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The Cold Cases of the Jim Crow Era

The New York Times  August 28, 2015
At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

In March 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from a desperate mother. Her son, who was black, had been killed two years earlier, his body pulled from a river near Pickens, Miss.

“I am sending a contract in regards to the lynching of my son Willie Jack Heggard,” wrote Jane Heggard. “I have tried every way to have a trial, but no lawyer will accept the case, because a white man killed an innocent man.”

Despite her plea, it is unlikely we will ever know who killed Ms. Heggard’s son. Roosevelt’s assistant attorney general said it was up to the state of Mississippi, which apparently failed to investigate the crime. Like the thousands of Latin American “desaparecidos” who were terrorized in the 1970s and ’80s, Willie Jack Heggard is among America’s “disappeared,” one of hundreds of black Americans who were victims of racial violence from 1930 to 1960.

Our opportunity to capture their stories — and an important part of our nation’s history — is quickly vanishing as memories fade, witnesses die and evidence disappears. Time is running out to achieve some measure of justice.

For the past seven years, we have traveled throughout the South to document these cold cases. Many of the documents — sworn statements, court transcripts and coroners’ reports — are stored in dusty courthouses, threatened by fires, floods and rodents. Compared with the relatively robust archive on lynchings between 1882 and 1930, researchers have not fully explored the social and political costs of racial violence during the 30 years before 1960.

In 2008, Congress acknowledged this gap in our historical knowledge and passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named for the 14-year-old boy who was pulled from his bed in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955, tortured and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His case has not been fully resolved, although his killers confessed to a magazine in exchange for $4,000. The Emmett Till act authorizes the Department of Justice to coordinate with local authorities and investigate racially motivated homicides that occurred before 1970.

The problem is, the act has not been adequately funded, and its narrow focus on viable prosecutions limits its efficacy. Many homicides can no longer be prosecuted. In some cases, the government has limited federal jurisdiction. In others, witnesses and perpetrators have died. This year, the Department of Justice reported that it had completed just 105 investigations and three prosecutions over the past several years.

Clearly, the federal government needs to expand the act’s focus. Even if they are largely symbolic, prosecutions themselves are a form of truth telling, and require local governments who often ignored or sanctioned the killings to help re-examine this history.

In addition, prosecutions should be considered alongside remedies like truth commissions, restitution and official apologies which acknowledge that these murders were part of a pattern of intimidation against entire communities, intended to stifle full citizenship. Finally, along with better funding for the Till act, President Obama and Congress should establish an initiative to collect oral histories from this period.

It wouldn’t be the first time the federal government has undertaken a large oral history project. From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project conducted over 2,300 interviews with elderly former slaves. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 funded oral histories and gave reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. In 2000, Congress created the Veterans History Project so Americans could “better understand the realities of war.”

And several states — including North Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida — have already sponsored commissions on race riots before 1930 that attempted to assess the long-term impact of the murders, looting, arson and other property damage that ruined thriving African-American communities. Some recommended monetary reparations, economic redevelopment or commemorative monuments. Not all of the solutions were implemented, but the work itself was a significant step forward.

Some countries are confronting shameful episodes in their histories that had been intentionally ignored. In 2007, Spain passed the Law of Historical Memory to recognize those who suffered under Franco, which has supported the exhumation of graves from that era. In June, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the decades-long abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools “cultural genocide.”

A full accounting of the past may evoke shame, pain and impulses to remember and forget. But an acknowledgment that this legacy of violence still haunts African-American communities may foster more productive conversations and help generate trust in our legal system.

Emmett Till, who was killed 60 years ago today, is a victim whose story we know. His name endures because his mother “wanted the world to see what they did.” His memory beckons us to learn the fate of hundreds of others, like Willie Jack Heggard. We must find America’s disappeared, learn their stories and allow them to live in our history.

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“We Must Look Only to Ourselves to Save the Situation:” The Emergence of Opposition to the Occupation

African American Intellectual History Society      May 13, 2015
Calvin Chase, editor of The Bee

Calvin Chase, editor of The Bee


This is the fifth entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The  previous entry in this series can be found here.

