2002 Keynote Talk
“If You Don’t Tell it Like it Was, it Can Never Be As it Ought to Be”
Keynote Talk at Yale, conference on Yale and Slavery.
David W. Blight
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, a plague attacks a small village, causing the people to lose, in stages, parts of their memories. First, each person loses the ability to recollect their childhood, then names and functions and all manner of objects. Then identities begin to vanish; people do not recognize one another, and some even lose a sense of their own being. A silversmith who is terrified that he cannot remember the word “anvil” for one his own crucial tools, frantically places labels on everything in his house in the hope he will not lose all memory. He labels animals and plants, furniture and windows — a cow, a pig, a banana. “Little by little,” writes Garcia Marquez, “studying the infinite possibilities of the loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but no one would remember their use.” So, he began to write longer and longer descriptions of function: “this is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk…” and so on.So, Buendia, the silversmith, becomes traumatized by the prospect of living a life of endless labelling to survive with a sense of humanity. He tries to develop a memory machine that will store written entries of all experiences and all knowledge in each villagers life. After placing thousands of entries into his machine, Buendia is mercifully saved from his nightmare by a friend who cures him miraculously from the plague. Buendia recovers his full power of memory. But he had seen this world without memory, a world of despair and incurable confusion, a world where people lost their humanity in an anarchy of ignorance. Personal identity had died, and all forms of symbolic commuication had ceased. Memory, this story implies, is at the heart of our humanity; as individuals, and perhaps as societies as well, we cannot function in practical or moral terms without memory.
Memory is one of the most powerful elements in our human constitution. In one of the most interesting meditations on memory every written, St. Augustine, in the Confessions, refers to memory as the “vast court,” the “treasury” in the mind. He stands in awe of its force—a great “chamber,” he calls it, and no one had “sounded the bottom thereof.” “Great is the power of memory,” Augustine writes, “a fearful thing. O my God, a deep and boundless manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this am I myself.” Augustine seems convinced that we are our memories; they dictate to us, we respond to them, and we endlessly revise them. Memory can control us, overwhelm us, poison us. Or it can save us from utter confusion and despair. As individuals, we cannot live without it; but it is part of the agony in the human condition to live with it as well.
Is all of this as equally true of memory when it takes on the collective, social, group form? Do whole societies or institutions take their very sustenance from memory in similar ways to individuals? How do groups remember? Is Yale’s struggle to face its past relationships to slavery and the slave trade a little like Garcia Marquez’s silversmith? Not in some ways, but perhaps in one key way yes. After an apparent inattention to memory (not quite a plague of growing amnesia, more an avoidance) should it as an institution frantically delve into every corner of its past looking for complicity with slavery, and then label or relabel buildings, fellowships, the residential colleges themselves? Should it fear the loss of memory in a wave of constant revision of honorific practices, of inscriptions, or of institutional identities? The silversmith was desperate over the loss of memory itself, and therefore of his ability to function as a human. An institution faces, preserves, or reconsiders its past for deeper self-understanding, for the meaning and use of its public image, or simply to understand its historical evolution. Yale can worry, if it must, about “Calhoun” college in a much more sedate, deliberative way than Garcia Marquez’s silversmith. But it must nevertheless take care to examine its losses or resurrections of memory. And perhaps most important, it will want to take care to understand those historical moments in which memory decisions were made. The village silversmith needed labels and increasingly longer inscriptions to survive; the great institution needs to investigate, to study how and why the labels and inscriptions were adopted when they were adopted.
Memory inspires awe for its control over us, but the neuroscientist, Daniel Schacter, contends that memory operates as a “fragile power,” always unstable and changing. “Scientific research,” says Schacter, “is the most powerful way to find out how memory works, but artists can best illuminate the impact of memory in our day-to-day lives.” With a subject like slavery and the slave trade, we especially need artists to give us access to the story, and especially to the hold of its memory on us.
In his poem, “Middle Passage,” the modern American poet, Robert Hayden captured the meaning of slave ships:
Shuttles in the rocking loom of history
The dark ships move, the dark ships move,
Their bright ironical names
Like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth…
Weave toward New World littorals that are
Mirage and myth and actual shore.
Voyage through death, voyage whose chartings are unlove.
A charnel stench, effluvium of living death
Spreads outward from the hold,
Where the living and the dead, the horribly dying,
Lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement…
But, oh, the living look at you
With human eyes whose suffering accuses you,
Whose hatred reaches through the swill of dark
To strike you like a leper’s claw.
