We Must Do More to Honor the People and Places Lost to Violent RacismRoundup
tags: racism, Jim Crow, African American history, public history, teaching history, White Supremacy
Walter Greason is a professor of education at Monmouth (N.J.) University.
Only recently has the United States chosen to love Black people. It has loved the Confederacy deeper and longer and with greater loyalty. Stone Mountain spits in the face of our supposed destiny: How deeply must a nation hate a people to carve their destroyers into the landscape in perpetuity?
After a year that included the shootings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Jacob Blake, we still lack a national consensus to end racism and the violence it has hurled upon Black Americans. The year 2020 has been a year of revelation for some, but it has been a year of minimal progress for others.
Only last week did the board of Virginia Military Institute vote to take down a statue on campus of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Though a federal judge has now ruled that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) can raze Richmond’s statue of Robert E. Lee, the monument is not yet on the ground where it belongs.
We must continue the work of dismantling white supremacy. By age 12, I fully understood the layers of violence that maintained racial injustice in America. During a swimming class, a student tried to drown me because I was Black. On another occasion, a group caught me alone in a classroom, beating me to the floor, because I was Black. The interpersonal violence reinforced the structural segregation that I experienced every minute of every day for decades.
As a young educator, I longed to teach a course on racial violence. Drexel University gave me the opportunity to create a syllabus of racial hatred in 2002. Teaching that syllabus opened my eyes to the challenge ahead of us.
It was an evening course, meeting for almost three hours once a week. The class fulfilled a core requirement; two dozen students enrolled. I remember thinking that I would have to offer extraordinary reassurances to the Asian and White students in the class because it was very unlikely that they had read the material previously. There were only two African American students in the class.
My first lecture focused on the early 19th century, examining White violence against Blacks in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Cincinnati’s 1829 riots were an extension of laws prohibiting Black migration to Ohio, which existed almost from statehood in 1803. Philadelphia’s Flying Horse riot in 1834 destroyed a Black neighborhood, displacing dozens of families. The determination to maintain racial segregation through terrorism became a pattern that continues today.
In 1851, White terrorists (who called themselves “slave catchers”) tried to invade the town of Christiana, Pa. With the support of U.S. marshals, they attacked the farm of William Parker, a free African American. The terrorist leader was killed in the assault, but the abolitionists who repelled the invaders faced charges of treason.
My students, working from the syllabus I called, “Collective Racial Violence in the United States,” were not prepared for a history that had been kept from them. Nor were they emotionally ready for a sustained confrontation with this evidence. The material turned their heads in countless ways. They learned about festival lynching — advertised assemblies to murder criminal suspects before their trials — and the use of planes, cannons and firebombs to destroy neighborhoods, businesses, any evidence of Black excellence. It was easy for them to see that this history shaped a century of racial terrorism that still influences law enforcement practices today.
This knowledge shattered their assumptions about white supremacy. After three weeks, they would leave class to weep, or to vomit. After six weeks, they began to sob uncontrollably in the classroom. Their horror was so jarring that I decided a week after the course ended to break the content into multiple courses over several semesters to prevent the emotional toll I had inflicted on them.
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