In December 1941, a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, a Detroit mother named Sylvia Tucker visited her local Red Cross donor center to give blood.
Having heard the “soul-stirring” appeals for blood donors on her radio, she was determined to do her part. But when she arrived at the center, the supervisor turned her away. “Orders from the National Offices,” he explained, “barred Negro blood donors at this time.”
“Shocked” and “grieved,” Tucker left in tears, later penning a letter of protest about the whole ordeal to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Today, this discriminatory blood program and African-Americans’ determined opposition to it are long forgotten, despite the fact that a few scholars, including Spencie Love, Susan E. Lederer, Sarah E. Chinn, and myself, have explored the topic.
This history is worth remembering. It provides an antidote to facile, feel-good stories about the “Good War,” stories that scholars such as Michael C.C. Adams and Kenneth D. Rose have long refuted but that live on in museum exhibits, blockbuster films, best-selling books and war memorials.
The story of how blood got desegregated also reminds Americans that, as novelist Ralph Ellison wrote nearly a half-century ago, “The black American … puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals.”
Historian Robin D.G. Kelley puts it more broadly: “The marginal and excluded have done the most to make democracy work in America.”
In an age of resurgent racism, Ellison’s and Kelley’s words are especially important and timely.
‘A tremendous thing’
The Red Cross Blood Donor Program began in early 1941 – and went on to collect blood from millions of Americans that the military shipped to soldiers fighting overseas.
“If I could reach all America,” asserted General Dwight D. Eisenhower at the end of the war, “there is one thing I would like to do – thank them for blood plasma and whole blood. It has been a tremendous thing.”
Tremendous indeed: The blood program saved many lives. But it also initially excluded African-American donors like Sylvia Tucker. When it did accept them, in January 1942, it did so on a segregated basis.
Never mind that scientists saw no relationship between race and blood and that one of the world’s leading authorities on blood banking at the time, and the director of the Red Cross’s pilot blood program, was an African-American scientist named Dr. Charles Drew. Never mind that Nazi Germany had its own Aryan-only blood policy or that America’s principal rhetorical war aims concerned democracy and freedom.
To what extent military commanders segregated blood in the field was, during the war and afterwards, a matter of some debate. Officially, at least, the distinction between bloods remained in place for years. It was not until 1950 that the Red Cross stopped requiring the segregation of so-called Negro blood. And it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that Southern states such as Arkansas and Louisiana overturned similar requirements.
A forgotten civil rights struggle
In one internal memorandum, the Red Cross called its donor program democratic, since “the point of view of the majority … ” – which its leaders assumed demanded blood segregation – “must be taken into account in a democracy.”
But many blacks and their allies had a very different idea about democracy, one that required all citizens be treated equally and without regard to race. They fought tirelessly throughout the war years to make that idea a reality, not simply in the military, in the workplace and in Hollywood films but also in the blood program.
These many battles constituted a nascent, surging, and, today, too-often-overlooked civil rights struggle that helped pave the way for the more famous movement of the postwar years.
Nearly all the major civil rights organizations of the day, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the March on Washington Movement and even the upstart Committee (later, Congress) of Racial Equality, made changing blood policy a top priority. One statement from a group of the nation’s most prominent black leaders put it this way:
“In justice to what we know to be the practically unanimous sentiment among Negroes in America, we affirm the need for alteration of the segregated blood plasma policy.”
Black newspapers, enormously popular and important at time, also protested blood segregation and exclusion, regularly featuring front-page stories, boldface headlines and blistering editorials on the subject.
In January 1942, for example, the African-American weekly the Cleveland Call and Post published an “editorial in rhyme”:
“The cross of Red, that burned so bright
In fire, storm and flood
Is now the crooked Nazi sign
That spurns a Negro blood!”
Activism on this issue extended well beyond these traditional places.
Labor unions, Christian and Jewish groups, local interracial committees, scientific organizations and the New Jersey State Legislature all spoke out against blood segregation.
The Communist Party of Cuyahoga County in Ohio held a rally of 3,500 people, condemning blood policy as “Barbarian Hitlerism.”
An interracial group of precocious junior high schoolers at Harlem’s Public School 43 tested (with the help of their science teachers) the blood of a black student and of a white student. Finding no difference, they wrote an article in the school paper, made and distributed hundreds of posters, and held a public meeting – all in opposition to the Red Cross policy.
