Connecting Slavery With the Civil Rights Movement

Episode 8, Season 3

To fully understand the United States today, we have to comprehend the central role that slavery played in our nation’s past. That legacy is also the foundation for understanding the civil rights movement and its place within the history of the Black freedom struggle. This episode is a special look back at our first season. It explores and expands on the 10 Key Concepts that ground Teaching Tolerance’s K-12 frameworks for teaching the hard history of American slavery.

 

Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

Edited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries

Own the book that inspired and informs season three of the Teaching Hard History podcast! Use the code CIVILRIGHTS for a 30 percent discount on this book from the University of Wisconsin Press.

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Christy Clark-Pujara: It was the business of slavery that allowed New England to become an economic powerhouse without ever producing a single staple or cash crop.

Paul Finkelman: The irony of American history is that we’re one of the few countries in the world that begin with the stated purpose: we hold these truths to be self-evident that we’re all created equal.

Bethany Jay: I begin my American History courses saying there were Africans in Virginia before there were Pilgrims in Massachusetts.

Tamara Spears: I feel like primary sources are what the kids can really build their facts on. What were they doing back in West Africa or Central Africa or wherever they came from?

Price Thomas: I think that understanding history, and understanding why two Black dudes can’t sit in Starbucks, but a white girl can carry an AR-15 on a college campus—why is that the way it is?

Christy Clark-Pujara: You don’t know who you are as an American unless you know the history of slavery.

Jordan Lanfair: We aren’t making students, we’re making citizens. Because at the end of the day, that’s what our kids are going to be.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: To fully understand the historic times that we are living in, it is important to comprehend the central role of slavery in our nation’s past. I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries. And this is Teaching Hard History – a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This episode is a special look back at important ideas from our first season, and how they correspond to the Ten Key Concepts in Teaching Tolerance’s framework for helping educators talk about and teach the history of American slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Chronologically, these concepts begin before there was a United States. The first is that Europeans practiced slavery long before they invaded the Americas and established the thirteen colonies. The second: Slavery and the slave trade were central to the growth of those colonial economies.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Here are excerpts from our interviews with Christy Clark-Pujara of the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin; Paul Finkelman, editor of the Encyclopedia of African American History; and Bethany Jay, co-editor of the book Understanding and Teaching American Slavery.

Christy Clark-Pujara: It was the business of slavery that allowed New England to become an economic powerhouse without ever producing a single staple or cash crop.

Paul Finkelman: At the founding of the American nation in 1775-76, slavery is legal everywhere in what becomes the United States. In fact, slavery is legal everywhere in the New World, from the Arctic Circle to the Straits of Magellan. Every colony all across both South America and North America has slaves and slavery is legal.

Christy Clark-Pujara: Farmers in southern Rhode Island put thousands of enslaved men, women and children to work producing foodstuffs and raising livestock for the West Indian trade. You have enslaved people in southern Rhode Island growing foodstuffs for enslaved people in the West Indies.

Bethany Jay: I begin my American History courses saying there were Africans in Virginia before there were Pilgrims in Massachusetts.

Christy Clark-Pujara: Manufacturing plants throughout the North, and in New England in particular, that produced farming implements, who are they selling those farming implements to? Southern plantation owners to be used by enslaved people.

Paul Finkelman: During the revolution, this begins to change. Americans who were fighting for their liberty are faced with the dilemma of “how can we fight for our liberty when we deny liberty to other people?” And so starting in 1780, some Americans will begin to dismantle slavery.

Christy Clark-Pujara: Such racial disparities and divides. These are not a function of the last 50 years or hundred years. They’re a function of hundreds of years, of what’s been happening since 1607.

