Voices - Historical Perspective

Historical Perspective

Friday, October 6, 2017 - 4:19pm

A Recap of Gallery Talk Series: Confederate Flag Heritage vs. Hate

“I know what that flag means,” said a visitor in the crowd at the second of our gallery talk series, The Confederate Flag: Heritage vs. Hate that occurred Saturday, September 30th, 2017.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect with leading this gallery talk. Though I don’t refer to myself as a scholar of the Confederate flag, I have dedicated a majority of my master’s studies to the subject. In graduate school I took on the project of discussing the Confederate flag in public memory, turning it into my capstone thesis. Having given presentations over the debate about the Confederate flag before, I was confident in my knowledge of the subject. However, with the debate about Confederate imagery heating up in the media, I was unsure what type of reaction I would receive from this discussion.

Not only was the crowd on Saturday receptive to what I was saying, they were engaging and vocal on their experiences with the Confederate flag. This was crucial for me because above all else, I wanted to spark a meaningful dialogue with visitors about the flag. What I hoped to gain from this gallery talk was to help people understand why there is a debate about the Confederate flag and the many interpretations associated with this one symbol. What I walked away with was encouragement that regardless how tough the conversation may be, people are ready to have these discussions about current issues we are facing in America today.

Although it may be uncomfortable, I urge you to push yourself to have a dialogue with others about issues that you feel need to be discussed.

    Katie Bramell Researcher National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - 2:57pm

The Fight for the Hopper Gibbons House

In the summer of 2007 an article in The New York Times informed me that the only home of a White abolitionist in Manhattan in New York City that survived the 1863 Draft Riots was in the process of being altered beyond recognition.  The home, a townhouse located at 339 W. 29th St., is now owned by Tony Mamounas whose company was adding a fifth-floor penthouse to the four-story Hopper Gibbons house.  The Hopper Gibbons house is a 19th century rowhouse, a part of contiguous brick buildings that witnessed the Draft Riots, and was a victim of Irish arsonists who broke down the door at 339 W. 29th St., setting the house on fire gutting the interior.

The Hopper Gibbons house is an important physical element of the American Civil War that survived the July 1863 New York City Draft Riots, and is the only remaining building that was attacked because the then-owners were sheltering Blacks fleeing enslavement and was the site of meetings between Black and White abolition leaders.

The 1863 Draft Riots in New York City began as a violent protest by members of the Irish community against the implementation of the draft during the Civil war incited by Democrats who felt they were being drafted into a war that would free enslaved Black people who would then compete with them for jobs.  The Irish were also angry because middle and upper-class White New Yorkers were able to pay substitutes to take their places in the Union Army.  The anger vetted against the Black community in New York City was a violent replay of that of 1712 when enslaved Black New Yorkers were executed to suppress a slave revolt.  Starting July 13, 1863, the homes of Blacks were firebombed and the Negro orphanage that housed more than 200 children was burned.  Before the battle ended more than 200 people thought to be abolitionists were targeted, and many of their homes were burned.  The home of the Hopper Gibbons family who were abolitionists was singled out by the arsonists and on the second night of the riot (July 14, 1863) the Hopper Gibbons home was torched.  The occupants would not go through the front door to the outside in fear of being assaulted, or worse, killed.

James Sloan Gibbons and his daughter, Lucy Gibbons Morse, were in the house when the inferno began.  Abigail Hopper Gibbons was in the South with a Union Army regiment serving as a volunteer nurse.  Mr. Gibbons had developed an alternate plan of escape with the help of neighbors whose homes were attached to 3339 W. 29th St., and while the arsonists, the bad guys and the bullies stood on the street waiting to pounce on the abolitionists, James Gibbons, his daughter Lucy and others trapped in the melee, climbed up ladders through scuttles which opened on the roof, scampered across rooftop to another scuttle, climbed down another ladder into a hallway, and by exiting through the rear of the building Mr. Gibbons and his daughter escaped harm.

