A Walk with History (Part 1): Overcoming Slavery’s Stain

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.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of African American History and Culture

What I took away from this experience is four things:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Slave Quarters at Monticello
  4. Slave Quarters at Monticello
  5. 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.

  1. 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.

It Takes Courage to Show God’s Smile

This is the first of a series of weekly blogs inspired by my favorite podcast from Father Mike Schmitz.  I introduced this series in my recent blog It Takes Courage in this World.

As Father Mike explained in his podcast, much of life demands  courage.  The everyday sort of courage.  The kind that gets you out of bed to go to work even when you don’t know the ultimate outcome of your presentation.  Or a young swimmer to jump off the blocks for the first time.  To plunge into the deep end of life without exactly knowing how to compete or even get to the other side.   This one image – a young kid learning how to swim and compete for the first time – got me to thinking about one of the bravest people that I know – my cousin Sean. Every day for Sean is a plunge into the unknown, a world that he does not fully understand.  But each day he faces that world armed with the love of his parents and brother.

Sean was born with  a neurological disorder of the brain and nervous system that  has severally impacted his mental development and confined him to a wheelchair from birth.  At 26, he cannot walk, speak, or read a book, but that has not stop him in fulfilling his purpose in the world – to show God’s love and smile.    He goes camping, school each day and even has gone to Disney World to see his favorite character – Minnie Mouse.   Thinking about that, I started to marvel at what courage that takes for Sean.  Unlike the swimmer who takes the blocks for the first time, I am not sure Sean understands where he will end up when he takes the plunge.  How scary it must be when he wakes up at night on occasion and does not see his nurturing parents nearby.  It is more apparent to see the courage of his parents and brother who care for him, feed him, clothe him and calms his fears.  But it is equally brave for Sean to face a world he little understands to bring out a smile and share his love.  Here is a picture of Sean with Minnie and Mickie.

kid with mickie and minne
Sean with his friends Minnie and Mickie

I have not had the pleasure to see Sean that often having moved from my hometown in New Jersey to Texas.  But the times that I have seen him directly, I was awed in his trust in others and his ability to reflect his family’s love.  I will remember always the time I met him face to face for the first time at Mike and Donna’s house in Bordentown.  He did not know me but undeterred crawled over and showed me his Minnie Mouse and toys with a smile.  Again when I visited in 2015 with my wife and daughter, Sean was there with a ready smile to meet some new people and show us his joy.

Indeed, it sometimes takes courage in this life to show God’s smile and reflect the love of your family.  Thank you Sean for showing us always this love.

It Takes Courage in this World

One of the most inspiring people in my life is Father Mike Schmitz.  For you that may not heard of him, he is a Catholic Priest and speaker who leads the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.  He is prevalent on social media and speaks often at youth conferences and for Ascension Press.  His two podcasts (one for UMD and one for Ascension Press) have often inspired me and believe it or not have been critical to my weight loss!   During my exercise routines, I often listen to a Father Mike playlist.   His podcasts for UMD range from 20 to 25 minutes and those for Ascension Press shorter.  You can read some more on my Fr. Mike exercise practice (item 9)  and other weight loss essentials  in this blog. What’s AP? A Digital Guide to Weight Loss

If I have a good day at the gym, I report to my wife that I did 3 Father Mike’s (the UMD variety) on the treadmill.  I think people in the gym may think that I am a little crazy during Fr. Mike’s talks.  I have listened to some when he speaks about being Minnesotan and laughed so loud the guy on the treadmill nearly fell off!  Equally, I often listened with tears streaming down my face moved by his words of faith, inspiration, and love.

This latter reaction is what happened yesterday at 5 AM during my Saturday exercise routine.  I listened to Fr. Mike’s podcast “It takes Courage” and was immediately overwhelmed with his simple message that so much of life just takes courage.  He gives some simple everyday examples that at first may not leap out at you but later resonate deeply.  Parents going to work on a Monday after a hectic weekend to take care of their family.  Children in their first swim meet when they climb up in the blocks.   Parents who are getting on in life and are willing to let go and prepare to meet their next chapter. The infertile couple who desire a kid so badly but are not sure if they will ever conceive.  And those couples that do ultimately conceive.   In Fr.  Mike’s words, “It takes courage to bring a life in this world and say I am going to lay down my life for whoever this child is.”  You can hear the full podcast from Father Mike here.   Life Demands Courage – Fr. Mike Schmitz

This message –   It takes courage to face a world full of everyday unknowns – moved and inspired me to develop my next blog series which will unfold over the next few weeks.  Ideas kept popping into my head – not of the famous – but of my friends and family that everyday wake up to face the world with courage when so much of their future is unknown.  A cousin as he faces a world that he sometimes does not understand to bring God’s smile into the world.  An uncle that walks up the daunting stairs of Eisenhower Hall on two wooden legs.   A friend with the courage to be himself and not whom other thought that he should be.  These friends and family inspire me with their faith, love and courage to face everyday challenges and to bring their light and that of God into the world.