Paul Finkelman: The irony of American history is that we’re one of the few countries in the world that begin with the stated purpose: we hold these truths to be self-evident that we’re all created equal. England doesn’t have a statement that all Englishmen have the rights of Englishmen.” France doesn’t say this is what it means to be French. The French Declaration of Rights says that, but that’s well after France became a country. But we state it.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The third Key Concept in the framework for Teaching Hard History is that the founding documents of our nation protected slavery. Enslavers dominated the new federal government, controlling the Supreme Court, and the Senate.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Here, again, are Paul Finkelman and Bethany Jay, along with John Bickford of Eastern Illinois University and Christian Cotz, formerly of The Montpelier Foundation.

Paul Finkelman: And so there is this inherent tension from day one between the rights of slave-owners to be free and to have liberty, including the liberty to own other people, to buy and sell other people, to whip other people, to treat other people like property and other Americans who find this to be immoral and appalling and horrible.

John Bickford: Take a look at Thomas Jefferson. Nearly all of his trade books focus on this idea that he was a good master who loved liberty and wanted to give it to everyone. But he just couldn’t free his slaves because of the debt that he had or how the American high society was a difficult social structure for him to negotiate. Get serious! He was a slave master. He spoke of liberty, but he only freed the slaves he most likely fathered.

Christian Cotz: Madison will abhor slavery his entire life, he writes about it all the time, from the time he’s a young man in college, until the time he dies—and yet he’ll be a slave owner his entire life and will never free a single individual. And he’ll own well over 100.

Paul Finkelman: So how do we balance slavery and freedom in a nation that on one hand begins with assertions of freedom and rights of liberty and on the other hand these assertions are actually being written by slave-owners?

Bethany Jay: From the ratification of the Constitution onwards, one of the biggest issues that separated Northern and Southern states was the enforcement of federal laws relating to slavery, particularly whether federal laws could compel people in the North to return escaped slaves to slave owners in the South.

Paul Finkelman: At least 60,000 slaves are brought into the United States between 1803 and 1808. This is the largest importation of slaves into what became the United States in the entire history of the country.

Bethany Jay: The Fugitive Slave Clause was written into the Constitution. It’s in Article 4, Section 2, and it guaranteed that slaves who fled to free states would still have to be returned to slavery if Southern slave owners claim them.

Paul Finkelman: If a slave runs away from Virginia to Pennsylvania, he cannot become free under Pennsylvania law. If a slave runs from Kentucky into Ohio, she does not become free under Ohio law.

Bethany Jay: Anthony Burns had been a slave in Virginia and he escaped to Boston. When the former slaveholder learned where Burns was, he traveled to Boston to reclaim what he saw as his property, namely Anthony Burns. In May of 1854, Burns was eventually arrested. Boston abolitionists mobilized in response to Burns’ arrest. Federal authorities declared him to be a fugitive slave and they sent soldiers to come and collect Burns from Boston and bring him back to slavery in Virginia. 50,000 Bostonians lined the streets to watch as he was marched in shackles right to a waiting vessel. One Massachusetts native wrote, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad abolitionists.”

Paul Finkelman: The Supreme Court holds that no state can interfere in the return of a fugitive slave. That a master had a right to seize a slave anywhere the slave was found without any judicial process. A slave captor could simply grab someone and say, “This is my slave. I’m taking him or her back to my state.” And the free state had no right to interfere. Northern states immediately passed laws prohibiting their state officials from helping in the return of fugitive slaves.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Slavery was an economic institution designed to generate profits for enslavers. Its methods were promoting racism and trying to break the will of the enslaved. That’s the fourth Key Concept in our Teaching Hard History educational framework. The fifth emphasizes how enslaved people resisted those injustices, in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.

Christy Clark-Pujara: Enslaved African Americans in the Southern United States produced the bulk of the world’s cotton and almost all of the cotton consumed by the U.S. textile industry during the Antebellum era. Northerners, especially New Yorkers, were buying, selling and shipping it. By 1860, cotton represented more than half of all of U.S. exports, and lower Manhattan was populated with cotton brokers, bankers, merchants, shippers, auctioneers and insurers who profited from that export. Only New York banks were big enough to extend massive lines of credit to plantation owners so they could buy seed, farming equipment and people.