Booker T. Washington was correct. Just as he predicted one month before his death, countless African Americans did watch the unfolding events in Haiti with the utmost interest. While consistent in their opinion that the occupation mattered a great deal, those observers would, however, exhibit little consensus in their initial reactions to it.

Washington’s ally George L. Knox was certain that the occupation would benefit Haitians. The editor of the Indianapolis Freeman informed his readers that “most of the leading thinkers of the race see nothing but the fitness of things in the move of the United States to look out for the prosperity of Haiti.” Those who did not think that the United States was looking out for Haiti’s best interests were mistaken. Knox chastised the “few” black leaders who “demurred, thinking of the thing of independence in the abstract.” Appropriating the social philosophy of the pioneering president of Tuskegee Institute, Knox contended that “a negro nation that conducts itself as other nations . . . should be proud of the opportunity to make good.” But one that did not should be ashamed. The Indianapolis journalist concluded that “no negro government is preferable to the kind presented by [Haiti] in the recent past.”[1]

Sol Johnson agreed. Indeed, the editor of the Savannah Tribune insisted that all the “well informed colored people” in his city also felt “that the establishment of a provisional protectorate over Haiti is about the best thing that could be done to guarantee a stable government for the Black Republic.” He even speculated that “ten years of steady training in industry and civic righteousness” under the guidance of the Americans would “work a ‘revolution’ in Haiti that will make it the garden spot of the entire West Indies.”[2]

Those who articulated such beliefs shared a favorable opinion of the civilizing mission used to justify U.S. imperialism. For Johnson, Knox, and their ilk, the promotion of a puppet president in Haiti, the establishment of a new treaty advantageous to U.S. business interests, and the squashing of dissent in the Haitian capital were means of securing rather than diminishing democracy in Haiti. If “progress” came at the point of a bayonet (and it most certainly had) then responsibility for that violence lay at the feet of its victims. According to one black Baltimorean, “Haiti made [the occupation] possible by continual revolutions—which are a disgrace to civilization.” Rather than sympathizing with Haitians, African Americans needed to take heed and commit themselves to self-improvement. “The moral of this international incident,” he surmised, “is . . . of application to the Negro in the United States. The greatest enemy of the Negro in the United States is the Negro himself.”[3]

Still, to the chagrin of Knox, some African Americans did, in fact, demur and sympathize with the plight of Haitians from the very outset of the occupation. Calvin Chase was one of them. The editor of the Washington Bee called the acts “committed by the United States upon the black republic of Haiti” some of the most “diabolical and unconstitutional” in recorded history. “What right,” he asked, did the United States have “to go and seize the republic of Haiti and administer her affairs?” In Chase’s opinion, the erosion of Haitian sovereignty was a defining moment in African American history; it was a time for “the Negro to define his position.” Decades of uplifting their communities, of proving themselves civilized and appealing to the better sensibilities of their white counterparts, had sustained African Americans but produced little improvement in their political and social status. It was clear to the Bee editor that “speaking about right and justice toward the Negro in this country is all mockery and a farce to American civilization.” The moment had arrived to demand not suggest that the U.S. government distance itself from white supremacy at home and abroad and “let Haiti alone.”[4]

The firm repudiations of the occupation that emerged from some black leaders at its outset sparked the imaginations of Haitian nationalists. As the Americans usurped Haitian political independence, Alonzo P. Holly issued an appeal to African Americans on behalf of their “brethren” in Haiti. The Haitian son of leading nineteenth-century black nationalist James Theodore Holly acknowledged that many African Americans had “come to look at your brethren of Haiti through the biased vision of the unrelenting critics of our race” and had thus “unwittingly voiced their criticisms.” But he figured that the moment had arrived for them to transcend that past myopia. Holly alerted African Americans that “we of Haiti need your fraternal sympathies and moral support just now” because “we are having our rights as a free, independent and ‘sovereign’ nation . . . entirely ignored by an American expeditionary force.” He hoped—indeed expected—that African Americans would lend that support once informed of the censorship of the Haitian press and other excesses of occupation. Echoing the words of a recent editorial written by Crisis editor W.E.B. Du Bois, Holly issued a succinct directive to his “ten million brethren in the United States.” “LET US SAVE HAITI,” he thundered. It was, after all, “the ultimate refuge of the Negro race.”[5]

