A subset of the Hard History project
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Numerous events and activities are packed into Juneteenth celebrations this year in Galveston, Texas. Over three weeks, residents have their pick of festivals, a gospel concert, galas, a business summit, freedom tours, reenactments, a parade and more.
June 19, 1865, marks the announcement to enslaved Black Texans that they were finally free—two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the Civil War ended. Last year, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act—codifying a holiday officially observed in Texas since 1980. This year’s observance holds deeper meaning in confronting the efforts to obstruct the teaching of honest history.
But questions about Juneteenth linger: How does this originally Texan commemoration affect us all, and how might it inform our next steps in creating a just society?
Substance or Substitute?
In Galveston, residents are happy that Juneteenth is getting national attention but don’t want the holiday to become a substitute for confronting the effects of slavery. The story of Juneteenth—enslavers continuing bondage after Black people were to be freed—exemplifies issues of power that continue today.
“Many folks are just really pleased to have it recognized as a national holiday, and that in and of itself is meaningful,” says Carol Bunch Davis, Ph.D., professor and assistant vice president for academic affairs at Texas A&M University at Galveston. “I tend to be a little bit more skeptical, I think, about those sorts of things, because I think almost instantaneously the conversation became, ‘OK, now you have this holiday, so what else do you want?’”
Black residents want, as Davis explains, equal opportunity and a true reckoning with their local history. “It’s great that we have a history of Black people in Galveston who have always celebrated [Juneteenth], but how does it reconfigure or inform the way that we think about the city’s identity broadly?”
Teaching the Honest History of Juneteenth
The national spotlight on Juneteenth is an occasion to explore Texas’ short yet brutal history of slavery.
Galveston Island was the site of a bustling illegal slave trade long after the abolition of the importation of enslaved people in 1808. The island, a Mexican territory, was a safe port for pirates, who’d ransack vessels carrying enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and raid other smugglers on the Gulf of Mexico. White settlers later gained independence from Mexico and formed the Republic of Texas in 1836, primarily to continue slavery, which was being abolished in Mexico. It’s important to point out that similar to the Civil War’s Lost Cause narrative, Texas’ Battle of the Alamo is also a whitewashed version of history that paints Texas settlers as heroic champions of freedom.
Fast-forward to 1865 and the end of the Civil War, when enslavers ignored Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, just as settlers had ignored Mexico’s attempt to end slavery in its territory. Finally, in late June, thousands of Black Union soldiers, and Army Gen. Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston and other Texas cities to force compliance with the law. This is American history.
Teaching history honestly in schools is under threat through numerous legislative efforts— including the 2021 law in Texas—that aim to obscure and limit how the history of slavery and the Black freedom struggle are taught. It’s rare to find a textbook chapter dedicated to Juneteenth and its historical significance. And by June 19, most schools have finished for the year, so commemoration doesn’t easily fit into academic calendars.
It’s possible, however, to uplift hard history beyond classroom walls. “We need to find creative ways of doing that,” says Sue Johnson, executive director at Galveston’s Nia Cultural Center. “And we need not be afraid of pushback from critics of the distorted view of critical race theory. We need to move despite all of that in new and innovative ways of getting those messages across but being intentional and consistent.”
The Nia Cultural Center employs storytelling through art, history lessons and programs for youth. The center’s Juneteenth Legacy Project Headquarters was established primarily to teach the complete African American story and advocate absolute equality and collaborative growth.
“We need to finance those kinds of programs, and we need to do them in every space we find available—churches, community centers, homes, homeschooling curriculums, where we have control over what we teach,” Johnson says.
Avoiding Myths and Whitewashed History
Juneteenth is symbolic of America’s struggle with progress—often opposed or delayed. We must remember—and teach—that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 didn’t end slavery in the United States, as it applied only to Confederate states. Slavery was officially abolished in the U.S. on January 31, 1865, when Congress passed the 13th Amendment. However, people were still enslaved in Delaware as late as December 6, 1865, the day the 13th Amendment was ratified.
As mentioned in “Teaching Juneteenth,” Black Texans have long observed the holiday in solemn and festive ceremonies. This day provides a safe space for Black people to celebrate culture and embrace community building without the white gaze. Celebrations have also included concerted efforts to organize citizens politically and uplift hidden histories.
To many Black people’s dismay, the commercialization of Juneteenth, now that it’s a national holiday, has already taken hold. Observants insist we center the formerly enslaved and their descendants—not sales—in this American story.
They also caution against erasing Black people’s participation in their freedom. For example, Gen. Granger is centered as a heroic figure who rode into town to inform Black Texans of their freedom. Yet, several regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops who accompanied him are rarely included in this narrative.
Stories of Black people’s roles in their freedom are often buried or obscured, so it’s no surprise that many, even Galveston residents, didn’t know this bit of history.
“I didn’t know until, oh, I guess it’s been about 15 years ago that there were actually Black soldiers with [Granger],” says Tommie Boudreaux, author and retired Galveston educator. “And I’m born and raised here in Galveston, but I didn’t realize that. But those things, it takes a lot of research.”
It’s essential to credit Black people who campaigned to make Juneteenth a holiday—first, Black leaders in Galveston, and then former Texas educator Opal Lee. Lee elevated the history of Juneteenth for decades and then, at 89 years of age, walked to Washington, D.C., to advocate for a national commemoration. She was with Biden when he established the federal holiday.
Seeking Absolute Equality
A historical marker stands on the corner of 22nd and Strand streets in Galveston, where Granger read General Order No. 3. Last year, artists unveiled a 5,000-square-foot mural, which prominently features two crucial words from the order—“Absolute Equality.”
Juneteenth can serve as a reminder to fight for absolute equality, as it has yet to be realized.
People of color in Galveston, angered by recent redistricting in the county, which would strip the political power of Black and Latine voters, point to the need for action beyond commemoration.
“I don’t want us to be distracted and lose focus of … the redistricting issues impacting Galveston County right now,” Davis says. “Right now, this historically Black district for the county commissioners court is basically being overhauled, and it’s not going to be good in terms of representation.”
She adds, “There are some really glaring inequities in Galveston … no amount of celebrations, or mural unveilings …. are going to right those inequities. They can educate people about historically what has happened here, but those are not the things that will meaningfully address those issues.”
A natural disaster also exposed inequities. Davis recounts how Hurricane Ike affected Black residents in 2008, opening the path for displacement and gentrification. It’s similar to what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina swept through the city in 2005. Debates ensued on whether leaders should rid Galveston of public housing.
“Right now, public housing that was destroyed during the hurricane is just now being rebuilt,” Davis remarks. “That was in 2008, and this is 2022. The population of Black people in Galveston diminished greatly after that storm.”
“The city’s encountered a lot of gentrification, and thus our history [is disappearing],” Johnson concurs. She illustrates a stark image of what is lost in explaining how she would describe the scene on a tour: “In this empty lot, there used to be Booker T. Washington Elementary School.”
Erasure is evident in other spaces. Few historical markers tell the story of Black life in Galveston compared to the number of monuments, street names and buildings tied to the maintenance and expansion of slavery in Galveston.
Boudreaux, who serves as the Galveston Historical Foundation’s African American Heritage Committee chairperson, was raised in segregated Galveston. She notes the city appears more segregated today than when she was growing up. She’s troubled by the current social and political upheaval. Nonetheless, she’s hopeful that change is imminent as young activists of all races and backgrounds rally for social justice.
“I hope it doesn’t take another 40 years for some things to improve,” she says. “But yes, I see positive things going forward.”
It is very challenging for us to accept that this is an aspect of who the country is, and that white supremacy and anti-Blackness have shaped much of what we see in the current moment.— Carol Bunch Davis, Ph.D.
Connecting 1865 to the Present
Acknowledging that enslavers delayed freedom for two and a half years reminds us that powerful systems dehumanize Black people—even while supposedly realizing their rights. (It’s worth noting that many enslaved Black Texans knew about their impending freedom years prior.) Recognizing this pattern helps us better address systemic racism today.
Davis perceives current debates around teaching history, voter suppression and local political struggles as a continuation of oppressive ideologies that have manifested in various ways throughout U.S. history. She argues the vestiges of slavery will continue to haunt us if we view current discourse in isolation.
“It is very challenging for us to accept that this is an aspect of who the country is, and that white supremacy and anti-Blackness have shaped much of what we see in the current moment,” Davis contends. “Until we wrap our heads around this [as] a foundational aspect of this country, it’s going to be difficult to make meaningful changes.”
Johnson identifies the erosion of civics education in schools and elsewhere as detrimental to us all. “I think people think we’ve overcome and the kinds of things that are happening now couldn’t happen,” she argues, citing the continued fight for voting rights.
Celebrating Juneteenth Outside of Texas
Texas isn’t the only place where Black people have commemorated emancipation. And it’s not the first. An emancipation celebration has occurred annually in Gallipolis, Ohio, since 1863. And New Year’s Eve Watch Night services at Black churches have continued the tradition since “Freedom’s Eve” on the night of Dec. 31, 1862.
Juneteenth offers a moment for those who envision a just society to elevate and support the ongoing freedom movement no matter where they live. It opens possibilities to do the real work of uncovering honest history—and to be honest with ourselves, especially in the wake of racial violence.
“I hope that we will use this as an opportunity to really be honest about the meaning of an event like that terrible tragedy in Buffalo,” Davis says, “what it means to be so far away from 1865, but also in some ways not very far away at all from it.”
Johnson says there is a need to heal from slavery and calls for solidarity among Black people to thwart “divide and conquer” tactics from those in power. “Staying vigilant, staying ready, preparing young people for the battles ahead to not only maintain our place as humans but this country as a democracy is so important,” she notes. “[We need] more time and effort to make people aware of how fragile it all is.”
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Episode 16, Season 4
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries represents New York’s 8th congressional district. Our final episode this season takes us to the U.S. House of Representatives for a conversation between Rep. Jeffries and his brother, our host, Dr. Hasan Jeffries, to discuss the lingering effects of the Jim Crow era—including voter access, prison and policing reform, and other enduring injustices—and to discuss the continued relevance of teaching “hard history” as it relates to public policy today.
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- Learning For Justice: Article, Teaching the Past to Improve the Future
- Learning For Justice: Lesson, The True History of Voting Rights (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice: Lesson, Why Local Elections Matter (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning For Justice: Article, What Critical Race Theory Is and What it Means for Teachers
Bethany Jay: The first Anti-Lynching legislation was passed by the US House of Representatives in 1918. But the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was thwarted by a filibuster in the Senate. And during the next hundred years, over 200 subsequent legislative efforts failed. But on March 29, 2022, President Biden finally signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Just in time.
Bethany Jay: Right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, it only took 100 years to see this largely symbolic legislative victory. I’m glad a measure finally passed. But it would’ve been even better to see the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act become law.
Bethany Jay: Yes! It’s such a frustrating reminder of how many of the issues that we’ve been talking about from the Jim Crow era are still facing us today in one form or another. We see challenges to voter access, equitable representation, prison and policing reform, accurate historical education across the country. Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn more about how Congress is trying to address these lingering issues today?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I like the way you think. Let’s do it.
I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season, we’re offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction.
Bethany Jay: In each episode we explore a different topic—walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
As we bring our fourth season to a close, we thought it would be a good time to look at how we are dealing with the legacies of the Jim Crow era today. And we’re going to do that through the lens of public policy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I recently traveled to Washington, DC, to interview Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, representative of the eighth congressional district of New York (shout out to Brooklyn and Queens). He is the fifth highest-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the former whip of the Congressional Black Caucus and, I’m proud to say, my brother.
Bethany Jay: You know, we began this season talking about Reconstruction, when we saw African Americans elected to federal, state and local government, before the backlash against that profound move towards equity and equality. So it feels appropriate to bring things full circle by talking with Congressman Jeffries to get his perspective on the topics we’ve been exploring, like voting rights, criminal justice reform, education and more. I can’t wait to share this with our listeners. Should we get right into it?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely. Let’s get started.
It was really cool to be able to sit down and talk about the past and the present with my brother, the congressman from New York. But it's really, really cool to be able to sit down now with my co-host Bethany Jay and talk about the past, and the present and the interview. Bethany, what's up? What's going on?
Bethany Jay: It was much more cool to be at the Capitol talking with your brother. You don't need to pretend. I know.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Nothing beats hanging out with you. So, this is great. It's great to be back.
Bethany Jay: Yes. It's nice to be in the same, you know, space. And I'll have to say, I'm going to assign this particular podcast to my students because they are always so impressed that I know you, Hasan. They're very starstruck whenever they come to that realization. So…
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, I need to share that with my daughters, who are not impressed with me at all, one bit.
Bethany Jay: They never are. Yeah.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Never are. Well, look, we have some clips. We have this interview we want to listen to. So how about we just dive right in? I had a great time talking to my brother, and I learned a lot. And I want to share it with our podcast listeners. And I want to share it with you. Let's listen. And let's talk about it.
Bethany Jay: Sounds great.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It is my distinct honor and pleasure to welcome to the podcast the congressman from the eighth congressional district in Brooklyn, New York, Hakeem Jeffries. Welcome to the podcast, man.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Good to be here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Look, one of the questions that I get a lot is how did I wind up in the place that I am professionally. So, let me ask you, how did you choose this profession? Or did this profession choose you?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, I think that all of us are a combination of the experiences that we've had, you know, growing up that helped to shape you. And for me—growing up in Brooklyn, coming of age, seventies, eighties into the nineties, tough times, 2000 plus, homicides, crack cocaine epidemic, but a very vibrant community, golden age of hip hop, growing up in the Black Church—all of these are important influences on my journey and the advocacy that I try to bring to bear. And going into the law, which helped to shape my thinking, my approach and the way I frame arguments and ideas.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You stayed in New York. I left to go to Atlanta to go to school. You stayed, wound up going to law school in New York. How much of the…
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: I stayed in the frying pan.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Lord have mercy. How much? Just answer the questions. Focus, brother.
How much of looking at politics in the eighties and nineties—I mean, you're going from Ed Koch, mayor of New York; Dinkins, first Black mayor—how much of that shaped your approach to politics today?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, kind of remember Ed Koch. Far more cognizant of Mayor Dinkins. And in fact, that's the first time I voted, at least that I can recall that I voted. I remember being on campus at Binghamton and Dad sending me an absentee ballot saying, make sure you cast this vote in this election. Marlin Jeffries, being on top of it, saying, 'I gotta make sure my son votes in this election where David Dinkins has the opportunity to become the first Black mayor.’ So that's probably where I was first focused on what the municipal landscape was. But you may remember when Jesse Jackson ran in '84.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: '84 and '88.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: I was probably 14 at the time. You were 11 and 12. I remember Grandma Lee giving us Action Jackson t-shirts. Now I'm not sure if we knew he was a presidential candidate, or a superhero or what was going on. But I remember some Action Jackson, tight t-shirts in 1984.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, Bethany, I remember those T-shirts, and they were 1980 snug. They were snug. They were real tight. Too skinny to be wearing them.
Bethany Jay: With the shorts with a stripe up the side, I'm assuming. Right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Oh, Lord have mercy, man. It was terrible. It was terrible. But it reflected not just what we knew about politics. My brother's right. I'm not sure whether we knew he was running for president or was a superhero or action figure. But my grandmother knew the significance of Jesse Jackson running. And my father knew the significance of my brother casting his first vote in that municipal election for the first Black mayor of New York City.
And it speaks to one of the things that we heard repeatedly throughout this season. This intergenerational understanding of what politics means and the importance of politics in general, but of being able to cast a ballot, being able to participate in the political process. And we talked about disenfranchisement throughout the season. But the flip side of that is African Americans determined to cast a ballot in the political process.
