In case you think I’m spending too much time this month blogging about our local history, just keep in mind that May is an important month of historical events in Cabarrus County, North Carolina.
My May 2, 2022 blog post, __#OnThisDay: 251st Anniversary of 1771 Gunpowder Plot__ was about patriots’ blowing up the king’s munitions just off the Great Wagon Road in present-day Cabarrus County.
Today, my blog is about the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1775 while present-day Cabarrus County was part of Mecklenburg County and its citizens played just as important a role in the declaration as anyone living in what is present-day Mecklenburg County.
Friday, May 20, 2022 was the 247th anniversary of the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
But what about the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence?
I blogged about the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence on May 21, 2018. To refresh your memory, or to introduce you to the topic if you aren’t aware of it, the following nine paragraphs are reblogged from that post:
My immigrant ancestors were among the Scottish Presbyterian pioneers who settled old Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Years of discontent in the American colonies were piled on top of the anti-British Crown feelings they brought with them across the Atlantic.
Weary of unfair taxes imposed by the Crown and the discrimination they were subjected to as Presbyterians slowly brought the settlers to the boiling point. An example of the persecution these Presbyterians felt were the Vestry and Marriage Acts of 1769. Those acts fined Presbyterian ministers who dared to conduct marriage ceremonies. Only Anglican marriages were recognized by the government.
In May of 1771 a group of young men from the Rocky River Presbyterian Church congregation in the part of Mecklenburg County that later became Cabarrus County, disguised themselves by blackening their faces and under the cover of darkness ambushed a shipment of Royal munitions traveling north on the Great Wagon Road. The supplies were destined for Rowan County to put down the Regulator Movement.
Blowing up three wagons loaded with gunpowder and other supplies, the teens and young men who perpetrated the deed were declared outlaws by the Royal Governor and had to go into hiding until May 20, 1775 when all the citizens of Mecklenburg County were declared to be rebels against the British Crown.
On May 20, 1775, the citizens of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina declared themselves to be free and independent of the rule of Great Britain. It was a sober and sobering declaration not entered into lightly. Those American patriots meant business, and they knew the risks they were taking.
Archibald McCurdy, an Elder in Rocky River Presbyterian Church, heard the document read from the steps of the log courthouse in Charlotte. When he got home, he and his wife, Maggie, listed everyone they knew of who could be trusted in the coming fight for American independence.
No original copies of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence survive today. The local copy was lost in a house fire at the home of one of the signers. The copy taken to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia by Captain James Jack on horseback was also lost. Later, signers of the document recreated it from memory.
Nevertheless, those of us who were raised on stories of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and the brave souls who risked their lives to sign it know that the document was real. The blood of the American patriots still flows in our veins and their spirit of freedom still beats in our hearts.
Don’t mess with our freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or our freedom of assembly!
Until my next blog post
I’m considering taking a week off from writing my blog, unless something interesting comes along and begs to be written. Next Monday, May 30, is Memorial Day in the United States of America. It is a day to remember all the men and women who have lost their lives while serving in the armed forces of the United States.
I hope you have a good book to read until I blog again on June 6.
Take time for a relaxing hobby and spend some time with friends and family.
The recent “leak” that the United States Supreme Court is on track to abolish the 1973 landmark decision Roe v Wade should stand as a wake-up call to all Americans.
Even a 49-year-old Supreme Court decision that has stood the test of time and numerous challenges, can be undone by five Supreme Court Associate Justices who claimed under oath before Congress that they had no intention of voting to undo that 1973 Court decision.
This begs the question, “What comes next? What other US Supreme Court decisions will be wiped away by this Court which was “stacked” by our former president and the radical “right” in Congress?
If I just “stepped on your toes,” so be it.
Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 1954
This brings me to the topic of today’s blog post, which I chose months ago because it is the anniversary of another landmark US Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka. It was 68 years ago today that the Court published its unanimous decision on that case, which made it illegal to have separate public school systems based on race.
Until Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, it was legal for states to have “separate but equal” school systems for the different races. Everyone knew there was nothing equal about them, but they were legal in the eyes of the law.
The Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision overturned the 1896 US Supreme Court case, Plessy v Ferguson. Plessy v Ferguson is proof that the US Supreme Court can make terrible mistakes. That decision ruled that having “separate but equal” school systems for each racial group was all right, and now it was deemed legal under the U.S. Constitution.
I grew up in the racially-segregated South. Before you get too puffed up about being from one of the other sections of the United States, though, take a moment to consider your childhood. Segregation might not have been mandated where you lived, but were your community and schools racially-integrated prior to the 1960s?
In a recent conversation with a friend from the Midwest, I said that our public schools here in Cabarrus County, NC were integrated when I was in the seventh grade. That was 1965. The person I was talking to made an interesting remark: “I lived in a non-segregated state, but I didn’t go to school with black students until high school. I lived in a farming community and there just weren’t any black people.”
Since I also grew up in a farming community, I found it strange that there weren’t a mix of white people and black people where she grew up. It was interesting to hear her perspective on the issue.
To our more-enlightened 21st century minds, it seems ridiculous that prior to Brown v Board of Education of Topeka it was legal to have racially-segregated public school systems. Since I was born in 1953, 1954 doesn’t seem very long ago. (Please stop rolling your eyes. If you don’t already understand, you will someday.)
The dual school systems didn’t disappear overnight – not by long shot. They continued here in Cabarrus County until the beginning of the 1966-67 school year. The previous school year, students had the option of attending the school not designated for their race. Few students chose to do that. For instance, in the previously all-white school of 1,000 students that I attended, only three black students chose to enroll in 1965. Looking back on it, I can’t imagine the courage it took for them to do so.
The following school year, the previously all-black schools in the county were closed. The buildings weren’t even used! I believe that’s proof in and of itself that the school board members knew that previously all-black schools weren’t on par with the previously all-white schools. Or, perhaps they knew that most white parents wouldn’t want their children assigned to those previously all-black schools. They carried a stigma which was based on racial bias and a deep-seated prejudice.
