In the News #bigisms | Slavery Illiteracy is disturbing | Freedom Found


For hundreds of years, enslaved people were bought and sold in America. Today most of the sites of this trade are forgotten.
Anne C. Bailey. Photographs by Dannielle Bowman, February, 12, 2020, The New York Times



SARAH ELIZABETH ADAMS was around 5 when her mother was sold to a slave dealer in Lynchburg, Va. The auction took place in the mid-1840s, in the town of Marion, Va. Sallie, as she was called, was herself sold that day, but not with her mother: A man named Thomas Thurman purchased Sallie to take care of his sick wife. She would never see her mother again. For the remainder of her childhood, whenever she could, Sallie would slip away and find solace under a tall white-oak tree. All alone, she would wrap her arms around the tree’s wide trunk and cry. The tree became the place where she would recall the names and faces of her family members sold away; a place where she could grieve, but also a place where she could find shade and respite from her sorrow.

This story was told many years later by Sallie’s granddaughter, Evelyn Thompson Lawrence, a local educator and historian in Marion. Thompson’s efforts led to the founding of the Mount Pleasant Heritage Museum — housed in a former black Methodist church that Sallie and other freed men and women founded after the Civil War — to preserve the history and culture of African-Americans in the county. We know that Sallie was sold at an auction held at the Smyth County Courthouse, a brick building that was torn down after the turn of the century, when Mari­on’s current courthouse was constructed. And yet many details of her story have been lost: We don’t know exactly what happened to Sallie’s mother, or how much Sallie was sold for, or even exactly when the auction took place.

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There Have Been 10 Black Senators Since Emancipation
Eric Foner, February, 14, 2020, The New York Times

A few days ago, 300 people gathered in the Old State Capitol in Jackson, Miss., to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the election of Hiram Revels as the nation’s first African-American member of Congress.

As nearly everyone knows, in the nation’s more than two centuries of existence Barack Obama is our only black president. Less familiar is the fact that of the nearly 2,000 men and women who have served in the Senate only 10 have been black. Of these, Revels and Blanche K. Bruce were elected from Mississippi during Reconstruction. These numbers offer a stark reminder of the almost insurmountable barriers that have kept African-Americans from the highest offices in government and of how remarkable a moment Reconstruction was in the history of American democracy.

Before the Civil War only a handful of black officials existed anywhere in the country — just a few justices of the peace in Northern abolitionist communities. But during Reconstruction some 2,000 African-Americans occupied positions ranging from members of Congress to state legislators, sheriffs, city councilmen and others. This unprecedented experiment in biracial democracy aroused intense opposition from adherents of white supremacy, at that time concentrated in the Democratic Party, who sought to undermine Reconstruction through outright violence and a campaign of vilification that portrayed black officials as ignorant, corrupt and unfit for public service. The New York World, the nation’s leading Democratic newspaper, described Revels as “a lineal descendant of an orangutan.”

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Lincoln’s forgotten legacy as America’s first ‘green president’
Hannah Natanson, Feb. 16, 2020, The Washington Post



Abraham Lincoln couldn’t stop thinking about the oak tree.

It was April 1865, a few days before the end of the Civil War — about a week before Lincoln would die by an assassin’s bullet at Ford’s Theatre. The 16th president, his wife and a few friends were visiting Petersburg, Va., the site of months of trench warfare that left tens of thousands dead and devastated the countryside.

Lincoln first spotted the oak — standing alone at the edge of the city — on the trip out. On his return to Washington, he demanded that the entire party disembark and look at the “magnificent specimen of the stately grandeur of the forest,” as one observer remembered it.

“So there he is, admiring this one tree that survived the battle of Petersburg,” said James Tackach, a professor at Roger Williams University. “And why? Was he saying nature endures even among the follies of man? Or was he saying, ‘Gee, we’ve got to protect those trees, too many have been lost’?”

