Department of Interior may fund a historic site at Natchez, Mississippi slave market

Here is the Associated Press:

A federal agency could put money toward eventual development of a historical site that was once one of the largest slave markets in the United States.

Enslaved people were sold from 1833 to 1863 at the Forks of the Road site in Natchez, Mississippi. The site currently has a sign and a small monument made of concrete and shackles. Officials have been working since 2005 on proposals to turn it into a more detailed memorial.

“Of course, Black history is American history. But more than that, this is human history,” said Kathleen Bond, superintendent of Natchez National Historical Park. “We all understand the humanity of the different experiences people have had in this country. I think the healthiest thing is for us to be able to tell the truth and then work together.”

The U.S. Department of Interior has included $400,000 for Forks of the Road in a priority list of recommended spending from the federal Land Water Conservation Fund for the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1, the Natchez Democrat reported. The federal budget has not been finalized.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with John Oldfield

John Oldfield is Professor of Emancipation and Slavery at The University of Hull. This interview is based on his new book, The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1866 (Liverpool University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Ties that Bind?

JO: I wrote The Ties that Bind in an attempt to challenge more orthodox histories that tend to place antislavery within narrow national contexts, whether American exceptionalism, in the case of the USA, or Britain’s history of humanitarian interventionism. Antislavery, I argue, should be seen as an international movement that rested on dense networks that brought together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. American abolitionists, particularly so-called “second wave” reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, relied heavily on British antecedents and borrowed many of their ideas, whether it was their use of “agents” or antislavery lecturers, the pledging of “parliamentary” candidates or the importance of grass-roots organization. But these influences also flowed the other way and part of my intention in The Ties that Bind was to explore how figures like Garrison influenced British activists, George Thompson being an obvious case in point. There were always limits to international co-operation, perhaps most evident in British reactions to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). For some British reformers, American abolitionism would always seem too sensationalist, too “popular” and even potentially dangerous. This is what Garrison was getting at when he said that British abolitionists “walked in silver slippers.” Antislavery in Britain, he went on, had “never been tried in the fiery furnace, nor compelled to encounter a single storm of persecution, and therefore is no more a test of English character, than is the opposition of Americans to a monarchical form of government.” So, while there were obvious affinities here, there were also important differences. Finally, I wanted to explore the related question of opinion-building, the processes whereby activists turned an idea (that slavery was wrong) into a social movement. This, again, is a transatlantic story but one not without its stresses and strains, as the British reaction to things such as antislavery songs and antislavery performers makes abundantly clear.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Ties that Bind?

JO: Simply put, The Ties that Bind argues that we should see antislavery as an international movement based on close ties that bound together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, it stresses the importance of opinion-building techniques and, above all, the role of personality in shaping the abolitionist world of the nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read The Ties that Bind?

JO: I think two points are relevant here. The Ties that Bind, like my previous books, makes the case for seeing antislavery as an international movement. Abolitionists, from Granville Sharp to William Lloyd Garrison, saw themselves as “citizens of the universe” and that outlook dictated their political outlooks, as well as the policy choices they made. American abolitionists learned a great deal from their British counterparts and Garrison, in particular, played on these Atlantic affinities; hence his preoccupation with celebrating 1 August, the anniversary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Of course, American abolitionism was always more than a pale imitation of British antislavery but it is instructive, I think, to stress the importance of these international “connections.” My second point leads on from the first. One of the things I was keen to do in The Ties that Bind was to emphasize the importance of antislavery for activists today and for broader histories of humanitarianism. I think there are a number of issues at play here. One is the importance of grass-roots organization. On both sides of the Atlantic, abolitionists created complex networks that linked center to periphery, being careful at the same time to give rank-and-file members a chance to air their views. This mix between guidance and independence, I would argue, kept the movement fresh and relevant, and it is a model that has been adopted successfully elsewhere, notably in US campaigns around gun rights, tobacco control and drunk-driving reduction. Another crucial factor, which again has implications for activists today, was the willingness of abolitionists (not all of them, admittedly) to engage with electoral politics. Historians may question the effectiveness of the Liberty Party, to take an obvious example, but there is little doubt in my mind that such initiatives helped to divorce the federal government from the idea of slavery. Finally, as I have already said, antislavery was an international movement, based on close ties that bound together British and American reformers in dense transatlantic networks. Indeed, cosmopolitanism was an important dynamic within nineteenth-century abolitionism, evident in common political attitudes and assumptions that flowed from east to west and from west to east. In this sense, antislavery was never a parochial British or American affair, any more than the US Civil Rights Movement or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were narrow parochial affairs.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JO: I was an undergraduate in the UK during the 1970s, a decade that seemed to be dominated by the USA, not always for the right reasons. Whether it was the Vietnam War or the unfolding drama surrounding the Watergate break-in, it was difficult not to be affected by these events in some way, inside or outside the classroom. The 1970s also witnessed a remarkable outpouring of revisionist studies of US slavery, from John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972) to Eugene Genovese’s magisterial Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). Collectively, these books not only seemed to speak to the contemporary situation in the USA but also to break new ground, not least in their use of sources (slave narratives, for instance) and their openness to other disciplinary approaches. As a result, I found myself drawn to courses on US history and to anything that dealt with the American South or slavery, race, and identity. I guess this was the start of my journey towards becoming an American historian. After graduating, I went on to graduate school, choosing to write my PhD thesis on the nineteenth-century black leader, Alexander Crummell (1819-1898). Over the past forty years, my research interests have broadened and today I would consider myself as much a historian of the Atlantic World, as an American historian. I have also developed a lifelong interest in the history of antislavery, both at a national and international level. But I have always taught US history and in many ways The Ties that Bind marks a return to many of the themes that first excited me as an undergraduate.

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Good question! I am currently co-editing a volume on European colonial heritage, which should appear in the second half of 2021. Beyond that, I want to build on the work I did in The Ties that Bind on William Lloyd Garrison and George Thompson, using it as a template to explore other transatlantic friendships that centered on reform. Then there is the ongoing debate here in the UK about the history and legacy of slavery, which is bound to quicken in pace as we inch ever closer to 2033 and the bicentenary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Now more than ever there is a need for an “integrated” history of British antislavery, which not only commemorates the achievements of people like William Wilberforce but also recognizes Britain’s deep and tragic involvement in both the slave trade and the wider business of slavery.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Libra Hilde