Bethany Jay: I think you're so right. And the fact that activism, it never stops. Right? It's happening throughout this entire period. Whether we're paying attention to it on a national scale or not, it's happening. And what I love about this interview—and I'm so glad that we're ending this season with this interview—is because at the core of it, despite all of the challenges that exist, the way the congressman frames everything at the core of it is hope.
Bethany Jay: He expresses so much hope throughout this interview, and I think you see that even in this reflection on your childhoods—of thinking about Mayor Dinkins, and thinking about Jesse Jackson and the hope that those figures embodied.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that that "activism" doesn't show up—and I put that "activism" in quotes because it needs to be broadly defined—of a grandparent getting their children involved by giving them T-shirts and a father sending a note to the son in college, 'Make sure you vote.' That doesn't really register often when we think about, sort of, political activism.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, it doesn't hit the radar. It doesn't wind up in a documentary film. But that's how it happens on the ground, right?
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: A parent and a grandparent say, 'Hey, you got to be involved. I need you to be aware of this.' And we see that from the post-emancipation period, through the civil rights era into the present.
Bethany Jay: You're so right. It's not just Jesse Jackson. It's also Grandma Lee.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It sure was Grandmama. She made a mean sweet potato pie, too. Hakeem continues. So let's dive back into the interview.
Bethany Jay: Sounds good.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This whole season we've been talking about African American political participation, particularly around the vote, right. 15th Amendment extends the right to vote to African Americans, men. But we go through this whole era of disenfranchisement around turn of the century.
Then we get the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Many people think, 'Hey, what else do you negroes need?’ Right? ‘You got this thing down.' But there has always been a push to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote, certainly over the last 50 years. You see it in the Reagan Justice Department, under the current Supreme Court with Shelby v. Holder, the Roberts Court. They've been making it easier for voter suppression laws and mechanisms to pass. And then, of course, with the new wave of voter suppression measures that have been passed, Georgia leading the way at the beginning of last year.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, the right to vote has been, as you've outlined, under assault with increasing intensity over the last several years. And really that period of voter suppression that we're dealing with now was first ushered in with the Supreme Court decision in 2013—Shelby County v. Holder—which decimated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, section 4.
Now, the interesting thing about the Voting Rights Act is that when it was initially passed in 1965, great leadership from Dr. King, John Lewis, our civil rights heroes, foot soldiers, and of course on the Hill, President Johnson, democrats partnering with some moderate Republicans in the House and also in the Senate, where they broke the filibuster and were able to get it done.
Since that moment, voting rights for decades had largely been a settled question in the United States of America. Some embraced it enthusiastically, some reluctantly. But it was a settled question. And in fact, many of us often point out the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized into law four different times since its initial passage in 1965. And every single time it was reauthorized into law, it was signed by a Republican president—1970, Richard Nixon; 1975, Gerald Ford; 1982, Ronald Reagan, perhaps reluctantly, but he did it; in 2006, George W. Bush.
So the question then becomes, if multiple Republican presidents reauthorized the Voting Rights Act and when it passed in 2006, overwhelming vote in the House—I believe in the Senate it was 93 to 0, but 10 Republicans who are currently here serving in the Senate voting for it, if my recollection is correct—then what happened? Why, all of a sudden, has it become a controversial thing to make sure that everyone can vote?
Some may posit that the 2008 election—remind me who may have won that election?—the 2008 election shook some people up, changed some perspectives on voting rights being a settled question. Because after that, all of a sudden—first with the Tea Party revolution, and then the Supreme Court decision and ultimately the election of the 45th president of the United States of America—people had a different perspective on voting. And a lot of it can be traced, I think, perhaps to what happened in America in 2008.
Bethany Jay: The congressman reminds us that voting rights have been considered, sort of, settled law for quite a while and have just now become more controversial. And he notes that we can probably guess the reasons why that's the case. But during our season, we were talking about voting rights in the Jim Crow era, which certainly was not a settled issue at all, and the disenfranchisement of the Black population during Reconstruction and the continued disenfranchisement of the Black population until you get to that Voting Rights Act in many parts of the country.
And one of the really interesting conversations that we had this season about voting rights, I thought, was with Karen Cox, who spoke about the Confederate monuments. And I thought the way that she brought together those two issues, both of which are historic and contemporary, was really important. She had us thinking about the fact that Confederate monuments were often placed on the ground of courthouses as a signal that this is a government for and by white men and that that government was there to preserve white supremacy throughout the entire Jim Crow era.
And then the vast majority of those monuments are placed there after African Americans have already been disenfranchised across the South. And then you add to that fact that many lynchings take place on courthouse grounds. And Dr. Cox said, "You couldn't be more clear about white supremacy in your community than to put a lynched body on the monument itself."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm. Mmm.
Bethany Jay: And then again, she reminds us of the importance of the Voting Rights Act for this particular issue, even. Because once Black Southerners are able to register to vote, because the Voting Rights Act has been passed, they resent having to go to a courthouse where there's a Confederate monument to do so. And so some of the first locally elected Black representatives, post-Reconstruction, start working to change local monument laws and make it possible to remove some of these monuments. So we see how the issue of Confederate monuments is really in so many ways intertwined with voting rights, for better and for worse.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think that history that you just laid out speaks to the fact that as much as we would like to think of the American political tradition around voting rights being rooted in expanding the franchise, the reality is that voting rights moment—just as we get with the 15th Amendment, and then we get 100 years of disenfranchisement, and then we get the Voting Rights Act and a sustained period of expansion—not without people fighting back. But then you get, as Hakeem points out, that 2008 election of Barack Obama and that fierce turning against the expansion and protecting of voting rights.
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Suddenly Republicans no longer want to reauthorize and the Supreme Court turning against it. That speaks to the fact that, you know, maybe the tradition is really a tradition of disenfranchisement, that the disruption isn’t what we're seeing today. What we're seeing today is actually—in the context of American history, and thinking about that Reconstruction-Jim Crow moment and even certainly before—the tradition is disenfranchisement. And what we're actually fighting against is a return to what was normal.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Or a return to the status quo, which has been limiting the franchise, not expanding it. And it requires then us to think about, 'Well, what does it take, not only to expand, but to maintain the expansion.’ Because it just, on its own, that expansion won't exist. That's the activism that we saw. You had to fight to get the right. You had to fight to keep the right. And I think we're in one of those moments right now.
Bethany Jay: Certainly. And we saw that after the Georgia Special Senate election. I mean, it was almost immediate that Warnock and Ossoff are elected. And, I mean, within days I feel like…
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Literally.
Bethany Jay: Right?
…there were all of these new proposals in the Georgia state legislature to remove different access to voting rights.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about voting rights in this particular moment, and we put it in the context of American history and certainly the African American experience, this is not history repeating itself. This literally is history just continuing on. And that's a sad reality, I think that we have to acknowledge and recognize.
Bethany Jay: Yeah. And it's one that I believe the congressman goes on to talk about how they're trying to address it on the federal level.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. Let's listen to what he has to say about that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So as we look forward towards the fall, and congressional elections coming up and then in two more years another Presidential election, what can be done with regard to making the ballot and ballot access available to all people?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: So we passed the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Act. We passed the Freedom to Vote Act, both of which are critical, both of which every single Democratic Senator substantively supports, including the Senator from West Virginia and the Senator from Arizona.
The disagreement right now is on process. 48 Democrats believe that, at least as it relates to the right to vote, the filibuster should not be an obstacle. I agree. Because the filibuster is not in the Constitution. The word doesn't appear. It's a custom. And it's a custom that has historically been used in defense of slavery and in defense of Jim Crow. And so the question is, why are we holding onto it?
It cannot be that this is what the Framers intended, because the Framers were very clear on the difference between a majority and a super majority. And I believe in four different instances, they said, 'Here is where a super majority will be required': to ratify a treaty, super majority; override a president's veto, two-thirds, super majority; to amend the United States Constitution, two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate, 75% of the states, supermajorities. And of course, as the country saw, not once but twice, when there's an impeachment in the House to convict the president and ultimately remove him, two-thirds. Four times, they said super majorities are required. They didn't say it was required to pass legislation in any other area or when you are trying to strengthen the ability of the American people to choose their representatives.
And so for the life of me, a lot of us cannot figure out why we're holding on to this custom that is not even anchored in founding principles of the country or the Constitution. So I think we have to continue to press the case legislatively, because I think we have the higher ground on substance. Particularly when you consider even in the 21st century, there are exceptions to the filibuster that the Republicans, in my humble opinion, have used and abused. There is the budget exception to the filibuster, called reconciliation, which the Republicans used in 2017, where 83% of the benefits went to the wealthiest 1% in America. Mitch McConnell used the judiciary exception to the filibuster not once, but twice.
So, given the history, given the Constitution, given the Framers intent, given the modern-day application of two exceptions to the filibuster, I can't figure out why the Senate can't see its way through to moving the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. So we can't give up that fight.
I had the honor to serve with John Lewis. Many of us in the current Congress did. He never gave up when he almost lost his life on the Edmund Pettus bridge, against all odds. And so now, when we're in a much stronger position to advance enlightened legislation because of the service and sacrifice of people like John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rosa Parks, and Shirley Chisholm, and Adam Powell, of course, Dr. King, and Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph, go through the list, we can't give up either.
And John Lewis would say, “Never give up, never give in.” “Stand up, speak up, show up.” Continue to get into some “good trouble” until you make progress for our society. And so that's what we have to do legislatively. And then on the ground, we just have to make sure that we are encouraging and familiarizing people with the different state laws well in advance of them having to show up. And have lawyers and others present to make sure that not a single citizen has their right to vote infringed upon.
Bethany Jay: Mmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, Bethany, when he talks about the filibuster and the way it has been used and abused to suppress legislation in the Senate, you know, I can't help but think that it is people who won, intentionally, are using political mechanisms to stop legislation. We can think about certainly anti-lynching bills and how they have been stopped through the use of the filibuster. Civil rights bills, they have been used intentionally to stop, the use of the filibuster.
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But for those more currently who say, 'No, no, no. This is tradition.' Right? 'This is the process.' What they are doing in the present certainly has echoes of the past. But even if they are well-intentioned, I think the history that he just lays out says that we should not put process over people. And that's in essence what we are doing now.
Bethany Jay: And it's very clear what is happening in the states. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is in every way addressing real problems and doing nothing except protecting people's access to the ballot. What is the argument against passing that bill?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm.
Bethany Jay: You can't make one. Right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean there is none. I mean, it's a process one. I mean, you have those who oppose it. Right?
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, so right now, the way the Congress is set up in the Senate, politically, you have full Republican opposition to it. And so now we're just talking about a handful of Democratic senators in the opposition who was saying, 'No, this is about process, it's about tradition.' And then you say, 'No, it's not.' Right?
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So then, you know, what are you really afraid of?
Bethany Jay: Exactly.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And what are you really doing? And that's a question I think that needs to be posed to them.
Bethany Jay: Yeah. And you don't want to make that argument to hide behind the filibuster, as it were.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. You’ll be hiding behind the process, because you don't want to deal with the principles about democracy. Right?
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The principle about democratic engagement, about protecting voting rights and about expanding voting rights in a democracy. You want to make it possible for as many people to participate. And those who don't, you know, you have to question their commitment to democracy.
Bethany Jay: Well, and this also goes back to the first clip that we played about your childhood with your brother and the awareness of the importance of municipal elections, talking about New York City, but local politics as well being so important because that's where the state legislatures are elected that create districts. And we all know that those voting districts can be manipulated in multiple ways by those state legislatures to make it either harder or easier for people to vote or to split blocs of different voting populations up for the benefit of one party or another. So it also starts, again—as you were talking about—with that small-scale activism, on the ground, in paying attention to who's representing you in your state legislatures.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it speaks to the need of the federal government to step in when states go awry. We see this certainly during the Jim Crow era. Right?
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, these states are running amok. You talk about states rights, right. Their right to discriminate against people and make it harder for Black folk to participate in the political process then. And now, we have states not limited to the South. I mean, I'm here in Ohio. Ohio's doing the same thing. Indiana, these other northern states, midwestern states, western states are doing the same thing, making it harder for people to participate in the political process. So therefore, you need that federal intervention to level the playing field to make sure that safeguards are in place to protect the right to vote. And unfortunately, the Congress has been unable to pass that legislation.
Bethany Jay: I was just talking with my students yesterday about Reconstruction and the meaning of the 14th and 15th Amendments and saying, 'Look, this makes the federal government the protector of your individual rights.'
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm.
Bethany Jay: And that's what needs to happen in this case. And it has happened before, but…
This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources,as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let’s return now to Hasan’s conversation with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There are other areas in which some federal intervention could be used when we think and reflect upon the Jim Crow era and also the present. And policing is one of those areas. The congressman had a few things to say about that.
One of the core characteristics of the Jim Crow era is the color line, forced segregation. One of the entities that maintains the color line during the Jim Crow era is the police. There is still a police problem, or at least a policing problem, in America today. Could you outline what you see today as some of the primary issues around policing and policing Black communities? And what do you think we can do about it?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: I think we recognize that the overwhelming majority of police officers, certainly the ones that I interact with back at home in New York City, hardworking individuals who are in the community to protect and serve. And increasingly in places like New York City, the police look like the community. A majority of the New York city police department right now are Black, Latino, Asian or South Asian. But it cannot be denied that there are police officers who engage in police violence, police brutality, police use of excessive force. And far too often the community that disproportionately bears the burden of officers who cross the line are communities of color. And often African American young men.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned the mosaic that is the NYPD. And you're absolutely right. I mean, the numbers bear that out. It is probably the most racially and ethnically diverse police force. But go back to the video of Eric Garner, that mosaic is right there. Right? There's just not white officers. And so it seems to me that this is a policing problem. I mean, it's a culture of policing.
When we look back, I don't know if there's ever been a time where American police have viewed communities of color as worthy of protection, and not from an adversarial position and standpoint. You know, you can have that beautiful mosaic. And if you send different folk out, but to do the same thing, you're going to wind up with the same result.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, I think the militarization of the police has been noted as problematic, and we saw it in Ferguson. And that, kind of, represents a siege mentality that I think is not helpful for the police-community interaction. That's a warrior mentality. That's not a guardian mentality. And I think part of the reform efforts involve de-militarization.
There's no reason to have Humvees and, you know, mounted automatic weapons and things of that nature when you're dealing with American citizens in American communities. Of course, to protect us from the threats of domestic terrorism, certainly international terrorism, is certain techniques and approaches that will be necessary in the extreme. That's part of the reform effort. How do you strike that right balance?
Bethany Jay: Mmm. I was thinking about your point that law enforcement has never really viewed communities of color as worthy of protection. And I'm reminded of Kidada Williams's episode on lynching and that great conversation that you had with her. She talks about a Charles White woodcut. And she describes the woodcut, it's from 1945, saying, "[It's] a mother holding a son, an infant baby boy, and outside the window is a tree in the distance with a small noose hanging from it. And so she has brought a child into the world, [and] she has hope for the future, but she also knows about the outside world and what fate could befall her son." And it came to mind because it was so familiar to so much of what we see Black parents write and say about raising Black boys, in particular, today—the desire to protect and dream for your child, even as you have to raise them to be aware of the fact that they could be viewed as threats by many people, including law enforcement, and that puts them in danger.
And Tamir Rice is the name that immediately comes to mind here—a 12-year-old little boy, seen as a threat and shot by law enforcement for playing with a toy gun in a park. And I know that Kidada Williams was talking about the extralegal violence of lynching. But I think the point about having to raise your children—both as children but also having to raise them to be aware of how others may view them—is there in both of those examples.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I asked my brother what did he think should be done and could be done to address those very issues that you just beautifully laid out. This is what he had to say.
