Things I Learned from How the Word is Passed – Part II

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.


Angola Prison

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.

Photo credit: Karsten Winegeart on unsplash.com

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

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.

Historical marker at Blandford Church and Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia

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.)

Photo credit: https://readtheplaque.com/plaque/new-york-s-municipal-slave-market

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.

Janet

2 Books about Racial Injustice

There was a common theme in two books I read in July. They weren’t books I read for pleasure. They were books I read because I knew I should read them. I needed to open my eyes.

I needed to remove those rose-colored glasses through which one sees old southern plantations like “Tara” of Gone With the Wind fame, where white slave owners and slaves were all just one big happy family. The only bad guys in most of those stories were the occasional evil-minded heavy-handed overseer.

That’s the fiction we’ve grown up reading. It’s the fiction we’ve grown up watching on TV and on the big silver screens in movie theaters. But it’s fiction.

There’s nothing particularly wrong in settling down to read Gone With the Wind, but it isn’t a history book. It’s fiction. Too often we let fiction color our perceptions of how things were “in the good old days.” They weren’t “good old days” for everyone.

It’s like watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show or Father Knows Best and yearning for life to return to how it was in the 1950s and 1960s. But life wasn’t good for everyone in those decades. If you were in the white majority then in the United States, you probably have pretty good memories of those decades. If you are a person of color who grew up or were an adult in that era, your memories are probably tainted by incidents and even everyday occurrences that were meant to “keep you in your place.”

Two of the books I read in July were No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice, by Karen L. Cox and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. Racial injustice is the common thread the two books share. They weren’t pleasant reading, but they were enlightening and enriching reading. I highly recommend both.


No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice, by Karen L. Cox

Karen L. Cox is a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. During the shut-down days of the Covid-19 pandemic, I heard her interviewed online. I immediately got on the waitlist at the library for her latest book, No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice. Due to that same pandemic, the library was very slow to receive the book order. Nevertheless, it was well worth the wait.

No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice, by Karen L. Cox

Written by a history professor, the 178-page text is indexed and thoroughly annotated with source notes and references. There is an extensive bibliography.

As the opening words of the inside fold of the book jacket states, “When it comes to Confederate monuments, there is no common ground. Polarizing debates over their meaning have intensified into legislative maneuvering to preserve the statues, legal battles to remove them, and rowdy crowds taking matters into their own hands. These conflicts have raged for well over a century—but they’ve never been as intense as they are today.”

The day I started reading No Common Ground, July 9, 2021, was the day a video clip on the news on TV shows a crane removing a statue of Robert E. Lee sitting on his horse, Traveler, from its place in Richmond, Virginia. It was noted that a statue of “Stonewall” Jackson would come down next.

We’ve seen many such news reports over the last couple of years as more and more people are realizing that these statues that many of us thought of as just part of the landscape and markers of our history were, in fact, very offensive to our fellow citizens of color.

Dr. Cox’s book examines the history of Confederate monuments and the mindset of the generations of southerners who erected them. Her book brings that history forward to the points of disagreement those statues represent today.

The book explains how Ladies Memorial Associations sprang up throughout the former Confederate states immediately after the Civil War. They were groups of white southern women who led the way in raising awareness and money to bring home the bodies of many Confederate soldiers who had died on battlefields far from home. Theirs was seen as “holy work.”

Those organizations morphed into the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1894. It was the UDC that is responsible for the majority of Confederate monuments. The organization’s main purpose was educating children about their revisionist version of the history of the Confederate States of America, and erecting ever-taller, ever-larger monuments in public places such as county courthouse lawns ran a close second.

As Jim Crow laws gained authority in the 1890s and the lynching of black citizens became more common, the UDC dedicated more and more monuments. Fiery speeches and big celebrations accompanied those dedication ceremonies and they drew huge crowds.

Robert E. Lee thought the constructing of great Confederate monuments was “antithetical to a peaceful reconciliation” after the Civil War, but some southerners were undeterred. Lee died in 1870, and as soon as Reconstruction ended in 1877 state legislatures got involved in building statues of Lee.

A 109-foot tall $36,474 (an estimated $945,000 in today’s dollars) monument to Lee was unveiled in 1884 in New Orleans at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. Not to be outdone, the city of Richmond unveiled its massive statue of Lee sitting atop his horse, Traveler, in 1890.

The Confederate monument building really came into its own around 1895 and continued until World War II, only interrupted during that time by the World War I years. Between 1900 and 1940, more than 550 Confederate monuments were erected.

No Common Ground doesn’t end there, but I’ll stop there. I wanted to share some of the things I learned about the history of the Confederate monuments that have been much in the news in the last several years as there’s been a push to tear them down. If you’ve paid attention, you already know about those recent events.

I read No Common Ground because I wanted to know the history of the Confederate monuments. The more I learn, the more I know there’s really no place for them in our world today. They were built more out of hate than honor. They were built as tangible symbols of white supremacy, and such symbols should not be tolerated today.

I hope I’ve shared enough from the book to make you want to read it. When you know better, you (should) do better.


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

If you are serious about figuring out what’s at the root of our discontents in today’s society in the United States, read this book.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

I’d never thought about our having a caste system in the United States. That was something they had in India, but not here! But the more I got into Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the more I thought she made a very good point. We don’t call it a caste system, and we don’t like to talk about having a class system, but I believe Ms. Wilkerson is correct in her deductions after her extensive research.

This is a hard pill for most of us to swallow. We like to think of America as being a beacon of liberty and individual freedoms. Compared to many other nations, it is; however, follow Ms. Wilkerson as she methodically lays out her thesis and you will, possibly, also conclude that we have our own brand of a caste system here. It’s not as rigid and blatant as the caste system in India, but it is written on our souls.

Those of us who are Caucasian don’t want to be told we’re racist. Even the most “woke” and antiracists among us, though, must admit that we have enjoyed countless privileges that were and continue to be afforded us simply due to the light hues of our skin and the texture of our hair.

I shuddered as I read parts of Ms. Wilkerson’s book. She related stories of terror, abuse, torment, and murder that have occurred throughout our nation’s history – but were not included in those written histories. The shameful acts of discrimination and physical violence against people of color in the United States continue today. It is incumbent upon all of us to speak out against it.

Once you know injustices are happening, you simply can’t turn a blind eye. It’s easy to use the excuse, “What can one person do?” We must move beyond the excuses and find ways to fight injustice.

As many state legislatures in the United States are enacting laws to make it harder for people to vote, it is our obligation to make it known to lawmakers and our fellow citizens that this isn’t right.

Be an informed citizen. The state legislators who are pushing laws of voter suppression don’t advertise it. They usually work quietly and, literally, under the cover of darkness. Before you know it, it’s done. It’s the law.

They use that favorite lie that there is rampant voter fraud. The truth is that there is rampant voter suppression. Creating US Congressional districts “with surgical precision” as was done in North Carolina needs to be held up to the light. The only case of fraud perpetrated in the 2018 election in North Carolina was perpetrated by a candidate’s campaign – and that candidate was a member of the political party that cries first and loudest about voter fraud.

What will you say when your grandchildren ask you what you did to stop racial injustice?

Since my last blog post

I’ve received many supportive and conversation-starting comments about last Monday’s blog post. I appreciate the interest that post created and every comment.

I’ve studied setting in fiction writing – setting in general and rural pioneer setting in particular. I’m making my way through C.S. Lakin’s book, Layer Your Novel.

Until my next blog post

I plan to continue to study setting and scene construction.

I hope you have a good book to read. If you can get your hands on a copy of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson, I highly recommend it.

Janet