[NOTE: Freedom schools were a key element of 1960s civil rights activism in the deep South. Their important legacy is no longer only history, but is now being revived and reinvented, starting in Florida, as resistance to resurgent racism in education. What a great idea.]
After Florida restricts Black history, churches step up to teach it .
By Brittany Shammas — September 24, 2023
MIAMI — They filed into the pews one after the other on a sweltering Wednesday night, clutching Bibles and notepads, ready to learn at church what they no longer trusted would be taught at school.
“BLACK HISTORY MATTERS” proclaimed television screens facing the several dozen men and women settling in at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. An institution in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Liberty City,
It was in the second session of our anti-racism class, if I remember right, that the teacher drew a diagram on the big flip chart. I’m going to call it TUD, for The Unforgettable Diagram. I’ve forgotten a lot about the class, but not that. Definitely not that.
It stands to reason that Woodrow Wilson would be the president to bring us Army bases named for traitors who waged war on this country with the goal of preserving slavery. He took office in 1913 with a team of white supremacists who announced themselves by requiring separate white and colored bathrooms in federal buildings. The Wilsonians inflicted a neo-Confederate regime on the capital that was felt in far corners of the nation. . . .
The coup was rooted in an influential civic religion known as the Lost Cause. The Lost Causers venerated racial terrorism as a means of suppressing Black political influence. They romanticized slavery, portraying African Americans who lived in chains as happy and well cared for. They recast the pro-slavery war as a just struggle for “states’ rights” while elevating the dead Confederate general Robert E. Lee to the stature of a patron saint.
The Wilsonians were plying these waters when they gave Lee’s name to Fort Lee in Virginia. The myth of the noble Confederate that was used to justify the naming honor was bankrupt from the start. Some rebel honorees were known at the time to be profoundly incompetent as soldiers and leaders. At least one honoree was a state Ku Klux Klan leader. Yet another, the execrable George Pickett, was a war criminal.
Lee is widely regarded as a brilliant tactician. But he also did nothing to stop his soldiers from systematically kidnapping free Black citizens into slavery. During the Gettysburg campaign, African Americans who found themselves in his army’s path fled in large numbers to avoid being dragged south and sold at auction. The Civil War diarist Rachel Cormany reported that some were hunted down by soldiers on horseback and herded into custody “just like we would drive cattle.” In the eyes of these soldiers, every Black person was a runaway slave.
Denial and Jim Crow
As recently as a decade ago, U.S. military officials stood by the anemic fiction that Confederate base names had nothing to do with race hatred. But that position rang hollow each time Confederate ideology figured in episodes of racist violence. The connection was crystal clear in 2015, when a gunman sought to instigate a race war by killing nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.
The main event of the renamingproject unfolds on Thursday [April 28] in Virginia, when Fort Lee is rechristened Fort Gregg-Adams. This change derives its emotional power from the fact that the saint of the lavishly racist Lost Cause is being replaced by two African Americans who served in the Army during the Jim Crow era.
Lt. Col. Charity Adams served with distinction during World War II as commander of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in Europe. Her quietly dignified memoir, “One Woman’s Army,” offers a close view of the racism men and women in uniform faced both inside and outside the military.
While visiting her family in Columbia, S.C., she encountered hooded Ku Klux Klansmen who had turned out in force in an attempt to intimidate her father, who was the president of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. On another occasion, she was traveling in a first-class train car when an enraged white passenger demanded that a military police officer check her credentials.
“That woman over there is wearing an officer’s uniform,” the passenger said, according to her memoir, “and I am sure she is an impostor. Why, she’s a ‘Negra.’” While stationed in Europe as a major, she was threatened with court-martial for standing her ground against a racist general who had insulted her. She nonetheless thrived, leaving the service in 1946 as the second-highest-ranking officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.
Lt. Gen. Arthur Gregg commanded logistics units around the world and was among the African Americans who applied for training in 1948, the year President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which was supposed to end segregation in the armed forces.
When he arrived as a second lieutenant two years later at Fort Lee, Mr. Gregg found himself barred from the whites-only officers’ club, also named for the general. The camp commander was attempting to build a separate club for colored officers only, in open defiance of Truman’s order, as the Black press reported soon afterward.
In the summer of 1951 — a full three years after the order — the African American investigative journalist James L. Hicks reported that Fort Lee was running under Jim Crow rules, even requiring separate colored hours at its swimming pools.
Mr. Hicks wrote pointedly that the base “named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee is actually being operated by Major R.C.L. Graham as though it is still one of the Confederate states and as if General Lee himself were its commanding officer.”
Mr. Gregg is now 94 years old, and last week he returned triumphant to Fort Lee for a ceremony that changed the name of that officers’ club to the Gregg-Adams Club.. . . The decision to expunge Confederate tributes from military assets reflects a welcome, if belated, declaration that the men who nearly destroyed the country in defense of the right to own human beings are unworthy of federal veneration. That it took so long to reach this realization reflects the extent to which the lie of the Lost Cause still holds sway in the United States.
