Tag Archives: slavery

Uncovering Hidden History on the Road to Clanton

Lance Warren | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,650 words)

 

We turned left at Maplesville and headed for Clanton, drawn by word of a Confederate flag and rumor of a lynching. Ida B. Wells wrote about the killing 125 years earlier. Now, we’d read in the paper, stars and bars flew nearby, well in view of drivers on Interstate 65 near the geographic center of Alabama. The flag adorns the Confederate Memorial Park and Museum in nearby Marbury. The lynching is all but forgotten.

One month earlier, the park grounds had seen cannon fire. Re-enactors presented a “skirmish” displaying military maneuvers that never took place in Marbury, the site of no battles. The park’s director, a man named Rambo, explained that the event offered the public an opportunity to see how Confederate forces engaged the enemy. “All of the people are trained living historians,” he beamed, reflecting on the re-enactors, “and they love to spread the knowledge. Unfortunately, a lot of people learn of history through Hollywood.”

We were there to make a film — An Outrage — a documentary about the history of lynching in the American South, and the legacy of this orphaned past. Good people in Clanton, Marbury, and beyond hadn’t learned about history that wasn’t taught. Others had succeeded in muffling open secrets that had fallen out of fashion. My wife, Hannah Ayers, and I had driven 723 miles from our home in Richmond, Virginia, to find killing fields across the region. We wanted to see how these places looked today. We wanted to explore memory, interrogate history, and ask what happens when the two do not agree.

Hard rain darkened the sky. It squeezed the spindly Route 22 to Clanton. The trees were tall, lining the way on both sides. They formed a silent swaying wall. We knew they held secrets, secrets herded into shadows, secrets long hushed.

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The Secret Women’s Organization Providing for Black Communities

At a moment when there’s so much distressing news about bad men, it’s a relief to read an article about some inspiring women.

At Lenny Letter, novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge writes about her weekend in Chesapeake, Virginia for the 150th anniversary of the United Order of Tents, a somewhat secret society of black women established just after the end of the Civil War, which has long provided financial and other kinds of support to black communities.

The organization was founded by two former slaves, Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor. Lane had been a nurse on the plantation where she was enslaved, and over the years, that has influenced the group’s makeup and mission.

Tents members are from all social classes — Lodis Gloston was a school principal before she retired; others work in government or real estate, and some are working class. In the past, Tents members were often nurses, another link to the organization’s founder, Annetta Lane. And even at this conference, there is a small but vocal group of health-care workers.

This connection to health care is central to the Tents’ mission.

But health care is merely one focus. For generations, those women have worked together to provide so much more.

Most astonishing about the Tents is the fact that about a generation out of slavery, in 1894, they established a rest home for the elderly that they ran continuously, with no outside financial help and with no bankruptcy, for over 100 years, until 2002. In addition, at a certain point in the mid-century, the Tents served as a mortgage house for black families and churches who would not have been able to apply for loans from white banks. The Tents, therefore, literally helped build the institutions and homes of their communities.

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Moonshine: The Black Tradition of Distilling ‘White Whiskey’

Culinary appropriation is a thorny phenomenon to pin down. More or less everything we consume came to be through hybrid, murky lineages: people move (whether by choice or by force), communities clash and interact, and tastes evolve. Very few food items have a neat, uncontested origin story. But as Lauren Michele Jackson shows in her Eater essay on the erasure of black influence from artisanal-food culture, some trends are impossible to deny. Black labor and black innovation had been instrumental for many American staples, yet by the time barbecue, beer, or malt liquor resurfaced in recent years as craft items with major cultural cachet, they’d been (and still are being) thoroughly whitewashed. The same goes for what might be the whitest of spirits (in the popular imagination, at least): moonshine.

