Category: African-American History

US Navy’s Guide to Commanding Negroes (1945)

In recognition of the challenges in dealing with Negroes, the US Navy developed a pamphlet titled Guide To Command of Negro Naval Personnel (NAVPERS – 15092) in 1945.

The Guide notes the following:

The mission of the Naval Establishment is the protection of our country, its possessions and its interests. It includes neither social reform nor support of the personal social preferences of its personnel. In the accomplishment of this mission it is mandatory that the training and ability of all Naval personnel be utilized to the fullest.

It must be recognized that problems of race relations do exist and that they must be taken into account in plans for the prosecution of the war. In the Naval Establishment they should be viewed however solely as matters of efficient personnel utilization.

In general, the same methods of discipline, training and leadership that have long proven successful in the Naval Establishment will be found to apply to the Negro enlisted man. However, the effective administration and use of Negro personnel does call for special knowledge and techniques in some instances.

This is the result of the fact that Negroes as a group have had a history different from that of the majority of Naval personnel. Their educational opportunities have been restricted; the percentage of skilled workers is smaller; and participation in the life of the nation has been limited.

It is the purpose of this pamphlet to point out group differences in background and experience of significance to the officer with Negroes in his command, and to suggest approaches which may be of aid to him in the performance of his duties. The success or failure of each Commanding Officer in the administration of Negroes under him will be determined largely by the spirit in which he approaches the problem and the degree of attention given to it.

The Guide addresses potential problem areas such as “Symbols That Irritate,” “Even Compliments may be Misunderstood,” “Racial Separation,” “Transportation,” “Public Relations,” “The Negro Press,” “Rumors” and “Control of Venereal Disease.”

The title is outdated, and so is much of the Guide’s content. However, I found this to be a fascinating read for its frank and comprehensive treatment of the subject of dealing with African Americans in the military, and the window it provides into the mindset that whites in the military had toward blacks in the 1940s. It’s well worth your time to take a look.

NC Civil Rights Museum Opens at Site of the First 1960s Lunch Counter Sit-ins

This is great news!


The International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina

In Greensboro, NC, the site of the first 1960s lunch counter sit-ins has been turned into a civil rights museum. This is an excerpt from a story by the AP:

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The four college freshmen walked quietly into a Greensboro dime store on a breezy Monday afternoon, bought a few items, then sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter – and sparked a wave of civil rights protest that changed America. Violating a social custom as rigid as law, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond sat near an older white woman on the silver-backed stools at the F.W. Woolworth. The black students had no need to talk; theirs was no spontaneous act. Their actions on Feb. 1, 1960, were meticulously planned, down to buying a few school supplies and toiletries and keeping their receipts as proof that the lunch counter was the only part of the store where racial segregation still ruled.

They weren’t afraid, even though they had no way of knowing how the sit-ins would end. What they did know was this: They were tired, they were angry and they were ready to change the world.

The number of protesters mushroomed daily, reaching at least 1,000 by the fifth day. Within two months, sit-ins were occurring in 54 cities in nine states. Within six months, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was desegregated.

The sit-in led to the formation in Raleigh of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which became the cutting edge of the student direct-action civil rights movement. The demonstrations between 1960 and 1965 helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

On Monday, February 1, 2010, the 50th anniversary of that transformative day, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum will open on the site of the Greensboro Woolworth store. The dining room is still there, with two counters forming an L-shape. One counter is a replica because the fixture was divided into parts and sent to three museums, including the Smithsonian. But the original stools and counter remain where the four sat and demanded service.

A video about the sit-ins from the History Channel is here:

The Museum’s web site – www.sitinmovement.org – has a very interesting homepage, which is worth a few seconds to browse.

A slideshow of photos from the museum has been produced by the New York Times, along with this article.

It’s wonderful to the efforts of these brave people memorialized and saved for review and consideration by future generations.

Faithful Slaves Monument: Thanks, But No Thanks

This is a monument in York County, South Carolina, to memorialize the “Faithful Slaves” of the the Civil War.