Libra Hilde is Professor of History at San Jose State University. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: In one of my undergraduate courses, I ask my students to write a paper comparing the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. The idea for Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty emerged from repeatedly confronting the disjuncture between these two authors’ experiences. Despite being quite young when her enslaved father passed away, Jacobs attributed her sense of humanity and will to achieve liberty to his influence. Douglass could only guess at the identity of an unknown white father who never acknowledged or took responsibility for his enslaved child. I found this contrast fascinating and set out to explore how enslaved people conceived of and negotiated paternal duty within the constraints of slavery and Jim Crow.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Denied the ability to directly provide for and protect loved ones, enslaved men often found alternative ways to care for and support their children, exerting their influence through advice, ideas, and religious counsel, immaterial means over which slaveholders had less control. This book counters persistent stereotypes of African American families and absent, irresponsible Black fathers, showing that because enslaved and then freed men did not have access to open patriarchal authority, much of their care-taking behavior has remained hidden.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Recent events and the racial reckoning we face in this country have underscored the destructive impact of misconceptions about Black masculinity and the African American family that are an ongoing legacy of slavery. In order to appreciate the variability and adaptability of the enslaved family, we need to look beyond household structure and normative definitions of family and fatherhood and instead look at how kin units actually functioned. It is also important to understand the public/private and hierarchical nature of Southern masculinity and how such assumptions continue to shape American attitudes. While only white men in the Old South had access to public definitions and the display of manhood, enslaved men were frequently allowed to exhibit attributes of masculinity within the confines of the plantation, especially when this arrangement profited the slaveholder. Enslaved men faced painful, intractable dilemmas and yet many endeavored to uphold the vision of paternal honor idealized by African American communities.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LH: I started college as a mechanical engineering major with the unrealistic goal of becoming a mission payload specialist and astronaut. In my first semester, I took an 800-person American History survey course with the late Leon F Litwack, and it changed my life. I switched my major to history and never looked back. In graduate school, I narrowed my focus to the Civil War era based on interest and a desire to work with the late William E. Gienapp. Great teachers and mentors have provided inspiration at every stage of my career development.

JF: What is your next project?

LH: My next project examines the consequences of Civil War mortality, comparing Southern counties with relatively light losses to those with heavy losses. The South lost a significant percentage of its white male population between the ages of 14 and 55, and local organization of regiments meant that deaths were unevenly spread across the landscape. I am using a combination of quantitative data and qualitative sources to explore the effects of wartime mortality on household formation, marriage patterns, local politics, regional migration, gender roles, and post-war race relations, with a particular focus on widows.

JF: Thanks, Libra!

Hamilton and slavery at the Schuyler Mansion


Here is Indiana Nash’s piece at The Daily Gazette, a newspaper that covers the Albany region:

The Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site is working to parse fact from fiction when it comes to Alexander Hamilton’s role as an enslaver.

While some historians have made the case that Hamilton was an abolitionist or a reluctant slave owner, an article from the Schuyler Mansion claims otherwise.

“ . . . Not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally,” writes Jessie Serfilippi in a report titled “As Odious and Immoral a Thing: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver.”

During the past few years, the historical interpreter has been poring over ledgers and correspondence of Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, in an effort to gain a clearer picture of Hamilton’s involvement with slavery.

“In the 21st century, Alexander Hamilton is almost universally depicted as an abolitionist. From Ron Chernow’s ‘Hamilton’ to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton: An American Musical,’ there is little room in modern discourse for questioning the founder’s thoughts and feelings on slavery,” writes Serfilippi.

She goes on to explore Hamilton’s relationship with the slave trade from his childhood to his adulthood. Hamilton grew up in a home with several enslaved people, and early on in his career he worked as a clerk at Beekman and Cruger, a St. Croix trading post that imported and sold slaves on several occasions, according to Serfilippi.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with John Marks

John Marks is Historian and Public History Administrator for the American Association for State and Local History. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery: Race, Status, and Identity in the Urban Americas (University of South Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: The idea for this project began developing for me in graduate school. In reading widely about the history of race and slavery in the Atlantic World, I began to recognize patterns in the lived experiences of African-descended people in urban spaces that often went unmentioned. Historians of the United States almost never talked about parallels with Latin American society; Latin Americanists, for their part, often referenced older, or more abstract, examples from US histories when drawing broad comparisons. A deep engagement with current scholarship for both regions, however, revealed parallels I just couldn’t ignore: namely, the opportunity for free people of color living in cities before the end of slavery to carve out spaces of autonomy for themselves, claim a degree of distinction within their communities, and conduct themselves in ways that defied white expectation—and often the law. Recognizing major differences in law, culture, and attitudes towards racial difference across the Americas, I wanted to understand with greater precision the ways African-descended people navigated daily life in these places. As I began researching, I recognized as well that explicitly comparative history in some ways represented an unfulfilled promise of the turn to the “Atlantic World” as a perspective for analyzing the history of the United States and other American societies. Few scholars had conducted the kind of careful social history research in service of a transnational and comparative project I thought was necessary to really understand local dynamics. Once I realized such an approach could make a unique contribution to our understanding of race and slavery, there was no turning back.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: Throughout the urban Americas before the end of slavery, free people of color relentlessly pursued opportunities to improve their circumstances and provide for their families, staking claims to rights, privileges, and distinctions not typically granted to African-descended people. These efforts represented part of an international struggle for Black freedom, as free Black residents in Charleston, Cartagena, and beyond subtly challenged ideologies of white racial supremacy that linked the Americas together and undermined the foundations of white authority in the Atlantic World.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: 2020 has revealed for many Americans, especially white Americans, the degree to which racial injustice and inequality are still pervasive and pernicious features of our society. In order to fully understand the persistence of both individual racial prejudice and systemic racism, we need to understand the history of how race has operated and affected the lives of African-descended people. To fully understand that story, we need to at times look at the history of race and slavery from an international perspective.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, free people of African descent in the United States, Colombia, and throughout the Americas had to confront broadly shared notions of white supremacy among the country’s ruling classes in order to advance efforts to provide for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. Today, anti-Black racism and a wide range of persistent racial inequalities are pervasive from Canada to Chile and everywhere in between. When demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence erupted this summer, they extended to places like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia, in addition to across the United States. These international demonstrations were not just in solidarity with the US, they were protests against the particular, local histories of white supremacist violence and injustice.

Linking the histories of race and slavery in these places, exploring how and when racial dynamics were the same and different, offers new perspective on the histories of the United States, Latin America, and the Atlantic World, and I hope offers some insight into how we should understand efforts to combat white supremacy in the present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JM: High school was the first time I really recognized that I had an uncommon interest in (and knack for) reading and writing about the past, but it wasn’t until college that I realized it could be a career. As an undergrad at Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg), I had the opportunity to pursue several locally-focused research projects, and I grew to enjoy the archive, the search for material, and the process of putting a puzzle together when you’re not really sure if you have all the pieces. As a New Jersey native researching race and slavery in Virginia, I also became keenly aware of regional differences in present-day racial dynamics, and I wanted to know more about how understandings of race developed over time. Moving forward through graduate school and now a career in public history, the way I think about what it means to be an American historian has certainly changed. But I’m as committed as ever to using research, writing, and engagement with the public to better understand the past and think through how it can help us solve problems in the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JM: I’ve got a couple things kicking around that I hope to be able to say more about soon. In both my scholarship and my day job (for the American Association for State and Local History), I’ve been thinking a lot about anniversaries and how historians can use them as opportunities to expand, challenge, and learn from the public’s understandings of history. 2022 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston, and 2026 represents the 250th anniversary of the United States. I know planning is underway already for both commemorations, so I’m interested in using those events to think in new ways about the history of race, slavery, and freedom—whether for books, articles, public history projects, or other endeavors.

JF: Thanks, John!

