Tennessee weighs an apology for slavery

Posted April 16th, 2014 by
Category: Repair and reparations Tags: , , , ,

Formerly enslaved Tennesseans and their descendants, c. 1890Yesterday, we reported on our Twitter and Facebook accounts that the Tennessee House of Representatives had voted, 97-0, in favor of a resolution expressing “profound regret” for the state’s role in slavery and racial segregation—but only after stripping the resolution of its original language offering “profound apologies” for this history.

This move by one chamber of the Tennessee General Assembly to express regret for slavery and discrimination follows a wave of such actions by states between 2007 and 2009, culminating in a failed attempt by the U.S. Congress to apologize for the nation’s role in slavery. And while this action comes several years later than the others, it fits the established pattern for such expressions of remorse.

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A school built by abolitionists — and a slave trader

Posted January 20th, 2014 by
Category: History, Outreach Tags: , , ,

Perkins School for the BlindThis year, to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I was invited to speak at Perkins School for the Blind and to participate in the school’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day activities. Perkins School was founded 185 years ago as the first school for the blind in the United States, and has spent that time as a leader in innovating technology and pedagogy for educating the blind, the deafblind, and those with additional disabilities.

The students of Perkins celebrated King’s life through music and with a dramatic reading of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As the keynote speaker, I focused on telling the story of my family, the DeWolf slave-trading family, as we uncovered our family’s hidden past and worked to turn that history into a documentary film, Traces of the Trade. I talked about how our family’s history illustrates the much broader involvement of New England, the North, and the entire United States in slavery and the slave trade. I spoke of the ways in which so many of us in this country are tied to the history of slavery, and benefit from that history today, and about the importance of acknowledging this history, rather than finding a way to turn away from the truth or to insist that this history is really about other people, and not about ourselves.

The students were also provided a dramatic illustration of how to acknowledge this history by the school’s president, Steven M. Rothstein, through an op-ed he wrote for this occasion, which ran last week in the Boston Globe under the headline, “A school built by abolitionists — and a slaver.” In this essay, Mr. Rothstein detailed how the history of Perkins includes strong ties to progressive abolitionists—but that the school is also named for a wealthy benefactor, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, who made part of his fortune in the slave trade.

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50th anniversary of the War on Poverty

Posted January 8th, 2014 by
Category: History, Living consequences Tags: , , ,

Lyndon Johnson delivers his State of the Union, January 8, 1964Today is the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.

On January 8, 1964, Lyndon Johnson, in his State of the Union address to Congress, dramatically announced:

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

On this occasion, I think it is worth remembering that Johnson was intimately familiar with poverty, having had what biographer Robert Caro calls a “terrible boyhood” filled with the insecurity and humiliations of poverty: living in a home that could be taken by the bank at any time, and often depending on neighbors to bring dishes of food to eat. This seems to have filled Johnson with a passion to fight poverty, which he began planning with his advisers within hours of the assassination of President Kennedy.1

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  1. See Robert A. Caro, Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). []
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Ambassador Joseph, board member, reflects on Nelson Mandela

Posted December 13th, 2013 by
Category: Repair and reparations Tags: , ,

Ambassador Joseph, Mary Braxton Joseph, and Nelson MandelaAmbassador James A. Joseph is a member of the Tracing Center’s board of directors who first met Nelson Mandela when they shared a dais in Washington, D.C. during Mandela’s first visit to the United States in 1990, and who served as U.S. ambassador to South Africa when Nelson Mandela was president.

Ambassador Joseph, who was holding a sign reading “Free Mandela” outside of the South African Parliament in Cape Town when President de Klerk announced that Mandela would be freed, recalls beginning his tour as U.S. ambassador with this story:

In 1996, I was back in South Africa to present my credentials to President Mandela as the U.S. Ambassador. “I have come to exchange my ‘free Mandela’ sign for my credentials as the United States Ambassador,” I said. He loved it.

In this essay for the Huffington Post’s “Black Voices,” Ambassador Joseph seeks, like so many others, to “take full measure of the man.” He settles on three attributes for which he believes Nelson Mandela ought to be best remembered: as an exemplar of the power of the human spirit to solve problems without resorting to violence; as a model of effective leadership, being both pragmatic and grounded in a principle higher than power; and as a healer who embraced the values of community and pluralism, showing that there is strength in diversity and unity.

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Office holiday parties aren’t as good for diversity as you might think

Posted December 11th, 2013 by
Category: Living consequences Tags: , ,

Office holiday partyDiversity experts often recommend that employers foster a variety of behaviors in racially diverse workplaces aimed at bringing employees closer together. These techniques can include hosting social gatherings and encouraging the informal sharing of personal information, and are intended to overcome racial and sociocultural barriers and to strengthen interoffice relationships.

At this time of year, the office holiday party is the best example of this sort of practice aimed, at part, at addressing issues of diversity in a positive, proactive way.

Yet research from the Columbia Business School indicates that social interactions at work, rather than promoting racial harmony and cooperation, are ineffective at reducing discomfort and racial tension in the workplace, and can further isolate employees based on racial difference.

This research doesn’t mean that employers should avoid hosting holiday parties and encouraging other forms of socializing, but it does suggest that these events can be problematic, and that attention is better paid to an organization’s attitude towards issues of diversity and towards ensuring positive experiences for all employees, while working and while socializing with co-workers.

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What does the Gettysburg Address tell us about the North and slavery?

Posted November 20th, 2013 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , ,

Gettysburg Address (detail from Hay's draft, in Lincoln's handwriting)Now that much of the hullabaloo surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address has died down, perhaps we can finally ask ourselves: what really was the enduring significance of Lincoln’s famous oration?

Lincoln’s remarks at Gettysburg were, of course, masterful. In just a few short sentences, the wartime president managed to eulogize the dead and to craft a narrative within which the nation could commemorate their sacrifice, and remember the war, in the context of broad themes from nation’s history and its future aspirations. His address even redefined the nature of public speeches in the United States, breaking ranks with generations of orations based on classical history, learned language, and the passage of hours.

Yet the historical significance of the Gettysburg Address lies primarily in Lincoln’s effort to shift the North’s motivation for fighting the conflict from the preservation of the Union to the radical, and largely detested, goal of emancipation for the nation’s 4 million remaining enslaved persons.

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Modern slavery and the challenge of seeing our society for what it is

Posted November 7th, 2013 by
Category: Modern issues Tags: , ,

Global Slavery IndexWhen I speak with audiences about my family’s prominent role in the transatlantic slave trade, I often suggest that while none of us can change what others did in the past, one response to this history is to consider seriously what future generations may think of us. In particular, I ask people to imagine what what institutions or social realities we take for granted today that our descendants may find it hard to believe we were aware of , and yet chose not to oppose or speak out against.

In a very similar vein, Nicholas Kristof offers this thought to readers of his New York Times column this morning, contrasting the evils depicted in Twelve Years a Slave to modern-day slavery:

I fear that a century from now, someone may put together a movie about slavery in 2013, leading our descendants to shake their heads and ask of us: What were they thinking?

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