The 1619 Project

Interesting commentary on the New York Times’s 1619 Project, from Wilfred McClay:

How The New York Times Is Distorting American History

‘The 1619 Project’ and its false and destructive narrative about this country

The New York Times seems to have made a grand splash with the August debut of its 1619 Project, which it unveiled to the world as an audacious effort to “reframe” all of American history as little more than the lengthened shadow of slavery. The title derives from the historical fact that 400 years ago, some 20 Africans were dropped off by (probably) a British privateer at Jamestown, Virginia—the first such individuals to appear in the British mainland North American colonies.

The first effort in what is promised as an ongoing 1619 endeavor throughout the paper was a 100-page issue of the Sunday Magazine, devoted entirely (except for the oddly jarring inclusion of the Times crossword and other puzzles) to a series of short articles of varying length and genre. They ranged from highly compressed historical arguments to poems and other literary or memoiristic pieces, all of which are in some way devoted to the idea that slavery “and the anti-black racism it required” constitute the true foundation of American history. “Out of slavery,” declare the introductory remarks, “grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system,” and so on, down to the nation’s propensity for violence and its “endemic racial fears and hatreds.” The Project is therefore dedicated to “considering” the proposition that 1619, rather than 1776, should be regarded as “our nation’s birth year.”

Read the whole thing

Redoshi

That slaves were illegally smuggled from West Africa to the antebellum South, between the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, is remarkable (and outrageous, of course). The last such documented shipment arrived in Mobile, Ala., in 1860, aboard the ship Clothilda. Hannah Durkin, a researcher at Newcastle University, has now determined that one of the 110 slaves aboard, a twelve-year-old girl named Redoshi (who was renamed Sally Smith) was the last survivor of the illegal slave trade between Africa and the United States, dying in 1937. The National Post has more.

Happy Independence Day

From the Atlantic, via Dartblog:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Famed black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass posed this question before a large, mostly white crowd in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. It is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” Douglass explained, adding that he felt much the same: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! … This Fourth [of] July is yours not mine.”

A little over a decade later, however, African Americans like Douglass began making the glorious anniversary their own. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the nation’s four million newly emancipated citizens transformed Independence Day into a celebration of black freedom. The Fourth became an almost exclusively African American holiday in the states of the former Confederacy—until white Southerners, after violently reasserting their dominance of the region, snuffed these black commemorations out.

Before the Civil War, white Americans from every corner of the country had annually marked the Fourth with feasts, parades, and copious quantities of alcohol. A European visitor observed that it was “almost the only holy-day kept in America.” Black Americans demonstrated considerably less enthusiasm. And those who did observe the holiday preferred—like Douglass—to do so on July 5 to better accentuate the difference between the high promises of the Fourth and the low realities of life for African Americans, while also avoiding confrontations with drunken white revelers.

Yet the tables had turned by July 4, 1865, at least in the South. Having lost a bloody four-year war to break free from the United States and defend the institution of slavery, Confederate sympathizers had little desire to celebrate the Fourth now that they were back in the Union and slavery was no more. “The white people,” wrote a young woman in Columbia, South Carolina, “shut themselves within doors.”

African Americans, meanwhile, embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.

Read the whole thing.

Gaelic Slaves

An interesting article in the Scotsman (courtesy Robert Black):

The Gaelic speaking slaves of 18th Century America

It was jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who inspired research into the Gaelic speaking black slaves of 18th Century America who spoke in the tongue of their Highland masters.

Gillespie had long shared with his friends stories of slaves who spoke Gaelic, as told to him by his own parents. The musician led Willie Ruff, retired music professor at Yale University, who played with greats such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davies, to investigate further.

Ruff, a bassist and French horn player, had always been mystified by the line singing of hymns he first heard as a child in the Baptist churches of the American south.

Long struggling to pinpoint its origins, Ruff was led to Presbyterian churches in his home state of Alabama and then, ultimately, to the Wee Free churches of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in search of the roots of this emotional, stripped back form of worship.