Editor of *The New York Times Magazines* addresses recent criticisms of the 1619 Project

You can find all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.

Here is Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine:

Most of the questions around our display language have centered on variations on a single phrase. In some cases, we referred to 1619 as the nation’s “birth year,” in others as our “birth date,” in others as “a foundational date,” in others as our “point of origin.” In one instance of digital display copy, we referred to 1619 as our “true founding.” It is this use of this last phrase, and its subsequent deletion, that was the subject of an article in the online magazine Quillette and then, more recently, that figured prominently in a column by my colleague Bret Stephens, a columnist on The Times’s Opinion page.

A few notes on this phrase, “true founding”: It was written by a digital editor and approved by me. (Hannah-Jones, as a staff writer at the magazine is not typically involved in matters of digital display language.) It does not appear in the print edition of The 1619 Project. This phrase was introduced when the project went online, in August 2019, appearing in an un-bylined 55-word passage that lived in a small box on the project’s main web page, as well as on the individual story pages, which read as follows: “The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Given the space constraints, “true founding” was a way to summarize the “birth” metaphor that appeared here and there throughout the print edition — such as in a sentence in my editor’s note that read: “The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” It also carried some of the meaning of a sentence from Hannah-Jones’s essay in which she says that Black Americans, “as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’” (This summer, President Obama made a similar comparison in his eulogy for the civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, calling him a “founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”)

Nevertheless, in the months after the package went online, we began to wonder if we’d gotten it quite right. In the longer phrase from the editor’s note (“by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year”), the sense that this was a metaphor — a whole new perspective on American history that this collection of essays would give you — was explicit. The online language risked being read literally. And indeed, some readers pointed out that this word choice implied that the specific historical meaning of what took place during the founding period should be replaced by the specific historical meaning of what took place in 1619.

So in December, we edited this digital display text to more closely mirror what appeared in the print magazine. We did not see this as a significant alteration, let alone concession, in how we presented the project. Within the project’s essays, the argument about 1619’s being the nation’s symbolic point of origin remained.

Read the entire piece here.

Some of the descendants of James Monroe’s slaves do not want the former president’s statue removed from the College of William & Mary

The statue of Monroe on William & Mary’s campus was erected “a few years ago.” Monroe attended the William & Mary before he dropped out in 1776 to join the Continental Army.

Here is a taste of Wilford Kale’s article at The Virginia Gazette:

Cousins Jennifer L. Stacy and George R. Monroe Jr. do not want the College of William & Mary to remove President James Monroe’s name from a residence hall, nor would they support the removal of the new statue of the fourth president of the United States placed on campus a few years ago.

The family members are descendants of enslaved persons who labored for Monroe more than two centuries ago at Highland — his Albemarle County plantation now owned, maintained and interpreted by William & Mary.

Stacy and Monroe also are members of the Council of Descendant Advisors, working to tell a broader story at Monroe’s homesite.

Recently, some students and faculty at William & Mary have raised the question as to whether the names on certain buildings on campus are appropriate in light of questions regarding social and racial justice.

“Removing (Monroe’s) statue and name does a disservice,” Stacy explained. “It is not something I support, because that’s taking one part of a man’s life and ignoring the contributions he made to our country. He was a Founding Father.”

Read the rest here.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary addresses its racist past; keeps buildings named after slaveholders

Here is Adelle Banks at Religion News Service:

The flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention decided Monday (Oct. 12)  to maintain the names of campus buildings named for school founders who had connections to slavery. At the same meeting, the trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary created a multimillion-dollar scholarship fund for African American students.

“We’re not going to erase our history in any respect or leave our history unaddressed,” said the school’s president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., in a statement. “We are seeking to respond to the moral and theological burden of history by being a far more faithful institution in the present and in the future than we’ve been in the past and in this central respect we acknowledge a special debt to African American Christians.”

Starting in the 2022-23 academic year, the school will earmark $1 million of restricted and endowed funds for the Garland Offutt Scholars Program to honor the first African American full graduate and assist Black students at the seminary. It plans to contribute an additional $1 million every three years until a $5 million goal is reached.

The seminary trustees also declared vacant the Joseph Emerson Brown Chair of Christian Theology, which was held by Mohler. Brown, governor of Georgia during the Civil War, earned a substantial part of his fortune from the exploitation of mostly Black convict-lease laborers and gave a gift of $50,000 to the seminary that helped save it from financial collapse.

Read the entire piece here.

A short history of the 1619 Project

Over at The Washington Post, Sarah Ellison chronicles the ways The New York Times‘s 1619 Project has influenced American politics in 2020. Here is a taste:

Sean Wilentz remembers the Sunday morning in August when he walked down his driveway to pick up his Times. The Princeton historian was intrigued to see an issue of the magazine devoted to slavery; his most recent book, “No Property in Man,” explored the antislavery instincts of the nation’s founders. But then he started reading Hannah-Jones’s essay.

“I threw the thing across the room, I was so astounded,” he recalled recently, “because I ran across a paragraph on the American Revolution, and it was just factually wrong.”

Long before “1619” was vibrating on the lips of President Trump and leading GOP lawmakers, objections were brewing among serious liberal academics. Hannah-Jones’s 10,000-word essay opened with her father’s roots in a Mississippi sharecropping family before blossoming into a panoramic take on the nation’s history. In the passage that so enraged Wilentz, she asserted that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” at a time when “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.”

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didn’t take hold in London for more than a decade — and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Wilentz was impressed by some of the 1619 Project’s essays, but in November, he critiqued Hannah-Jones’s piece in a public speech. And he contacted other prominent academics, whose complaints about the project were chronicled by the World Socialist Web Site. Eventually, four agreed to join Wilentz in writing a letter to the Times, criticizing the project’s “displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

It didn’t go over so well.

“We perceived it right away to be an attack on the project,” said Silverstein. He questioned why they didn’t just contact him or Hannah-Jones directly to offer thoughts on how to “strengthen this historical analysis” as he said other readers had.

Wilentz, in turn, was stunned by Silverstein’s response letter, which published alongside the scholars’ in December and was longer than their own — a major tell, in his view, that the Times knew it had gotten something very wrong even while it appeared to dismiss the complaint and avoided addressing many of its points. “Holy smokes,” he thought. “This is war!”

Wilentz, who is White, had not succeeded in getting any Black historians to sign on to his letter. But some shared his concerns. Leslie Harris, a history professor at Northwestern who has written extensively about colonial slavery, was contacted in 2019 by a Times fact-checker asking if preserving slavery was a cause of the Revolutionary War. “Immediately, I was like, no, no, that doesn’t sound right,” Harris recalled. She thought the issue was settled — until she was a guest on a radio show with Hannah-Jones and heard the journalist assert that the colonists launched the revolution to preserve slavery. Taken aback, she was unready to argue but retreated to her car nearly in tears: A fan of the 1619 Project’s mission, she knew the claim could be consequential. “Given how high-profile this was, if this was really wrong, it was —” she paused, punctuating each word. “Really. Going. To. Be. Wrong.”

Read the entire piece here. Read all our posts on the 1619 Project here.