The most widespread form of protest, however, came from thousands of ordinary African-Americans who refused to donate blood and money to the Red Cross.
While roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population at the time, blacks made up less than 1 percent of all blood donors.
African-Americans contributed generously to the Treasury Department’s Defense Bonds: It is not a lack of patriotism that explains their halfhearted response to blood drives. The reason was a determined opposition to race-based exclusion and segregation.
Expressing these feelings best was a high school student from Cleveland named Geraldyne Ghess. Her poem appeared in the local black newspaper:
Had I wealth, I’d burn it all;
Not one cent for the Red Cross call.
Our money is good … our blood is bad.
But, still that shouldn’t make us mad.
Are they afraid they’ll all turn black?
Is that why our blood they lack?
Their skins are white as snow … it’s well.
Their souls are tarnished, black as hell.
In the end, this wide-ranging activism may have failed to democratize the blood program fully – at least during the war.
But African-Americans did – in the end – force the Red Cross to include them as donors.
Full-fledged integration, which took a few more years, owed everything to their work.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a story originally published Feb. 12, 2015.
All over the world, community stories, customs, and beliefs have been passed down from generation to generation. This folklore is used by elders to teach family and friends about their collective cultural past. And for African Americans, folklore has played a particularly important part in documenting history too.
The year 1619 marked the beginning of African American history, with the arrival of the first slave ship in Jamestown, Virginia. Slavery put African Americans not only in physical shackles. They were prevented from gaining any type of knowledge, including learning to read or write during their enslavement. Illiteracy was a means to keep control as it was believed that intellectual stimulation would give African Americans ideas of freedom and independence.
The effects of slavery on African culture were huge. The slaves had to forsake their true nature to become servants to Anglo Americans. And yet, even though they were forbidden from practicing anything that related to their African culture and heritage, the native Africans kept it and their languages alive in America.
One important way of doing this was through folk tales, which the African slaves used as a way of recording their experiences. These stories were retold in secret, with elements adapted to their enslaved situation, adding in elements of freedom and hope. In the story of a slave from Guinea, recorded in The Annotated African American Folktales, he asks his white master to bury him face down when he dies, so that he may return to his home country which he believes is directly on the other side of the world:
Some of the old folks in Union County remembered that they had heard their fathers and grandfathers tell the story about Sambo who yearned to go back to Guinea. Hunters and hounds feared Sambo’s woods for more than a hundred years … I guess the hounds used to feel Sambo’s homesickness. But now, since the hounds run fast and free, I guess Sambo finally got back to Guinea.
Adapting the oral storytelling traditions of their ancestors helped slaves stolen from West Africa cope with and record their experiences in America. And later it helped other generations, particularly in the 19th century, to learn what happened to the ancestors who had been enslaved.
Folklore and genealogy
Folklore has not just helped African Americans to record and remember large-scale events, or relate morals as other folk tales do – it has helped with individual family genealogy too.
Having an aspect of genealogy in folklore makes African American history not only traceable but more approachable. The stories relate to specific people, their experiences and the places where they lived. They are not necessarily mythical tales, but stories are about real people and what happened to them. They demonstrate and track the fight for freedom and independence.
This linking of genealogy and folklore gives the oral histories continuity, and adds an element of personal curiosity to the historical past. Family history figures in many folktales makes each story unique, as one’s own heritage will be intertwined with its telling. It adds to cultural memory, too, and enhances family values as descendants are able to refer back to and honor their ancestors’ experiences. Take this extract from a retelling of The Cat-Witch, for example:
This happened in slavery times, in North Carolina. I’ve heard my grandmother tell it more than enough. My grandmother was cook and house-girl for this family of slaveowners – they must have been Bissits, ‘cause she was a Bissit.
In more recent decades, novels and book retellings of this family history have become the new way of keeping African American folklore alive. Indeed, folklore has been the inspiration behind some of the most important African American literary works. In Roots, Alex Haley’s work of historical family fiction, the main character’s father, Omoro Kinte, initiates a baptism ritual that has been transmitted throughout generations. The newborn baby is held up towards the starry night sky and then given its name. The baby is told to “behold the only thing greater than yourself”. This naming ritual is a poetic moment and has become iconic in various ways. It is even referenced in Disney’s The Lion King when Rifiki lifts Simba to the sky.