At the same time that Holly issued his appeal, Ernest Chauvet was traveling to Washington, D.C. The editor of leading Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste hoped to convince Woodrow Wilson that his administration was committing grave errors in how it was carrying out the occupation. In particular, he was incensed by the recent actions of U.S. officials who shut down a different Haitian newspaper, ordered the impounding of its existing copies, and arrested and fined its editors and printer. Chauvet knew that such measures served no purpose other than to bolster the power of the Americans in Haiti. He understood that they belied the notion that the occupation was benevolent in any meaningful way.[6]

Chauvet was, of course, correct. Still, his points fell upon deaf ears. Woodrow Wilson did not give the Haitian journalist an audience. And neither did some leading African Americans. Du Bois, the intellectual who Holly pictured as a chief advocate for Haiti, informed Chauvet that there was little that African Americans could do for Haitians in that moment. In fact, his “Save Haiti” editorial quoted by Holly did not demand an immediate end to the occupation. Instead, it recommended a “Haytian Commission of white and colored men appointed by the President to co-operate with Hayti in establishing permanent peace.” Although well-intentioned, the proposal did the exact opposite of what Haitian activists wanted. It afforded Wilson and the U.S. government a continued leading role in policy-making in Haiti.[7]

African Americans including Du Bois would eventually play a key role in the powerful, transnational opposition movement envisioned by Holly. But, at the outset of the U.S. occupation, their activism was still in its nascent stages. Nobody realized that truth more than Solon Menos. As calls for justice in Haiti were met with ambivalence abroad, the Haitian ambassador in Washington, D.C. called upon his compatriots to assume sole responsibility for securing the removal of U.S. Marines from Haitian soil. “We must look only to ourselves to save the situation,” he surmised, “and can count on no one else to break the spell.”[8]

Next Month: “Our Courage Gave us Our Independence:” Grassroots Resistance to the Occupation

[1] Indianapolis Freeman, September 11, 1915.

[2] “Protectorate for Haiti Favored,” The Savannah Tribune, September 25, 1915.

[3] Baltimore Commonwealth, August 21, 1915.

[4] “Haiti,” The Washington Bee, August 28, 1915.

[5] Alonzo P. Holly, “An Appeal from Haiti to the Editors and Their Ten Million Brethren in the United States,” Indianapolis Freeman, October 30, 1915.

[6] Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 220.

[7] “Hayti,” The Crisis 10, no. 5 (September 1915): 232.

[8] Dubois, 220.

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The Idea of the Black Intellectual

mums312-b010-i006-001When I first began to teach a class titled Black Intellectual Thought, I wanted to broaden the classic definition of a black intellectual for undergraduates who tended to think of black intellectuals as a small stratum of African Americans who were literate and who had access to mechanisms for publication. I first used William M. Banks’ vivid and engaging text, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life.1 Black Intellectuals adeptly narrates a history of important black thinkers within changing contexts of slavery, race, and modernization, but it also emphasizes a narrow understanding of black intellectualism. I found myself sometimes working against this text to get students to think about the patterns, changes and complexities of black thought expressed in different contexts by people that did not fit a definition of the black intellectual as an elite. I found that I was more interested in teaching students about black intellectualism as an historically constructed category than I was interested in introducing important individuals. The briefest and most cursory review of current African American intellectual history across time periods illustrates that scholars are thinking as much about what an intellectual was and is as much as they are writing about what intellectuals have done and are doing.2

Beyond being introduced to important black thinkers, I wanted students to think more about what makes black intellectual work black. Jonathan Scott Holloway provides one answer to this question when he describes the twentieth-century “black intellectual ‘crisis cannon’ ” being defined by “the fact that writing about black intellectuals almost always revolves around a crisis of the moment or the crisis of living in a world where many believe the words ‘black’ and ‘intellectual’ are mutually exclusive.”3 Holloway further explained the importance of understanding how the category of the black intellectual is both an analytical lens and an historical creation.

