“The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”

Posted July 4th, 2014 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , , ,

Frederick DouglassThis post was originally published on July 4, 2013 and is reposted today in commemoration of Independence Day, in all its meanings.

It is always worth making time, on the Fourth of July, to remember those people and movements whose courage and sacrifice advanced and improved upon the ideals on which the United States was founded. This is true even for those which may have seemed radical, subversive, or even unpatriotic at the time.

In that light, we highly recommend the Fourth of July oration delivered by abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y. on July 5, 1852, entitled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.”1

The following brief excepts from Douglass’ speech illustrate not only his burning hatred for slavery and his withering scorn for those who would not extend the nation’s liberty to all its children, but also his praise for all that is good in the American experiment, and his optimism for the future:
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  1. Our thanks to Mass Humanities, among others, for laboring diligently to make this speech, and its spirit, an integral part of our Independence Day celebrations each year. []

Who were the Africans who revolted aboard the Amistad?

Posted July 2nd, 2014 by
Category: History Tags: , , ,

Historical map of west Africa, showing Lomboko and the Gallinas RiverToday is the 175th anniversary of the Amistad revolt. In the United States, attention understandably focuses on the trial of the enslaved Africans who seized control of the ship from its crew, since the legal proceedings took place in this country.

Yet who were the enslaved people who rose up and took command of the Amistad? Where had they come from, and where were they hoping to go?

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50 years ago today, the U.S. Senate passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Posted June 19th, 2014 by
Category: History Tags: , , , ,

President Lyndon Johnson speaks with Senator Richard Russell, Dec. 7, 1963Fifty years ago today, the U.S. Senate passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, after ending the longest continuous debate in Senate history.

America grows. America changes. And on the civil rights issue we must rise with the occasion.

— Republican Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen,  announcing he would help Democrats pass the Civil Rights Act

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Remembering the first Memorial Day

Posted May 26th, 2014 by
Category: History Tags: , , , ,

In honor of Memorial Day, we are reposting this blog entry from last year, which recounts how the first Memorial Day was celebrated by free black troops and civilians in Charleston, S.C. at the end of the Civil War.

St. Michael's Church, Charleston, South Carolina, 1865As we pause today to remember the nation’s war dead, it’s worth remembering that Memorial Day was first celebrated by black Union troops and free black Americans in Charleston, South Carolina at the end of the Civil War.

As historian David Blight recounts in his masterful book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), Charleston was occupied by Union troops in the spring of 1865, most white residents having fled the city. In this atmosphere, the free black population of Charleston, primarily consisting of former slaves, engaged in a series of celebrations to proclaim the meaning of the war as they saw it.

The height of these celebrations took place on May 1, 1865, on the grounds of the former Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, an elite facility which had been used by the Confederates as a gruesome prison and mass grave for unlucky Union soldiers. Following the evacuation of Charleston, black laborers had dug up the remains of Union soldiers, given them a proper burial, and built the trappings of a respectful cemetery around the site to memorialize their sacrifice.

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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). []

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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