What a luxury the school board had then to let school buildings sit empty. It was just a couple of years before the county’s population started growing so fast that the school board was never again able to build schools fast enough to keep up.
The mid-1960s were volatile years as school desegregation took place. Southern states were held up by the national media as a backward place where white people resented black people and wanted their schools kept separate. That’s what we were told and we didn’t know any better until race riots broke out in Boston in September 1974 when the public schools there were ordered to desegregate.
In light of this history and what I read last week in Viola Davis’ memoir, Finding Me, I’m left to conclude that people everywhere are prejudiced against people who don’t look like they do.
We see racial profiling and discrimination all over the United States. Housing redlining takes place every day as mortgage lenders find ways to disguise such practices which limits where people of color can purchase homes. Every time I think this no longer takes place, investigative reporters uncover proof that I’m wrong.
I’ve come to realize that the desegregation of public schools didn’t always translate into equal opportunity. Students of all races and economic backgrounds experience different levels of support and nurture at home. Those of us who grew up in happy homes were blissfully unaware that some of our fellow students were subjected to abuse and neglect in their homes. Teachers — knowingly or unknowingly — bring their own prejudices into the classroom. So do students. It’s human nature, and it’s something we all need to be aware of as we interact with one another in our daily lives. You don’t know what the other person might be going through in his or her personal life.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have one or more good books to read this week.
Sometimes it angers me that the history classes I sat through as a child and teen didn’t include little bits of information like I’m sharing with you today. Instead of memorizing names of general and battles and dates, how much more interesting class would have been if we’d been told stories like this one.
Knowing this story could have served as an example to students of how history can turn on a dime. I’d like to think students learned that last week when Russia invaded Ukraine without provocation.
The incident I write about today brings to mind the following for each of us to think about: If not for ___(you fill in the blank)____, then ___(you fill in the blank)____ wouldn’t have happened OR would have happened.
The 1840s USS Princeton
I don’t recall ever hearing about the USS Princeton until recently, and I wouldn’t have heard of it then if I hadn’t been looking for a topic for #OnThisDay for my blog.
There have been a series of US Naval vessels christened with the name USS Princeton. The one I write about today, as you can see from my blog post title, was the one built in the early 1840s. It was a state-of-the-art warship powered by coal-produced steam. It was built in Philadelphia and was best-known for its two 12-inch cannons/carronades, called “The Oregon” and “The Peacemaker.”
“The Oregon” was of revolutionary design, made of wrought iron, and manufactured in England. It was designed by John Ericsson, a Swede who later designed the Monitor of American Civil War fame.
“The Peacemaker” was manufactured in New York under the partial supervision of Captain Robert Stockton, a political supporter of US President John Tyler. It’s thought that it was believed and claimed to be comparable to “The Oregon,” but there were design differences and short cuts were taken in The Peacemaker’s testing. This was a recipe for disaster, and that’s what happened on the Potomac River on February 28, 1844.
Let’s set the stage
The state of politics in the United States in 1844 contributed to the inevitable disaster. William Henry Harrison was elected US President in 1840, but he died in 1841 only a month after his inauguration. John Tyler being the US Vice President, assumed the office of President. It was the first time in American history that a president died in office and was replaced by the vice president. Tyler had been a Democrat, but he was elected as a Whig. Soon after he assumed office, he openly disagreed with the Whig Party over economic policy, and the Whigs kicked him out of the party. The Democrats didn’t want him back, so he became a US President without a political party.
Tyler wanted to be reelected President in the 1844 election. He thought by running on a promise to annex the Republic of Texas into the United States would win him the election. Mexico and Great Britain opposed the idea.
To ward off foreign opposition to that annexation, Tyler ordered the construction of the USS Princeton. Most warships in the world at that time were sailing ships or steamships with fuel limitations. The USS Princeton was designed with a collapsible smokestack, allowing it to also navigate as a sailing ship. A hybrid in the 1840s! It’s engine and propeller system were below the water line, making it less vulnerable to enemy attack than ships propelled by paddlewheel.
Back on the scene to partially supervised the construction of the warship, Captain Stockton bragged about the ship’s prowess, calling it “invincible.” He thought by bringing the ship to Washington, DC and entertaining politicians, he’d get the money to build more ships.
What happened on February 28, 1844
An afternoon excursion from Washington, DC on the Potomac River was planned for February 28, 1844. President Tyler (who had no Vice-President), members of Congress along with their wives, and some Cabinet members were wined and dined on the ship and were scheduled to witness the fire power of the ship during three demonstrations.
It was Stockton’s decision to fire “The Peacemaker” for all three demonstrations. After two successful firings, a third was launched in honor of George Washington. On that third firing, “The Peacemaker” exploded, sending its parts – some weighing in excess of a ton – flying across the deck. Eight people were killed and more than two dozen were injured.
Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer were killed. If President Tyler had not been unexpectedly detained on the stairs below deck, he undoubtedly would have been standing with them.
The hole in the US Constitution
What happened in US Presidential succession in the 1840s should have been remedied posthaste. It was the first time a Vice President had to step up and into the Presidency due to the death of a President; however, we know from history it was not the last time.
It would be 1967, four years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, before the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution would provide a process through which a Vice President would be replaced in the event of the vacancy of that office.
If President Tyler had been killed in the explosion on the Princeton, the president pro tem of the US Senate, Willie Mangum – a North Carolinian who had been one of the founders of the Whig Party – would have become US President. Among other things, Mangum was an avowed opponent of the annexation of the Republic of Texas.
This fact alone brings us back to the fill-in-the-blanks line from the third paragraph of this blog post: If not for ___(you fill in the blank)____, then ___(you fill in the blank)____ wouldn’t have happened OR would have happened.