Fern Luskin, a professor of Art and Architecture, and Julie Finch, an actress, jointly worked to oppose the addition to the Hopper Gibbons house, and during their 10-year effort, they would attract a coalition that was multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, including people of a wide spread of incomes.  I called Fern Luskin, and began a 10-year process of exchanging emails, phone calls, site visits to 29th Street and consultation.  We were able to suggest that the neighborhood based organization that Fern Luskin and Julie Finch led develop working relationships with the African American community, and they secured the support of Jacob Morris of the Harlem Society.  In a July 2, 2012 Wall Street Journal article Mr. Morris identified 20 major Black historic sites that included the slave market at Wall Street, the site of the Colored Orphanage that burned in the Draft Riots, and the location of the home of David Ruggles, the Black abolitionist who sheltered Fredrick Douglas after he escaped enslavement in Baltimore.  

We were able to connect Ms. Luskin with what would become on the community’s most important allies, the Bronx Lab School’s Underground Railroad Bicycle Club, a group of students who visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2008.  At our suggestion, and with the cooperation of the administration of the Bronx Lab School who allowed Rachel Appel to accompany the students to a hearing of the Board of Standards and Appeals in Lower Manhattan.  At 10:00 a.m. November 20, 2012, it had been raining since the night before.  It was “wet dog weather” when a multi-racial parade of soaked students from the Bronx Lab School dismounted outside the building where the Board of Standards and Appeals would meet.  At 10:00 a.m., the wet sock caps, bandanas, scarves and poplin jackets had been removed.  Sport jackets, blazers and notebooks were extracted from backpacks, and the scholar members of the Bronx Lab School, under the watchful supportive gaze of their teacher, Rachel Apple, went to work.  The youthful students reminded the Board members and taught many in the audience of the ugly history of the Draft Riots, and the noble humanitarianism of the Hopper Gibbons family.  They noted that the family not only sheltered Black people in flight from slavery, they hosted Black abolition leaders in their home, meeting with them as peers.  From 339 W. 29th Street, a life mission dedicated to human rights would continue, directed toward serving women prisoners.  The young people reminded those at the hearing that the Hopper gibbons house was a node of humanitarian behavior and actions on the part of a small group of New Yorkers at a time when New York was considering leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy.

Mr. Mamounas, the owner/developer of 339 W. 29th St., would use every method available to him to use continuances and appealing to every possible venue, while at the same time proceeding with construction work on the building.  Weeks, months, years would pass.  New hearings would be scheduled.  Fern Luskin, Julie Finch and the neighborhood would scrape together funds to hire Jack Lester, an attorney who specializes in Community Law.  Mr. Lester successfully represented residents of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village against Black Rock Realty for illegally raising rents.

May 18, 2017 the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings of New York City ruled in favor of the neighbors of the Hopper Gibbons house who want it returned to its historic height.  The voices, the petitions of ordinary people and their children were heard.  There will be no celebration however, until the fifth floor of 339 W. 29th Street is removed, and the spirits of the Hopper Gibbons home are free to run unimpeded.


Carl B. Westmoreland


National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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Thursday, May 25, 2017 - 1:38pm

Trump and History: Ignorance and Denial

Ever since Donald Trump became President I have believed his greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance - of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Andrew Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, or move history however he wishes well into the future. Leadership does matter in crises.  It truly mattered that Abraham Lincoln was President in 1861 and not Stephen Douglas or John C. Breckinridge.  It truly mattered that Franklin Roosevelt won the election of 1932 and at least had a new plan to help the country fight its way out of the Great Depression. It truly mattered that John Kennedy and a small group around him were determined to act short of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Those three Presidents and the advisors around them were students of history in their own ways.  Presidents adrift without historical knowledge are dangerous.

