Making America

Recently someone wrote that the impact of struggles, challenges, and accomplishments associated with people of African descent over centuries in this land is what has defined and made America great. This idea goes far beyond the “Canary in the Mine” concept published in a previous blog post (December 18, 2011). The attribution is far greater than simply a measure of the national status quo.

As a people deliberately and consistently eliminated from consideration as eligible for any of the nation’s ideals – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – their every effort, successful or not, to attain these rights strengthened and broadened the application for all.  Issues ranging from citizenship, equal rights, political representation, voting, shelter, education, property, health care, and education, for example, are rooted in the national history of African-descended people’s enslavement, resistance, and pursuit of freedom. Using words, ballots, arms, determination, and strategy through almost 500 years, they have led, influenced, and participated in social and political movements that are now celebrated as American accomplishments.

In 2019, many Americans will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of captive Africans in the English colony of Virginia. In addition to honoring these specific ancestors in this specific place, the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project encourages each citizen, regardless of his or her ancestry, to remember that those ideals associated with making America unique and great are a direct result of the arrival of approximately 500,000 captive Africans on our Atlantic and Gulf Coasts from 1526 to 1860. They and their descendants spanned this continent. They contributed physically, spiritually, culturally, and intellectually to its distinct character. During this year, and especially on August 25, 2019, plan and take part in an initiative to commemorate these ancestors. We recommend a national moment of prayer and bell-ringing on that day. And more importantly, we as a nation should commit to continuing to work to make America a place of life, of liberty, and of opportunity to pursue happiness for all. 

We owe them that much.

To keep abreast of associated activities planned for the 2019 400th anniversary commemoration visit:

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2020 Vision: A Prescription

This post is in response to the 2018 mid-term elections. Based on the results, citizens need to prepare for the 2020 national election to bring about change for the good of all. During a conversation several weeks ago with a young Florida activist, his phrase “2020 Vision” struck a chord. It’s not just about this current mid-term election; we need to see clearly that the electoral process and social activism itself require constant, ongoing effort.

The question is how to promote, encourage, and maintain citizen involvement and responsibility in the political process. The Jewish culture calls this Tikkun Olam, each person’s responsibility to make community and society better. It certainly cannot be limited to election day. This activist described the vote as simply the means of opening the door to political power. How citizens can effectively advocate and demand policies and services that actually benefit them is the critical concern. The list is long: access to good health care; quality education; safe neighborhoods; decent housing; environmental justice; voting rights of ex-offenders who have served their time; full citizenship for all; decent wages; job training; addressing wealth in-equity; maintenance and repair of infrastructure; and eliminating violence.

The challenge for the MPCPMP is our relevance to this conversation. The Sankofa parable comes to mind. Knowledge of history sharpens our vision of the future. Our mission is to place this nation’s development in a context that highlights patterns, behaviors and practices – both good and bad – that are part of the fabric. For centuries and into the present, many leaders and educators have provided either rose-colored glasses, blinders, or both when describing the past. This Project is a prescription intended to improve our national vision by commemorating ancestors, learning from their experiences, and initiating a process for healing. We mark where the inequality and discrimination began and encourage an inclusive historical narrative so that we can move forward humanely and respectfully.

There is a saying that hindsight is 20-20, but that is not correct. This nation does not address and acknowledge its history accurately, so how can people progress and move into a less divisive and acrimonious future? How can America be great for all who live here if we cannot see what actually makes this nation great as well as understand what has restricted its potential to excellence? It certainly is not the partisan bickering and often ignorant leadership now part of our daily lives. Let’s see clearly, so we can move forward effectively.

Now is the time to prepare for 2020. Let us begin now to dialogue with those running for and in office who want our political support. This is the opportune moment to press for the change we see. Who measures up to your own standards and expectations? Encourage these people to become candidates. And when you put them in office, hold their feet to the fire! Party and even identity affiliation should not compromise ideals. We encourage each and every one to know as much as possible about the past and current affairs in order to seriously identify what is important by category: individual, family, community, county, state, country. Our ancestors did this in each generation. Their survival depended upon establishing priorities, strategies, and cooperation. Whether during the Middle Passage, enslavement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, or the struggle for Civil Rights, we needed to be alert or as the young people say “woke.” Let’s learn from this history and understand fully that we hold the future in our hands. Move forward. Repair what we can; dismantle what is harmful; and create what is beneficial. Recently, one of our leaders said, “Vote as if your life depends upon it.” The truth is, it does. This Project beseeches you to commit and work towards a 2020 Vision. You may want something different/better now that this election is over.

 

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Ain’t Nothing New– It’s Old; It’s Familiar

Recently, we have been bombarded with news of government policies that enforced automatic separation of immigrant children from their parents who were seeking asylum at our Southern border. Defined by federal officials (ICE and Department of Justice) as entering the country illegally, the parents were detained (incarcerated) and the children placed in the “care” of the U.S. Department of Human Services. Although we are told that this practice has stopped, the location of some of these children at this point is still unknown. For the most part, reunification has not occurred and, if and when it does, will be difficult at best. To think that this is the new national practice is not to know this nation’s history.

