In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”
Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.
Daniel Hoskins with guns deposited at the Gregg County Courthouse, in Longview, Texas, following a race riot during the Red Summer. (Library of Congress)
Many people died during the summer and fall of 1919 because of race riots in cities across the country that occurred in more than three dozen cities, including Chicago and a rural county near Elaine, AK. In Chicago, from July 25-August 3, a race riot was ignited when a black teen was stoned to death after crossing an invisible boundary between a segregated part of the Chicago beaches. The riot left 38 people dead, more than 500 injured, and 1,000 black families homeless when their homes were burned down. In Elaine, AK, five whites and twenty-five to fifty Blacks were killed after black sharecroppers attended a farmer’s union meeting to get better pay for their cotton crops. A shooting incident at the meeting escalated into mob violence because of tense racial relations and increasing concern about labor unions at the time, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
Online Resources About the Summer of 1919
A digital archive, map, and timeline of riots and lynchings across the United States in 1919
The Chicago History Museum and the DuSable Museum of African American History come together to remember the historic events of the summer of 1919. Featuring artists and historians, this event recalls the 1919 race riots that forever changed Chicago’s sociopolitical atmosphere. As we reflect on their tragic legacy, we honor the life of Eugene Williams and others affected by police brutality and segregation.
Meet at Margaret T. Burroughs Beach, 3100 South Lake Shore Drive
Free and open to the public. No RSVPs needed.
Nancy Villafranca – Chicago History Museum, Director of Education
Erica Griffin – DuSable Museum, Director of Education
Julius L. Jones
Lethal Poetry, After School Matters, DuSable Museum
Momma Kemba as Ida B. Wells
Avery R. Young
Red Clay Dance Company
4:15–5:00 p.m. FLOAT
FLOAT by Jefferson Pinder and A.J. McClenon is a simple act in the remembrance of the riots of that summer a hundred years ago. Over 100 participants will peacefully drift across a historic invisible racial barrier using inflatables, reactivating and reclaiming a site of violence. While the participants are floating in the lake, at the exact time in which Eugene Williams was stoned to death in the water, a soundscape will draw the participants and the audience into a shared meditative moment.
Today Twitter, Facebook, Instagram; even parks and some backyards are overflowing with the celebration of “Juneteenth.”
What is it, exactly?
Juneteenth Celebration in Texas, June 19, 1900 (Photo Credit: Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration that commemorates the actual ending of slavery in the United States. Although President Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it was not until June 19, 1865 that the Union soldiers, led by General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, TX, with news that the war ended and the enslaved were free at last!
The Emancipation Proclamation had very little impact on Texas in 1863 due to the minimal number of Union troops in that area to enforce the new Executive Order. Of course some questioned President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states, but for whatever reason conditions in Texas remained the same well beyond what was statutory. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and with the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces finally had enough strength to overcome the resistance.
Today, Juneteenth is experiencing an extreme growth rate within communities and organizations around the country. The Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum, and a few other organizations have begun sponsoring Juneteenth –centered activities. It currently celebrates African American freedom and achievement, encourages continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. Although the historic day is celebrated mostly in Texas, it is now taking on a more national and even more global perspective.
If you didn’t know your history before, now you know!
Dives into murky water, painstaking examinations of relics and technical data and rigorous peer review led historians and archaeologists to confirm last week that wreckage found in the Mobile River in 2018 was indeed the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States.
An event heralding the discovery Thursday afternoon in the Mobile community of Africatown made clear that much work remains. The Alabama Historical Commission and others working on the project must decide how much can be salvaged, whether it can be brought ashore or if it should be left in place and protected.
Perhaps more important: How can the interest and publicity engendered by the discovery of the Clotilda be harnessed to foster economic and racial justice in the community?
Anderson Flen, a descendent of one of the Clotilda’s enslaved, believes the historic find can spark new discussions on those topics.
“Number one is talking and communicating honestly and transparently,” Flen said after a news conference on the effort to confirm the discovery. “The other thing is beginning to make some tangible things happen in this community.”
Another Clotilda survivor’s descendant, Darron Patterson, said Africatown residents “have to come together as a group to make sure we’re on one page, of one accord, to make sure this community survives.”