The Author’s Corner with Hannah-Rose Murray

Hannah-Rose Murray is Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the creator of a virtual Black Abolitionist tour of London, highlighting six important sites where African American activists made an impact on the UK landscape. This interview is based on her new book, Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The book developed from my PhD project, which focused on Black abolitionism in the British Isles during the nineteenth century. When I first started my research, I collated thousands of newspaper articles about Frederick Douglass’ visit to Britain and Ireland between 1845-1847, and after reading the pioneering works of Richard Blackett and Audrey Fisch realized that there was a wealth of material and sources to search through and uncover the larger story behind this transatlantic movement. I was fascinated to learn why Douglass was so famous and I developed a framework, adaptive resistance, which explores the reason why some activists were more successful than others: broadly, it’s a triad that rests on performance, antislavery networks and exploitation of print culture. For example, one of the reasons why Douglass was so successful in 1845 was due to his oratorical skill, his connections to William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery movement and friends across Britain and Ireland, who in turn befriended newspaper editors and published pamphlets and materials to maximise support for Douglass and the abolitionist cause. Others, like Moses Roper, were maligned in the press by newspaper correspondents and by some abolitionists; he often had to make his own way around Britain without such concrete networks of support. Through excavating British newspaper articles, I could analyze their performances, their testimony and how they were received by the press and public across the nineteenth century, and how certain events–like the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the American Civil War impacted their missions. Additionally, I created a mapping project that attempts to record as many African American speaking locations as possible. So far, I’ve mapped 4,700 sites in 1,550 locations across Britain and Ireland. As well as being a handy visualization tool for my research, it also presents numerous analytical patterns: why certain activists spoke in some locations rather than others and even how some followed early railway routes for ease of transportation. This filtered into the book too.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Advocates for Freedom?

HM: I argue that by sharing their oratorical, visual, and literary testimony to transatlantic audiences, African American activists galvanised the antislavery movement and highlighted not only their death-defying escapes from bondage but also their desire to speak out against slavery and white supremacy on foreign soil. Using a framework I term adaptive resistance, I uncover the reasons why some activists were more successful than others, why they visited certain locations, how they adapted to the political and social climate, and what impact their activism had on British society.

JF: Why do we need to read Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The politicized and radical journeys undertaken by African Americans to the British Isles are crucial to understanding their testimony and future careers, but also the antislavery movement and the Black Atlantic as a whole. For the first time, my book reveals new testimony and archival discoveries surrounding the stories of Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson (to name a few) and uses digital mapping to analyze their antislavery missions as well as a theoretical framework to determine why some activists were more successful than others. In this detailed study, I examine how in Britain and Ireland, thousands of slave narratives and abolitionist pamphlets were sold, petitions were signed, hundreds of pounds were raised for societies or given directly to help purchase individuals or their family members from slavery. Thousands more attended meetings at chapels, town halls, school rooms and lecturing halls, who often queued for hours beforehand and millions of words were written in response to Black activists and their stories of slavery. These activists challenged misconceptions of slavery, advanced the cause of abolition and mobilized public opinion. Through their interventions with the press, correspondents published Black abolitionist letters, speeches and commentaries, and their message was spread often beyond their immediate reach or where they had lectured. Their tireless activism often created and sustained antislavery momentum across the transatlantic, and their international missions inspired further action as well as apoplectic rage in the United States.

My work is also timely: as the Black Lives Matter protests continue to take place around the world, it’s important to recognize that the activists I discuss were declaring that their Black lives mattered nearly two centuries ago. It’s well documented that the movement has strong historical roots, but my chapter on Ida B. Wells’ lynching campaign in Britain in 1893 and 1894 is particularly prescient when we consider the modern lynchings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The book highlights not only the trajectory between activists in the c19th and today, but also how far we still have to go to accomplish their anti-racist missions.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HM: I have always loved learning about U.S. history since I was a teenager and was very lucky to visit America a few times when I was studying in secondary school. I started working on Frederick Douglass’ experiences in Britain ten years ago, achieved my PhD in 2018 and haven’t looked back since! My work centres around the rediscovery and amplification of African American testimony–including from Frederick Douglass–to ensure that their lives, histories and memories are no longer invisibilized. Their testimony can also shine a new light on their courageous and inspiring activism on both sides of the Atlantic and remind us that antislavery agitation had a fundamental transatlantic element. Activists like Douglass believed that their missions abroad would have very real consequences for enslavers, proslavery defenders, and racists back home.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: I envision Advocates of Freedom as part of a trilogy: this current work is quite broad and extends from the late 1830s to the early 1890s, so the project I’m working on now is a focused study between 1840-1870. I’m studying the ways in which African Americans used visual and performative testimony in the British Isles to convince the transatlantic public about slavery. For example, Moses Roper exhibited whips, chains and manacles on the Victorian stage and even demonstrated how they worked to his audiences. Henry ‘Box’ Brown, the infamous activist, lecturer and entertainer who escaped slavery by posting himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia, starred in a play based on his own life in Kent, England. Other activists like James C. Thompson wrote his own poetry and performed it to his audiences and exhibited paintings of his life in slavery. It’s fascinating to consider how activists used growing technological and visual mediums to inform audiences and entice them to their lectures.

The third book in this ‘trilogy’ (if it does get that far!) will focus on African American postbellum activism in the British Isles. Activists continued to travel to Britain and Ireland and followed in the footsteps of their forebears to raise awareness and educate transatlantic audiences on global racism. Additionally, they campaigned around the fact that, contrary to popular belief, U.S. chattel slavery had never actually died. Instead, its foul spirit had mutated and evolved into practices such as lynching and the convict lease system, which preserved the legacies of centuries of oppression. While antebellum slave narratives and speeches distinctly served the purpose of abolition, post-war testimony–particularly in oratorical form–was specifically shaped around abolition’s broken promises. They continued to denounce white supremacy, challenge Lost Cause narratives and white domestic terrorism up to the early twentieth century.

JF: Thanks, Hannah-Rose!

The Author’s Corner with Louis DeCaro, Jr.

Louis DeCaro, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church History at Alliance Theological Seminary. He has also kept a blog on John Brown since 2005. This interview is based on his new book, The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The short answer is that I have been a student of the life and letters of John Brown for over twenty years and in 2018 it was announced that a popular movie was being produced about one of John Brown’s black Harper’s Ferry raiders, Shields Green. Originally, I intended only to write an article in advance that I hoped to have published when the film was released. When I began to gather my sources, things began to catch my eye that I had overlooked, and the first draft of my “article” turned out to be nearly one hundred pages. This led to a conversation with the amazing Clara Platter at NYU Press, who encouraged me to consider a book. The funny thing is that the movie, “Emperor,” which was finally released not too long ago, ends with a fictive conclusion about Shields Green’s son writing a book about his father. So while the fictional story in the movie brings forth a book, the movie itself prompted me to write a real book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The story of John Brown has been misunderstood and misrepresented in conventional histories, but even sympathizers have overlooked his young raiders, especially the black raiders. The black raider Shields Green is the most challenging to find in the historical record of the Harper’s Ferry despite his storied role and yet his legacy provides insight into depth of racism in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: This work offers layers of historical consideration: (1) what it means to try to reconstruct a man’s story based on scattered and limited evidence; (2) what the story of Shields Green reveals about a kind of self-made black abolitionist, even as historians are starting to appreciate the antislavery story that is more appreciative of black leadership; (3) what Shields Green as a both a protagonist of justice and a victim of injustice reveals about the real nature of the United States in the antebellum era; (4) a challenge to the hackneyed, conventional narrative of John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid; (5) a consideration of the significance of how black people were portrayed in Brown’s time, especially Shields Green, whose image only survives through sketches made by white men; and (6) a consideration of how Green’s story was stylized, first by Frederick Douglass, and then relayed by historians down to recent history.