Children being separated from their families is centuries old in North America. Colonization and the development of the U.S. economy required this pattern. Families took a back seat to economic expedience.  Invoking God, the Bible, Manifest Destiny, national security, fear of violence, racial purity, and entitlement–all have been cited to justify ripping children away from their parents.  To single out the Japanese internment during World War II as the prime example of this policy ignores a previous 300-year history, whether the children were:

  • European – urban and poor children kidnapped and transported into indenturedservitude
  • African – 25 percent of the captives sold and transported in the Middle Passage into slavery werechildren
  • Native American – children removed from traditional territories and placed in Indian Schools to be transformed from “savages” to “civilized” beings
  • African American – children as property were sold from their parents for profit (1641-1865)

Significantly, in the United States of America, based upon 2015 data, a large number of juvenile delinquents aged 15-18 were removed from their homes and placed in residential facilities for punishment and supposed rehabilitation. The following reflects that practice through percentages by ethnicity:

  • European-descended, 31.3%;
  • African-descended, 41.9%;
  • Latin-descended, 21.9%;
  • Native American-descended, 1.7%;
  • Asian-descended, 5%.

In many ways we are numbed and inured to the abuse of children. This country has bullied those who are perceived as weak and ignored its wrong-doing by justifying policies and practices as answers to exceptional circumstances when, in fact, they are the rule, particularly for those identified as “the other.” For the most part, traditionally, the U.S. has more favorably supported initiatives to protect animals and pets than children.

However, the outrage and response to this current and ongoing public destruction of families is encouraging. Along social, religious, cultural, and economic lines, it seems that many residents of this land are listening to their consciences. Maybe there is hope after all, as citizens have begun challenging the administration’s policies.

This Fourth of July, Independence Day, requires cultural and self-examination. Do we care?  If so, when do we start valuing men, women, children, and families by:

  • believing that quality education, housing, and health care are human and civil rights?
  • supporting a universal living wage?
  • creating policies that empower this nation to be a place of sanctuary and opportunity for all?

With only a few exceptional hiccups such as Social Security, the 15thAmendment, Medicare, and the Affordable Health Care Act, this country has been walking in lock-step with the Founding Fathers who set the pattern of selective entitlement and privilege while mouthing high ideals. Our mistake, thank goodness, has been that we thought their intention was universal, “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” so we’ve been stretching the application ever since. We beseech every citizen to vote, to actively participate as citizens not losing faith in political power, and to protect us all by constantly challenging and then reversing the wrong that is done in our name.

Happy Fourth of July — Make it mean something this year.

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Sensational Headlines

The MPCPMP has taken historical facts and made them into news headlines. Unfortunately, none of these headlines is followed by fake news or fabricated history. Instead, under each sensational headline, we present the truth — a brief historical fact or a description with background. Our intention is to capture the reader’s attention using the format of a tabloid.

Headline Captions

  1. Two Million Die in Ocean

This is the approximate number of captive Africans, most free before captivity, who died during the Middle Passage.

  1. Investment Advice: Land and Slaves

Thomas Jefferson stated that the fastest return can be realized in the new nation through the purchase of land and enslaved Africans, preferably female because of their ability to reproduce.

  1. Africans: 3 of Every 4 Arrivals to Americas

From 1510 until the 1830s, the majority of people (75%) arriving throughout the Americas were Africans. This migration was fueled by the high, constant demand for labor to produce commodities and the resulting death rate from the demands placed upon them, especially in cane and tobacco growing.

  1. Prison Camps Dot Nation

Until after the Revolutionary War, farms and plantations throughout mainland North America depended upon slave labor to support an agricultural economy. Enslaved people, imprisoned by law and legally incarcerated, were the artisans, carpenters, metalsmiths, healers, field workers, and house servants in all regions of the country – north, south, east, and west.

  1. Families Destroyed for Profit

Legally defined as property without rights, no enslaved woman, man, mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, or other relative had the recognized ability, to maintain any relationship. On a whim, as punishment, and most frequently as a capital venture, families were torn apart and forever separated. 

  1. Terrorists Rampant in US

Violence and terror against Africans and their descendants were the accepted and prevailing means of sustaining slavery, thwarting progress after the Civil War, enforcing Jim Crow, and resisting the challenges made for both human and civil rights throughout the history of this nation. 

  1. Prisoners Build Country

People held in bondage are prisoners. The enslaved were the most prevalent population group held in bondage over centuries in the U.S. Other groups included indentured servants, debtors, and prisoners. These people with varying legal definitions were held in bondage under conditions related to time, rights, and social status. This is such an intrinsic part of the national fabric that even as the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery was established it made an exception for the penal system by which slavery could be maintained. These are the people – enslaved, indentured, criminals – who provided much of the labor that built the national economy and infrastructure.

