I recently finished reading ‘From Slavery To Freedom’ Ninth Edition, a book handed down to me from one of my daughters after she completed a course in Afro-American History at university. ‘From Slavery To Freedom’ is considered by many to be one of the most definitive works in its field.
The first edition was written by John Hope Franklin in 1947. The Ninth edition was co-authored with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham of Harvard University. Mr. Franklin, sadly, did not live to see the completion of this Ninth edition, although he did read most of the chapters and seemed pleased with the direction of the revisions.
“Every scholar of my generation studied Franklin’s book in a survey course in African American history; in this sense, we are all his grandchildren.” – Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Mr. Franklin noted in the Preface of the first edition, that this work amounted to a re-writing of American history itself, “…to re-tell the story of the evolution of the people of the United States in order to place the Negro in his proper relationship and perspective.”
Today we see a fear of what some term ‘revisionist history’. Many hold an unhealthy orthodoxy to bias teachings of history, vilifying new research and new information as the enemy of truth, when that is simply not the case.
“The most useful piece of learning … is to unlearn what is untrue.” – Antisthenes
I’m not sure how to review this work other than to say I’ll try to take a glance at each chapter, each section, and highlight what I found to be important or noteworthy although what I am doing, I know, does an injustice to the scholarship of this book. I only hope my review serves to inspire others to read ‘From Slavery To Freedom.’
There is no excuse for anyone who wants to be educated on our history as a nation, not to read this book.
I’ll start by stating I am white with no particular heritage to lean on. My family didn’t have any attachments to any European countries. I don’t recall anyone in my family speaking any other language than English. We were just an average white American family.
I was raised in suburban schools. I do not remember learning much of anything about the African-American experience in the United States. What we learned, at most, were a few celebrated names, a handful of artists and a smattering number of entertainers.
For reasons I still cannot comprehend, the system wanted us to remember George Washington Carver and his discoveries about peanuts. Besides a few mentions of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, one mildly lionized, the other criticized as being too radical, suburban America was left in the dark about the massive contributions other African-Americans had on our society.
Our history was sanitized and rooted in romanticized European colonialism. There was devotion to the ideals of Rome, Greece and the Magna Carta. We were taught to be proud of the glorious New World we were the beneficiaries of.
Slavery, indentured servitude and genocide of Native peoples were fringe occurrences, necessary evils that got the country to where it was destined to go. I remember looking at grand paintings of Andrew Jackson and thinking he was a true hero, the general who turned back the British in New Orleans and later became president. Little did I know the pain and misery he inflicted on thousands of people with the Indian Removal Act. The Trail of Tears was but a paragraph in most history books and by some accounts, considered a boon for both sides. There was no talk of broken treaties and suffering.
And the worst thing George Washington (the one at Valley Forge) did was cut down a cherry tree. He was celebrated in word, deed and portraits, colorful drawings of his Mount Vernon estate where everything was serene and the slaves labored happily in his fields. So happy, in fact, we didn’t even think of them as slaves. With a twentieth century mindset, these people were to our young eyes, merely productive laborers content with their wages and lot in life.
We never learned the dehumanizing effect slavery had on millions of people, and on generations of families.
And what we learned about the continent of Africa itself, bordered on barbaric, on horrific and tribal. It was made to sound so bad, in fact, it made the uneducated, disease-laden, superstitious medieval societies of Europe, plagued by endless wars and famine, sound reasonably civilized. To have traveled the African continent in those days would be to go back in time to primitive man.
But the truth is something else – and in order to discover it, we must be willing to unlearn that simpleness, that deception, that false groundwork.
‘From Slavery to Freedom,’ is a massive awaking for those wanting to be awoken.
It begins by identifying great kingdoms that existed in Africa, kingdoms that had advanced medicine and education, some with enormous structures filled with scholars, teachers and doctors, disciplined and growing rich by trade, law and legal systems upheld by court rituals and religious creeds. Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Kongo and Benin. There were also kings and emperors like Mansa Musa, Askia Muhammad and Joao I (Nzinga a Nkuwu), that could rival any in Europe.