For now, the public image of what distilling looks like in America remains white, even in the face of more recent history. Moonshine, experiencing a craft renaissance of its own, almost exclusively conjures a certain image of backwoods whiteness and Prohibition-era bootlegging — a product, in part, of the white cultural monopoly on all things “country,” while black people are endlessly “urban” — an image that continues to be burnished by vested interests. “We as a society have created its value and meaning, bound up in images of mountains and overalls and shotguns and the way a man wears his hat. I played my part in this fiction,” admits the writer Matt Bondurant in an essay about his family’s moonshining legacy and his efforts to tell their story.

The rural is as much a domain of black life, and moonshining was a part of it. “I lived in a totally black world,” the artist Jonathan Green said in a recent conversation with the poet Kevin Young about his family’s moonshine production. That world was not an urban jungle but a Southern, rural community of landholders, farmers, hunters, and store owners. “Moonshine was also called a happy drink, it was also a medicinal drink,” Green said. “I only knew of moonshine as a sort of miracle liquid, if you will.” As a child, Green’s grandparents allowed him peeks into moonshining; he recalls the long early morning walks with his grandfather to stills that “were always hidden” deep in the woods, and how family visiting from out of town always left with crates full of moonshine. “I only saw moonshining as a major part of my family history and culture.”

But now that moonshine is a part of craft culture, what’s ultimately left to do is “package the story, feed the legend, make some money,” as Bondurant writes. Only white stories seem to have made it into the package.

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The South Carolina Dylann Roof Knew

When Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah first began to cover the trial of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine parishioners of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in June 2015, she initially assumed her feature for GQ would focus on Roof’s victims. But as Ghansah began to report on the trial, and specifically on Roof himself, she realized the thrust of her piece would have to focus on the murderer.

Over and over again, without even bothering to open his mouth, Roof reminded us that he did not have to answer to anyone. He did not have to dignify our questions with a response or explain anything at all to the people whose relatives he had maimed and murdered. Roof was safeguarded by his knowledge that white American terrorism is never waterboarded for answers, it is never twisted out for meaning, we never identify its “handlers,” and we could not force him to do a thing. He remained inscrutable. He remained in control, just the way he wanted to be.

And so, after weeks in the courtroom, and shortly before Dylann Roof was asked to stand and listen to his sentence, I decided that if he would not tell us his story, then I would.

To do so, Ghansah had to confront the history of South Carolina. This was a journey that Roof had also undertook in the days and years before he entered Mother Emanuel with 88 bullets — one that ended with a perverted viewpoint of the antebellum period before the state became the cradle of secession. What Ghansah finds as she crisscrosses the state — visiting Roof’s own place of worship in Columbia, walking along “Slave Street” on Boone Plantation — is that South Carolina prefers its history viewed through a heavy-handed filter.

Dylann Roof was educated in a state whose educational standards from 2011 are full of lesson plans that focus on what Casey Quinlan, a policy reporter, said was “the viewpoint of slave owners” and highlight “the economic necessity of slave labor.” A state that flew the Confederate flag until a black woman named Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole and pulled it down. A place that still has a bronze statue of Benjamin Tillman standing at its statehouse in Columbia. Tillman was a local politician who condoned “terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable…to rescue South Carolina from the rule of the alien, the traitor, and the semi-barbarous negroes.”

Roof is what happens when we prefer vast historical erasures to real education about race. The rise of groups like Trump’s Republican Party, with its overtures to the alt-right, has emboldened men like Dylann Roof to come out of their slumber and loudly, violently out themselves. But in South Carolina, those men never disappeared, were there always, waiting. It is possible that Dylann Roof is not an outlier at all, then, but rather emblematic of an approaching storm.

I took a road trip last week down the Atlantic coast and spent a few days in Charleston. It was a somewhat shocking experience to be in a city that purports to treasure its history but so openly glosses over the gritty details. Boone Plantation is one of the few sites to feature slave cabins dating back to the 1700s, but as Ghansah notes, the majority of the cabins are staffed by odd-looking dummies, which she writes “are supposed to represent black people in their deepest ignominy…there were no dummies that were supposed to represent the masters or the mistresses of the plantation.”