Trump’s claims that Andrew Jackson somehow through his anger and toughness would have made a deal to prevent secession and war in 1860-61 is simply 5th grade understanding of history or worse. And this comes from the President of the United States!  Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention.  It is possible to reflect on what might or might not have been done at some juncture in America’s road to disunion and war from the mid-1840s to the 1860s (during all of which time Jackson was dead), but Trump has no knowledge or perspective from which to do so it would appear.  As for historical analogies and understanding, our President seems incapable of even getting something wrong in reasonable or interesting ways.

Trump's "learning" of American history must have stopped a long time ago. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. Perhaps his grasp of American history rather reflects his essential personality, which seems to be some combination of utter self-absorption, a lack of empathy, and a need to believe in or rely upon hyper individualism. President Trump does seem to possess an instinct for the feelings, fears, resentments, and base level aspirations of many Americans who are displeased at best with the country and the kind of society that has developed over the past decades, especially since the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions. He further has an instinct for how and why so many white Americans were uncomfortable or downright furious that a black man could be elected President. The “birther” effort that he led stoked a kind of 21st century racism that appeals to a vast audience of suburban and rural America that takes its information and its values from Fox News and its many media allies. And we must give him credit for capturing the political sentiments of the displaced and the neglected in our globalized economy and in our identity-obsessed culture. They do need a voice. To pull that off as a celebrity billionaire may say more about the culture and social values we have all participated in forging more than it says about him. 

Trump has political instinct but little in the way of political knowledge of either institutions or history. Why does this matter? Well, if a President makes history, which he can and does on any given day, he should know some history.  He must be able to think in time, to think by analogy, precedent, and comparison.  He needs perspective in order to find wisdom.  Decisions ought never be made in a vacuum. A President certainly needs to think anew about old problems, but how can any holder of that office consider Middle East peace, or relations with a nuclear or non-nuclear Iran, or the immediate threat of the bizarre North Korean regime, or the social collapse of Venezuela, or the possible dismantling of the European Union, or the increasing rise of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist authoritarianism if he is adrift in history, believing only that great problems are solved by great strong men?  President Trump’s uses of the past – nonsensical throw away lines about the revelation that Lincoln was a Republican, or that Frederick Douglass had been “doing an amazing job,” and now that no one bothers to think about “why was there the Civil War” are not merely matters of temperament. They are dangerous examples of ignorance in high places. And we must not let this kind of presidential mis-use and denial of history become normalized or merely the object of humor.  Satire is our only tool sometimes, but good satire has always been a very serious weapon at the end of the day.  Jackson was too important in American history to be so loosely and ignorantly invoked by the President. For students of the Civil War era, we might even conclude, contra Trump, that had Jackson lived to the time of the Civil War, not only would he have not prevented the conflict, his fellow Tennessean, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notorious cavalry leader, might have been out of a job.

The historical profession might consider petitioning the President to take a one or two month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for an educational sabbatical.  If he must be President for three and a half more years, we need him to be able to make sense when he speaks of the past.  Sometimes CEOs or university presidents need a break from the daily grind.  The President’s staff could choose a few historians to go to the retreat and the American Historical Association could choose a few more.  A crash course in reading, or perhaps just in watching documentary films, about the history of American foreign policy as well as the history of slavery and race relations in particular could be the core of the curriculum.  Some biographies, a good history of women and gender, a genuine tutorial on the Civil Rights era, and even a serious digestion of good works on the Gilded Age and the New Deal legacies might be required.  And finally, a primer on Constitutional history would be essential too, and might make that second month necessary.  This alone could garner the United States again some confidence and respect around the world.   And, one further thing, no tweeting on educational leave.  There will be a test at the end of the term.

We are all creatures of both our experience and our education broadly defined. But to resist learning and expertise, to reject or simply appropriate a past as nothing but a tool for manipulating the present is at best contempt for knowledge. Perhaps President Trump will be the gift that keeps on giving to historians, the source of open invitations to try to help the public that is listening to learn more about America as we endlessly fight over its future paths. But a President without a sense of history is a dangerous thing. We need to keep watch on the White House and its denizen lest his pronouncements make history deniers as lethal as climate change deniers.

