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via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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Schools across the country are adorned with posters of the 44 U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations—George Washington had the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt the Spanish-American War, and so on. Children's books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents, engaging readers with stories of their dogs in the Rose Garden or childhood escapades. Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to an exhibit of the first ladies' gowns and White House furnishings.

Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold, and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House. For this reason, there is little doubt that the first person of African descent to enter the White House—or the presidential homes used in New York (1788–90) and Philadelphia (1790–1800) before construction of the White House was complete—was an enslaved person.

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Growing up, I never had a good sense of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. In elementary school, I thought of him as a secular saint, a monument in history who dreamed of people of all colors holding hands around a globe.

Indeed, the "I have a dream" soundbite is the most common version of Dr. King taught in school and pushed through media coverage leading up to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday. Although my after school program at the Boys Club on Manhattan's Lower East Side had a viewing of the documentary Eyes on the Prize, which made Dr. King a more real person, he still felt distant, as if the events in his life were more scripted than lived. Because such a caricature puts perfection in front of process, the Dr. King "sainthood" message puts the work for social justice at a disadvantage.

Only in college did Dr. King's life become real to me. His part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his leadership for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, his sacrifices and arrests when forcing himself into segregated places, and his fiery oratory when speaking out against poverty, war, and racial justice are large parts of his astounding and well-celebrated legacy. I also learned about the rarely-taught, less luminous aspects of his history.

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The Emancipation Proclamation Story That Should Be Taught in Schools

The real emancipation story offers useful lessons about people power during a time of slavery and for today.


This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, the story of emancipation taught in school texts, courses and by Hollywood movies usually begins with the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day in 1863. The most famous engravings of the day feature: 1) President Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator,” and 2) An enslaved family on their knees as a white soldier reads them his Proclamation. Both omit the earlier emancipation that led to 1863.

In April 1861 when Confederate cannons fired on Fort Sumter many enslaved people voted for liberty with their feet. Thousands of men, women, and children set out for Union lines and others found a home in no man’s land. When President Lincoln ordered that escapees who entered Union lines be returned to their Confederate owners, hundreds of families found freedom as “outlyers” hiding between two foes.

While Lincoln fought for two years to preserve the Union “without freeing a single slave,” the numbers of self-liberated continued to grow. And those still in chains and unable to flee also mounted a multi-multilayered resistance that disrupted the Confederate labor and food systems. These daring actions inspired Northern anti-slavery people to loudly demand an official emancipation.

Emancipation, then, was first carried out by people believed to be docile and content, and was supported by a political minority considered powerless. When General Ben Butler captured New Orleans in May 1862, men of color recruited by the Confederacy (but not issued arms) persuaded Butler to accept their enlistment and issue them arms. That month enslaved seamen on the Confederate battleship Planter in Charleston harbor gathered their families aboard one night after the white officers left, and surrendered it to the Union fleet.

From the Carolinas to Kansas and the Indian Territory, daring acts of slave resistance began to persuade the President he had an important ally behind enemy lines. This untold emancipation story can be seen in two African American January 1, 1863 Emancipation Day ceremonies.

In Kansas armed black men commemorated a strike for liberty that began in the summer of 1861 when Apothle Yahola, a wealthy Creek, organized a flight of 10,000 Native American people that included thousands of African Americans and black Indians as well as some whites. Ordered to join or support the Confederate armies that surrounded them, these families instead rallied to Yahola and his exodus to Kansas and freedom. A brutal winter storm descended on marchers and three times they battled heavily armed rebel cavalry and infantry units. About 7,000 survived to reach Kansas and in the spring of 1862 many young men—the first African Americans to face Civil War combat—joined the Union army.

These men of "The First Kansas Colored Volunteers" were commanded by General James Blunt and other white officers whose military experience came in the 1850s when they fought with John Brown in Kansas against pro-slavery Missourians. On Emancipation Day 1863 the men and officers of "The First Kansas Colored" celebrated their victories and shared a barbecue and strong liquor. They sang "the John Brown song" to honor their "immortal hero" and the soldiers added, "John Brown sowed, and the harvesters are we." This army welcomed the chance to complete Brown’s work, and with the kind of volunteers he dreamed of leading.

That day in Port Royal, South Carolina, the battle-hardened "First South Carolina Volunteers," the first official U.S. unit of former slaves, also paused from battle to celebrate. Their commander, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a white Unitarian minister who had led an assault on a Boston jail to free a fugitive slave, and was one of the abolitionist "Secret Six" sponsors of John Brown. Higginson credited the military achievements of his men to their "fiery energy," and "two-o’clock in the morning courage."

A large crowd of formerly enslaved families, northern visitors and teachers of every color, attended the Port Royal ceremony. Higginson, Sgt. Prince Rivers and Cpl. Robert Sutton were presented with a special flag from New York. Then Higginson recorded an unplanned moment: African American families and soldiers began to sing,

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