It is also at Boone I first learned of the “compassionate” slave owner, mentioned in one of the cabin’s audio tools. To enslave another human being immediately disqualifies anyone from being described as compassionate, no matter that person’s other qualities. This was closer to historical fiction than history. This distinction continued through the tour. The text in one cabin explained the significance of an archaeological dig on the property, an effort undertaken by a private firm which suggests Boone Plantation was forced to review the land (so as to not run afoul of Historic Preservation Act) rather than act on of any sort of archival inquisitiveness.

That a site like Boone would include these fallacies only confirms what Ghansah discovered during her time reporting on Roof:

In Charleston, I learned about what happens when whiteness goes antic and is removed from a sense of history. It creates tragedies where black grandchildren who have done everything right have to testify in court to the goodness of the character of their slain 87-year-old grandmother because some unfettered man has taken her life. But I also saw in those families that the ability to stay imaginative, to express grace, a refusal to become like them in the face of horror, is to forever be unbroken. It reminds us that we already know the way out of bondage and into freedom. This is how I will remember those left behind, not just in their grief, their mourning so deep and so profound, but also through their refusal to be vanquished. That even when denied justice for generations, in the face of persistent violence, we insist with a quiet knowing that we will prevail. I thought I needed stories of vengeance and street justice, but I was wrong. I didn’t need them for what they told me about Roof. I needed them for what they said about us. That in our rejection of that kind of hatred, we reveal how we are not battling our own obsolescence. How we resist. How we rise.

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Not Really A Distant Aunt: My Family’s Slave

In this poignant, posthumous feature at The Atlantic, Alex Tizon tells the story of his family’s slave, Lola. An utusan (“person who takes commands”), Lola was given as a gift from his grandfather to his mother in 1943, when Lola was 18 years old. Lola worked, unpaid, for Tizon and his family for 56 years. During a turbulent childhood where his parents were out of the house for days at a time, Lola was a constant source of love and devotion for Alex and his three siblings. In this moving piece, Tizon attempts to understand his parents’ point of view and motivations, and reconcile himself with Lola’s life of servitude.

We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.

Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. “It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.” Then my father would arrive and take his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank. Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal.

It confused me: My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. But they’d be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next. I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. By then Arthur, eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Before he said it I’d thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they—and the whole arrangement—could be immoral.

“Do you know anybody treated the way she’s treated?,” Arthur said. “Who lives the way she lives?” He summed up Lola’s reality: Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters. (Her designated place to sleep in each house we lived in was always whatever was left—a couch or storage area or corner in my sisters’ bedroom. She often slept among piles of laundry.)

The woman who used to hum Tagalog melodies as she rocked me to sleep, and when I got older would dress and feed me and walk me to school in the mornings and pick me up in the afternoons. Once, when I was sick for a long time and too weak to eat, she chewed my food for me and put the small pieces in my mouth to swallow. One summer when I had plaster casts on both legs (I had problem joints), she bathed me with a washcloth, brought medicine in the middle of the night, and helped me through months of rehabilitation. I was cranky through it all. She didn’t complain or lose patience, ever.

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A History of American Protest Music: How The Hutchinson Family Singers Achieved Pop Stardom with an Anti-Slavery Anthem

Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,170 words)

 

On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”

“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”

It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were abolitionists. The problem was that slavery (as well as its parent, racism) was an American tradition, and performers who wished to be popular did not bring their opposition onto the stage. Five of our first seven presidents, after all, were slaveholders. Read more…

The Slave Who Outwitted George Washington

Erica Armstrong Dunbar | Never Caught: The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge | Atria / 37 Ink | March 2017 | 19 minutes (5,244 words)

***

MOUNT VERNON

Two years after the death of her owner, Betty learned her mistress was to remarry. She most likely received the news of her mistress’s impending second marriage with great wariness as word spread that Martha Custis’s intended was Colonel George Washington. The colonel was a fairly prominent landowner with a respectable career as a military officer and an elected member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. His marriage to the widowed Martha Custis would offer him instant wealth and the stability of a wife and family that had eluded him.