As in personal memory, so also in the collective memory that historians assemble, resist, narrate and interpret, the past is that thing we cannot live without, but also sometimes the thing that is hard to live with.  “History,” Robert Penn Warren once warned, though, in a single line of a poem, “is the thing you cannot resign from.” Like Warren, one of my other favorite writers, James Baldwin, never stopped probing the nature of the past, the irresistible if at times debilitating hold that history and memory can have on any thoughtful person’s consciousness. “History,” said Baldwin in a 1965 essay, “is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” For Baldwin, the non-fiction voice of the civil rights movement, if Americans ever really began to learn and face their past with slavery and racism, they would be entering into “a dialogue with that terrifying deity… called history.” Most Americans will prefer never to see history as a terrifying deity, wishing instead for a past that inspires, that makes them feel part of a triumphal story, that places them in a narrative in which they can find comfort. But history can be both pleasurable and perilous, terrifying and uplifting.

Baldwin left a stunning definition of what it means to have a sense of history. In an interview with Studs Terkel in 1961, Baldwin repeatedly claimed that Americans were “badly educated” and did not know their history.  Terkel stopped Baldwin and asked : “what is a sense of history?” After a pause, Baldwin delivered a poignant reply: “You read something that you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened a hundred years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a great liberation for the struggling, suffering person who always thinks that he is alone.” Having a sense of history is knowing that whatever happens to us or to our world, we are not alone. It has in some form happened before. The problem we may have with President Trump is that he does not know what he does not know. He seems to like to go it alone, sui generis, a tough and angry Andrew Jackson ready to slay dragons in his reality show presidency. Our problem is presidential historical ignorance, power imagined and wielded without bearings or perspective. Presidents can be and feel very alone with ultimate decisions. But they are not without historical consciousness and knowledge, unless they choose to be. For Presidents, history should be part of their daily bread, nutrition to sustain the weary, the basic equipment of their trade.

David W. Blight
Yale University

Wednesday, November 23, 2016 - 10:52am

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Denounces Hate Speech

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center tells stories about the past to educate and inform the present in order to prevent historical atrocities from recurring. This is our charge as a museum of conscience. We are the watchers and keepers of history.
We are appalled and alarmed at the recent hate speech of a white nationalist that has gone viral. Hatred is not an American value. We cannot be bystanders. We cannot ‘wait and see’. We cannot wish this away.
Now is the time for all Americans to confront and stand up to hatred. We will not be silent. We join and support the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in publicly denouncing racist ideologies and hate-filled rhetoric.

Saturday, October 15, 2016 - 12:00am

Race, Religion and Nation: From Black Power to Black Lives Matter

Methodist Theological School in Ohio will offer a timely and compelling graduate-level course, “Race, Religion and Nation: From Black Power to Black Lives Matter,” at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 50 E. Freedom Way in Cincinnati.

Classes will be held Jan. 9-13, 2017, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Enrollment is open to the public. Tuition and fees for non-degree-seeking students total $2,198. Non-credit auditing is offered for a fee of $200, with a reduced audit fee of $75 for those 60 and older. Space is limited. To enroll, contact Benjamin Hall at 800-333-6876 or bhall@mtso.edu.

The three-credit-hour course is offered through a cooperative relationship between MTSO and the Freedom Center, forged to promote justice and theologies of freedom. It will analyze the relationship between race, religion and nation through a historical exploration of the Black Lives Matter movement with attention to critical antecedents, including Black Power activism, hip hop music and culture, and the presidency of Barack Obama. MTSO instructor Tejai Beulah, a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. historical studies and an engaging teacher and activist, will lead the course.