Our world has changed forever. NATO is being tested like no other time since its inception. No one knows what the future holds for Ukraine, Europe, and the rest of the world. I believe in His perfect wisdom, God doesn’t allow us to know the future.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read and time for a creative outlet.
It’s been an unsettling week in our world since last Monday, to say the least. No one knows what this week holds. My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine who are suffering so. May the world continue to condemn Vladimir Putin for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
There’s probably a limited audience to be reeled in by the title of today’s blog post, but I couldn’t think of a more creative way that might trick some unsuspecting readers to dive in.
If US Constitutional History is not your cup of tea, please visit my blog again next week. I’m not sure what the topic will be, but I’ll try to avoid the US Constitution.
You might recall that I mentioned the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in my May 31, 2021 blog post because I’d read that it was ratified on May 31, 1913. After discovering that it was actually ratified on April 8, 1913, I had to come up with another topic for May 31. I’ll explain the confusion somewhere below.
Here we go…
Thank goodness for the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America!
Even though I majored in political science in college, if asked out of the blue what the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was about, I’d be hard-pressed to give you the correct answer.
The 17th Amendment, in a nutshell
The 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States mandates that the two Senators from each state “shall be” elected by the people of each respective state. It also states that U.S. Senators shall serve six-year terms and each Senator shall have one vote.
What about before the 17th Amendment?
The 17th Amendment was passed by Congress on May 13, 1912. Prior to the amendment’s ratification on April 8, 1913, each state’s U.S. Senators were chosen by the state legislatures. Whoa! Let that sink in for a minute! I shudder to think about the possibilities.
Living in the state of North Carolina, I tremble to think about who the NC General Assembly would have chosen for the US Senate, especially over the last decade or more. Granted, the general populous has rarely elected the people I would have preferred for these offices since Senator Sam Ervin died, but at least a fair and open election gives the citizens some measure of confidence in the people we send to Washington, DC. What they do after they get there is a whole other story. But I digress.
The reasoning behind the way it was before 1913
The framers of the United States Constitution weren’t sure the average citizen was smart enough to vote. They formed our government as a democracy, yet the white men who were in charge in our country’s infancy didn’t completely trust the general populous to elect the right people.
Come to think of it, the white men in charge in Washington, DC and in many state legislatures today don’t trust us to “vote right” either. It seems like we would’ve made more progress than this in more than 200 years, but I digress again.
The framers of the Constitution wanted the United States Senate to be a check on the masses. James Madison assured the attendees of the Constitutional Convention that cooler heads would prevail in the Senate than in the House of Representatives where representatives were elected by popular vote of the people. (Well, not really “the people,” for you could only vote then if you were a white male who owned some real estate. The Electoral College was also instituted as a buffer between the people and the US President. But that’s a topic for another day.)
The reasoning behind having the state legislatures elect US Senators was that the senators would be insulated from public opinion. To borrow a question from Dr. Phil McGraw, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”
I was eager to see what their study found. My hunch was that the election of US Senators was viciously fought over in the state legislatures and the said elections, no doubt, took up weeks and weeks of the legislatures’ time.
Unfortunately, it would have cost me $15 to gain access to the study, so I’ll just give you this quote from the article’s abstract: “We find significant evidence that under the indirect electoral mechanism, Senate elections were contentious, and winning majority control of the state legislature did not always ensure an easy electoral process. Specifically, the breakdown of caucus nominating processes, the size of majority coalitions, and whether the incumbent senator was running for reelection each exerted an effect on the probability of conflict in the indirect election process.”
Point of confusion
In my opening remarks, I promised to explain the confusion over the date of the 17th Amendment’s ratification. It was ratified on April 8, 1913, when the Connecticut legislature approved it. With Connecticut’s vote, three-fourths of the state legislatures had approved it. That met the requirement for an amendment’s ratification. It was not until May 31, 1913, that Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan officially announced the ratification in writing. Some sources have picked up that date as the date of ratification.
More than a century later, that’s probably all we need to know. This blog post probably already falls into the category of “too much information” for many of you, so I’ll just leave it at that.
Since my last blog post
I’ve been busy working on my novel. The working title is still either The Spanish Coin or The Doubloon. Unless I self-publish it, I won’t get to choose the title. The manuscript stands at just over 91,000 words. That number fluctuates from day-to-day as I make changes.
I’m re-reading World of Toil and Strife: Community Transformation in Backcountry South Carolina, 1750-1805, by Peter N. Moore. As more of it “soaks in,” I’m making some changes in my novel manuscript – changes that should result in a richer story and an additional layer of setting authenticity.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading When Ghosts Come Home, by Wiley Cash. I’m trying to finish reading it by tomorrow night, so I can write about it in my blog post next Monday.
I’m also still making my way through The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. It’s not a book one can rush through. At least, I can’t.
Note: Get Ready! December is Read a New Book Month!
The thought of Russia selling Alaska to the United States in 1867 – or any other time – makes my head spin. My first thought was, I bet the Russians are still kicking themselves over this! That led to me look up the origins of the idiom to kick oneself.
According to my handy reference book, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by Christine Ammer, this idiom, which means to berate or reproach oneself, dates back to the late 1800s. One wonders if the expression was coined by the Russians after selling Alaska to the United States, but I guess not.
Back to Russia Selling Alaska to the US
Back to the topic of today’s blog post… I remember reading about something called “Seward’s Folly” in a lower grades’ history book, but if given only seconds to come up with the answer I’d be hard pressed to recall that it refers to U.S. Secretary of State William Seward negotiating the transaction.
Many Americans thought it foolish to purchase Alaska for the exorbitant price of $7.2 million, or around two cents per acre. That converts to a mere $120 million or so in 2021.
Putting the event in historical context, though, it makes sense that people were up in arms over the federal government spending $7.2 million for a place a world away. It was a place virtually no one in the nation expected to visit. To a great extent, that still holds true today.
