I’ll never forget a student’s response when I asked during a middle school social studies class what they knew about black history: “Martin Luther King freed the slaves.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929, more than six decades after the time of enslavement. To me, this comment underscored how closely Americans associate black history with slavery.
While shocked, I knew this mistaken belief reflected the lack of time, depth and breadth schools devote to black history. Most students get limited information and context about what African Americans have experienced since our ancestors arrived here four centuries ago. Without independent study, most adults aren’t up to speed either.
I’m excited about new resources for teaching children, and everyone else, more about the history of slavery through The New York Times’ “1619 Project.” But based on my experience teaching social studies and my current work preparing social studies educators, I also consider understanding what happened during the Reconstruction essential for exploring black power, resilience and excellence.
As most students do learn, the U.S. gained three constitutional amendments that extended civil and political rights to newly freed African Americans following the Civil War.
The 13th, ratified in 1865, banned slavery and involuntary servitude except for the punishment of a crime.
The 14th, ratified three years later, granted citizenship and equal protection under the law to all people born in the United States, as well as naturalized citizens – including all previously enslaved individuals.
Then, the 15th Amendment asserted that neither the federal government nor state governments could deny voting rights to any male citizen.
The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment on Feb. 3, 1870. The anniversary is a good opportunity to learn about how the amendment was supposed to guarantee that the right to vote could not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
African American politicians
What few history and social studies classes explore is how these changes to the Constitution made it possible for African American men to use their newfound political power to gain representation.
White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan also formed following the Civil War. These terrorist groups engaged in violence and other racist tactics to intimidate African Americans, people of color, black voters and legislators. They thus made the accomplishments of African American politicians even more impressive as they served as public officials under the constant threat of racial violence.
Black activist women
African American women technically gained the right to vote in 1920, when the 19th Amendment passed. However, their constitutional right was limited in many states due to discriminatory laws.
Many black women were activists and women’s suffrage movement leaders. Through public speaking, prolific writing and developing organizations dedicated to racial and and gender equality, they fought for equal rights and dignity for all.
Among the black women who were activists during Reconstruction were the five Rollins sisters of South Carolina, who fought for female voting rights; Maria Stewart, an outspoken abolitionist before the Civil War and suffragist once it ended; and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first black woman in North America to edit and publish a newspaper, one of the first black female lawyers in the country and an advocate for granting women the right to vote.
Other women of color who played key roles in the suffrage movement included Ida B. Wells, the journalist and civil rights advocate who raised awareness of lynching, and Mary Church Terrell, founder of the National Association of Colored Women.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington, D.C. in 2017, contains artifacts from the Reconstruction era. It’s also making the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, including the names of formerly enslaved individuals following the Civil War, available online.
“The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” he explained.
This was by no means voluntary. Intimidated and threatened by black enfranchisement and excellence in the era of Reconstruction, white supremacists attempted to enforce subordination through violence, such as lynching; and in systemic ways through Jim Crow laws. African Americans continued to assert their civil and constitutional rights as activists, politicians, business owners, teachers and farmers in the midst of white supremacist backlash.
With the latest voter suppression efforts restricting access to the ballot box for voters of color and the resurgence of racist violence and vitriol today, DuBois’ words sound eerily familiar. At the same time it’s reassuring to recall how quickly formerly enslaved African Americans made their way to schoolhouses and public offices.
Attendees of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial meeting gather in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism
Delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial meeting in Chicago on Friday (Dec. 13) voted overwhelmingly to advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African Americans for slavery.
The resolution is the first such effort on the part of an American Jewish organization but has precedent among some Protestant groups.
The text of the resolution not only urges the federal government to act; it also commits the movement’s 850 congregations in the U.S. and Canada to redress the effects of historic and ongoing racism and evaluate institutional efforts to promote racial equity.
The Reform movement is the largest Jewish denomination in North America, comprising more than a third of the total U.S. Jewish population.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the movement’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the resolution went through a rigorous vetting process. It was drafted by the denomination’s Commission on Social Action and sent out to its member congregations for discussion and debate. The denomination crafted a vehicle for congregants to consider reparations called Reflect, Relate, Reform that allowed them to study and consider ways to get involved in advocating for an end to mass incarceration and fighting white supremacy.