Thursday’s gathering at a community center drew roughly 300 people. Government officials taking part included U.S. Rep Bradly Byrne — who said he would work to help make Africatown “a place that people all over the world are going to want to come to” — and a representative from Sen. Doug Jones’ office. A statement celebrating the discovery from Gov. Kay Ivey was read by historic commission chairman Walter Givhan.
Officials credited Alabama journalist Ben Raines with renewing interest in locating the remains of the Clotilda. Raines had reported that he believed he had located the ship last year. Even though the ship he found turned out not to be the Clotilda, it led to the commission’s and other organizations’ efforts to locate the Clotilda’s wreckage.
A team of maritime archaeology experts conducted an assessment of a previously unsearched area of the Mobile River and historical research and an archaeological survey revealed up to two dozen 19th and 20th century vessels. One closely matched characteristics of the Clotilda and peer-reviewed findings led researchers to conclude that the wreckage is the Clotilda.
Officials have said they are working on a plan to preserve the site where the ship was located. Beyond that, the ship’s future is uncertain.
“This is the point where we pause,” Givhan told reporters. “We have to do our duty in protecting it. That’s job one right now.”
More experts will be brought in to determine the next move. “There are several options, obviously, as to whether you leave it in place, whether you bring up certain artifacts,” Givhan said.
James Delgado, a maritime archaeologist who helped lead the team that verified the wreck as the Clotilda, recently told The Associated Press that the ship’s remains are delicate but the potential for both research and inspiration are enormous.
Joycelyn Davis, a descendant of one of the Africans held captive aboard the ship, said she wants to somehow honor both the ship’s human cargo and the hard work of them and their descendants in forming Africatown .
Jerry Ward, an African American man who said he lives near Africatown, said he’d like to see the ship reconstructed as part of an effort to educate people about its history. “To know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you come from,” Ward said.
The commission said organizations involved in the research and survey efforts include the Black Heritage Council, the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, the Slave Wrecks Project, Diving with a Purpose, SEARCH Inc. and the National Park Service.
In August of 1955, Emmett Till was lynched in the Mississippi Delta. The 14-year-old African American reportedly whistled at a white woman, violating the racial norms of the Jim Crow South. For this supposed infraction, he was abducted, tortured, shot and dropped in a river with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck.
Yet for 49 years and 11 months, his murder was all but forgotten in the Delta – the first memorial to Till wasn’t dedicated until July 1, 2005.
Since then, however, the region has witnessed an unprecedented “memory boom.” More than US$4 million has been invested in dozens of roadside markers, a museum, two restored buildings, an interpretive center, a walking park and a community building.
But many details of what happened to Till on that fateful night remain murky, and the abrupt investment in his memory raises a series of questions. Who gets to tell this racially charged story? Who gets to decide what, exactly, happened? And what’s motivating the construction of these memorials?
My just-published book, “Remembering Emmett Till,” addresses these questions head on. It suggests that as Till’s story has been passed down through the generations and taken up by a range of memorials, its plot has been shaped by forces like poverty as much as by fidelity to historical fact.
This is nowhere more conspicuous than in the village of Glendora, a small community 150 miles south of Memphis, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Beset by poverty, the village clings desperately to a version of Till’s story that few others seem to believe.
A community mired in poverty
Glendora is saturated with memorials. The tiny town of five streets boasts 18 signs dedicated to the memory of Emmett Till’s 1955 murder. In addition, Glendora is also home to the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, a Till-themed park and the Black Bayou Bridge – a long-decommissioned bridge recently explored in a New York Times article as the site from which Till’s body may have been dropped in the water.
Glendora is also marked by breathtaking poverty. In an application for federal assistance, town officials noted that the Glendora median household income is 70% below the state average, 68% of families live below the poverty line, and just 18% of the adults have earned a high school education. According to numbers published by Glendora Mayor Johnny B. Thomas in 2017, 86% of children in the village live below the poverty line. Partners in Development, a nonprofit committed to helping the poorest of the poor, has chosen to focus on Haiti, Guatemala and Glendora, Mississippi.
The Glendora version of Till’s story is unique on two counts.
