Excellent research from blogging extraordinaire Al Mackey on the fallacious claim that a black man–Anthony Johnson–was the first slaveholder in what would become the United States. I wrote about Johnson in 2014 here: https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/american-history-doesnt-start-at-jamestown/
I’m sure many of you have seen the phony claim neoconfederates often put forward that a black man, Anthony Johnson, was the first slave owner in Colonial America. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve already dealt with this phony claim here.
In this post I’d like to share some additional information uncovered during my research. Recall Anthony Johnson’s case against John Casor was in 1655. “As early as 1639 we hear of a Negro slave in Pennsylvania. In 1644 Negroes were in demand to work the lowlands of Delaware. … Negro slaves were sold in Maryland in 1642. … There is evidence to show that the status of the Negro was at first very closely affiliated with that of the white servant with whom the colonists were thoroughly familiar and who stood half way between freedom and complete subjugation. It is probable, therefore, that both Indian and…
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Regular readers of Exploring the Past know that I have many writing interests besides the American Civil War and nineteenth century history, and I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to periodically write my thoughts on sports for the fantastic website Sport in American History over the past couple of years. I am grateful for the opportunity to write outside “my lane” on occasion and I think that if the circumstances had been slightly different I might have pursued a career in sports media when I was younger.
For my latest essay on the website I reviewed a new book on hockey cinema and sports films by Iri Cermak, a Media Studies scholar. In the review I go through the typical analysis of various themes that emerge throughout the book’s chapters, but I also offer a fairly critical assessment of what I think is a serious shortcoming when it comes to analyzing the changing racial dynamics of hockey cinema and hockey as a whole in the book. I was pretty pleased with how this review came out; the American Studies department at Notre Dame retweeted the essay onto their account, so I guess someone liked it!
Let me know what you think.
It’s a profound analytical failure to scold people for not having “historical perspective.” We don’t live in history. We live in our lives.
— HR-Compliant Freddie (@freddiedeboer) July 8, 2016
The above tweet from linguist and writer Fredrik deBoer got me really thinking about the meaning and purpose of having a historical perspective when looking at contemporary events. deBoer was responding to a recent essay by Jonathan Chait entitled “It Is Not 1968.” Chait argues in that essay that the country is actually more unified in its views towards Black Lives Matter and police reform than social media may suggest. He argues that recent op-eds and commentaries from a number of conservative political leaders and thinkers indicate a shift in thinking that is more sympathetic to BLM’s grievances. “[Democrats and Republicans] may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence — no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science — and broad moral contours,” he explains. Chait sees these developments as a genuine victory for “reasoned, evidence-based progress.” We as a country are doing better than we were in 1968 and should ultimately proceed with caution before making any rash historical comparisons.
But deBoer pushes us to take a wider perspective and consider how the families of Philado Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many black victims of police violence might react to Chait’s declaration of forward social progress and “historical perspective” when the price of such progress has been paid in human life and the loss of their loved ones. What good is it to say “things are better now” when the threat of violence at the hands of police still remains for many people of color today? What good is it to tell someone that “it is not 1968” when the challenge at hand is living in 2016? Are there times when “keeping things in perspective” prevents us from taking steps to ensure a better world tomorrow?
I made a similar argument a couple years ago when I wrote about the events in Ferguson, events that occurred within a short drive to my own house here in the St. Louis area. I appreciated the historical perspective that numerous writers offered in attempting to explain the looting and violence that hit the area (including a long history of urban riots in places like Watts and Detroit and others led by white supremacists for different reasons that completely destroyed cities like Memphis, Wilmington, and Tulsa), but I simultaneously suggested that such historical perspective probably offered very little solace to the victims whose businesses were destroyed amid the chaos. Likewise, I imagine any claims suggesting that police practices are more humane today than fifty years ago are probably true but of little solace to the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas whose local governments used their police force and municipal court system to raise funds through petty fines and fees for offenses that were not a threat to the community.
To be sure, I do think it’s a good thing to have historical perspective. There’s a song by Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith,” where he cautions that “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I always liked that line because it warns us to avoid being overly sentimental about the past while demonstrating that the potential for a better tomorrow is always there. But at the same time I see issues with that thinking when real problems in peoples’ lives today are minimized and dismissed, especially when those people are truly disadvantaged. At its most extreme we see the worst perversions of “things are much better today” when people say things like “slavery was a long time ago. Life is so much better today and everyone is treated equally, so get over it!” That viewpoint isn’t helpful for solving the problems of today and is ultimately another way of telling someone to shut up because their concerns aren’t valid.
What are the advantages of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective?
