every slave would need to stand on the block before being transported to his or her place of servitude.

That’s one ship, one port and one delivery of slaves. But there were many ports in colonial America and many ships delivering their human cargo before loading their holes with colonial-made goods, like tobacco and molasses.

So imagine the growth in and the scale of operations over time – not one ship at one port with hundreds of slaves on board but multiple ships dropping off thousands of chained people who had homes and identities that were stripped away. Who had cultures millenia old that were dismissed in this new land. Who had languages, arts and religions that were deemed insignificant. Who had skin in wondrous shades of brown which made them seem so “other” that perhaps that otherness made it especially easy for people to dismiss their humanity.

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July 8 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 3 1739 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 17 1739 in Virginia Gazette

Imagine how a concept of indentured servitude referred to in the early days of colonial life — you could eventually buy your way to freedom — evolved into something much more insidious and institutionalized as black African slavery became the engine for a growing economy. An economic growth that would help fuel the idea of creating an independent United States versus remaining colonies subject to British rule.

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May 25 1769 in Virginia Gazette

Not all were in agreement with slavery and eventually the slave trade from Africa would officially end around 1810 (though it would continue illegally long after).  As future generations of slaves were born, not in Africa but in the colonial and then United States, it became de rigeur not to allow them to learn to read or write. To prevent their gathering for worship except under very proscribed conditions. To prevent their free movement by chain, by brand and by paper pass. They were property – perhaps loved or respected by those who owned them – but they were property nonetheless.

9VaGazetteSep151752

September 15 1752 in Virginia Gazette

Tens of thousands and eventually millions of people would be born into a system that had evolved to maintain a “free” labor force through intimidation, denigration and willful ignorance of horrors against humanity. I say willful ignorance because even people who were kind to their slaves had to be aware of what would happen if their slaves ran afoul of patrols without their papers and so on.  The identity of the slaves, their sense of self and of their worth in this world, would be shaped by a cruel system as would be the identities of the people who maintained that system with both wealth and whip. Slavery as an institution, on that scale and by that design, exist no more in this country … but human nature remains the same … the good, the bad, the ugly and all that lies in between.

When I compare 18th century newspaper clippings about slave auctions, slaves being sold as part of estate sales, advertisements for the return of runaway slaves, and so on to slave narratives from the 1930s, nearly two centuries later, it is extremely sad and insightful to see how slavery in this country was nearly successful in keeping a people down and it is only because of visionary and courageous people, of all races, working hard across all of those centuries that I am able to sit here pounding away on my computer. Without fear.

Why revisit this past? In this age of 140-character messages, history is becoming increasingly sanitized. And I guess because I am reading too much in this 21st Century about people looking back with nostalgia about those former times.  The patrollers of those centuries, from the 17th into the late 19th centuries, riding through the countryside in various states rounding up brown people without papers were not civil servants – they were a fear mongering horde whose jobs enabled their most base behavior. I don’t care the color of the shirt, red, or the hood, white, all who wore them in those times did so to generate fear. And people are wearing those colors today.

There are far too many people who are fearful today. And that is wrong. That’s my random musing this Sunday. Back to nature photography next week. Maybe.

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Eventually, it would work this way — some places were safe and some places were not. If you could make it to the safe place, sometimes woods, sometimes city, then you were safe. But eventually laws were changed, compromises made, and so then even if you made it to the safe place, you could be forcibly brought back to the unsafe place. Sometimes people stood up for you. Sometimes those people were steadfast but there were times when even those pillars were pushed aside. That is what the children remember. How if they did not have the right papers, and especially if they had no papers at all, how the pattyrollers could pick them up, hit them, chase them with dogs. It did not matter if they had made it to sanctuary. Laws said that they were less than human. Only 3/5ths. Until a President put pen to paper.

The Forest Floor

It took me a while to understand the word drawn from the childhood experiences of the former slaves, their fears of the pattyrollers. These patrollers were charged with keeping track of slaves in the slave owning states and eventually given legal right to enter into free states and bring back those who had sought a free land.  Back into slavery the children would go … until a President put pen to paper.

That President was Abraham Lincoln. His pen upon paper produced the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order issued on January 1, 1863.