First, while virtually every 20th-century history of Till’s murder suggests that the murderers dropped the body in the Tallahatchie River, the commemorative work in Glendora suggests that Till was dropped into a tributary known as the Black Bayou from a bridge on the south side of Glendora. According to this account, the bayou then carried Till’s body for three miles to the Tallahatchie River, where it was recovered.
Second, while no historian has been able to say with certainty where the murderers obtained the fan they used to weigh down Till’s corpse, the Glendora museum claims that the fan was stolen from the Glendora Cotton Gin, presumably by Elmer Kimbell, a gin employee and the next-door neighbor of confessed murderer J. W. Milam.
While these variations on the finer points of Till’s story may seem like minutiae, to Glendora residents they are matters so weighty that it sometimes seems as if the very future of the town hinges on where Till’s body was dropped in the water and what fan weighed it down.
In 2010, the Mississippi Development Authority sent a team of economic development experts to Glendora. Their charge was to devise a plan to rescue the town from poverty – a tall order.
The team struggled to find solutions. Aside from the unrealistic suggestion that the town turn the snake-infested land along the bayou into “riverfront property,” the development authority’s only other proposal was that Glendora capitalize on its connection to the Till murder. More commemoration, they said, would bring tourists; tourism would beget economic development.
The viability of this suggestion, of course, turned on a version of Till’s story that maximized the relevance of Glendora. None of this was news to Mayor Thomas. Since at least 2005, he had been promoting a Glendora-centric narrative of the murder in which Till’s body was dropped in the Black Bayou tied with a fan from the local gin.
The state agency has invested more funds into Till’s commemoration than any other organization.
It restored the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, the site of the Till trial, and even invested $200,000 in the controversial restoration of Ben Roy’s Service Station in Money, Mississippi. Although the service station sits just 67 feet south of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the site of Till’s alleged whistle, it played no role in the Till murder, aside from unverified claims that customers discussed the murder from the porch.
The agency, however, is not convinced that Till’s body was dropped from the Black Bayou Bridge. Nor does the organization believe that the fan was stolen from the local gin.
In fact, the agency has, in its files, a five-page “Summary of Research” that’s dedicated to the contested veracity of these two claims. The document finds neither claim verifiable and has thus rejected every grant application the town has ever submitted.
Mayor Thomas has one state agency telling him to lean hard into Till’s story and another rejecting his every attempt to do so.
The mayor gets creative
Without the backing of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Thomas has nonetheless been able to erect tributes to Till’s legacy.
The work began on Sept. 27, 2005. On that day, the United States Department of Agriculture awarded a Community Connect Broadband Grant to Glendora. Funded at $325,405, the grant was intended to bring broadband connectivity to Glendora.
After obtaining the grant, Thomas used the USDA money to convert the old cotton gin into a community computer lab with internet access. But he also used some of the funds to construct the world’s first Emmett Till museum – the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center – which was also located in the gin. Although the USDA approved the expenses, it is unclear whether they knew that their money was being used to build a museum. In the 647 pages of records preserved by the USDA – including the application, labor contracts, invoices and correspondence – Emmett Till isn’t mentioned once.
After the grant ran out, Glendora couldn’t pay the bills and internet service was discontinued. It has not resumed. The museum, on the other hand, is still in operation and visitors do occasionally stop in, though the majority of tourists go to Sumner, a town 12 miles north of Glendora and the site of the trial.
While the museum was initially funded by the USDA, it is maintained on a day-to-day basis by the Glendora Economic and Community Development Corporation, a 501(c)3 founded by Thomas. The town has assigned most, if not all, public business to the nonprofit. Glendora’s development corporation pays city workers, operates 24 Section 8 apartments and operates the Till museum. According to public records, the public housing funnels about $100,000 a year of federal HUD money into the nonprofit. With this money, the nonprofit maintains the apartments, pays city workers and, critically, subsidizes the Till museum.
Yet the questions remain unanswered: Was Emmett Till actually dropped from the Black Bayou Bridge? Was the fan stolen from the local gin? Was Elmer Kimbell involved?