  1. Slavery: Economic Base of Global Economy

As a model for investment, profit, production networking, and sales, the transatlantic human trade and slavery formed the basis upon which global enterprise was fostered and supported, with less emphasis upon individual nations, geographical regions, and leaders. The principal factors include attracting investors, identifying and controlling resources, marketing, and guaranteeing capital gains for the benefit of a select group.

  1. Empire through Debt, Disease, and Destruction

Framed within the mantra of Manifest Destiny and later Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” a systematic approach by Europeans assured success in obtaining land from indigenous people. The methods included disease, war, and debt by creating demand for items in exchange for resources such as land, people, and minerals. By one method or the other, colonialism and control, according to Jefferson and others, could be attained around the world.

  1. 26 Generations Held Against Their Will

This covers the time period during which innocent people and their families were victims of slavery in the Americas. Although Africans, both enslaved and free, arrived with the Europeans on all the expeditions starting with Columbus in 1492, the first enslaved Africans brought to live and work in the Western Hemisphere came in 1509. They did not volunteer or sign up. This practice of enslavement continued into the 19th century, with Brazil becoming the last location to abolish slavery in 1888, two years after Cuba in 1886.

  1. Child Slavery

Twenty-five percent of captive Africans were children. By the 19th century, children and teenagers comprised the majority of people transported to the Americas because it was assumed that population would be easier to adapt to a life of servitude and the loss of freedom.  

  1. Jobs for Life

From early childhood until old age, all enslaved persons were assigned tasks. Operating from dawn to dusk daily, it was never an issue of not having a job;, the injustice was absence of pay, liberty, and human rights. There was very little choice or opportunity associated with jobs that were assigned. Black people have never experienced lack of work – the reality is the lack of fair compensation for their labor, skills, and knowledge.

  1. New Guinea: New Name for Virginia Colony

In his 18th century diary, Colonel William Byrd II expressed concern for the mass transport of captive, enslaved Africans into the Virginia colony: “They import so many Negros hither, that I fear this Colony will sometime or other be confirmed by the Name of New Guinea. I am sensible of many consequences of multiplying these Ethiopians amongst us.”

  1. Child Slave Labor Buys Groceries for President and Family

A scholar specializing in the history of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson recently uncovered documents that showed that young boys under the age of twelve were charged, under threat of whipping, to meet a daily quota of iron nail production. The revenue Jefferson received from the sale of those nails was specifically used to purchase food items. There is a record that Jefferson condoned this type of punishment and labor system.

  1. Millions Denied Human Rights by U. S. Government

From 1776 until 1865, 89 years, the United States Government legally condoned slavery with all its entailed injustices. It is not until the 14th Amendment that those formerly enslaved were defined as citizens, people rather than property. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, there were 3,950,528 enslaved people in this country. Projecting for population increase, even factoring in the Civil War and escapes to freedom, approximately 4,000,000 would not have protected human or civil rights until the passage of the 14th amendment in 1865.

  1. Men, Women, and Children Stripped Naked and Branded for Export

It was standard practice prior to the Middle Passage that captive Africans were branded, stripped naked, and shaved. This was the process of commodification – attempting to transform human beings into items for sale. Branding identified ownership; stripping dehumanized by removing any external vestiges of ethnic or cultural identity and norms as well as identified possible flaws in the body; shaving, according to common judgement, reduced disease and vermin infestation on the voyage.

  1. Slavery: The Choice of U.S. Presidents

From George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, each president had the opportunity to abolish slavery and did not. Expediency always took precedent over morality. Even though lip service was given to slavery’s injustice, the feasibility of liberating enslaved people and the anticipated repercussions were raised as impediments to abolition. In fact, George Washington freed his enslaved after his death when he would no longer need them, and the Great Emancipator Lincoln stated that in order to save the Union he would free all the slaves or none at all. Expediency, not morality, in the country’s highest political office routinely trumps.

  1. Humans: Shark Chum

During the transatlantic human trade that spanned approximately three hundred and fifty years, sharks trailed ships that transported captive Africans across the Atlantic, feeding on human bodies in the water because of suicide, punishment, or death. In many reports related to the ships, there are constants: filth, torture, sickness, terror, abuse, stench, and sharks. Death at sea of both crew and captives was a normal occurrence. The average mortality rate at sea averaged 12-17% for a “cargo” of two to three hundred people during a six-week voyage. Although not a traditionally recognized food source, these ships over centuries conditioned sharks and other ocean life to respond to these vessels as a possible source of nourishment. The deaths of captives and crew making these journeys inspired the following quote by historian John Henrik Clarke: 

If the Atlantic were to dry up, it would reveal a scattered pathway of human bones, African bones, marking the various routes of the Middle Passage.

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Primer on U.S. Slavery for Secondary Teachers

Slavery is often seen as a generally accepted traditional and necessary evil. Images of the happy-go-lucky slave, the enslaved child who was taught to read, or was remembered in the will of an owner survive today because they help many of us to deny the atrocities of human slavery. As I shared the information below with friends and colleagues, many of them asked me to stop. “I don’t want to hear this,” a friend said, putting his hands over his ears. What we need to ask is, how can we understand this unimaginable cruelty and racism without studying these facts? How can we understand the foundations of racism in the U. S. without this knowledge?

