Someone On The Internet said, “Studying history will sometimes make you feel extremely angry. If studying history always makes you feel proud and happy, you probably aren’t studying history.”
I must be doing it right!
I had forgotten that Elinore was born and raised in the antebellum South, but she reminded me with her Christmas letter and racist party “game.” As I was trying to figure out a way out of recording it, I remembered why the American Revolution became more interesting to me. It was because I learned more about the Founding Fathers in their full humanity, and not as demigods in bronze and marble. You’ll be glad to know that there are no demigods in this episode. Only fallible human beings. 🙂
Additional Reading on the Founders, slavery, and the African Americans mentioned in the episode:
John Robert Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in Pike County, Alabama. As he learned during a filming of Finding Your Roots, his great-great-grandfather, Tobias Carter, registered to voted in 1867, 2 years after the abolition of slavery. But almost 100 years later, Lewis, his sharecropper parents, and thousands of other descendants of enslaved people were prevented from voting.
Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery bus boycott, Lewis organized non-violent protests such as sit-ins, and joined the 1961 Freedom Rides. He assumed leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963. In ’64, SNCC and other civil rights groups led an effort to educate African Americans in Mississippi, and register them to vote. Reflecting on it in 1985, Lewis wrote,
“The Mississippi Freedom Summer was an attempt to bring the nation to Mississippi, to open up the state and the South and bring the dirt of racism and violence from under the rug so all of America could see and deal with it … During the summer many churches were bombed and burned, particularly black churches in small towns and rural communities that had been headquarters for Freedom Schools and for voter registration rallies. There was shooting at homes; we lived with constant fear. We felt that we were part of a nonviolent army, and in the group you had a sense of solidarity, and you knew you had to move on in spite of your fear.”
Lewis’s advocacy for the disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed continued beyond Freedom Summer into the rest of his life. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (GA-5) in November, 1986. His numerous awards include the Medal of Freedom, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, and the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement. Congressman Lewis died Friday, July 17, 2020.
This episode was originally posted on September 7, 2019.
“…the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” — W.E.B. duBois
The Civil War was supposed to mean the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom, franchise, and full citizenship for African Americans. And in the decades after the war, many blacks did make legislative, educational, and financial gains. But as we learned in the first episode of American Epistles, many more formerly enslaved people and their children faced limited economic opportunity and the constant threat of violence.
With the outbreak of World War I, immigration to the United States decreased and production demands increased. Low unemployment in the North meant that African Americans had a new opportunity to escape life in the South.
Men and women, the young and the older, regardless of education level, wrote letters to the Chicago Defender newspaper, the Chicago Urban League, and other organizations. The following letter was one of many that expressed their desperation:
Macon, GA April 1, 1917
Dear Sir: I am writing you for information. I want to come north east, but I have not sufficient funds, and I am writing you to see if there is any way that you can help me by giving me the names of some of the firms that will send me a transportation, as we are down here where we have to be shot down here like rabbits for every little [offense], as I seen an [occurrence] [happen] down here this after noon when three [deputies] from the [sheriff’s] office [and] one Negro spotter come out and found some of our [race men] in a crap game. And it makes me want to leave the south worse than I ever did when such things hapen right at my door, hopeing to have a reply soon and will in close a stamp from the same.“
This was the first episode of a three-part series on the Great Migration.
Recommended Reading— The Warmth of Other Suns: Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to write this book, and it shows. The book is THOROUGH. Think of it as Everything That You Didn’t Know That You Didn’t Know About the Great Migration.
“This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligence from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and most faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.” — Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 1784
In the spring of 1781, General George Washington sent the French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia to thwart the advancing British army. An enslaved man by the name of James Armistead responded to the marquis’s call for spies. Serving at the table of British General Charles Cornwallis, Armistead overheard valuable information that helped the Americans win the Revolutionary War. Armistead was eventually granted his freedom for his service. Once a free man, he added “Lafayette” to his name.
This episode is dedicated to Belmont Station Elementary’s fourth grade classes, who studied Virginia history this year. You are STARS!
“It was my great desire to read easily this book. I thought it was written by the Almighty himself. I loved this book, and prayed over it and labored until I could read it. I used to go to the church to hear the white preacher. When I heard him read his text, I would read mine when I got home. This is the way, my readers, I learned to read the Word of God when I was a slave. Thus did I labor eleven years under the impression that I was called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ever-blessed God.” — Rev. Peter Randolph, 1855
For enslaved Americans, literacy was a path to freedom.
Those who could write forged the “tickets” that both enslaved and free blacks needed to move about. Some of these tickets took enslaved people all the way to free states, and even to Canada.