Holloway argued that the establishment of the American Negro Academy in 1897, “marks the birth of the twentieth-century black intellectual tradition.”4 It is the scholarship of twentieth-century black intellectual history that tends to use the term “black intellectual,” whether as methodological tool or as historical construction. Early American and antebellum scholarship, instead of writing specifically about black intellectuals, tends instead to explore patterns of black thought primarily through the analysis of society and culture. For example, Patrick Rael, in his now classic study of antebellum black thought, used the term “black intelligentsia” to highlight the function of class and status in the formation of a cadre of blacks who could influence the American public sphere and their own communities via print.5 In contemporary scholarship, the term itself, “black intellectual,” carries a descriptive and discursive weight that it does not have when applied to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Although it is important to look for and recover more black voices to expand the number of black intellectuals in history, I think it might be more important to further historicize the category of black intellectuals by examining the processes through which blacks have been granted and have seized intellectual authority. In Boston, from 1831 until her disgruntled 1832 departure, the black woman Maria Stewart published a series of pieces and gave several public lectures. At least two times Stewart addressed audiences at the lodge house of black Freemasons in addition to speaking at other Boston venues. Stewart’s biographer, Marilyn Richardson explained that when Stewart gave her speeches, she was acting as one of the earliest American public female speakers.6 Moreover, Stewart spoke within and against a black masculine public sphere that was just beginning to assert itself within and against a broader realm of white authored print and publication. When Stewart left for New York she described her disillusionment at having some Boston blacks challenge her authority to speak. While Stewart did not play an historical role as large as that of her peer and inspiration, David Walker, juxtaposing her with Walker illustrates how positions of intellectual authority were configured to legitimate male public expression at the expense of female spokespersons. To further understand the role of black women as important thinkers who also defined the possibilities and problems of black thought and expression, the historical formations that have created black intellectuals and black intellectualism must be further explored.

Defining black intellectualism historically also reveals the lack of scholarship that understands how changes in American religious history have affected black intellectual traditions. Historians tend to see transformations in black institutional life and the media as forming the basis for black intellectual traditions that are specific to the twentieth-century. While historians of pre-twentieth-century black thought have had to examine religious ideas as fundamental to black intellectual traditions, they have tended to examine religion more for how it informs ideas about black respectability and politics than for how it functioned theologically. I agree with Holloway’s description of the transformation of twentieth-century black intellectual traditions. However, I would add that they faced the unprecedented challenge of having to engage a growing body of secular thought that arose from higher education and that challenged previous traditions of black thought premised upon theological ideas.

Certainly, many African Americans stand out for their expressed insight and their historical impact; however, the idea of an intellectual is not a neutral analytical category that merely functions to illuminate important thinkers and their thoughts. Banks briefly theorized the meaning of the intellectual by differentiating between intellect and intelligence. He posited that intellect refers to the use of an active curiosity to understand the underlying meaning and logic of events and symbols. Furthermore, he described intelligence as reflecting the everyday pragmatism and utilitarianism required for daily function.7 Investigating the historical evolution of black intellectual work reveals how this distinction between intellect and intelligence might obscure rather than clarify change over time. Intellectual history is more important for revealing how ideas have reflected and shaped social identities, like that of the black intellectual, than it is for uncovering new black intellectuals.