We never heard their names. We never learned that these places and people existed.
Chapter after chapter explore the slave trade and the Middle Passage.
Names and ancestors, entire lineages of families were nearly wiped from history.
The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was the first to appear in America. John Jay and Alexander Hamilton founded the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. Anti-slavery societies started popping up all over the East coast, from New England to the upper South. Some fought to abolish the slave trade, while others were dedicated to full emancipation of slaves. The degrees of freedom these societies sought for slaves varied.
In 1777, Vermont outlawed slavery. In the following years, other states did likewise, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey.
“In 1787, Congress added a stipulation to the Northwest Ordinance that slavery and involuntary servitude should not exist in the territory that would eventually form the states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.”
The South, however, continued to view slavery as an economic necessity. There are chapters devoted to the Slave Codes, to “beats” and areas of patrol where white men devised militias to apprehend runaways. Slaves were considered pieces of property, having no standing in court, left to exist according to the mercy of their overseers.
There are accounts that “slave songs troubled some whites, since hymns contained the language of freedom.”
The framers of the Constitution, dedicated to the sanctity of private property, for which the Southerners included their slaves, grew tired of debating the morality of human bondage and interjected “rather the euphemisms person, all other persons, or such persons,” in the places where “slave’ had been included in the original drafts. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence did not extend to persons of color, the Three-Fifths compromised agreed upon in 1787, to give the South more influence in politics and the electoral college.
The Civil War for the South was labeled, “a poor man’s fight and a rich man’s war.”
When Jefferson Davis introduced the Conscription Act in 1862, poor white men went to battle while the wealthy slave holders could send twenty slaves in their stead. Fearful of arming blacks, the conscripted slaves were sent to build fortifications and other defensive efforts. Arming blacks for the South was seen as introducing a Trojan horse into the ranks.
It is amazing even more so to think that during World War 1 and 2, the United States, despite the Civil War, still had difficulty with the idea of arming blacks, of integrating units. Racism is a firmly entrenched root that is never completely taken up.
After the Civil War, Jim Crow laws pushed back against Reconstruction. Many of the gains people believed were made during the war years, were loss as segregation subjected black America to a place where they were left uneducated and poor.
Polling stations, now supposedly open to blacks, were dangerous. There were poll taxes, violence and intimidation. Whites, fearing “Negro rule,” were guilty of stuffing ballot boxes. The Whites would say, “they might out vote us, but we can outcount them.”
Riots broke out in several states before the turn of the century as whites feared black rule. The book reveals leaders, both black and white, as well as organizations that materialized, to fight for and oppress the populist message of equality.
The turn of the century begins with a search for higher education for blacks, breaking the chains of the “Negros’ place.” Samuel Armstrong, a white general of Union African American outfits during the Civil War and founder of the historically black Hampton University in 1868, influenced the thinking of prominent coming voices of change like Booker T. Washington. Henry Morehouse and W.E.B. Du Bois were part of this time period. Education, it was taught, would encourage employment and economic self-sufficiency, something many blacks had not considered possible, and many whites didn’t think was possible.
These Universities began to produce doctors, lawyers, statesmen and business leaders.
Booker T. Washington dined on one occasion at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt. Southern newspapers considered it a “damnable outrage.” Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina, followed this up with, “Now that Roosevelt has eaten with that nigger Washington, we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to get them back to their places.”
This oppressive drive by so many whites to keep black people in their place is seen throughout the rest of the book, a common thread throughout this nation’s history.
The book moves onto World War 1, and the racial segregation of black soldiers despite fighting in the same uniforms for the same cause. Mississippi’s Senator, James Vardaman wanted a ‘Whites-only draft”. Congress rejected that idea.
