Updated: Jan 26
Hidden history cannot be learned from
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on June 23, 2022)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Veronica Mobley
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed Juneteenth into federal law. Juneteenth represents the day that federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to ensure that enslaved people would be freed. I could spend the next few minutes explaining how so many people like Mrs. Opal Lee, a 95-year-old retired teacher, counselor, and Juneteenth activist, dedicated their lives to making this day a federal holiday. At this moment, I think it is critical to give a snapshot of what Black and Indigenous people had to endure for more than 245 years as well as what Juneteenth means to me.
In 1860, approximately thirty-five hundred vessels went in and out of New Orleans, carrying an annual cargo of mostly cotton that amounted to $220 million worth of goods. In 2022, this would be approximately $7.6 billion dollars for just that one year. The agricultural labor force in America during this time was primarily enslaved Black people and enslaved Indigenous peoples. These people were not paid for their centuries-long labor. In the 1985 book, Stand the Storm: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Dr. Edward Reynolds outlines his research on what the middle passage was like. He found that U.S. enslavement in its extreme forms, including the taking of life, was very common between 1600 and mid-1800s.
Nonetheless, groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy fought hard to paint the atrocities of enslavement as a happy and enjoyable time. For decades there were books taught in schools throughout the south such as History of Georgia (1954) that described the relationship between enslaved people and their enslavers as, “often whites and blacks were thus even closer than friends. The master often had a barbecue or a picnic for his slaves...even while working in the cotton fields they sang songs. The beat of the music and the richness of their voices made work seem light”.
A person who would have been in elementary school learning this information would be 75 years old today. I am not saying that all 75-year-olds find this to be true, I am seeking to help us imagine what a society might look like if there were some people who fully embrace this history to the point that it shapes their worldview. In the 1978 book In the Matter of Color, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. stated, "there is a connection between the brutal centuries of colonial slavery and the racial polarization and anxieties today. The poisonous legacy of legalized oppression based upon the matter of color can never be adequately purged from our society if we act as if slave laws had never existed."
If we know that laws allowing the enslavement of generations of Black and Indigenous people did exist, why would policymakers move to pass laws that are targeted at stopping the teaching of this history? Case in point, in 2021, the republican led Texas legislature passed Texas Senate Bill 3. This law surgically removed these previously required teachings from Texas public schools: the emancipation proclamation, civil rights movement, the history of White Supremacy, the institution of slavery, the Chicano movement, women’s suffrage, the federal voting rights act of 1965, the life and work of Dolores Huerta, the U.S. decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the well quoted by elected politicians, I Have a Dream speech.
Should I continue? I think I will...the Ku Klux Klan, Fredrick Douglas's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, the Indian citizenship act of 1924, the universal declaration of human rights, the life and work of Cesar Chavez, the League of Latin American Citizens, and more. The law also states that if teachers choose to discuss any of these topics, they must try to present the information from a “diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective”. When we look at all of this history, we as Americans, tend to espouse that enslaving people, discrimination, and suppression of human rights were morally and practically wrong ... a stain on our history. So, then why would we ask teachers to present this important history from a diverse and contending perspective? And we wonder why American generations continue on this cycle.
It is time for Americans, all of us, to face our history, without fear, shame, or blame. To me, Juneteenth represents my family starting with Anthony Lewis, my 5th Great Grandfather and the first person in my family to be brought to America from Nigeria as an enslaved person. Hardy White Harrison, my 4th great grandfather who was born as an enslaved person. Gen. William Henry Harrison, my third great-grandfather who was born as an enslaved person and enlisted to fight for his freedom in the Civil War of 1865. More than 50 years later, he died a free man. All the way to my mother, Toni Walker, who continued to fight to not only make the world a better place for her children but also make sure her children were ready for the world. There are millions of Toni Walkers in this country who continue to wake up every morning to give their children the will and fortitude that they will need to navigate a society where history is being denied in plain sight. Simply put, long before Juneteenth was a federal holiday, it was and still is a symbol of hope towards the Black experience in this country.
Learn why we should face our history. Watch the video and click here.