In his famous eulogy for the slain President, Reverend Phillips Brooks made note that Lincoln served a divided nation and describes how Lincoln was able to stand forth in the struggle between two American natures.

We are told he did not come to the Presidential chair pledged to the abolition of slavery. When will we learn that with all true men it is not what they intend to do, but it is what the qualities of their nature bind them to do, that determines their career! The President came to his power full of the blood, strong in the strength of Freedom. He came there free, and hating slavery. He came there, leaving on record words like these … “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.””

Brooks goes on with great eloquence, an eloquence that cannot be conveyed in a blog post but these words stand out to me … “Do not say that [slavery] is dead. It is not, while its essential spirit lives. While another man counts another man his born inferior …” Brooks ends the sermon with Lincoln’s own words delivered at Gettysburg. “He stood there with their graves before him and these are the words he said” –

“We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men who struggled here have consecrated it far beyond our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.””

Over 150 years after the American Civil War, I live in what is known as a sanctuary city and I work in a place of sanctuary. I read of students demanding that their campuses become places of sanctuary. I wear no blinders, at least on this subject. What has happened before can happen again. But it does not have to. It does not have to. All this said as a new President of a different character continues to put pen to paper.

 

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They could have stayed in the land where they had been born, a land that over time their ancestors had come to consider home. During the war the land had been bloodied but the war was over. A few cities and institutions had been destroyed but for the most part key systems and infrastructures had been preserved.  Yes, war had ended, and with war’s end some change had come.  Were they not free? A big change, for sure, but clearly not enough.

Word spread of a different place, a place with more opportunities, where one could make a fresh start.  It would be an all or nothing gamble. Not everyone was sure of such a gamble but some were.  Families mobilized.  All they need do to reach this promised land was to cross the river.  And they did.

Not everyone was happy.

This is how one group’s journey was described by an observer:

“… today there are sixty or seventy … of all ages and sexes on the river bank … singing and shouting … waiting for a government boat that will give them free transportation … These emigrants are the most lazy … too lazy to make a living in this warm and generous climate, where nature holds out to them her arms laden with rich and magnificent fruits that never fail. She points to her lakes … with unfailing yield of food from the waters, and can boast of a soil more productive than any other. Yet this lazy class of emigrants are compelled to go [elsewhere] to make a living or be fed by a magnanimous government.  The most important of these emigrants have abandoned comfortable homes, and many of them have no means to pay passage … and what money they had was expended … [They] have been deceived by designing rascals in our midst who have held out flattering hopes and promises for the future that can never be realized. …”

As for that elsewhere considered a promised land? It was Kansas. The river crossed was the Mississippi.  The emigrants were African Americans departing the south in what’s considered to be one of the first major migrations after the Civil War. The above excerpts were posted in the Boston Post on May 2, 1879 (just fourteen years after the end of the Civil War and two years after the end of Reconstruction) in a letter written by a resident of Vidalia, Louisiana to his client in Massachusetts. His client owned a Louisiana plantation.

While over six million people were freed by the end of the Civil War, many continued to work the fields where they had once been enslaved. Few other employment options existed.  By the late 1870s, white southern elites returned to power and quickly undid many of the advancements made with regard to voting rights and economic opportunities for blacks. As economic pathways disappeared and violence increased, people sought a promised land and that land was out west and especially Kansas, home of the mythic John Brown.

One concern sparked by the exodus of African Americans was, who would work the fields?  In his 1879 letter, the author includes a clipping from another southern voice reflecting upon this potential impact and proposed federal actions.

“The proposition of [President] Garfield to appropriate from the Treasury of the United States seventy-five thousand dollars for the relief of these emigrants … it is one the of most “cheeky”propositions, to use a cant expression, we have ever heard.  Here is a people, probably in combination with Garfield himself and other haters of the South, who leave their comfortable homes in the South, and under certain unexplained influences go voluntarily to the West to better their condition.  They there find only those who have persuaded them into such a wild goose chase … They find the conditions identical with what had been told them over and over again by intelligent men in the country they have left, they find the same difficulties and trials which every class of immigrants have to encounter when moving to a new country, and they are thrown on their own resources to no greater extent than the thousands of white immigrants who every year throng the Western Territories. Why does not Mr. Garfield ask the Congress of the United States to appropriate money for the temporary support of German and Irish and other European emigrants? They are as worthy …