Southern states still struggled with the idea of sending white men to fight and arming blacks. Some counties filled their quotas with blacks while others only included whites.
“The highest ranking black officer in 1917 was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Young,” the third black graduate of West Point. Complaining that he would outrank white captains and lieutenants, Army officials found medical cause to force him into retirement. He pushed back against the decision but wasn’t reinstated until five days before the war ended.
The NAACP formed in 1909 as a primarily white organization after the Springfield Riot. W.E.B. Du Bois was the only black officer, the editor of the magazine The Crisis, the magazine of the organization.
The NAACP quickly became “the leading voice of civil rights activism.” Enrollment blossomed, branches opening all across the country. Fundraisers allowed them to reach out and support legal and civil disputes and they were soon enjoying successes in courtrooms.
Under Woodrow Wilson, however, civil rights backslid as Wilson’s economic agenda helped industries racially profile workers, black people becoming once again the ‘last hired and first fired.’ White labor unions shut out blacks and banks refused to lend to blacks. Congress was flooded with bills proposing more segregation in housing, the military, and law enforcement, forbidding interracial marriage and banning all immigrants of African descent. Much of the legislation failed but Wilson signed an executive order segregating federal employee, phasing “out most blacks in civil service jobs.”
During those World War 1 years, a “super-patriotism” took hold of the country. Between 1918-1922, there was a “rise of racist and xenophobic groups” as well as a Red Scare culminating in “government-authorized raids against perceived communists.” Klan membership soared, becoming a national organization. It was their duty to punish those “whom it considered dangerous – African Americans, Asians, Roman Catholics, Jews and the foreign-born in general.”
Klan members were integrated into local law enforcement, taking the law into their own hands with impunity. Hooded- bands of night riders terrorized ethnic populations all across the country, flogging, branding, tarring and feathering, hanging and burning. “African American soldiers were especially targeted.” In 1919, there were “more than twenty-six urban race riots“. In the early 1920s, riots and violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida, let to large swaths of destruction and death as the National Guard had to be called in.
The book veers here to the entertainment industry and the growth of radio, motion pictures and music during the Harlem Renaissance. “For the artistic New Negro, the Roaring Twenties proved to be an exciting time.” The Jazz Age was “a cultural movement that spanned the years 1910-1950.” African art forms were integrated into the culture of the country.
Singer Mamie Smith became the first black woman to release a blues record for a major company, “Crazy Blues.” Her success opened the door for others. “Gertrude Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Trixie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Clara Smith, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace and Ethel Waters.”
Henry Pace created Black Swan Records seeking “a broad range of black musical forms – spirituals, opera, and other classical music, in addition to blues and ragtime.”
The radio was becoming one of the chief forms of entertainment. Big Band and Swing were tremendously popular. Whites flowed into The Cotton Club and Clef Club to see the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and James Reese Europe (and his Hellfighter’s Band). Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb and Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington were highly respected. Ellington and his so-called “jungle music” as described by musicologists, would go on to win a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.
The Great Migration of the New Orleans sound, Jazz and Blues, traveled north to Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. The New York scene, with no foundation in Blues, developed its own tradition, “as evidenced in the ‘Stride’ piano style.”
Despite the outrage of the African American community to D.W. Griffith’s racist Birth of A Nation, black film companies began to emerge, most significant being the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. These “race movies” featuring all-black casts, done during the silent film era, played chiefly in segregated theaters for urban blacks, some getting into churches and schools. Films like Scar of Shame, Within Our Gates and Birthright, pushed back against the stereotypes and racism of films like Birth Of A Nation.
The first black actors to break into white talkie films were already popular musicians like Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington.
On stage, in 1924, “… Paul Robeson played the leading role in (Eugene) O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings. It was the first time in American history that a black man had taken a principal role opposite a white woman.”
Thomas “Fats” Waller, wrote Ain’t Misbehavin’ for the Broadway play, Hot Chocolate.
