Black History Month is an annual commemoration in the United States (as well as the UK), where it is also known as African American History Month. It began as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. Unfortunately, a single month of the year is by no means sufficient for a necessary corrective of the history of Africa and its diaspora as explained by the narrative of White historians. Black History Month was originally founded in 1970, prior to which there was Negro History Week created in 1926. At this rate of extension, it may take a few centuries for Black history to be taught all year round like the history of White Europeans and Americans.
The Emancipation Proclamation was an order by US President Abraham Lincoln to free slaves in 10 states. It applied to the states still in rebellion in 1863 during the American Civil War. The Proclamation had freed slaves, but it had not made slavery illegal. A constitutional amendment to ban slavery everywhere in the United States was passed in late 1865, and this is when slavery was thought to have ended and an age of enlightenment begun. The light in the enlightenment, however, was not that bright and failed to reach the many dark recesses of the new republic. As is the case with many miscarriages of justice against people of colour and the suppressed history of minorities in the US, new information tends to come to light only in the event of video footage that emerges as evidence or through the diligence of a historian seeking the truth.
This answer will focus on the fact that slavery in the US existed into the 1960s, despite having been abolished 100 years prior.
One of the most widespread myths about the American Civil War is that it was not about slavery. Across America, 60 to 75 percent of high-school teachers believe and teach the idea that the South seceded for state’s rights, said Jim Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” (Touchstone, 1996). Loewen says the original documents of the Confederacy show quite clearly that the war was based on one thing: slavery. For example, in its declaration of secession, Mississippi explained, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world… a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
In its justification of secession, Texas sums up its view of a union built upon slavery:
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
Stan Deaton, the senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society says, "The myth the war was not about slavery seems to be a self-protective one for many people. People think that somehow it demonizes their ancestors,” to have fought for slavery.
Another myth about the American Civil War is the Union went to war to end slavery. This is another example of bad history states Loewen who said, “The North went to war to hold the union together.” President Abraham Lincoln was personally against slavery, but in his first inaugural, he made it clear that placating the Southern states was more important. Quoting himself in other speeches, he said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the United States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
Modern Day Slavery US Style
White landowners enslaved Black Americans for at least a century after the Civil War. That is the conclusion of decades of research by historian and genealogist Antoinette Harrell, who described her findings in a series of interviews for Vice published on February 28, 2018. Harrell spent decades researching peonage and uncovered a hidden history of slavery in the modern era in Southern states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida.
“I met about 20 people all who had worked on the Waterford Plantation in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. They told me they had worked the fields for most of their lives. One way or another, they had become indebted to the plantation’s owner and were not allowed to leave the property… At the end of the harvest when they tried to settle up with the owner, they were always told they didn’t make it into the black and to try again next year. Every passing year, the workers fell deeper and deeper in debt. Some of these folks were tied to that land into the 1960s.”
Harrell describes the case of Mae Louise Walls Miller, who did not get her freedom until 1963, when she was about 14. Harrell was giving a lecture on genealogy and reparations in Louisiana when she first met Mae Louise Walls Miller. Mae’s father, Cain Wall, lost his land by signing a contract he could not read. As a young girl, Mae assumed that her family circumstances were no different to anyone else’s. The family did not have electricity, a phone or a radio. They were not permitted to leave the land and were subject to regular beatings from the landowner.
Mae’s family was forced to pick cotton, clean house and milk cows – all without being paid – under threat of whippings, rape and even death. They were passed from white family to white family, their condition never improving. Technically, the Walls were victims of “peonage”, an illegal practice that flourished in the rural South after slavery was abolished in 1865 and lasted, in cases like theirs, until as recently as the 1960s. Under peonage, Blacks were forced to work off debts, real or imagined, with free labour under the same type of violent coercion as slavery. Meals were whatever they could catch – rabbits, birds, fish – and the White family’s leftovers. Beatings with whips and chains were common for allegedly slacking off, talking back or leaving the Gordon farm where they were enslaved.
The most crippling violence began when Mae was about 5. She vividly remembers the morning she and her mother went to the Gordon home to clean it. They were met by two men – faces she recognized. One tugged on Mae’s long hair, she recalls. She tried to hide in her mother’s skirt, but he grabbed her and pushed her to the floor. Both she and her mother were raped that morning. “I remember a white woman there saying, “Oh no, not her, she’s just a yearling,” Mae says. “But they just kept on and on.” Mae says her mother begged the men to spare her daughter, and a White woman cleaned her up after the attack. That was the first of numerous times she was raped, she says. “They told me, “If you go down there and tell ole’ Cain, we will kill him before the morning.” I knew there wasn’t anyone who could help me.” In later life after getting married, Mae had to adopt children after a doctor told her that her reproductive system had been damaged, likely from the rapes.