Literacy provided spiritual freedom. It enabled people in bondage to read the whole Bible, and not just the sections that enslavers quoted. The Bible represented liberation, both on earth and in eternity. Enslaved Christians identified with the Israelites, whom Moses led out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
And in sharing their stories, people who had escaped slavery hoped to awaken sympathy in their fellow Americans and achieve freedom for all enslaved people.
This is the final episode in a three-part series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy. I have relied on several sources, but used the following most heavily–
As you probably already know, there have been many arrests in Greenwood, which is only 30 miles from where I am working. Tomorrow I expect to be there to picket the jail house. This means almost certain arrest.
Yours in freedom,
During the summer of 1964, thousands of young people from across the United States enlisted in the battle for democracy in Mississippi. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other organizations had already been fighting for the civil rights of African Americans in the Magnolia State. However, most of the rest of the country was unaware that black people were literally losing their lives for trying to vote. The organizers of the Freedom Project hoped that the involvement of young–and predominantly white volunteers–would draw national attention and lead to Federal intervention. In the very first days of the program, three volunteers–two of them white–disappeared. It made national headlines.
America’s lesson in Mississippi politics continued until the Democratic National Convention in August. Before national news cameras, Fannie Lou Hamer testified of losing her home and being beaten for trying to exercise her civil rights. Sympathetic calls flooded the White House. And President Lyndon Johnson feared for his re-election chances.
“August 10, 1917 I get my appointment and go loco w joy. It seems to me my reason for existence is explained. All my training and experience seem to have fitted me for just this. Bradford Knapp talks and I get two ideas. Unless one gives all one is not giving enough, and if one can go one should. The other thing was that to our generation has come this great chance for sacrifice. There is a joy in my heart that this has come. Everyone is awfully good about my going away. I did not know how much my work meant to me.”
–Diary of Mary Paxton Keeley
On April 6, 1917, Congress voted for a declaration of war on Germany. War had already been raging for three years. And for the whole of those three years, American women had been involved in the care and comfort of European soldiers and civilians. Now that American men would be fighting, American women took on service as a patriotic duty. But not all women were given an equal opportunity to serve, nor did all American soldiers receive equal access to the welfare services.
Ten thousand Women who have enough rights without voting and also plenty to do, to attend to their own affairs without meddling with men’s business, ask you to Veto this Suffrage bill. We don’t want to vote, and go to the polls with n****rs — and all kinds of woman.
Mrs G Monroe and thousands of others
We’ve all heard of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, but there were millions of women and men who spoke for, and against, women’s suffrage. Today’s mini-episode shares a few of those voices.
“South State Street was in its glory then, a teeming Negro street with crowded theatres, restaurants and cabarets. And excitement from noon to noon. Midnight was like day. The street was full of workers and gamblers, prostitutes and pimps, church folks and sinners.” — Langston Hughes
In many ways, the North delivered on its promise. The migrants enjoyed higher wages, better education for their children, and the opportunity to participate in the political process. Perhaps most refreshingly, they no longer had to behave in a subservient manner to white people. Letters from migrants to their Southern friends and families, drew more and more blacks out of the South.
I take this method of thanking you for your early responding and the glorious effect of the treatment. Oh. I do feel so fine. Dr., the treatment reach[ed] me almost ready to move. I am now housekeeping again. I like it so much better than rooming. Well, Dr., with the aid of God I am making very good. I make $75 per month. I am carrying enough insurance to pay me $20 per week if I am not able to be on duty. I don’t have to work hard, don’t have to mister every little white boy comes along. I haven’t heard a white man call a colored a n*****r you know now–since I been in the state of PA. I can ride in the electric street and steam cars anywhere I get a seat. I don’t care to mix with white. What I mean–I am not crazy about being with white folks, but if I have to pay the same fare, I have learn[ed] to want the same accommodation. And if you are first in a place here shopping, you don’t have to wait until the white folks get through trading. Yet amid all this, I shall ever love the good old South and I am praying that God may give every well wisher a chance to be a man regardless of his color, and if my going to the front would bring about such conditions, I am ready any day. Well, Dr., I don’t want to worry you but read between lines; and maybe you can see a little sense in my weak statement. The kids are in school every day. I have only two, and I guess that [is] all. Dr., when you find time, I would be delighted to have a word from the good old home state. Wife join[s] me in sending love you and yours.
I am your friend and patient.
However, while wages were higher than the migrants had earned before, the pay was often low relative to the higher cost of living. Many migrants were forced to live in overcrowded and dilapidated neighborhoods. In Chicago, the newcomers clashed culturally with the Old Settlers–blacks who had lived in the city much longer. And, they clashed violently with whites, in Chicago and throughout the North.
I referred to several sources, but used the following most heavily–