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On Whose History Does The Flag Stand?

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

Author: Dr. RL Booker

👆🏾 Audio for your listening pleasure 👆🏾

“The returned colord Solgers are in Many cases beten, and their guns taken from them, we darcest walk out of an evening [but] if we do, and we are Met by Some of these roadies...that were in the rebbel army[,] they beat us badly.” (Trudeau, 2002, p. 464)

In 1866, a discharged black soldier from Maryland gives an example of the welcome that many Black soldiers received after returning home from the Civil War. The largest postwar clash took place in Memphis in May 1866. When the riots ended, “forty-six African Americans were dead, five Black women had been raped, and a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property lay in ruins.”

This weekend marks the 244th anniversary of the Declaration’s signing. To many American citizens, the flag is a powerful and positive symbol that stands for, “freedom, liberty, protection of American families, independence, patriotism, the ability to chart your own path in a country that protects your rights” and more. Yet for many other Americans, the flag stands for unfulfilled promises, for racism, neglect, hatred, denial of generational wealth building, discrimination, bigotry, sexism, and many other things. It’s not politics that divides our attitudes toward the flag; it’s our different histories and lived experiences.

My 3rd great grandfather, General William Henry Harrison, was born a slave and fought in the Civil War from 1862 to 1865. Almost one hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, he was one of the thousands of Black soldiers who came home only to see people beaten, raped, and killed. A member of the 1st North Carolina Colored Troops (Company A), he and many other Blacks were able to fight because an Act of Congress declared that forever free the soldier who enlisted. It also declared that your mother, your wife, and your children were forever free. I assume my grandfather chose to fight in the Civil War in order to both overturn the system that had enslaved him and our ancestors before him and also to attain freedom for him and his future family. He and other enslaved Blacks were liberated after the war but the long wait continued. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968) described it as:

Like freeing a man who had been unjustly imprisoned for years, and on discovering his innocence sending him out with no bus fare to get home, no suit to cover his body, no financial compensation to atone for the long years of incarceration and to help him get a sound footing in society. (p.84)

The twelve years of post-war Reconstruction would usher in “the maximum period of Black freedom in the history of this country,” according to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Black people that owned businesses were given the right to vote and had equal protection under the law (14th Amendment). Our family history shows that my 3rd great grandfather, around 1870, traveled with the Union troops south to find a new home. He and his new wife, Sallie Ann Dortch, my 3rd great grandmother, settled in the Arkansas Dallas County Ouachita community near Sparkman, AR. After many years of laboring, they were able to obtain land in a pine tree wooded area. In order to help educate negro children, General Henry and Sallie established the Harrison School #55. This school operated for 50 years until closing in 1947 when it was annexed to Sparkman Schools. The facility was then “used by the freed Negro citizens of southwest Dallas County and bordering Ouachita County for educating freed slaves and their children.”

To know their story is to know their pain and their struggles as well as their aspirations and accomplishments. The story of my 3rd great grandparents is a story of two people of color (both descendants of the Nigerian Eboe tribe) who fought against slavery in the Civil War, for the right to own land and educate young Black children, and, ultimately, for the rights of future generations, including me. I sometimes sit with tears flowing and wonder what they would make of the world we have created, of the progress we’ve sustained, and of the promises that remain unfulfilled. What would they think of me and the work left undone for the generations that follow?

On this fourth of July, the flag I see is covered in tears, tears of unjust struggles, and tears of generational perseverance and hope. They flow from my own cries as well as those of General Henry and Sallie and all my ancestors counting on me to hold up the mantle.


References - APA Citing

Caller, D. (2019, July 2). What does the flag mean to you? [Video]. YouTube.

Colbert, Stephen. (2019, April 6). Henry louis gates jr.: The reconstruction is as relevant as ever. [Video]. YouTube.

King Jr., M.L. (1968). Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? New York, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.

Trudeau, N.A. (2002). Like men of war: Black troops in the civil war 1862-1865. New Jersey, Castle Books.

Williams Sr., S.L. (2008). Legacy of faith: Commemorating the 70th dawn & harrison family reunion.

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