You cannot stare that hatred down
Or chain the fear that stalks the watches
And breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;
Cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,
The timeless will.
Calculating the costs of such human suffering and loss has always teetered uneasily on the scale of historical justice; clinical statistics, modern moral outrage, a tragic sensibility, and a horror-filled story of human commerce and survival have all found their places in the scale. The slave trade has to be assessed for what it was: a massive economic enterprise that helped build the colonial Atlantic world, a story of enormous human cruelty and exploitation that forged one of the foundations of modern capitalism, and a tale of migration and cultural transplantation that brought African peoples and folkways to all New World societies. Hayden offered a poet’s simple and timeless definition for the slave trade: a “voyage through death to life upon these shores.”
Sometimes history “accuses” us, as Hayden says, and we cannot “stare… down” its moral responsibilities. But history also forces us to interpret, explain, and imagine ourselves into the events of the past. In the words of the historian, Nathan Huggins, Africans engulfed in the slave trade and transported to the Americas experienced a physical, psychological, and cultural “rupture” from their known universe. They were ripped out of the “social tissue” that gave meaning to their lives and converted into “marketable objects.” For so many landing in Brazilian and Caribbean ports, or in Charleston, South Carolina by 1700, we must imagine them lost, wrote Huggins, “in a process, the end of which was impossible to see from its onset and its precise beginnings lost forever to recall.”
But we are responsible for our own “recall,” and this raises the question of the relationship of history to memory. At the end of his first book, Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1896), after 200 pages of historical analysis, W. E. B. Du Bois ends with a kind of moral statement entitled “The Lesson for Americans.” “No American can study the connection of slavery with United States history,” wrote Du Bois, “and not devoutly pray that his country may never have a similar social problem to solve, until it shows more capacity for such work than it has shown in the past.” Then Du Bois takes aim at the dominant way most Americans had come to view slavery. “It is neither profitable nor in accordance with scientific truth to consider that whatever the constitutional fathers did was right,” he declared, “or that slavery was a plague sent from God and fated to be eliminated in due time.” “We must face the fact,” Du Bois continued, “that this problem arose principally from the cupidity and carelessness of our ancestors.”
Here, Du Bois’s broad strokes are those of a historian, but one appealing to the moral sensibilities of his countrymen and to the idea of a national memory—if by that we mean the master narrative from which people garner a collective sense of definition and destiny. Contrary to the image of America as a progressive, freedom-loving people with a constitution that welcomes all, Du Bois says the founders and the generations to follow made a “bargain” with “evil.” “There began, with 1787, that system of… truckling, and compromising with a moral, political, and economic monstrosity,” he said, “which makes the history of our dealing with slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century so discreditable to a great people.” In this mixture of moral hindsight and foresight about how Americans use the past, the young Du Bois tried to tilt American memory toward a more critical, tragic sensibility—toward confrontation with slavery and its legacies rather than mere celebration that it was gone. “We” Americans, he insisted, “congratulate ourselves more on getting rid of a problem than on solving it.” Delay and denial, he implied, were deep American habits when it came to race and slavery. “The riddle of the Sphinx may be postponed,” he wrote, “it may be evasively answered now; sometime it must be fully answered.”
As scholar, editor, artist, and activist, Du Bois worked both sides of the street in this struggle between history and memory. But what exactly is the relationship between these two ways of seeing the past?
For more than a decade, historians from many fields and nations have been studying the past through the lens of “memory.” Some say we have veered from our training and subject matter (“gone over to the enemy” of post-structuralism, as one questioner put it to me). But many others have felt the pull to investigate how societies remember, to research the “myths” that define cultures, to cross over into the realm of public, collective historical consciousness in all its messy manifestations.
The concepts of history and memory can be conflated or discretely preserved in use and meaning; it is important to establish their differences. They are like two attitudes toward the past, two streams of historical consciousness that must at some point flow into one another. Historians are custodians of the past; we are preservers and discoverers of the facts and stories out of which people imagine their civic lives. But we need a sense of both humility and engagement in the face of public memory. “The remembered past,” warned John Lukacs in 1968, “is a much larger category than the recorded past.”
History is what trained historians do, a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; it tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive and action, and therefore more secular than what people commonly call memory. History can be read by or belong to everyone; it is more relative, and contingent on place, chronology, and scale.