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Could you say a little bit more about like some of the, the mechanisms that can and should be used to hold police accountable to hopefully shift the thinking, the way policing occurs. ‘Cause, you know, there's some other legislation, George Floyd Policing Act, that is languishing across the street as well.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Yeah, we advanced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, not once but twice, out of the House of Representatives. And it's designed to make sure that the principles of liberty and justice for all, equal protection under the law, apply equally, including in the context of interactions between the police and the community.
Making sure that you hold police officers who cross the line accountable is incredibly important. Part of how we've endeavored to try to address it is to look at the choke hold example, which resulted in the death of Eric Garner, and strangulation tactics that resulted in the death of George Floyd. And our legislation would criminalize that because it's unconscionable, unacceptable, unnecessary, unjust and un-American. And we think it has to be made unlawful.
And once you make an unlawful. Then you can hold people accountable for it to a greater degree. And it sends the signal that there's certain techniques that in 21st-century America are just not acceptable, as I think people of all races in the aftermath of both Garner and, to a greater extent, George Floyd's death came to that conclusion.
Even though many police departments—including the New York City's police department, I believe Chicago Police Department, certainly the LA Police Department—as a matter of policy, outlaw the choke hold, why do we still see it being used? Because it's not been prohibited as a matter of law at the federal level, though New York City and New York state did change the statutes to prohibit it or strictly limit its use.
So some progress has been made in the aftermath of some of these tragic events, but hasn't necessarily been comprehensive. And the legislation that we advanced out of the House was in part designed to say, 'We want to strengthen the relationship between the police and the community.' A strengthened relationship between the police and the community is good for public safety. It increases cooperation. And ultimately when you increase cooperation, you will drive down criminal activity and make communities for everyone safer.
So we want to change the mindset of policing from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality. Because too many officers—not every officer, maybe not even the majority of officers but too many officers—may have a warrior mentality. And if you have that, you might view some elements of the community as enemy combatants, things go wrong. But if you have a guardian mentality, then you view the community as a partner. And it's a relationship to be cherished, to be guarded, to be nourished. And that in part was what the George Floyd Justice in Policing legislation was all about. Shift the mindset of the interaction and the nature of policing, so that it brings law enforcement and the community closer. And I'm still hopeful that that is an objective that we can accomplish.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd incident, one of the things that provided some hope and encouragement is that, you know, you did see at least a temporary coming together of elements within law enforcement and elements within the community to have a dialogue about 'How do we strengthen this relationship?' Because both are worthy of being supported. We have to support our communities, and we have to support those who are protecting and serving.
Bethany Jay: Kelley Carter Jackson's interview this season was one of my favorites. And as I was going back through the season, I was thinking about her discussion of abolition—and this relates to what the congressman was saying—but her point that abolition was not really accomplished by moral suasion. It was accomplished by activism that was sometimes violent. And she points out that the 19th century is really violent in general. But she makes the point, and this is a quote, "I think [that] part of the problem in America is that we don't know how to deal with Black protest, whether it's violent or nonviolent. We don't know how to reconcile it because we're unwilling to do the work of relinquishing the power that suppresses Black people."
And so two things come to mind for me here that relate to what the congressman was saying, that the hysteria about the protests that emerged in the wake of the George Floyd killing and how they were framed by large swaths of the media but also how the police and even military response to them was more immediate and forceful than the response to the January 6 insurrection.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm. Mm hmm.
Bethany Jay: But just as Carter talks about in the 19th century, those protests and their upheaval were essential in forcing the hand of the federal government to do something. And of course, it hasn't made its way through the Senate as well. But to have to address this problem and the fact that we have representatives of color in the federal government, something that wasn't possible in the Antebellum era, you know, is also what's making that possible, with people like your brother at the forefront in the push for that legislation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think Dr. Carter's interview was really exceptional because what she points out or makes clear is that as African Americans were struggling for not only access to the ballot, not only to participate in the political process but also for personal safety against the state and against racial terrorists, that all options were on the table.
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Too often, when we think back to the African American freedom struggle, where we're talking about the civil rights movement or earlier periods, we frame it solely as, sort of, one approach. It's nonviolence in the beginning. It's nonviolence in the end. And we don't see that as a part of a spectrum.
One of the great advantages of studying the Jim Crow era is that you see clearly the full spectrum, the full array of options, both in terms of strategies and tactics, that African Americans are going to deploy in their effort to secure those basic civil rights and human rights goals. And we see that really playing out over time, when you zero in on that question of personal safety, that question of dealing with police, whether they are rural sheriffs in the Deep South or they are modern militarized police forces in the urban north.
Bethany Jay: It's so true. And we only acknowledge, and you've made this point in the civil rights season as well, we really only acknowledge half of that story. We really only like to talk about the nonviolent moral suasion piece and leave out the protection at all costs piece and the fighting back piece. And we need to include both of those narratives.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. No, that's essential. That's essential. You know, Bethany, one of the things I asked my brother about, of course, was this question of policing. And obviously it's an issue—was an issue in the past, is an issue in the present. A contemporary issue that we're dealing with as a society is mass incarceration.
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mass incarceration begins with mass arrests. The two are absolutely connected. Why do you have so many people in jail? Because you're arresting so many people. So, you know, I asked him about mass incarceration following our conversation about policing. And here's what he had to say.
The militarization of the police has been going on for a century. And there’s examples after World War One, after World War Two, certainly after Vietnam. But in 1980s, we see it really ramping up connected with the war on drugs, which then leads to a surge in the prison population or what we commonly refer to as mass incarceration.
So there's real harm that is continuing to be done to populations because of this surge in incarceration, from a-couple-hundred-thousand people in 1970s to over two-million people now. You were one of the sponsors of the FIRST STEP Act. And so you've been thinking about this and legislating about what can be done. Could you first share a little bit about what the FIRST STEP Act was? And then could you share, what is the second step? And what should that be?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, this has been a bright spot in terms of the effort to reform our criminal justice system, in that, this effort of trying to deal with mass incarceration and the over-criminalization of the American people has become bi-partisan in nature. And in many cases overwhelmingly so. When I was in the state legislature, that wasn't necessarily the case. I get to Congress, and I was asked by one of then-lead Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, Bobby Scott, who was the ranking member on the Crime Subcommittee, to serve on this Task Force on Overcriminalization. Five Democrats, five Republicans.
I go to my first hearing or two. And Brian Stevenson talks, and he was a law professor of mine. It was great to see him, hear from him. But then someone from the Heritage Foundation testifies as well. And I found myself agreeing with every single thing that he was saying about the consequences of overcriminalization, and the impact on liberty and the damage that's done to communities throughout America, including disproportionately communities of color.
And I'm trying to figure out, 'Am I being hustled right now? What is happening?' And this resulted in the FIRST STEP Act, which was led on the Republican side by Doug Collins, a conservative Republican from rural Georgia. I had the honor of being the lead Democrat, progressive, from the People's Republic of Brooklyn, working together and ultimately being able to pull together a coalition of the left, the right, progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, the NAACP and the Koch brothers, the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation, Al Sharpton, Grover Norquist, all points in between. Ultimately, with Jared Kushner taking the lead out of the administration and a bill being signed into law by president Trump that was focused on two things: front-end reform and back-end reform. Front-end reform, meaning changing the overly harsh and unjust sentencing laws that were put into place during the so-called war on drugs.
And so we lowered the mandatory minimum thresholds across the board. And we made the 18-to-1 crack cocaine-powder cocaine disparity retroactive, which in 2010—under leadership from Barack Obama and the Fair Sentencing Act—had been reduced from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. But it wasn't made retroactive because Jeff Sessions, who was in the Senate at the time, blocked it from being retroactive.
When we went from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, the Congress of the United States acknowledged, as a matter of public policy, that law was unjust. But because you didn't make it retroactive, you still had thousands of people incarcerated under what Congress had then said is an unjust law. FIRST STEP Act took that 18-to-1 and made it retroactive. Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, fought us on it. But we were able to overcome that opposition. And more than 9,000 people were released, 90% of them Black men, which also tells you about the disproportionate impacts that the war on drugs had on certain communities.
We also invested in prison reform, which is making sure that we put into place programs and activities that allow currently incarcerated individuals to become productive citizens as they transition from incarceration back into society, in order to dramatically reduce recidivism. It helps their individual lives. It helps families. It helps communities. And it also saves taxpayer dollars when you bring down the rate of recidivism by investing in people becoming productive citizens.
Those are some of the highlights of the FIRST STEP Act. But it was very comprehensive in nature and has made a big difference, the most significant piece of criminal justice reform legislation to be passed by Congress in over 25 years. And it's a foundation to be able to do more.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Bethany, I'd love to get your thoughts on what the congressman had to say.
Bethany Jay: Well, the parallels between Congressman Jeffries' discussion of mandatory-minimums and the crack-to-cocaine, 100-to-1 and 18-to-1, disparity just reminded me of your conversation with Robert Chase about the criminalization of Blackness in post-emancipation era. It's just striking the similarities. And some of those laws that Robert Chase talked about, the Reconstruction era Black Codes are written with racial language into the law, but many were colorblind in the way that the, sort of, war on drug language is seemingly colorblind, but not colorblind at all in the way that they're enforced. And again, that makes me think of the war on drugs. It makes me think of 'stop and frisk.' It makes me think of 'broken windows' policing. Right? All of these different policies that, as you say, lead to a lot of arrests, which are then going to lead to a lot of prisoners.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it speaks to. I mean, I'm so glad you brought that interview that we did with Dr. Chase, because that moment is so critical. That moment in the 1890, turn of the century, 1910s, 19 teens, when the criminalization of Blackness becomes embedded in the white American psyche. And it becomes a part of the way policing proceeds. It becomes a part of the functioning of the criminal justice system. And so we wonder sometimes why police react to African Americans who aren't doing anything, but assuming that they are a potential threat and are a danger. Why Black communities are so overly policed. Why those percentages, in terms of arrests, the weight of that falls so heavily on the shoulders of African Americans. It has everything to do with that moment during the Jim Crow era when race gets criminalized. And that has that long-lasting—we're talking over a century now—impact on the way African Americans are treated not only by police but by the criminal justice system.
Bethany Jay: And Brandon Jett talks in his piece about the, sort of, shift from extralegal violence, in the form of lynching, being the way in which to force control over Black people, without slavery. And the shift from that to more seemingly respectable legal processes that are used to effectively do the same thing.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think it's important to point out that the purpose of the criminalization, as you point out, serve different roles. Right?
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So, you know, turn of the 20th century, the purpose of the criminalization is really about labor control. Right?
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's about controlling Black labor. But by the time we get to the contemporary moment—certainly in 1980s, 1990s, early 2000—it's less about controlling Black labor—I mean, that was a Jim Crow era thing—and more about how do you profit off of Black bodies through warehousing them. Right? I mean, that's. The mass incarceration is like, 'What do you do with this surplus labor? And how do you capitalize on it?' Right? 'How do you turn Black into green?' And then that begins to feed itself. And then we move from, you know, 350,000 people who are incarcerated to two-and-a-half million between the 1970s and today.
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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hakeem had a little bit more to say on mass incarceration. Let's play that.
Bethany Jay: Sounds good.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: One of the bills that I'm currently working on, which has passed the House of Representatives and is over on the other side of the Capitol, as are so many pieces of legislation, is the Equal Act. And what the Equal Act will do is take that 18-to-1 sentencing disparity and drop it to 1-to-1, because there was never any logical reason to treat crack cocaine drug offenses differently than powder cocaine drug offenses.
There is no pharmacological difference between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. I've always wanted to use that word pharmacologic. I can't spell it. I'm not a professor like you. But I know what it means. There is no physical, chemical difference in how the body reacts to crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Even though that was part of the argument, that crack is more addictive, to justify a 100-to-1 disparity. The Equal Act will make it 1-to-1, and apply it retroactively and perhaps strike a final blow to the most significant relic of the war on drugs.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned that there may not have been a logical reason for the disparities in sentencing, based upon crack cocaine or powder cocaine. But it clearly was a racist reason, when we look at media portrayals of what crack was doing, and where it was coming from and who was doing it.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: You know, crack cocaine was viewed as the drug of choice for low-income Americans and, certainly in the inner city, communities of color. Powder cocaine used by more affluent Americans in suburban communities, largely white. And that's why when we made the 18-to-1 change retroactive, as well as some changes to compassionate release and good time credit, but the overwhelming majority of people incarcerated and therefore released were Black men.
When the war on drugs was initially launched in 1971, there were less than 300,000 people incarcerated in America. Today 2.3 million, disproportionately Black and Latino, incarcerate more people in America per capita than any other country in the world, including China and Russia combined. That's a stain on our society. And we've got to work to work it out, and we are doing so. And I think that's meaningful progress for the scales of justice in this country.
We passed the Equal Act in this Congress. Post insurrection, America divided, criminal justice reform is still bi-partisan. I believe the final vote in the House was 361 to 65. 70% of Republicans voted for it, including Matt Gaetz, and Jim Jordan, and Louie Gohmert and people who are part of the Freedom Caucus, the far right portion of the House Republican Conference.
I mentioned to you initially, I was like, 'Am I being hustled? What is wrong here?' Because when we were fighting to get rid of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York state, it was the Republicans who were fighting us. But over time, certainly after the great recession, I think three things happened. Fiscal conservatives said, 'Spending $80 billion plus on mass incarceration, which doesn't yield any reciprocal public safety benefits commensurate to the cost of the taxpayer, is a failed government program. It's fiscally irresponsible.'
So fiscal conservatives, people like Grover Norquist, started to come on board. Christian conservatives, who theologically believe in the power of redemption and the notion that everyone should have a second chance at life because everyone makes mistakes, started leaning in to re-entry, and prison reform and successfully transitioning individuals who may have made a mistake—making sure that they pay their debt to society, but it should be a just debt not a scarlet letter that stains them for the rest of their lives. Christian conservatives on board. And then libertarians, who believe that if you can take away someone's liberty that's perhaps the worst form of government overreach. And so libertarians like Rand Paul strongly behind criminal justice reform, Mike Lee and others. And so it's an authentic coalition.
I may arrive at the notion of criminal justice reform through a progressive lens of racial, social and economic justice. Republicans may arrive at it through a lens of fiscal conservatism, Christian conservatism or libertarianism. But we arrive at the same place. And that's why I'm confident that we can continue to do great work in this space.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He is confident, Bethany. Are you equally confident?
Bethany Jay: Well, I would like to have his confidence, I guess. You know, the thing that does seem hopeful in this moment, in the way that the congressman described it, is the fact that multiple constituencies of lawmakers are coming to this and interest groups are coming to this from different places but arriving at the same end game. And again, it makes me think of Robert Chase's discussion of convict leasing and how convict leasing not comes to an end, but experiences a significant decline when it becomes less profitable. You know, as the infrastructure of the South has been rebuilt with convict labor, once that's done and that labor is less profitable for those prisons, that we start to see less prisoners there. And that's combined with some moral movements against the act. And so maybe that's what we're seeing here, this coming together of different interests that may all serve a good purpose.
Bethany Jay: But maybe I'm too optimistic.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I don't think you're too optimistic. You know, hope is necessary. Right? Hope leads to change. Hope is eternal. We've got to hang on to hope. But I hope the coalition that he was talking about holds. Because I'm not seeing it hold in the moment.
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm seeing it fracture. I'm seeing those political conservatives falling prey to party politics. Where now, even if you for fiscally conservative reasons—I don't care how you get there as long as you get there—but if it's fiscal conservatism that leads you to support the necessary reforms to policing and incarceration, then so be it. But now we're beginning to see and certainly we've seen this over the last couple of years, that that's not even enough, that you have to hold tight to a strict party line.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that means you oppose anything and everything that is supported by those on the other side of the aisle.
