Posts Tagged ‘African-Americans’

One Problem, Many Solutions, Few Successes

If there is one difficult part of American history & society, it is that transition from slavery to freedom in the post-Civil War period (which, in actuality, is still going on today). I’m not talking about the actual sequence of events from the Emancipation Proclamation to Kanye West’s recent Grammy speech, I’m talking about the larger social, political, and even philosophical problem: how does an entire population, almost 4 million strong, make the transition from slavery to freedom, without crushing the economic and social status of the formerly enslaving nation? Oof, that’s a toughie, a heady question with so many facets, from the technical to the ethical to the theological.

I can say this with absolute certainty: it’s a question that America failed to answer satisfactorily. Yes, I said it: America failed one of the greatest challenges a nation ever faced.

Vegetable Garden — © 2008 America In Context

It’s obvious that America failed in this regard: Jim Crow, the Klan, Plessy v. Ferguson, police dogs in Birmingham, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Watts riots, the continued concentration of poor blacks in America’s inner cities. These are not good results. The only part we really got right was freeing them in the first place (although even that was almost a hundred years too late — surely the Great Teacher in the Sky took points off for lateness on that one).

Sure, things have gotten better for African-Americans since 1865. But is it really better because America made it better, or is it better in spite of America’s efforts? As time has gone on, we have become more integrated. Black culture and music has woven itself into our society, creating art forms (like the Blues, rap music, urban wall art, and others) that could only incubate in a cauldron of pain, suffering, and intolerance that post-slavery America provided. But I don’t call that a “success”, we’ve simply accepted the failure and tried to move on with our lives.

Sheep In Pen — © 2008 America In ContextOh, to be able to take a time machine back to the late 19th Century and advise our leaders — both white and black — on how to do it right. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It would be like telling the diners in Pompeii to leave the city; telling the Middle Age clerics to let the cats kill the plague-infested rats; warning post WWI Germany to leave Adolph in Austria. We could go back and fix everything, and none of those traumas I mentioned earlier would happen!

Unfortunately, even today, 145 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, we still have no idea how we could have done it any better. So we would hop out of our little time machine, look President Andrew Johnson and the U.S. Congress square in the eye, and go: “duhhhhh……”

The problem back then (with certain similarities today) is how to take an entire population, uneducated and entirely dependent upon a ruling class, and transform it into an independent, productive, successful body, without correspondingly bringing ruin upon that ruling class. Do you give them their own territory so they can develop their own society? Do you work to integrate them into your own society, so your success is their success and vice versa? Or do you simply transform from slavery to something almost as bad, keeping them a chronic underclass forever?

In the post-Civil War days, many African-American leaders came forward with their own ideas. Booker T. Washington was one such leader.

Tobacco Shed — © 2008 America In ContextWashington was a man after my own heart. He strongly believed in teaching freed slaves and their children about the real world: science, technology, engineering, agriculture. I’m a big fan of science and engineering and their real-world applications. In my view, as was Washington’s, if you can teach a person a real trade, you can set that person up for life. If you’re skilled, it doesn’t matter who you are, it matters what you do. Yes, it’s a pie-in-the-sky ideal, for you always have that personal element in everything, but your odds are much better if you have something real and tangible to offer society. And if society doesn’t want it, at least you can use those skills and have some semblence of autonomy. That was Booker T. Washington’s modus operandi: teaching blacks how to do. It was also the genesis of Washington’s great achievement: the Tuskeegee University (also part of the National Park Service, a topic for a later post).

The reality of the times would sadly tarnish Booker T.’s reputation. In order to create such a university, Washington needed funding. Funding he received … from wealthy white elitists, some of whom were former slaveholders themselves. Labelled an “accommodationist”, Washington was far too mum on the subject of segragation for many other African-American leaders. He would eventually speak out more and more against segregation, but for many of his contemporaries, it was too little, too late.

Munch Munch Munch — © 2008 America In Context

As I stated earlier, I’m not very good with African-American history. But I do know that no one in that era, including black leaders like Booker T. Washington, had all the answers for the freed slaves and their descendents. Those (black and white) who had the best of intentions did the best they could, based on their knowledge of humanity and the condition of the times. Their efforts may or may not have been successful, they may or may not have been right, but it has to be acknowledged that the simultaneous release of millions of men, women, and children from bondage created a problem vaster than mankind’s ability to solve. These people did the best they could, and at least they acted, and didn’t wait the required couple hundred years for the problem to solve itself.

Booker T. Washington National Monument restores the boyhood home of a man who did what he thought was right. It has been restored to resemble what it might have looked like during that time. The place itself is unremarkable, but the place in context with the most difficult part of American history truly makes one think.

Booker T. Washington Memorial — © 2008 America In Context

[All photos on this post are my originals. See my other Booker T. Washington National Monument photos here.]

Freed Fowl — © 2008 America In ContextLinks:

Booker T. Washington National Monument

The Negro Problem (essays from Booker T. Washington & others)

Google map to the monument

Some damned fool let the chickens out!

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Small and Forgotten

Some National Park System sites are huge (Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska is over 13 million acres – twice as big as my home state of Massachusetts). Some are tiny, such as the African-American Civil War Memorial, nestled in a small plot at the intersection of Vermont, 10th, & U St. in Washington, D.C. All NPS sites can tell you a lot, however, if you only chose to listen.

African-American Civil War Memorial — © 2008 America In ContextI wanted to post an essay about the courage of black soldiers during the Civil War; about their bravery, their sacrifice, and the difficulties they faced. There is so much to tell, so much the average American doesn’t know. But I find myself distracted with more immediate concerns.

In preparation for this post, I wanted to read up on the history of the memorial. So I visited the National Park Service’s site, www.nps.gov. And wouldn’t you know it, they have basically no valuable information about this memorial whatsoever!

This really troubles me. I know the AACWM is not tops on visitors’ “must see” list. There’s no way it can compete with the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, or the Smithsonian. But the role of the National Park Service is not one of tour guide, they are both a protector and a promoter of America’s natural, historical, and cultural treasures. Regardless of how small it is, the AACWM is one of those treasures, a monument to those who risked it all to free their own kinsmen from bondage. Their story is as important as the story of George Mason, whose own little monument has its own page on the NPS site.

The Park Service does a grave injustice by excluding this memorial. One cannot understand America without understanding black America. The history of black America is our history, it’s American history.  It’s not just some esoteric subject studied by 15% of the nation. And it really bothers me that the African-American Civil War Memorial gets such short-shrift from the National Park Service.

I urge visitors to Washington to take a half-hour out of their schedule and take the Green Line to U Street. It’s only a block east from there. Take a little more time and visit the nearby museum as well. Yes, it’s not the best area of the city, but that’s part of the American experience, too.

Faces — © 2008 America In Context

[All photos on this entry are originals by the blog owner.]


Sadly, there is no link to the National Park Service for this memorial.

African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum

Google map to the AACWM

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