Harrell interviewed Mae’s father, Cain, when he was alive at the ripe old age of 107. According to Harrell, his mind was still incredibly sharp but opening the suppressed memories of a brutal past took its toll and he ended up in hospital. The family kept Harrell away for a while after that. Harrell describes lecture tours with Mae and how she would exhibit behavioural ticks from her upbringing as a slave. Sometimes at events where there was free food, Mae could not stop eating and she told Harrell that this was from years of not knowing when she would eat again. Mae had grown up not wearing shoes and said sometimes her feet felt uncomfortable when she wore them. The nuances of Mae’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from growing up as a slave is a sharp reminder of the psychological anguish and mental torture, alongside the physical torture, slaves must have gone through. PTSD only became a seriously accepted mental health issue after US war veterans returned from tours of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Harrell noticed during her research that time and time again, people were afraid to share their stories.
“They were afraid to give this information to me, even behind closed doors decades later. They believed that they might somehow get sent back to a plantation that wasn’t even operating anymore. As I would realize, people are afraid to share their stories, because in the South so many of the same white families who owned these plantations are still running local government and big businesses. They still hold the power so the poor and disenfranchised really don’t have anywhere to share these injustices without fearing major repercussions. To most folks, it just isn’t worth the risk. So, sadly, most situations of this sort go unreported.”
Mae always used to speak to Harrell about an old green creek near the property where she and her family were held. One day, Harrell and Mae walked deep into the woods to see that creek. Harrell was haunted by the sight, “That filthy patch of water where the cows pissed and **** was the same water that Mae and her family drank and bathed in.” Mae said, “I told you my story because I have no fear in my heart. What can any living person do to me? There is nothing that can be done to me that hasn’t already been done.”
These stories are more common than one thinks. There were also Polish, Hungarian, and Italian immigrants, as well as other nationalities, who got caught up in these situations in the American South. But the vast majority of 20th century slaves were of African descent. Without doubt, countless other enslaved families would have existed alongside the Walls, but their stories will never be told. They took their pain and horror to their graves without any catharsis or justice.
Martin Luther King stated:
“It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated. It may be true that that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me; but it can restrain him from lynching me; and I think that is pretty important also. And so, while the law may not change the hearts of men it does change the habits of men if it is vigorously enforced and through changes in habits, pretty soon attitudinal changes will take place and even the heart may be changed” (speech at Newcastle University, 1967).
Martin Luther King would have been aware of practical slavery still in existence during his campaign for civil rights. King’s speech at Newcastle University is a fine example of the triumph of hope over experience. The law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless, but only if the law is enforced with conviction. A hundred years on from the Emancipation Proclamation and this nation defining law remained half-heartedly enforced. Interestingly, King was wise enough, or too pessimistic, not to appeal to Christian faith and law to try and rehabilitate the racists who still sought to perpetuate slavery. Fast forward to the 21st century and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in reaction to the criticism against the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their parents at the US border, stated, “I would like to cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13.” It is fitting that Sessions turned to Romans 13 since the text has a long track record of being used by Christians attempting to defend immoral public policy. In the 1850s, when slave masters paid preachers and public theologians to defend the plantation economy against abolitionists, Romans 13 was one of the most cited texts of slaveholder religion as well.
King, in not appealing to Christianity, was clearly implying that secular liberal democracy would enshrine and vigorously enforce laws that would eventually change habits, attitudes and eventually hearts. The naivety is staggering. Racism in the West has always been the twin partner of capitalism and it is capitalism which inspires the laws, through liberal democracies, that govern human activity in society. Capitalism has no regard for the welfare of minorities. Thus, slavery continues in modern forms for many African Americans. Private penitentiaries and the school to prison pipeline represent just two modern innovations which guarantee that Black people provide free labour for the system at large. Harrell believes there are still African American families who are tied to Southern farms in the most antebellum sense of speaking.
It is widely assumed the only instances of slavery in the West at present are those cases of people trafficked for manual labour or sex and kept against their will by organised gangs. This is a myth. Millions of people in Europe and North America are enslaved through employment which they find demeaning, demoralising and pointless. In the UK, over a million workers are on zero-hour contracts while millions of others on low pay toil away while spiralling further into debt due to student loans, credit card debts, bank loans or mortgages. Workers who suffer sexual harassment in the workplace are reluctant to speak out in case they lose their jobs.
Capitalism has co-opted liberal democracies to create a system that bears more than a passing resemblance to outlawed peonage. Amid the current devastating global economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Western governments will not be immune from the temptation to dial back workers’ rights even further. The UK government, for example, has already asked millions of students and furloughed workers to help pick fruit and vegetables in farms. The future is bleak. The only escape from such slavery is through an alternative system where profit is not subservient to the rights and needs of human beings.
White landowners enslaved Black Americans for at least a century after the Civil War. That is the conclusion of decades of research by historian and genealogist Antoinette Harrell, who described her findings in a series of interviews for Vice published on February 28, 2018. Harrell uncovered numerous examples of White people in Southern states entrapping Black workers into peonage slavery – slavery justified and enforced through deceptive contracts and debts, rather than claims of ownership – even though peonage was technically outlawed in the United States in 1867, four years after the Emancipation Proclamation. People enslaved through peonage may not have appeared in any ledgers as belonging to their enslavers, but the experience was indistinguishable in many respects from the brutal practices of the antebellum period.
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