Bethany Jay: You know, what you're saying sort of makes me think of Willie Horton. That was the Dukakis-Bush election. It only takes one example to rally a base, you know what I mean, against something that they would be inclined not to support anyway. And so really thinking it only takes one-or-two examples that can be blown out of proportion to get a whole community against prison reform.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Ah, that's true. That's true. So speaking about political parties, you know, I asked Hakim about the historical relationship between African Americans and the Democratic Party. Of course, you will remember Bethany, you did that wonderful interview, in which you trace that important shift that occurs during the New Deal era.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So this is what he had to say.
Bethany Jay: Great.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There was a time in which African Americans were part of the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln. Then the depression hits. The president at the time, Hoover does a terrible job with this sort of laissez faire approach to solving the issues of the Depression. And then Roosevelt comes, takes a much stronger view, not completely without flaws.
But we see this transition away from the Republican Party into the Democratic Party for African Americans. And they've remained solidly within the camp of the Democratic Party for nearly a century now. You have a front row seat to seeing what's going on within the Republican Party. Why aren't there more African Americans, in this moment, in the Republican Party or supportive of the Republican Party?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, as my Republican colleagues sometimes point out, it was the Democratic Party that was the party of the Confederacy, the party of slavery and, in many ways, the party that fought to preserve Jim Crow. I think from a historic perspective, from a political party perspective, there aren't clean hands on either side.
Now the modern-day Republican Party is no longer the party of Lincoln, and it's not even a party of Ronald Reagan. It's the party of Donald Trump. And it's been overrun by people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, Lauren Bobert, Madison Cawthorn. So many people have been radicalized by the presence of the former president in our public space during the time that he was in office. It's the party of people who are on the fringes of the far right. It's not even clear that they believe in democracy. They don't believe in truth. So, this is not the party of John McCain. It's not the party of Bob Dole. It's not the party of Mitt Romney. And it’s certainly not the party of Jackie Robinson.
We grew up in the Cornerstone Baptist Church, dedicated to God by Dr. Sandy Ray, who was a Republican legislator in Ohio; and a prominent Baptist preacher, one of the greatest of all time; and a champion for civil rights. In the Republican Party of Sandy Ray, there was room for someone who cared about civil rights, and equality, and liberty and justice for all. In the modern-day Republican Party, I'm not clear that there's a lot of space for the type of diversity that certainly existed decades ago. But there's a history there that hopefully may serve to one day cause a revival for a more inclusive Republican Party.
That's why it's not clear to me why some people want to run away from history, when there's history there that allows for a wide variety of narratives to be told about where we've been as Americans and where we can ultimately wind up.
Bethany Jay: There's a lot there.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There is a lot there. And there's a lot of history there that too often doesn't get told and explained. And when it does get told, it's reframed in sort of a ridiculous way.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's like, 'Hey. Martin Luther King's father was a Republican. And you should be, too!' Without, you know. As an appeal to African Americans without any context for why he was or what that Republican Party looked like, the heirs of the Republican of Lincoln and what kind of Republicans they were embracing—the Rockefeller Republican in that particular moment in time.
Bethany Jay: I've never lost Facebook friends quicker than when I've pointed out that the Republican Party is not the party of Lincoln.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm. Mm hmm.
Bethany Jay: That's a quick unfriend by the recipient. But, you know, one of the other things I was thinking about is, there's also this perennial question of, 'Is the Democratic Party taking Black voters for granted?' That they are always going to be Democratic voters, no matter how the party is working or not for them.
And that makes me think of that Great Depression episode that you started off this segment with. And you know, Jill Watts really talked about the Black Cabinet—that is influencing Eleanor Roosevelt really and working on some of the lower levels of administration of New Deal policies— that they're really pushing constantly for a more permanent and more sustained focus on the most vulnerable people, really making sure that government and of course, this is in the context of the Depression, but making sure that government continues to work for all Americans, no matter what your economic status is. And that's really Mary McLeod Bethune, who is really sort of active in making sure that those policies are pushed. And ultimately she's unsuccessful. A lot of those New Deal policies are not permanent. But it makes me think of conversations that we're having today, too, about how do we make this country work for everybody, no matter what your sort of economic status is? And those reforms seem to be the ones that aren't going through.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that question of 'How do we make it work?' There is a role for elected officials in that. And they're not the only ones.
Bethany Jay: No.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But there is certainly a role for elected officials in making this country work. The congressman had a few thoughts on that role, and why it may not be working as well as it both could and should.
Bethany Jay: Perfect.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: We're in the midst of a backlash. And whenever there's progress in America there's always been backlash. And there was progress with Emancipation and the Reconstruction Amendments—13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—and we see a big backlash take place. The rise of Jim Crow, rise of the KKK, lynching epidemics, Black Codes, things of this nature.
And it takes another a hundred years to arrive at another moment of progress, when Dr. King, and Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, others stood up. And then people of every race, of goodwill, came together to make more progress. Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Great Society. Tremendous progress, but then that was also immediately followed by backlash. The rise of Richard Nixon, anti-government, anti-affirmative action, mass incarceration put into place in Nixon's first term in 1971. And that ushered in the caricaturing of inner-city communities, communities of color, designed to roll back the social safety net that had been put into place in a stronger way during the civil rights era, as part of the Great Society legislative initiatives.
And then a new hope arises with the election of Barack Obama. And we were told perhaps that we were entering into a post-racial era. But Tea Party, 'We want our country back.' Who took it away? Wait, the election of Barack Obama took your country away? And then the Supreme Court makes the decision in Shelby County v. Holder. They want to decimate the bipartisan 1965 Voting Rights Act, ushering in a new era of voter suppression. And of course, ultimately the election of Donald Trump, who for five years perpetrated the racist lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States of America, as part of an effort to de-legitimize America's first Black president and rode that lie into the White House.
It was a backlash that he intentionally capitalized on as part of his electoral coalition. Not the entirety of it. There were other people who were concerned about change. They wanted to blow the whole thing up in Washington, DC. 'It's not working for us. Let's see what this guy can do.' You know, other folks working through issues of economic anxiety, because of changes like globalization, and poorly negotiated trade deals, the outsourcing of good paying American jobs, decline of unionization, rise of automation. These have jammed working class communities of every race.
And Donald Trump manipulated that anxiety. But part of his electoral coalition clearly included people affiliated with neo-Nazis, the Proud Boys and others who have become increasingly vocal. All of that to say, anyone who has studied the trajectory of history knows that whenever there's been progress made in this great country, it's usually followed by a backlash.
Bethany Jay: Mmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The struggle to create change is never unidirectional. In other words, the progress isn't perpetual. There is always—sometimes framed, as my brother did here as—a backlash. But I think when we look at, Bethany, American history and specifically this post-emancipation, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era, and we put that in the broader context of the nation as a whole, then the backlash looks more like a course correction than it does sort of an aberration to or an attempt to move America away from its core traditions. It seems like an effort by some to move America back to what it's been as opposed to what it could be.
Bethany Jay: So the question is, does the arc of history actually bend towards justice or not? And that probably depends on who is able to claim power and a voice. Does that make sense?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It does.
Bethany Jay: That if the same people are in power, then that arc of justice is going to stay like you're saying. It's going to course correct back. And I think that's why going back to where we started our conversation with voting rights with people like your brother who are in Congress, with HBCU's that continue to produce outstanding thinkers who become leaders in all different levels of our society, all of those Black institutions—which has been another thread of our conversation this season—the importance of them on every level, I think, becomes important in making sure that arc of history bends the right way.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And those institutions reflect the efforts of African Americans to exert the force necessary to bend the arc towards justice. Because without that force, without that effort, without that energy, without the institution building, without the sacrifice that we saw and as illustrated throughout the Jim Crow era, then that course correction, that status quo remains. Which also, Bethany, speaks to the current moment in which we are living and teaching as educators.
Bethany Jay: Yep.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And the response to talking about this difficult history, to talking about hard history. I asked Hakim about that.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Representative Barbara Lee has an important bill that she has been advancing, which is in part based on the South Africa model of truth and reconciliation. And I support that legislation. And the idea is that in order for us to arrive at a place where we can reach meaningful reconciliation, we have to have an understanding of the truth of our collective journey as Americans. And that of course includes African American history, which is American history.
And hopefully, this next generation of Americans, the ones being educated right now, can help us bring America closer to that true reconciliation. I believe that Gen Z will do that—the most diverse generation in American history. But to arrive at reconciliation, there has to be truth.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What role do you see reparations, broadly defined perhaps as investment in community, playing in that reconciliation?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Given our imperfections that are obvious throughout our history, the least that we should do is determine how we can repair and heal America, which includes the wounds that have been inflicted on the Black community and the legacy of it.
HR 40 is the legislative vehicle that would just establish a commission to study the issue. And everyone would have an opportunity to participate. The four legislative leaders—Democrats and Republicans alike, House and Senate—can make appointments. HR 40—named after the fact that African Americans were initially promised but never given 40 acres and a mule, the means of production connected to the economy at the time in order to become economically independent; that's why HR 40 is named HR 40—was initially championed by John Conyers. I supported it when he championed it. And it’s now being championed by Sheila Jackson Lee.
We did vote it out of the Judiciary Committee, which is the furthest that it has advanced. It had never previously received, I believe, either a hearing or certainly a markup in committee. And every single Democrat supported HR 40. And I still hope that it gets a fair hearing in the United States House of Representatives.
Bethany Jay: The fact that a piece of legislation that would establish a commission to then study an issue hasn't been able to get out of committee, I think, tells us a lot about the reluctance to actually face this history on any level. And we're seeing that that has been the case on the federal level. And we're seeing that now in your town, elementary school, K-12 district, as well.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. It's unfortunate because a lot of the energy, most of the energy in fact, that has been connected to dealing with the hard issues of the past, dealing with hard history and even conversations about reparations, whatever that may take, has generally been better at the local level. And it hasn't been really something that has been taken up at the federal level.
And what's so unfortunate about the moment in which we are living is that, you know, education, of course, is controlled locally. And that energy that has existed in small places in the past really has some truth and reconciliation. That is now being challenged in the classroom, in that, 'No, we're not going to have any reconciliation. We're not even going to have any truth.'
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that's unfortunate because that's where we are as educators. And you, and I and everyone who has appeared on this podcast, we're all just simply trying to tell some truth so that we can bend that arc, do our part to help bend that arc towards justice.
Bethany Jay: And I will say, the response I get from my students when they're hearing these things for the first time, as 19, 20, 21-year-olds in college, is real frustration that they hadn't heard it before. They're not frustrated with me for telling them something that's hard. They're frustrated that they didn't know it before.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.
Bethany Jay: They hadn't heard it before. A majority of my students are not African American students. And so I recognize that they wouldn't have confronted these issues, that if I taught Black students that they would be more knowledgeable, at least about what it is to live with racism in this country.
But kids are ready to hear this. They want to know. You know, Steven Oliver back in the first season told us, ‘Look, our students aren't coming to us as blank slates. They're living in this world. Whether they are Black or white, they have knowledge that racism exists. What they don't have is any way to understand its context and to know where it comes from. That's what we have to give them in our classrooms.’
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things that too many of our students aren't given, too many of our students don't know, is the tradition of Black congressional representation coming out of that Reconstruction era. So this is one of the hallmarks of the Jim Crow era, the beginning of it. One of the legacies being that lack of Black representation coming out of Reconstruction.
Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And so I asked my brother, as a sitting U.S. congressman, to reflect on that.
One of the most historic things about the Reconstruction era, in addition to the passage of the Reconstruction Acts and then Amendments, was the election of African Americans, African American men specifically at the time, to the halls of power. And there is that Reconstruction moment where you have Black elected officials, or surge in Black elected officials. And then they are systematically removed from office, as we move into the 1870s and 1880s. And then you get the disenfranchisement constitutions, and it's impossible for Black folk to vote. Black folk can't vote, they can't elect African Americans to public office.
Then we see the Voting Rights Act, the groundswell of organizing to put the ballot back in Black hands. And we have the Black power movement, which is very much focused on electing African Americans to public office. And so, 50 years later, here you are sitting in Congress. How do you see your role as a African American who is a Congressman? Because we don't play the colorblind stuff, right? Come on, man. We weren't raised like that. So, how does that impact how you walk through the world? But then also, how you legislate in this world?
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: First of all, you never thought that hip hop would take it this far.
It's an honor to have the opportunity to serve in the United States Congress. To be elected as chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Represent the people of the eighth congressional district, majority-minority district, very diverse. I have the privilege of representing more Russian-speaking, Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union than any other member of Congress in the country. I mean, Hakeem Jeffries. Who knew? Only in America.
It's wonderful to have this opportunity and to be part of the Congressional Black Caucus. That's a meeting that I never miss. And it's every Wednesday. It's at 12 o'clock. And we get together as CBC folks to talk about justice, and strengthening our community and strengthening America. You know, being a part of the Congressional Black Caucus was awe inspiring when I arrived. To come to Congress and see Maxine Waters, and Barbara Lee, and Charlie Rangle, and John Conyers, the great John Lewis—living legends who had done so much to advance the cause of racial, social and economic justice in the CBC. Jim Cliburn and so many others, Emanuel Cleaver. I mean, you can go through the list, Eddie Bernice Johnson.
And to be able to serve with these giants within the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whom were founders, and to also represent a district that was once represented when we were growing up in Brooklyn by Shirley Chisolm, is a legacy that I'm proud to be part of. Standing on the shoulders of giants, like Shirley Chisholm. Understanding that the Baton has been passed to the current members of the Congressional Black Caucus to continue to make sure that this concept of equal protection under the law applies to every community, including the Black community. That liberty and justice for all applies to every community, including the Black community, and brown communities and immigrant communities.
That's the promise of America. And we have to continue to work to make sure that America keeps that promise, builds upon the legacy of people like John Lewis and others who believe that continuing change is possible. Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And I always reflect upon that. And I think about what Dr. King meant is that in this world there are good folks and there are rough folks. But what we need for justice to prevail, to perfect our society, to make sure that we truly can arrive at colorblind society, is that good folks need to continue to be in the arena.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, I look forward to continuing to watch you, as you do the work that you were sent here to do. And certainly that our parents, and our grandparents, and our uncles and our aunts, wanted us to do as well.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: And let me just shout out Asha, Aliana and Alayla. My three, beautiful, intelligent nieces.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well they'll be happy for that. And I'm sure they'll text you their thanks, sir.
Congressman Hakeem Jefferies, thank you very much for making the time to join us on the podcast. If you didn't, I was going to tell Mom. So I'm glad I didn't have to go nuclear to get you on. Thanks a lot.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Great to be here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Love you, man.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Love you, Bro.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Appreciate it.
Bethany Jay. I love you, too, Bethany Jay.
Bethany Jay: I love you, Hassan.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This was an amazing season. We covered so much, such important history. And I enjoyed the interviews that I was able to conduct. And I really enjoyed sitting back and listening to you do the interviews that you did.
Bethany Jay: Likewise.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is great. That's it for us this year.
Bethany Jay: It is.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Another season in the books, Jim Crow. I certainly want to thank, on behalf of my co-host, I think it's safe to say, to thank all of the guests who appear,
Bethany Jay: Oh, my goodness.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: To thank everyone behind the scenes, whose voices you never hear— Shea and Miranda and so many others—for making this happen.
Bethany Jay: Yes. I began this season being terrified of what it was going to be, and I ended up having just an absolute great time and learning so much too. So I was really, really excited to be part of it. Thanks so much.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely. And to everyone who listens, be sure to share it with your friends and colleagues. And stay in touch. You can find us out there.
Bethany Jay: Yes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we look forward to hearing from you. Take care of everybody.
Bethany Jay: Bye bye.
Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight, examining its history and lasting impact.
Bethany Jay: Thanks to Congressman Hakeem Jeffries for sharing his insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. “Music Reconstructed” is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Bethany Jay: I’m Dr. Bethany Jay, Professor of History at Salem State University.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries : I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries and Bethany Jay: And we’re your hosts for Teaching Hard History.