Faithful Slaves Memorial, York County, South Carolina; from The Historical Marker Database

The monument reads in part:

Dedicated to the faithful slaves who loyal to a sacred trust toiled for the support of the army with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenceless homes, women and children during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America.

Full details of the monument are here. The comments at the link say that the thirteen-foot marble monument “is a tribute to the faithfulness of the Southern negro to the women and children of the South during the war… (and) probably the only one of its kind in the South.”

The folks who built this monument may well have been heartfelt in their motivations. But looking at it from my own vantage point, I find the thing disturbing and perverse.

I am going to describe the memorial with a metaphor that some might find objectionable… don’t say I didn’t warn you. To me, this memorial is akin to a rapist thanking a rape victim for being quiet during the act, thereby not alerting others to what was happening.

In both cases, thanks are being given for an action that benefits the victimizer, but does nothing to help the victim.

I can see why these folks would feel gratitude toward the slaves that are honored by this monument. In 1860, there were over three and a half million slaves in the South. But by the end of the Civil War, some estimates say that over 500,000 slaves fled their masters to go to contraband camps, head North, or otherwise seek freedom. Many males slaves joined the Union army or served the army in support roles. Meanwhile, many of the slaves who didn’t flee aided and abetted the Union effort by serving as spies, guides, or providing other support.

So, any slave who stayed with and supported their masters and masters’ families was undoubtedly seen as a blessing.

The thing is, this memorial is all about what the slaves did for their masters. I think it’s fair to ask, what did the slaves receive in return? Did they receive their freedom? Did they receive land or property, or reimbursement at a fair wage for their labors? Did they receive any political rights? The answer to these questions appears to be no.

Ultimately, I find this memorial to be self-serving and hollow.

I’m sure that the monument’s builders believed they were doing a good thing. But thanking a slave for being a good slave… that doesn’t resonate with me at all. If I was a slave, my reaction would be “thanks massa… thanks for nothing.”

Now, here’s a memorial I’d like to see. It features a huge statue, with a group of white men on one side, and a group of slaves on the other. The white men include Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederacy), Alexander Stephens, (Vice-President of the Confederacy) or John C. Calhoun (a leading proponent of slavery and secession prior to the Civil War). Their mouths are open, their faces etched with a mournful apology. On the other side, the slaves have a blank but measuring stare, as if they are trying to make sense of words that they never expected to hear.

On the base of the monument, there are two words: “We’re Sorry.”

Are there any such monuments in the South, or anywhere in this country? There should be.

(Hat tip to cwmemory.com )

Wow!: Memorial to the Denmark Vesey ‘Slave Revolt’ Conspiracy To Be Built in SC

I was very surprised to read this story about a monument that is planned for Charleston, SC:

In an event sure to rekindle the racially polarized debate over Denmark Vesey’s place in history, a site in Hampton Park was dedicated Monday for a monument to the man hanged for plotting a slave rebellion in Charleston.

A model of the new Denmark Vesey Memorial that will be erected in Hampton Park, designed by Ed Dwight.
To the local politicians, religious leaders and historians at the event, Vesey was a civil rights leader acting on a universal desire for justice that unites all people. Monument designer Ed Dwight favorably compared Vesey to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But this is Charleston, where the hanging of a portrait of Vesey in the municipal auditorium in 1976 — more than 150 years after Vesey was himself publicly hanged — prompted much criticism, and the theft of the painting. “It was very controversial,” College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers Jr. said. “People were writing to The (Charleston, SC) News and Courier expressing outrage that the portrait of a criminal could be hung in a public place.”

An article about the memorial, including a model of the memorial statue, is here.

There is no doubt that the story of Denmark Vesey is compelling. Wikipedia provides a summary:

In 1781, Vesey was purchased by Captain Joseph Vesey from the then-Danish Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He labored briefly in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), and then was settled in Charleston, South Carolina as a youth, where Joseph Vesey kept him as a domestic slave. On November 9, 1799, Denmark Vesey won $1500 in a city lottery. He bought his own freedom and began working as a carpenter. Although briefly a Presbyterian, Vesey co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. The church was temporarily shut down by white authorities in 1818 and again in 1820.