Stride pianist, James P Johnson’s song, “The Charleston”, written for the Broadway show Runnin’, “remains the theme song of the 1920s.”
Great black artists, authors and poets emerged this time period as well. Langston Hughes, Zora Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and Aaron Douglas to name a few.
“By 1929, the richest 5 percent of Americans had grown richer still, amassing 26 percent of national income.” With the Stock Market crash in 1929, came more poverty and migration for many black people, especially those who had been sharecropping on farms in the South. “A destructive cycle of overproduction and falling prices,” as well as boll weevil’s ravaging crops, made survival for those working in agriculture difficult. Their “wages were driven down to starvation levels.”
In the cities, as businesses and banks failed, blacks were the first to lose jobs. Low-skill jobs in households and personal service disappeared.
Although not an official organization, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal including bringing in educated black advisers, “the black cabinet” as they were so named, to address race issues. They included, as the only woman member, Mary McLeod Bethune.
African Americans were still pushing back against Jim Crow laws throughout all the coming decades. Author Richard Wright, a disaffected communist, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son. Communists were taking a foothold in places where the depression had struck hard, organizing the unemployed, staging demonstrations and forming neighborhood relief committees. The ILD (International Labor Defenese) “took over the appeals process” of eight of nine black boys sentenced to death in Alabama after an incident on a train on March 23, 1931. Six years later, five had been freed. By 1950, the last was released.
Roosevelt’s New Deal program was dealing with a host of influences from all sectors of society, including the communist leaning ILD, the NAACP, the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and the National Negro Congress, founded at Howard University in 1935.
Liberals and Communists, middle-class workers, the poor, unions and those opposed to racial injustice and fascism had found common ground.
The Hitler-Stalin Pact, signed in 1939, was a blow to this foundation. Many socialist and leftists had been supportive of the Soviet Union. This alliance with fascism caused many to renounce their affiliation with the Communist Party. In November 1938, an interracial and interclass coalition which included some members of Congress, convened in Birmingham, Alabama. The city’s police chief, Eugene “Bull” Connor, “interrupted a meeting and ordered participants to comply with the segregated seating required by city ordinances.” Eleanor Roosevelt arrived late and took a seat among the now segregated black attendees. “When asked to move, Roosevelt placed her chair right on the black-white dividing line, making an important symbolic statement against Jim Crow.”
At the outbreak of World War 2, there were “fewer than five thousand African American soldiers serving”, four black units. By the end of the war, it is estimated that 1 million black men and women participated.
Segregation among units, from those in combat, to engineers, to nurses, continued.
There is a section of the book devoted to the Tuskegee Airmen, one hundred members eventually receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. “Twenty-two black combat units participated in ground operations in the European Theater.” The 761st Tank Battalion saw combat in the Battle of the Bulge and six European countries, receiving the prestigious Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation. (How many old World War 2 movies show black units or participants? It’s almost as if they weren’t there.)
Black engineer and combat units also served in the Pacific Theater, in New Guinea, Burma, the Solomons, the Treasury Islands and the Philippines.
Advancements for black men in the Navy came slower. It wasn’t until July 1942 that they were “no longer confined to being messmen and other menial positions.” African Americans went on to serve valorously in the Seabees, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.
Sadly, despite the uniform and service, black soldiers were still maligned, assaulted and lynched in the South. Restaurants and stores still refused to serve them. There was high profile case in a Kentucky railroad station, where “white civilian policemen beat three African American women in uniform.” They were WACS and it did not command any respect.
Racism continued to occur on military bases as well. The Red Cross was still “separating black and white blood in blood banks established for the relief of wounded service personnel.” The USO banned the circulation of Ruth Benedict’s pamphlet, Races of Mankind, which was written to help soldiers dispense with racist thinking and focus on equality and our common origin. PX’s sold inferior merchandise to blacks. The War Department forbade racial segregation in recreational and transportation facilities which was met with a storm of protests in the South. There were countless clashes on and off military posts.
