There are two original sins in US history – the virtual elimination of Native Americans from the continent and the enslavement of millions of Africans. The former is largely invisible and unacknowledged in our daily lives. The latter, racism against African-Americans, continues to be pervasively present in many ways into the present. Neither is acknowledged in a truly meaningful way. Racism was present from the very earliest foundations of the country and continues to this day in a multitude of manifestations.
Only liberal whites could ever think that we had entered a post-racial phase with the election of President Obama. Most whites continue to deny the existence of racism or are active racists. And even in using this word “white” we encounter the shifting sands of racism in American history. Just a hundred years ago many of the people who now identify as white were not considered white by the ruling white elite. People of Irish, Italian, Greek, Slavic and other European backgrounds not from the preferred northern European countries were excluded.
The focus here is on racism and African Americans with particular attention to the creation of segregated America from the 1930s forward.
Students presenting their work at HAL.
It is doubtless a fact that most Northerners, including the writer, think that slavery in America was a Southern problem. In the North slavery was an occasional institution, or so we think.
A week ago on Thursday 6/8/17 I attended a program at the library, “Abolition and Women’s Rights in Local History” presented by the students of Hudson Community Schools’ Writing Center at the Hudson High School. More about this project here.
“James W. C. Pennington” by Cecille Ruiz – click to see full size image
The bulk of the program revolved around presentations by the students of their research and creative projects about slavery, abolitionists and women’s rights activists of the 1830s-1850s in upstate NY. The word and image projects are on display in the library now.
Slavery in Hudson and Columbia County
But, I want to focus on just one aspect here. The program opened with readings of notices of runaways slaves from the Hudson River Valley. Many were notices from slave owners in Hudson and Columbia County dating roughly from 1795 to 1840. The source of these notices is In Defiance: runaways from slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley, 1735-1831 ((Stessin-Cohn, Susan, and Ashley Hurlburt-Biagini. In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley, 1735-1831, 2016.)) It is available in the library.
One hint about the deep history of slavery in our region is the fact that over 50% of the runaways spoke both Dutch and English. This is clearly an indication that they lived here long enough to learn two languages.
Here are a few samples from the book: (click on images for full size)
This wonderful little book (283 pages including 40 pages of recipes) by Mark Kurlansky is a great introduction to viewing history through a different kind of lens. We are all to used to history as told from the point of view of great men (almost always me) and nation states. Codis about the fish, fishing, processed food, ecology, trade, slavery, rum, fishing technologies, food around the whole of the Atlantic and beyond and more. It is a wonderful example of regional history.
How did the “sacred cod” sculpture end up hanging from the ceiling of the Massachusetts State House? Or, how did salted cod come to be such a prominent part of the cuisines of Spain, Portugal, France and other countries? How did it come that European fishermen competed for access to cod fisheries along the coast of New England and Canada well before the Pilgrims ever arrived? Where did cod fit into the slave trade that brought millions of Africans to the Caribbean, and North and South America? How did cod come to be almost fished out of existence in the 20th century?
The Sacred Cod of Massachusetts - MA State House
This book answers these questions and more.
Title: Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world
Author: Mark Kurlansky
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1997
Reviewer: Mark Orton
This book brings to light the extent to which the Jim Crow laws were in fact part of a totalitarian system of government that ruled the South for more than seventy five years. How these laws came to be called Jim Crow by historians instead of “a system of racist oppression and exploitation” is a mystery. The fact that historians and school textbook writers adopted this term,which is derogatory in its basis, points to a shameful lack of focus on the facts of life in the South during the period between 1876 and roughly 1965. Worse it aided the systematic cover up of the actual functions of these laws and their impact on African-Americans. If the word Apartheid had been invented earlier this would also be a useful term.
The research and the writing is compelling. Blackmon has a website devoted to the book and the production of a documentary movie on PBS that will air in 2011.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II
Author: Douglas A. Blackmon Publisher: Doubleday, $29.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-385-50625-0