Persistent people are nudging the country toward dealing with the fullness of our history as a slave society.
I find hope in a Louisiana gentleman’s decision to create a museum that will tell a truer story of slavery than we generally get.
Our country is 239 years old, which might not be a lot in country years, but should be enough to allow us to get a better grasp on our past without freaking out.
Understanding our history is particularly important with regard to slavery, which is still a touchy subject — touchy because we never acknowledged how central it is to who we are or even resolved some of the issues at the heart of the institution — the roles of race, the federal government, and labor, for a start.
Last Thursday was the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, but not the end of the Confederate cause or the beginning of true equality.
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Hadn’t we just learned before the anniversary that some folks in Texas are going to the Supreme Court fighting to get the state to allow them to put a Confederate flag on their license plates (something allowed in nine other states)? What would make someone think that would be an OK thing to do, except a lack of understanding of what they’re standing for?
Slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War, the conflict in which those banners flew and which was fought to preserve, and even spread, that evil institution. There was nothing benign about slavery, and slavery was not an aberration in a long march toward freedom and equality, it was at the core of America’s development.
I’ve just started reading, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” a book by Edward Baptist. The book is full of data: In 1836, nearly half the country’s economic activity derived directly or indirectly from cotton production by the unpaid labor of enslaved people. The book includes painful descriptions of the daily, cruel realities of slavery. All of that Baptist uses to show the centrality of the institution to American development, economic and otherwise.
The consequences are still with us.
If we hadn’t been shaped by slavery, or if we had gotten beyond its effects, we might not have a steady stream of police shootings of black men around the country. I watched the video from South Carolina of Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott multiple times in the back and asked myself, what would make a person think that was acceptable?
We need to take a look at ourselves.
The museum I mentioned at the start will be the country’s first entirely dedicated to telling the story of slavery broadly and deeply. Slavery gets a mention in other museums, often as a small section in African American museums, or a nod in regional history museums, but never before has the whole institution been at the heart of a museum.
John Cummings, a wealthy, white Southerner, bought the Whitney Plantation, 35 miles west of New Orleans. and transformed it into a place where truth can be told.
My wife and I were in New Orleans a few years ago and considered visiting a plantation, but after reading sugary-sweet descriptions of them, we decided not to bother. But this is different.
A New York Times piece on the museum said the story usually told to tourists by Southern plantations is “one in which mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black humans.”
The story Whitney tells is not so pretty. There’s a sculpture that memorializes 60 people who were beheaded for their part in a revolt in the area in 1811.
Germany has a Holocaust museum. South Africa has an Apartheid museum. And each country took real steps toward reconciliation.
What this country has are uncounted statues and monuments to Confederate “heroes.”
We have failed to adequately deal with a swath of American history that spans a century, from 1776 to 1877 when Reconstruction ended. (That doesn’t even include more than a century of colonial slavery or nearly a century of Jim Crow.)
My wife was in Philadelphia recently and visited the Liberty Bell Center, and she sent me some photos of exhibits on slavery at the center and near it on Independence Mall. That wasn’t the original plan when the National Park Service was designing the new home for the bell. But it turned out there were slave quarters on the land. Visitors entering the center would have walked over the unmarked ground where George Washington housed the nine enslaved people he brought with him when Philadelphia was the capital.
Activists demanded the site include a discussion of slavery. It took a fight to arrive at agreement about that, but eventually the government gave in. Sad that it should have to be that way.
Now the site has extensive lessons about the lives of enslaved people and about the people who held them captive. And it includes Native Americans and indentured servants. You might learn, too, that the Liberty Bell wasn’t called that until the 1830s, when abolitionists made the bell a symbol of their work to free enslaved people.
The inscription on the Liberty Bell reads, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” There is still much to be told about the journey signaled by the ringing of that bell.