“Race, Religion and Nation” is one of several January Term and Spring Semester MTSO courses that provide opportunities for meaningful continuing graduate education. Details on those courses are available at www.mtso.edu/learnmore.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 11:50am

In Memoriam of Jerry Gore

Jerry  Gore, a retired  faculty member of  Morehead  State  University and a  lifelong resident  of  Maysville, KY, passed away August  3, 2016, after losing a battle with pneumonia.

Mr.  Gore was a respected  local  historian  who developed  a national  reputation focusing  on the history  of  enslavement and abolition in  the  Maysville Kentucky  Metropolitan Region .

Mr.  Gore was a descendant of Addison White. White fled  enslavement  from  Flemingsburg, Kentucky, only  to  be  discovered  working  on  the  farm  of  Udney Hay Hyde in  Mechanicsburg, OH, more  than  100 miles  North  East of  Flemingsburg . After  a  confrontation  with  slave  catchers  who wanted to  take  Mr. White  back  to  Kentucky, Mr.  White  was  able  to  shoot  his  way  out  of  almost  certain capture.  At least ten White citizens of Mechanicsburg fought a posse that included U.S.  Marshalls, when they  returned  to  Mechanicsburg  the Marshalls were met with  pitchforks and  anything  else the people  could  get  their  hands  on in  an  effort  to  prevent  the  citizens  who assisted  Mr. White’s escape from being arrested. The  running  battle  covered  at  least  three counties, and  several  of the  men  involved  in the  fray  faced  a hearing  in a Federal  Court in Cincinnati, where they were accused  of interfering with  U.S.  Marshalls under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act.

In  July 1857, in  the  US  District  Court  room  of  Judge  Humphery  H.  Levit, a  compromise was reached,  as  the result  of the  men  from  Mechanicsburg, OH agreeing  to  pay  Daniel  White of  Flemingsburg  Ky.  $1,000.00 for Mr. White’s freedom.

Addison  White went to Canada  and  started  a  new  life, however, with the advent of the  Civil  War, he  returned  to America  in  1864 and joined  Company E. of the  Massachusetts 54th US  Colored  Troops.  At  the end  of the  Civil War, Addison  White  returned to  Mechanicsburg, OH where  he found  a permanent job  with  the  village  in  the  street department. Mr.  White lived  the  balance  of  his  life  in  peace  in  Mechanicsburg, where he and  his  wife,  Amanda, are now buried  in Maple  Grove  Cemetery. In  2005,  Mechanicsburg and  the  Ohio State  Historical Office erected a plaque commemorating  his legacy—a man who  fought to be  free  and, in  turn,  fought  to  help  free  those  who  were  still  enslaved. Jerry Gore was  in  the  audience  during  that ceremony, where he acknowledged his family’s  history. Now, both their spirits are free.

Carl B. Westmoreland, senior historian and preservationist  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - 8:53am

Civil Rights Icon Vernon Jordan Returns to Cincinnati

Civil Rights leader and former National Underground Railroad Freedom Center advisory board member Vernon Jordan will be returning to Cincinnati this summer for the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus Convention. Jordan is scheduled to be the keynote speaker July 16 at the Duke Energy Convention Center. Jordan, now 80, previously served as an advisor to President Bill Clinton.

Vernon Jordan played a big role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, working with the NAACP in organizing boycotts and expanding membership.  Before long, Jordan’s extraordinary work was noticed and he became director of the Southern Regionals Council’s Education project in 1964, a project that increased the number black voters in the South. In 1971, Jordan became president of the National Urban League.

Harvard University professor and historian of African-American life, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. claims that no one has played a more pivotal role in furthering civil rights in the last half century than Jordan.  Jordan is also a businessman, and at one time served on 10 major corporate boards simultaneously. He holds more than 60 honorary degrees from colleges and universities in the United States. In an interview with Bloomberg, American Express CEO Ken Chenault said that Jordan’s “been able to transform society, go into business, and transform business”   Jordan recalled his emotions during the election of the first African American president, noting that he cried when President Obama was sworn in 2008, "It dawned on me the tears were not my tears. They were the tears of my parents and grandparents. They were the tears of black people that toted cotton and lifted that bale. They were the tears of incredulous belief that a black man had been elected president of the United States.”