Perhaps. But it is impossible to separate the veracity of these claims from the poverty of the townspeople. Thomas has been able to leverage the town’s poverty to support the museum; the museum, in turn, supports Glendora’s plausible-but-unverifiable theories of Till’s murder. Had Glendora been wealthy, there’d be little incentive to stick so adamantly to this version of the story. The Black Bayou Bridge would be lost to memory and Elmer Kimbell would rarely appear in the stories of Till’s final night.
Although the notion of compensating freed slaves has been around since at least the Civil War, providing reparations for their descendants has never really gained much traction in the United States, as I learned while researching my book “Making Whole What Has Been Smashed.”
Is anything different now?
Reparations are rare
Historically, the term “reparations” dealt primarily with the indemnification of states ravaged by war, such as those required of the Germans by the Versailles Treaty after World War I.
In the aftermath of World War II, however, the term began to acquire a broader meaning, extending to compensation for those injured by the actions of a state.
Still, such compensation has happened only rarely.
Germany paid Holocaust survivors US$927 million – or $8.84 billion today – in compensation as part of the 1952 Luxembourg Agreement, most of it going to the newly created state of Israel to defray the costs of resettlement.
Later, the U.S. offered “redress” to some 82,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated as “enemy aliens” during World War II. The 1988 Civil Liberties Act granted a presidential apology and $20,000 to each living person who had been detained based on the recommendations of a commission created by Congress in 1980 to examine the causes of the “internment.”
But this payback was intended to be very limited. During the debate, then-Sen. Ernest Hollings worried, “Where do we draw the line against reparations to the countless other groups of Americans who have suffered because of actions of the U.S. government?”
And the law explicitly says compensation would only be provided to victims still alive in order to preclude reparations claims by the descendants of black slaves and others.
‘40 acres and a mule’
Efforts to avoid establishing a precedent for reparations arose in part because former slaves and their descendants have long sought some sort of compensation for their suffering under slavery and segregation. These efforts have achieved little.
Yet after taking office in 1865, President Andrew Johnson rescinded efforts to distribute land to those who were freed. Scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois thus observed that “the vision of ‘forty acres and a mule’ … was destined in most cases to bitter disappointment.”
‘Freedom is not enough’
A century after the Civil War, however, President Lyndon Johnson hinted at the need for reparations when he pushed through civil rights legislation intended to make blacks full citizens.
During a speech at Howard University in 1965, he declared: “Freedom is not enough. … It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity.”
Although Johnson didn’t call explicitly for reparations, he urged something more than just equal rights for blacks – something that would rectify the economic disadvantage blacks faced. The speech has often been seen as a harbinger of affirmative action.
Two years later, in the aftermath of urban riots in Newark, Detroit and elsewhere, Johnson created the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes and recommend remedies. The commission found that “white racism” was the basic cause of the racial unrest and proposed massive investment in black communities.
Martin Luther King Jr. agreed with these critical assessments of black deprivation, but generally couched his appeals for addressing poverty in interracial terms. King did once indicate that he was coming to Washington “for a check,” but this was a rare aside.
The heart of King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” his main focus toward the end of his life, was a universal basic income, not reparations.
But others would pick up the reparations baton. Black radical James Forman, for example, stormed Manhattan’s famously progressive Riverside Church in May 1969 to demand $500 million from “the white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues that are part and parcel of the capitalist system.” This and other demands formed the basis of the Black National Economic Conference’s “Black Manifesto.”
Calls for a commission
Little came of these efforts until decades later when then-Congressman John Conyers introduced the first bill on the issue in 1989.
It proposed a commission to “study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, [and] to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”
But are all these disparities rooted in slavery and segregation? This is where a congressional inquiry, which may finally be politically palatable thanks to the growing embrace of the idea among prominent Democrats, would come in.
Success, which will require legislation, will depend on building bipartisan support for the inquiry. Accordingly, I believe it’s best to avoid talk of “reparations.” After all, most Americans oppose them and always have.
First, get the commission and let it determine the causes of racial inequalities and the form that remedies should take. As poverty is not an affliction of blacks alone, the U.S. must also address the poverty that affects many others as well.
If the commission is given the opportunity to explore the causes of and remedies for racial inequality, however, perhaps Americans can finally move toward rectifying the inequities that beset blacks as a result of their country’s history of slavery, segregation and discrimination.