Like Roots, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) is enriched with folkloric elements. Both novels emphasize the importance of different sayings and traditions. Jubilee’s main protagonist remembers that “when she sang, the children would stop their playing and come closer to listen, for they loved all her songs – the old slave songs Aunt Sally used to sing, and the tender, lilting ballads of the war, too”. Singing folk songs was a tradition that served as entertainment or as a way to have rhythm during their work in the fields. After all, tradition is what kept the enslaved sane. Their African culture not only gave them the strength to fight for another day but it provided solace too.
For any one of us, the past is important in determining our identity and history, but without the determination and persistence of the first African Americans, it is likely that much of their story would have been lost to time. Thanks to their repeated sacrifices, African Americans can still look to their ancestors for guidance today.
A rare exception is Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” which was published in 1968. It spoke to the day’s pressing issues – poverty, race and civil rights – with an urgent timeliness.
Fifty years later, the book still commands a wide readership. Read each year by thousands of high school and college students, it remains a Random House backlist best-seller – a title that continues to sell with little to no marketing.
As I research Anne Moody’s life for my upcoming biography, I often wonder what her memoir’s continued popularity means. Does it signal dramatic progress on race relations in the U.S. – or does it instead show us that, as former Sen. Ted Kennedy wrote in 1969, “If things are somewhat different, then they are not different enough.”
Till’s death opens Moody’s eyes
Written when Moody was 28 years old, “Coming of Age” is a gripping story. In spare, direct prose, she takes readers into the world of African-American sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South. As a child, she chopped and picked cotton, cleaned houses for white people, and wondered why whites had better everything – better bathrooms, better schools and better seats in the movie theater.
That mystery remained unsolved when, in 1955, Moody learned that white men had killed a black boy her age just a few hours’ drive north. The killing felt personal.
“Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil,” she wrote. “But now there was … the fear of being killed just because I was black.”
Closer to home, whites ran her cousin out of town, brutally beat a classmate, and burned an entire family alive in their home. Amid such horrors, Moody feared a nervous breakdown.
But she resolved to resist.
In 1963, Moody became infamous in Mississippi after she challenged racial segregation in what would be the era’s most violent lunch-counter sit-in. At the Woolworth’s in Jackson, Mississippi, white men shoved Moody off her stool, dragged her across the floor by her hair and, when she crawled back, smeared her with ketchup, sugar and mustard.
Photographer Fred Blackwell captured a now-iconic image of this day, with Moody seated in the middle.
In the early 1960s, Moody worked tirelessly as an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality in Canton, Mississippi. But after facing daily death threats, she fled to the North, where she moved from city to city, raising money for the movement.
At each stop, she described what it was like to come of age, as a black woman, in Mississippi. At one, she shared a stage with baseball great Jackie Robinson, who urged her to write down her story.
So she did.
After “Coming of Age in Mississippi” was published, the response was split.
Some readers viewed the book as – in the words of one reviewer for The New Republic – a “measure of how far we have come.” To them, the worst of racism was over, and Moody’s account served as a stark reminder of how bad things once were.
Others, however, read Moody’s experiences of racism as simply one chapter in a current and ongoing struggle – “the sickening story of the way it still is for thousands who are black in the American South,” as Robert Colby Nelson wrote for The Christian Science Monitor.
Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy read it both ways.
He called the memoir “a history of our time, seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of someone who decided for herself that things had to be changed.” Still, he regretted that the book did not mention recent advances, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled the election of several black public officials in Moody’s own hometown.
Meanwhile, for decades, Southern media outlets and public institutions shunned “Coming of Age in Mississippi” and Anne Moody herself. Hostile whites in Moody’s hometown of Centreville, Mississippi even threatened to kill her if she ever returned.
How much has really changed?
By contrast, today, “Coming of Age” shows up on high school and college reading lists throughout the South, and Anne Moody appears among 21 authors pictured on the Mississippi Literary Map. Her crumbling childhood home sits on the recently renamed Anne Moody Street and Anne Moody Memorial Highway, which now connects Centreville and Woodville, the town where she graduated from high school.
