This is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African American slaves in Virginia. Some history texts, or those trying not to use the word slavery, have called it “forced migration.” Leaving Oklahoma in the 1930s because of the dust bowl was forced migration. Being captured, packed in a ship, with one in four to die on the way, taking you to a distant land to be sold as chattel, right along with sheep, cattle and horses, was slavery. Human kind has done many evil things during our time on this planet. Slavery is among the worst.
However, you might be surprised how many people, mostly white people, no surprise there, often wonder what the fuss is about. After two and a half centuries, this evil institution was abolished in 1865. “That was 154 years ago. Aren’t ‘they’ over it yet?” I don’t know whether to laugh, to cry or just sit in uncomprehending silence. That’s because slavery and its legacy and the years of Jim Crow that followed aren’t as far in the past as you might think. Slavery is long gone, but its memories and the subsequent years of subjugation are more recent than most us, especially white people, would like to recall.
Alas, it seems, for all the pain the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow left us, whites and African Americans rarely have conversations about it. In that regard we seem to live in two different worlds and unless we can get past that, the anxiety, the racism, and yes, the fear we have of one another, then it’s likely nothing will improve.
Quite a few people in my father’s generation met or knew Civil War veterans when they were younger. To people like my dad, the Civil War was distant, but still something of a modern reference point. The same is true for many African Americans. Children were born into slavery as late as 1865 and that status, “I was born a slave,” was common in families and communities into the late 20th century.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally ended slavery, but it didn’t put an end, at least not for long, to what has been called de facto slavery and subjugation. Shortly after the Civil War, with most former Confederates disenfranchised and broke and the southern states under the control of occupying Union armies, African American power in the south enjoyed a short rise. This was called Reconstruction, but it didn’t last long. The North quickly grew tired of trying to enforce change in the South, and gradually, white southerners found their way back into power. By the end of the 19th century any gains African Americans made during reconstruction were all but erased. Virginia’s infamous 1901 Constitution took away voting rights for blacks, established poll taxes and made segregation the law of the land. African Americans were in for a long winter of oppression that wouldn’t start to thaw until the 1960s.
The term given to this era, after a minstrel show character, was “Jim Crow.” In most southern communities, blacks couldn’t vote, couldn’t shop in the same stores as whites, certainly couldn’t eat in the same restaurants, faced regular harassment, had to give up their seats to whites on buses, went to separate, usually far inferior schools and, even in Stafford County, couldn’t finish high school unless they took their last two years in Fredericksburg. Rarely has a system, designed to keep a people down, been so well organized and so pervasive. Though it does bring to mind a quote from President Harry Truman back in the 1940’s: “To keep a black man in the gutter requires a white man lying right on top of him.” It’s generally accepted that segregation and racism held the South back socially and economically for decades.
Are things better? The answer is a classic “yes and no.” The memories of the pre-civil rights era are still fresh. I remember waiting in the “white only” waiting room at the Alexandria Train Station. For me, that was just a passing observation. For African Americans it was one of many indignities and injustices. Memories of these things, as well as the loathsome behavior of some white people, whether it was rudeness and hostility in social contacts, relations with the police, at school, or in formal job or political situations, doesn’t fade that fast.
Perhaps our biggest problem is that this angst, these memories and our current racial issues, which seem to be getting worse, exist in a cone of silence. We don’t talk about it. We talk at each other and we use code words. I suspect African Americans and white people, with differing perceptions, talk about race issues amongst themselves, but rarely do we talk about them together. Of course, the past won’t go away. That’s not possible, but if we could talk openly, whites and African Americans, then maybe it will be a little bit easier to chart a course to the future. I’m up for that chat. I hope other people are too.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.