As you’ve probably heard by now, the U.S. Treasury has announced that it will begin putting Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill while relegating Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill (which I find odd for multiple reasons). As soon as the news came out a friend on Facebook announced that he was ready to see none other than Ulysses S. Grant up for removal from the $50 bill, citing his allegedly weak Presidency and his ownership of a slave, William Jones, for a period of time in the 1850s. Although Grant has been on the $50 Federal Reserve note since they were first printed in 1914, calls to remove Grant have occurred in the past. In both 2005 and 2010 a minority of Republican legislators called for Ronald Reagan to be placed on the $50, but both proposals died fairly early in the legislative process.
So I ask you, dear readers: Is it time for Grant to go? You tell me.
The other night I had a chance to watch the above documentary, The Pruitt Igoe Myth, about a failed public housing complex in St. Louis. Pruitt Igoe was billed in the 1950s as an example of smart urban planning and a model for future cities dealing with housing crises. The complex quickly ran into a myriad of funding and maintenance issues, however, and the complex became so dangerous that St. Louis police officers sometimes refused to go into the area. Pruitt Igoe was torn down in 1972, and the area where the complex was located is littered with dilapidated trees and brush today.
The “myth” that the movie describes is the idea that Pruitt Igoe failed mostly because of the poor black residents who lived there. Instead, the movie argues that other factors such as structural racism, government subsidization of outlying suburbs (aka White Flight) in St. Louis county that drove away crucial tax revenues for the city, and political ineptitude within the St. Louis Housing Authority all contributed to an idealistic initiative that was arguably too expensive to financially sustain long-term. As one interviewee says in the film, “you can’t build yourself out of poverty.”
Even though I’ve been a St. Louis resident for most of my life, I learned a lot of new things about the city’s history from this film. There’s a nice mix of oral histories from former residents of the complex and historical analyses from urban historians. If you’re into St. Louis or urban history and have 90 minutes to spare, give it a watch.
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) March 2, 2016
The above video is infuriating, disappointing, troubling, and largely inaccurate.
Mr. Jeffery Lord, a vocal Donald Trump supporter and pundit we’re supposed to take seriously because he’s on CNN, lectures Van Jones to “read your history” while making a rather sad argument about the historical legacy of the Ku Klux Klan, attributing all their wrongdoings to “progressive”Democrats. While it’s factually true that white supremacist elements within the Democratic party have historically had a troubling connection to the KKK, Lord’s interpretation of that fact stretches and breaks the boundaries of reality. Such terms like “leftist” and “progressive” would have been shocking to KKK members in 1870. This interpretation also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how history and political discourse work. Historical “facts” do not exist in a vacuum or constitute true historical knowledge. “Read your history” is not simply being ready for a trivia night. Historical thinking requires an interpretation of facts that places them within a proper context, taking account of how these bits of information fit within the broader picture of how a society functioned at the time. Facts gain their significance through the ways we interpret their meaning, and not all interpretations are equal (read historian Richard Evans’ discussion of the interplay between fact and interpretation here). To argue that the KKK is a violent, racist organization (fact) supported historically only by Democrats and “Progressives” (wild interpretation) is as silly as arguing that Steph Curry is a great three-point shooter (fact) but a terrible basketball player (wild interpretation). Why else would Lord assert that the KKK was a creation of leftist progressives unless he’s suggesting that the KKK has no association with the Republican party or conservatives more broadly? In that case, Mr. Lord may need to read some more history.
Anyone who actually bothers to explore the history of the KKK understands that there have been at least three different versions of the Klan in American history. The first version emerged in the 1860s and 1870s in opposition to enhanced civil rights for blacks, particularly the right to vote for black males through the 15th Amendment. The third version of the KKK emerged in the 1950s and 60s in response to racial desegregation, social change, and Civil Rights legislation. But the second version of the KKK that emerged in the 1910s and 1920s was slightly different. Their campaigns were anti-black but also included opposition to Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and strong support for prohibition. These appeals to the power of White Anglo Saxon Protestant society gained popularity throughout the entire country. The second KKK was particularly popular in the Midwest in places like Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The group gained such a stronghold in Indiana that, according to Leonard J. Moore and other scholars, election to public office in the state was impossible without the support of the KKK. And which party, you might ask, held a majority of the KKK-backed seats in the state legislature and supported a KKK-backed Governor in his successful 1924 election? The Republicans!
The point here is not to save the Democrats from their history. The point is that Lord’s argument is lazy and dishonest. The KKK has been a fabric of our culture for 150 years thanks to the support of white supremacists of all different political persuasions. Equally important, political coalitions and parties are not static entities that never change over time. That Donald Trump–the leading front-runner of what was once the party of Lincoln and Grant–cannot publicly condemn the support of KKK leader David Duke is a testament to the ever-changing nature of political platforms and party dynamics. But Trump can get away with his nonsense because partisans like Jeffery Lord will do the dirty work of manipulating the past to place their preferred candidate on the right side of history at any cost. I’m tired of partisans who dishonestly view the world with red- and blue-tinted glasses shaped by ideological dogmas rather than reasoned reflection and nuanced consideration of context and substance. Historians are often skeptical of the ways politicians abuse history to justify their own ends, but the same skepticism should be applied to the talking heads who spew nonsense on our radios and televisions 24 hours a day. Give me a break.