Some basic history

Enslavers legally captured, tortured, transported to the U.S. mainland, and sold approximately 500,000 people from African societies from 1526 to 1808. After 1808 slave owners were permitted to “breed” captives in the U.S. but not import them although there is ample evidence that U.S. enslavers ignored the federal law for decades. Eventually twelve million people were forced into the system of slavery. The last shipment of captured Africans arrived in Mobile, AL, in 1860. At the time of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, 4 million people were held in bondage in 15 southern and border states, and New Jersey. The demand for unpaid labor, the quest for wealth and unbridled greed in agriculture- the rice, indigo, sugar, cotton and tobacco – rum and textile industries, and Western Continental expansion were the prime motivations for this practice.

People were taken from particular areas of Africa to the Americas based on their skills. Many were familiar with husbandry, farming, metal work, textile production and carpentry. However, prisoners of war were also taken, some were from royal families, and others with education from the University of Timbuktu. They were captured, in many cases, by other African ethnic groups who were bribed and supplied with guns by U.S. and European enslavers. People tried to build forts, sometimes out of bramble bushes, in order to protect themselves from the invaders. Family members often tried to rescue abducted people at the time of capture or later as captors were followed, but lack of weapons greatly disadvantaged them. Captives could be held up to one year in caves and cells until they were purchased by slavers who would move them to slaving ships. The women’s dungeons in Elmina, Ghana, still reek to this day of feces, urine, sweat and menstrual blood that seeped into the rocks. At Cape Coast Slave Castle’s Men’s Dungeon, archeologists have found three feet of compacted human feces where men wallowed for months before being loaded onto ships.

People were loose packed or tight packed on ships. Slavers were conflicted about which method to use. They faced a quality vs. quantity decision. Diagrams were published in newspapers for slavers that illustrated how people could be packed to ensure that the largest number of people could fit into the smallest amount of space. Approximately 600- 700 people could be stored on a ship. Tight packing meant people had to be measured for height and then the shortest people would be put in the bowels of the ship at the bow and stern.   The taller people would be put closer to the center of the ship or amid ship. They had to lie on one side and then be shifted, at intervals, to their other sides. Tight packing often lead to more health problems and death, thus slavers would lose part of their investment. Loose packing would allow people to lie on their backs but fewer people could be stored in the holds or bilges and thus be potentially less lucrative. However, the loose packer slavers were likely to have healthier people, or perhaps more people to sell at port. It was a gamble, with most slavers favoring tight packing. Slave ships generally had 20 inches of head room in the lower floors of the ships.

Most captured people, including children, were male but females were also part of the slave operation with the added potential of reproductive purposes.

Diseases spread quickly below board and at the first sign of disease such as smallpox, people were thrown overboard. Sharks followed the ships for a steady source of food. People were kept in shackles and given little food or water. Dehydration was a continual problem. The heat generated from the captives in the holds was so extreme that steam could be seen coming through the grates in the upper floors of the ship. Crew members heard “howling melancholy noise, expressive of extreme anguish.” (Mannix, 1962)

Slavers commonly believed that their ships were cleaner and better managed than ships from other countries. For example, the Dutch, Portuguese, English and French all believed their slaving ships were superior. So frequent were the attempts at suicide that measures were put into place to prevent it. Ship doctors were vigilant in looking for “fixed melancholy” or depression. People were daily forced to dance and sing on the deck until exhausted in order to exercise. Ship surgeons sutured the wounds of people who tried to slit their throats. Slavers removed the heads of some suicide victims and placed them on poles on the ship, explaining to the remaining captives that their spirit could not return to their village without a head, in order to prevent future attempts.

A speculum oris or mouth pair was used to force feed people who refused to eat. Some that actively resisted enslavement on the ship were suspended from poles on the stern of the ship to frighten them when sharks were in the water. Many captives were “seasoned” or fattened up in West Indian camps to prepare them for the auction block. Olive oil would be used to cover their bodies to enhance the appearance of their muscles. Severe dysentery and diarrhea were dealt with while on the auction block by having oakum inserted into their rectums. Oakum is a combination of fibers and tar or creosote used for caulking. Once purchased, they would be branded on their thighs or buttocks. People too sickly to be sold were left on the wharfs, sometimes with signs that said $1. People who were kept in the Caribbean had a life expectancy of about seven years. On these islands they were subjected to being buried in sand with syrup covering their heads for ants to eat when it was determined that they were not working up to their potential.

After being purchased they were placed into forced labor on U.S. plantations, small farms, and in urban centers. Their labor created profits for their owners that translated into substantial economic and political power. They were considered more valuable than real estate. They were held against their will, beaten, humiliated and denied any human rights. They often were subjected to having the big toe on each foot removed to prevent them from running away from the cruelty and subjugation. This practice was legalized in Virginia in 1705. In 1723 the law was strengthened by stating that if the slave died as a result of this butchering, no charge of manslaughter could be brought.