Paul Finkelman: It’s wrong to think of slavery as geographically bound to warm climates. Slavery is profitable wherever free labor can turn a profit.

Christy Clark-Pujara: The now-infamous Lehman Brothers began as cotton brokers. The first Morgan fortune was made by Charles Morgan, who was a steamship captain and merchant whose shipping line dominated the Gulf coastline, transporting enslaved captives from the upper South to the deep South.

Paul Finkelman: Historically, slaves had always been used for mining. They had been used for raising cattle. They had been used for growing wheat. The Roman Empire grew wheat with slaves. The Roman Empire mined with slaves.

Kenneth Greenberg: Well, Brazil is full of these gigantic rebellions of hundreds of thousands of people, or Caribbean rebellions and so forth. Haiti, which is inspired by the French Revolution, where the entire country undergoes a revolution. Thousands and thousands of whites are slaughtered in this revolution, and Haiti becomes the first country ruled by Africans in the New World. In the United States, the United states had a much larger white population than many of these other areas. And it was hard to have a rebellion in and area where there were so many whites who could organize and repress the rebellion right away. So, to take one example, one of the most famous slave rebellions, is the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831. And that involves maybe 60 rebels who kill 55 white people.

Paul Finkelman: And when is the militia called out? When is the army called out? After Nat Turner’s rebellion, the U.S. Navy hunts for slaves who had been part of Nat Turner’s rebellion.

Kenneth Greenberg: So Thomas Gray met Nat Turner in his jail cell and basically interviewed him. Listen to what he says here. This is called The Confessions of Nat Turner. Listen to what he says here. Turner purportedly speaking. “As I was praying one day at my plow…

Nat Turner: As I was praying one day at my plow, the Spirit spoke to me saying, “Seek ye the kingdom of heaven, and all things shall be added unto you.”

Thomas Gray: What do you mean by the Spirit?

Nat Turner: The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days, and I was greatly astonished, and for two years prayed continually when my duty would permit. Then I had the same revelation again, which fully confirmed in me the impression that I was ordained for som great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.

Kenneth Greenberg: There’s another moment too in The Confessions […] when Gray says…

Thomas Gray: Do you not find yourself mistaken now?

Nat Turner: Was not Christ crucified?

Kenneth Greenberg: “Was not Christ crucified?” It just sends chills up and down your spine. Here’s a guy who knows he’s going to be killed, who’s surrounded by his enemies, who has no chance of survival, and he has the tremendous confidence to speak back to Gray in that jail cell.

Paul Finkelman: When John Brown organizes a raid into Virginia, now West Virginia, to help free slaves, the local Virginia authorities don’t have the power to suppress John Brown. They have to wait for the US Marines to arrive, led by an Army Colonel named Robert E. Lee, and so John Brown is suppressed by the US Army. So, again, while Southerners talk about states’ rights, they are in fact delighted to have the federal government send troops to Virginia, to what is now West Virginia, to anywhere where there might be a slave rebellion.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That was Paul Finkelman, author of Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s. Before him, we heard Brock Peters reading from The Confessions of Nat Turner, along with Kenneth Greenberg, author of Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory; and Christy Clark-Pujara, who wrote Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, a podcast from Teaching Tolerance. We’re on the web at Tolerance.org.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our sixth Key Concept is conveying the wide variety of slavery experiences. Life for an enslaved person depended on when and where they lived, as well as the kind of work they were forced to do.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: John Bickford of Eastern Illinois University, Steven Oliver of Salem State, and middle school teacher Tamara Spears let us know that the best way to discover the experiences of the enslaved is to use primary sources, so we can hear from the enslaved themselves.

Steven Oliver: I love to use the actual audio recordings, and now there’s such a rich body of interviews that were done in the ’30s and ’40s with individuals who were still living at that time who had actually been slaves.

John Henry Faulk: (Library of Congress audio) Can you remember slavery days very well?

