I am just returning from a week long vacation visiting historic sites in Virginia. My wife and I visited DC, and then went to Chancellorsville, Montpelier (Home of James Madison), Monticello (Home of Thomas Jefferson), the Historic Triangle (Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown), and returned to visit heroes and friends at Arlington National Cemetery. In this trek in the past, I learned a lot about our great country and gained insights into our future as we continue to perfect our union.
This is the first of a series of blogs on what I learned. This lesson is the most important. I gained it while my wife and I spent 4 hours in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC (not nearly enough) and had tours/talks on slavery at Montpelier, Monticello, and Colonial Williamsburg.
What I took away from this experience is four things:
- We owe a debt of gratitude to those enslaved and their descendants for building this country that is hard to repay. The impact that African Americans had on building this country far surpasses their percentage of the population. From the plantation slaves to the Tuskegee Airmen from Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King, the smarts, sweat, ingenuity and determination of African Americans was a driving force in building this country.
- Slavery was just pure evil and despite the myth, there was no such thing as a “good” slave owner. This was hammered home on both at the Montpelier and Monticello tours. Madison’s stepson John Payne Todd after taking over the estate, ran the estate into bankruptcy and along with his mother Dolly Madison sold off the slaves and broke up families in attempt to pay off debts due to John’s profligacy. Monticello’s tour of Mulberry Row hammered home even more poignantly the evil nature of slavery. Our tour guide was from the Bronx and in the typical no-nonsense way of a New Yorker shattered the myth that Jefferson was a lenient slave owner. Although he decried slavery in his writings, he only freed 6 slaves (less than 1 percent of those at Monticello). And, of those freed, 4 of the 6 were his children by Sally Hemmings as genetic testing suggests. Most of the rest were sold to pay off the debt of Monticello upon his passing. This does not take away from all the good that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison done. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Madison’s Constitution set in motion the ideas that would eventually topple the paradox of slavery. But these flawed men could not fully escape their times.
- The stain and impact of slavery continued through segregation and still echoes today. The African American museum is arranged so you start underground with the initiation of slavery and progresses as it is abolished in the Civil War and segregation is ended with the Civil Rights Act. You learn the impact on family structure as families are broken apart and sold to different owners. You see the injustice of people being lynched just because of the color of their skin. Perhaps, the most moving moment in the whole museum and one that makes me ashamed of my historical ignorance was the memorial to Emmett Till. I always thought that the event that initiated the Civil Rights campaign of the sixties was Rosa Parks, but it was the murder and memorial for Emmett Till six months prior. Emmett, a fourteen-year-old young man, who was visiting his relatives in South, was brutally murdered for supposedly looking at a white woman in a disrespectful manner. His beaten body was then dumped in a swamp. When his body was recovered, his mother bravely requested an open casket funeral for all to see the evil of racism. Unbelievably, the two individuals that all evidence points to have committed the act were found not guilty by an all-white jury. I was happy this week to see the case to be reopened with new evidence.
Emmett Till and his brutal murder was one of the key event that launched the Civil Rights movement and we as Americans must remember its history along with Rosa Parks, the sit-ins, and Martin Luther King. We must not forget.
- We must be ever vigilant. The museum climbs from the basement to the ground floor with the presidency of Barrack Obama. In this way, it is meant to show America as it progresses from the depths of slavery to the promise of a more equal future. But there is nothing in the museum that prevents a person from walking back down through history into the basement. We still hear the echoes of slavery and the vestiges of the past. This time I spent in our nation’s past has hammered home in me the need to be ever vigilant. We cannot let the mistakes of the past repeat themselves. We must continue to stand for civil rights and secure justice. To be on guard and fight for equality for all and a more perfect union.