JF: When did you decide to become an American historian?

LD: From childhood I was always enamored by history, especially in biography (and particularly that of Abraham Lincoln), and I suppose the most compelling biographies for me were “American” stories (with the exception of my extended flirtation with the life of the Renaissance monk, Girolamo Savonarola). However, my academic and seminary training was largely centered upon European history and Reformed theology. What brought me back to the history of the United States was a passionate interest in African American history and racial justice, especially the study of Malcolm X, which yielded my first publications. Ultimately, Malcolm made me think about “American history” again, and in a sense, pointed me toward John Brown.

JF: What is your next project?

LD: I’m not sure. I’m in conversation with my editor about that now. Certainly, I intend to revisit John Brown, especially his role in Kansas and possibly prepare a narrated collection of his letters and primary documents. But I have other irons in the fire that reflect my interests in history and religion.

JF: Thanks, Louis!

How Abraham Lincoln challenged the power of the Supreme Court

How did Abraham Lincoln challenged a Supreme Court dominated by pro-slavery ideologues? Princeton historian Matthew Karp answers this question in his latest piece at Jacobin. Here is a taste:

Across the late 1850s, Lincoln argued that “the American people,” not the Supreme Court, were the true arbiters of the Constitution, and that the only way to defeat the proslavery judiciary was through mass political struggle. And after Lincoln and Hamlin were elected in 1860, the new president’s inaugural address articulated this view in perhaps the strongest language he ever used:

[I]f the policy of the government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made . . . the people will have ceased, to be their own rulers, having, to that extent, practically resigned their government, into the hands of that eminent tribunal.

Once in power, Lincoln and congressional Republicans “reorganized” the federal judiciary and “packed” the court, adding an additional justice in 1863. More fundamentally, though, they simply ignored the proslavery precedents established in the 1850s. In June 1862, for instance, Congress passed and Lincoln signed a bill banning slavery from the federal territories — a direct violation of the majority ruling in Dred Scott. The court meekly acquiesced, recognizing that its political power was long since broken.

As the legal historian Charles Warren later lamented, Republicans’ popular assault on the court crippled the institution for more than a decade: “During neither the Civil War nor the period of Reconstruction,” Warren wrote, “did the Supreme Court play anything like its due role of supervision, with the result that during one period the military powers of the President underwent undue expansion, and during the other the legislative powers of Congress. The Court itself was conscious of its weakness. . . . The loss of confidence in the Court was due not merely to the Court’s decision but to the false and malignant criticisms and portrayals of the Court which were spread widely through the North by influential newspapers . . . .”

Warren’s point, in other words, is that the greatest democratic expansion in US political history — the era of emancipation and Reconstruction — demanded a direct political attack on the power of the Supreme Court. Nor is it a coincidence that the court, as it began to recover its strength in the 1870s, led the reactionary attack on this democratic project.

Drawing direct lessons from the past is a fool’s errand, but this history should remind us that judicial power — however grandly it may be imagined by friends and foes alike — is critically dependent on political currents.

Read the entire piece here. I am not a Lincoln scholar, but there seems little in Karp’s piece about the role the Civil War played in Lincoln’s ability to challenge the pro-slavery court.

Is the 1619 Project backing-off some of its more problematic claims about the American founding?

It sure seems that way.

Here is Tom Mackaman and David North at World Socialist Web Site:

The New York Times, without announcement or explanation, has abandoned the central claim of the 1619 Project: that 1619, the year the first slaves were brought to Colonial Virginia—and not 1776—was the “true founding” of the United States.

The initial introduction to the Project, when it was rolled out in August 2019, stated that

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

The revised text now reads:

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

A similar change was made from the print version of the 1619 Project, which has been sent out to millions of school children in all 50 states. The original version read:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.

The website version has deleted the key claim. It now reads:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.

It is not entirely clear when the Times deleted its “true founding” claim, but an examination of old cached versions of the 1619 Project text indicates that it probably took place on December 18, 2019.

These deletions are not mere wording changes. The “true founding” claim was the core element of the Project’s assertion that all of American history is rooted in and defined by white racial hatred of blacks. According to this narrative, trumpeted by Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, the American Revolution was a preemptive racial counterrevolution waged by white people in North America to defend slavery against British plans to abolish it. The fact that there is no historical evidence to support this claim did not deter the Times and Hannah-Jones from declaring that the historical identification of 1776 with the creation of a new nation is a myth, as is the claim that the Civil War was a progressive struggle aimed at the destruction of slavery. According to the New York Times and Hannah-Jones, the fight against slavery and all forms of oppression were struggles that black Americans always waged alone.

Read the rest here. For out other 1619 Project posts click here.

Who’s afraid of critical race theory?

Donald Trump has turned Critical Race Theory (CRT) into a campaign issue in the hopes of winning white evangelicals and other conservatives who fear that an academic theory that they know little about is somehow threatening American democracy. Between his attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project, he just might win back a few 2016 voters who were contemplating pulling the lever for Biden or another candidate in November.

On Friday night, September 4, 2020, Russell Vought, the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget, released a memo demanding that the Executive Branch stop teaching CRT as part of required “training” sessions for federal employees.

Vought’s memo condemns seminars that expose employees to the idea that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” or “benefit from racism.” All programs that include discussions of “white privilege” or the notion that the United States is an “inherently racist or evil country,” the memo states, must immediately “cease and desist.”

Trump may have learned about CRT from a segment on Fox News. On September 2, 2020, Fox host Tucker Carlson interviewed Chris Rufo, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank best known for its advocacy of the “intelligent design” view of creation. After studying CRT for six months, Rufo concluded the theory has become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and is being “weaponized against the American people.” He described CRT as “a cult indoctrination” and demanded that Trump bring an end to it immediately. The president was apparently listening.

So what should we make of CRT? Like all academic theories, we ought to engage it thoughtfully. Critical race theory is one way of helping us come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups based on the color of their skin.

In their helpful introduction to CRT, scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Sefancic identify five major themes of this theory.

First, CRT affirms that racism is an “ordinary” or “common” part of everyday life. In other words, racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice against people of color, it is a system of discrimination built into American institutions, especially the law.

Second, CRT affirms that since White people benefit from such systemic racism, they will not have the incentive to do anything about it. Shock events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha might alert White people to racial injustice, but it is unlikely such tragedies will lead to a sustained anti-racism.