[Sectarian NOTE: The author here does not mention (and why should she?) that the South, especially North Carolina, has been very important in the history of my own small tribe, the Quakers. I didn’t know or expect this when I came here 21 years ago, so far from the self-identified and self-important “centers” of the sect in Philadelphia, Richmond (Indiana) and Newberg (Oregon). But once here, I learned it was so (as I learned much more that was important yet unexpected). That continuing learning has been the subject of many posts here, and as way opens, likely many more.]
Why I Keep My Eyes — and My Mind — on the South (Excerpts)
While the world was watching the former president surrender to authorities in a New York City courthouse last week, I was watching Nashville and Raleigh. I live in North Carolina, and these two seats of government and capital cities in bordering southern states have been roiled with political unrest in the shadow of the Donald Trump Show.
[NOTE: Henry Louis Gates could well be the best professor I never had.
I was first knocked over by his intellect and insight when I found his 1993 article that challenged the use of what was then newly-called “Critical Race Theory” as justification for repression of free speech by essentially private, often mob action, now often referred to as deplatforming.
The title of his article essentially sums it up: Why Civil Liberties Pose No Threat to Civil Rights. Let Them Talk. It was calm, thorough, clear, erudite and for me utterly persuasive. It was published in The New Republic, but an unpaywalled version of it is online here.
Gates predicted failure for this movement, and one could debate whether that failure has come about thirty years later. For me his most prophetic note was struck in this concluding paragraph:
And yet the movement will not have been without its political costs. I cannot put it better than [law professor] Charles Lawrence himself, who writes: “I fear that by framing the debate as we have–as one in which the liberty of free speech is in conflict with the elimination of racism– we have advanced the cause of racial oppression and placed the bigot on the moral high ground, fanning the rising flames of racism.”
In 2023, news from many states would seem to be confirming this ominous forecast daily.
Gates has also courted controversy with articles that argue against the deep complicity of many African groups and peoples in the Atlantic slave trade, which was accurate but elicited howls of invective.
“People wanted to kill me, man,” Gates says of the reaction to that op-ed. “Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we were raised in: evil white people and good Black people. The world just isn’t like that.”
He was also pilloried for suggesting that the issue of reparations brings with it many complexities, few yet worked out satisfactorily. Gates last year waded into the debates over reparations, stating in a New York Times Op-ed that “There are many thorny issues to resolve before we can arrive at a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime,” in particular the pervasive involvement of other indigenous Africans in kidnapping and selling as much as ninety per cent of those who forced into the Middle Passage nightmare.
“The African role in the slave trade,” Gates wrote, “was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African-Americans even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. [NOTE: These “repatriation” or “colonization” schemes were, by the way, long supported by many Quakers.]
“The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia,” Douglass warned. “We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”
Now, only this week, Gates has taken up his Op-ed pen again, in a long but incisive exploration of two related concerns: one is the burgeoning zombie apocalypse of school and state censorship of serious educational exploration of racism and other freighted current issues. The other is the need for Black Americans, scholars, teachers and others concerned with justice and equity, to face up to the task, particularly in dealing with whites (both friends and critics) with the long and continuing history of vigorous, often intense debates among Blacks over many key issues they faced.
It is often surprising to students to learn that there has never been one way to “be Black” among Black Americans, nor have Black politicians, activists and scholars ever spoken with one voice or embraced one ideological or theoretical framework. Black America, that “nation in a nation,” as the Black abolitionist Martin R. Delany put it, has always been as varied and diverse as the complexions of the people who have identified, or been identified, as its members. . . .
Why shouldn’t students be introduced to these debates? Any good class in Black studies seeks to explore the widest range of thought voiced by Black and white thinkers on race and racism over the long course of our ancestors’ fight for their rights in this country.”
I’ll stop quoting here, and below let Gates make his own case, which he does best.
I believe there are very important implications in these passages for predominately white groups who want to be active allies to Blacks in their struggles. The call from Gates to these whites is for a reckoning with the deep shortcomings of too much of what has for too long passed as trendy “anti-racism” in their circles.
It’s time for serious attention to grappling with and relating to the long history and active presence of many sharp debates over differences and debate among Blacks. This is needed both because it is a mark of real rather than token, masked condescension, and as a basis for overdue reassessment of the mixed and even counterproductive results of many so-called anti-racism or DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) programming, and not least, a reconsideration of strategy and priorities.
And not least, it’s a damn fine read. So sit back, put your feet up, and dive into this monumentally enlightening article
“We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them,” Governor DeSantis said. He also decried what he called “indoctrination.”
School is one of the first places where society as a whole begins to shape our sense of what it means to be an American. It is in our schools that we learn how to become citizens, that we encounter the first civics lessons that either reinforce or counter the myths and fables we gleaned at home.
Each day of first grade in my elementary school in Piedmont, W.Va., in 1956 began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, followed by “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee).” To this day, I cannot prevent my right hand from darting to my heart the minute I hear the words of either.