Enslaved people were flogged and submerged in barrels of pickling brine. Different forms of brutality were used as punishment for the crime of speaking one’s native language, taking food not authorized by owners, or fighting back against the violence perpetrated against them. It was common for enslaved people to be forced to watch the torture and prolonged death, sometimes lasting two to three days, of another member of their community as a way to terrify them and squelch any plans to flee. The enslaved would be forced to wear collars with long spikes that would catch on tree branches if they attempted to escape in forested areas. Holes were dug in the ground large enough to fit a woman’s pregnant midsection so she could still be whipped on her back and not harm the future property of the owner. Store owners lobbied local officials to require that whipping posts be moved further from store windows because the blood spatters disturbed some customers or put a burden on the shopkeepers to constantly clean the glass. Enslaved people were forced to eat from troughs using wooden paddles, spoons or mussel shells. Some captives were promised manumission or freedom when they reached old age but this was commonly done to get optimal labor while she/he was young and thus provided more capital for the owner to purchase more slaves.

Women were routinely raped by slave owners and their male guests, and the children that resulted from these rapes were forced into slavery. ($800 for a male with good teeth and no scars on his back. $1200 for bi-racial women to be used as a sex slaves) The worst atrocity of all was that enslaved people were separated from their families and witnessed their children being sold, never to be seen again. Some of these children would be purchased at auction to be given as Christmas gifts to the children of plantation owners.

The U.S. Constitution legalized slavery. It stated that runaway slaves were criminals without any legal rights and that each enslaved person was considered 3/5 of a person for Congressional representation guaranteeing the South majority political control in national politics for the nations’ first 80 years.

Many founders owned enslaved people. That included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Benjamin Franklin (later became a president of a manumission society).   Martha and George Washington considered 318 people their property and often rented others from neighboring farms. Twelve presidents enslaved people: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

People did oppose slavery at the time such as members of Quaker groups and manumission societies, John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens (son of Henry Laurens, the largest slave owner in South Carolina), Marquis de Lafayette (personal advisor to George Washington and considered an adopted son), and northern advisors to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The South as well as the North profited from the system of slavery, from food crops to cloth, to rum and whiskey. Most significantly, people held in slavery resisted their captivity in bold, calculated ways. The systems of communication they developed across many African language barriers, their dedication to oral history, protection of their families, and myriad acts of courage led to their emancipation in the face of insurmountable political power locally and at the federal level.

Sudie Hofmann is a professor in the Department of Human Relations and Multicultural Education at St. Cloud State University, MN. She is an activist and writer on education and equity issues.

Sources

Ball, Edward. Slavery’s Trail of Tears: Retracing America’s Forgotten Migration-The Journey of a Million African-Americans from the Tobacco South to the Cotton South. Smithsonian, November 2015, Volume 46, Number 7 pp. 58-82.

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Glorious March to Liberty, African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, Washington D.C., May 20, 2016.

Loewen, James W. Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010.

Lusane, Clarence. The Black History of the White House. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011.

Thrasher, Albert. On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt. New Orleans: Cypress Press, 1995.

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Directed, produced, and written by Katrina Browne. Ebb Productions LLC, 2008.

Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

“The Middle Passage,” from Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865 by Daniel P. Mannix in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking Penguin, 1962.

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Quarterly Newsletter: April-June, 2017

The spring quarter was productive and encouraging. A marker was dedicated in Galveston, Texas; networking and promoting the Project were ongoing, especially along the Gulf Coast and at the CLAW Conference in Charleston; and production has begun of a documentary video highlighting the Project’s first five years. The Executive Board continues to identify funding sources to address travel and expenses related to organizing at the remaining 26 arrival sites where ancestral remembrance ceremonies and historic marker installations need to take place.

In May, at the 1st annual conference held by Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage (SDUSMP), MPCPMP was recognized for “outstanding leadership” in efforts to commemorate African ancestors who perished during the Middle Passage.

To maximize resources, MPCPMP is strengthening its association with international and national organizations. This quarter we focused on the UNESCO Slave Trade Route Project and are in the process of developing a joint submission for site logo designation for Boston, New York (African Burial Ground), Point Comfort/Hampton/Fort Monroe, Charleston (Sullivan’s Island), Key West (African cemetery), and New Orleans. Five of these sites are supported and maintained by the National Park Service. By 2018, each will have a physical marker related to the Middle Passage.

There are several locations where MPCPMP will renew efforts to install markers: Connecticut (Middletown and New London), Florida (Amelia Island and Pensacola), and Maryland (Annapolis). If anyone can suggest people or groups please contact us.

Alabama: With the assistance of members of the Middle Passage Coalition, MPCPMP is contacting people who have a direct association with Africa Town and Mobile.

Louisiana: As New Orleans has removed monuments to the Confederacy, simultaneously plans for markers to address African and African American history have progressed. Marker texts and design related to both the transatlantic and domestic human trade have been completed and should be installed no later than 2018.