Third, CRT affirms that race is “socially constructed.” This means that the racial categories we use are not biologically determined but invented by human beings. There is nothing inherent about any race that should lead to its oppression. Racism is thus best explained by a close examination of American history to see how men and women in power “constructed” the idea of racial difference and promoted bigotry based on those differences.

Fourth, CRT affirms, to quote Delgado and Sefancic, that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” For example, I am a male, white, a product of the American working class, and a Christian. These different identities are often mutually dependent on one another and when taken together make me a whole person. CRT uses the technical term “intersectionality” to define the way these different identities overlap and intersect.

Fifth, CRT affirms that Black people and other people of color “are able to communicate to their White counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know.” At the heart of CRT is storytelling. This is the primary way that people of color can explain the racism that they encounter daily. It also implies that people of color are more equipped to talk about the plight of the racially oppressed than White people.

Critical race theorists are often suspicious of liberalism, both the Left and Right variety. As a product of the Western intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, liberals champion universals—the things that we hold in common as human beings regardless of race. CRT celebrates what makes human beings unique and different. The appeal to the universal values of the Enlightenment, its adherents argue, always favors the White people who have defined and benefited from those values.

Much of CRT sounds a lot like some of the things I learned in college, seminary, and graduate school. Back then we studied these things under the rubric of “American history” and “Christianity.”

For example, I don’t remember reading anything about CRT while working toward my Ph.D in American history. But I did not need these high-falutin academic theorists to see how racism was embedded in the history of the republic. All I needed to do was study the documentary record with my eyes open. One cannot ignore the long history of White people oppressing Black people. White people have had advantages–privileges even–that Black people and other people of color have not. To acknowledge white privilege is to be a good historian.

It is also difficult to study American history and not see continuity between the past and present. The legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy are still with us just like the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty, freedom, and individual rights are still with us. Indeed, racism is “ordinary” and “common” in American life. It is not some kind of aberration practiced by a few “bad apples” who make occasional appearances in the narratives we teach about the past.

A few weeks ago I was teaching the students in my U.S. history survey course about seventeenth-century Virginia. This colonial society passed laws that defined Black men and women as slaves for the purpose of quelling disgruntled poor whites (former indentured servants) who had a propensity for social and political rebellion. The codification of race-based slavery in Virginia law resulted in the social, economic, and political advance of these marginalized White colonials.

Were there individual acts of racism in colonial Virginia? Of course. But what the Virginia government did was systemic–its leaders embedded racism in the culture of the settlement. While this is an early example of systemic racism, we can point to many other instances in American history where White people were able to achieve something called the “American Dream” on the backs of slavery and other oppressed and marginalized people.

Trump’s decision to root-out CRT will inevitably win him points with his Fox-News-watching Christian conservative base, but is CRT something Christians should fear?

As an undergraduate and seminary student at evangelical institutions, I learned that Christians should not be surprised by injustice and evil in this world. Rather, we should expect it. The world is a fallen and broken place. My professors drilled this into my head through a reading and re-reading (occasionally in the original Hebrew language) of Genesis 3. Sin manifests itself in both individual lives and cultural systems.

Since Christians believe in human sin, we should have no problem embracing CRT’s affirmation of systemic racism. At the same time, we should always be ready to offer hope–rooted in Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the promise of resurrection—as a means of healing a world that is broken. We may never overcome the damage of systemic racism on this side of eternity, but we cannot ignore our call to be agents of reconciliation.

Is it true that White people have no incentive to do anything about racial injustice because they benefit from it? American history certainly bears this out. The story of our nation is filled with White men and women who witnessed racism on a regular basis and did nothing to stop it. Some of them knew it was wrong but lacked the courage to do anything about it. Others simply did not care.

Christian critics of CRT celebrate abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wilberforce, or William Lloyd Garrison, but these courageous activists were the exceptions to the rule in 19th-century America. The “heroic man” or “heroic woman” view of the history of moral reform does not account for the long record of White Christian complacency on racial injustice. In the end, any Christian who takes a deep dive into the American past will find heroes to emulate, but they will also find that most White people were complicit in sustaining a system of white supremacy.

What about the social construction of race? When Thomas Jefferson said in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) that Africans were “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he was degrading the human dignity of Black people, men and women created by God in His image. Racism entered the world when sinful human beings forged communities that privileged some and excluded others.

Christians can also agree, to an extent, with the idea of intersectionality. We all possess different social identities and there are times when we face injustice that stems from those identities—injustices that our legal system fails to address.

Our urge to downplay the identities that define us as human beings is understandable and, in many cases, good. A flourishing society will always be built upon the things we hold common as human beings. A thriving Church will always be built upon the knowledge that one day White Christians and Christians of color will share together in the new heavens and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation. A central message of the Book of Acts and Pauline epistles is summed-up best in Galatians 3:38: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all one in Christ.”

But God has also made us different. We are products of history. Our faith will always be understood and navigated through the circumstances that have shaped us and provided us with multiple identities in this world. While we all want to be one in Christ, and should always be about the work of reconciliation and unity as Jesus reminded us in John 17, we must also remember, as theologian Miroslav Volf writes, that God notes not only our “common humanity,” but also our “specific histories.”

Finally, CRT’s emphasis on storytelling is something Christians should value. The Christian tradition is full of men and women telling stories of suffering, sin, and redemption. When Black people tell their stories of encounters with racism it should provoke empathy in the hearts of White Christians. We understand the power of testimony.

Of course, stories can be manipulated for selfish or political ends. And personal experience does not always translate to expertise on a subject such as African American history or literature. But those who dwell on these matters miss an opportunity to cultivate a more just democracy through compassion and understanding. It is time to exercise some humility. This means we need to stop talking and start listening to the stories African Americans are telling us.

In the end, if critical race theorists can teach me something I don’t know about how I may have benefited from white oppression (even if I may not commit overt acts of racism) or how to have greater solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t I want to consider it?

As a Christian, I want to see the world through the eyes of my faith. I want my “theory” to be the teachings of the scriptures and the Christian tradition. This may mean that I embrace parts of CRT and reject other parts. I know very few academics—Christian or secular—who adopt theories in toto.

There is much truth in CRT, and all truth is God’s truth. We have nothing to fear.

How Princeton is dealing with John Witherspoon’s slave ownership

Princeton 2018 2

The Witherspoon statue at Princeton University

I must have missed this from two weeks ago, but the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to change the name of John Witherspoon Middle School because the Presbyterian minister, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and former president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton (now Princeton University) owned slaves.

Marissa Michaels has it covered at The Daily Princetonian. She also reports on an attempt to remove the Witherspoon statue from the campus of Princeton University. Here is a taste of her piece:

Their petition — which has garnered 1,558 signatures — reads, “In the midst of the ongoing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, this has created the opportune moment for John Witherspoon Middle School to rid itself of its slave-owning and anti-abolitionist namesake … This change is imperative, as the school’s name and Witherspoon’s legacy creates a hostile environment for both the middle school and district’s racially diverse student body.”

