John Livingston

We are all Americans

We are now in Black History Month. How is a white person who was raised in a time of social and cultural segregation—in both the north and the south, and who has now raised a family and has grandchildren, supposed to feel and talk about our great American Sin—slavery?

Lance Morro in The Wall Street Journal suggests that all people of all persuasions—including political and racial, should approach the subject with respect, reverence, curiosity, but never indifference. This week in many school districts in Idaho and Washington State there is a “winter break” with a long weekend in our schools. I am watching an ever-increasing lack of interest in both American History in general and Black History month in particular. I also see many professional educators exploiting Black History to create a false political narrative. There has been a suggestion of ‘communal guilt” and the need for “reparations”. Embedded in the Judeo-Christian traditions that serve as the moral predicates of our Country’s Founding, we understand the “the sins of the Fathers” do not fall on future generations—though elements in our legal code do not currently reflect this thought. Repentance across generations is possible, even for sins that we did not commit. But with repentance comes forgiveness. Forgiveness without mercy is not justice. Reparations across generations is not merciful or just.

My own family history is quite conflicted. The Livingston’s of Camden Arkansas owned slaves and several family members fought for the confederacy. The Morrow’s fought for the North. One of my ancestors was wounded four times while fighting under Col. Custer in the Civil War, then fought against the Indians in the West. Looking back, he fought on the good side and the bad side at different times, but always on the American side. Arguments about abolition, slavery, “and the Indian situation” were and are complex and nuanced. We have learned that 5% of slave owners were former slaves themselves or mulatto—descended from mixed marriages. The number is higher in South Carolina and Louisiana. One of the largest slave holders in North Carolina was John Caruthers Stanley—a Black man whose mother was born in West Africa. The Gaskill’s in my family were Quakers, though several fought for the North and two were active managers in the underground railroad. I am sure that almost every family that can trace their roots prior to The Civil War, if they look hard enough, can find a similar nuanced and conflicted family history.

What we can say is that slavery was a great evil that was eventually confronted and the price of 750,000 souls lost in our Civil War was only a down payment for the injustice of racial prejudice. Those battles are still being fought today in all sections of our country. The haunted sense of conscience will be different for people whose ancestors exploited fellow human beings who worked in the cotton and tobacco fields of the south, but equally also by those whose ancestors lived in Boston or Philadelphia and made a fortune in “the triangular trade”. Those same people should take pride in the courage of their ancestors who fought against slavery. History is full of personalities that are contradictory, conflicted, complicated mysterious, poignant and inspiring. Robert E. Lee inherited slaves from his wife’s father. When his wife’s father died, he emancipated all but the infirmed and the very young before the Civil War. US Grant owned at least one slave and emancipated all before the war.

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Thomas “Stonewall Jackson’s” family-owned slaves. Twice a day he read the Bible and prayed with his Black Servant and best friend in life Jim Lewis. Mr. Lewis was at the side of the General when he was killed by friendly fire prior to the Battle of Chancellorsville. Prior to the Civil War Thomas Jackson formed a School and Sunday School to teach Black children to read and write and perform mathematics. He was ostracized from his community in Western Virginia and threatened with civil and criminal litigation—but his school continued even after the Civil War and his death; graduating slave children who in adulthood would become businesspeople and leaders in their communities.

Looking back, we should appreciate how nuanced and complicated these situations were and there were at least a few people who risked everything in helping Black slaves finally have an opportunity for upward mobility. The underground railroad, the establishment of schools, the Civil War itself are all testimony to the goodness of many people who in their time stood up to the evils of slavery.

Please I pray, let’s not forget that slavery exists in our world today. Over 80 million people are believed to be living directly as slaves. Over 200million if political and religious bondage, incarceration and indentured hood and forced labor are counted. In our own country and State there are young children—girls and boys, who are “sex slaves” robbed of their childhood and free will. We don’t have to look back through past generations to define our commitment to removing slavery from our modern lives. We can see it as it crosses our Southern Border daily. If we look hard enough, we can see it at rest stops along major highways and in inner city encampments. We just can’t be afraid of looking and then acting.

Wilberforce University was the first Historical Black College or University in our Country (HBCU). It was founded in 1856—four years before our Civil War and a period in our history marked and marred by physical bondage. It was founded by the descendants of freed Black slaves and members of the American Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) Its’ faculty today like in the past is surprisingly conservative—probably more conservative than most liberal arts or State Universities. The story of its’ survival during the Civil War and through “Jim Crow”, through the progressive movements of the early 20th century is a story worth coming to know during Black History month. Heartbreaking stories of bondage and cruel treatment are real, but so are the uplifting stories of perseverance and survival. The role of the Black Churches, Black educational institutions and the Black Cotillions and social clubs in our inner cities (just ask Michelle Obama) are no longer being told because they aren’t part of a narrative of victimhood and retribution.

When reading about the investiture of the new President of Wilberforce Vann R. Newkirk PhD. I saw his valediction at the close of his first letter to the Wilberforce Community. His closing call to action ended with the words:

Suo Marte—”By ones owns actions” “Pray to God like it is all up to Him, and work like the devil like it is all up to you.”—my Quaker Grandmother. A fall cry from today’s popular political narrative of victimhood and reparations. We need another “great awakening.”

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