Maryland: The Maryland Middle Passage Committee (MDMPC) is reorganizing under the leadership of Co-chairs Regina Hartfield and Rosa Long. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh accepted an informational packet from the MDMPC, and the Committee will follow up with a request for a formal meeting with her or one of her staff. Local fundraiser Roslyn Steward was a guest speaker at the April meeting. She presented a variety of fundraising strategies and volunteered to assist the Committee with its efforts.

As part of activities during the Kunta Kinte Festival, September 23, 2017, MPCPMP is requesting that a Middle Passage marker be installed at the Annapolis waterfront to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Ligonier (1767), the ship made famous in Alex Haley’s Roots.

Massachusetts: The marker text has been drafted and an installation site selected. Additional funding must be identified.

New Jersey: We are waiting for notification of a date for the installation of markers in Camden.

North Carolina: There has been no activity in this area. The Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, has drafted a letter of support for the Project.

Rhode Island: The statewide committee continues to hold meetings and lectures and to coordinate planning for markers and ceremonies. Consideration for digitizing the state’s Middle Passage and human trade history is underway to complement this public history.

The city of Newport, RI, has selected Liberty Square as the location for its Middle Passage marker. www.newportri.com/newportdailynews/page_one/middle-passage-marker-finds-home-i-liberty-square/article_8db194db-1e43-5393-b972-72274fe764c3.html

Texas: On June 10, 2017, as part of a week-long celebration of Juneteenth, residents of Galveston dedicated a Middle Passage marker that will be installed at the Seaport Museum.

We appreciate all of you who support this work and look forward to completing our mission by 2020.

Contact us: middlepassagemarkers@gmail.com

Visit Facebook: The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project

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Reparations or Civil War

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s protagonist, Ivan Ilyich, was once asked, “What is the most revolutionary way to change society: Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform?” He gave a careful answer: “Neither. If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step . . . If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”

Reparations – Will it take another civil war, or can we tell an alternative story?

How an issue is framed and placed in context does make a difference. Peter Wood, Duke University Professor Emeritus and the author of Black Majority, recently put the brutal reality of plantation life in stark context. Speaking in June 2017 at the Carolina Low Country and Atlantic World (CLAW) Conference, Wood argued that enslaved Africans and their descendants — children, women and men — were imprisoned on plantations that should more accurately be described as forced labor camps, no different than the Nazi prison camps of the 20th century.

“Forced labor camps” seems an extreme definition. Yet, the benign term “plantation” whitewashes the brutality of what Africans and their descendants in America and throughout the diaspora experienced. Because of historical subjectivity, the Charleston conference witnessed a sharp split on how or even whether these estates should be preserved. Are they long-gone reminders of a tortured past? From one standpoint, some of the larger ones have become the sites of weddings and other social activities used to finance the preservation of these agricultural factories. Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello are places where the veneer of respectability and sacred mythology offer one apologetic and incomplete story. Other historians speaking at this same conference insisted that these places represent the brutal, ugly reality of enslaved Black life. Some suggested that they be destroyed as places of unrepentant evil. The Slave Dwelling Project advocates visits and sleepovers at these places in order to better under-stand what enslaved persons endured and survived, as well as to provide a setting for meaningful exchanges among people of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds, ages, and social conditions.

The oppression of Africans in the “New World” did not take place only on plantations. The burgeoning colonial and American economy was developed beyond large tracts of land utilizing enslaved labor. Plantations with hundreds of Africans in bondage were the uncommon exception. Shipbuilding, heavy construction, forestry, mining—nearly all crafts, trades, husbandry, household skills and small farms—were heavily dependent upon enslaved workers. Significantly the social construction of race and the denial of human equality took shape within a variety of settings. As evidence of the shared fear and the necessity of solidarity for maintaining this oppression, people from many levels were recruited and participated, e.g. patty rollers, ministers, judges, businessmen, and ordinary citizens.

For more than 450 years, over consecutive generations, masses of innocent Black people have been systematically and literally incarcerated, punished, denied liberty and justice, oppressed and exploited. They had done nothing to “deserve” this inhumane treatment. The question now is: how can these aberrations be tackled? The continual oppression of Black Americans is described in the Ava Duvernay documentary, “13th.” This film refers to the Constitutional Amendment which codified full Black citizenship, subverted ever since by the realities of Jim Crow, public lynching, denial of civil and social justice, and efforts to refine and impose mass incarceration. With this back story, is reparation possible? Are current efforts to rectify such events sufficient? Is tearing down Confederate monuments and hiding them in museums a form of reparation? Is opening admissions to descendants of the enslaved at elite universities a reasonable solution? How should amends be made? Truly, “Where’re my 40 acres and my mule?”

The process of repairing and healing is certainly more complex than even today’s discussion about health care legislation. For many of the nation’s political and social leaders who can’t seem to even work their way out of a wet paper bag, reparations are insurmountable. That, however, is no excuse. Citizens and leaders are stymied. Monetary compensation, insufficient as it is, is the easy fail-safe, even as we are told that such payments would “break the bank,” “bankrupt the nation.” Yet, regarding the nation’s debt to Black people, the Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. stated very modestly: “We’ve come to cash the check.”