The 13-member Ohio Legislative Black Caucus will hold its convention July 15-17 ahead of the NAACP’s national convention downtown.  It will be the first time the convention will be held in Cincinnati since it was founded in 1967.

Trey Melcher

Marketing & Communications intern

Related Content: The Emancipation ProclamationThe Thirteenth Amendment.

Images: Zimbio.com, Depauw.edu

Friday, June 24, 2016 - 3:07pm

Supporting the LGBTQ Community After Pulse

It has been nearly two weeks since the attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando and I have had a very difficult time putting into words exactly how this horrible atrocity has me feeling. Beyond the seething rage that defies description, there is something else.

I don’t feel safe. As Americans, we all feel this to some degree after the latest mass shooting in our country (how disgusting that I can say the words “latest mass shooting” to begin with). But let me be clear about one thing: I have not felt safe since having the realization at an early age that I was different and that my being different could mean violence against me was possible at any moment. 

Before I go on, I would say to my young self in this moment to look to hope and love. I was told something I needed to hear this week and it would have helped me years ago. Darkness owns the sky but we always look to the stars. I would tell him not to be ruled by fear and that the very act of existing in his own skin and being who he is, is an act of quiet revolution. His existence can change the world for another like him in the future and make their path a little easier. It is okay to be afraid, as I am now, this will pass. I absolutely refuse to be ruled by fear.

Waking up that morning and being reminded that there are people in the world who would like to see me meet a similar end was terrifying. The LGBTQ community is incredibly vulnerable here in the United States and even more so abroad.  Disproportionately at risk are people of color and those who identify as transgender. These members of our LGBTQ family often bear the brunt of this violence.


I heard many people over the past week say things like, “this was a club that welcomed everyone,” or “this didn’t directly affect you.” This is erasure. The truth is, this was a gay club. It directly impacts every single LGBTQ person on this planet. Any time an act of violence is committed against us, because of who we are and who we love, it directly effects our sense of safety.


Gay men and those suspected of being gay in Syria, are being hurled from multi-story buildings by ISIS extremists. Here in the U.S. trans students are now at risk of attack from their fellow classmates, (with the administration’s permission) for using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. In Uganda anti-gay laws have incited an increase in violence against us. In Jamaica, LGBTQ people face mob attacks, stabbings, death threats and, in some cases, murder. Throughout the world lesbians are subjected to corrective rape. In Russia LGBTQ pride parades are met with violence and anti-gay groups who place false dating profiles in an effort to kidnap and torture those who respond. All of this is recorded and uploaded to the Internet as a warning to the LGBTQ people of the world. These are just a few examples of the violence that our community faces every day. 



We must press on and, whatever we do, we must not allow this most recent attack to drive a wedge between us, and our similarly marginalized brothers and sisters in the Islamic community. I entreat my LGBTQ family, and anyone reading this post, to not respond to hate with hate and to not judge an entire group of people based on the actions of a few. We are better than that. We live in a climate of fear. We are tired. We are angry. Despite all of this - we must remain strong.

The LGBTQ members of your community are suffering and they need you now more than ever. When you hear a slur, a joke, a derogatory comment, or anti-gay rhetoric, know that it directly contributes to a culture that has allowed this violence against us. To do nothing is to be complicit.

We all have a direct responsibility as human beings to help end hate. It is up to all of us to stand up and speak up. I refuse to sit quietly any longer. I hope you’ll join me.


Jesse Kramer, Art Director

Images: NYDaily News, WSBV-Atlanta

Related Content: The Emancipation ProclamationThe Thirteenth Amendment.