  1. William M. Banks, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life(NewYork: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996. 
  2. For example see, Christopher Cameron, To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent, Ohio:  Kent State University Press, 2014); John Ernest, Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004; Carla L. Peterson, ed. “Doers of the Word,” African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North, 1830-1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein, eds. Early African American Print Culture(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Ross Posnock, Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1998); Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren, eds. Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought(Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2010); and Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, Barbara D. Savage, eds. Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press: 2015). 
  3. Jonathan Scott Holloway, “The Black Intellectual and the ‘Crisis Canon’ in the Twentieth Century,” Black Intellectuals: Commentary and Critiques. Spec issue of The Black Scholar31.1 (Spring 2001): 2-3. 
  4. Holloway, 1. 
  5. Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 211. 
  6. Marilyn Richardson, ed. Maria Stewart, America’s First Black Political Writer: Essays and Speeches (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), xiii. 
  7. Banks, xv-xvi. 

    Chernoh Sesay Jr.

    c1_4x5I am an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University.  I earned my Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006.  I am currently completing a book manuscript entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America.  This study examines the origins of African American Freemasonry and traces the development of black Freemasonry from its founder, Prince Hall, to the famous antebellum abolitionist and member of the African Lodge, David Walker.  In this treatment, black Freemasonry and it origins in Boston become a prism through which to consider various relationships between interracial and black politics, religion, and leadership.  I am also developing two separate but related research agendas.  I am examining the significance of institutional links connecting various African American religious, fraternal, sororal and educational institutions meant to structure and emphasize certain ways of being black in the antebellum United States.  I am also exploring how different forms of nineteenth and twentieth-century African American historicism were comprised of aligned and competing theological and secular concerns

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 family
The Moynihan Report, Then and Now
William Chafe

For the 50th Anniversary of the Moynihan Report, this briefing paper was prepared as part of an online symposium Moynihan+50: Family Structure Still not the Problem for the Council on Contemporary Families, and jointly published by CCF and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).

Few research documents in recent history have made as smashing an impact as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s study of the black family fifty years ago. The report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, was written by Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor, as a fast-track shortcut to force the Johnson Administration to take immediate action to improve the plight of poor black Americans through federally financed anti-poverty programs. Dismayed by the fact that more than a third of African-Americans lived in poverty, Moynihan intended the report to stimulate efforts to achieve economic and social equality.

Yet by framing the report as a description of the breakdown of the black family, Moynihan ended up fueling a bitter controversy about family forms and gender roles instead of contributing to a constructive discussion of how to address the need for more black jobs. He argued that “at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family,” which he described as a “tangle of pathology.” Tragically, the main impact of the report was to initiate a huge debate about family life in black America, while doing little to strengthen anti-poverty programs.

Moynihan made two errors of analysis. First, he traced the prevalence of single-parent households in the black community to the experience of slavery, which, he contended, resulted in the absence of strong family traditions on plantations. Not only did white masters discourage or forbid marriages; they also split up couples by selling one partner into slavery elsewhere. Their actions demeaned the status and stature of black men, creating a disorganized “matriarchal” culture of fragmented families.

In the first instance, Moynihan ignored history when he traced the prevalence of unmarried families in Northern ghettoes back to the ongoing legacy of slavery. As soon as Emancipation occurred, millions of black couples flocked to churches to get married. The ways that children, aunts and uncles and husbands and wives worked to piece together a living, the collective struggle to build houses, farm the land, get an education – all these have been noted by scholars as one of the signal strengths of black life once freedom was achieved. By placing all the blame for black family issues in the 1960s on the institution of slavery, Moynihan ignored the specific conditions that created growing numbers of single-parent families in northern black neighborhoods in the mid-20th century.

Second, the report’s claim that “broken” families were the central cause of black poverty massively oversimplified the complex relationships between socioeconomic trends and changing family forms, as outlined in the accompanying report by sociologist Philip Cohen and economist Heidi Hartmann and her colleagues. By attributing black poverty to the dearth of married-couple, male-headed families in northern ghettoes, Moynihan seemed to suggest that if blacks would only get and stay married they would cease to be poor, an absurdity that paved the way for later attempts to substitute marriage promotion for job creation.