A four-year civil war had taken a terrible toll on the nation. The Confederate states were being brought back into the fold of the United States, although there were deep-seated hatreds on both sides of that conflict – so deeply ingrained that remnants of those feelings still exist 160 years later.
In 1867, just two years after the end of that war, the federal government pays more than $7 million for a vast wilderness at the top of the world. No wonder it seemed like folly to the average American.
All that taken into account, today Alaska seems like a bargain any way you look at it. It’s one of the places I’d like to visit, but that’s highly unlikely now. The photographs of the landscape and the wildlife are breathtaking.
Just think: 663,267 square miles. Denali and other National Parks. National forests. Wildlife refuges. Fishing. Glaciers. Whales. It’s one-fifth the size of the rest of the United States put together.
Alaskan Salmon, for crying out loud! It’s delicious and so nutritious.
Alaska became a US territory on May 11, 1912 and was admitted as the 49th state in the Union on January 3, 1959.
Fifteen percent of Alaska’s population is indigenous. Nearly two dozen native languages are spoken in Alaska. No other US state is so rich in natural beauty, wildlife, natural resources, and human history.
Thank you, William Seward!
Since my last blog post
I continue with the eight-week online writing course. A couple more weeks to go.
We had beautiful days in the mid- and high-80s last week. It was probably summer’s last gasp. I’ll miss the warm weather. The weather last week was perfect for taking care of some yardwork. It’s time to get the yard ready for the coming winter.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. My reading for pleasure lately has been almost nil.
I look forward to getting my Covid-19 Moderna booster shot soon.
Myths and Legends Day is an internationally-celebrated day on October 11 every year. Who knew? I’d never heard of it until this year.
I found it on a list of days.
This week seems to have more than its share of such days. Tomorrow wins the special day contest. It’s Cookbook Launch Day, Free Thought Day, and Old Farmers Day. My favorite thing to celebrate tomorrow, though, is International Moment of Frustration Scream Day.
International Moment of Frustration Scream Day
I think most of us could really get into International Moment of Frustration Scream Day during this pandemic. If I were a betting person, I’d bet money that there are some healthcare workers and teachers who could show us how to do it.
I wanted to scream when I learned that the local legend in Lancaster County, South Carolina around which I had written the first draft of a novel was just that. A legend. It makes for a wonderful story, but as with many yarns spun for 250 years, it’s just not true. At least, it’s not provable.
Nevertheless, I took a bit or that legend and something I saw years ago on a segment of the PBS TV series, “History Detectives,” and I’ve spun my own unique story. The working title is The Doubloon or The Spanish Coin and, if you and I live long enough, we’ll get to see it in print. Authors use the abbreviation WIP for Work in Progress. My novel is definitely a WIP.
Back to Myths and Legends Day
That brings me back to Myths and Legends Day. Look online and you can hardly find anything about it. Several websites actually use the same photograph to illustrate the day: children dressed as their favorite characters such as Superman, Robinhood, and several I can’t identify. It does sound like something fun for elementary students to celebrate and might even encourage some of them to read.
One legend that came to my attention recently is the famous “midnight ride of Paul Revere.” It’s a wonderful story, and it’s true. The problem is, it’s not the whole story.
On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere rode horseback through the northern Boston area to warn the Americans about the movement of British troops. I hate to burst your bubble, but he did not ride through the countryside shouting, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” I know. That’s what I’ve thought all my life, too.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride” has been memorized by many a school student. Paul Revere took on a superhuman aura. He did make that ride, and I don’t mean to take anything away from him; however, he’s not the only person to make such a dangerous journey.
William Dawes was also sent to ride that night to Lexington, Massachusetts to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that they were soon to be arrested. Also, his task was to alert the Minutemen that the British troops were on the move. Revere got to Lexington a half hour before Dawes. It’s thought that Revere had the faster horse. Also, Dawes was thrown by his horse as he and Revere headed on to Concord, Massachusetts, his horse escaped, and Dawes had to walk back to Lexington.
Paul Revere recruited Samuel Prescott of Concord to meet him along the way since he was more familiar with the Concord area. He supposedly guided Revere through the darkness. When Revere, Dawes, and Prescott were met by British officers on the way to Concord, they split up and Prescott was the only one that made it all the way to Concord. Revere was captured.
Then, there was Israel Bissell. He rode 345 miles on the Old Post Road from Watertown, Massachusetts to Philadelphia to warn militia companies of British troop movements. He covered that amazing feat in four days and six hours. The horse he started out with died near Worchester, Massachusetts.
You think all that’s astounding and possibly news to you? Just wait.
What about Sybil Ludington?
I wish I’d been told about Sybil Ludington when I was in school! Her journey was more than two years after that of the above four men, but she rode 40 miles (twice as far as Paul Revere) to alert the residents of Danbury, Connecticut that the British were approaching. She was all of 16 years old.
She made her roundtrip journey between 9:00 p.m. on April 26, 1777 and dawn the next morning. Unfortunately, the British had already torched Danbury. That doesn’t take anything away from her efforts, though. She was later commended by George Washington and this statue of her atop her horse is in Carmel, New York.
“Remember the ladies” ~ Abigail Adams
I’m reminded of Abigail Adams’ often quoted excerpt from her March 31, 1776 letter to her husband, John Adams, as he was away at a meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia helping to work out the details of the American Revolution:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Yes, indeed. Remember the ladies!
Since my last blog post
My reading list so far this month might raise some eyebrows and get me some attention from the police. In conjunction with the novel I’m writing, this month I’ve read a variety of forensics books.
Two days ago, we marked the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 major terrorist attacks on the United States.
It was on September 11, 2001 that we Americans lost our innocence. It was the day we learned that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans could not protect us. We learned that we were naïve and vulnerable. Our lives changed forever.
There have been numerous shows on TV over the last week in remembrance of 9/11 as it is called in the U.S. It has been gut-wrenching to watch the sights and sounds of that day in New York City, the countryside in Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon in Washington, DC over and over again. Every photograph puts me right back in that day.