Lincoln never wrote about the experience, but Tackach thinks he knows the answer: “I can’t help but pick the latter: He knew the country was going to have to heal environmentally."

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The Equality That Wasn’t Enough
Jamelle Bouie, February, 15, 2020, The New York Times



Shortly after acquitting President Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Senate Republicans moved to confirm two nominees for the federal judiciary. The first, 38-year-old Andrew Brasher, was elevated from a Federal District Court in Alabama to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The second, Cory Wilson, is a 49-year-old state appellate judge in Mississippi. He’s being considered for a federal district judgeship in the state.

Like all Trump nominees, they are conservatives. But they stand out for their hostility to voting rights. In 2013, Brasher filed a brief in support of Shelby County, Ala., in Shelby County v. Holder. Congress, he wrote, did not have the power to reimpose the “burden” of federal election supervision, as it did in its 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. “It is not a necessary and appropriate exercise of federal power under the different conditions present today,” he added. The Supreme Court agreed, ending federal “pre-clearance” for new voting laws in several states and allowing new forms of voter suppression.

Wilson also took a dim view of election oversight in his state, calling instead for strict regulations on voting. The federal government, he wrote in a 2013 op-ed, “might spend less time chasing agendas that aren’t there and more time investigating the voter fraud and other irregularities.”

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Freedom Found: Untold Stories of the Civil War’s Refugees from Slavery (audio)
Amy Murrell Taylor, Professor of History, University of Kentucky, ALA Midwinter Meeting, Philadelphia, January 26, 2020



Amy Murrell Taylor, Professor of History at the University of Kentucky, presented “Freedom Found: Untold Stories of the Civil War’s Refugees from Slavery” on January 26, 2020, in Philadelphia.

Taylor’s newest book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (UNC Press, 2018), has been honored with multiple prizes, including the Frederick Douglass Prize given by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition; the Avery O. Craven Award and the Merle Curti Social History Award from the Organization of American Historians; and the Tom Watson Brown Prize from the Society of Civil War Historians.

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How Have You Learned About Slavery?
Nicole Daniels, February 13, 2020, The New York Times



How have you been taught about slavery in the United States? Do you feel that it is a topic that has been accurately and thoroughly taught in your schools?

Have you learned about slavery outside of the classroom? Are there questions you still have that you want to explore further?

In Why Can’t We Teach Slavery Right in American Schools, Nikita Stewart writes about the history of teaching about slavery in American education and what it looks like today:

In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that researches and monitors hate groups, pored over 12 popular U.S. history books and surveyed more than 1,700 social-studies teachers and 1,000 high-school seniors to understand how American slavery is taught and what is learned. 

The findings were disturbing
There was widespread slavery illiteracy among students. More than a third thought the Emancipation Proclamation formally ended slavery. (It was actually the 13th Amendment.) Nearly 60 percent of teachers did not believe their textbook’s coverage of slavery was adequate. A panel made up of the center’s staff, an independent education researcher with a background in middle- and high-school education and a history professor with expertise in the history of slavery looked at how the books depicted enslavement, evaluating them with a 30-point rubric. On average, the textbooks received a failing grade of 46 percent.

Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a program at the Southern Poverty Law Center that promotes diversity education, said the rubric used to analyze the textbooks was about seeing how the history of enslavement was integrated throughout a book and exactly what those contents were. In most teachings, she said, slavery is treated like a dot on a timeline. “The best textbooks maybe have 20 pages, and that’s in an 800-page textbook,” Costello told me. “At its best, slavery is taught because we have to explain the Civil War. We tend to teach it like a Southern problem and a backward economic institution. The North is industrialized; the South was locked in a backward agricultural system.” About 92 percent of students did not know that slavery was the war’s central cause, according to the survey.