In Moody’s day, local public officials were all white. Now they more closely reflect the county’s 75 percent black population.
In 1963, Moody mourned the assassination of her beloved colleague, Medgar Evers, president of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and watched in horror as local whites refused to convict his murderer. Thirty years later, Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted of homocide and imprisoned for life. Today, visitors who fly into the Mississippi state capital, land at Jackson-Evers International Airport.
These shifts make “Coming of Age” seem, to many readers, an inspiring account of survival, resistance and victory.
But to others, the book is anything but a triumphalist story. Instead, its lessons are grim: In retrospect, civil rights victories seem superficial, while the brutal poverty and racism Moody described endures.
Anne Moody was one of the lucky ones. She graduated from college, moved north and published a best-selling memoir.
But despite the accolades, television appearances, radio interviews and speaking engagements, she could never really escape Jim Crow Mississippi. It had deprived her of her family and a place to truly call home.
“Coming of Age” ends with Moody listening to civil rights workers sing the anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
“I wonder,” she wrote. “I really wonder.”
Fifty years later, many of us are still wondering.
One group of prolific innovators, however, has been largely ignored by history: black inventors born or forced into American slavery. Though U.S. patent law was created with color-blind language to foster innovation, the patent system consistently excluded these inventors from recognition.
As a law professor and a licensed patent attorney, I understand both the importance of protecting inventions and the negative impact of being unable to use the law to do so. But despite patents being largely out of reach to them throughout early U.S. history, both slaves and free African-Americans did invent and innovate.
Why patents matter
In many countries around the world, innovation is fostered through a patent system. Patents give inventors a monopoly over their invention for a limited time period, allowing them, if they wish, to make money through things like sales and licensing.
The patent system has long been the heart of America’s innovation policy. As a way to recoup costs, patents provide strong incentives for inventors, who can spend millions of dollars and a significant amount of time developing a invention.
The history of patents in America is older than the U.S. Constitution, with several colonies granting patents years before the Constitution was created. In 1787, however, members of the Constitutional Convention opened the patent process up to people nationwide by drafting what has come to be known as the Patent and Copyright Clause of the Constitution. It allows Congress:
“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
This language gives inventors exclusive rights to their inventions. It forms the foundation for today’s nationwide, federal patent system, which no longer allows states to grant patents.
Though the language itself was race-neutral, like many of the rights set forth in the Constitution, the patent system didn’t apply for black Americans born into slavery. Slaves were not considered American citizens and laws at the time prevented them from applying for or holding property, including patents. In 1857, the U.S. commissioner of patents officially ruled that slave inventions couldn’t be patented.
Slave owners often took credit for their slaves’ inventions. In one well-documented case, a black inventor named Ned invented an effective, innovative cotton scraper. His slave master, Oscar Stewart, attempted to patent the invention. Because Stewart was not the actual inventor, and because the actual inventor was born into slavery, the application was rejected.
Stewart ultimately began selling the cotton scraper without the benefit of patent protection and made a significant amount of money doing so. In his advertisements, he openly touted that the product was “the invention of a Negro slave – thus giving the lie to the abolition cry that slavery dwarfs the mind of the Negro. When did a free Negro ever invent anything?”
Reaping benefits of own inventions
The answer to this question is that black people – both free and enslaved – invented many things during that time period.
One such innovator was Henry Boyd, who was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1802. After purchasing his own freedom in 1826, Boyd invented a corded bed created with wooden rails connected to the headboard and footboard.
The “Boyd Bedstead” was so popular that historian Carter G. Woodson profiled his success in the iconic book “The Mis-education of the Negro,” noting that Boyd’s business ultimately employed 25 white and black employees.
Though Boyd had recently purchased his freedom and should have been allowed a patent for his invention, the racist realities of the time apparently led him to believe that he wouldn’t be able to patent his invention. He ultimately decided to partner with a white craftsman, allowing his partner to apply for and receive a patent for the bed.
Some black inventors achieved financial success but no patent protection, direct or indirect. Benjamin Montgomery, who was born into slavery in 1819, invented a steamboat propeller designed for shallow waters in the 1850s. This invention was of particular value because, during that time, steamboats delivered food and other necessities through often-shallow waterways connecting settlements. If the boats got stuck, life-sustaining supplies would be delayed for days or weeks.