It has been widely held in the United States that the method of praise, where the congregation repeats back a line of a song to those leading the sermon, originated in Africa and then taken to the plantations by slaves.

But Ruff, following his research, believes that the music originated in the Hebrides and Highlands before being transported to the American colonies along with Scots emigrants, some who became slave owners.

Ruff earlier said: “I have been to Africa many times in search of my cultural identity, but it was in the Highlands that I found the cultural roots of black America.

“We as black Americans have lived under a misconception. Our cultural roots are more Afro-Gaelic than Afro-American. Just look at the Harlem phone book, it’s more like the book for North Uist.

“We got our names from the slave masters, we got our religion from the slave masters and we got our blood from the slave masters.”

More at the link.

Simcoe Day

The first Monday in August in most parts of Canada is a statutory holiday, essentially an excuse for another long weekend between Canada Day (July 1) and Labour Day (first Monday in September). In Ontario, this holiday was usually known the placeholder name “Civic Holiday,” although I seem to remember that the monicker “Simcoe Day” was becoming more and more common by the time I left in the 1990s. It turns out that Simcoe Day is only what it’s known by in Toronto, while other municipalities have named the day after their own local heroes, like Colonel By (Ottawa), Joseph Brant (Burlington), and John Galt (Guelph). But Simcoe Day would make a good province-wide name for the Civic Holiday, because its namesake John Graves Simcoe was the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada (1791-96), the polity that became Ontario in 1867. Simcoe is perhaps most famous for legislation that gradually abolished slavery in Upper Canada. From a CBC article from four years ago:

Simcoe was a known supporter of abolition.

“His bill was brought about by an incident — the Chloe Clooey incident,” said Natasha Henry, a curriculum consultant specializing in African Canadian history.

Simcoe received word of a slave owner violently abusing his slave, a girl by the name of Chloe Clooey, on his way across the Niagara River where he went to sell her into the United States. It was said that her screams were heard by many and the matter was brought to Simcoe’s attention by Peter Martin, a former slave.

“It was his impetus to introduce the bill, but it was then met by objection from a number of the members of his government,” Henry said.

Many members of the legislative assembly at the time owned slaves of their own and so resisted Simcoe’s urge to abolish slavery in Canada.

The resulting law was a compromise that would gradually lead to the end of enslavement.

The act allowed slave owners to maintain the workforce they already had — who would remain enslaved until their death.

Owners were not allowed to purchase new slaves from the United States and any children of female slaves that were born after the act was passed would become free at the age of 25.

Simcoe’s anti-slavery act was the first to pass in a British colony and remained in effect until August 24, 1833, when Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act put an end to slavery in most of the empire.

Washington’s Teeth

An update to the post below about Mount Vernon, in particular about the nature of George Washington’s dentures. A web comic that goes by the name of The Oatmeal, earlier this year, used Washington’s false teeth as an example of beliefs that fundamentally challenge us. I recall that this one was widely shared on Facebook. The relevant bits:

You may have heard that Washington had wooden teeth. He lost most of his teeth in his twenties and had a set of dentures made out of wood.

Except it isn’t true. In 2005, at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, laser scans were performed on Washington’s two-hundred-year old dentures, and found them to be made of gold, lead, hippopotamus ivory, horse, and donkey teeth.

Upon learning this information, how did you feel about George Washington’s teeth?

I stated a thing, I provided evidence of that thing, and presumably you now believe in the thing I stated. Presumably, your belief in the composition of George Washington’s teeth has changed with little or no friction.

But what if I told you George Washington had another set of false teeth? What if I told you this other set wasn’t made from wood, ivory, or any of the aforementioned materials?

What if I told you it was made from the teeth of slaves? (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3)

Now, let’s try this again. How did it feel to learn this fact about George Washington?

Any of the friction I mentioned earlier?

You may have noticed that the first fact about George Washington’s teeth was rather easy to accept. But when I told you the second fact, you immediately checked my sources and are now furiously composing an informed-yet-incendiary retort which you will boldly deliver to me in the form of a sour, blustering Facebook comment.