Harriet Smith: Of course. I can remember all our white folks. And my ma was the cook, My ma was the cook, and I remember when she used to plow oxen. I plowed oxen myself. I can plow and lay off a corn row as good as any man. Chop, and chop, pick cotton, pick my five hundred pounds of cotton. Then walk across the field and, and hunt watermelons, pomegranates [laughs].

John Bickford: But now teachers can locate the original Library of Congress document or in the National Archives. Say, a runaway advertisement, if it says, and I’m quoting here, “Ran away. A negro girl called Mary. Has a small scar over her eye, a good many teeth missing. The letter “A” is branded on her cheek.”

Laura Smalley: (Library of Congress audio) Took a woman to the peach orchard and whipped her. You know, just tied her hands around the peach orchard tree. Well, she couldn’t do nothing, just kick her feet. But they just had her clothes on down to her waist, you know. And every now and then they’d whip her. Then thy snuffed the pipe out on her.

Interviewer: Good Lord, have mercy.

John Bickford: Here’s a direct quote from one book: “One day you’ll be free, perhaps in the master’s will. I believe my husband will set you free.” This is a slave mistress talking to a slave about how “Yeah, you can hope for freedom.” That’s ridiculous.

Charlie Smith: (Library of Congress audio) I was born in Africa. Liberia, Africa. And come to the United States. That was in slavery time. They sold the colored people. And they brought me from Africa. I was a child, a boy.

Tamara Spears: Primary sources are what the kids can really build their facts on. What were they doing back in West Africa or Central Africa or wherever they came from?

Elmer Sparks: (Library of Congress audio) Did they trick you to get you on the boat?

Charlie Smith: They fool you on the boat. They fool the colored people on the boat. They say, “Over in that country, you don’t have to work. If you get hungry, all you got to do go to the fritter tree.” Same thing now, people call them pancakes, they call them flitters. “Come on down here!” And the hole on the lower deck on the boat, they called the hatch hole. “Come on down here in the hatch hole.” Got down in the hatch hole, we should have felt the boat moving. And they are leaving. And when it landed, it landed in New Orleans.

Charlie Smith: The man, they put you up on a block. They sell you; they bid you off. The highest bidder gets you. He’ll carry you to his plantation. And they went to mistreating the—the colored. Getting children by the colored women.

Charlie Smith: And they come down, the North and the South fought a war to free the colored. North and South fought a war to free the colored people from slavery time.

John Bickford: A slave named Jourdan Anderson, he escaped from his master, I think from one of the Carolinas, and he made it to Canada. And sometime after the Civil War, his master wrote a letter asking, “Would you come back and work for me on my plantation? You can be free.” Jordan’s response to his former master: “Even though you shot at me twice when I was running, I’m glad to hear the Union soldiers didn’t get you.” You know, he’s wonderfully audacious.

Fountain Hughes: (Library of Congress audio) My name is Fountain Hughes. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. My grandfather belong to Thomas Jefferson. My grandfather was a hundred and fifteen years old when he died. And now I am one hundred and one year old.

Steven Oliver: A gentleman by the name of Fountain Hughes very matter-of-factly is telling his story of having been a slave, and says, “We were sold. Bought and sold the way you might sell cows or horses,”

Fountain Hughes: To tell you the truth, when I think of it today, I don’t know how I made it. You wasn’t treated as good as they treat dogs now. But I don’t like to talk about it, because it makes people feel bad.

Steven Oliver: He also talks about what happened when slavery ended and the ways in which people really had nowhere to go, were just sort of put out like wild cattle, he says.

Hermond Norwood: (Library of Congress audio) Do you remember much about the Civil War?

Fountain Hughes: I remember when the Yankees come along and took all the good horses and took throwed all the meat and flour and sugar and stuff out in the river and let it go down the river. And they knowed the people wouldn’t have nothing to live on, but they done that. And that’s the reason that I don’t like to talk about it. Colored people is free, and they ought to be awful thankful. And some of them is sorry they are free now. Some of them now would rather be slaves.