In the end, there are financial costs; no argument there. For more than 45 years, Michigan Congressman John Conyers has annually introduced a bill to address reparations for African Americans, and for each of those years his demand has been ignored and dismissed. There is a Congressional pattern here associated with slavery and the status of Black people. The gentleman’s rule during the country’s first century was that slavery would not be discussed in Congress because it was too disruptive to the legislative process. It took a civil war to address that issue. It seems that the rationale for avoiding a real attempt at reparations is following a tried and familiar pattern – avoid and deny.

But even before this society can figure out the how of reparations, we have to confront and acknowledge the truth of our nation’s history. If we want to change this society and the inequity we witness daily, with its roots reaching back to slavery, first the truth must be told in our homes, our schools, our media, our public spaces, and in our religious and government institutions.

Reparations have been made in this nation’s history.   Certain groups with more manageable numbers have been compensated – Japanese interred during World War II, a few Native American tribes, and individuals wrongly convicted of felonies. When and how African Americans demand reparation for centuries of exploitation and abuse should be seriously considered by individuals, institutions, and local and national governments. This is not something to be tabled endlessly. Its relevance is reflected in the legacy of enslavement that we are experiencing presently with racism, poor quality housing, inadequate education, unaffordable health care, cradle to prison injustice, violence, generational poverty, and environmental exploitation.  The reality is in our face, on our screens, and it is dividing us.  Whether defined as affirmative action, blood money, or reconciliation, at some point and soon this country will have to pay the piper.

The question is: How? At the table, can we talk, listen, really hear each other? Many Black people want to talk about it reparations all the time, and many White people never want to have the conversation. Nationally and locally we’re at an impasse, but somehow we must begin the discussion — first, on the most personal level. These are some questions to consider as we start the process of truth telling and healing:

When was the first time in your life you were aware of racism? What was your response?

When was the most recent time you were aware of racism? What was your response?

As a reasonable response to racism, how should reparations be made?

Consider these questions deeply and honestly. For, without an individual and subjective connection by each of us, this nation is most likely headed to another civil war.

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MPCPMP Quarterly Newsletter: January – March 2017

During this quarter, Project efforts focused primarily on networking, grant solicitation, and preparing for marker installations in Camden, NJ; Galveston, TX; and Boston, MA.

  • In January, MPCPMP made a presentation at the quarterly meeting of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission in St. Augustine, FL, and a formal submission for partnership with the Commission. One third of the documented US Middle Passage arrival sites are located within the Corridor.
  • The College of Charleston accepted a panel proposal, “The Public History of the Middle Passage,” for its conference, Transforming Public History from Charleston to the Atlantic World scheduled for June 14-17. Panelists include Gene Tinnie (Dos Amigos/Fair Rosamond Slave Ship Project), Eurica Huggins-Axum (African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute), and Ann Chinn (Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project). The panel is scheduled for June 15, 2017, at 10:00 am.
  • Continued efforts are being made to include the 48 documented arrival sites in the UN Slave Trade Route Project. Discussion has begun with Professor Jane Landers, newly appointed US representative on the trade route committee. To date, no US or North American sites are included.
  • MPCPMP completed and published a primer, The Middle Passage: Remembering Ancestors, and a booklet of the Project’s chronological record (2012-2016) of ceremonies and These will be used as educational and promotional materials as we address the remaining unmarked sites.
  • On March 29th, MPCPMP presented at a graduate seminar on Public History at Northeastern University.

Connecticut: After extended discussions with state representatives, the Executive Board agreed that work in the state will reorganize and specifically address Middletown and New London as locales with documented Middle Passage history rather than include New Haven (which has not been documented). A new state committee must be formed.

Louisiana: The New Orleans committee is working on the text for two markers related to the human trade: international and domestic. Presently, they are researching a marker manufacturer. The installation and commemoration activities are planned as part of the city’s tricentennial observance in 2018-19.

Maryland: On March 2nd, state committee members introduced the Project to the MD Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus. Materials were provided to all members with a request for a formal letter of support to acknowledge the role the state of Maryland played in the enslavement of Africans and to facilitate the installation of the public history markers at the remaining unmarked arrival sites in the state: Annapolis, Baltimore, and Oxford. Regina Hartfield is a new co-Chair of the MD committee, replacing Stephanie Franklin. The website is under construction and the Facebook page is operational at: Maryland Middle Passage Committee.

Massachusetts: Members of the committee continue to work on the logistics related to marker text and design. In the effort to identify hosting for the Boston Middle Passage website, the committee has begun outreach to Northeastern University.

New Jersey: Camden completed the text for 3 markers scheduled for installation in mid-2017. The date has not been confirmed.

Perth Amboy will schedule a date for an MPCPMP presentation to the City Council that will include a request for a Middle Passage marker once Camden determines the date for its installation.