Tragically, Moynihan’s ignorance of history and confusion of cause and correlation deflected attention from the real issue Moynihan was concerned with – focusing federal monies on urban jobs for blacks – and fanned instead a rancorous, racially-charged dispute over family values that continues to deform our discussion of poverty policy.

Since the 1960s, we have witnessed the growth of a much more sizeable black middle and professional class – largely a function of the 500 per cent increase in black college graduates that occurred after enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting rights Act. But a huge proportion of black people remain in poverty, and as the accompany essay by Cohen et al. shows, inequality of socio-economic opportunity has also been rising among all racial-ethnic groups and family forms.

It is time for us to get back to the original intent of the Moynihan report: to answer the question of how we should act as a people and a government to address the problems of poverty and inequality. Moynihan himself answered that question in a speech he wrote for President Lyndon Johnson to deliver in June 1965 as a commencement address for Howard University:

“Jobs are part of the answer….Decent homes in decent surroundings and a chance to learn–an equal chance to learn–are part of the answer. Welfare and social programs better designed to hold families together are part of the answer. Care for the sick is part of the answer. An understanding heart by all Americans is another big part of the answer.”

It is a sad irony that Moynihan’s report has provided so many politicians with an excuse to avoid implementing the solutions that Moynihan himself supported.

William H. Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, Duke University, emeritus; former Dean of the Faculty, Duke University; former president, Organization of American Historians. For more information contact Dr. Chafe at william.chafe@gmail.com

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EJI

EJI’S NEW LYNCHING REPORT DOCUMENTS AN ERA OF RACIAL TERRORISM

Equal Justice Initiative   February 10, 2015

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) today released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents EJI’s multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states during the period between Reconstruction and World War II. EJI researchers documented 3959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia between 1877 and 1950 – at least 700 more lynchings of black people in these states than previously reported in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date.

Lynching in America makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation. Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity. Not a single white person was convicted of murder for lynching a black person in America during this period.

The report explores the ways in which lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the contemporary geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans. Most importantly, lynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.

No prominent public memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in America. Lynching in America argues that is a powerful statement about our failure to value the black lives lost in this brutal campaign of racial violence. Research on mass violence, trauma, and transitional justice underscores the urgent need to engage in public conversations about racial history that begin a process of truth and reconciliation in this country.

“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson. “The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”

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The “Black Republic:” The Meaning of Haitian Independence before the Occupation

Dessalines (1758-1806) famously declared that he had "avenged America" after securing Haitian independence.

Jean Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) famously declared that he had “avenged America” after securing Haitian independence.

This is the second entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The introduction to this series can be found here.

On January 1, 1804, Jean Jacques Dessalines and his fellow generals met at Gonaïves to declare formally their independence from France. The Haitian Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the first republic governed by men of African descent in the Western Hemisphere stunned whites and blacks in the United States. White planters and their sympathizers denounced Haiti, inventing the phrase “the horrors of Saint-Domingue” to describe the violent process by which an enslaved people had risen up, overthrown their masters, and fulfilled the worst fears of a slaveholding nation.[1] African Americans, however, articulated a much different interpretation of the Haitian Revolution. For some, the act of self-emancipation in Haiti stirred their own hopes for freedom. For others, the creation of a “Black Republic” was a radical assertion of racial equality, an unprecedented opportunity for blacks in the Western Hemisphere to demonstrate their ability to prosper as citizens and leaders of a modern nation. For many, then, Haiti had a special mission—a mission endorsed by its own political leaders—to the entire world. 

Enslaved blacks in the antebellum South were quick to embrace Haiti as an emblem of black freedom. In his biography of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington noted that enslaved men and women knew “of the Haytian struggle for liberty” even if they were ignorant of everything except [their] master and the plantation.”[2] This was certainly true in the region of Douglass’s birth. One bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1821 recalled “old people speaking about persons going to Hayti” during his childhood. In particular, he remembered hearing a song about an enslaved youth who, “on account of bad treatment,” fled to Philadelphia before boarding a ship bound for Haiti. It went:

Poor Moses, poor Moses,

Sailing on the ocean.