To kick off the new year I’ve done a little bit of maintenance work on the website that I’d like to share with readers.
My Resources page has been updated to include some of my better writings from 2015. The collection spans back to my first days blogging here at Exploring the Past back in 2013. It’s a good way to keep track of writings that would otherwise be hard to find though the search function on the website.
I have also created a Google Doc that contains all of my open access publications from other websites and papers I’ve presented at conferences. You can view that document here. I will also leave a permanent link to the document on my Curriculum Vitae.
Please take a look at these writing and enjoy (hopefully).
On the Disclaimer page of this website I state that I reserve the right to moderate comments at my discretion. I operate this website as a private citizen and provide a comment section in the hope that others will join in fruitful conversation with me, but this site is not an unrestricted free-speech zone. If you say something insulting towards me or other people who leave comments, use vulgarities, or talk/rant about things that are completely off topic and irrelevant to the discussion at hand, I will delete that comment. This is my platform, and I am under no obligation to make it your platform.
This website has always been a place for discussing 19th century history, especially Civil War-related topics, but events related to the recent actions of institutions around the country to take down or alter Confederate iconography have aroused my interest as of late. I am not the only one discussing this topic. Emotions have been heated on all sides of the discussion, and I have attempted to look at issues of history and memory that this iconography sparks from the perspective of an educator and historian. I publicly supported the taking down of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds back in June but have made no other declarations one way or the other regarding any other Confederate iconography. I have instead opted to talk about why these symbols are so charged, why they are now coming down even though this debate reaches back at least a hundred years in some cases, and what we can do to educate people about Civil War history moving forward. I have enjoyed conversing with readers here and elsewhere about these topics.
Mr. George Purvis, however, has made it his intention to comment on almost every Civil War-related essay I’ve penned over the past few months with false claims about Civil War history that have nothing to do with the discussions I’m trying to have and personal insults towards myself and others. See here, here, here, here, and here for examples. This behavior towards Civil War bloggers has happened elsewhere too. I have tried to be as respectful as possible towards Mr. Purvis and engage in discussion with him by providing links to reputable resources and by providing my understanding of history to the best of my ability using primary and secondary source documents. However, there have been a number of recent comments of his that I’ve opted to delete because it’s become apparent that it’s pointless to continue a prolonged debate with someone who will mischaracterize arguments, never listen to what you have to say with an honest ear, and will never be satisfied with what you have to say unless you adopt their position 100%.
Mr. Purvis, as is his right, has now opted to write about me on his blog. Back in October he maintained that I held “bigoted and biased views” because I demanded that he provide credible documentation proving the existence of tens of thousands of blacks who fought for the Confederacy. I’m still waiting for that proof. Now he is claiming that I am “protecting” other Civil War bloggers because I have deleted insulting comments of his that he attempted to direct towards them in the comments section of this blog. “I had some respect for Sacco as a decent fellow, I guess I judged him to [sic] quick,” he says.
He wouldn’t know, of course, that I’ve also deleted out of line comments directed towards him, but I suppose it’s easy to be portrayed as a singular victim of my political correctness or whatever.
He claims that he has consistently offered comments in a “factual civil manner, no insults” on this website and says that he will copy his comments towards me on his own website. Very well. But Mr. Purvis has not copied all of his comments in a faithful manner, and he has conveniently left out a number of disparaging comments, including this one directed towards friend and fellow blogger Al Mackey in response to the New Orleans City Council electing to take down four Confederate monuments within the city limits:
Ah, yes. The NOLA Confederate Monuments are coming down thanks to “Black Supremacist [sic].”
Mr. Purvis and others are free to write whatever they want about me on their personal blogs and moderate their comment section as they deem fit. That is their right. While I think it’s unfortunate that lies and false claims about me are spread on the internet and now searchable on Google, there’s not much I can do about it. It’s a small price to pay for expressing my views publicly. But the same standards apply to my website, and I will not allow inappropriate comments to go through or waste time debating every ridiculous claim that gets thrown my way. It’s not avoiding debate so much as valuing my time and focusing on things I think are important and worth discussing.
Mr. Purvis and anyone else is welcome to continue commenting in the future, but it’s worth repeating that commenting at Exploring the Past comes with boundaries that I set at my discretion.
I wish everyone a Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, including Mr. Purvis.