If history is shared and secular, memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community. Memory is often owned, history interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity. History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience. In an essay about the slave trade and the problem of memory, Bernard Bailyn aptly stated memory’s appeal: “its relation to the past is an embrace… ultimately emotional, not intellectual.”
Scholars working on memory are no less devoted to traditional sources than those on any other subject. We assess all manner of individual memories (actual remembered experience) in letters, memoirs, speeches, debates, and autobiography. But our primary concern is with the illusive problem of collective memory—the ways in which groups, peoples, or nations construct versions of the past and employ them for self-understanding and to win power in an ever-changing present. The fierce debates over National History Standards during the early 1990s, as well as many other conflicts in public history (the Enola Gay exhibit, the Holocaust Museum, the current construction of the World War II Memorial in Washington) were not only clinics about the stakes in America’s “culture wars,” but a culture-wide lesson in the politics of history’s relationship to collective memory. In the past couple of years it seemed that the “culture wars” had run their course. But it is possible in these tense times of terrorism and rumor of war, that the reparations debate, as well as the Bush administration’s desire to bring more attention to American history, may revive battles over our national memory in ways we have not fully anticipated.
Modern nations have taken their very sustenance at times from the pasts upon which they are built or imagined. In his classic study, The Collective Memory, (1950), the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs’s analysis of the relationship of individual and collective memory (what he called “autobiographical” and “historical” memory) was very much aimed at how historians think. Halbwachs’s insights into how we remember in groups, associations, frameworks, communities, and institutional spaces serve historians who seek to know how historical consciousness is forged or diminished or controlled in any given culture and at a particular time. In short, historians study memory because it has been such an important modern instrument of power. And what historians studying memory have come to understand is simply that the process by which societies or nations remember collectively itself has a history. We’re writing histories of memory.
There are risks, of course, as historians shift their gaze to matters of social and public memory. We could become servants of the very culture wars that have given rise to so many struggles over memory.. Memory is usually invoked in the name of nation, ethnicity, race, religion, or on behalf of a felt need for peoplehood or victimhood. It often thrives on grievance and its lifeblood is mythos and telos. Like our subjects, we can risk thinking with memory rather than about it. Indeed, the study of memory is fueled in part by the world’s post-Holocaust and post-Cold War need to assess the stories of survivors of genocide, trauma, or totalitarian control over historical consciousness. While I agree that the world is riven with too much memory, and that its obsessions can stifle democratizing and universalizing principles, it is precisely because of this dilemma that we must study historical memory. We should know its uses and perils, its values and dark tendencies.
People will develop a sense of the past by one means or another—from schooling, religion, family, popular culture, or demogoguery. Historical consciousness can result from indoctrination or a free market of a hundred blooming interpretations. But the greatest risk, writes Cynthia Ozick, is a tendency of people to derive their sense of the past only from the “fresh-hatched inspiration” of their “Delphic priests.” History is often weak in the face of the mythic power of memory and its oracles. But we run the greatest risk in ignoring that weakness, wishing the public would adopt a more critical, interpretive sense of the past. “Cut off from the uses of history, experience, and memory,” cautions Ozick, the “inspirations” alone of any culture’s Delphic priests “are helpless to make a future.” As historians, we are bound by our craft and by our humanity to study the problem of memory and thereby help make a future. We should respect the poets and priests; we should study the defining myths at play in any memory controversy. But then, standing at the confluence of the two streams of history and memory, we should write the history of memory, observing and explaining the turbulence we find.
The dilemma of facing our national past of slavery is, of course, not a new one. In my book, Race and Reunion, I sketch out five different but overlapping forms of memory by which African Americans themselves faced their own past of slavery, emancipation, and the Civil War, and forged stories about their journey in America: one, the slave past as a dark void, a lost or shameful epoch, even as a paralytic burden better left undisturbed; two, a black patriotic memory, characterized by insistence that the black soldier, the Civil War constitutional amendments, and the story of emancipation ought to be at the center of the nation’s remembrance, its master narrative, and its sense of responsibility; three, a view of black destiny that combined Pan-Africanism, millennialism, and Ethiopianism—the tradition (more a theory of history than a political movement and rooted in the 68th Psalm’s famous claim that “princes shall come out of Egypt, and Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God”) that anticipated the creation of an exemplary civilization, perhaps in Africa or in the New World, and which saw the American emancipation as only one part of a long continuity of Christian development; four, a reconciliationist-accommodationist mode of memory, rooted in Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of industrial education and the “progress of the race” rhetoric that set in all over American culture by 1900; and five, a tragic vision of slavery and the war as the nation’s fated but unfinished passage through a catastrophic transformation from an old order to a new one. These five forms of memory are not definitive, and all could flow into one another. They formed the conflicted determination of a people to forge new and free identities and to find the narrative that best fit their hopes and experience in a society spending great energy to forget the story of black freedom.