“If this proposition to support this band of crazy wanderers should be adopted and money appropriated for keeping them in idleness, there would be created a drain on the public Treasury which hundreds of millions would not satisfy … and the time would not be long before our Western friends would have a surfeit of their colored brethren. … How long is this peculiar care for this class of our population to continue? … The colored people are as free as the whites … He has the same right as the white man has to emigrate but he has no further right than the white man for assistance …

“The place of those who go from the South will doubtless be soon supplied by the Chinamen, and what would Mr. Garfield say if the people of the South should apply to Congress for a year’s support for the almond-eyed Mongolians who may be brought here to develop our cotton lands?”

There are other letters from that time that echo the same sentiments about the roles of African Americans, the Chinese immigrants and more but I stop here. The history of that time — of emigration, migration and refugees arriving in a new land — is complex and is part of what makes America so darned unique.  Though no wall around Kansas or along the Mississippi was mentioned, as I read the words, I could not help but think of Trump. He is nothing new. Nor are the people who look up to someone like him, a man who puts down everyone, and who enables some peoples’ worse base instincts toward selfishness, fear of others and violence.

I do not find hope in these old letters but I am reminded that we as a nation have survived such people and attitudes before.  I have seen many stories of late debating whether or not Alex Haley’s Roots should have been remade. I don’t know but I do believe that there are always lessons to be learned from studying and remembering the past.

Sources

Boston Post, May 2, 1879, page 2, “The Negro Exodus”

National Archives Exodus to Kansas

 

 

 

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Recently I was walking through the reference section of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. Though I had a specific destination, probably trying to find a book on stained glass, my eyes kept raking the shelves and a book title made me pause. I pulled the book from the shelf, randomly flipped it open and began to read.

Willie Cofer, seventy-eight years old, a former slave in Georgia, was recounting his memories of how the cook fed the slave children.  They were fed all the time, he said, feeding them bread and milk for breakfast, mostly peas and cornbread for dinner, and then milk and bread for supper.  There were so many children on the plantation that “dey fed us in a trough. Dey jes’ poured de peas on the de chunks of cornbread what dey had crumbled in de trough, and us had to mussel ’em out.  Yessum, I said mussel.  De only spoons us had wuz mussel shells what us got out of de branches.

Strangely enough I had been pondering what to do with my growing collection of mussel shells. I often pick them up when I’m walking along Revere Beach. Sometimes I keep a few shells if we cook some up for dinner.  They have always been a treat. I’d never thought of them as a necessary utensil.  Just like I’d never thought of children being fed in a trough, like the rest of the farm stock.

The book I’d picked up was called Slave Culture, a 2014 series of books that present excerpts from slave narratives.  The narratives were collected starting in 1935.  It was at that time that the Federal Writers’ Project, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, was established. The program provided jobs for unemployed writers, researchers, historians and others.  One of those jobs included interviewing more than 2000 former slaves across seventeen states like Willie Cofer.

Sometimes the stories captured were kept in the vernacular, like Willie Cofer’s childhood memories and those of Adeline Cunningham, 85, of Texas.  She shared, “Dey feds us well sometimes, if dey warn’t mad at us.  Dey has a big trough jes’ like de trough for de pigs and dey has a big gourd and dey totes de gourd full of milk and dey breaks de bread in de milk. Den my mammy takes a gourd and fills it and give it to us chillun.  How’s we eat it? We had oyster shells for spoons and de slaves come in from de fields and dey hands is all dirty, and dey is hungry. Dey dips de dirty hands right in de trough and we can’t eat none of it.”

Sallie Crane, at least 90 years old when interviewed in Arkansas, remembered eating out of a trough “with a wooden spoon, mush and milk. Cedar trough and long-handled cedar spoons.” Her owner’s children would taunt the slave children with their leftover school lunches, “Hold it out and snatch it back! Finally, they’d give it us, after they got tired of playing.

Other narratives were “cleaned up” by the interviewer or the former slave had received an education dependent upon the whims of his or her previous owners. Mary Anderson of North Carolina recalled in her 1937 interview:

The narratives are in the public domain. They can be found on the Library of Congress website. Universities in many states, especially in the southern states, have made them available in their libraries and online. So why read them? Institutionalized slavery in the U.S. was ended over 150 years ago. People of all shades fought and died to see passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end segregration and discrimination.  Why revisit the past?