Addendum, 12/25/15: The day after this post went live, Mr. Purvis left a comment suggesting that it was none of my business to have an opinion about Confederate iconography/Civil War history and accused me of being an “agitator” full of “racism, bigotry and hate and ignorance.” (I believe he’s accusing me of demonstrating these behaviors towards white people or white Southerners, but his incoherence is hard to understand sometimes. Given that I live in a state with some Southern leanings and have numerous friends and family in the South, the charges are patently absurd). This comment is the tipping point for me, and he is now banned from commenting any further on this website. It’s unfortunate that I have to take this measure, but I feel I have no other options at this point lest I subject myself to more abuse. In trying to argue his point of view here and elsewhere, Mr. Purvis has consistently been his own worst enemy.
Many people have made an effort to remind each other on this September 11th that we as a country–and indeed the entire world–will “Never Forget” the horrors of that awful day in 2001. I appreciate these gestures, but it’s important to remember that students in grades K-12 today are young enough that they have nothing to actually remember. Your lived experiences and memories of 9/11 are a younger generation’s history; a history that they will learn through school textbooks, YouTube videos, and your memories.
How we choose to tell this history to ourselves and our posterity will be discussed, debated, and reinterpreted for many years to come, but it will have to involve more than personal reflections on “where I was when I heard about 9/11” or hashtag remembrances on social media. It will require more than symbolic flag waving and uncritical praise of our country’s legacy while shouting “‘Murcia!”. Indeed, the flag’s meaning is not derived from its material or design but from the ideals it symbolizes and embodies – ideals that have been contested, abused, and stained by the blood of those who died for its preservation.
This history will need to probe difficult questions about the causes, context, and consequences of 9/11, and it will have to challenge us to think about patriotism, the military, popular government, and a range of other issues that push us to ultimately consider what it means to be an American today.
We will need to have these discussions because they will play a crucial role in shaping how we want this country to look like going forward and, hopefully, help us leave our society in a better condition for our posterity. These discussions will hurt, and we will need to reckon with the pain they provoke. I am not completely sure whether we’ll be up for this important task. But I will hope for a better future because this country–like my own family–is something that I was born into, for better or worse. And just like my family, my country and I will have our disagreements and uncertainties at times. The U.S.A. is something I love, however, and something that will endure if we as a society give it the care it deserves.
The above video shows a talk that journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates gave at Washington University in St. Louis on Wednesday, February 18. I had the distinct privilege of attending the talk (although finding my way through campus was a chore. I can’t believe I got my car through without running into a person, car, or other object). The talk covered a wide range of topics that included reparations, slavery, segregation, police brutality, democracy, white supremacy, and history. It was simultaneously incredible, inspiring, thought-provoking, and saddening. Those familiar with Coates’s work will not be surprised when I say that I really enjoyed the entire experience.
I could write an article-length piece sharing my thoughts on the talk, but for now I want to make but one brief point.
One of Coates’s central arguments, regardless of topic, is that Americans have yet to reckon with the wrongs of their history, and that they may very well never do so. As I listened to the talk I thought about an argument that Edward Baptist made in the introduction of his recent publication The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism that gels nicely with Coates’s. Too often, Baptist argues, we view slavery’s wrongs only in terms of citizenship and legal rights. We see things like voter disenfranchisement, the inability to testify in court and face one’s accuser, and exclusionary restrictions against freedom of worship, speech, and assembly as the primary wrongdoings of slavery. Thus we still run into people who attempt to argue that while slavery was unfortunate and wrong from a legal perspective, it had its social and economic “advantages” for both black and white people in the years before the Civil War. “America,” says Pat Buchanan, “has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people . . . were introduced to Christian salvation [what does Frederick Douglass have to say about religious slaveholders?], and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”
But Baptist points out (and Coates might agree) that if slavery was wrong simply because of its abridgment of citizenship rights, then shouldn’t the extension of those rights to African Americans be a sufficient resolution for correcting past wrongdoings? Does it suffice to elect a black president and say we now live in a “post-racial” society? Or might there be more work ahead for us to overcome our past?
Coates–both in writing and in this talk–comes out in favor of reparations to African Americans. What would these reparations look like in terms of finances, recipients, and regulations? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows. But what I do know is that both Coates and Baptist are right when they point out the sheer violence of our past. Slavery and Jim Crow did more than abridge citizenship rights: they plundered the fruits of black peoples’ labors through the use of democratic state violence and a legal system that allowed for the buying and selling of people during slavery and the threat of lynching and mob violence against blacks well into the 1950s. One group benefited from legalized violence against another and used the false logic of “race” (among other false logics) to justify the plunder. And the Civil Rights movement didn’t magically eradicate this history or make our country immune to any future wrongdoings after 1968.
This is our history, our burden, and our legacy. We all share a part in it. As I’ve stated time and again, history is there whether or not we acknowledge it. If we acknowledge the wrongs of the past, we put ourselves in a position to more precisely define them, critique them, understand them, and reckon with them. If we can’t talk honestly about the past, how can we say that we are talking honestly about the present?