“In the context of the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the emergence of a reality that we had a painful resurgence of racism and white supremacy — Charlottesville, etc. — many of our rabbis and lay leaders were asking what should we be doing at this moment in American history to fulfill our legacy as a movement committed to racial justice?” said Pesner, referring to the names of black Americans killed at the hands of police.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, speaks at Greater Grace Church in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014, during a rally for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The Reform movement has had a storied history of social justice activism, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One of its members, Kivie Kaplan, served as the national president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975. Several others had a hand in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Black and brown Reform Jews helped guide the movement on the issue of reparations, Pesner said. But as the resolution itself notes, the idea of reparations is not new to Jews. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to more than 800,000 Holocaust survivors.
“It’s time for the country to have a national conversation about what effective, strategic reparations would look like that would both address systemic racism but also be good for America as a whole,” he said.
With passage of the resolution, the movement will now advocate for HR 40, a bill that establishes a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The bill has not yet come up for a vote.
This holiday season, many Americans will tour historic mansions in the Southern United States that are beautifully decked out in traditional wreaths, garlands and mistletoe for Christmas.
At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia mansion, tourists are promised candlelit tours and a “festive evening” of refreshments, 18th-century dancing and more. Visitors can even meet a re-enactor playing Martha Washington, America’s First Lady.
At the state-run Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site in Brunswick, Georgia, promoters promise attendees a “magical experience” during the holiday event, learning how “Christmas was celebrated on a Southern rice plantation during the 1850s.”
What these tours teach is how rich white Southerners once celebrated Christmas: singing Christmas carols, dancing, drinking the cider brew wassail and enjoying refreshments or formal meals.
Few make a serious effort to tell what Christmas was like for the enslaved workers at these plantations before the American Civil War.
When the black historian Brandon Byrd visited Belle Meade, a mansion in Nashville, Tennessee, for its Christmas tour a few years ago, he was shocked that the slave community and their harsh realities were barely mentioned. Instead, he reported, the tour guide mostly related “stories about the white men, women and children who woke up to Christmas in the mansion’s plush bedrooms.”
By the American Civil War, nearly four million slaves in all toiled in the southern states, and about a million lived as servants in mansions and as field hands on large plantations with 50 slaves or more. They did almost all the grueling household and field labor that kept these places going, often sleeping and cooking in primitive cabins and working in unhealthy conditions under the threat of the whip.
In researching my 2019 book “Yuletide in Dixie,” I discovered that many historic plantation and mansion sites are reluctant to talk about slavery at their Christmas events. This is partly because administrators want to avoid topics that might make paying guests angry or uncomfortable.
But the omission of black southerners from these holiday tales also stems from pervasive myths about slave life at southern plantations before the Civil War.
For a long time, many people got their ideas about slavery at these places from memoirs, novels and short stories written by white southerners after the Civil War. These stories, now outrageous for their racial stereotypes, not only justified the institution of slavery, they also made it seem like all enslaved people had fun on a southern plantation at holiday time, dancing, singing, laughing and feasting for the holiday season, just as their masters did.
Susan Dabney Smedes, a white girl who grew up on a Mississippi plantation, published a memoir in 1887 called “Memorials of a Southern Planter” that made slave Christmases sound like wonderful times. Smedes wrote about how slaves wore their best clothes for Christmas, played a word game called “Christmas Gif’” with their white enslavers and drank eggnog their master made for them.
In a fictional tale published in the “Century Magazine” in 1911, an enslaved carpenter named Jerry even turns down the freedom that his master offers him on Christmas because he likes his life as a slave so much, and especially the Christmas present his master specially picks out for him each year.
Many of these memoirs and preposterous short stories and novels about happy slave Christmas experiences were so popular that they were republished in new editions over and over again from the late 1800s and early 1900s until, in some cases, the present.
Many Americans got falsely pleasant images of slavery and especially slave Christmases from reading these works, and these wrongful impressions not only affected how the public thought and still thinks about slavery but, more specifically, how site administrators at southern historic mansions and plantations planned their Christmas programs.
Whipped and sold on Christmas
I read many documents to find out how slaves actually spent their Christmases. The truth is deeply disturbing.
On the one hand, the majority of enslaved people did get some them time off from work during Christmas, as well as feasts and presents. Some got to travel or to get married, privileges that they didn’t get at other times of the year. But these privileges could be withdrawn for any reason at all and many slaves never got them at all.
Slavery was a brutal system of forced labor to enrich those same owners. Even over the holiday, masters kept the power to punish slaves. A photo taken during the Civil War shows a man who was whipped at Christmas. His back was covered with scars, showing that when masters punished the people they held in bondage, they often did so brutally.
There were other cruel forms of punishment. On one South Carolina plantation, a master angry at an enslaved woman he suspected of miscarrying her pregnancy on purpose locked her up for the Christmas holiday.
