Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Little Known History of Slavery, Part Three

As was pointed out earlier, the moral question of slavery only came up amongst western powers; not in Asia, not in Arabia, not in Africa; but in the West... namely, among the British and American colonialists.

As a side note, In American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regie, Ulrich B. Phillips writes,
Manumissions were in fact so common in the deeds and wills of the men of '76 that the number of colored freemen in the South exceeded thirty-five thousand in 1790 and was nearly doubled in each of the next two decades.
While people like George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson openly expressed their belief that slavery was a profound evil, simply abolishing and freeing slaves was no simple task; in some places, it was legally impossible. These men did more than just talk the talk; and yet, because so many today judge them with 21st century ethics, they are condemned as hypocrites for owning slaves even as they had condemned slavery. Taking into consideration the context of the times that they lived in is vital to understanding why those who were against slavery were often at odds with the abolitionists, let alone with a world that "grew up" on the institution of slavery.

Such simpleminded, intellectual laziness and ignorance is what leads liberal do-gooders like Marguerite Talley-Hughes, a kindergarten teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Berkeley, to be offended by the name of the school. Over 2 years ago, there was a push by teachers and parents to have the name changed from "Jefferson" to "Sequoia". One parent said,
the debate over Jefferson's slave-owning background convinced her 9-year-old son Eli Baum, who had intended to vote against the name change to ultimately put down "Sequoia" on his ballot.

"I said, Why did you vote for Sequoia over Jefferson?' and he said, Because Jefferson owned slaves,'"
Back when this issue was in the news, Dennis Prager ridiculed the fact that they saw fit to allow students to vote on the issue at all. Students who are children of elementary school age, being allowed to make adult decisions. How impoverished the student's education is, that all he knows of Thomas Jefferson is that he's a bad man to look up to as a role model and national hero, because he "owned slaves". You know...there is a reason why adults are adults and children are children; why the voting age is set at 18, and why there is a legalized drinking age, movie ratings, etc.

Fortunately, after much heated debate, the school board voted 3-2 to keep the Jefferson name intact, going against the wishes of the Jefferson Elementary School community, which did vote to change the name to "Sequoia". Ironically,
even with that name, the school district cannot quite dodge the slavery connotations. Some community members have pointed out that under Chief Sequoia's leadership in the early 19th century, the Cherokee nation owned more than 1,500 black slaves.

A spokesman for the Berkeley Unified School District, Mark Coplan, acknowledged that Chief Sequoia "presumably owned slaves and was rather barbaric," but he emphasized that the proposed new name would honor the sequoia tree, not the Cherokee leader.
Among other names that were considered:
Ohlone; Rose; Peace; Cesar Chavez, the farm worker organizer; Ralph Bunche, a United Nations diplomat; Sojourner Truth, a leader in the abolitionist movement; and Florence McDonald, a former Berkeley council member.
Among those names listed, does anyone think that any person so honored is morally pure and absent of flaw and defect?

Another school in the district, Columbus Elementary School, was renamed Rosa Parks Elementary School (with intense debates that almost had it renamed "Cesar Chavez"). James Garfield Middle School was changed in 1968 to Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. had renamed "Abraham Lincoln Elementary" to "Malcolm X Elementary" in the 70's.

The name changes in and of themselves don't bother me; but the possible motives behind those changes does. It is feckless narcissism.

To go back to Jefferson and the slave-owning issue where 3 teachers and staffers wrote a letter to the Teacher-Parents Association stating that they were "increasingly uncomfortable to work at a site whose name honors a slaveholder", perhaps the following information might make them feel a bit softer toward our 3rd President of the United States:
One of the early battles that was lost [in the anti-slavery sentiments growing amongst colonialists] was Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence, which criticized King George III for having enslaved Africans and for over-riding colonial Virginia's attempt to ban slavery. The Continental Congress removed that phrase under pressure from representatives from the South.

When Jefferson drafted a state constitution for Virginia in 1776, his draft included a clause prohibiting any more importation of slaves an, in 1783, Jefferson included in a new draft of a Virginia constitution a proposal for gradual emancipation of slaves. He was defeated in both these efforts. on the national scene, Jefferson returned to the battle once again in 1784, proposing a law declaring slavery illegal in all western territories of the country as it existed at the that time. Such a ban would have kept slavery out of Alabama and Mississippi. The bill lost by one vote, that of a legislator too sick to come and vote. Afterwards, Jefferson said that the fate "of millions unborn" was "hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment."

Three years later, however, Congress compromised by passing the Northwest Ordinance, making slavery illegal in the upper western territories, while allowing it in the lower western territories. Congress was later authorized to ban the African slave trade and Jefferson, now President, urged that they use that authority to stop Americans "from all further participation in those violations of human rights which has been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa. Congress followed his urging.

Abstract moral decisions are much easier to make on paper or in a classroom in later centuries than in the midst of the dilemmas actually faced by those living in very different circumstances, including serious dangers.
One way to understand the constraints of the times and their effects on public attitudes is to examine the difference between the way that many in nineteenth-century America saw the slave trade, as distinguished from the way that they saw slavery itself. If the institution of slavery and the presence of millions of slaves were facts of life, within which many decision-makers felt trapped by having inherited the consequences of decisions made by others in generations before them, the continuing trade in slaves, whether from Africa or within the United States, was a contemporary problem that was within their control. Thus, decades before slavery was abolished, the United States joined in the outlawing of the international slave trade. Even many Americans not yet ready to support the abolition of slavery as an institution nevertheless made the bringing of more slaves from Africa a capital offense in the United States.
The moral distinction between slave trading and the continuation of slavery as an institution might be hard for some in later centuries to understand because, in the abstract, there is no moral difference. Only in the concrete circumstances faced by the people of the times was there a practical social difference.
Thomas Sowell concludes,
Both the present and the future are at stake when we look at the past. What lessons we draw from that past depend on whether it is viewed narrowly or against the broader background of world history.
The teachers at Jefferson Elementary School would do well to enrich their children's education if they would read a bit of Thomas Sowell. Certainly, that other Thomas for which their school is named, deserves better than to simply be known to school children as "slaveholder". Thomas Jefferson, a multi-faceted, complex personality on the world stage, deserves better; and his nation's children deserve better. George Washington....Thomas Jefferson...Abraham Lincoln...these are all American heroes worthy of honor and national pride.

Thomas Sowell excerpts indentured into this post, from the chapter, "The Real History of Slavery", in Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Previous entries:
The Little Known History of Slavery, Part One
The Little Known History of Slavery, Part Two

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Blogger Mary said...

Great post, WS!

Do you think that those teachers and staffers that were "increasingly uncomfortable to work at a site whose name honors a slaveholder" are uncomfortable using U.S. dollars with the images of slaveholders on them?

Should we repeal the Martin Luther King holiday because this great man wasn't morally perfect?

Are teachers and staffers uncomfortable taking a day off in his honor?

Saturday, February 24, 2007 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Gayle said...

Very interesting article, Wordsmith. Wouldn't you think teachers would know the complete history of Jefferson? This doesn't say very much for the education of the teachers who are supposedly educating our children, does it? It reminds me of the expression "the blind leading the blind!"

It also reminds me of the expression often used by William Bendix on an old television program "The life of Riley." At least once in each episode he would say "What a revoltin' developement this is!" Indeed!

Saturday, February 24, 2007 8:43:00 PM  

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