Hermond Norwood: Which would you like to be, Uncle Fountain?

Fountain Hughes: Me? You know if I thought, had any idea, that I’d ever be a slave again, I’d take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog.

Steven Oliver: “Because you’re nothing but a dog,” In his narration, he says, “We didn’t know anything because we were never allowed to look at a book.” The impact of withholding an education from individuals.

Kenneth Greenberg: Throughout much of slavery it’s a crime to teach someone how to read who was an enslaved person, because reading is seen as the way in which people can learn about the rest of the world, and get ideas, which might undermine slavery.

John Henry Faulk: (Library of Congress audio) Well, well, while you all were slaves did they teach you to read and write?

Harriet Smith: Nuh huh.

John Henry Faulk: Did you all go to school any?

Harriet Smith: Nuh huh. They didn’t know nothing about reading and writing. All that I knowed they teach you is mind your master and your mistress.

John Henry Faulk: They sure didn’t teach you any reading and writing?

Harriet Smith: No, they didn’t. No. I remember then picking cotton. Yeah, I remember all about those slavery times.

Wallace Quarterman: (Sings.)

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You’re listening to Wallace Quarterman, a formerly enslaved person, recorded in 1935 by noted cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston for the Library of Congress.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Ever since the Civil War, people have invented all manner of reasons for why the South seceded. But if you examine what the proponents of secession said and wrote at the time, the primary reason is abundantly clear. That’s our seventh Key Concept: Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. Here, again, are Bethany Jay of Salem State University and Paul Finkelman, President of Gratz College.

Bethany Jay: This was a slaveholding republic from the start. There’s all sorts of protection for slavery and slaveholders in the constitution.

Paul Finkelman: Our constitutional law is heavily tied to the needs of protecting and preserving slavery. And many of our important constitutional doctrines, that we still live with today, come out of slavery.

Bethany Jay: So what changed? What changed from the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to 1860? Well, what changes is Lincoln’s election and Southerners feeling that the power of the slaveholders in the federal government is no longer going to be a sort of bulwark to protect slavery no matter what.

Paul Finkelman: And the final thing to understand about the Constitution is that the Secession in 1860–1861 is about slavery. It is not about state’s rights. Because as we’ve seen: The southerners hate state’s rights because state’s rights are what northerners are using to fight slavery. The Texas Secession Convention says that “Slavery will exist forever in the state of Texas.” Mississippi says, “Slavery is the most important institution in the world.”

Bethany Jay: First and foremost, students should recognize that Southern politicians were not always in favor of states’ rights. In fact, for the majority of the 19th century prior to the Civil War, they supported the use of federal authority over states’ rights to protect slavery.

Paul Finkelman: The Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, gives a speech on the eve of the Civil War, after secession. He says that in the North, people believe in racial equality. And then he says, “Our government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” And so the South becomes the first country in the history of the world to be created on the basis of racial inequality and racial subordination.

Bethany Jay: From the onset of the war, free blacks in the North clamored for a chance to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. Frederick Douglass said, “Once let the black man get upon his person, the brass letter US. Let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

Paul Finkelman: At the Battles of Lexington and Concord, there were black soldiers fighting along white soldiers in the Massachusetts militia. And at the Battle of Bunker Hill, one of the heroes was a black soldier.

Bethany Jay: Even Confederate politicians recognize the implications of black military service. Joseph E. Brown, who was the governor of Georgia, famously stated, “Whenever we establish that they are a military race, we destroy our whole theory that they are unfit to be free.” By the end of the war, nearly 180,000 black soldiers had fought in the Union Army. Of those, 98,500 had been slaves who fled the Confederacy. We really want to correct the notion that slaves were given their freedom. Free and enslaved African Americans worked tirelessly to make emancipation the outcome of war.