Let me focus briefly on this problem of the slave past as either burden or inspiration in the late nineteenth century because it anticipates aspects of our current debate over reparations. By the 1880s and 1890s, North or south, in a city or in a sharecropper’s shack, where did most African Americans look for a safe haven in the past? In what narrative did the root their fragile citizenship? What American story could they safely own? Depended on their circumstances, of course, and the relative degree of protection they experienced for their rights and their dreams. For many, looking back into the past forced an encounter with the shame of slavery. In an age that exalted self-made business titans, when Christianity stressed personal responsibility, when many of their leaders preached self-reliant uplift, and in a culture riven with theories of inherent racial characteristics, blacks carried the stigma of slavery. Bondage had left the collective “injury of slavery,” said Christian Recorder editor, Benjamin Tanner, in 1878. “The very remembrance of our experience is hideous.” In 1887, Tanner’s paper ran a poem, “Keep Out of the Past,” by Emma Wheeler Wilcox, which had an unmistakable meaning for blacks:
Keep out of the past! For its highways
Are damp with malarial gloom.
Its gardens are sere, and its forests are drear,
And everywhere moulders a tomb…
Keep out of the past! It is lonely
And barren and bleak to the view,
Its fires have grown cold and its stories are old,
Turn, turn to the present, the new!
Hence, in a thousand settings, from magazine articles to sermons, from emancipation exhibitions to anniversaries, and in private communication, many blacks tended to consider slavery as an American prehistory that was painful to revisit. As the black sociologist, Kelly Miller put it, “in order to measure… progress, we need a knowledge of the starting point as well as a fixed standard of calculation. We may say that the Negro began at the zero point, with nothing to his credit but the crude physical discipline of slavery.” With this notion of emancipation as the zero point of group development, blacks risked reflection on their past and measured their progress. And how we are still caught inevitably in this web of calculation—wondering how to balance historical costs with historical inspiration.
Black intellectuals of the late nineteenth century differed, often fiercely, over just how historically-minded their people ought to be. A case in point is an encounter between Alexander Crummell and Frederick Douglass at Storer College, in Harpers Ferry West Virginia, on Memorial Day, May 30, 1885. Crummell gave a commencement address, entitled “The Need of New Ideas and New Aims for a New Era,” at this school founded for freedmen at the end of the war. An Episcopal priest, educated at the abolitionist Oneida Institute in upstate New York and at Cambridge University in England in the 1840s, Crummell had spent nearly twenty years as a missionary and an advocate of African nationalism in Liberia (1853-71). Crummell hoped to turn the new generation of blacks, most of whom would have been born just before or during the war, away from dwelling “morbidly and absorbingly upon the servile past,” and toward an embrace of the urgent “needs of the present.” As a theologian and social conservative, Crummell was concerned not only with racial uplift—his ultimate themes were family, labor, industrial education, and especially moral improvement—but with the unburdening of young blacks from what be percieved as the “painful memory of servitude.”
Blacks, Crummell believed, were becoming a people paralyzed by “fanatical anxieties upon the subject of slavery.” In his stern rebuke, Crummell made a distinction between memory and recollection. Memory, he contended, was a passive, unavoidable part of group consciousness; recollection, on the other hand, was active, a matter of choice, and dangerous in excess. “What I would fain have you guard against,” he told the Storer graduates, “is not the memory of slavery, but the constant recollection of it.” Such recollection, Crummell maintained, would only degrade racial progress; for him, unmistakably, “duty lies in the future.”
Prominent in the audience that day at Harpers Ferry was Frederick Douglass. According to Crummell’s own account, his call to reorient African American consicousness away from the past met with Douglass’s “emphatic and most earnest protest.” No verbatim account of what Douglass said at Harpers Ferry that day survives; but his many anniversary and Memorial Day speeches during the 1880s offer a clear picture of what he may have said. A healthy level of forgetting, said Douglass in 1884, was “Nature’s plan of relief.” But in season and out, Douglass insisted that whatever the psychological need of avoiding the woeful legacy of slavery, it would resist all human effort at suppression. The history of African Americans, he remarked many times, could “be traced like that of a wounded man through a crowd by the blood.” Better to confront such a past, he believed, than to wait for its resurgence.