In 1993, the US Army initiated a study to determine why no black soldiers had received the Congressional Medal of Honor during World 1 and 2. It concluded that racism was the cause.
“In January 1997, after reviewing the records … an awards panel bestowed the Medal of Honor on seven blacks, only one of whom, Vernon Baker, was still living.”
Although it was limited in scope, Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 in 1941 was one of the first major pieces of legislation that pressured federal agencies to dispense with discriminatory practices in hiring, giving preference to employers who did not discriminate. First the first time, “more than 100,000 African Americans found employment … in the iron and steel industries.” “African Americans played an increasingly vocal role at the conventions of such organizations as the United Automobile Workers, the United Steel Workers, the National Maritime Union and the United Rubber Workers.”
Despite these changes, however, blacks “still fared considerably worse that whites in finding jobs.”
Walter White in an article in The Crisis titled “A Declaration by Negro Voters” stated “Victory must crush Hitlerism both at home as well as abroad.” The article went on to state that any party or candidates refusing to address social security, jobs, housing and labor for blacks was “as much an enemy of the Negro as is he who would prevent the Negro from voting.”
“Well before the familiar protest demonstrations of the 1960s,” there were many champions of nonviolent action for racial equality. “In the 1940s, they engaged in strikes, sit-ins, boycotts and freedom rides.” The landmark case of Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The battle to get schools to comply was a long, drawn out struggle that raged for years. The personal courage of black parents and their children to defy segregation turned into hundreds of legal battles, civil rights lawyers actively pursuing every case they could lay their hands on. “The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott was not only a direct challenge to segregation but also the first successful example of mass nonviolent resistance in the United States.” It began in 1955. “The boycott served to affirm Rosa Parks’ act of breaking the law.”
One of the things we don’t often learn is that Rosa Parks was not the first to defy this law. Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith and Susie McDonald were all arrested for the same thing, each catching the attention of other advocacy groups. “Parks’ arrest jolted Montgomery’s black community.” Leaders of the NAACP and WPC as well as Ralph Abernathy, the pastor of Park’s church, “began reaching out to local ministers and other community leaders.” Leaflets and a mass rally and day-long boycott was planned. Rosa Parks and her husband, Raymond, were no strangers to civil rights activism. “Her arrest served as the linchpin for uniting Montgomery’s black community.”
Twenty-five year old Martin Luther King Jr was selected “by community leaders to lead the boycott effort coordinated by the Montgomery Improvement Association.” African Americans had no political power in Montgomery. They embraced nonviolent protest.
They made three demands which included the hiring of black drivers in black neighborhoods. The city refused. Black men, women and children took to walking, to carpooling.
The city filed lawsuits against more than eighty individuals including King and Abernathy, claiming this was a “conspiracy to obstruct the operation of business.” “King’s home was firebombed.” “Threats of violence forced the relocation of the MIA headquarters several times.”
King had linked his nonviolent protests to Christianity and the love for one’s enemies. Bayard Rustin “became an adviser to King, introducing him to the teachings of Gandhi… A.J. Muste and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.”
The boycott lasted 381 days, reaching all the way up to the Supreme Court.
“On February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair Jr, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeill, and David Richmond, (the Greensboro Four), staged the first successful sit-in… by taking seats at a whites only lunch counter in a Woolworth’s and asking for service.”
Student groups,k comprised of blacks and whites, in Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia began staging sit-ins. Some were detained and ticketed for trespassing and disorderly conduct but others were beaten, tear-gassed and jailed.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), comprised of student activists like Diane Nash, James Bevel and John Lewis, formed in 1960 and became a powerful force. Singing songs of the black church and slave spirituals became a symbol of their unity. “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.” “This Little Light Of Mine.” “We Shall Overcome.”