- NAACP, Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill
- Congress.gov, H.R.55 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): Emmett Till Antilynching Act
- Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, Proudly Representing the 8th District of New York
- The New York Times, David N. Dinkins, New York’s First Black Mayor, Dies at 93
- Warner Bros., Action Jackson (film trailer)
- The National Constitution Center, 15th Amendment - Right to Vote Not Denied by Race
- The Atlantic, How Shelby County v. Holder Broke America
- Vox, Why is Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act such a big part of the fight over voting rights?
- University of Michigan: Institute for Social Research, The 2008 Election
- Teaching Hard History podcast, Correcting History: Confederate Monuments, Rituals and the Lost Cause
- Congress.gov, H.R.4 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021
- Congress.gov, S.2747 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): Freedom to Vote Act
- Brennan Center for Justice, The Filibuster, Explained
- Ballotpedia, Supermajority
- The New York Times, John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80
- Magnolia Pictures, John Lewis: Good Trouble (film)
- American Civil Liberties Union, Police Excessive Force
- The New York Times, Beyond the Chokehold: The Path to Eric Garner’s Death
- Teaching Hard History podcast, Lynching: White Supremacy, Terrorism and Black Resilience
- MoMA, Charles White. Hope for the Future. 1945
- Congress.gov, H.R.1280 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021
- Congress.gov, H.R.5682 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): FIRST STEP Act
- U.S. House, Judiciary Committee
- Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson
- The Heritage Foundation, About Heritage
- Congress.gov, S.1789 - 111th Congress (2009-2010): Fair Sentencing Act of 2010
- Teaching Hard History podcast, Season 3: The Civil Rights Movement
- Teaching Hard History podcast, Criminalizing Blackness: Prisons, Police and Jim Crow
- Congress.gov, H.R.5 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): Equality Act
- Teaching Hard History podcast, The New Deal, Jim Crow and the Black Cabinet
- BlackPast, Black and Tan Republicans
- National Constitution Center, The Reconstruction Amendments
- Teaching Hard History podcast, Building Black Institutions: Autonomy, Labor and HBCUs
- Congress.gov, H.R.40 - 116th Congress (2019-2020): Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act
- Teaching Hard History podcast, Dealing With Things As They Are: Creating a Classroom Environment
- U.S. House, Congressional Black Caucus
- National Women's History Museum, Shirley Chisholm
From concertos to operas, Black composers captured the changes and challenges facing African Americans during Jim Crow. Renowned classical pianist Lara Downes is bringing new appreciation to the works of artists like Florence Price and Scott Joplin. In our final installment of Music Reconstructed, Downes discusses how we can hear the complicated history of this era with historian Charles L. Hughes.
- Lara Downes “French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816: Sarabande” from 13 Ways of Looking At the Goldberg (Bach Reimagined) (2011)
- Lara Downes “Fantasie Nègre No. 4 in B minor” from Florence Price Piano Discoveries (2020)
- Lara Downes “Fantasie negre” from America Again (2016)
- Lara Downes “Sketches in Sepia” from Florence Price Piano Discoveries (2020)
- Lara Downes “The Entertainer” from REFLECTIONS: Scott Joplin Reconsidered (2022)
- Lara Downes “Treemonisha: Prelude (Arr. by Lara Downes)” from REFLECTIONS: Scott Joplin Reconsidered (2022)
- Lara Downes & Brooklyn Youth Chorus “Treemonisha: A Real Slow Drag (Arr. by Stephen Buck)” from REFLECTIONS: Scott Joplin Reconsidered (2022)
- Lara Downes “Piano Sonata No. 2, ‘Concord, Mass 1840-1860’: III. The Alcotts” (Charles Ives) from Lara Downes: American Ballads (2001)
- Lara Downes & Toshi Reagon “Steal Away (After Ives's Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord’)” from Some of These Days (2020)
Bethany Jay: Classical music may not be the first thing you think of when you think about Jim Crow. But in the early 20th century, Black composers captured the changes and challenges facing African Americans. From concertos to operas, their music offers us a frequently overlooked window into life during this period.
I’m Bethany Jay and this is “Music Reconstructed,” from Teaching Hard History. It takes research to re-think, re-mix and re-imagine music. The results can reveal insights into history for educators and students. In this special four-part series, music expert and historian Charles Hughes brings us conversations with contemporary musicians who are exploring the sounds, songs and stories of the Jim Crow era through their music.
In our final installment, Charles introduces us to the renowned classical pianist Laura Downes. As she reflects on her own musical journey, Downes shows us how we can hear the history of the Jim Crow era in the works of African American composers like Florence Price and Scott Joplin.
I’m so glad you could join us. Here's Charles.
[Lara Downes “Sketches in Sepia” (Price)]
Charles Hughes: When we think about the rich traditions of African American music. One thing that sometimes gets left out is the rich contribution of Black composers and performers to the world that we generally call classical music.
But despite this Black artists have made hugely significant contributions to these traditions. And many of these accomplishments occurred in the period of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The worlds of concert and operatic music were transformed by Black folks in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
And no one is doing more important work to both care for that tradition and make it newly relevant than our guest today, the celebrated composer and pianist, Lara Downes. Downes is an award-winning recording artist, and she's been supported by organizations, including the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Classical Recording Foundation.
She foregrounds the building of community, including hosting a series called Amplify on NPR, where she discusses music as a vehicle for historical and contemporary change, and Rising Sun Music, a series of recordings that spotlight the work of Black composers throughout American history.
In our conversation, we talked about her album REFLECTIONS: Scott Joplin Reconsidered, which rethinks and remixes the legendary, but still underappreciated Ragtime innovator, Scott Joplin. And then we talked about the groundbreaking work of Black woman composer, Florence Price, an album that Downes recorded called Piano Discoveries, which spotlights work that Price composed in the early 20th century. And, as you'll hear about, Downes discovered through a very historically minded method.
[Lara Downes “French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816: Sarabande” (Bach)]
Lara Downes: I started playing the piano, the way that many musicians do, when I was very, very young. So by the time I was four years old, I was pretty much committed. It sounds crazy, but I was. I was practicing the piano every day by the time I was four years old. And I loved it.
So my early years at the instrument were lived in a world where I absolutely didn't belong, in some ways. Right? The music that I was playing came from the 18th and 19th centuries. It was written by white men. It was sort of my destiny that I was going to spend my life working with music that spoke to me so profoundly on one level but did not contain my story.
And then at a certain point, I just kind of had a suspicion that there was more to the story. And I started investigating. You know, ‘Were there no women who wrote American music? Were there are no people of color who wrote American music?’ And very quickly I found out there is an entire broad, deep tradition of music that very, very much reflects me. And that changed my life.
[Lara Downes “Fantasie Nègre No. 4 in B minor” (Price)]
Lara Downes: I remember so clearly going to a library and finding an anthology called A Century of Music by Black Women Composers. To me—I don't even know how to explain this well—it's really like, it was like finding a secret room, you know, that I didn't know, was there, in a house I thought I knew. And opening up the doors to that room, you know, for everyone to come in.
In that collection, there was a piece by Florence Price called “Fantasie Nègre,” which, I mean it means “Black Fantasy.”
[Lara Downes “Fantasie negre” (Price)]
Lara Downes: At first, she's kind of letting the pianist show off. There's like a lot of pyrotechnics and you're just kind of being big and romantic and like virtuoso at the keyboard. Then there's this moment when all of that segues into this very intimate spiritual called “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” All the fanciness and the flash just goes away. And now we're in church, and I think everybody leans in and listens.
There just a sound to that piece that I had not encountered before. It's kind of a mix of this 19th century, European romantic style, but the piece itself comes from Black spirituals. So it's like two languages coming together and creating a new language, and it just totally blew my mind.
Florence Price, she became a very important figure in the Black Renaissance in Chicago, in the 1930s. And she actually made history as the first Black woman ever to have her music performed by a major American symphony orchestra. That was in 1933.
And then towards the end of her life, I think the popularity of her music just sort of died. She died in the early fifties. And it wasn't until 2009 that most of her music was discovered in an abandoned house that she had used as a summer house during her life. And they found all these boxes of manuscripts that were mildewed, and torn, and crumpled up and, you know, full of rodents. I mean really trash. It was eventually taken down to the archives at the University of Arkansas and kept there.
And I was visiting with a friend who's a musicologist. And I said, “You know, I just keep thinking about those boxes in the library in Arkansas. There's gotta be more piano music in there.”
And he went down there and started looking through. And, sure enough, there's a whole album, and much more, that came out of what was found in those boxes.
[Lara Downes “Sketches in Sepia” (Price)]
Lara Downes: One of the pieces I really love by Florence Price is called “Sketches in Sepia.” And it sort of takes a journey through different styles of music and different moods. There is kind of this, like, Ragtime section, but then it also gets really lyrical and romantic. And I think it's very nostalgic. You know, as you can imagine from the title, it's sort of looking back at like faded old photographs.
Hearing this music—especially if I'm successful in presenting it—I think it gives us access to the experiences of people who lived, you know, a hundred some years ago. Music brings stories alive, and it brings people alive. And it lets us connect. And that's, I mean, that is history.
[Lara Downes “The Entertainer” (Joplin)]
Lara Downes: Well, so many of these composers I'm working with, Florence Price, all of the others, these are names that are not known to the general American public. Scott Joplin's different. A lot of people do know his name. A few tunes of his got super popular because they were in his movie in 1973 called The Sting. Everybody learned how to play “The Entertainer” as a kid. In the 1970s, there was a revival of music by Scott Joplin who wrote his music at the turn of the 20th century.
There was a kind of hope at that moment. Slavery has just been abolished. And so to grow up as a Black American in that first generation that's born into freedom, that's what made it possible for somebody like Joplin to have a vision that seems insane, right? He is trying to not only become so successful in the field of Ragtime, which is a brand new kind of American popular music. But he's also convinced that he's going to write the first great African American opera, which is an art form that is completely outside of any experience that Black people have been involved with, and Americans in general. It's a European high art form. And he's going to write this great opera, and change history and change the course of music. And I think that's only possible because hope is so powerful, so undiluted.
[Lara Downes “Treemonisha: Prelude” (Joplin)]
Lara Downes: So Treemonisha is an opera that tells a story about the power of education. The plot is about this young girl who leads her community to freedom. And these con men who are trying to fool people through sort of superstition and lack of knowledge. So it's about the power of knowledge and the power that that gives us to control our destiny.
The album begins with this little prelude from Treemonisha, And musically, you hear all of his roots. He grew up learning classical music as a little boy in Texas. And, you know, he kept studying classical music, even though he was making his living as a Ragtime artist.
I grew up, as I said, feeling, you know, very isolated as a little brown girl in this very white male European world of classical music. I hope that the work I'm doing changes that reality for the next generation of little Black and brown kids who fall in love with this music.
And for me, it was really important to have that presence on the album, that next generation presence. So I collaborated with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus on “A Real Slow Drag,” which is the final number from Joplin's opera Treemonisha.
[Lara Downes & Brooklyn Youth Chorus “Treemonisha: A Real Slow Drag” (Joplin)]
Lara Downes: I wanted to take it away from, like, a serious operatic place, maybe uproot it from its time. But just to present him as this super innovative, visionary American artist, who really changed our music. And then to put that sound at the end of the album, that is, you know, literally the sound of the future. It's a really beautiful way to broaden the definitions of what we're talking about when we're talking about classical music and make it so much more fun, and welcoming and like a healthy place to be.
Charles Hughes: One of the things that strikes me so much about Lara Downes, beyond her incredible expertise, is the way in which she also is demonstrating how music not only teaches us about history but offers us a kind of way to do history. In the music of Scott Joplin or in the music of Florence Price, Lara Downes hears this historical dialogue, right, the way in which the United States was changing and the way in which African Americans were seizing the opportunities of freedom, while also dealing with the continuing limitations of a Jim Crow world.
This is the final episode of Music Reconstructed. And we thought in this last time, we would leave you with a little something extra, because another of Lara Downes’s remarkable albums is called Some of These Days, from 2020, in which downs considers and engages the tradition of spirituals and freedom songs.
And on one track in particular, she works with an artist named Toshi Reagon, an incredibly powerful and innovative singer songwriter and performer. But Toshi Reagon also has an even more direct connection to this tradition.
Toshi Reagan's mother is Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who began her career as an activist and artist with the SNCC Freedom Singers during the Civil Rights Movement and later went on to form the great Sweet Honey in the Rock. So here's Lara Downes now talking about her interpretation with Toshi Reagon of the spiritual “Steal Away.”
[Music: Toshi Reagon “Steal Away” (demo)]
Lara Downes: Toshi Reagan and I had wanted to do a collaboration as part of this album, Some of These Days. And then one day she just sent me this track that she had laid down a version of the spiritual “Steal Away.”
Then I took my mom to see the movie Harriet about Harriet Tubman. And there's this scene where she finally gets to Philadelphia. And, all of a sudden, there are Black people walking around the streets of the city and they're dressed in fine clothing. They are educated, and they're a part of a society that she could not have dreamed of a day before that.
So the movie's over. My mom always likes to sit through all the credits, and I'm like yanking her out of her seat saying. “We have to go home, because I have this idea.”
[Music: Lara Downes “Piano Sonata No. 2, ‘Concord, Mass 1840-1860’” (Charles Ives)]
Lara Downes: So we get home, and I go to my piano. And I started playing the “Concord Sonata” by Charles Ives, which is a really interesting piece of music because he wrote it at exactly the same time. But he's way up in Concord, Massachusetts, and he's an abolitionist. He's living in this community of abolitionists, and they're thinking about this kind of utopian version of America that focuses on freedom of mind, and freedom of speech and all these things.
[Music: Lara Downes & Toshi Reagon “Steal Away (After Ives's Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord’)”]
Lara Downes: So I start playing these weird chords of Ives’ music with Toshi’s track. And it was like this magical amalgam of two different places—like two versions of America—coming together.
I think it's one of the best things I've ever done.
Bethany Jay: Thanks to Ms. Downes for sharing her insights and her art with us. And thanks too to our resident music correspondent, historian Charles L. Hughes. Dr. Hughes is the Director of the Lynne & Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College and the author of Why Bushwick Bill Matters and Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.
You can find a complete list of the songs you heard in the show notes—along with a full transcript and links to helpful classroom resources. Visit us at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts.
Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy.
“Music Reconstructed” is produced by Barrett Golding. Our senior producer is Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Cory Collins provides content guidance. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. I’m Dr. Bethay Jay, Professor of History at Salem State University and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- Smithsonian Magazine, How Black Composers Shaped the Sound of American Classical Music
- Lara Downes, About Lara
- NPR, Amplify With Lara Downes’
- Lara Downes, Rising Sun Music
- Lara Downes, REFLECTIONS: Scott Joplin Reconsidered
- The Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, Joplin Biography
- BBC News, Florence Price: Forgotten work by pioneering composer rediscovered
- Florence Price, Biography
- Helen Walker-Hill (editor), Black Women Composers: A Century of Piano Music (1893-1990)
- Myrna Summers, Sinner Please Don't Let This Harvest Pass
- Music by Black Composers, Our Composers Collage
- WTTW Chicago, From Riots to Renaissance: The Black Renaissance
- University of Arkansas Libraries, Florence Price
- Library of Congress, Scott Joplin, 1868-1917
- The New York Times, Comfort Viewing: 3 Reasons I Love ‘The Sting’
- NPR: The Picture Show, Reconsidering Scott Joplin's 'The Entertainer'
- Library of Congress, Treemonisha
- Library of Congress, History of Ragtime
- Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Education
- Toshi Reagon, About Toshi
- Bernice Johnson Reagon, About Dr. Reagon
- SNCC, Freedom Singers
- Sweet Honey in the Rock, About Sweet Honey
- Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Steal Away To Jesus” (c. 1920)
- Smithsonian Magazine, The True Story Behind the Harriet Tubman Movie
- National Park Service, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park
When we consider the trauma of white supremacy during the Jim Crow era—what writer Ralph Ellison describes as “the brutal experience”—it’s important to understand the resilience and joy that sustained Black communities. We can experience that all through the “near-comic, near-tragic lyricism” of the blues. In part 3 of this series, acclaimed musician, songwriter and poet Adia Victoria talks with Charles L. Hughes about how the bittersweet nature of blues does “the very emotionally mature work of acknowledging” this complex history.
