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Est. April 5, 2002
April 25, 2019 - Issue 786

Reparations Part II
Beneficiaries of the Slave Trade, Still

"If you say to Americans today, this is history,
not just black history, but American history,
the only history of America worth it’s salt,
the hate pours forth. You become a pariah."

read all parts of this series

Merchants increased cargoes by laying enslaved people on their sides, chest to back, with little more than a couple of feet of vertical space… Stripped nude to make them easier to wash down and secure, shackled in pairs, and often branded for identification, these prisoners spent long periods in rat- and insect-infested bowels of ships, interrupted only by a regimen of feedings, airings, and exercises under threat of whips, blades, and guns.

Craig Steven Wilder,

Violence, writes Craig Steven Wilder, is an academic matter. Benjamin Franklin didn’t “manumit” any of his servants. And yet, he certainly profited from his ownership of them—as an educated man who organized the College of Philadelphia—what is now the University of Pennsylvania.

Runaways infuriated Rev. Samuel Gray, the founding trustee of the College of William and Mary. Even if the runaway was a young child. No matter. The boy in question is murdered as punishment, but not before he’s tortured, made to suffer the placement of “a hot iron” on his flesh, and afterward, when tied to a tree, an enslaved adult male is ordered to whip him. Not surprisingly, the child dies. Rev. Gray, however, lives on to become pastor at St. Peter’s Church in New Kent.

Violence is routine on American campuses.

One September 18, 1755, a slaveholder is found dead. Murdered. “Phillis and Mark (Codman) were dragged on a sled through Cambridge to the commons just outside the gates of Harvard College.” Enslaved blacks, so by now, residents of Cambridge know the routine. The two are hanged and then “burnt to death.” Their torture drew a crowd of American citizens. For decades, Mark’s body remained suspended, “in chains at the Charlestown commons.”

Enslaved black labor toiled to build Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. What stories those enslaved black people could have told about their owner, their overseers, and the building of that grand monument of higher education.

Through New England, enslaved blacks cleaned classrooms and student dorms, writes Wilder, including emptying chamber pots and clearing ashes from fireplaces. The enslaved prepared meals for the administration, faculty, and student body. They made repairs and crafted furnishings. Whatever needed to be done, enslaved blacks were present to do the bidding of the white elites, who, in turn, were learning how to be a civilized and educated class of leaders.

The American campus stood as a silent monument to slavery.” In other words, violence, the practice of torture and murder, made it possible to erect such lofty institutions of learning, turning out American leaders, thinkers and doers, for a new world in which progress demanded the systemic oppression of the black humanity for white soon-to-be Americans to prosper economically as well as socially.

After the violent remapping of the continent, the number of Indigenous people diminished as a result of extermination and removal pogroms. Africans then were now more prominent by the mid-eighteenth century thanks to the slave trade. “Nearly three hundred thousand black people constituted a fifth of the population in the British mainland colonies.” Slavery was thriving in “the new college towns.”

So that’s how enslaved blacks came to campus, as property of the learned and in chains.

All the colleges engaged in the slave trade, required the unpaid labor of blacks and the abject submission to the will of white slaveholders who were often linked, one way or the other, to academia.

Some of the colleges and universities include, Dartmouth, Yale (slave-holding common among the faculty), College of Philadelphia, (University of Pennsylvania), Georgetown and College of Rhode Island (Brown University).

Until the work of Craig Steven Wilder in Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities), we’ve only been privy to what we’ve suspected about the connection between the history surrounding America’s rising prosperity and it’s narrative of white supremacy and the creation of some of the world’s most prominent institutions of higher learning built on American soil, at the expense of black enslavement—or, in other words, built as a result of the forced sacrifice of black lives—lives that didn’t matter one bit to white Americans.

How devious is the cover up of routine violence? During my college years, I attended a couple of campuses in the north and by the spring of 1977, when I graduated, I had never experienced a black professor as instructor of any of my college courses.

For centuries college graduates in the US, “apprenticed” under the guidance of slaveholders, writes Wilder. The slave trade was a global enterprise; consequently, graduates from the Ivy League campuses traveled from the South or the West Indies in search of careers as “teachers, ministers, lawyers, doctors, politicians, merchants, and planters.” What an “intimate engagement,” writes Wilder, between a campus like Harvard, for example and the Atlantic slave trade? What an “inseparable” history? It’s no wonder that in the last 50 years the presence of blacks in academia as students, faculty, or administrators is so fraught with anguish, particularly for black Americans. Affirmative Action for blacks—not so good. We are invited to enter the front door only to be urged to exit by way of the back door soon afterward.

But back in the day, when America declared itself “great,” the northward migration of Barbadians worked to make Harvard “the most influential college in the colonial South.” Blacks arriving as enslaved people were welcome to campus while Harvard’s graduates (as patrons of an unofficial Affirmative Action agenda for white Americans) became some of the finest citizens in a global, slave trading market.

Innocence makes for a “great” people narrating their role as victims of violence.

In the era of yet another backlash disguised as “identity politics” against blacks and people of color, I found it interesting to read of Harvard graduates learning “theories of racial differences, [making] scientific claims about the superiority of white people.” Harvard graduates received “refined” ideas about the “language of race,” all of which, writes Wilder, provides “intellectual cover for the social and political subjugation of non-white people.” Yet, today, to include those “non-white people,” their history and culture, in courses in which they are represented, front and center, as both the subject and presenter of that subject, is to cause a ruckus throughout colleges and universities in the United States.

Why do we need those useless courses? Frills! No substance! We are ONE people. Americans!

Try discussing the slaughter of blacks parishioners in Charleston? What was Charlottesville? And the medical graduate student (now governor of Virginia who is, as clear-as-day, photographed in his medical school yearbook either wearing a KKK robe or black face?