Inspired by the revolutionary spirit and actions of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution, and furious at the closing of the African Church, Vesey began to plan a slave rebellion. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast. The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to slay their owners and temporarily seize the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation.

Two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.

It’s important to note that no actual slave revolt took place. Vesey and his people were basically tried on the basis of conspiracy charges.

I admit to being surprised that something as controversial as this – a monument to a person who was accused of planning a slave revolt – is being built in South Carolina, of all places. The state has been embroiled in controversies over the presentation of history, such as the display of the Confederate flag on the state capital grounds.

But perhaps I’m overreacting. It could just be that things have progressed to the point that it’s possible to place these issues in public sites and public memory, even in South Carolina. It’s heartening to see, in any event.

The Kings, Queens, and Martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. His leadership, intellect, courage, and ambassadorship to white America and the world at large make him deserving of all the recognitions and honors that he’s received.

Yet, I am filled with ambivalence every time we come to another MLK Jr Day. Yes, Dr. King was a great man. But he was not an army of one.

The Civil Rights Movement had numerous heroes and martyrs. All of them deserve recognition. Rather than a day to celebrate the memory of King, I would have preferred a Nation Civil Rights Movement Day to celebrate all of those who were a part of the Movement.

For example, my other “favorite” super-hero from the Movement is Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She started

working in the fields when she was six, and was only educated through the sixth grade. She married in 1942, and adopted two children. She went to work on the plantation where her husband drove a tractor, first as a field worker and then as the plantation’s timekeeper. She also attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights, and voting rights.

In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. She and the rest of her family lost their jobs for her involvement, and SNCC hired her as a field secretary. She was able to register to vote for the first time in her life in 1963, and then taught others what they’d need to know to pass the then-required literacy test. In her organizing work, she often led the activists in singing Christian hymns about freedom: “This Little Light of Mine” and others.

She helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP.

In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant’s “whites only” policy, Hamer was beaten so badly in jail, and refused medical treatment, that she was permanently disabled.

Hamer is most famous for her work as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sometimes called the “Freedom Democrats,” in 1964. The Freedom Democrats challenged the seating of Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. The Freedom Democrats brought national attention to the plight of black people in the state, and led to reforms in the way persons are seated at the Democratic Convention.

In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, by a vote of 116 to 0. This was an extraordinary recognition, given the state’s resistance to integration. Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977.


Fannie Lou Hamer, Freedom Democrat (Library of Congress photo)

To me, no understanding of the Movement can be complete without knowing her story. But as I talk to people about Civil Rights history, especially young people, I am saddened that they have little or no idea of who she was or what she accomplished.

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Who’s Your Daddy? It Wasn’t a Joke in Jim Crow Mississippi.

Segregation in the Jim Crow South was about two things: political and economic power, and sex.

The entire system was designed to keep blacks from power in government and business, and black men from intimacy with white women.

This had obvious negative effects on the South’s black population. African Americans were subjected to harsh, even brutal treatment for doing such simple things as trying to vote. But there were negative impacts on white Southerners as well.

Devils-SactuaryWhite Southerners also had to adhere to the South’s code of behavior, or suffer consequences. This is illustrated in a true story from the book Devil’s Sanctuary: An Eyewitness History of Mississippi Hate Crimes. The book is co-authored by Alex A. Alston, Jr., former president of the Mississippi State Bar Association, and journalist James L. Dickerson.

The book details instances of the horrific oppression of Mississippi blacks by white Mississippians and all aspects of the state’s governmental and social institutions.

One of those governmental institutions was the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a quasi-independent spy agency created in 1956 to Mississippi against integration efforts by the federal government. The Sovereignty Commission was basically Mississippi’s Big Brother, and had its eyes out for anything that might imperil white supremacy.

This is a poignant and somewhat scary excerpt from the book:

Early in 1956, Mississippi Governor J. P. Coleman sent a bill to the Mississippi legislature to create a super-secret spy agency designed to protect the state from the encroaching power of the federal government. Under the provisions of the bill, the commission was empowered to “perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment.”