- Adia Victoria "Me and the Devil" from Silences (2019)
- Adia Victoria "Stuck in the South" from Beyond the Bloodhounds (2016)
- Adia Victoria "South Gotta Change" (2020)
- Blind Willie McTell "You Was Born to Die" (1933)
- Adia Victoria "You Was Born to Die" from A Southern Gothic (2021)
- Adia Victoria "Magnolia Blues" from A Southern Gothic (2021)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Jim Crow era was a rough time for African Americans. In every area of life, they faced inequality and racial violence. Despite the hardship and terror, they persevered. They did not let hate stamp out their love, or pain eliminate their joy. And we can hear that bittersweet blend of hard history when we listen to the blues.
I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries and this is "Music Reconstructed," from Teaching Hard History. When music is re-thought, re-mixed and re-imagined, that takes research. And the results can reveal insights into history for educators and students. During this special, four-part series, music expert and historian Charles Hughes brings us conversations with contemporary musicians who are exploring the sounds, songs and stories of the Jim Crow era through their music.
In this episode, Charles introduces us to musician, songwriter, poet and host of the Call & Response podcast, Adia Victoria. On her album, A Southern Gothic, Victoria blends history with the contemporary—the collective with the personal—as she shows us how the blues, as she puts it, is "doing the very emotionally mature work of acknowledging these troubling emotions that are as human as joy." Here's Charles.
[Music: Adia Victoria "Me and the Devil"]
Charles Hughes: Adia Victoria is one of the great contemporary blues musicians, someone who draws on the traditions of Robert Johnson, and Memphis Minnie, and Victoria Spivey and all the blues greats, very much in the tradition of the blues as a way to think about and understand experiences.
From the very beginning blues music was connected not only to the way that African Americans had to survive and had to figure out ways to live in a Jim Crow society, but it was also connected to the way in which their lives and experiences could be celebrated, could be re-imagined, could be remixed.
But she is also in the lineage of all the other Southern Black women who have used blues and a blues identity in order to try to push not only for greater change in their moment but a larger rethinking of American history.
She has released several acclaimed albums, her most recent being 2020's A Southern Gothic. And one of the things that she does throughout her work and she did throughout our conversation was she talked about how important it is to reckon with who you are and where you come from. And so it's very appropriate that we begin today with her song, which was digging deep into that history and that identity, as she tried to figure out what it meant for her to be, as she said at the time, "Stuck in the South."
[Music: Adia Victoria "Stuck in the South"]
Adia Victoria: "Stuck in the South" was a song that I wrote the evening of the murder of Trayvon Martin. It brought me back to when I was 16 in high school. And I learned about the lynching of Emmett Till.
I feel that that sense of security was taken from me. You knew that Southern black children had been enslaved, but it reminded me that the South would eat its children to preserve the adults' fear.
I grew up a Black, Southern girl in South Carolina. My family goes back in South Carolina 400 years. And so being Black and being female, you're put in a position where you're able to observe how power gets made, how power is transferred. But also more importantly, why? Why do the adults act this way? What do they need from me? Why is it being asked of me to carry on these traditions?
That unquenchable need to ask why and question authority is what landed me in the position that I am today, as an artist, as a social troll, as a social commentator is the question of why and seeing the ways that one word strikes fear in the heart of authority figures.
[Music: Adia Victoria "South Gotta Change"]
Adia Victoria: "South Gotta Change" was written in the summer of 2020, following the passing of John Lewis. I guess what people call the George Floyd moment, but, you know, for Black Americans, that's just another day in America.
And I found myself vacillating between that cynicism of ‘this is how it is' and the path that John Lewis traveled. It's a harder path.
It even seemed delusional that you'd go out there on the [Edmund] Pettus Bridge and expect anything other than what happened to happen. But, you know, the system can deal with cynicism. The system cannot deal with truth.
I view "Stuck in the South" and "South Gotta Change" as a growing up of my relationship with the South. There's a lot of learned helplessness in "Stuck in the South," defeatism almost in it of anger and a rage. But in "South Gotta Change," years later, I found a way to grow that rage into something and to take it off my shoulders and put it back on the people that it belongs to.
And again, speaking to the South as a family member, speaking to the white South, and it's kind of asking them, ‘What are you running from? What are these ghosts?' Like, ‘Whatever you're running from can't be worse than the soul death that you're experiencing because you're too afraid to just to challenge it.' I think that that's what John Lewis, he was asking young children to do when he asked him to engage in "good trouble."
[Music: Blind Willie McTell "You Was Born to Die"]
Adia Victoria: I realized too, that the blues for me had offered my first sense of Black Southern community. And when I finally met the music of the blues, I was in my early twenties in Atlanta. I was a high school dropout. I was a telemarketer. And I was lost. And so finding Skip James, and Victoria Spivey, and Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, it saved me. It gave me a reason to preserve my own life.
And so "You Was Born to Die" is a song that I'd been listening to quite a bit. Whenever my anxiety would peak, I would go and sit under the Magnolia tree and remind myself that death is inevitable. It is as natural as birth. Life is a transitional experience.
So I wanted to feature Blind Willie McTell's "You Was Born to Die" as an homage to the blues that came before me, the blues that paved the path that I walked down now. And that's how that song was born. It was another instance of the blues saving my life.
[Music: Adia Victoria "You Was Born to Die"]
Adia Victoria: People see the blues as like suffer music or like tragedy porn. But I don't see it as that. I see it as doing the very emotionally mature work of acknowledging these troubling emotions that are as human as joy. And I think that's what the blues was for my ancestors. And it certainly was what the blues was for me.
And it gave me a way to contextualize my life and my experiences. The blues for me was life affirming. It was validating. It was the greatest heirloom that I ever received.
What all can you take from a human being? Basically sentence them to social death, as my ancestors were, and what remains there. And I thought about these folks who had been sentenced to slavery in perpetuity, not just their own selves, but their offspring, as far as they knew. And even in those circumstances, they were finding ways to express their humanity.
There was still the strive to express oneself. Even if you had been stripped down to just a pickaxe and the land that you have to work.
And I started thinking about the ways that the land, you know, informs the Southerner. The way that it's not just a backdrop. It's the land and nature as a scene of self encounter.
[Music: Adia Victoria "Magnolia Blues"]
Adia Victoria: And I had my magnolia tree that was blooming, you know, in my backyard. And that magnolia tree, I started going into sort of communion with it, and what the Magnolia tree has stood for, the myth-making and the imagery of the south, Moonlight magnolias.
And I asked the magnolia tree, ‘What is your truth beyond those lies? What memories do we share?'
So my song, "Magnolia Blues" was birthed out of those conversations. ‘What does this tree mean to me? What does this land mean to me?' And you know, when I think about educators, I think about my own education in the south as a little girl in Spartanburg was, the greatest education that I had was being out in the country in Campobello, around my grandmother's house, of just ‘How does this land speak to me? How does this land inform me and challenge me and shape me?' And, you know, I think that that's a great untapped resource that Southern educators, it would behoove them to lean into, as they're shaping and creating and challenging young minds.
I would encourage educators, take the kids outside, sit in a circle in silence and talk to the land. And don't try and be the teacher, the authority, the expert. Be the beginner. Let yourself be a beginner and a child with the land around you.
[Music: Adia Victoria "Me and the Devil"]
Charles Hughes: It is so striking to hear the connections between this idea of sitting with the land and listening to the land with a kind of teaching that I learned from a historian named William Cronin, who along with his graduate students developed this idea of reading the landscape. Of taking students out into nature or out into an urban environment, whatever kind of landscape you're around, and reading it as we would read a book or as we would read a historical document, to learn from it and to think about what it can tell us.
Living is not just about survival. It is also about determining one's own relationship to one's surroundings, one's community, one's existence, in a way that is equally as rich and complicated and important as any kind of more canonical, philosophical, or spiritual tradition.
The great writer Ralph Ellison talks about the blues as being an impulse to figure out a way to live within what he calls "the brutal experience." And he says that one must "finger the jagged grain" of that experience, in order to draw from it "a near-comic, near-tragic lyricism."
And what strikes me so deeply about Adia Victoria's work, beyond just how compelling it is, and how powerful her music is, and how loud it can be and how wonderfully connected it is to so many musical traditions, is that she reminds us through her own work and through what she calls on all of us to do, that's the only way really to learn. Whether it's learning from the music of the past, learning from the people of the past or sometimes just learning from the land and being where you are, so that you can figure out where you need to go. And I think she is such a powerful voice in this conversation. If anybody teaches hard history through their music, Adia Victoria surely does it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Adia Victoria for sharing her insights and her art with us. And thanks too to my good friend and our music correspondent, historian Charles L. Hughes. Dr. Hughes is the Director of the Lynne & Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College and the author of Why Bushwick Bill Matters and Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.
Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy.
"Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. Our senior producer is Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Cory Collins provides content guidance. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- The New York Times, Robert Johnson, Bluesman Whose Life Was a Riddle
- Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Memphis Minnie
- Black Music Scholar, Victoria Spivey: Black Snake Blues
- The New York Times, John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80
- The Washington Post, Renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge for John Lewis, who nearly died there on Bloody Sunday
- Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble (film)
- All About Blues Music, Skip James
- Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Howlin' Wolf
- New Georgia Encyclopedia, "Blind Willie" McTell
- Urban Dictionary, Moonlight and magnolia
- William Cronin, Reading Landscapes - Learning Historical Research
- Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright's Blues, by R. Ellison
Episode 14, Season 4
Black political ideologies in the early 20th century evolved against a backdrop of derogatory stereotypes and racial terrorism. Starting with Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Agency, historian Minkah Makalani contextualizes an era of Black intellectualism. From common goals of racial unity to fierce debates over methods, he shows how movements of the 1920s and 1930s fed into what became the civil rights and Black Power movements.
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- Learning For Justice: Student Text, The Negro's Place in World Reorganization (grades 9-12)
- Learning For Justice: Lesson, Before Rosa Parks: Ida B. Wells (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning For Justice: Article, I Didn't Know There Were Cities in Africa: Challenging Children's-and Adult's-Misperceptions about the African Continent
- Learning For Justice: Article, Teaching About King’s Radical Approach to Social Justice
Bethany Jay: As teachers, we divide the narrative of history into discrete topics: a unit plan on the Revolutionary War, another on the Progressive Movement, another on the Depression. This strategy reflects the curriculum standards that we are asked to work with, and our need to craft a narrative that's coherent for our students. But it also puts historical events into different silos, very separate from one another. Then, every so often, a resource comes around that explodes those silos and challenges us to rethink that neat sequence of unit plans.
Bethany Jay: For me, that resource was Mary Dudziak's Cold War Civil Rights. I realize that I'm dating myself here—Dudziak's book is now over 20 years old, but it is still relevant. In Cold War Civil Rights, Dudziak explores the history of the Civil Rights Movement within the international context of the Cold War. She argues that the limits of American democracy at home, with regard to what was commonly known at the time as "The Negro Problem" (but which we know as the violence and structural racism of Jim Crow), constituted an international public relations crisis. A crisis that Cold War adversaries like the Soviet Union seized at every opportunity. Even during World War II, writer Pearl S. Buck noted that America's racial problems were fodder for enemy propaganda. Buck wrote:
Every lynching, every race riot gives joy to Japan. The discriminations of the American army and navy and the air forces against colored soldiers and sailors, the exclusion of colored labor in our defense industries and trade unions, all our social discriminations are of the greatest aid today to our enemy in Asia, Japan. "Look at America," Japan is saying to millions of listening ears. "Will white Americans give you equality?"
Bethany Jay: The discrimination, segregation and violence directed at Black Americans that Buck identified as an ideological problem during World War II only became further amplified by a Cold War context. To respond to international criticisms of the United States—or perhaps to drown them out—various entities in the US government organized counter-narratives. One of the most prominent of these was a State Department publication that emerged in the early 1950s called The Negro in American Life.
Bethany Jay: It may be surprising to those of us living through today's controversies surrounding teaching slavery to learn that this 1950's publication went to great lengths explaining that slavery was the "cardinal cause" of American racism. But as Dudziak points out, their focus on slavery served as a useful origin story. She says, "The reader was asked not to view American race relations in isolation. Rather,"—and here she's quoting the State Department—"'it is against this background that the progress which the Negro has made—and the steps still needed for the full solution of his problems—must be measured.'" In other words, by beginning with the sin of slavery, The Negro in American Life argued that America under Jim Crow represented real racial progress. To accompany narratives like The Negro in American Life, the State Department also recruited prominent Black Americans like Louis Armstrong to serve as cherry-picked examples of Black achievement, as evidence of the nation's great strides towards racial equality.
Bethany Jay: Of course, to maintain this celebratory and progressive narrative of American race relations, the United States government needed to carefully control which messages were available overseas. And so the State Department and FBI became very concerned with the actions of African Americans abroad. In the 1950s, everyone from Josephine Baker to Paul Robeson to W.E.B. Du Bois found themselves the targets of some combination of government surveillance, travel restrictions, blacklisting and smear campaigns. Why? Well, labor and civil rights activist William Patterson ran afoul of the State Department when he placed the plight of African Americans in the context of international anti-colonization movements. In doing so, he had complicated the nation's campaign to sell racial progress as a hallmark of the possibilities of American democracy. And the State Department's justification for revoking Paul Robeson's passport may say it all: Robeson's "Frequent criticism of the treatment of Blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries. It was a family affair."
Bethany Jay: Like Robeson and Patterson, those who found themselves the targets of government surveillance, restrictions and persecution during the Cold War were parts of movements that sought the liberation of Black people no matter where they resided—movements that began well before the Cold War. In the earliest decades of the 20th century, African-American leaders responded both to colonization abroad and the violence and segregation at home by uniting under groups like Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association, the NAACP or myriad other organizations to effect change. Despite its importance, this history of Black political thought rarely gets much mention in the history curriculum. And when it does, it is often as a sidebar to seemingly more pressing 20th century issues. When, in fact, their work had an impact on much of our modern history, on many of those silos that often define our classrooms: from the interwar years, to World War II, decolonization, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and today.
Bethany Jay: I'm Bethany Jay, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Bethany Jay: Black political ideologies evolved against a backdrop of derogatory stereotypes and racial terrorism. In this episode, my co-host Hasan Kwame Jeffries spoke with historian Minkah Makalani about Black political thought during Jim Crow. They will help us to tell the complex and compelling history of this era in our classrooms by exploring how Black political leaders in the era of Jim Crow understood America's racial problems within an international context. Their work and their ideas influenced much of the 20th century as they actively worked to effect change both at home and abroad.
Bethany Jay: I'm so glad you can join us. Let's get started.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I have been looking forward to this episode and this conversation with this person since before the season began. I want to welcome to the podcast, Dr. Minkah Makalani. Minkah, what's up, brother?
Minkah Makalani: Man, it's all good. Thank you, Hasan, for having me on. Good to talk to you again.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely. Look, the reason why I've been looking forward to this episode, and to this topic, and to you specifically sharing some knowledge and insights with us is because too often when we look at the Jim Crow era, we don't look at the intellectual side.