It is revealing that many enslaved black southerners also chose Christmas as the time to try to escape to freedom, despite the difficulties of traveling in cold weather with few supplies.
The famous black liberator Harriet Tubman, for example, helped her three brothers enslaved in Maryland to escape bondage over Christmas in 1854. Obviously, slaves like the Tubman brothers greatly resented their enslavement, or they would not have agreed to leave.
Evidence shows that many slaveholders knew their slaves hated their condition. Although the U.S. never had a major Christmas slave rebellion, southern whites frequently panicked over frequent rumors that their slaves planned to revolt over the holiday. They armed themselves, conducted extra patrols, banned black people from the streets of cities and executed or whipped slaves whose behavior they thought was suspicious.
Panics over Christmas rebellions took place frequently. They were, at times, confined to a state as in Charleston, South Carolina – then a British colony – in 1765. Or, they could spread in the entire American South, as one did in 1856. As I found in my research, Christmas revolt panics continued all the way through the Civil War.
Yet another onetime slave-owning president’s preserved site, James Monroe’s Highland, likewise is striving to provide a far more comprehensive look at the enslaved people who once lived there and the conditions they experienced.
Christmas programming, however, is changing more slowly than programming at other times of the year. That is because many would like the holiday event to be a fun one.
But a public acknowledgment that slavery was immoral, horrific and resisted by its victims in the form of more sensitive and informative Christmas events at historic mansions and plantations might just be a step toward racial reconciliation in the U.S.
My earliest act of resistance came when I was a teenager when I was taken to the local doctor. He had a waiting room for black patients in a dimly lit hallway that was separate from the well-lit, comfortable room where his white customers waited. I would refuse to sit in the space assigned to us. There was something in my soul that made me choose standing to sitting. It was a quiet protest, but I knew what I was doing.
I may have been inspired by my mother and several other teachers in her small school in Wheatley, Arkansas, who were fired after the school was integrated because the white people preferred white teachers. My mother and that courageous group of middle-aged African American colleagues, having finally found their voices, sued the district. To their surprise, they won the lawsuit.
Long before either my mother’s or my resistance, there was Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist and fearless investigative journalist who is the subject of my latest book, written with Nibs Stroupe. In 1883, when Wells was still a public school teacher herself, she was thrown out of a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad ladies car because she was not white, though she had the proper ticket for that car. She had the courage to sue the railroad. She won the lawsuit initially but lost on appeal.
The greatest gift that studying Wells has brought to my life is freedom from fear. The plague of the 21st century is fear. Of course, there are many of us who live each day as best we can as resisters to it, but the fear hill is steep, and many are slipping down it instead of scaling it.
From 2016 to 2018, I led Calling Their Names: Remembering Georgia’s Lynched, an initiative of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. We placed markers and created spaces for remembering the victims of lynchings in the state, while exploring the intersections of slavery, lynching, the prison industrial complex, the death penalty and 21st-century police extrajudicial killings — modern-day lynchings.
The initiative helps to address the issue of the moral injury that lynching brought to the nation and knocks at a door to healing that will not be opened until deep and true healing work is embraced.
“Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as Witness for Our Time” by Catherine Meeks and Nibs Stroupe. Image courtesy of Church Pub Inc
Though our work was not nearly as dangerous as Wells’, we owe her a debt. She was a pioneer in several arenas, but her work against lynching angered the white population the most because she refused to allow the white narrative, which blamed lynching on the behavior of black people, especially the men, to stand as the truth.
She laid the responsibility of the indefensible act of lynching at the feet of the white perpetrators where it belonged. She observed that “in fact, for all kinds of offenses and, for no offenses — from murders to misdemeanors, men and women are put to death without judge or jury; so that, although the political excuse was no longer necessary, the wholesale murder of human beings went on just the same.”
The kind of courage that Wells exhibited at age 16, when she took charge of caring for her siblings after her parents died, or when she fought the Chesapeake Railroad or when she returned to the South to engage in her liberation work even though she knew that there were white folks who would have killed her if given the chance is the kind of courage that must engage the powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness that the Holy Scripture speaks about in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” Paul wrote, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
I have pondered this passage for many years, and it is clearer than ever to me how those powers are manifesting themselves in the current moment. They are supporting our collective fear and distracting too many of us from doing the work of racial healing and liberation.