Bless the Lord,

I am on the way,

Farewell to Georgia.

Moses is gone to Hayti.[3]

Moses, like some thirteen thousand other African Americans in the antebellum era, chose to leave the United States for Haiti. The United States was all slavery and “ill-treatment.” Haiti was freedom.

Free blacks in Philadelphia and other northern cities were no less enamored with Haiti. While some promoted emigration to that country, a greater number urged the United States to extend diplomatic recognition to it. In 1849, escaped slave and New York-based abolitionist Samuel Ringgold Ward lambasted white politicians who “refuse to acknowledge the independence of a Republic, the majority of whose citizens are black men, lest such an acknowledgement should offend negro haters in Washington.”[4] In Ward’s estimation, Haiti was not only a site where blacks could experience unparalleled freedom. Instead, it was a country that could prove wrong those who claimed that African Americans were unfit for citizenship because they could not claim a “legitimate” external nationality.[5] Consequently, Ward demanded that the United States finally acknowledge the sovereignty of a “Republic half a century old . . . that has done more to prove its capacity for self-government . . . than the United States.”[6]

The ideas about Haiti expressed by African Americans corresponded to the self-image held by Haitian elites. Believing that a mass influx of industrious African Americans would strengthen the economy of Haiti and help it win diplomatic recognition from the United States, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer, a veteran of the Haitian Revolution, promoted emigration in U.S. newspapers. In doing so, he assured African Americans that Haiti’s “wise constitution . . . insures a free country to Africans and their descendants.” Moreover, he guaranteed that “Providence has destined Hayti for a land of promise, a sacred asylum, where our unfortunate brethren will, in the end, see their wound healed by the balm of equality, and their tears wiped away by the protecting hand of liberty.”[7] Such bold claims emboldened African Americans, leading individuals like Moses to equate Haiti with black freedom and others including Ward to link Haiti to elusive rights of citizenship.

They also set Haitians and African Americans up for disappointment. By romanticizing Haiti, elite Haitians and their African American counterparts recognized an indisputable fact: a nation birthed in slave insurrection and governed by black people would always possess a unique standing in global affairs. But they also placed an unfair set of expectations upon Haiti and those citizens who would bear the burden of ensuring that their country existed not only in reality but also in symbol; that it would embody everything an idealized “Black Republic” could and should be. Given the political and cultural confines of the nineteenth-century West, such lofty expectations would prove hard (perhaps even impossible) to meet.

Next month: “Ask Forgiveness from Dessalines:” Debating Haitian Independence on the Eve of Occupation

[1] White Americans, particularly white southerners’, reaction to the Haitian Revolution receives a more extended treatment in Alfred Hunt, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 107-147.

[2] Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass (Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs & Company, 1907), 144.

[3] Alexander Walker Wayman, My Recollections of African M.E. Ministers, or Forty Years’ Experience in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Rooms, 1881), 4.

[4] Impartial Citizen, August 15, 1849.

[5] My fellow AAIHS blogger, Patrick Rael, has, of course, captured these nationalist sentiments in his Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[6] Impartial Citizen, August 15, 1849.

[7] Niles’ Weekly Register, July 1, 1820. For further reading on the African American emigration movement to Haiti, I recommend Sara Fanning, Caribbean Crossing: African Americans and the Haitian Emigration Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

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Shannon Freshwater

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — WHEN we think of the South, a host of images come to mind: slaves and masters, Klansmen and freedom riders, magnolias and cotton fields.

Americans have fewer enduring impressions of the North. It simply stands as the nation’s default region. Most Northerners behave as though they come from America writ large, rather than from a subsection of it. The North seems unremarkable. It holds no dark mystery, no agonies buried deep within. We forget that many parts of the North have an identity, culture, politics and racial history all their own.