Minkah Makalani: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We don't look at the side of Black folk thinking and acting on these thoughts and making sense of the circumstances that they find themselves in. And I can think of no better person to help us make sense of the political thinking of African Americans during this era than you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things, Minkah, that I love to introduce my students to as just sort of a springboard into this topic is the UNIA—Universal Negro Improvement Association—which was Marcus Garvey's organization. Could you just share with us sort of a rough outline of who Garvey was, and what the UNIA was?
Minkah Makalani: Right, so Garvey is a really intriguing character. Very charismatic, dynamic and a complex thinker. So he's born in Jamaica, and his father is a printer. And so he is introduced very early on to the word and to publishing as a central political activity. He's also learning from his father stories about Jamaica's radical history: the uprisings that occurred both among the enslaved, as well as those efforts to redress oppression after the period of enslavement ends.
Minkah Makalani: And early in his life, he decided to begin traveling. And one of the places that he goes is to the Panama Canal Zone. This had been a project to construct the Panama Canal, and it brought a number of Black Caribbeans to the canal zone. One of the things that he noticed there was that you had this differential pay system—what was known as Panama Silver. And this was a differential pay that was given to Black Caribbean migrant workers that was distinct from the pay that was going to white workers from the US.
Minkah Makalani: He goes to London. He works for Dusé Mohamed Ali and his international African Times and Orient Review. And he's being exposed to Pan-Africanist thought for the first time in a sustained way. He's also hearing stories coming from around the African world that are being published in the African Times and Orient Review.
Minkah Makalani: And then he returns to Jamaica, and he establishes in 1914 the Universal Negro Improvement Association. And the UNIA doesn't get much traction early on when he's in Jamaica. And in about 1916, he decides to embark on a tour, initially to visit Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute with the hopes of establishing a Tuskegee in Jamaica. He has the unfortunate timing of arriving in the United States after Washington had died. So he decides to have a tour anyway, a speaking tour, to try and raise money for the UNIA that he would return to and continue to build in Jamaica.
Minkah Makalani: And during his time in the US, he witnesses reports and accounts of the 1917 East St. Louis race riot. And this is one of the more brutal race riots that precedes the Red Summer of 1919. And with everything he has seen and heard about in Jamaica, in the Panama Canal Zone, the stories that he had read about and the conversations he had had in London, his anger and frustration kind of came to a head, and he decides to establish the UNIA in New York and work in the US.
Minkah Makalani: He frames a lot of the issues in these global terms, and connects what's going on in the US to everything that's going on around the world. He's insisting on the ability of Black people around the world to live freely without the yoke of white supremacy bearing down on them. And he's insisting on Africa for the Africans. And this means the ability of Africans on the African continent to direct their own lives, to direct their own societies, to be free of European domination.
Minkah Makalani: The other thing that he does is as a dark-skinned, Black Jamaican, he is critical of a Black elite, particularly in the US North, that is fair in complexion and that maintains a certain social distance from working class and poor Black folks. You know, they're being shunned, they're being talked about disparagingly. You had preachers on Sunday who would give a sermon chastising people for dressing a certain way, or for eating certain foods, and being loud in public—things that are "bringing the race down." And so Garvey actually is also tapping into a sense of racial pride that doesn't privilege those who are fair skinned, those who are richer.
Minkah Makalani: And so it taps into a whole range of things for a lot of people. And it really is inspiring to think about how it must have been in the context of being a generation removed from enslavement—the 19-teens, 1920s. This is the first full generation where people are largely born outside of the context of enslavement, right? And the kind of psychic trauma that that brings on, the constant barragement of racial stereotypes, demeaning depictions of Black people, demeaning discourses about Black people being lazy, being a danger, et cetera, to have someone in that context talk about Black pride, and talk about the African continent as a place of pride and a place that Black people should revere and focus on and try and liberate as they liberate themselves, ended up appealing to such a wide range of people that the UNIA remains the single largest organization ever in the Black world. I think the records indicate that it had upwards of 1.5 million members, people who were paying dues, who were consistently a part of chapters across the US, in the Caribbean, as well as on the African continent. But in terms of support, people who purchased and read its newspaper, The Negro World, people who sent money in to the UNIA, people who purchased shares in the Black Star Line, this was the UNAI's attempt to establish an international shipping line that would serve the interests of Black people around the world, that number rises to about eight million people. It's hard to overstate how important and profoundly influential the UNIA was to Black life around the world.
Minkah Makalani: And two examples I'll give in terms of the African continent, Jomo Kenyatta recounts how in his village in Kenya when he was young, The Negro World would arrive, and it would be read over and over and over. And young people would then go to different parts of town and relay the stories that were in The Negro World. And the other person that gives a similar account of how influential Garveyism was is Kwame Nkrumah, who was so influenced by Garvey and the UNIA that when he leads the Gold Coast to independence in 1957 and establishes the nation of Ghana, he takes the Black Star Line as inspiration. And so the Ghana national team is called the Black Stars after the Universal Negro Improvement Association's Black Star Line. So you get a sense of how important that is as a movement to so many people.
Minkah Makalani: A lot of people in the 20th century can trace their early intellectual beginnings to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. I like to tell my students about Audley Moore, or Queen Mother Moore, who is receiving considerable attention as of late with the resurgence of the push for reparations. A former colleague Ashley Farmer is writing a biography of Audley Moore and her work for reparations. But if you don't mind, I just want to read this interview that Mark Naison, a historian, did with her about her first encounter with Marcus Garvey in New Iberia, Louisiana, at a Longshoremen's Union.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely.
Minkah Makalani: So this is about 1920, 1921. Garvey was coming to give a talk at a Longshoremen's Hall, and the police wouldn't let him give his speech. And so she's explaining this. Quote, "Well, Garvey himself came, but the police wouldn't allow him to speak to us. And everybody vowed to go back the next night with the guarantee that we were going to hear Garvey. So we went. All of us went well-armed. Everybody had guns and big bags of ammunition. The police filed into the hall and stood up along the sides of the benches, man-to-man, on both sides of the aisle. So when Garvey came in, everybody stood up and applauded, and Garvey said, 'My friends, I wish to apologize to you for not speaking to you last night. But the mayor of New Orleans permitted himself to be used by the police, the chief, to prevent my speaking to you.' When he said that, the police chief jumped up on the platform and said, 'I'll run you in!' And when he did that, all of us stood on the benches, and everybody's guns came out. And with hand in the air, guns pointed, blue steel, Smith & Wessons, .44s, .38s, all kinds of guns, we said, 'Speak, Garvey. Speak!' And Garvey said, 'And as I was saying …' Garvey went on and repeated himself, and so the police filed out of the Longshoremen's Hall in New Orleans."
Minkah Makalani: I like to give that because it does a number of things. One, it does away with this myth that Black people in the South kind of just took oppression and were pushed around and bullied and never fought back. This is a clear indication that people were willing to bear arms if need be. But the other thing about this is that this is really her political awakening. She talks about beginning to read the newspaper, The Negro World and other newspapers after that, and then being compelled to move to New York in 1922 to really become involved in the UNIA. And then after its decline, moving into other political arenas. And this is where I think Garvey is really good also as a window onto a range of other organizations and political formations.
Minkah Makalani: Audley Moore is someone—or Queen Mother Moore, excuse me—is someone whose political career, intellectual activity extended over the course of the 20th century. She had the ear of Malcolm X. She informed a number of political movements throughout the 20th century, but her intellectual odyssey begins hearing about Marcus Garvey.
Minkah Makalani: And so I think, depending on how you want to approach Garvey, it can open up, and you can drill down into something very specific in the early 1920s, or you can expand it around the world, or you can expand it across the 20th century. But definitely you see those resonances throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and feeding on into those people who become very important figures in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What are some of the source materials that you use in the classroom to teach and talk about Garvey and the UNIA that you think might be useful to teachers K-12?
Minkah Makalani: The one document that I always use when teaching about the UNIA and Garvey is its "Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World." And this is a document drafted in 1920. And it kind of sets out some of the political concerns that the UNIA has. When you just look at the breadth of it, its preamble lodges 12 complaints, and then it goes on to make 54 demands. And this is a document that is so grand in scope that it goes from calling for Africa for the Africans to demanding the free and unfettered commercial intercourse with all the Negro people of the world, to something like, "We proclaim the 31st day of August of each year to be an international holiday to observed by all Negroes."
Minkah Makalani: So the document is long, and it can take a lot to kind of get into and walk students through, particularly in a K-12 context. But what it does, I think, which is so good, and it works equally as well in a university classroom, is it requires you to give the students some context. You have to explain a whole range of things that are going on in the world. You've had the Great War or World War I that has ended. You've had this concern about what to do with these African territories that were previously held by Germany. And pan-African congresses are seeking to make a claim at the founding of the League of Nations for the independence of Africa and the African colonies.
Minkah Makalani: President Woodrow Wilson has called for self-determination for European nations, but definitely does not consider that as an option for Africa. It's a very racialized notion of self-determination that he's articulating. And Garvey is saying, "Number 13: We believe in the freedom of Africa for the Negro people of the world. And by the principle of Europe for the Europeans and Asians for the Asiatics, we also demand Africa for the Africans at home and abroad."
Minkah Makalani: You see there that he's talking about Africa for the Africans in the context of Europe and these movements in Asia to assert independence and sovereignty. And so making those same kinds of claims for Black people. So you get students to think about what are the complaints and what are the demands that they are making, and why are they calling for this in this way?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned The Negro World and Marcus Garvey as its publisher. Would you recommend using The Negro World in the classroom?
Minkah Makalani: Mm-hmm. Definitely. There are a range of things you can do with looking at The Negro World to get students to see what are some of the topics that were covered. How did it mix a news story with an editorial that seeks to politically educate its readership, that seeks to situate a lynching or the Red Summer of 1919? Or an international congress—the Pan-African Congress or the UNIA's international congresses? How does it talk about them? It gets students to thinking about how everyday people are reading this newspaper, who are, say, going to a barbershop or maybe to a salon. People are talking about it in church groups, in their clubs. It shows the kinds of ideas they are debating, both with leaders but also amongst themselves. And then also what does it mean that so many people are reading this around the globe, and that in some instances it's outlawed?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the great ironies that I find in Garvey and his understanding of Africa is that, to a certain extent, it draws upon some of the prevailing stereotypes of what the continent was.
Minkah Makalani: Mm-hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Is that a fair thing to say?
Minkah Makalani: I think it is fair to say that a lot of the views that Garvey expressed about Africans track with dominant, racist views about Africa and Africans. At the same time that Garvey is saying we need to look at Africa as our home, he would say that people need to be civilized, they need to be Christianized, and we need to redeem Africa. It is in many ways deplorable, but it's not uncommon for its period. Actually, Audley Moore recounts how her and her husband, after Garvey comes to Louisiana, they decide they're going to go to Africa. And an aunt tells her, "No, no, no, you can't go to Africa. If you go there, they're gonna eat you. They eat people there."
Minkah Makalani: Garvey sees himself as a very modern Black person, right? He's well-educated, he's well-traveled. Now it's the same thing that undergirds the thinking of Black leaders in the NAACP, the Urban League, and how they thought about their role to educate working-class Black people, and that is this idea of racial uplift. That those who are the most educated, who are the most culturally advanced, that it's their responsibility to uplift those Black people in the US who are poor, who are uneducated, and tell them what they need to improve themselves, but also to go back to Africa and civilize the continent.
Minkah Makalani: To talk about this history, to talk about this aspect of Garvey and this aspect Black thought at this time, is not to diminish it or bring it down, but to make it human. So Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, a whole host of characters, they end up not being heroes, but being amazing human beings who had flaws.
Bethany Jay: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let's return now to Hasan's conversation with Minkah Makalani.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Who were some of Garvey's contemporaries that we should know about, and would be helpful for students to be introduced to, to make sense of the thinking circulating at this time?
Minkah Makalani: So the figures abound in terms of his contemporaries. And some people who he was really close to, like the poet Claude McKay—also from Jamaica. He saw great value in some of his work, and then he denigrated other of his work. Langston Hughes, someone again who he saw great value in, but he denigrated his work. And Garvey was also critical of Paul Robeson, in particular his film Sanders of the River.
Minkah Makalani: You know, the most well-known contemporary of Garvey is W.E.B. Du Bois. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, excels in school; attends Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee; gets accepted to Harvard, but is forced to repeat a couple years of undergraduate work because it's deemed that Fisk isn't up to the standard for a Harvard education. And so he ends up studying economics and sociology in Germany, and ultimately ends up writing some of the works that become foundational to the field of sociology. And comes back to complete his PhD in history at Harvard on the suppression of the African slave trade. This becomes one of the most important early histories of the subject. It becomes the first in a series of books from Harvard University that issue from the dissertations that their students produce.
Minkah Makalani: After Du Bois writes his dissertation and graduates from Harvard, he immediately becomes involved in a number of political and intellectual formations in the late 19th century and early 20th century. And then in 1903, he publishes his first major work, which is The Souls of Black Folk, and it really does establish him as a major intellectual figure in the United States and around the world. He then goes on to help establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as become the founder and editor of its magazine The Crisis. And Du Bois is a contemporary and an adversary of Booker T. Washington, and Washington's focus on industrial education, and Du Bois's emphasis on kind of a liberal arts education. Then he becomes an adversary of Marcus Garvey.
Minkah Makalani: One of the resources that I tend to turn to with my students is a book that was edited by Henry Louis Gates and Jennifer Burton called Call and Response: Key Debates in African-American Studies. It covers key debates around a range of topics that begin during the period of enslavement on up to the present era. And it has such topics as the politics of art, government, civic rights and civic duties, nature, culture and slavery, separatism versus integration. So it covers a range of topics that are useful because it's giving documents where the people from these periods are speaking themselves, both lay figures, as well as intellectuals and names you would recognize.
Minkah Makalani: And just to give you a sense of how good this material is and how useful it can be, in about 1920, 1921, you have Du Bois speaking explicitly about Garvey, as well as Garvey speaking explicitly about Du Bois. And so in one instance in Du Bois's Crisis magazine in January of 1921, he's writing about Marcus Garvey's economic program and his design for an international shipping line, the Black Star Line. And he's really critical of it. He sums up by giving his characterization of Garvey that I'll just read for you. "To sum up, Garvey is a sincere, hardworking idealist. He is also a stubborn, domineering leader of the mass. He has worthy industrial and commercial schemes, but he is an inexperienced businessman. His dreams of Negro industry, commerce and the ultimate freedom of Africa are feasible, but his methods are bombastic, wasteful, illogical and ineffective and almost illegal. If he learns by experience, attracts strong and capable friends and helpers instead of making needless enemies, if he gives up secrecy and suspicion, and substitutes open and frank reports as to his income and expenses, and above all, if he is willing to be a coworker and not a czar, he may yet succeed in his schemes toward accomplishment. But unless he does these things and does them quickly, he cannot escape failure."
Minkah Makalani: And so in that, you get this critique of Marcus Garvey that also gives you a sense of who Du Bois is. This is someone who's committed to the development of a leadership class of highly-educated, primarily Black men, although he does allow for Black women to be in that leadership class as well, but primarily Black men who will lead the fate of the race. And so he's kind of marking out Garvey's failures in a number of ways along those lines.
Minkah Makalani: Now writing almost in response to W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey offers his assessment of Du Bois and the NAACP. I'll just read this paragraph, and you can get a flavor for what Garvey is saying. "Du Bois appeals to the talented tenth while Garvey appeals to the hoi polloi. The NAACP appeals to the Beau Brummell, Lord Chesterfield, kid gloved, silk stockinged, creased trousers, patent leather shoe, Bird of Paradise hat and Hudson Steel coat with beaver or skunk collar element. While the UNIA appeals to the sober, sane, serious, earnest, hardworking man who earns his living by the sweat of his brow. The NAACP appeals to the cavalier element in the Negro race, while the UNIA appeals to the self-reliant yeomanry. Hence, in no sense are Du Bois and Mr. James Weldon Johnson rivals of Marcus Garvey. Du Bois and Johnson as writers and speakers, and Garvey as prophet, propagandist and organizer and inspirer of the masses are doing good work and all should be free and unimpeded in perfecting their plans."