Careful reading of Wells helps to deconstruct the current fear-based systems that serve the powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness in high places that stand in the path that leads to Beloved Community. She helps us to know that they cannot have the last word unless we allow them to do so. She encourages us to heed the call and to search for the inner voice that keeps telling us that nothing but true liberation is good enough for God’s children.
Wells imagined that the world could be better than it was and believed that she had a right to live in that world. I believe that the world can be better than it is and that it was never God’s intention for us to make the world that we have.
Thus, the call from God is and always will be to create a world where all of God’s children, which includes every soul on the planet, can be who they were sent to the earth to become, without being held hostage by enslaving and dehumanizing supremacists’ notions that imprison the body and the soul of far too many.
The struggle against the darkness created by white supremacy and its child, white privilege, is one to be engaged by whites and blacks, as well as all other people of color.
The journey is long, and we are far from home now, but there is a light shining at the end of the tunnel. We can catch a glimpse of that light every time we choose to embrace courage rather than fear. This realization has been one of the best sources of hope and empowerment for me. It helps me to live in a brave space where the truth can be told. It helps me to tell the truth freely, and I am encouraged every day by my dear sister, Ida B. Wells.
(Catherine Meeks is the retired Clara Carter Acree Distinguished Professor of Socio-Cultural Studies at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. This article is adapted from “Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as Prophet for Our Time,” co-written with Nibs Stroupe. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the bill made unprecedented commitments to the nation’s veterans. For instance, it provided federal assistance to veterans in the form of housing and unemployment benefits. But of all the benefits offered through the GI Bill, funding for higher education and job training emerged as the most popular.
When he signed the bill into law, President Roosevelt assured that it would give “servicemen and women the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training … not only without tuition charge … but with the right to receive a monthly living allowance while pursuing their studies.” So long as they had served 90 consecutive days in the U.S. Armed Forces and had not received a dishonorable discharge, veterans could have their tuition waived for the institution of their choice and cover their living expenses as they pursued a college degree.
Black service members had a different kind of experience. The GI Bill’s race-neutral language had filled the 1 million African American veterans with hope that they, too, could take advantage of federal assistance. Integrated universities and historically black colleges and universities – commonly known as HBCUs – welcomed black veterans and their federal dollars, which led to the growth of a new black middle class in the immediate postwar years.
Yet, the underfunding of HBCUs limited opportunities for these large numbers of black veterans. Schools like the Tuskegee Institute and Alcorn State lacked government investment in their infrastructure and simply could not accommodate an influx of so many students, whereas well-funded white institutions were more equipped to take in students. Research has also revealed that a lack of formal secondary education for black soldiers prior to their service inhibited their paths to colleges and universities.
Mississippi’s connection to the GI Bill goes beyond Rankin’s racist maneuvering. From 1966 to 1997, G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery represented the state in Congress and dedicated himself to veterans’ issues. In 1984, he pushed through his signature piece of federal legislation, the Montgomery GI Bill, which recommitted the nation to providing for veterans’ education and extended those funds to reserve units and the National Guard. Congress had discontinued the GI Bill after Vietnam. As historian Jennifer Mittelstadt shows, Montgomery’s bill subsidized education as a way to boost enlistment in the all-volunteer force that lagged in recruitment during the final years of the Cold War.
In August 2017, President Trump signed the Forever GI Bill, which committed $3 billion for 10 more years of education funding. As active duty service members and veterans begin to take advantage of these provisions, history provides good reason to be vigilant for the way racism still impacts who receives the most from those benefits.
In 1964 a young South African student and photography enthusiast, Norman Owen-Smith, took his Leica camera along to a jazz concert at the then University of Natal Pietermaritzburg’s Great Hall and captured a series of black and white images of the band, the Blue Notes.
Through the intervention of jazz scholars, these photos have been printed, restored and exhibited, years after the band became iconic.
The story of the Blue Notes is inextricable from apartheid’s exiling of the musical – specifically jazz – imagination. Owen-Smith’s photos are a rare and unexpected contribution to a hungry archive for jazz lovers all over the world.
The Blue Notes embody the beauty of South African jazz in the 1960s, and the dynamics of its struggles during and against apartheid. The ensemble began in 1959 after a meeting between two of South Africa’s most revered jazz artists, both of whom died in exile. One was pianist and alto saxophonist Mtutuzeli ‘Dudu’ Pukwana, the other pianist Chris McGregor. By 1964 the other four members were cemented: Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums – the only surviving member – and Nikele ‘Nick’ Moyake on tenor saxophone, Mongezi Feza on trumpet and Johnny Mbizo Dyani on double bass.