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The Civil War Wasn't Just About the Union and the Confederacy. Native Americans Played a Role Too
Megan Kate Nelson, February 11, 2020, Time



It was the first summer of the Civil War, and everyone thought it would be the last. Hundreds of thousands of Americans converged on train platforms and along country roads, waving handkerchiefs and shouting goodbyes as their men went off to military camps. In those first warm days of June 1861, there had been only a few skirmishes in the steep, stony mountains of western Virginia, but large armies of Union and Confederate soldiers were coalescing along the Potomac River. A major battle was coming, and it would be fought somewhere between Washington, D.C., and Richmond.

In the Union War Department a few steps from the White House, clerks wrote out dispatches to commanders in California, Oregon and the western territories. The federal government needed army regulars currently garrisoned at frontier forts to fight in the eastern theater. These soldiers should be sent immediately to the camps around Washington, D.C.

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Dan Kildee reunites with his high school teacher (who happens to be a Pulitzer Prize winner)
Clyde McGrady, February 12, 2020, Roll Call



For three years Dan Kildee sat in David Blight’s high school classroom watching his teacher bring history to life. They didn’t even have to leave the building — though they did that too, like when Blight stood in the middle of a field at Gettysburg describing Pickett’s charge, the crucial maneuver in the Civil War’s most famous battle.

“He literally stood there and depicted for us how those soldiers came across that big field and how many died,” Kildee says.

Today, Blight is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and professor at Yale, and Kildee is a congressman representing Flint, Michigan — a career he may not have had without his teacher’s encouragement. After all, it was Blight who supported him when he decided to run for a spot on the Flint Board of Education at only 18 years old.

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'A room with a different view’: Maryland unveils statues of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass in State House
Emily Opilo, February 10. 2020, The Baltimore Sun



Until Nov. 1, 1864, the day Maryland lawmakers officially approved emancipation, fugitive slaves Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass could not legally enter their home state of Maryland, let alone the State House in Annapolis.

On Monday, the two abolitionists received a place of honor in that building. Statues of the two leaders were unveiled and dedicated during a joint legislative session held outside the Old House Chamber, where slavery in Maryland was formally abolished.

The installation of the statues of Tubman and Douglass marks the end of a nearly four-year-long push to honor the pair of abolitionists in the State House building, which still features controversial statues and artwork in an era of increasing scrutiny of such displays.

Until 2017, a statue of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and denied citizenship to African Americans, sat outside the Capitol.

Lawmakers voted to remove the statue days after the death of a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, who was among a crowd condemning an event where hundreds of white nationalists protested the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

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Can Slavery Reënactments Set Us Free?
Julian Lucas, February 10, 2020, The New Yorker

A gunshot echoed over starlit forest near the town of Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota. It was late October, already frigid, and chasers had pushed our group of ten fugitives to the edge of a lake. For a moment, we’d hesitated, shouts drawing closer as the black water winked, but the shot drove us all straight in. My legs went numb; Elyse, a high-school sophomore, exclaimed, “My God! ” Submerged to the waist, I waded through marsh grass and lamplight toward our conductor, who silently indicated the opposite bank. The Drinking Gourd shone overhead with exaggerated clarity. This was my third Underground Railroad Reënactment.

An hour had elapsed by the time we crossed the lake: seven teens, two elementary-school teachers, one “abolitionist,” and me. I had no idea where we were, only that it was about two hundred miles from Canada, where Justin Trudeau had just won reëlection after a blackface scandal, and forty from the waters of Lake Minnetonka, in which Prince orders Apollonia to “purify” herself in Purple Rain. As we stepped ashore, I thought of my enslaved forebears, wondering what they might make of our strange tribute.

“That’s what you’re concerned about, your ChapStick?” Elyse chided Max, a blond boy in a blue hat and checkered Vans. His lip balm was ruined—as was my notebook—but the baby doll he’d sworn to carry North was dry. (Elyse dubbed him Mother Max.) The whispers stopped with the arrival of our conductor, who led us on a rough path uphill. I was still smarting from a branch to the forehead when he stopped to deliver the night’s sixth lecture: “My name is Henry David Thoreau. This is Walden Pond.”

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