Montgomery tried to apply for a patent. The application was rejected due to his status as a slave. Montgomery’s owners tried to take credit for the propeller invention and patent it themselves, but the patent office also rejected their application because they were not the true inventors.
Even without patent protection, Montgomery amassed significant wealth and become one of the wealthiest planters in Mississippi after the Civil War ended. Eventually his son, Isaiah, was able to purchase more than 800 acres of land and found the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi after his father’s death.
A legacy of black innovators
The patent system was ostensibly open to free black people. From Thomas Jennings, the first black patent holder, who invented dry cleaning in 1821, to Norbert Rillieux, a free man who invented a revolutionary sugar-refining process in the 1840s, to Elijah McCoy, who obtained 57 patents over his lifetime, those with access to the patent system invented items that still touch the lives of people today.
True to the legacy of American innovation, today’s black inventors are following in the footsteps of those who came before them. Now patent law doesn’t actively exclude them from protecting their inventions – and fully contributing to American progress.
Marlin Briscoe didn’t want to be pigeonholed simply because of stereotypes against black men. He was a star quarterback in college, and he believed he had the talent, intelligence and leadership skills to be one in the pros.
Fifty years ago, during an era of massive social upheaval in the United States, just getting a chance to prove it took a risky ultimatum.
Briscoe refused to switch positions after being drafted as a cornerback by the Denver Broncos, telling his team that he’d return home to become a teacher if he couldn’t get a tryout at quarterback. Denver agreed to an audition, and that season the 5-foot-10 dynamo nicknamed “The Magician” became the first black quarterback to start a game in the American Football League.
“It’s just so many different historic things that happened in the year 1968, it was unfathomable,” Briscoe, now 73, told The Associated Press. “It just seemed poetic justice, so to speak, that the color barrier be broken that year at that position. For some reason, I was ordained to be the litmus test for that. I think I did a good job.”
Briscoe’s groundbreaking accomplishments were somewhat lost in the shuffle during one of the most transformative years in U.S. history. Civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. Civil rights riots broke out across the country and there were numerous protests of the Vietnam War. And less than two weeks after Briscoe’s first start, U.S. track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the Olympics to protest America’s social injustices.
But Briscoe’s legacy resonates among his contemporaries 50 years later, hitting on race as well as the pressures athletes face in pro sports. The Pro Football Hall of Fame calls Briscoe the first African-American starting quarterback in modern pro football history. Carolina’s Cam Newton and Seattle’s Russell Wilson have both considered Briscoe’s past as they contend for championships. Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, counts Briscoe as one of his most important inspirational figures.
“I know the little bit that I had to go through, so I can imagine what he had to go through,” said Williams, who won the 1988 Super Bowl with Washington. “People were a little more accepted when I came through than when he came through.”
GETTING ON THE FIELD
Though Briscoe starred at Omaha University and eventually landed in the College Football Hall of Fame, he was drafted By Denver as a cornerback in the 14th round. Briscoe started last among eight quarterbacks during his tryout.
Helped by injuries and erratic play, Briscoe eventually stepped in for the Broncos as a reserve on Sept. 29, 1968, and nearly led a comeback against the Boston Patriots. He earned the next start against the Cincinnati Bengals, making him the first black quarterback to start a game in the AFL.
Briscoe started five games that season and was runner-up for AFL rookie of the year, attracting strong crowds and energizing a franchise that had yet to establish a winning tradition.
Despite his breakout season — he passed for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 308 yards and three scores — Denver didn’t give him a chance to compete for the quarterback job in 1969. He said he was never given a reason why, so he asked to be released. He headed briefly to British Columbia, but decided Canadian football wasn’t for him. He returned to the United States and was picked up for the 1969 season by Buffalo, where he played receiver. He was a Pro Bowl receiver with the Bills in 1970 and won two Super Bowls as a receiver with the Miami Dolphins, but he never played quarterback again.
“The more I’ve known him and been around him and talked to him, you’ve got to give him respect for what he did during that time and what happened to him after that time,” Williams said. “That’s the part that gets me. But that’s the time he was in.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
As a senior at Grambling, James Harris kept up with Briscoe’s 1968 season by going to the library to look up his statistics.