With the corporate mindset establishing itself as the new norm on American campuses today, colleges administrations are donning the business model. It’s global again—capitalist corporate enterprises with little or no need at all for students well-read in the history of America’s “intimate engagement” with conquest and enslavement, let alone world literature or gender studies.

Back in New England, college students and faculty could trample through Indigenous Mounds, study the Indian bones and artifacts. This activity of leisure appraisal counted, no doubt, as dabbing into “cultural” studies. However, the actual people, the Indigenous, many slaughtered outright and survivors removed, were of no interests to these students and faculty leisurely strolling the halls of academia when not riding on horseback through land once the habitat of the people so brutally conquered.

In solemn contemplation, graduates and their teachers at Ivy League campuses could look on from their classroom windows at blacks toiling in the cotton fields while considering what their racial identification as a “white” American grants them. As Wilder argues, the pull toward acknowledging racial superiority as studied and experienced on these Ivy League campuses, consumes even those such as graduate student Henry Watson, originally wrestling with the moral and social implications of history. In the end, Watson, as so many others, acquiesces to the mindset that is so catchy. He begins to regard his “racial advantages as a noble race of beings of European blood.” Watson, two decades after graduating, is the proud property owner of 100 people! And soon, he becomes the founder and the president of the planters Insurance Company. And yes, Watson becomes, writes Wilder, “a staunch defender of human slavery.”

And if you say to Americans today, this is history, not just black history, but American history, the only history of America worth it’s salt, the hate pours forth. You become a pariah.

The academy never stood apart from American slavery—in fact—it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage,” Wilder argues.

What are we to do with that fact?

How sincere is the United States about the idea of democracy when it’s colleges and universities are shutting down humanity departments, shrinking to next to nothing history and literature courses? Here in Wisconsin, the university campus at Stevens Point seems to be pursuing, as are colleges and universities throughout the US now, the business model for operating an institute of higher learning. Higher learning? Well, let’s just say, re-training for a corporate mindset. Which means, 13 majors, including Political Science, Sociology, English, and History are to be cut or seriously shrunk down to efficient departments with abiding faculty who, in turn, cast their attention not on transforming the US from its downward spiral. But instead, becoming servants (former called educators) on a virtual assembly line, supplying corporations with the necessary fodder (formerly called students) to ensure profits for the few. The nagging past, with its atrocities and brutalities, disappears as questions from the workers are silenced.

How are blacks, calling for reparations now, to think about this move on the part of colleges and universities in the US?

It seems as if the corporations are benefiting from the long-standing oppression of African Americans.

Contrary to someone like Watson, I spent a good deal of my last two years in high school reading outside the classroom. During elementary school, I read as an escape from the reality of a heart condition that kept me away from physical activity; however, by my junior year, I’m introduced to activism, hand-in-hand with a kind of reading intended to empower in ways the texts at school wouldn’t dare do in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not for black students, anyway.

This was the period of our introduction to “homework” that specifically challenged young blacks to recognize ourselves and our past while living in Chicago as witnesses to the marginalization of African Americans and the subsequent incarceration and outright assassination of our young leaders—Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, for example.

We were transforming, but so was the system, creating a narrative intended to malign our Struggle with that of violence itself! The backlash was imminent and as brutal as any packed bowel of a slave ship or any whip. The violent foundation of a white supremacist, capitalist regime ceased to be visible but to a few “branded” in Nixon’s America as contrary. Militant. Criminal.

I can’t say as so many do that my family looked to their oldest granddaughter, daughter, niece and envisioned her sitting at a college classroom. “The first from a working class family” was never a phase any adult ever uttered in those last two of my high school years, let along in the months before I left home for college.

To educate children in my family was simply a duty: a child baptized Catholic, attends Catholic school. Period! Afterward, if the child is a girl, then marriage, a husband and children. No matter what’s happening by way of black feminism. Nikki Giovanni or Audre Lorde.

No matter if after reading The Wretched of the Earth or Soul on Ice I became larger than my frail body, expanding and rising above the confines of gravity to cover the whole of the Earth and universe. And all I did was to recognize my humanity there on the continent of Africa from which all of humanity originates. All I did was to commit to reading the history pamphlets on the lives and works of Denmark Vessey and Nate Turner and Sojourner Truth, history that did more than that depicted in the school’s history textbooks, where the familiar narrative of might is right is the norm.

Did someone say, violence by another name?

There’s certainly little that is innocent about that formal (traditional) education I was learning to reject.

I wasn’t encouraged at home to learn about the past (conquest, enslavement) no more than I was encouraged to do so at school. My existence as a black child was lived in the here and now—in the way Doris Day sings or John Wayne walks with his characteristic swagger. Is Frank Sinatra on Johnny Carson again? Oh, has Elvis changed! Night followed day. Weeks become months. Then years. A long nightmare until my real education commenced.

On the Jack Benny show, Rochester embarrassed me.

And I had never looked upon an image of an ancestor until this period in my real education. I had not seen the brutality only the crusading knights and missionaries saving the souls of creatures partially depicted as animals. In the US, we black children were to become obedient second-class citizens, in spite of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

It’s no wonder my family, then, looked on at me as I looked on at Rochester, that is, an embarrassment—especially as the white educators were looking on at me.

Consequential for at least another 40 years, at least, the divide within our family mirrored that of the cultural gap among generations.

By the time some of us arrived in the halls of academia, we were ready to fight, even if at the time, many of us had no idea just how deep the deception and how determined were those in charge of the narrative to maintain that deception.

And what has changed, all these years later?

We are witnessing a new generation of “apprenticing,” privileged youth, still beneficiaries of the slave trade.

read all parts of this series Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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