Americans know that we cannot understand Southern history, or our nation’s history more generally, without coming to grips with slavery and Jim Crow. But we fail to apply this lesson to the North. We like to think that the struggle for racial equality is tangential to Northern history. This leads us to distort our perceptions of the North and to misinterpret American history as a whole.

Northern cities and states have long harbored movements for racial democracy, as well as for racial segregation, within the same heart and soul. Progress and regression have existed together. That duality helps to explain the mind of the North. Only a clearer understanding of the North’s mottled past can enable us to better reckon with this painful moment in our racial history, after the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer whose chokehold led to his death.

Few have written more eloquently about the North and the South than the historian C. Vann Woodward. In Woodward’s formulation, those who came up in the South shouldered the “burden of Southern history.” The past, defined by slavery and segregation, was something to overcome.

The Northern past admits to no such torment. Tales of the Pilgrims and abolitionists sketch a noble portrait. Northern history looms as a source of aspiration and inspiration. It is something to affirm.

This has been true particularly in the Northeast, which has stood as a place of possibility and a model for the country. To E. B. White, New York was the nation’s “visible symbol of aspiration”; John F. Kennedy saw the democratic institutions of Massachusetts as “beacon lights for other nations as well as our sister states.” These ideals could serve as a spur to action and at some moments, Northeasterners drew upon the region’s mystique in order to propel themselves ahead of the rest of the nation. Yet they could also deploy this mystique as a mask, a way for whites to obscure and excuse their region’s dogged racism and oppression.

The history of the Northeast contains stunning steps toward racial progress as well as vicious episodes of backlash. In 1947, many Brooklyn residents welcomed a black ballplayer and anointed Ebbets Field as the frontier of interracial democracy. At the same time, African-American families from the South were shunted into Brooklyn’s burgeoning ghettos. When Jackie and Rachel Robinson attempted to buy a home in the suburbs of Westchester County, N.Y., and Fairfield County, Conn., they encountered hostile white homeowners who did not want African-Americans as neighbors (although the couple was eventually able to buy a house in Stamford, Conn.).

The story of school segregation is even more insidious. To give one example, the School Committee in Springfield, Mass., pursued redistricting and student-transfer policies that produced virtually all-black schools. African-American parents filed a lawsuit in 1964, and the N.A.A.C.P. took up their case. While on the witness stand, members of the School Committee claimed innocence and ignorance, and denied the very existence of segregation. In 1965, the state of Massachusetts went on to pass a law that outlawed “racial imbalance” — the first such law in the nation. The following year, Massachusetts voters would become the first to popularly elect a black senator, Edward W. Brooke. Just as whites forged a breakthrough in the electoral arena, segregation increased in the schools of Springfield, not to mention Boston.

In 1970, Abraham A. Ribicoff of Connecticut stood on the Senate floor and gave public expression to the region’s open secret. “The North is guilty,” Senator Ribicoff charged, “of monumental hypocrisy” in its treatment of African-Americans. One year later, he proposed a policy that would desegregate every metropolitan school system. The plan was big and bold, and it was to take 12 years. It allowed each locality to determine the specifics. Senator Ribicoff envisioned a combination of strategically located educational malls, magnet schools and redistricting. The N.A.A.C.P. opposed his policy. Black leaders thought that the early 1980s was too long to wait for widespread school integration. Of course, we are still waiting.

Many Americans know New York City’s recent history of racial violence, which includes the killing of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst and Michael Griffith in Howard Beach. But there were many others who are all but forgotten, like Willie Turks, a black transit worker, who was beaten to death by a group of white teenagers in Gravesend in 1982.

Northeasterners do not think of this history as one that shapes our identity. But if we really grapple with the mind of the North, we will be forced to acknowledge, finally, that our region is not just a land of liberty. We will also confront a racial past that is far messier than we might like. It is neither a triumphant story of progress nor a tale of segregation without relief.

We carry the two warring stories with us still. And now we stand at a crossroads. We can summon our better angels, and act forcefully, or we can continue to live like this. Which heritage will we act on? Which story will win out?

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