The days just before 9/11
We’d had a busy and beautiful weekend. We celebrated the 250th anniversary of the founding of our church with a play and Dinner in the Grove. Descendants of all our former pastors had been invited for the weekend of festivities and had come from several states. I had written the play that was performed on Saturday afternoon.
Our oldest living former pastor, who was in his 90s, came from Virginia to preach the sermon on Sunday morning. Several hundred people enjoyed Dinner in the Grove after the Sunday morning worship service.
Before leaving with his grandson that afternoon, that old pastor insisted on making the trek to the spring between the church and the manse to take one last drink of cool water from the spring he’d last visited more than 60 years before. I held my breath as his grandson held him by his belt as the old man bent down double to get his mouth to the water flowing out of the pipe coming from the springhouse.
It was a glorious weekend!
Our brother and sister-in-law were here from Georgia for the festivities and were staying for a few days. I was tired on Sunday night, so I didn’t set the alarm to get up at any certain time for the morning of 9/11. I planned to sleep until I woke up – whatever the time. I had no plans for that day.
I was sound asleep when my sister woke me up saying, “The World Trade Center is on fire!” I struggled out of bed and went to the family room where she and my brother and sister-in-law were watching the ABC TV network.
My brother and I stood in the middle of the room, watching in horror as the fire consumed the top floors of one of the twin towers when an airliner came out of nowhere and plunged into the other tower. My brother and I looked at each other, and I said, “That was no accident.”
I knew instantly that life had just changed forever, but I didn’t really know the depths of those changes for a long time.
Within a few minutes, we knew another plane had been hijacked and forced to crash in Pennsylvania. Yet another hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon.
My immediate reactions were digestive problems all that day. My stomach was in knots. What was going to happen next?
All air traffic over the United States was grounded as quickly as possible. Planes were ordered to land at the nearest airport. People ended up not where they had intended to go. Some of the people who had traveled more than 1,000 miles to participate in the celebration at our church had to rent cars and drive home because they didn’t know when they’d be able to get on a plane to fly home. Did they even want to get on another plane with such uncertainty about how and why the hijackings on 9/11 had taken place? I wouldn’t have wanted to.
It was reported on TV that 25,000 body bags had been ordered to recover the bodies of the people killed at the World Trade Center. It was a number I couldn’t get my head around. But what was even more difficult to comprehend as the day went by was that there weren’t going to be many bodies. Nothing remained except dust.
People posted photographs of their loved ones who had been in one of the towers that morning. We saw the pictures on TV. People frantically hoped their relatives and friends had escaped the buildings. Maybe they were injured and had amnesia. Maybe they were unconscious and unidentified in a hospital. People held out hope against all odds. But most of them had to accept that the person they loved so much had not survived.
The remains are still being analyzed 20 years later. In fact, the remains of one of the victims was identified just last week through DNA testing. Many families are still waiting for that official report.
I didn’t personally know anyone who was in the World Trade Center that day, but in the days and weeks after the tragedy we were told the stories of the special lives the victims had led. We learned of their small or unborn children who suddenly became orphans that morning. We learned of the young widows and widowers whose hearts had been torn out with the death of their spouses. Lives that held so much promise. So much intellect and talent wiped out in the blink of an eye.
For weeks after 9/11, we watched on TV as the rubble was removed. One thing I remember is that there was nothing to laugh about for months. The late-night TV talk shows that had depended on making fun of politicians or events in the news no longer had anything to poke fun at. And if they had dared, their disrespect would not have been gladly received by their audiences. It just didn’t seem appropriate to laugh about anything for months following 9/11. That made a lasting impression on me.
Peter Jennings stayed on the air for hours and what turned out to be days on end to inform us about what was happening.
For a long time after that, we knew if regular programming was interrupted for a special report, it probably wasn’t going to be good news. It was something that affected everyone, and it made me hold my breath in anticipation. It was before “breaking news” became something said on cable news every 15 minutes that usually turns out to be something you heard yesterday. And it wasn’t a high-speed chase 3,000 miles away involving a sports celebrity.
There were countless stories of heroism. Not just the first responders, but everyday people. For instance, the people on the plane headed for the White House or US Capitol. Passengers overtook the hijackers and forced the plane down in a field in Pennsylvania to save further devastation and death in Washington, DC. I was prompted to wonder what I would do in such a situation. Would I cower in fear or demonstrate bravery?
It seems quaint now, but in the months and possibly several years following 9/11, all Americans pulled together. All our little differences were forgotten. We were one country. We all rallied under our beautiful flag. We were kind to one another. The exception was that Americans of the Muslim faith were all suspect. They were vilified by some people. That was a sad result of the attack and it has persisted for 20 years.
The entire world came to our aid with moral support and tears. In our “hour of need,” other countries put their arms around us and held us up.
It was a time like no other I experienced before or since.
The mere mention of 9/11 brings to my mind images of those burning buildings, collapsed buildings, dazed survivors running for their lives, first responders rushing toward and into the towers, smoke settling over and shrouding Manhattan, the hole in the ground in Pennsylvania, the ugly hole gouged out of the Pentagon, employees fleeing the White House which was possibly the intended target of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I can’t erase those images. Maybe I’m not supposed to be able to forget. I should never forget those who died that day – the sacrifices they made and the sacrifices their families made.
I now understand why my parents forever remembered Pearl Harbor on December 7 and why my great-grandfather always noted the anniversary of the Battle of Richmond in his daybooks.
Last week’s blog post, Things I Learned from How the Word is Passed – Part I covered some of the things I learned about Monticello Plantation and the Whitney Plantation from How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith. Today I share with you some of the things I learned about Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and New York City from the book.
There was just too much information in this book to give it appropriate time in one or two blog posts, so I’ll wrap this up next Monday. Needless to say, I highly recommend the book. I’m just hitting the high points in my blog posts.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary is known by many as Angola Prison. The author was accompanied to the prison by a Black man, Norris, who spent almost 30 years imprisoned there for a crime he didn’t commit. He wants to show people the connection between Whitney Plantation and Angola Prison.