Friday, June 3, 2016 - 2:32pm

Here's Why We Should Not Boycott Roots

By now you may have read Snoop’s comments about the reboot of Roots and his call to boycott the series. His comments, which he delivered this week via Instagram—from his account that boasts a following of 10. 5 million users—has already driven numerous responses, including comments from the producers of the series reboot, Roland Martin & Levar Burton, the latter of whom played Kunta Kinte in the original 1977 miniseries. But Roots is much more than a story about slavery, it’s a story about the black experience in America.


So, here's why we should NOT boycott Roots.


1. History

It's important. In the 150 plus years since the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, the latter of which abolished institutionalized slavery in America, never before have we been more equipped to tell the story of the people that endured the system and the subsequent atrocities that followed its end, by the descendants of those who endured it. Prior to the miniseries, stories about slavery and the Civil War in mainstream culture and media— print, film and music— were predominately told by Southern sympathizers, like D.W. Griffith and Margaret Mitchell, who romanticized the period and further perpetuated derogatory stereotypes of black people, diminishing them to caricatures. Roots was the first time that America’s dark history –from slavery to the contemporary issues of the day—was told from the black perspective, with strong, unapologetic characters like Kunta Kinte, to a prime-time audience.



2. A Brief History of the Black Image in Media

Roots was revolutionary—not in subject matter alone, but in presentation and representation.  The original Roots aired a little more than a decade after the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965.  In an address at the National Broadcast Editorial Conference of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in July of 1964, the then president of CBS, Frank Stanton, called upon broadcasters to launch a "mighty and continuing editorial crusade" in support of civil rights. Albeit the call was initially was made to focus on blacks as the subjects of documentaries in alignment with Lyndon B. Johnson’s vision of the “Great Society,” the shows produced during this time period—The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show, Julia, Star Trek and The Mod Squad, to name a few—placed black actors in leading and supporting roles, introducing mainstream America to black culture and issues.

Prior to this shift, films starring black actors made by black filmmakers – Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams and James and Eloyce Gist—in order to contradict negative stereotypes, were suppressed by major studios, especially to Southern audiences. Films produced during the Golden Age of Hollywood that featured or starred black actors, such as Gone with the Wind, Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, Imitation of Life and Pinky, were few and far between and mostly catered to white audiences, perpetuating archetypical “black” characters. The shift that Stanton called for in 1964 had already begun playing out in Hollywood with the arrival of Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Ozzie Davis and more, many of whom made the leap from theater to the silver screen. But, for all the progress made in front of the camera, there was still progress to be made behind the camera. The original Roots screenplay and series directors included Alex Haley and Gilbert Moses, co-founder of the Free Southern Theater Company whose establishment was part of the Black Theater Movement, in alignment with the Civil Rights Movement. Having black writers produce work for mainstream consumption was still considered a risky investment.




3. Something that "happened 200 years ago" ABSOLUTELY relates to contemporary issues.

When Roots aired in January of 1977, the nation was still recovering from the Vietnam War, civil unrest and economic crisis. The manufacturing jobs that drew southern black families north during the Great Migration began to dwindle in the mid-60s and were being outsourced to other countries where the cost of labor was cheaper.  But the burden of a national trend affecting cities across the country was disproportionately suffered by black and brown, working class families, as white families began moving out of cities (see white flight) to avoid the desegregation of schools and Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968—the Fair Housing Act—which prohibited housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. What does slavery have to do with this? Systemic Racism—Jim Crow, employment and housing discrimination, incarceration, the school- to prison pipeline, the wealth gap, the war on drugs and infant mortality all stem from the systematic stripping of constitutional rights established during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877).  Roots is a saga—and it begins with slavery because that’s where the story of blacks in America begins.