Paul Finkelman: When Lee’s army marched into Pennsylvania, it captured free black people and dragged them to the South and enslaved them. This was a violation of every known rule of war in the Western world. It violated the Confederate military codes. When free black soldiers surrendered at Fort Pillow, they were massacred. They were shot. Some of them were buried alive. General Lee and President Jefferson Davis did nothing to reprimand the Southern commanders who did this. So when Southerners insist on flying the Confederate flag over their state capital or insist on having monuments to the leaders of the Confederacy, they are, in fact, supporting a regime, they are, in fact, remembering a regime that was created to support and preserve white supremacy and slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness. That’s our eighth Key Concept, that white supremacy was both a product and legacy of slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In this next segment, you’ll hear professors Deirdre Cooper Owens of University of Nebraska. Kenneth Greenberg of Suffolk University, Brooklyn social studies teacher Tamara Spears, and Price Thomas, formerly of The Montpelier Foundation. All were our guests in Season One. And all talked about deeply held beliefs about race that intentionally dehumanized enslaved people, particularly enslaved women.

Deirdre Cooper Owens: Harriet Jacobs, who was a former slave, wrote a memoir, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, that spoke about her experiences and escape from slavery in North Carolina.

Harriet Jacobs: (Audiobook excerpt) Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery. They think it is perpetual bondage only. They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, slavery; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The excerpts from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, read by Audio Élan, come to us courtesy of Cherry Hill Publishing.

Kenneth Greenberg: This Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the few books written by a woman.

Harriet Jacobs: He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of.

Kenneth Greenberg: She’s describing being vulnerable, sexually vulnerable to her master.

Harriet Jacobs: I turned from him with disgust and hatred, but he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him, where I saw a man 40 years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property, that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny, but where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony, or as fair as her mistress, in either case there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death. All these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.

Kenneth Greenberg: There’s no crime of rape in slavery. If you’re a woman and you’re enslaved and a white man sexually assaults you, you can’t go to the police; you can’t go to courts of any sort. That’s not a crime. The only legal recourse would be if your master thought there was a violation, and your master could bring the person who raped you to court on a charge of trespass. It’s his property, and someone else has trespassed on his property. But, if a master rapes you, and this happens all the time, it’s built into the institution, that’s not a crime. It’s not a crime if blacks rape you as well, so women are extremely vulnerable in slavery.

Tamara Spears: There’s another article about Sukie who resists her master’s advances. She’s making soap and, you know, he tries to come in. And, you know, he pulls down her dress and gets her to the floor. It doesn’t get much more graphic than that. But she punches him, throws him into the soap, and the kids are cheering while they’re reading.

Price Thomas: How do we use history to have modern conversations? Do we understand how slavery and Reconstruction and Jim Crow influences a lot of the issues we see today when we talk about the achievement gap or wage discrimination or mass incarceration? All these things matter, and all these things are connected.

Kenneth Greenberg: Then in 1954, in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, the decision was made by the Supreme Court that if you separate the races, you can never give them an equal education, and therefore segregation was unconstitutional. That was just one of many, many decisions. But the great movement which extended into the 1960s and beyond, which attack segregation, that changed the world.

Price Thomas: I think that understanding history, and understanding why two Black dudes can’t sit in Starbucks, but a white girl can carry an AR-15 on a college campus—why is that the way it is? Right? Why do those things matter? What’s the historical context for a lot of the modern issues that we’re dealing with today that are popping up in the news.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There’s a saying: “If only America loved Black people as much as it loves Black culture.”

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our ninth Key Concept explores how African-American culture, going back to the days of slavery, has impacted the cultural traditions of America and the world. But it’s also popular culture that often promoted the destructive myths and racial stereotypes that continue to plague our nation. Here’s film historian Ron Briley.

Ron Briley: Popular culture has always presented Reconstruction as the “Tragic Era,” in which the South was taken advantage of after the war by free Blacks, northern carpetbaggers, the freedmen former slaves, and poor southern whites, as a travesty in which white Southerners were treated terribly, till they rose up and redeemed the South and took control.

Ron Briley: That is the myth of Reconstruction, and it has certainly been perpetuated by Hollywood, in films such as Birth of a Nation made in 1915.