A full letter to the Board, which includes alumni testimony, outlines the reasons for the Witherspoon name removal, citing the Princeton & Slavery Project. Witherspoon, the University’s sixth president (1768–94), owned slaves, as did his children. In 1790, Witherspoon and the majority of a New Jersey Board voted against helping to abolish slavery, believing it was “already dying out.” Slavery in New Jersey, however, continued until the end of the Civil War.

Witherspoon’s legacy has also sparked debate at the institution over which he once presided. An early-July open letter signed by over 350 University faculty members called on Nassau Hall to remove a campus statue of Witherspoon. When asked about the letter then, University Spokesperson Ben Chang said the administration was “currently reviewing these and other suggestions for change that have been made by members of our community” as part of a process laid out in June.

In a controversial response, classics professor Joshua Katz wrote, “Since I don’t care for this statue or its placement in front of the  building in which I have my office, I would not be sad if it were moved  away—but emphatically not because of Witherspoon, a signer of the  Declaration of Independence who was a major figure in Princeton and  American history with a complex relationship to slavery.”

Witherspoon middle school

My take on this story is similar to what I wrote about the removal of the George Whitefield statue at the University of Pennsylvania.

If Princeton University does decide to remove the Witherspoon statue, we should not interpret the decision as “erasing history.” We will still talk about Witherspoon. In fact, he features quite prominently in my uncompleted book manuscript (very) tentatively titled, “God in the Crossroads: The American Revolution in New Jersey.”

Fear and Frederick Jackson Turner: Night 4 of the GOP convention

Trump GOP convention 2

Well, it’s over. Last night Donald Trump, a president who lost the popular vote by 3 million and has never had his approval rating rise over 50%, used the White House–the “people’s house–for a political rally. Most of the sycophants in the crowd were not wearing masks and there was no social distancing.

Trump’s speech was filled with lies and misleading statements. His low energy reading of the teleprompter did not play to our hopes, it played to our fears. But this is now par for the course in the Trump administration. The president claimed that if Joe Biden gets elected, suicide, depression, drug and alcohol addiction and heart attacks would plague the country. (The only thing missing from this list is lower SAT scores). He suggested that if Joe Biden gets elected Black mobs will invade the white suburbs. Joe Biden will take your guns and abolish the police force. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

And most white evangelicals are on board. In fact, many of the court evangelicals were present at the speech.

Author Neal Gabler once said that “true religion…begins in doubt and continues in spiritual exploration. Debased religion begins in fear and terminates in certainty.” The great poet of the Jersey shore put it this way: “Fear’s a dangerous thing. It can turn your heart black you can trust. It’ll take a God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”

Last night’s theme was “America: Land of Greatness.” But I don’t think court evangelical Franklin Graham got the message. Here is his opening prayer:

Graham talked about a nation in “trouble,” a nation “divided,” and a nation experiencing “injustice.” It was a good prayer. He turned to God, not Trump, for hope.

All week we have been hearing a lot about Trump as a man of empathy and compassion. He loves Black people. He loves women. He loves immigrants. Last night Trump claimed (again) that he has done more for the Black community than any president in American history (which is not true). But he failed to say anything about the plight of African Americans in this country. He ignored the family of Jacob Blake. It’s as if the real problems in America–death from coronavirus, racial unrest, and a struggling economy–do not exist in Trumpland.

I really don’t have much to say about last night that I haven’t written about many times before. Trump is a serial liar. Read NPR’s fact check here.

But near the end of the speech, Trump started riffing on the American past.

Our country wasn’t built by cancel culture, speech codes, and soul-crushing conformity. We are NOT a nation of timid spirits. We are a nation of fierce, proud, and independent American Patriots.

We are a nation of pilgrims, pioneers, adventurers, explorers and trailblazers who refused to be tied down, held back, or reined in. Americans have steel in their spines, grit in their souls, and fire in their hearts. There is no one like us on earth.

I want every child in America to know that you are part of the most exciting and incredible adventure in human history. No matter where your family comes from, no matter your background, in America, ANYONE CAN RISE. With hard work, devotion, and drive, you can reach any goal and achieve every ambition.

Our American Ancestors sailed across the perilous ocean to build a new life on a new continent. They braved the freezing winters, crossed the raging rivers, scaled the rocky peaks, trekked the dangerous forests, and worked from dawn till dusk. These pioneers didn’t have money, they didn’t have fame– but they had each other. They loved their families, they loved their country, and they loved their God!

When opportunity beckoned, they picked up their Bibles, packed up their belongings, climbed into covered wagons, and set out West for the next adventure. Ranchers and miners, cowboys and sheriffs, farmers and settlers — they pressed on past the Mississippi to stake a claim in the Wild Frontier.

Legends were born — Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill.

Americans built their beautiful homesteads on the Open Range. Soon they had churches and communities, then towns, and with time, great centers of industry and commerce. That is who they were. Americans build the future, we don’t tear down the past!

We are the nation that won a revolution, toppled tyranny and fascism, and delivered millions into freedom. We laid down the railroads, built the great ships, raised up the skyscrapers, revolutionized industry, and sparked a new age of scientific discovery. We set the trends in art and music, radio and film, sport and literature — and we did it all with style, confidence and flair. Because THAT is who we are.

Whenever our way of life was threatened, our heroes answered the call.

From Yorktown to Gettysburg, from Normandy to Iwo Jima, American Patriots raced into cannon blasts, bullets and bayonets to rescue American Liberty.

But America didn’t stop there. We looked into the sky and kept pressing onward. We built a 6 million pound rocket, and launched it thousands of miles into space. We did it so that two brave patriots could stand tall and salute our wondrous American flag planted on the face of the Moon.

For America, nothing is impossible.

I need to figure out some way to use this speech in an American history class. There was nothing in the speech about westward-moving southerners trying to find new land to spread their slave culture. There was nothing in the speech about the death of Indians or the forced surrender of  native land. There was nothing in the speech about the limits of American self-interest.

Trump said that the settlement of the West resulted in the creation of “churches and communities.” This was followed, in Trump’s view of history, by “industry and commerce.” Then came railroads, ships, skyscrapers, and victory in World War II. And finally the moon landing. I am surprised he did not use a quote or two from Rudyard Kipling.

What we heard last night was an eighteenth-century “stages of civilization” view of history, a progressive and Whig history focused on the inevitable triumph of liberty and freedom for all white Americans, and a Frederick Jackson Turner-esque story of rugged individualism. I am going to bet that the speech was written by Stephen Miller, Trump’s nativist alt-Right staff member who has spent his short career in politics celebrating the superiority and conquest of the white race.

November 3 is coming soon.

John MacArthur’s views on slavery sound eerily familiar

MacArthur

Someone just sent this to me. Here is Grace Community Church pastor John MacArthur, the subject of the recent controversy over the opening of churches during the COVID-19 pandemic, talking about the benefits of slavery. The video was posted in 2012.

I hope MacArthur has changed his views on slavery, but I am not holding my breath. MacArthur sounds exactly like an antebellum Southern intellectual making a case for slavery. Any student who has taken me for a U.S. history survey course or a Civil War course will recognize this rhetoric.