As fate would have it, Buffalo drafted Harris as a quarterback in 1969, putting him on the same team as Briscoe. It was Harris who became the AFL’s first black quarterback to open the season as a starter, and he said his roommate Briscoe was a critical mentor.
“We used to talk a lot about the dos and don’ts and things that he had been through. He was telling me the things I needed to be prepared for,” Harris said. “I felt that Marlin was the only person on the team that understood what I was going through.”
That included death threats, Briscoe said. “We had the race card on our careers because we were the first,” he said.
Harris blossomed at QB. In 1974, he played for the Los Angeles Rams and became the first black quarterback to win an NFL playoff game. He also was Pro Bowl MVP that year.
Briscoe said more work needs to be done both in the league and society. He has noticed that Colin Kaepernick has not been given a contract since his decision to kneel during “The Star Spangled Banner” to protest racial and social inequality. He believes President Donald Trump, an outspoken critic of Kaepernick, also bears some responsibility for some fans making racial comments toward black players, like a Texas superintendent who resigned last week after criticizing Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson by saying black QBs can’t be trusted.
After all these years, Briscoe still sees shades of his old struggles.
“I grew up in the ’50s and the ’60s, when all that stuff was rampant, but you knew where you stood,” Briscoe said. “Today, you thought that all those attitudes were non-existent or filtered away to some degree, but with the Trump-isms, his philosophy has brought out of the woodwork that old-time thought process. That’s scary. It really is. It’s a scary situation.”
Cadiz, Ohio, USA- July 5, 2016: The Harrison County Courthouse standing in the background with a period Civil War canon displayed in the foreground.
Southwest Virginia has casually forgotten the racial violence at its heart, as if this ugly history never happened. Instead, the Confederacy is memorialized, new stores are built on top of unique historical landmarks, and community leaders too often simply ignore the few known artifacts that tie the region to the exploitation of the slaves on which much of Appalachian society was built.
But publicly recognizing the history of race-based violence would dispel the myth that slavery was unimportant here in Appalachia, and in Southwest Virginia in particular, as conversations about racial inequality and injustice take place across Virginia, Appalachia, and the country.
Elected representatives and ordinary folks, large institutions and small town community associations all can shine light on their shameful shared history, and shift the tone of the conversation toward recognition and memorialization.
Just last year, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed two bills (HB 1547, HB 2296) into law that give equal status to African American cemeteries and their preservation by the state.
But before those official measures, a shift was already apparent in the small town of Quicksburg in the Shenandoah Valley, where the local government publicly dedicated a slave cemetery in the spring of 2016 with a plaque, trails and benches.
The Rev. Bill Haley played a major role in the memorialization process. He is the executive director of Corhaven, a nonprofit “retreat farm” in the town.
A few years ago, Haley learned of the long forgotten slave cemetery after he purchased adjacent land to expand the retreat. Since then, he has worked alongside his family and some residents to recognize and memorialize the racial injustice that built his corner of Virginia.
Arnold remembers going with her family to decorate slave graves near her church cemetery in West Tennessee, where her ancestors were once enslaved. Arnold writes in The New York Times that the memorialization project is significant because it shines a light on “overlooked lives (that) are an inextricable part of the historical narrative of our country.” The cemeteries and slave stories “offer our contemporary society examples of resilience and humanity,” Arnold said, and preserving them “contributes to our own humanity.”
Public memorialization efforts like this are evidence that a shift is afoot in local legislation, as well as in the national and regional conversations about racial inequality and injustice. They mark a tonal change beyond the more obvious and visible nationwide conversation raised by Black Lives Matter on police violence against Black bodies, disagreements over Civil War memorials, and neo-Nazi-white supremacist/anarchist street clashes.
A History of Race-Based Violence
Census records show that slavery has been a violent and unjust part of Southwest Virginia’s basic moral framework and political economy since the 18th century.