The commission was given the authority to examine the records and documents of any citizen and it was provided with broad-ranging subpoena power that included the authority to enforce obedience “by fine or imprisonment” at the discretion of the commission. It was designed to operate independantly of state govenment, when necessary, and permitted to solicit and use private funds to carry out covert operations.

…while taking the oath of office, Coleman had brought attention to the commission by saying, “I have not the slightest fear that four years hence when my successor assumes his official oath that the seperation of races in Mississippi will be left intact.”

***

When the Sovereignty Commission received word in 1964 that a white woman in Grenada, Mississippi had given birth to a baby of suspicious racial origins, investigator Tom Scarbrough was sent to the small town to conduct an investigation. After touching base with his initial source. who informed him that the 38 year old woman had been having an affair with a 31 year old motel employee who was black, Scarbrough met with the local sheriff, who expressed relief at seeing the investigator in town, since he wasn’t sure what to do about the situation. In his report Scarbrough wrote that the sheriff had told him that the people in Grenada were disturbed about the rumors, all the more since the (woman) and her husband and were from respectable families.

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Birthing a Slave: Reproduction and Inhumanity during America’s Slavery Era

Most people know of slavery, but we don’t know about slavery. Specifically, we don’t know how dehumanizing it was to be a slave.

We might understand what it’s like to be denied freedom or dignity at an intellectual level. But for many of us, we don’t have a grasp on how horrible the institution was, in the day to day life of an enslaved person. Most of us don’t “get” what it was about inhuman bondage that made it so inhuman.

For example: what was it like to be slave mother?

Some insights on this are given in the book Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South, by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. The book tells the history of a somewhat esoteric subject: the need of slaveholders, and the doctors they hired, to control and manage the bodies and reproductive lives of slave women.

But while the subject is esoteric, the details of how this played out in plantation life are chilling and disturbing.

Birthing-a-Slave
Cover of Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South by Marie Jenkins Schwartz.

The first chapter of the book, titled “Procreation,” has a gripping account of the stakes involved in the reproductive ability of slave women. I’ve provided some excerpts from that chapter below. Upon reading this, you will understand how lacking in humanity and dignity this peculiar institution was:

…an important aspect of slavery… has been all too often ignored: slaveholders expected to appropriate and exploit the reproductive lives of enslaved women. Control of one’s body was not a fundamental right of slaves. Emboldened by law and custom to do with human chattels as they wished, (slave) owners felt entitled to intervene in even the most intimate of matters. Women’s childbearing capacity became a commodity that could be traded on the open market.

During the antebellum era the expectation increased among members of the owning class that enslaved women would contribute to the economic success of the plantation not only through productive labor but also through procreation. The idea was at once both powerful and seductive and shaped the way women experienced enslavement, the way owners thought about the future of slavery, and the way doctors practiced medicine.

As of 1808, when Congress ended the nation’s participation in the international slave trade… the only practical way of increasing the number of slave laborers was through new births. If enslaved mothers did not bear sufficient numbers of children to take the place of aged and dying workers, the South could not continue as a slave society.
***

Women entering their childbearing years-especially those who had proven their fertility through the birth of a baby-sold easily and for a high price. Former slave Boston Blackwell, who witnessed the sale of two women in Memphis, Tennessee, reported that a girl of fifteen who had no children sold for $800, but a breeding woman sold for $1,500.

Human reproduction was so important to the continuation of slavery that members of the South’s ruling class willed their heirs the unborn children of slaves as well as living people. Anna Matilda King of Georgia assured her daughter that she would inherit not only the slave Christiann but also “her child and future children.” This wish to benefit future generations of slaveholding families pressed owners to look for ways of ensuring that enslaved mothers bore plenty of children. “If it was not for my children I would not care what became of the negroes,” Elizabeth Scott Neblett wrote her absent husband during the Civil War… Neblett maintained that she would gladly do without slaves to save the bother of managing them, but for her children’s sake she could not let them go.
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Why did South Carolina Secede from the Union? In Their Own Words: to Protect Their States Rights to Maintain Slavery.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Civil War this year. It is an absolutely engaging subject, one that commands the constant and ongoing interest of tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans.