Norris said if we want to end mass incarceration, we must get at the history of it, the reason it still exists, and what that looks like.
After the Civil War there was a change in policy in Louisiana not to require unanimous jury convictions. It was meant to funnel Blacks into the convict leasing system. Convict leasing partly replaced the labor force lost when slavery ended. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows involuntary servitude as a punishment for crimes committed. Under the convict leasing program, prisoners (mostly Black) could be rented out to individuals and companies. Railroads, plantations, and businesses took advantage of the program. Due to the program, most Angola inmates leased out lived no more than six years because the leasing assignments were often gruesome.
The book goes into more detail about how the laws governing juries changed over the decades, not always to the good.
The author (and I) found it interesting that the tour of Angola Prison begins in the gift shop. A gift shop at a state penitentiary. Such things as shot glasses, sunglasses, and T-shirts with the name of the prison on them are sold.
There is no mention in the prison museum that the place used to be a plantation.
I visited the prison’s website last week and was struck by how it is presented as a tourist destination. I don’t know about you, but when I go on a vacation it never occurs to me to work an operational prison tour or prison rodeo – I’m not making that up! – into my agenda.
Blandford Cemetery is in Petersburg, Virginia. It started as the cemetery for Blandford Anglican Church. It was deconsecrated in 1806 when the congregation decided to move to a more central location. After the Civil War a group of southern women were distressed over how their dead soldiers weren’t being honored like the Union soldiers. There was a 15-year effort to dig up Confederate dead and send them home for reburial, but 30,000 of the 32,200 could not be identified and they remain at Blandford.
The City of Petersburg gave the Ladies Memorial Association the abandoned church as a focal point for the cemetery. They commissioned Tiffany Studios to design stained-glass windows but couldn’t afford the usual $1,700 per window price. They couldn’t afford the $300 per window discounted price, so they went to the Confederate and border states and told them to raise the money. Saints are depicted in 11 of the 13 windows. There are state seals and inscriptions tying the Confederate dead to such things as “the Army of Heaven” in the case of South Carolina.
Before leaving Blandford, the author had an opportunity to talk to the woman in charge there. She seemed uncomfortable fielding his questions and appeared to be uncomfortable that a stack of flyers advertising a Memorial Day event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans that was easily visible on the counter.
This chapter also included some facts and theories about Robert E. Lee.
The author closes the chapter by wondering if we’re all “just patchworks of the stories we’ve been told. What would it take – what does it take – for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life? Even if it means having to fundamentally reexamine who you are and who your family has been? Just because something is difficult to accept doesn’t mean you should refuse to accept it. Just because someone tells you a story doesn’t make that story true.”
To me, that is the unspoken theme of the book.
New York City
Like me, you might have wondered why there is a chapter about New York City in How the Word is Passed.
This chapter is a real eye-opener! As with all the other chapters, I learned more from this chapter than I can possibly include in this blog post.
The author went to the National Museum of the American Indian for a walking tour about slavery and the Underground Railroad. The guide began by telling participants that many things she was going to tell them would make them uncomfortable but that would be all right. We learn by having our beliefs and our misinformation questioned. (I loved this woman already and I wasn’t even there!)
The tour included lots of general facts about slavery. The guide explained that slavery in the United States was different from slavery throughout world history. Historically, people were enslaved after taken prisoners of war or in payment of a debt. These enslavements were usually for a limited time and rarely involved the descendants of the enslaved. Slavery in the U.S. was based on racism and the widely-held belief in Europe that Africans were genetically inferior or subhuman. Skin pigmentation was the defining factor
Owning land and things was a European concept. The Dutch brought the first African slaves to the U.S. (present-day New York City). Eventually, some of the slaves were freed and given land. They weren’t gifted land due to the benevolence of the Dutch, though. The Dutch wanted Blacks to serve as a buffer between them and the Indians.
The British took over New York City in 1664. “According to historian David Brion Davis, around 40 percent of households in British Manhattan owned enslaved people. The practice of keeping female slaves in town to care for homes and white children and sending male slaves outside the city for agricultural work resulted in the slaves not having many children. In turn, this made the transatlantic slave trade more necessary for economic purposes.
In 1712, there was a slave uprising in New York. In it, 25 to 50 slaves killed nine white people. The result? “More than seventy Black people were arrested, forty-three brought to trial, and twenty-three executed – some hanged and others burned at the stake.”
Just before the American Revolution, there were 3,000 slaves in New York City and another 20,000 within 50 miles of Manhattan.
The second largest slave market in the United States was on present-day Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets in Manhattan, New York City. Did you know that? I certainly didn’t! (The largest slave market in the country was at Charleston, South Carolina.)
Thinking about the banks he could see from the site of the slave market, Mr. Smith delved a little deeper. He discovered the predecessors of several of the largest banks in the United States had accepted slaves as collateral for debts.
The author’s tour guide said, “ʻOne of the biggest lies we are still telling in this century – and I know because I’m trying to combat it – [is that] during the Civil War we were the good guys, right? New York City was good. Everybody else in the South, they were bad.’”
I think that’s a good place for me to stop sharing what Mr. Smith had to say about New York City, although I could go on about such things as the Underground Railroad, a huge slave and free Black cemetery that’s been built over, and the predominately Black village that was destroyed so Central Park could be built.
Since my last blog post
I continue to work on biographical sketches of the characters in my novel. I’ve taken a couple of days off from my writing project this week. I tend to get too serious about my self-inflicted to-do lists. I’m trying to lighten up on myself.
Friday night I worked on genealogy, one of my favorite hobbies. I found lots of interesting information on Ancestry.com. Now, all (Ha ha!) I have to do is make sure I can duplicate the research these other people have done before I add it to my family tree. The problem with genealogy is with every new generation you discover, you want to add another one. This hobby is never finished.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read.