Well, at one point, I believe that there were six million people enslaved in this country and many of those people had been enslaved over successive generations. To oversimplify, they were purposefully denigrated, treated like animals, and considered less than human. They were bred, fed and fattened to be sold and purposefully kept uneducated to dampen any dreams of a different life. And some of the people who suffered were my ancestors, and I’m fairly sure that some of the people cracking literal and figurative whips were my ancestors too. All of that history forms the foundation of this country. The seeds of fear, hate, discrimination that were planted so long ago have not disappeared.  They can too easily sprout again and in some places they clearly have.

I’d say revisit the slave narratives as a way to get a sense of what happened, the impressions made upon a people and upon a country, and to then reflect upon what has changed and what has not.  I was moved by Willie Cofer’s words to consider something I’ve never done before, to create an art installation.  I wanted to … and perhaps I will do it … to find a cedar trunk and carve it into a rough-hewn trough. To place nearby a tree and from its bare branches hang mussel shells. To fill the trough with milk and torn up pieces of bread and peas. I did find a little wooden box and one of my mussel shells and a wooden spoon. I poured in some milk and sprinkled in some corn meal.  I would do a little photo shoot, you see.  It was only when I tore up the bread and tossed it into the box that I began to cry.

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… there was a school and on the campus there was a chapel and inside the chapel there was a stained glass window known as The Singing Window.

photo by Carol M. Highsmith

photo by Carol M. Highsmith

 

Sources and Additional Readings

Learn more about the photographer Carol M. Highsmith on the Library of Congress website: Carol M. Highsmith Archive.

Learn more about Tuskegee University including its tours and the history of the chapel.

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“The influence of education, or of the want of education, on the welfare of our land can have no territorial limits or boundary lines. … Colleges in South Carolina or Tennessee or Virginia are United States colleges, and are as important to the welfare of the country as Yale or Harvard or Columbia.  Illiteracy and ignorance are no mere local dangers, whether among whites or blacks.  They are dangers to law and order and true liberty everywhere; and he that does most to eradicate them anywhere may claim no second place on the role of a comprehensive patriotism.”

Robert C. Winthrop

Robert C. Winthrop (1809-1894)

In 1892, two years before his death, Hon. Robert C. Winthrop, spoke these rather timeless words at the annual meeting of the Peabody Trustees. For twenty-five years he had been President of the Peabody Education Fund, a philanthropic enterprise established by his friend George Peabody in 1867 to promote education initiatives in the post-Civil War southern states.  It was a fund created with the best of intentions that had short and long-term positive impacts as well as controversies. I learned about the fund and Robert C. Winthrop after I photographed details from Hope, a stained glass window in the north transept of Trinity Church.

Detail from stained glass window, Hope, by Burlison & Grylls of Londong, 1877-1878

Detail from stained glass window, Hope, by Burlison & Grylls of London, 1877-1878

Most often after I photograph stained glass windows, I research the story depicted in the window or research the designers of the window.  But this time I was curious about who had commissioned the artwork.  In an 1888 document providing an historical and descriptive account of the parish and the Copley Square building, the author writes,  “This window is typical of Hope, the motto of the Winthrop arms.  The greater part of the window is occupied by two angels, each of whom is holding a scroll.”  And then at the bottom there is a Latin quotation signifying, “A surviving son to the best of parents.

Details from Hope

Details from stained glass window, Hope, by Burlison & Grylls of London, 1877-1878

The son was Robert C. Winthrop and you can read more about him via this detailed Wikipedia article, and in this Mass Historical Society article about interactions between Winthrop and Frederick Douglass.  As for the window designed by Burlison & Grylls …

I feel like I have a greater appreciation of its beauty and look forward to continuing to photograph and share its details.  Until then, learn more about Trinity Church and its art and architecture at http://trinitychurchboston.org/art-history

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Blues 1

Blue Rose in the Hall

Maybe it was fear that made the young men shout “Nooooo!” as I stood next to a For Sale sign in front of a house in a suburb outside of Boston.  Fear of change, fear of something different coming into their midst.  And maybe it was fear that made a woman look me up and down as I questioned her entrance into a building (part of my job at the time).  As she left the building she made sure to look at me in that same way and I had to think, “Well, if looks could kill, I’d be six feet under.” And maybe it was fear that made the waitress do some things during a meal, such that once I’d left the restaurant with my friend (whose favorite restaurant it was), she said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t expect that to happen.”

