In the News #bigisms
Overlooked No More: Homer Plessy, Who Sat on a Train and Stood Up for Civil Rights
Glenn Rifkin, January 31, 2020, The New York Times
When Homer Plessy boarded the East Louisiana Railway’s No. 8 train in New Orleans on June 7, 1892, he knew his journey to Covington, La., would be brief.
He also knew it could have historic implications.
Plessy was a racially-mixed shoemaker who had agreed to take part in an act of civil disobedience orchestrated by a New Orleans civil rights organization.
On that hot, sticky afternoon he walked into the Press Street Depot, purchased a first-class ticket and took a seat in the whites-only car.
The civil rights group had chosen Plessy because he could pass for a white man. It was asserted later in a legal brief that he was seven-eighths white. But a conductor, who was also part of the scheme, stopped him and asked if he was “colored.” Plessy responded that he was.
“Then you will have to retire to the colored car,” the conductor ordered.
This Art Was Looted 123 Years Ago. Will It Ever Be Returned?
Alex Marshall, January 23, 2020, The New York Times
In 2004, Steve Dunstone and Timothy Awoyemi stood on a boat on the bank of the River Niger.
The two middle-aged men, both police officers in Britain, were taking part in a journey through Nigeria, organized through the Police Expedition Society, and had reached the small town of Agenebode, in the country’s south. Their group brought gifts with them from British schoolchildren, including books and supplies. The local schools had been alerted in advance, and a crowd came down to the river banks to meet them; there was even a dance performance.
It was a wonderful — if slightly overwhelming — welcome, Mr. Dunstone recalled.
In the back of the crowd, Mr. Awoyemi, who was born in Britain and grew up in Nigeria, noticed two men holding what looked like political placards. They didn’t come forward, he said. But just as the boat was about to push off, one of the men suddenly clambered down toward it.
“He had a mustache, scruffy stubble, about 38 to 40, thin build,” Mr. Dunstone recalled recently. “He was wearing a white vest,” he added.
The man reached out his arm across the water and handed Mr. Dunstone a note, then hurried off with barely a word.
The Fight to Preserve African-American History
Casey Cep, January 27, 2020, The New Yorker
No one knows what happened to Gabriel’s body. Born into slavery the year his country declared its freedom, he trained as a plantation blacksmith and was hired out to foundries in Richmond, Virginia, where he befriended other enslaved people. Together, they absorbed, from the revolutionary spirit of the era, ideas of independence that were never meant for them. Gabriel kept hammering out whatever his masters demanded, but in secret he began to forge a network of thousands of enslaved and free blacks who planned to rally under a flag stitched with borrowed words: “Death or Liberty.” But a terrible thunderstorm flooded the roads on what was to be the day of their revolt, in August, 1800, and during the delay two of the conspirators betrayed the rest. Within a few weeks, twenty-six of them were hanged. Gabriel was executed less than a mile from the church where Patrick Henry spoke the words that inspired what would have been their battle cry. Some historians believe that Gabriel’s body was left in the burial ground beside the gallows, where it would have joined thousands of other black bodies that, consigned to the bottomland of the city, washed into Shockoe Creek whenever it rained.
Shockoe Bottom, as that valley is known, was the center of Richmond’s slave district. In the three decades before the Civil War, more than three hundred thousand men, women, and children were sold in Richmond, the second-largest slave market in the United States. Not every enslaved person who passed through left the city; many were made to work in its tobacco warehouses, ironworks, and flour mills. Between 1750 and 1816, most of the African-Americans who died in Richmond were interred in what was known as the Burial Ground for Negroes. After that, the graves at Shockoe Bottom were abandoned, and residents claimed more and more of the land for themselves, ignoring the coffins and bones. The city turned what was left into a jail, and then a dog pound; later, state and federal officials carved I-95 through its center.
The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave
Channing Gerard Joseph, January 31, 2020, The Nation
His name was William Dorsey Swann, but to his friends he was known as “the Queen.” Both of those names had been forgotten for nearly a century before I rediscovered them while researching at Columbia University. Born in Maryland around 1858, Swann endured slavery, the Civil War, racism, police surveillance, torture behind bars, and many other injustices. But beginning in the 1880s, he not only became the first American activist to lead a queer resistance group; he also became, in the same decade, the first known person to dub himself a “queen of drag”—or, more familiarly, a drag queen.
In 1896, after being convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the false charge of “keeping a disorderly house”—a euphemism for running a brothel—Swann demanded (and was denied) a pardon from President Grover Cleveland for holding a drag ball. This, too, was a historic act: It made Swann the earliest recorded American to take specific legal and political steps to defend the queer community’s right to gather without the threat of criminalization, suppression, or police violence.
From the Editor’s Desk: 1619 and All That
Alex Lichtenstein, 23 January 2020, The American Historical Review
On Thanksgiving Day, I trekked up the highest hill in Brooklyn, the peak of which happens to be the site of a Civil War memorial in Green-Wood Cemetery. Two things struck me about the inscription on the Civil War Soldiers’ Monument, which was erected in 1869. The first was that an astounding 148,000 residents of New York City (17 percent of the city’s 1860 population) served in the Union’s military forces during the Civil War. The second was the statement that they did so to defend the Union and preserve the Constitution. The inscription contains not a word about slavery or emancipation, let alone black military service.
I really did not want to devote this column to the recent dispute between the New York Times and the handful of prominent historians who have offered sharp criticism of that publication’s purportedly revisionist narrative of the American story—the 1619 Project—that puts racism and the struggle for black liberation at the core of the national experience. But of course, it was all anyone asked me about at the AHA’s Annual Meeting during the first week of January, so I feel I must.
By now, most historians are familiar with the basic contours of this public scuffle between journalists and members of our profession. In mid-August, with much fanfare, the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to the 1619 Project. Spearheaded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project is designed, in Times editor Jake Silverstein’s words, to impart the idea that “the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world,” was not 1776, but rather “late August of 1619,” when the first enslaved Africans arrived on the shore of what would eventually become the Commonwealth of Virginia. Naturally—and entirely appropriately—this was as much a media event as a considered historiographic intervention. The “reframing” of the country’s “origins” was a rhetorical move, one that impressed upon a wider public an interpretive framework that many historians probably already accept—namely, that slavery and racism lie at the root of “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” The aim, Silverstein observed, was to “place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” If some historians might quibble with this or that specific conclusion drawn from such an approach, the overall reorientation strikes me as laudable, if unexceptional.