Matthew Inman, author of The Oatmeal, goes on to examine this so-called “backfire effect,” which occurs when we encounter beliefs that fundamentally challenge us and prompt our limbic system to respond as though we are being threatened with physical danger. This phenomenon deserves wider attention, if only to make people ashamed of it and encourage them to get over it, perhaps through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. After all, we cannot have universities, devoted to the free pursuit and communication of ideas, if everyone is running around being “triggered” by ideas they disagree with, equating those ideas with “violence,” requiring “safe spaces” as protection from them and soothing expressions of parental concern from the university administration, who have better things to do. Alas, this fundamentally adolescent mode of behavior is becoming all the more common in American academia, doubtlessly because the anti-bullying movement has encouraged people to believe that any difficulty they encounter is not only unpleasant, but morally illegitimate (requiring “emotional labor” to overcome), because university staffers feel the need to justify their employment by “doing something” about whatever is brought to their attention, and because liberal academics are desperate to be seen as being on the correct side of things politically.

But I digress.

I swear that I was not particularly upset to discover that Washington’s dentures were made of the teeth of slaves, although it doesn’t reflect all that well on him. My first thought was that surely they extracted them from dead bodies, in an early form of organ donation? Apparently not! But the evidence is somewhat oblique. It comes in the form of an entry in one of Wasington’s account books, which:

details Washington’s purchase of 9 teeth from “Negroes” for 122 shillings. It’s not clear if Washington intended to use these teeth as implants or within a new set of dentures or if he employed the teeth at all. While this transaction might seem morbid to a modern audience, purchasing human teeth was a fairly common practice in the 18th century for affluent individuals.

“Source 2” above (the Washington Papers Project at UVA) provides more information:

The only documentation of which we are aware of George Washington purchasing teeth from slaves is a brief notation in his ledger books. The physical evidence, a pair of Washington’s dentures that includes human teeth, is part of the collection at Mount Vernon. As to the circumstances surrounding the creation of these dentures, the best historians can do is make an educated guess.  Like all historical theories, this conclusion should be grounded in historical context, supplemental primary and secondary documents, and sound reasoning. But without further documentation, it is impossible to describe the scenario in definitive terms. We are not even entirely positive that the teeth whose price is recorded in the Ledger Book are the same as those in the dentures.

Lund Washington, George’s distant cousin who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution, made a notation in the plantation ledger books for May 1784: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.” This “Dr. Lemoire” was almost certainly George Washington’s dentist, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, who corresponded with George Washington about his visit to Mount Vernon that summer.

Wherever Dr. Le Mayeur practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads “Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.” While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated “slaves excepted.” That could explain why the price noted by Lund Washington was so low. Nine teeth sold for two guineas each would be worth almost nineteen pounds; Washington paid only slightly more than six pounds.

Without further documentation, we can only speculate on the sequence of events leading to the inclusion of human teeth in George Washington’s dentures. Perhaps Dr. Le Mayeur offered George Washington a deal in which Washington saved on teeth by buying them at a much-discounted rate from his own slaves rather than from Dr. Le Mayeur. It is also possible that George or Lund Washington forced one or more of their enslaved people to part with their teeth, paying them a drastically reduced price. Under Virginia’s laws at the time, no plantation owner would have faced legal consequences for such an action.

Sad, if true. But at least he paid something for them, rather than just taking them without any compensation at all…

Mount Vernon

By the 1850s, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River downstream from the District of Columbia, had fallen into disrepair. At the time, the federal government did not consider the maintenance of such historical sites to be within its proper purview, so a group calling itself Mount Vernon Ladies Association got together, purchased the property, and saved it from ruin. This self-perpetuating organization still exists and still runs Mount Vernon as an attraction; I can attest that they do a mighty fine job of it. The Palladian mansion, which Washington kept adding to, is what everyone has come to see, but of course a plantation was its own self-contained economy, with outbuildings devoted to all sorts of functions, including blacksmithing, butchery, food storage, distilling, tool storage, clothmaking, defecation (“the necessary”), and housing workers, including enslaved ones. These are staffed by interpreters in period costume, and you could easily spend an entire day here wandering around.