Ron Briley: Out in the countryside, freed Blacks are taking over and attacking a cabin. The emphasis here is that what the blacks want to do is break in, attack, and rape the white women. So, who’s going to ride to the rescue? In this film version, the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue and saves the day. The South and southern virtue is symbolized by the women who are rescued from the clutches of the blacks, and the Klan is viewed as the hero. Incredibly racist material because what actually happened in America in 1915 is Americans went to the theater. Many whites saw this. Racial violence in the country increased. Lynchings increased.

Ron BrileyBirth of a Nation, made in 1915, and it continued with the very famous Gone With the Wind in 1939.

Rhett Butler: (film excerpt) Take a good look, my dear. It’s a storied moment. You can tell your grandchildren how you watched the Old South disappear one night.

Ron Briley: Scarlett O’Hara takes a shortcut while driving in her buggy, a shortcut through a shantytown. Living in the shantytown are a lot of poor whites and freed blacks. What happens is they attack Scarlett O’Hara, okay? And it looks as if she is about to be raped. She passes out.

Gone with the Wind: (Film excerpt: Sam rescues Scarlet and says he’s “sick of these carpetbaggers.”)

Ron Briley: Then, her husband says, “I’ll take care of this.” He says he’s going to a political meeting.

Gone with the Wind: (Film excerpt: ”I’ve got to go to a political meeting.”)

Ron Briley: The film emphasizes that he takes out his pistol, puts it in his holster. Clearly, he and his friends are going to go take revenge against the shantytown, and the political meeting he’s referring to really is the Klan, although the word Klan is not used in the film.

Gone with the Wind: (Film excerpt: Melanie and Scarlett discuss the men and their “protection”.)

Bethany Jay: Our understanding of the Civil War, both as historians and as Americans as it’s been represented in popular culture throughout the better part of the 20th century, our understanding of the Civil War has been one that was built to reinforce white supremacy as well, right? The Gone with the Wind narrative of the Old South, The Littlest Rebel and Shirley Temple, those are all white supremacist narratives of the Civil War as well.

Jordan Lanfair: When I ground it in literature is I always start with, like, To Kill a Mockingbird, because that leads me to Jim Crow laws, which leads me to lynching, which leads me to talking about Emmett Till, which leads me to talking about “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, which opens up all these doors.

Kenneth Greenberg: When you look around you, and you see the wonderful things that African Americans do in our society today, where does that all come from exactly? The culture that forges those wonderful institutions—the music, the religion, for example—all those things happen in the institution of slavery. Somehow in the midst of this exploitation, there is tremendous achievement that goes on.

Jordan Lanfair: I play the first about five or six minutes of the Black-ish episode based around Columbus Day because they have a skit about what Columbus did on the island of Hispaniola, which was begin genocide.

Black-ish: (TV show excerpt: skit about Columbus as slaver.)

Jordan Lanfair: There’s a pretty funny moment where Dre and his father confront one of the teachers by, like, “Well, why don’t we celebrate these other holidays, you know, like Magic Johnson Is Still Alive Day, Tupac’s birthday and then Juneteenth.”

Black-ish: (TV show excerpt: Dre and dad about alt-holidays and Juneteenth.)

Bethany Jay: Because when we talk about removing Confederate monuments or the appropriateness of displaying the Confederate battle flag on public buildings, at the heart of that question is what the Confederacy was about. Was the Confederacy about a sort of abstract Southern way of life that is removed from the question of slavery and the rights of African American people, or was the Confederacy intrinsically tied to the issue of slavery? Was it in fact a movement whose main focus was to perpetuate the enslavement of three and a half million people?

John Henry Faulk: (Library of Congress audio) Well, can you remember what happened when they set you free? Do you remember how the old master acted?

Mrs. Laura Smalley: No, sir. I can’t remember that, you know. But I—I remember, you know, the time they give them a big dinner, you know on the nineteenth.