Protests in Albany, Georgia failed as the police chief made deals with prisons in neighboring communities to jail protesters and prevent overfilling, people arrested for parading without permits, creating a disturbance, loitering and trespassing. “The Kennedy administration stayed out of Albany’s affairs” because James A Gray, a segregationist, “was the chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party and a personal friend of John F Kennedy. Gray controlled the areas only television station, a radio station, and was married to the daughter of the owner of the local newspaper.” This kept the White House out of their local affairs. Fractures within the protesters eventually ended it.
Alabama outlawed the NAACP, labeling it ‘communistic’ and a ‘foreign corporation.’
Birmingham became known as ‘Bombingham’ because of all the unsolved bombings. Birmingham was a racial powder keg. “On Good Friday, 1963, King and Abernathy were arrested. King wrote his famous, Letter from Birmingham Jail, a direct response “to white clergy” who “asked blacks to end their demonstrations for the good of the city.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
More bombings, including the bombing of a black church killing four little girls, forced the Kennedy administration to get involved, sending in 3,000 federal troops.
The Civil Rights Movement was more than the leaders. There were millions of people, black and white, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, who placed their livelihoods and their economic security in jeopardy to participate in protests, attend meetings, sit at counters.
The idea for the Selma-to-Montgomery “march took shape in February 1965, after the murder of black SNCC worker Jimmie Lee Jackson.” “On March 7, 1965, nearly five hundred protestors, many just out of church and still in their Sunday clothes, walked...” toward the Edmond Pettus Bridge. John Lewis “and the other marchers were met on the other side by the full frontal attack of 150 white police troopers.” With assistance from white onlookers, called ‘possemen”, they mercilessly beat the nonviolent protesters. The day is remembered as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and the press coverage shocked the nation.
On March 21, in a third attempt, an estimated 3,200 people of all races, marched successfully across the bridge in a mile long column.
“Ministers, nuns, labor leaders, factory workers, school teachers, firemen – people from all walks of life, from all parts of the country, black and white and Asian and Native American, walked with us as we approached the same bridge where we’d been beaten two weeks before.” – John Lewis
President Johnson called the Alabama National Guard into service to protect the protesters. “On the final day of the march, demonstrators stood 50,000 strong.”
I’ve probably focused more on this area in this writing, but there is a lot here in this book a lot more than I am expounding on – but I was in school in the 70s and the early 80s and hardly any of this was taught. We knew there was a Civil Rights movement and were told by our teachers that Martin Luther King was a peaceful protester and Malcolm X a violent protester (not true). We were told Johnson was president and signed the first major piece of legislation initiating an attempt at true equality. Very little details, however, were offered to us. We didn’t learn about the other civil rights people, the movements, the opposition. We quickly moved into the seventies and touched on Vietnam before going straight to current events. Best I recollect, the 60s and early 70s were a chapter or two in most history books. We didn’t hear anything about the tear-gas and the dogs, the water hoses, billy clubs and cattle-prods. And yet these things, the violence aimed at nonviolent protesters, was the very things the press focused on, the images and stories which brought about sympathy from all corners of the country.
For far too long, the contributions of black people to America’s history has been suppressed. We see this arise even today as school boards across the country, more often than not in the South, fight to retain an nonfactual account of history, wanting to mark slavery as a ‘peculiar institution’, retaining the idea that some slave owners were noble and some slaves were happy. That is simply a notion that cannot be encouraged.
The book ends with the rise of Senator Barack Obama, the product of a mixed marriage, to the office of the President. This seemed utterly impossible even at the time of my birth when interracial marriage was not yet legal. How far it seems we have come.
And yet… well… I’ll hold my tongue and not end this review with my opinion concerning the current administration.
I’ll just say that Obama’s call for hope and change is still alive in this nation for it is a spirit that has existed since the birth, and it is one shared between more people than not. We know this spirit will prevail. The evidence is there, in history, and in the eyes of a million more stories waiting to be told.
“No tide of racism can stop us.” – Martin Luther King
Allen M Werner is the author of the epic fantasy series, The Crystal Crux