During my elementary school education, I was taught George Washington was the father of my country. However, as I learned more about slavery in America I learned that George Washington owned slaves and that changed my perception of him from the father of my country to America’s first president.
In school, I was also taught that Patrick Henry is known and praised for saying, “Give me liberty or give me death”; but what they didn’t teach me was that eight months after making that statement he organized patrols to keep Virginia slaves from accepting the British offers for freedom. During the Revolutionary War, Henry added slaves to his property and unlike other Virginia slave owners, he never gave any of his slaves their freedom.
I was also never taught that when Thomas Jefferson said everyone has a right to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” he owned 175 slaves. By 1822 he owned 267 slaves and during his entire life he freed eight slaves and five of those eight were his children by a slave named Sally Hemings, who was also his wife’s half-sister. The other children Jefferson had with Sally Hemings weren’t freed until after his death.
Something else I was never taught was the freedom that Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and the other frontiersmen fought for at the Alamo was the freedom to own slaves. Slavery was not allowed by the Mexican government and Texas was a part of Mexico.
Although I learned about Lewis and Clark, I never heard anything about Moses Harris. It is believed that he was born in either Union County, South Carolina, or somewhere in Kentucky. Harris was also known as Black Moses or the “Black Squire.” During the 1820s Harris moved west and began work as a fur trapper. His work brought him as far west as the Yellowstone River valley. During his years as a trapper, Harris gained valuable information on the wilderness, the mountains, and winter survival. Moses Harris’s reputation as both a mountain man and his knowledge of wilderness gave him employment as a wagon train guide. Harris began regularly working as a guide for missionaries and wagon trains heading west to Oregon. In 1844 he led one of the largest immigrant wagon trains heading to Oregon.
Bass Reeves was an American law enforcement officer. He was the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. He worked mostly in Arkansas and Oklahoma Territory. During his long career, he was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons. He shot and killed 14 people in self-defense. Reeves was a real-life African-American cowboy who one historian has proposed may have inspired the Lone Ranger. In 1838—nearly a century before The Lone Ranger was introduced to the public—Bass Reeves was born a slave in the Arkansas household of William S. Reeves, who relocated to Paris, Texas, in 1846. As a child, I watched The Lone Ranger every chance I got and had no idea he was black.
As a Political Science major, in college, I never learned the details behind congresses passing of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. The purpose of this act was to create a federal law that regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates. The drugs listed in the Act were Opium, Morphine, and Heroin. Cocaine was still legal, at the time. Dr. Hamilton Wright testified at a hearing for the Harrison Act and alleged that cocaine made blacks uncontrollable, gave them superhuman powers, and caused them to rebel against white authority. Dr. Christopher Koch of the State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania testified that “most of the attacks upon the white women of the south are a direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain”. Before the Act was passed, on February 8th, 1914 the New York Times published an article titled “Negro Cocaine Fiends Are New Southern Menace. In another article “Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower-Class Blacks”, by Edward Huntington Williams, he reported that southern sheriffs had increased the caliber of their weapons from .32 to .38 to bring down Negroes under the effect of cocaine. As a direct result of these articles and testimony, cocaine was added to the act.
It was in black history books that I learned from 1850 to 1930 the dominant theme in American entertainment dealt with plantation slavery. During this time “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was the longest-running play, “Birth of a Nation” was the first epic motion picture, “The Jazz Singer” was the first talking motion picture, and “Gone with the Wind” was the first blockbuster novel and now that television is a main entertainment vehicle “Roots” is the most popular television mini-series of all time.
As my education continued two things became clear:
- The first colony to legalize slavery was not in the south, it was Massachusetts.
- America has been a slave nation longer than it has been a “free” nation.
Although slavery is over, in America, racism in America is alive and well, and as complicated as the American racial issue is, its birth was made possible by two directly related activities:
- The slaughter and taking of land from the Native Americans.
- The slaughter and enslaving Africans to work that land.
When school teachers and American history books hide racism in America’s history, they prevent America from seeing it in the present and dealing with it in the future. However, before America attempts to see it and/or deal with it, America must first stop looking at slavery as a tragedy that just happened and ignoring the part America played in its formation and maintenance.