In his many post-war speeches about memory, Douglass would often admit that his own personal memory of slavery was best kept sleeping like a “half-forgotten dream.” But he despised the politics of forgetting that the culture of reconciliation demanded. “We are not here to visit upon the children the sins of the fathers,” Douglass told a Memorial Day audience in Rochester in 1883, “but we are here to remember the causes, the incidents, and the results of the late rebellion.” Most of all, Douglass objected to the historical construction that portrayed emancipation as a great national “failure.” The growing argument (made by some blacks as well as whites) that slavery had protected and civilized blacks, while freedom had gradually sent them “falling into a state of barbarism,” forced Douglass to argue for an aggressive vigilance about memory.
Crummell and Douglass had very different personal histories and agendas. Crummell had never been a slave; he achieved a classical education, was a missionary of evangelical Christianity, a thinker of conservative instincts, and had spent almost the entire Civil War era in West Africa. He returned to the United States twice during the war to recruit black emigrants for Liberia, while Douglass worked aggressively as an advocate of emancipation and recruited approximately 100 members of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment. Crummell represented a brand of black nationalism which combined Western, Christian civilizationalism and race pride. He contended that the principal problems faced by American blacks were moral weakness, self-hatred, and industrial primitiveness. Douglass, the former slave, had established his fame by writing and speaking about the meaning of slavery; his life’s work and his very identity were inextricably linked to the transformations of the Civil War. The past made and inspired Douglass, and he had risen from slavery’s prison; there was no meaning for him without memory. The past also had made Crummell, but his connections to many of the benchmarks of African American social memory were tenuous. For Douglass, emancipation and the Civil War were truly felt history, a moral and legal foundation upon which to demand citizenship and equality. For Crummell, they were potentially paralyzing memories, not the epic to be retold, merely the source of future needs.
Remembering slavery and emancipation thus became a forked road. Douglass’s and Crummell’s differing dispositions toward the past represent two directions black thought could go in the 1880s: both sought racial uplift, but one would take the risk of sustaining a sense of historic grievance against America as the means of making the nation fulfill its promises; the other would look back only with caution, and focus on group moral and economic regeneration. With differing aims, Crummell and Douglass both sought to teach a new generation of African Americans how to understand and use the legacy of slavery and the Civil War era, how to preserve and destroy the past.
The future beckoned, but the past remained a heavy weight to carry. Forgetting might seem wise, but also perilous. To face the past was to court the agony of one’s potential limitations, to wonder if the rabbits really could outwit the foxes, or whether some creatures in the forest just did have history and breeding on their side. Long before Du Bois wrote of a struggle with the “double consciousness” of being American and black, African American freedmen had to decide how to look backward and forward. Many may have been like the characters Toni Morrison created in Beloved (1987)—haunted by slavery’s physical and psychic tortures, but desperate to live in peace and normalcy. When Paul D says to Sethe, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody, we need some kind of tomorrow,” Morrison imagined herself into the heart of late nineteenth century black memory. Memory is sometimes that human burden we can neither live comfortably with nor without. Douglass believed that black memory was a weapon, and its abandonment dangerous to survival. Crummell argued that a people can “get inspiration… in the yesterdays of existence, but we cannot healthily live in them.” The story of black Civil War memory demonstrates that both were right.
That encounter between Douglass and Crummell is, indeed, a precursor of the reparations debate today between some black leaders. But the idea of reparations itself is not new either. Led by a white Southerner, Walter Vaughan, one practical effort was made in the 1880s and 1890s. Vaughan was the son of a slaveholder and a native of Selma, Alabama. Too young to have fought in the Civil War, he migrated to Philadelphia where he went to business school, and then moved to Omaha, Nebraska where he edited a newspaper. Vaughan had a passion for the welfare of former slaves and he founded a movement to secure pensions for freedmen, with Union veterans’ pensions as his model. Vaughan began to lobby Congress in the 1880s. Several U. S. senators responded to Vaughan with either incredulity or claims that only education could help the freedmen and that ex-slave pensions would be too large a burden on taxpayers. But the plan had some luck with Republicans in 1890, and an “Ex-slave Pension and Bounty Bill” was introduced in Congress, calling for maximum payments of $15 per month and maximum bounties of $500 for each ex-slave. The three sitting black congressmen at the time did not support the measure. John Mercer Langston of Virginia rejected the bill, saying that “what we want is the means of obtaining knowledge and useful information, which will fit the rising generation for honorable and useful employment.”