4. Should we watch Soul Plane instead or nah?

You're right about one thing—we need more black stories in mainstream media. Stories and images that showcase who we are culturally and celebrates our diversity, because we are not a monolith.  Please!—make movies and media that tell multiple stories of a rich culture and diverse people. In the last decade, television has seen a resurgence of black characters in leading roles in the coveted prime time television spot. The rise of social media and streaming services has also provided previously unknown black actors, writers and producers— like Issa Rae— with a powerful platform in which our stories can be seen and consumed by the masses, jettisoning black actors and black stories back into traditional media outlets. Shows like Martin, Living Single, Girlfriends, A Different World and many more, have reintroduced the contemporary black experience to new audiences and a new generation of viewers. What’s more is that the characters are three dimensional, beautifully nuanced roles written, produced and directed by people of color. The creation of these complex roles provide more to mainstream media consumption than bland, unrealistic,  stock "black" characters, previously written by writers who knew nothing of what it is like to be black in contemporary America.


So yes, Snoop, I will be watching—well, streaming—because in a time where states are violating voting rights and where activists have to remind society that Black Lives Matter, it is extremely important that we go back to our roots.


Assia Micheaux Johnson, Public Relations and Social Media Coordinator 

Images: Roots (2016) Via History Channel, Still from Stormy Weather  via MGM and allposters.com

Related Content: The Emancipation ProclamationThe Thirteenth Amendment.

More authored by Assia: Freedom Center Open This Memorial Day, May 30, Freedom Center Open Sundays in Summer, Gift Shop Sale: Mother's Day Gift Ideas and More!, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Announces New CuratorReveal Stories: The 18 Black American Athletes of the 1936 Olympic Games International Human Rights Day: Cincinnati Honors Legacy of Helen Suzman150th Anniversary of the 13th Amendment: President Obama Gives Presidential ProclamationFlame Friday: Artist James PateFreedom Center to Host Award-winning Author and Yale University Alumni Jeff Hobbs ThursdayKing Records now a Cincinnati landmarkOn This Day in History: The Preliminary Emancipation ProclamationConnect with History Labor Day Weekend50 Years Later: The Voting Rights Act of 1965,  50 Midwest Museums We LoveMother's Day Gift IdeasFlame FridayJimmie Lee JacksonMLK Day 2015

Monday, May 2, 2016 - 9:39am

Comments on The Image of Harriet Tubman on the U.S. $20 Bill

The richness of American diversity and the multifaceted contributions to American democracy is making an appearance on American currency. Harriet Tubman’s image on the American $20 bill represents a recognition of the role people of color and women played in making the United States of American a beacon of hope for the world. Tubman is known primarily as an abolitionist, fighting against slavery, and as the matriarch of the Underground Railroad, navigating the route to freedom for persons bold enough to escape from slavery. She was also an indispensable part of the military efforts of the Union Army. Tubman served the Union Army as a cook, a nurse, a scout, and a resourceful spy who risked her life moving through the south gathering intelligence which aided the union cause. Tubman represents the depth of American liberty. About liberty she stated, “I would fight for liberty so long as my strength lasted.” It was most appropriate that when she died Harriet Tubman was buried with military honors. She was a solider for the cause of the Union of the United States. She was also a solider for justice, for women’s rights, for the rights of all persons to enjoy the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I am particularly pleased that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who I had the honor of meeting when he served as Deputy Secretary of State and I served as U.S. Ambassador to the African Union, has taken the bold step in recognizing Harriet Tubman’s contribution to American democracy by placing her image on one of our nation’s most widely used pieces of currency. As Executive Vice President of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the home of the Harriet Tubman Theatre, I am hopeful that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will be one of the places for a public unveiling of the currency and a public discussion of contributions to American democracy made by Harriet Tubman. 


Dr. Michael A. Battle, Executive Vice President/Provost of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Related Content:  The Thirteenth AmendmentThis Week: Satchel Paige and the Kansas City SwingKing Records now a Cincinnati landmarkThe 18 Black American Athletes of the 1936 Olympic Games