Gordon Aronhime examined census records from Washington County in his article “Slavery on the Upper Holston” in 1980, which also included census records for surrounding counties. The records show that in 1786, the north fork of the Holston River Valley in Southwest Virginia had a population of over 5,693 people, including 383 slaves, or 6.73 percent of the population. In 1830, 16.45 percent of the people living in Washington County were slaves. The number of slaves peaked in 1850 and declined in Southwest Virginia until the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Southwest Virginia had relatively few slaves compared to counties in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of Virginia, which enslaved between 40 and 60 percent or more of the population. The Piedmont region of Virginia was similar to the coastal areas in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida.
The town of Abingdon, the seat of Washington County, had a thriving slave economy and was a market stop along the “Slave Trail of Tears” that stretched from Alexandria, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Edward Ball writes that this trail was a three-month-long forced coffle from slave markets in cities like Richmond and Alexandria to market destinations in the Lower South. Armed white men forced groups of bound slaves to walk for 10 hours per day. Between 1810 and 1860, nearly 450,000 slaves were forcibly marched through Virginia along the Great Wagon Road, or what people today call U.S. Route 11. Ball points out that in the Upper South, Virginia was the top source of Black slaves for the Lower South. Abingdon and Southwest Virginia were mountain markets along the way to the great plantations of the antebellum South.
Our history in Southwest Virginia is built on race-based violence and labor exploitation. The forced labor of Black slaves was central to the early development, growth, expansion, and affluence enjoyed especially by the more prosperous white, land and business owning families. That brute fact is nowhere recognized today in Southwest Virginia.
The political problem today is that all those stories seem to be forgotten, and the political and economic establishment acts as if this history did not happen. The violence and exploitation is not publicly recognized or memorialized, which perhaps would go some way to healing our collective wounds. Instead, we have numerous publicly recognized monuments dedicated to the white, mostly wealthy, and mostly male heroes of the Civil and Revolutionary Wars.
Casually Forgetting the Past in the Present
The Resting Tree slave cemetery near the Washington County and Bristol City border on the Jeb Stuart Highway holds an estimated 100 unmarked and largely unmaintained slave graves. The ancient White Oak served as a shade tree for slaves forced to work the vast fields of Robert Preston’s plantation, according to local historian V. N. “Bud” Philips. Philips lobbied Bristol City, Washington County and civic organizations to mark the site nearly two decades ago, but to no avail. Philips has since died and the cemetery remains largely ignored.
The Meadows development project in Abingdon is the most publicized example of this pattern of disregard for history. The farm was once a slave-run plantation. In 2015, the Abingdon Town Council learned that slave graves were likely located on the property and possibly also Native American graves. The Bristol Herald Courier reported that the Abingdon Town Council, lead by the Mayor and Vice Mayor, repeatedlydenied motions to allow the farm property to be searched for free by knowledgeable town and county residents like local historians, the Washington County Cemetery Association, or the Friends of Abingdon. Friends of Abingdon have also filed lawsuits in federal court to stop the development project, but to no avail.
Instead, with legal authorization, Abingdon has already broken ground on an outdoor sports complex for youth and league play on one part of The Meadows. Food City has broken ground on another bigger grocery store on another part of the property. Reportedly, all of the outbuildings and barns are going to be destroyed, but the house preserved.
Conspicuously absent are any official markers that recognize the historical facts of the legal system of slavery and exploited labor that accompanied the Confederate government in Southwest Virginia. Thousands of legally owned slaves in Washington County were registered as property at the Abingdon courthouse. Today, the Common Confederate Soldier statue and the memorial to the five Confederate generals from Washington County stand on its lawn. The courthouse and the Confederate memorials are all located on U.S. Route 11, once the “Slave Trail of Tears,” and Abingdon’s Main Street.
All of this violence, exploitation and stark inequality are nowhere to be found in public memory, denied by elected representatives and civic organizations, bulldozed over, and developed into entertainment and consumer venues, the embodied myth of whiteness in its mundane form.
Resisting the Myth
Casually forgetting the past is not an acceptable response because to borrow from Sandra Arnold, our humanity is at stake. Repeating the consensus myth that race never mattered and that chattel slavery didn’t exist in the mountains fails to ring true, in light of the evidence. One way to resist this myth of whiteness would be to publicly memorialize the racial violence at the heart of Southwest Virginia.
Jacob L. Stump is an author, professor and small business owner from Konnarock in Southwest Virginia. This article originally appeared on 100 Days in Appalachia.