John Henry Faulk: Is that right?

Mrs. Laura Smalley: On—on the nineteenth, you know. They give them a big dinner. We didn’t know. They just thought, you know, were just feeding us, you know. Just had a long table. And just had, ah, just a little of everything you want to eat, you know. And drink, you know. And they say that was on the nineteenth. Well you see I didn’t know what that was for. Now a child 6-7 years old can tell you.

John Henry Faulk: That’s right.

Mrs. Laura Smalley: You know, and old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free.

John Henry Faulk: He didn’t tell you that?

Mrs. Laura Smalley: No he didn’t tell. They worked there, I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the nineteenth of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day. Colored folks celebrate that day.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Knowing how to read and interpret historical sources gives us insight into the lives of African Americans during slavery — their aspirations, creations, thoughts, and desires. This is our tenth and final concept in teaching the hard history of American slavery.

Steven Oliver: We’ve inherited this mess that we find ourselves in: racism, sexism, homophobia, right? We’ve all been born in this sort of catastrophe. But what follows that, very quickly, is this notion that all of us, although we didn’t create these dynamics, we now have a responsibility and an opportunity to consider the ways in which we might be upholding some of these systems of oppression, how we might be benefiting from some of these dynamics, and most importantly, how we can be part of undoing these systems of oppression.

Bethany Jay: And that just hit home with me as far as tying a lot of this together. Our responsibility as teachers to reflect the world that our students are living in, to make sure that our students are reflected in the history that we’re talking about.

John Bickford: Our students deserve more than a textbook to be memorized. And the way to do that is to position students to evaluate like historians, to place them to analyze and then creatively show what they know in new and novel ways.

Bethany Jay: Overwhelmingly, the only emotion I get from my students about this is anger that they haven’t heard it before. Anger that, “Why am I just hearing this now in my college classroom?”

Paul Finkelman: For so many generations, Americans viewed Black people as inherently dangerous, as an inherent threat to the legal and political and social order and, at least where slavery was preserved and working, as fundamentally inferior. We have written into our constitutional law, Chief Justice Taney’s decision that “blacks have no rights that whites need to respect.”

Christy Clark-Pujara: So history at its best is not about the past. It’s about the present and how we function in the present.

Paul Finkelman: We can’t obliterate the past. I wouldn’t ban the teaching of the Civil War, but I wouldn’t memorialize traitors, either, and I wouldn’t memorialize people who fought against their nation to preserve slavery.

Christy Clark-Pujara: You don’t know who you are as an American unless you know the story of slavery.

Jordan Lanfair: We aren’t making students, we’re making citizens. Because at the end of the day, that’s what our kids are going to be. And so you have to go into these lessons, this capacity-building, understanding that your curriculum better make better citizens and better people. Through having them check their privilege, through having them look at their history, through having them engage with primary and secondary sources. Because if our only goal is to have some great activities, we’re not doing our ancestors any bit of good. We’re not doing our country any bit of good. Sorry. That was my soapbox. I sit down on it now. But like, that’s kind of why we need to do what we do.

Hasan Kwame JeffriesJordan Lanfair teaches seventh- and eighth-grade in Chicago, Illinois.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. We began by talking about slavery—for two seasons. And now we’re tracing that legacy of oppression and resistance into the present day.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to all of the educators and experts we heard from in this episode. Our theme song for season one is “Kerr’s Negro Jig” by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is from Wendel Patrick’s album JDWP Tribute.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts on our website. You can find these—along with the Framework for Teaching American Slavery, at tolerance.org/hardhistory, all one word. And we hope you will go back and listen to even more amazing content from Season One.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This podcast was produced by Barrett Golding. Kate Shuster is our executive producer. Our senior producer is Shea Shackelford, Russell Gragg is our associate producer, and our technical producer is Mary Quintas. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. And our interns are Miranda LaFond and Amelia Gragg. I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.

References

Thanks to Cherry Hill Publishing for permission to use excepts from their Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl audiobook.

 

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