Owen-Smith’s joyful, simple photographs allow the ordinary to be extraordinary, showing musical fraternity, passionate performance and a racially mixed band at the height of apartheid, after the clampdown that followed the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. They capture a moment in the band’s history when they were still young – in their teens and twenties – and just before they went into exile.
They are a notable addition to a very thin archive. It includes an excerpt from a documentary on jazz in Britain that shows a snippet of the Blue Notes’ performance at the 1964 Antibes Jazz Festival, posted on YouTube by McGregor’s younger brother. The archival footage is owned by French TV, but even scholars of South African jazz based in France have not been able to find it.
This is the only video excerpt of the Blue Notes I have come across – even though, as I noted in my doctoral dissertation, they are one of the more thoroughly covered jazz ensembles of the apartheid era.
Other elements of the archive consist of an online data base about the band built by British journalist Mike Fowler. Its source text remains Maxine McGregor’s biography Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath: My Life with a South African Jazz Pioneer.
Another component is an album called Township Bop that was released in 2002. The compilation was made up of previously unheard material which the band had recorded at the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Transcription Centre in 1964.
And in 2013, radio station SAfm presented a two-part documentary. In addition, a number of artists have performed and even recorded tributes to the band.
All these contributions – now including Owen-Smith’s photos – mark a change of fortune for a group of musicians who played mostly on the live scene. Their recordings tended to go missing for long stretches, as with their 1964 live recording in Durban, Legacy: Live in South Afrika 1964, which was released in 1995.
Memory and healing
From the late 1950s, many jazz musicians left the country; others were subjected to the alienating practices of the apartheid music industry, which often would book or record them only if they complied with their demands – what to play, who to play with and how to play it; many stopped playing altogether. These are the provocations of hurt that recur, as if on a loop, each time we engage with South African jazz history. Indeed, some of these commercial imperatives remain – not just in South Africa and not just related to jazz. Musicians’ lives remain precarious.
Healing, then, surely entails bringing these musicians back.
But how, and to where? Louis Moholo-Moholo is back home in Langa, in Cape Town, and is still playing. But what of Moyake, who died in South Africa? And Dyani, who is buried in South Africa? And Feza, who left the country at the age of 19? McGregor visited the country shortly before his death, but not Pukwana. Healing the open wound caused by exile’s rupture requires physical and creative return.
Tribute performances, recordings and documentaries are one way, if they do not pander to nostalgia. Teaching and research suggest another way, but only if neither succumb to a process of canonisation that sanitises the complex story of the Blue Notes. After all, exile did not rupture a smooth narrative that, whiggishly, was tending toward some apotheosis of South African jazz. Its effects were far more drastic.
Exile sundered a finely knit network of journalists like Todd Matshikiza, poets like Keorapetse Kgositsile, writers like Es’kia Mphahlele, and artists like Dumile Feni, from the dramatists, broadcasters, audiences and photographers who together made up mid-twentieth century South African jazz cultures. Returning the exiled musical imagination means renewing these connections: not perfectly, but imaginatively.
Pictures from history
In the absence of a rich sonic archive, jazz’s visual history is important.
Owen-Smith’s photographs join a body of documentary photography dating back decades.
In Lars Rasmussen’s Cape Town Jazz 1959-1963, Hardy Stockmann’s photographs predominantly depict a non-racial and convivial atmosphere of backstage fraternising, laughter, eating, drinking and smoking, of jam sessions and performances in Cape Town’s legendary jazz clubs, halls and other locations.
Here, in these stark images of loneliness, anguish, resilience, and despair, are many of the most famous members of that fabulously talented young generation that lived through the deepening gloom of the 1960s. Typically, their eyes are closed, or hidden by shades; when they play, the intensity is palpable, but no one appears to be listening; so in the end (the images seem to suggest) they sit alone, their instruments fallen silent.
Jazz scholar Jonathan Eato counters Breakey’s dark representation and Ballantine’s bleak reading. In Keeping Time, he writes:
the musicians in Ian Bruce Huntley’s photographs offer people a brighter world that is touched by colour … the shades hiding the eyes of musicians do so as a consequence of music sounding under gloriously clear skies.
Owen-Smith’s photographs enter these debates in interesting ways. As an historical musicologist, what strikes me is that whereas the photographers I have mentioned aim to capture the jazz ethos of an era, he captures an event in one place: a once-off concert. In so doing, Owen-Smith invites us to consider how photography can help answer Christopher Small’s ever relevant question about “musicking”: What does it mean when this performance … takes place at this time, in this place, with these participants?