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The Power of Gender Diversity

On the morning of July 7, 1976, 119 women joined the Corps of Cadets, establishing the first class of females at The United States Military Academy at West Point.  It was one of the smartest moves that the United States Military Academy ever made! The impact of that class and those early pioneers such as my classmates that joined in 1981 have left this key institution stronger, smarter and more devoted to mission.  In 2017,  West Point appointed the first African-American female First Captain following in the footsteps set before her.  Congratulations Cadet Simone Askew pictured below with a further description in this link Go Army!first captain


I am not saying that everything is perfect in USMA and the Army with regards to gender diversity, but the improvements on the Academy and the Army have been immense. I would like to touch upon two things that impacted me directly.  First, with the switch of USMA to a coed institution, a lot of the destructive, hazing and other institutional practices born of machismo and nothing more were transformed or eliminated.  That does not mean the Academy got easier.  To the contrary, the practices and the rituals became more purpose-built to mold modern military officers.  The focus went from purely physical feats of bravado to those of mental and physical endurance.  The second thing was that there was an infusion of female officers as tactical officers and professors.  Indeed, two of the four tactical officers that I served under while at the Academy where female – Captain Sasarak and Captain Hayes.  Captain Sasarak was a terror on inspections, an awesome role model, and helped me get a coveted assignment to Korea for my Junior Summer.  Captain Hayes could leave us all in the dust carrying a 70 lbs. ruck on her slight frame.  They brought a female perspective, shorn of the false bravado, but ever the bit as tough and demanding as any male Army officer.  They both shaped me in a positive manner for my role as an Army officer.  I salute and thank both of them!

If you want to read more on the Power that Diversity brings read these related blogs.

The Power of Diversity – A True Game Changer

Life Lessons – Diversity of Cultures and a Legacy of Service

Ms. Jordan’s Lessons on Civil Discourse

Many of you who pass through Austin have seen the statue of the airport’s namesake, Barbara Jordan shown below. I have on my desk with the same image and her words – “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.” The statue captures the essence of Miss Jordan – a towering intellect, the epitome of integrity, and a hero to all Texans. She also encapsulated in one person both the power of diversity and the spark and spirit which binds us together.


There is no more improbable and meteoric rise in politics as the one accomplished by Barbara Jordan. She was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress in Texas. Later in life, she became disabled and was confined to a wheelchair. Instead of this being an obstacle, this disability allowed her to gain perspective on issues facing those with a disability. Miss Jordan’s diverse background and experiences provided her both an unmatched perspective on issues facing minority groups and a unique ability to bring disparate groups together. Her differences and how she articulated them brought people together instead of driving them apart.

She is known as one of the great orators in American history. She came to prominence during Watergate as a member of the House Judiciary committee where her speech before congress is still cataloged in many lists as one of the top ten speeches in American History. In fact, the first time I came into contact with Miss Jordan was at Speech Class, a mandatory course at West Point. In Speech class, we were required to review a video of her speech along with those of JFK, Martin Luther King and others to learn the art of persuasive argument.
What I noticed in that speech were three elements that define the art of civil discourse, leveraged her unique experiences from disparate groups, and made her an American Icon.

1. She understood all angles of an issue. In particular, she could articulate the opposing views perspective often better than they could themselves.
2. She would then clarify were she agreed with their perspective to emphasize where there was common ground.
3. Only then would she respectfully bring up where she differed from the group or person’s perspective with concise arguments based on her view of the facts.

I became very familiar with this approach and had the opportunity to practice it myself with her while attending graduate school. I had the profound privilege of attending two Ethics in Government classes with Professor Jordan, my favorite teacher of all time. I also had the distinct honor of assisting her from the wheel chair to the table before each class.

We looked a bit like the odd couple if you looked only at the surface. Newly departed from the military, I still sported a buzz cut and was thought to be conservative for the LBJ School at the University of Texas. I reveled in her class, the lessons she taught, and the debates we had. Each week she would give us 500 or more pages to read from a diverse set of opinions.  We then would have class debate following Professor Jordan’s three lessons of civil debate quoted above. Unbeknownst to her, I often agreed with her but took the opposite line of argument just to match wits with her brilliant intellect and learn more. I sometimes exasperated her because I had not yet learned her three rules of civil discourse to find commonalities. Professor Jordan was known to have a deep sonorous voice – I called it the voice of God. On one occasion, when I was making one of my points a bit too spiritedly in the impossible effort to rattle her, she said with a twinkle in her eye “Don Grier, I am not sure I can take you three times a week in my class.”

The last vignette serves to show how Professor Jordan brought people together upon common ground. Each year, West Point awards the Thayer award to the person that best epitomizes its motto – Duty, Honor, and Country. It is usually given to a General or President but in 1995, three months prior to her death, it was given to my hero and mentor Barbara Jordan. An icon, her integrity, dedication to service, and ability to bring others together was honored by one of the most conservative institutions of our country. Here is a link to her remarkable acceptance speech and a picture.

To end, I try to live Miss Jordan’s rules of civil discourse each day even though sometimes I fall short.

1. Know the other side’s view at least as well as they do
2. Seek first commonalities and build on them to establish a relationship
3. Then and only then; civilly and with respect explain any differing viewpoints