My blog post next Monday with be about Galveston Island, Goree Island, and the Epilogue in How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith.
My skill doesn’t lie in reviewing books. Most of the books I read, however, do make me think. Many of them prompt me to question the way I’ve seen the world all my life. To my mind, that’s a sign of a great book.
I promised myself to lighten up on my reading in July. In a way, I did. I didn’t read as many books as I usually do in a month’s time. I didn’t lighten up on the content of what I read. The books I read in July were all “heavy” in topic and were not the kind of books you want to read while on vacation at the beach or in the mountains. At least, I don’t. Since I wasn’t going anywhere in July, these books suited me just fine.
Three of the books I read in July had to do with race. I read a book about the caste system in America, and I read a book about the Confederate monuments and how they’ve brought out the worst in some of us. (See my August 2, 2021 blog post, _2 Books about Racial Injustice.)
I read a book about how various venues present either an honest or a skewed image of the history of Black Americans and how many white Americans treated or interacted with them. All three books were thought-provoking to say the least.
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith
What a book! I found myself taking copious notes, which slowed down my reading considerably. There were so many little gems of insight in the book, I couldn’t stop taking notes.
The author allotted individual chapters to how the story of slavery is told at Monticello Plantation, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, and Gorée Island.
Before starting to read the book, I didn’t know how it was organized. The way each chapter was written about how the story of slavery is told at these various locations was powerful.
Today’s blog post will cover some of the things I learned about Monticello Plantation and the Whitney Plantation. I’ll save Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and New York City for my next blog post. Galveston Island, Goree Island, and the Epilogue will highlighted in my August 29, 2021 blog post.
Tours available and displays at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, have changed dramatically since the house and grounds were opened for tours in 1923. In the beginning, the tour guides were Black men dressed as house slaves. They had to play a role. Today, tour guides do their own research, plan their remarks, and shadow other guides. There are several tours. One is about slavery on the plantation.
The author was struck by the fact that his tour guide referred to Jefferson’s slaves as “human beings.” To say Jefferson gifted his children and grandchildren with human beings doesn’t sound as palatable to our ears as saying he gifted them with slaves. The tour guide went out of his way to impress upon visitors that the slaves were human beings.
Although Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), he owned 400 or so slaves over his lifetime and even until death. He wrote eloquently about equality but, as a politician, could not speak out against slavery. When it got down to it, Jefferson didn’t consider his slaves as being human beings.
That leads us to the matter of his relationship with Sally Hemings. There is now a Sally Hemings Exhibit at Monticello. It has received a range of reactions from visitors. I suppose I knew this at one time but I’d forgotten that Sally Hemings and Jefferson’s wife, Martha, were half-sisters.
The Whitney Plantation
I hadn’t heard of the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, an hour west of New Orleans. It’s off the beaten path and not the kind of place one just happens upon and decides to visit. How is the story of slavery told (or, the word passed) at Whitney Plantation? In a rather shocking way.
There are 55 ceramic dark heads of black men on metal stakes.
In 1804, slaves in Haiti rebelled and defeated the French. They founded the first “Black-led republic in the world.” After this defeat, Napoleon Bonaparte sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States (while Thomas Jefferson was president) for $15 million (= four cents per acre.) If not for the success of the revolt in Haiti, Napoleon probably wouldn’t have sold Louisiana to the United States!
In 1811, there was a slave uprising in Louisiana. Within 48 hours the armed (knives, machetes, muskets) rebellion was put down. It had been led by a mixed-race slave driver, Charles Deslondes. He was captured and to say they made an example of him would be a gross understatement. To quote from the book, “His hands were chopped off, the bones of his legs were shattered with bullets, and he was burned over a bale of hay. Many of the rebels were slaughtered on-site, their heads cut off and posted on stakes that lined the levee, a warning to other enslaved people that this was the price to pay for rebellion.”
How is it that I’ve never heard or read about this?
John Cummings purchased Whitney Plantation in 1999 and invested almost $10 million in it over the next 20 years. He donated it in 2019. It is now a non-profit.
There is high poverty in the area, which is 90% Black. The area is known as “Cancer Alley” due to the high incidence of cancer caused by the petroleum plants nearby. As quoted in the book, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II said of the area, “ʻThe same land that held people captive through slavery is now holding people captive through this environmental injustice and devastation.”
At Whitney, they utilize the late-1930s Federal Writers’ Project to help them tell the stories of slaves using their own words. According to the book, “The voices and stories of enslaved people are the foundation of how visitors experience the Whitney.” The author’s point about this was that through the Federal Writers’ Project, former slaves got to tell their stories in their own words. The author theorizes that by allowing such former slaves as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to tell their stories, they consciously not only denied most average or common slaves (the ones who did not escape) the chance to tell their stories but also thereby made sure those slaves who did not escape would be looked down upon as not trying “hard enough.”
This is part of the insidiousness of white supremacy – to shine a light on the exceptions and place “blame on those who cannot, in the most brutal circumstances, attain superhuman heights. It does this instead of blaming the system, the people who built it, the people who maintained it.”
There is a Wall of Honor at Whitney with the names, country of origin, and date or year of slaves at the plantation.
Sexual violence is also addressed at Whitney. The rape of female slaves by white owners was about power. The owners knew the female slaves were powerless to refuse their advances. To really understand slavery, the sexual violence against women must be included in the equation.
The trade in slaves’ bodies is also addressed in this chapter. Medical schools like Harvard, and the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia often bought Black corpses on the black market for research.
Did you know all this about Whitney Plantation? I didn’t. And to think, I considered skipping that chapter because I’d never heard of that plantation!
Since my last blog post
I had a rollercoaster week with my novel. In studying point-of-view, I wrestled with which one to use. In my draft of the novel, I was apparently head jumping as I changed the story’s point-of-view character occasionally at scene or chapter breaks. I thought that was acceptable, but not when you’re writing in third person intimate.