Photo: Susanna Good

The recently-built Museum and Education Center outlines Washington’s career, and has an interesting array of objects on display, including the sole surviving complete set of Washington’s dentures (none of which, by the way, was made of wood).

Photo: Susanna Good

The Museum also features an exhibit entitled “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at Washington’s Mount Vernon,” a necessary exposure of this most unsavory fact of American history. Yes, Mount Vernon was largely powered by slaves, who were about three hundred in number by the time of Washington’s death. It’s true that Washington ordered his own slaves to be freed upon the death of his widow Martha Custis Washington, and she herself freed them earlier than that, but the forty or so rented slaves had to be returned to their owner, and upon Martha’s death the slaves belonging to the Custis estate descended to her children by her first marriage – she could not have freed them even if she had wanted to. The museum notes that by the end of his life Washington disliked slavery, and hoped that it would die out eventually, but it also notes that he was rather parsimonious in providing for them, and had no problem chasing down those who ran away. Perhaps it is no surprise that John Augustine Washington III, the President’s great grand nephew and the last private owner of Mount Vernon, sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

But despite all this, one cannot help but admire Washington’s career. He was born to modest privilege but still had to make something of himself, which he did by virtue of hard work, self-cultivation, a prudent marriage alliance, calculated risk-taking, and a little luck. That he resigned his command of the Continental Army, rather than seize power, is remarkable; that he presided over the Constitutional Convention, served two terms as president, and then gracefully retired again, is almost miraculous. The American Cincinnatus really did establish a powerful precedent, to the admiration all who value the republican nature of the United States.

But on the whole I was curious to note how un-American Washington was – or rather, how America has evolved beyond Washington’s own way of life. When we think of America, we think of the log cabin on the frontier, not the manor house. Running a plantation, in any case, seems like constant work – it’s not something you own, but something that owns you (even though, I suppose, it’s a big reason why Washington retired twice – he wanted to get back to his “real” job).

Juneteenth

In 2013, PBS aired a six-part documentary entitled The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Crossnarrated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I have not seen any of the episodes but I did just discover the blog for the series, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro (taken from the title of a book published in 1934 by one J.A. Rodgers). The posts are all most interesting (even amazing!); of immediate relevance is yesterday’s entry on “Juneteenth.”

The First Juneteenth

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued the above order, he had no idea that, in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “nineteenth”), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States. After all, by the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; the “Executive” to whom he referred, President Lincoln, was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification.

But Granger wasn’t just a few months late. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, ending slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect two-and-a-half years before, and in the interim, close to 200,000 black men had enlisted in the fight. So, formalities aside, wasn’t it all over, literally, but the shouting?

It would be easy to think so in our world of immediate communication, but as Granger and the 1,800 bluecoats under him soon found out, news traveled slowly in Texas. Whatever Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Virginia, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi had held out until late May, and even with its formal surrender on June 2, a number of ex-rebels in the region took to bushwhacking and plunder.

That’s not all that plagued the extreme western edge of the former Confederate states. Since the capture of New Orleans in 1862, slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach. In a hurried re-enactment of the original Middle Passage, more than 150,000 slaves had made the trek west, according to historian Leon Litwack in his book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of SlaveryAs one former slave he quotes recalled, “It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.”

When Texas fell and Granger dispatched his now famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest. Even in Galveston city, the ex-Confederate mayor flouted the Army by forcing the freed people back to work, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner details in her comprehensive essay, “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,” in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas.

Those who acted on the news did so at their peril. As quoted in Litwack’s book, former slave Susan Merritt recalled, “‘You could see lots of niggers hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom, ’cause they cotch ’em swimmin’ ’cross Sabine River and shoot ’em.’ ” In one extreme case, according to Hayes Turner, a former slave named Katie Darling continued working for her mistress another six years (She “whip me after the war jist like she did ’fore,” Darling said).