Here is George Fitzhugh in 1857 on the “blessings of slavery“:

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with som muh of license and abandon, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the gretest of human enjoyments. “Blessed be the man who invented sleep.” ‘Tis happiness in itself–and results from contentment in the present, and confident assurance of the future.

And this from the same document:

To insist that a status of society, which has been almost universal, and which is expressly and continually justified by Holy Writ, is its natural, normal, and necessary status, under the ordinary circumstances, is on its face a plausible and probable proposition. To insist on less, is to yield our cause, and to give up our religion; for if white slavery be morally wrong, be a violation of natural rights, the Bible cannot be true. Human and divine authority do seem in the general to concur, in establishing the expediency of having masters and slaves of different races.

And this, also from the same document:

The civilized man hates the savage, and the savage returns the hatred with interest. Hence West India slavery of newly caught negroes is not a very humane, affectionate, or civilizing institution. Virginia negroes have become moral and intelligent. They love their master and his family, and the attachment is reciprocated. Still, we like the idle, but intelligent house-servants, better than the hard-used, but stupid outhands; and we like the mulatto better than the negro; yet the negro is generally more affectionate, contented, and faithful. The world at large looks on negro slavery as much the worst form of slavery; because it is only acquainted with West India slavery. But our Southern slavery has become a benign and protective institution, and our negroes are confessedly better off than any free laboring population in the world. How can we contend that white slavery is wrong, whilst all the great body of free laborers are starving; and slaves, white or black, throughout the world, are enjoying comfort? . . 

Here is a defense of slavery from Thomas Dew, president of The College of William and Mary:

When we turn to the New Testament, we find hot one single passage at all calculated to disturb the conscience of an honest slaveholder. No one can read it without seeing and admiring that the meek and humble Saviour of the world in no instance meddled with the established institutions of mankind; he came to save a fallen work, and not to excite the black passions of man and array them in deadly hostility against each other. From no one did he turn away; his plan was offered alike to all—to the monarch and the subject, the rich and the poor, the master and the slave. He was born in the Roman world, a world in which the most galling slavery existed, a thousand times more cruel than the slavery in our own country; and yet he nowhere encourages insurrection, he nowhere fosters discontent; but exhorts always to implicit obedience and fidelity.

What a rebuke does the practice of the Redeemer of mankind imply upon the conduct of some of his nominal disciples of the day, who seek to destroy the contentment of the slave, to rouse their most deadly passions, to break up the deep foundations of society, and to lead on to a night of darkness and confusion! “Let every man,” (says Paul) “abide in the same calling wherein he is called. Art thou called being a servant? Care not for it; but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather” (I Corinth. vii. 20,21). . . . Servants are even commanded in Scripture to be faithful and obedient to unkind masters. “Servants,” (says Peter) “be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle but to the froward. For what glory is it if when ye shall be buffeted for your faults ye take it patiently; but if when ye do will and suffer for it, yet take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (I Peter ii. 18,20). These and many other passages in the New Testament most convincingly prove that slavery in the Roman world was nowhere charged as a fault or crime upon the holder, and everywhere is the most implicit obedience enjoined.

More Dew:

Every one acquainted with Southern slaves knows that the slave rejoices in the elevation and prosperity of his master; and the heart of no one is more gladdened at the successful debut of the young master or miss on the great theater of the world than that of either the young slave who has grown up with them and shared in all their sports, and even partaken of all their delicacies, or the aged one who has looked on and watched them from birth to manhood, with the kindest and most affectionate solicitude, and has ever met from them all the kind treatment and generous sympathies of feeling, tender hearts. 

Now go back and listen again to MacArthur. This also reminds me of recent comments from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler.

David Barton says 19th-century Christians who used the Bible to defend slavery were “the exception, not the rule”

Watch:

There are a lot of historical problems with this video, but the one of the most overt problems is Barton’s claim that most 19th-century Americans were abolitionists. Apparently Barton believes that those who used the Bible to defend slavery were the “exception to the rule.” The only way such a statement is true is if you believe that the South was not part of the United States during the era of slavery. I am sure Barton knows that the Southern Baptist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in America today, was born out of a reading of the Bible that justified slavery. Exception to the rule?

Barton also confuses slavery and racism. (The conversation takes place in the context of a condemnation of the Black Lives Matter movement). He claims that 75% of New England clergy signed a petition condemning slavery. I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t think it would surprise any historian that 75% of New England clergy would sign such a petition. This region was the center of anti-slavery activism in the 1850s.

But even in New England, segregation and racism was present, if not dominant. Systemic racism was deeply embedded in the region’s culture. I would encourage Barton to read Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England ,1780-1860. Here is a description of the book:

Melish explores the origins of racial thinking and practices to show how ill-prepared the region was to accept a population of free people of color in its midst. Because emancipation was gradual, whites transferred prejudices shaped by slavery to their relations with free people of color, and their attitudes were buttressed by abolitionist rhetoric which seemed to promise riddance of slaves as much as slavery. She tells how whites came to blame the impoverished condition of people of color on their innate inferiority, how racialization became an important component of New England ante-bellum nationalism, and how former slaves actively participated in this discourse by emphasizing their African identity.

As some of you know, I have been reading David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. Blight notes how Douglass faced overt racism in New England following his escape from slavery. Here is just one small passage from Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom:

The distances between the young abolitionist’s private and public lives were thrown into stark contrast, which would only grow with time. Twice in September [of 1841] Douglass was insulted, accosted, or thrown off the Eastern Railroad, the second instance occurring at the Lynn depot. On September 8, Collins and Douglass had purchased train tickets in Newburyport to travel north to Dover, New Hampshire, to speak at the Strafford County Anti-Slavery Society. The two were sitting in one double seat as the gruff conductor ordered Douglass to immediately move forward to the Jim Crow car. For Douglass such constant practices of segregation were always about dignity, as much as the “mean, dirty, and uncomfortable” space of Jim Crow cars. Collins vehemently objected on behalf of his black companion….With the conductor’s “little fist flourished about my head,” Collins reported, he too was ordered to leave the car. “If you haul him out, it will be over my person, as I do not intend to leave this seat,” proclaimed Collins. The conductor brought in several of the railroad’s hired thugs to do the deed. With Collins loudly protesting this was “no less than lynch law,” five men dragged the strong Douglass over Collins’s unmoved body, “like so many bloodhounds,” and “thrust him into the ‘negro car.'” In the fracas, Douglass’s clothes were torn and Collins described himself as “considerably injured in the affray.” Not missing an opportunity to make a Garrisonian doctrinal point, Collins told of a second conductor who went into the Negro car to console Douglass with the intelligence the railroad’s policy was not so bad after all, since so many churches “have their ‘negro pews.'”

Please don’t get your American history from David Barton.

What an anti-slavery newspaper said about white Jesus

Anti-Slavery bugle

Remember a couple of weeks ago when court evangelical Eric Metaxas said Jesus was white? Me too.

Here is Peter Manseau, the curator of religion at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History:

Here is more on Hezekiah Ford Douglas.

Browse more issues of the Anti-Slavery Bugle here.