A huge yet necessary transition awaited Martha Custis as she prepared to marry and move to the Mount Vernon estate, nearly one hundred miles away. For Betty, as well as the hundreds of other slaves that belonged to the Custis estate, the death of their previous owner and Martha’s marriage to George Washington was a reminder of their vulnerability. It was often after the death of an owner that slaves were sold to remedy the debts held by an estate. Read more…

Slavery and Freedom in New York City

Eric Foner | Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad | W. W. Norton & Company | January 2015 | 31 minutes (8,362 words)

Below is an excerpt from the book Gateway to Freedom, by Eric Foner, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

The history of slavery, and of fugitive slaves, in New York City begins in the earliest days of colonial settlement. Under Dutch rule, from 1624 to 1664, the town of New Amsterdam was a tiny outpost of a seaborne empire that stretched across the globe. The Dutch dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the early seventeenth century, and they introduced slaves into their North American colony, New Netherland, as a matter of course. The numbers remained small, but in 1650 New Netherland’s 500 slaves outnumbered those in Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch West India Company, which governed the colony, used slave labor to build fortifications and other buildings, and settlers employed them on family farms and for household and craft labor. Slavery was only loosely codified. Slaves sued and were sued in local courts, drilled in the militia, fought in Indian wars, and married in the Dutch Reformed Church. When the British seized the colony in 1664, New Amsterdam had a population of around 1,500, including 375 slaves. Read more…

Meet the Man Behind the First Slavery Museum in America

He was driving around the Whitney in his Ford S.U.V., making sure the museum would be ready for the public. Born and raised in New Orleans, Cummings is as rife with contrasts as the land that surrounds his plantation. He is 77 but projects the unrelenting angst of a teenager. His disposition is exceedingly proper — the portly carriage, the trimmed white beard, the florid drawl — but he dresses in a rumpled manner that suggests a morning habit of mistaking the laundry hamper for the dresser. As someone who had to hitchhike to high school and remains bitter about not being able to afford his class ring, he embodies the scrappiness of the Irish Catholics who flooded New Orleans in the 19th century. But as a trial lawyer who has helped win more than $5 billion in class-action settlements and a real estate magnate whose holdings have multiplied his wealth many times over, Cummings personifies the affluence and power held by an elite and mostly white sliver of a city with a majority black population.

“I suppose it is a suspicious thing, what I’ve gone and done with the joint,” he continued, acknowledging that his decision to “spend millions I have no interest in getting back” on the museum has long been a source of local confusion. More than a few of the 670 residents of Wallace — 90 percent of whom are black, many the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who worked the region’s land — have voiced their bewilderment over the years. So, too, have the owners of other tourist-oriented plantations, all of whom are white. Members of Cummings’s close-knit family (he has eight children by two wives) also struggle to clarify their patriarch’s motivations, resorting to the shoulder-shrugging logic of “John being John,” as if explaining a stubborn refusal to throw away old newspapers rather than a consuming, heterodox and very expensive attempt to confront the darkest period of American history. “Challenge me, fight me on it,” he said. “I’ve been asked all the questions. About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit off of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?” With that, Cummings went silent, something he does with unsettling frequency in conversation.

“Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it,” he finally resumed, “so I figured I might as well get started.”

David Amsden writing in the New York Times Magazine about John Cummings and Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation. Cummings has spent the past fifteen years and $8 million of his personal fortune turning the plantation into a museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery in America.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates Calls for Reparations, and a 'Spiritual Renewal' for America

We must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in The Atlantic, on the history of slavery in America—in all its forms—and why reparations are necessary to make the country whole.

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Photo: Children of a sharecropper, 1935, Wikimedia Commons