But Vaughan and friends did not give up. He visited black churches in Omaha and Chicago, founded Ex-Slave Pension Clubs, and charged 10 cent enrollment fees and 25 cent monthly dues. A significant black group formed out of Vaughan’s initial movement, led by a Rev. Isaiah Dickerson and a Mrs. Callie D. House in Nashville, Tennessee. This National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association raised dues to pay for its literature, its annual meeting, its preparation of lists of eligible ex-slaves, and for lobbying in Washington. Local organizations were charged $2.50 for a charter. The driving force behind this organization seems to have been Callie House, who had been born in a contraband camp in 1865, had grown up desperately poor and was the mother of four children by the time she began her activism. House traveled all over the South, recruiting an estimated 200,000 members and trying to raise interest in a federal slave pension bill. Her organization tried to introduce some five different bills while the movement lasted until 1916, sometimes with the support of white Southerners who saw it as a net economic benefit to the South’s labor force. But the Bureau of Pensions and the U. S. Post Office began surveillance of the Association in about 1902. Ten years of Justice Department and Postal Service surveillance turned up no direct evidence that any federal laws were ever broken, but the Association was finally driven out of business in 1916 when the federal government enforced a fraud order against it.
House’s movement received little if any support from black editors or from organizations like the Afro-American League, the National Negro Business League, or the NAACP. According to some research by Mary Frances Berry, a class action suit instigated and paid for by Callie House, was filed in federal court in the District of Columbia by four African Americans claiming that the Treasury Department owed black people $68, 073, 388.99, which was the amount of taxes collected on cotton between 1862 and 1868. Since the records for that period could apparently be recovered and traced, such a figure was arrived at as the compensation owed blacks for their labor in production. The suit was dismissed, but not before it received favorable support from two black newspapers, the Washington Bee and the New York Age. In October, 1917, in the midst of the U. S. entry into World War I, Callie House was indicted and convicted of mail fraud, and sentenced to one year in federal prison in Jefferson City, Tennessee. House died a few years later of cancer with no medical care. Here and there in the WPA narratives some remembrance of Callie House’s slave pension movement appears. And in 1934, a group of old ex-slaves wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt asking, “is there any way to consider the old slaves?” One asked directly what had happened to the old idea of “giving us pensions in payment for our long days of servitude?”
Was the best chance at slave reparations in American history missed in Callie House’s failed or crushed movement? Were those final old slaves alive in the 1930s the last best chance? Were their dreams somehow eventually or partially realized in social security for their children and affirmative action for their grandchildren, or in the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Those questions do not have easy answers and they drive our current debate—a movement with deep grassroots support and broad staying power.
I offer no solutions tonight to the reparations issue—that was not my task here as a historian. But this much I do know. Whatever direction our current debate takes, it must go down the path of broader, public education and learning about slavery, the deep complicity of the United States government in its growth and power, and the legacies that persisted and poisoned our national memory for so long in its wake. A couple of years ago, Jim Horton and I (and some other historians) were invited to conduct roundtable discussions with all the board members of the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. We spent an entire Saturday morning, each serving as leader of discussion at a table of some 6-8 people, most of whom were black and very prominent in American business, law, and life. Our charge was to get these thoughtful and successful people to talk about why a museum about slavery was important. The folks at my table, almost to a person, said many of the right things with both knowledge and sincerity; but they did so by demanding that this museum tell a “progressive” story, one that would in the end uplift young people, and especially leave families with pride. After some time, only one person had not spoken. So, in my teacherly way, I called on him—Fred Shuttlesworth, Baptist minister, and the former leader of of SCLC’s campaign against Jim Crow in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Revolution. Rev. Shuttlesworth’s life had been on the line countless times in the struggles of the sixties. We all looked at him, and he broke his silence. He put Frederick Douglass’s plea to remember in the simplest terms; hard as it is to do in the public arena, he named the path we had to take. “If you don’t tell it like it was,” said Rev. Shuttlesworth, “it can never be as it ought to be.” Whatever else we do about the legacies of slavery in our history, our institutions, or our lives, we can do no less that Fred Shuttlesworth’s plea. “If you don’t tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be.”