One of the more controversial issues concerning the Civil War is, what was the “cause” of this War?

Many say that the central issue of the war was slavery. Others say the central issue was the South’s desire to protect their states rights.

Myself, I don’t think those are mutually exclusive statements. I believe the Civil War was about states rights – that is, the states rights to maintain slavery.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s let the Southerners tell their own tale.

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. On December 24, 1860, the state issued its Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. This document is South Carolina’s declaration of independence from the Union.

The following text is an excerpt from the document, and a very large excerpt at that. For emphasis, I have bolded the word slave, or other references to slavery, such as labor, which refers to slave labor; and persons. In some cases, I’ve added a parenthetical note, with the abbreviation Ed. (for Editor), to explain a comment which might not be immediately understood by the reader.

I think it’s quite clear: South Carolina seceded because they believed that the institution of slavery was in peril. Here, in their own words, is South Carolina’s reason for leaving the Union:
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Photo Exhibit: The Black South of Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange is a famous American photographer. She worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the 1930s, going across the country and taking pictures that documented the effects of the Great Depression on the American people.

She is most known for her Migrant Mother picture, which has been called “an iconic image of the Great Depression.” Lange’s work took her all over the South, where she took pictures of both struggling blacks and whites. Many of her FSA photographs are available from the Library of Congress’ online archives.

I used several of the photos to create this slideshow of black life in the South during the Great Depression.

There photographs are a vivid reminder of how tough those days were. But it’s notable that the black folks in these pictures look hardened, but not broken. They are lean, strong, and unbowed. Life is hard, and they accept it as such. Indeed, for many of them, a hard life is the only life they’ve known.

These pictures were taken in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas during the mid to late 1930s.

The music is from a traditional spiritual performed by Texas gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson (vocal and guitar) and Willie B. Harris (vocal) in 1927. The song is titled “Keep Your Light Trimmed and Burning.”

Was Slavery a Cause of the Revolutionary War? Yes. (Book Review of SLAVE NATION)

Reasons for the Revolutionary War, as typically taught in American schools:

• The American people were fiercely independent. They wanted to do things for themselves. They didn’t want the British government, which was an ocean away, telling them how to live their lives.

• A combination of harsh taxes and the lack of an American voice in the British Parliament gave rise to the famous phrase “taxation without representation.”

• Americans started stockpiling guns and ammunition in violation of British laws. Their defense of such a stockpile led to the shots fired at Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

***
On June 22, 1772, nearly a century before the slaves were freed in America, a British judge, with a single decision, brought about the conditions that would end slavery in England. His decision would have monumental consequences in the American colonies, leading up to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and beyond. Because of that ruling, history would forever be changed. This book is about that decision and the role of slavery in the founding of the United States.

- from Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution, by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen

***

“You can’t handle the truth.”
- from the 1992 movie A Few Good Men
***

Truth hurts. And this might be one of the more hurtful truths an American can learn: a major reason for the Revolutionary War was the protection of slavery.

slavenationfrontThat’s not something they teach in the schools. But our history lessons might look different in the future, if more people read the book Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution, by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen. (The book cover is to the left.)

The Blumrosens, former lawyers for the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, have a background in equal employment law. Over the course of their careers, they developed an interest in the historical causes of America’s racial inequities. The result is this book, which applies a lawyer’s insight into what they show to be a disturbing aspect of American history.

The main point of their book is that the American colonists-particularly Southern colonists-were afraid that the British government would abolish slavery. And that this fear was a major reason for the colonists’ desire to break away from Great Britain.

Here’s the problem with the way the Revolutionary War is taught: much of the story about the War centers on the northern colonies, particularly Massachusetts, where pivotal events such as the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre took place, and where the term “no taxation without representation” originated. And there’s no doubt that Massachusetts was a flashpoint in the coming war of independence.

But there were 13 original colonies, and the southern colonies had a unique interest of their own to worry about: protecting their “right” to keep slaves.

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