Now if I were to say that all of those fairly recent events happened, in part, because all the other individuals were white and I am black … well, I think there are folks who might say, as is often said today, why does everything have to be attributed to race?  Because race does matter.  As does class, gender, and economics. It all matters.  But here’s why race stands out for me:  slavery. “Slavery ended,” someone said to me once. “Why keep bringing that up?”

Born in the 1970s USA, I have never been a slave.  I have never been shackled or forced to give up a child or beaten if I tried to put pen to paper or pick up a book.  I’ve never stood in a market while an overseer pointed out my attributes so that someone might buy me as a companion for their children or an extra servant in the kitchen.  Never needed to carry papers proving freedom (or ownership), nor been branded, or had to hope that my master would free our children in his will.

As former slaves did about 150 years ago, I’ve never been in a position of celebrating freedom and, on the other hand, having to deal with the realities of having little but the clothes on my back and waiting for forty acres and a mule.  Never had to deal with “separate but equal” or segregated schools (my older brothers did who were born in the 1950s and 1960s).  Never been in a position or location where I had the right to vote but other forces, those perhaps suffering from fear of change, were putting strategies into place to prevent me from voting (my parents dealt with that).

Nor have I had to watch a loved one (or even a stranger) brutally beaten, mutilated, hung from a tree or a telephone pole, and burned.  I’ve heard a few stories from older family, watched the documentaries and read quite a few articles.  When I read the stories of lynching, especially in old newspapers recently digitized, and see the images, I cry.  I cry for the people who died, the people who watched and tried to help, and even for the people who watched and did nothing.  I did wonder what the people who did nothing were thinking? And what about the people who sang and danced and even cut off parts for souvenirs or mailed those parts to white politicians trying to effect some change?

For some, did the actions they witnessed mean nothing because the people to whom the deeds were done looked nothing like them?  Or was it just that they did not know what to do? Were some people truly scared or were they simply seeking pleasure in establishing control over another?  All of those incidents are part of the fabric of this country, as are the people, of all races and backgrounds, who fought to end slavery, the people who fought to end routine lynchings and the people who continue to fight for economic and voting rights for all people.

Yes, I do indeed bring up slavery and other injustices from the so-called past because of present-day incidents like in Ferguson.   Slavery is an institution, one of many, that this country has yet to deal with. I don’t care about politics or how people choose to identify themselves in this country as Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Libertarian and so on.   Political labels and tenets change over time.  But what about human behavior?  How has that changed over time?  Or has it?  Why do we treat people the way that we do?

You can “follow the money” in terms of why slavery was entrenched in this country for so long.  Economics, economics, economics.  In too many venues of late, I have read people saying stop talking about race and focus on the economic issues in a Ferguson.  Of course, economics is an issue and powerful factor leading to injustices happening in many communities.  But it comes down to a bit more than money to treat people as inferior or to hear their screams of pain and laugh or to make assumptions about their children’s ability to learn regardless of resources provided for education.  And it is about more than economics to see all those things taking place around you and to do nothing. To some extent, I feel little right to judge others because I do not always know what to do as I learn about the horrors around me, in this country and abroad.  I do know with regard to slavery and the seeds that were planted that continue to sprout, I do not want to forget.

I’ve been researching the past, including slave times, quite a bit of late for various projects as well as to better understand current events.  In the remembering, and rediscoveries, I don’t come to hate people who look different than me.  Not at all.  A part of me mourns.  I mourn the horrors, and I also celebrate the courage of so many different peoples, their hopes, their activism and their creativity in finding the beauty in this life.  And I celebrate such in the people who are active today.

As a final note in my Sunday ramblings, if you chose to read so far, … I came upon a 1920s newspaper article about a lynching. The reporter recounted that witnesses heard the dying man sing a song with his last breaths as the flames consumed him.  I looked up the song and came upon the following 1950s rendition by Sam Cooke.  A powerful piece.

 

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