Hardly the recipe for a celebration — which is what makes the story of Juneteenth all the more remarkable. Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly “freed” black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866.

“The way it was explained to me,” one heir to the tradition is quoted in Hayes Turner’s essay, “the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free… And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.”

Other Contenders

There were other available anniversaries for celebrating emancipation, to be sure, including the following:

* Sept. 22: the day Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation Order in 1862

* Jan. 1: the day it took effect in 1863

* Jan. 31: the date the 13th Amendment passed Congress in 1865, officially abolishing the institution of slavery

* Dec. 6: the day the 13th Amendment was ratified that year

* April 3: the day Richmond, Va., fell

* April 9: the day Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, Va.

* April 16: the day slavery was abolished in the nation’s capital in 1862

* May 1: Decoration Day, which, as David Blight movingly recounts in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memorythe former slaves of Charleston, S.C., founded by giving the Union war dead a proper burial at the site of the fallen planter elite’s Race Course

* July 4: America’s first Independence Day, some “four score and seven years” before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation

Each of these anniversaries has its celebrants today. Each has also had its share of conflicts and confusion. July 4 is compelling, of course, but it was also problematic for many African Americans, since the country’s founders had given in on slavery and their descendants had expanded it through a series of failed “compromises,” at the nadir of which Frederick Douglass had made his own famous declaration to the people of Rochester, N.Y., on July 5, 1852: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.”

Read the whole thing, and the other entries.

Historians of Slavery

My friend Lynn Rainville is featured in the Chronicle (subscription required):

Historians of Slavery Find Fruitful Terrain: Their Own Institutions

JUNE 21, 2016

Crystal S. Rosson had spent years tracing her family roots — poring over courthouse documents, asking relatives to show her the unmarked graves of their ancestors, even quitting her job at a Virginia high school to devote more energy to her research. With every new picture and article she uncovered, one thought lingered in her mind: Where had her great-grandfather Sterling Jones lived? One day she found her answer. It was a well-kept cabin, once a farm-tool museum, now mostly vacant. And it sat only a stone’s throw from the back door of the mansion of the president of Sweet Briar College.

Ms. Rosson had chills. She lives just three miles down the road from Sweet Briar, and she says her family always felt a connection to the women’s college, but she never fully understood why. Since the first day she stood outside that cabin, she has learned more about that connection.

Her great-grandfather was a bricklayer; in fact, he was employed by the college to construct some of its first buildings after the former plantation became an institution of higher education. The cabin, she discovered, was also where Jones’s father probably lived as a slave.

A collection of news and commentary from The Chronicle can provide a starting point for discussion of what might be done to improve the climate and conditions on your own campus.

Ms. Rosson called administrators at the college to see if anyone knew anything about Jones. That’s when she met Lynn Rainville, a research professor in the humanities. Ms. Rainville is director of the Tusculum Institute, which she helped create in 2008 to research and preserve local history. For the previous 15 years, she had been doing just the opposite of Ms. Rosson — tracing Jones’s descendants to find out where they ended up.

“It was a fluke,” Ms. Rosson says of meeting Ms. Rainville. “We had long, crazy, amazing conversations that started us on this path together to piece my great-grandfather’s connection together to the college.” In 2014 the two researchers reopened the cabin with an exhibit to teach students and the public about the college’s historical ties to slavery.

The collaboration between Ms. Rosson and Ms. Rainville was accidental, sparked simply by their own curiosity. But the professor and the genealogist are by no means alone. As more institutions grapple with their own thorny histories, a growing number of scholars are digging into public history and raising questions about colleges and universities’ responsibility to acknowledge and explain those links to slavery and racism.

That represents a shift in scholarly thinking, says Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean and associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. “Scholars haven’t been deeply involved in micro-institutional history,” he says. “They see it generally as a bit of navel-gazing, but they think it’s great for students to do.”

More at the link (behind paywall, alas).