North Carolina: Weather and politics have so far prevented any further development in organizing to address the state’s five documented Middle Passage sites.

Rhode Island: Progress continues at the four Middle Passage arrival sites in the state. A major focus has been on lectures at several universities that discuss the history of slavery and the trade to Rhode Island.

Texas: As part of the annual Juneteenth celebration, the Middle Passage marker will be installed on June 10th (fittingly, the initial day of a week-long observance of emancipation history) at the seaport museum in Galveston.

As always, thank you for your support and interest in this effort to affirm the value and importance of ancestors and history – Black Lives Matter: Past, Present, and Future.

 

Website:  www.middlepassageproject.org

Facebook: The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project

Email:  middlepassagemarkers@gmail.com

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End of Year 2016

Four years ago, when this blog started, MPCPMP provided a quarterly reading list for those who were interested in delving deeper into the background of issues related to the posts. Unfortunately, that practice fell by the wayside as demands to implement the mission increased over the years. As an attempt, limited as it is, to revive that practice of suggested readings, the works that had significant impact on our sense of history and the value of memory over the past year include:

Stamped from the Beginning; The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi

Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation, Nicholas Guyatt

White Trash: The 400 -Year History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg

New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, Wendy Warren

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Gerald Home

It is refreshing to have available scholarship and analyses that expand beyond previously accepted approaches to the study of US history. These also are easy to read, so enjoy.

Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project wishes everyone a happy and fulfilling holiday season and new year.

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Historical Parallels: Déjà Vu

Post-election texts, emails, and conversations are filled with anger, angst, disbelief, and finger pointing. How did this happen? How did Donald J. Trump — crude and inexperienced, arrogant and uninformed — become the 45th President of the United States? For certain, the analysis of those who never saw this coming, including those we call “pundits,” will continue for decades.

“Make America Great Again” means different things to different people. Once again, even though there is no easy analysis of the rise of Donald Trump, history can teach some valuable lessons. This latest presidential campaign neatly parallels a much-overlooked phase of national history, namely the years following the Civil War — a brief period of Reconstruction — and the collapse of protections that followed. Within a period of 12 years (1865-1877) the enslaved had been emancipated, and all males had been granted citizenship. During Reconstruction, communities of freed people blossomed economically and socially across the land, with universal education as the underpinning. The federal government provided limited protections, too, in the form of Freedmen’s Bureau and the presence of US troops. However, with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, these measures were systematically dismantled. The era is aptly-named the “Redemption” by some describing those Post-Reconstruction years when White rule across the board was restored, frequently with the help of Ku Klux Klan terrorism and shortly after, the birth of Jim Crow.

Similar to the Reconstruction years, from 2008-16, in spite of an obstructionist Congress, President Obama reversed a severe economic recession, reduced unemployment to an all-time low, enabled the passing of a national health insurance program, brought the majority of internationally deployed troops home, brokered an accord with Iran on nuclear weapons, advanced the cause of environmental protection, and ended his term with one of the highest approval ratings ever for an incumbent President. These are stellar accomplishments. Yet for half of those who voted, as a Black man he was a threat to the established order of things and, therefore, an aberration of American ideals.

Looking back over time, African Americans have seen it all. We have been discouraged, been disenchanted, been disillusioned, and experienced injustices, all the while continuing to pledge allegiance to a nation where a significant number of its people perceive Black people as the “other,” as thugs, as unemployed, as criminals, as ignorant. When addressing African Americans he regards as dysfunctional, Candidate Donald Trump asked, “What have you got to lose?” by endorsing him. He obviously does not know US history – we most certainly have a lot to lose. Have we not come a long way, or have we forgotten? Do some of us not know our history, or maybe some of us are new immigrants, or perhaps some of us have been disenfranchised through the criminal justice system, or some of us have received inadequate education, or some of us think this is all a sham anyway – no matter what we do.

To some of us, this is a country designed to continuously protect the privileged and entitled. It often seems to be a nation operating under 18th century social codes, where a constitutional mechanism systematically protects a few and excludes many others. Is this nation of 300 million too unwieldly to continue under a two-party system? Can it even be called a representative democracy?

The question now becomes what we should tackle if “Black Lives Matter.” What are the priorities? In two years, Congressional seats will be up for election. If we begin now, we can stack the deck by placing representatives who answer our needs and wants. Democracy works best on the local level – school boards, city councils, state legislatures, governorships. Make this presidential election a rude wake-up call for real change. Get active. Whether it’s LGBTQ, enfranchising ex-offenders, quality education, street cleaning, and/or providing appropriate job skills education — become committed. That’s our responsibility as citizens.

We do need to redeem ourselves! Every day is an opportunity to get it right. We must organize and take action to make life better for each and every one of us. This is as much about class as race, about immigration as national security, about individual choice as religious freedom, about civil rights as law and order. The issues are clearly before us. Since Black people have always borne the heavier part of re-shaping this society, the question may not be what to do. It may be, “Will you pitch in and help?”

As encouragement, remember the rallying cry from decades past, “Come too far to turn back now.”

 

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