I considered rewriting the book in first-person, but that would be a real challenge for several reasons. I spent hours studying various points-of-view and the rules governing each. I find these rules maddening. I took a walk to clear my brain overload because I thought some fresh air and exercise would result in mental clarity. Then, I took a second walk. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it doesn’t. I went back through my manuscript scene-by-scene and determined how every scene could be changed into Sarah’s point-of-view or which parts could be modified to be part of the trial. I concluded third person intimate is still going to work best for this novel.
In the process of digging deeper into point-of-view, I stumbled upon several articles and YouTube videos about the Rashomon Effect. I realized I’m already using it in my trial scenes, and now I know what it’s called.
On Tuesday evening I watched and listened to an interview with author James Tate Hill. Mr. Hill lost his vision as a teen. In addition to his just-released memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, Mr.Hill has written a novel, Academy Gothic, which was awarded the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel. It always gives my writing a boost to hear an author speak or be interviewed. This interview was online and was hosted by Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC.
I’m slowly working my way through Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional and Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon. I purchased it years ago and should have read it and taken it to heart then. I’m glad I rediscovered it. It’s really putting me through the paces and will help my writing on many levels. It has a 4.5 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon. I don’t know why it doesn’t have a 5 out of 5.
Until my next blog post
If you can get your hands on a copy of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith this week, please do so. I can’t imagine you will regret reading it.
I hope you have How the Word is Passed or another good book to read.
My planned topic for today’s blog post was #OnThisDay: World War I Treaty of Versailles; however, a book I started reading earlier this month and hope to finish in July pulled at my heartstrings and begged to be written about. The name of the book is The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.
One of my blogger friends, Janet Givens (author of LEAPFROG: How to Hold a Civil C Conversation in an Uncivil Era) moderates a group on Zoom the second Wednesday night of each month for 10 months this year. I’m privileged to be in the group. We’re from varied backgrounds and regions of the country; however, I am the lone Southerner. This puts added pressure on me to make interesting and intelligent contributions to the discussions. Being the introvert that I am, this isn’t easy.
Each month, we discuss a different chapter in Janet’s book. The group is all-female and there are no people of color. Since race relations is such an important and difficult issue in our society today, our discussions often evolve into that subject matter. I’m making some strides to help the others in the group see that all white people from the South aren’t bigots.
During our group discussion in May, one of the members said she was reading and highly recommended The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. I immediately got on the waitlist for it at the public library. I’m so glad I did.
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
I read the first 50 pages of this nonfiction book and the notes about the author’s methodology on my Kindle before it had to be returned to the library. I was captivated by the subject matter: The Great Migration of black Americans from the South to points north and west from 1910 into the 1970s.
The author interviewed more than 1,200 people and did extensive research. It had to be a labor of love and devotion because the miles and decades involved in The Great Migration would have deterred most researchers. The book is beautifully and artfully written and puts names and personalities on the stories of the hardships these migrants faced in the South and the courage and desperation it took for them to leave the only homes and people they knew and to strike out in search of a better life in other regions of the United States.
The Jim Crow laws and unwritten laws and policies in the South were the driving force in The Great Migration.
The Govan brothers of Harrisburg, North Carolina
Reading this book brought to mind a story a black man in his 90s told me around 2010 when I was a freelance local history columnist for Harrisburg Horizons newspaper in Harrisburg, North Carolina. Mr. George Govan graciously allowed me to visit him on numerous occasions and ask him anything I wanted to about his life. We talked about race, and he helped me realize what a privileged life I’d lived due to the color of my skin.
One of the stories Mr. Govan shared with me was about one of his older brothers. I won’t give his brother’s name in this blog post out of respect for the man’s privacy, although I’m quite certain he’s no longer living.
When I interviewed Mr. Govan, I’d never heard the term “The Great Migration,” so I didn’t make a connection at the time. A few pages into The Warmth of Other Suns, I couldn’t help but recall what Mr. Govan had told me about his brother.
Without giving any advance indication that he planned to leave Harrisburg, North Carolina, George Govan’s older brother stopped plowing with a mule in the middle of a field in 1929 or 1930, shrugged out of the straps of the plowing apparatus, walked several miles into town, and hopped a northbound train.
When George got home from school that afternoon, his father told him that his brother had left and now, in the ninth grade, George would have to quit school and do the farm work his brother had been doing.
It would be two years before the family would learn that George’s brother had made it to Washington, DC. There, he struggled for years before making a good life for himself and his family.
What struck me about that story is that George Govan felt no ill will toward his brother. I’m not sure I would have been that gracious and forgiving if my older brother or sister had left me in a situation that made it necessary for me to have to quit school in the ninth grade.
In my many conversations with Mr. Govan, I never picked up on any bitterness in his heart although, as a black man born in 1917, he certainly had numerous excuses for being bitter if he had chosen that life path.
Since my last blog post
Our computer printer suddenly stopped working one day. Going a week without a printer can drive a writer to distraction. At least, that’s what it did to me.
I’ve been reading, reading, reading.
When I’m not reading, I’m eating tomatoes, squash, okra, and corn from the local farmers market. Nothing can beat that first tomato sandwich of the summer or that first bite of bi-color corn-on-the cob.
Until my next blog post
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that tomorrow would have been my father’s 110th birthday. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 66 in 1977. He and Mama both instilled in me a love of history and reading. My mother was an author in her own right, and I’m very proud today of the church history she wrote in 1976.
I hope you have a good book to read. I’ve had many good ones to read in May, and I can’t wait to tell you about them in my blog posts on July 5 and 12.
Were you or were members of your family part of The Great Migration? Did you know people of color who left the South and moved west or north between 1910 and into the 1970s? I’d love to hear your stories.
If you don’t wish to share your stories with me online, please take time to tell the younger people in your family about your experiences. Also, write them down. You can do it! Your written memories will be a wonderful gift to leave your family.