Minkah Makalani: And so Marcus Garvey offers his assessment of what he sees as a Black elite leadership that doesn't reflect the interests of Black people on a much larger scale. Du Bois is nonetheless like Garvey: pushing for a pan-African or a global approach to solving the issues of racial oppression and colonialism around the world. So he not only participates in the 1900 Pan-African Conference, where he delivers the famous line, "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. And the color line belts the world." He leads the 1919 Pan-African Congress that's held in France, and then a number of subsequent Pan-African Congresses.
Minkah Makalani: W.E.B. Du Bois's Crisis magazine was widely influential. This is one of those periodicals that people would wait for in the mail, and they would read the stories, read his editorials. And it really helped shape how people thought about political struggles in the United States in this global context. And that helps shape a liberal to radical political orientation in the 19-teens and 1920s. In distinction from the NAACP, which is a very top-down organization—everything had to be controlled by the national headquarters—the Garvey movement and the UNIA was very decentralized in some ways. And so people who were in the UNIA chapters around the world and around the country had much greater latitude to organize and do a whole range of things that, by the time Garvey is arrested, he has no interest in them doing.
Minkah Makalani: And so in one case in particular, in Milwaukee, the leadership and most of the membership of the UNIA is composed of socialists and labor organizers who reject some of Garvey's business proposals in lieu of advocating for a Black working class struggle. Ultimately, Du Bois ends up falling out of favor by the 1940s with the NAACP as he becomes increasingly radical. And then you have a whole range of other people who are contemporaries of Garvey like Ida B. Wells, who did a great deal of work around anti-lynching, investigating lynchings. And this is beginning both in Memphis, Tennessee, when she exposed a lynching of three Black men, and was essentially ran out of Memphis, her printing press destroyed, but becomes a real important figure in terms of one of the earliest Black women intellectuals. Or people like Grace Campbell, who was a parole officer, a social worker but also a socialist and a communist. And you have her, along with a woman named Elizabeth Hendrickson, who helped establish the Harlem Tenants League, which organizes Harlem tenants around sanitary living conditions, affordable rents, really addressing the needs of Black people as they live in a day-to-day basis in their community, along with organizing people as workers in a radical movement.
Minkah Makalani: She's from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and immigrated to New York at the turn of the century. Now she co-founds two organizations. One is the Virgin Islands Protective League. The other is the American West Indian Ladies Aid Society. Now these are mutual aid societies, but they took very radical political positions on a whole range of things. You know, they also live within probably five square blocks of one another in Harlem, and you can actually see how close their headquarters are. And so these are people who are interacting with each other and seeing one another on a daily basis. And then this kind of spills out into a whole range of organizing activities throughout the United States.
Minkah Makalani: You have organizations like the National Association of Colored Women. Or you have the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. And you have a whole range of Black women's clubs that take on a whole host of initiatives and projects. And some of those are concerned with improving the conditions that Black women and Black families are in, kind of social service oriented. Alongside that, you had organizations like the Ladies Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a labor organization, and they had a ladies auxiliary. You also had a number of organizations like the African Brotherhood or the UNIA, where Black women played very important roles.
Minkah Makalani: These spaces that Black women are developing allowed them to engage in the intellectual activity of thinking and talking about and making sense of the world that they exist in, but not to see it simply as how race impacts Black people as if it's just one group. They're actually talking about how these issues that affect the race impact them specifically as Black women. You get this concern with what is known now as "intersectionality." And this is, I think, something that comes out of both formal political spaces like the National Association of Colored Women, and Black clubs, the labor organizations that people were a part of, but also beauty salons and social settings where they are talking to each other about problems with an employer. In some instances, they have to go out and work as domestics in the homes of white people, and they have to confront the range of issues that are presented there: low pay, sexual violence. Then they come home and they are confronting some of the same kinds of problems. And I think it's that constellation of spaces that allow for Black women to raise these questions and debate them.
Minkah Makalani: We have a lot of work that looks at the social world of Black men, but I think increasingly we have work that looks at the social world of Black women during the 1920s and '30s, and how those institutions and those social frameworks provide a much different picture of what Black politics looks like, and what the United States looks like, and what are some of these pressing issues. You could look at the work of, say, Brittney Cooper. You could look at Davarian Baldwin. You could look at LaShawn Harris. I try and draw on their work in my teaching.
Minkah Makalani: Other contemporaries of Garvey are the Negro Historical Association that is based in Harlem. It has members like Arturo Schomburg, George Wells Parker, John Bruce, Cyril Briggs from the African Brotherhood and others. And they are concerned with a range of things. So Arturo Schomburg, he's a bibliophile, and he's collecting works that get into the history of Black people around the world, which becomes the basis for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and History in Harlem today. George Wells Parker is articulating an early Egyptology. His pamphlet is called "Children of the Sun." And he's trying to look at and rehabilitate an image of Africa that looks to Egypt and some of Africa's more dynamic, well-known histories and civilizations that are seen as non-Black, that are seen as actually white or Middle Eastern, and arguing that these are African civilizations, and that this is a testament to the greatness of Black people. And so these are things that you see informing a range of political formations throughout the 1960s and '70s, but also intellectual approaches. So if you're thinking about Afro-centrism today, that is a kind of articulation of those early concerns with Egypt and ancient African civilizations that you have in the 1920s.
Minkah Makalani: Other contemporaries of Garvey are the African Blood Brotherhood, which is a radical organization that had ties to the Garvey movement, but ended up becoming some of the first Black members of the Communist Party. Cyril Valentine Briggs, Richard Moore, who had the Frederick Douglass Bookstore in Harlem for a good number of years, and one of the earliest to advocate for doing away with the use of the word "Negro" to describe Black people. Wilfred Adolphus Domingo, who actually had been in some of the same political formations with Marcus Garvey in their native Jamaica, some of their ideas end up really shaping what the Communist Party in the United States does. And some of their members, and some of those early Black people who come into the Communist Party through the United States, end up having this profound impact on what communism looks like internationally, and how it grapples with questions of racial oppression, national oppression and colonialism.
Minkah Makalani: One of the things I think is important to remember about the early 20th century, particularly the '20s and '30s, is that when you are talking about socialism or when you're talking about communism, it hasn't become this bogeyman that it is by the 1960s and '70s that can undermine someone's credibility or undermine a political movement. With the Depression, people are confronting the real drastic economic impact that capitalism is having in their lives. You're talking about people who are thankful to have oatmeal for a week, or to get bread. They're living in shantytowns, essentially. And you can find photographs of what were known as Hoovervilles, where people were constructing makeshift homes and towns really in the St. Louis area, on the banks of the Mississippi.
Minkah Makalani: So when people encountered the Communist Party or the Socialist Party, they were encountering a viable political party that spoke very specifically to their circumstances, to their economic life, to their social conditions. And at the time when people are being evicted from their homes, it provided them not only an organization that they could turn to if they are evicted who would come and confront the police or confront sheriffs, and then in many instances move families back into apartments or houses that they had been evicted from. And in terms of the Communist Party, in the '20s and '30s, you're talking about the only major political party that is explicitly articulating an anti-racist platform. You know, in all these parties: the Communist Party, Socialist Party, Democratic and Republican Parties, you had Black members encountering white racism, the racism of its members being dismissed, being ignored, being treated poorly, talked to poorly, even violence against its members, right?
Minkah Makalani: The Communist Party held trials where its members were tried for racism and expelled for racism. If someone called you a racial slur or if they hit you, or if they violated you or your person or your family in some kind of way, you could actually have that person tried and expelled. And that was profound. Audley Moore ultimately joins the Communist Party because of all the political parties that were around at that time, major political parties, she said that was the one that was actually dealing with Black people's needs at that point in time. The event that compels her is that the Communist Party takes up the case of the Scottsboro Boys. And these were nine boys who were arrested while hoboing on a train that stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama; were accused by two white women on the train of raping them; and were tried, convicted and sentenced to death in a matter of days, really. And the Communist Party took up that campaign, made it an international campaign.
Minkah Makalani: And the Communist Party is explicitly talking about the nature of colonialism in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean. And this is not to say that everything the Communist Party said about race, everything that it said about imperialism or colonialism was accurate or was the epitome of how one should think about these things, but these were issues that Black people held as central and essential to look at. And none of the other major parties were offering them any kind of language, any kind of political framework to either think about it, and then more importantly, I would say, none of these other parties offered Black people vehicles in which they could take their own ideas about racial oppression, about colonialism and bring it onto the political stage. And the Communist Party did that.
Minkah Makalani: So those are the kinds of things I think are important to really keep in mind to help explain to students who are encountering these terms in 2022 what the landscape was in that period. People who were trying to identify ways to transform their lives, and to address their most immediate needs, as well as speak to these larger global patterns.
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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: How did white authorities respond to the kind of organizing that was occurring through organizations like the UNIA, but especially the kind of public thinking that Black intellectuals and organizations were doing at the time?
Minkah Makalani: This is one of the more interesting things to talk about with students: the development and refining of state surveillance of Black intellectuals and Black political figures that begins in the 19-teens and the 1920s, that becomes a template for much of the FBI's activities in terms of domestic surveillance, and ultimately the COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program.
Minkah Makalani: So essentially, they begin to recruit people to infiltrate organizations and provide reports about the activities of organizations, or provide detailed reports about individual figures. And so you have reams and reams of federal surveillance reports on Marcus Garvey's activities; on the activities of Du Bois; A. Philip Randolph and The Messenger, his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—a labor organization that organizes Black men who worked as porters on the trains; surveilling and monitoring labor organizations; Black women's clubs; a whole range of organizations. If they were concerned with and addressing political questions, they would put them under surveillance.
Minkah Makalani: And additionally, you had a cataloging and surveilling and monitoring of what went into their publications. So this occurs in the US. It doesn't necessarily disrupt the circulation of these publications, but they are also exchanging information with England, with France. And those authorities are barring the circulation of these periodicals in their colonies. And so it's really the work of maritime workers in some cases—Black maritime workers—to smuggle these publications into different places, once they get outlawed or barred or are taken possession of in the ports. So you have the whole range of these kinds of surveillance activities, and you can actually go through these reports and you can really construct, like, the day-to-day activities of some of these organizations.
Minkah Makalani: What this all leads up to though, are extreme levels of repression. So Du Bois is under constant surveillance. And people like he and Paul Robeson, they have their passports revoked, and they're unable to travel internationally. And this really limits their ability to make a living, as well as engage in the kind of robust political activity that they had before. You have the same thing happening with a number of individuals. In early 1921, Garvey goes on a trip to the Caribbean and to Central America, but ultimately the trip is extended for about five or six months, because the federal government is barring his re-entry into the United States. And he's ultimately forced to kind of tone down his more radical elements and begin to argue against radical political programs when he returns. And this doesn't stop him from being arrested, convicted and ultimately deported from the United States.
Minkah Makalani: So ultimately, Garvey is indicted on selling shares for his Black Star Line. And some of the boats that he's selling shares on, he doesn't actually own. You also have efforts that essentially destabilize some organizations, that create misinformation about different figures. And so what you have occurring in the 1920s and '30s is really leading up to that surveillance that happens of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement that we probably know a whole lot more about of Black radicals and Black intellectuals in the '50s and '60s.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, literally, J. Edgar Hoover gets his start investigating the UNIA and bringing on Agent "800." Literally.
Minkah Makalani: Right, right. And you see him asking for more resources to expand his surveillance and get more agents under his guidance in these reports. And so you can go to the library. There's a person named Theodore Kornweibel, who compiled 25 microfilm reels worth of federal surveillance between 1917 and 1925 of Black political organizations. And in that, you see Agent "800," you see a whole range of people. You can see in those documents the thinking of someone like Hoover, and the language that he begins to develop, that 'We need to contain these threats. We need to surveil them. We need to make sure that we know all of their moves.' And you see to what extent those in power went to maintain power, and when they are forced to make concessions and to allow greater freedoms, to peel back some of the structures of racial oppression, they find new creative ways to maintain that control and domination.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about some of the ideologies that are circulating at this time among these various organizations and thinkers—you've talked about Pan-Africanism, for example, being one of them—is there a way to think about this era as a Black nationalist era, that that is really serving as sort of a unifying ideology across many of these organizations?
Minkah Makalani: Yes, I think definitely. You know, it might not be what one might detail as a typology of what Black nationalism is, but in terms of a sense of a need for racial unity to grapple with racial oppression and to move towards liberation, I think that informs a great deal of what's going on in this period. I think that everyone, for the most part, they are concerned with what political program can we pursue, and what strategies can we deploy that's going to liberate everyone, that's going to give us all equal rights? And then how that will reverberate outside of the United States, and will inform the fate of the colonized African countries, the Caribbean, Black folks in South America. Marcus Garvey, the African Blood Brotherhood, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Black Club Women, they're all concerned about liberating Black people across the board.
Minkah Makalani: Now the interesting thing too about this period is that you do have the explicit formation of nationalist political ideologies and political groups. So one of the organizations that come out of this period is the Nation of Islam, which is established by W. D. Fard Muhammad in Detroit in 1930, but then after his disappearance is taken over by Elijah Poole, who becomes Elijah Muhammad. He was a member of the UNIA, and one of the earliest members of Fard Muhammad's Nation of Islam. And then goes on to build it into what it has become and what we know it as today.
Minkah Makalani: And there are influences from the Moor Science Temple, from Noble Drew Ali, from a number of figures who are engaged in millenarian movements in the teens, '20s, that become the basis for the Nation of Islam and its unique or idiosyncratic eschatologies or ideas about a white race that's genetically coded to attack and kill and oppress Black people. As problematic as all of that might be, it is speaking to some real experiences that people are having, in terms of what they are encountering, and what their lives have been, and how they've been impacted negatively by white people.
Minkah Makalani: And, you know, one thing I would say just as kind of a caveat in talking about Black nationalism is you want to be careful to not overly romanticize Black nationalism, but you also want to be careful not to vilify it or just dismiss it as a Black version of white nationalism. When we talk about white nationalism, we're talking about these movements that are designed to reinstitute explicitly racist regimes because it sees the granting of rights, access, greater movement, economic advancement, Black people and Asians and Latinx folks as threatening white people. And that's not what Black nationalism is in and of itself. You do have extreme strains of that, but that's not anywhere near a central current within Black nationalism, and particularly not in the '20s and '30s.
Minkah Makalani: You know, just to backtrack a little bit. You think about Woodrow Wilson with World War I, and calling for the right of self-determination for oppressed nations. The argument for Black nationalism is really Black people seeing themselves as an oppressed nation within a nation. We want to have the same kind of independence to determine our life and to determine the direction of our nation. So it is in that context that I think we have to think about Black nationalism.
Minkah Makalani: There are a number of reasons why teachers should include this material in their course plans, but I want to just give somewhat of a personal account. All the way through elementary and high school, I had never heard of Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T. Washington. I never heard of the New Negro Movement: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Audley Moore, any of these figures that we talk about in African-American history in the early 20th century. You know, we got Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, but not a real true portrait of what they were about.
Minkah Makalani: But when I got to college, and I had that first class that talked about and showed photos of Black people lining the streets of Harlem, all up and down Lenox Avenue, and you can see there are tens of thousands of people out on the street, and they're all there to get a glimpse of Marcus Garvey as he's driving in his motorcade parade at a UNIA convention. And they are hanging out of windows to see him. And then the professor is talking about the program of the UNIA—why it was so transformative and inspiring, as well as the problems of it. That lecture as a freshman at a small Black college really did transform how I thought about myself and how I thought about the world that I'd come into. And I began to try and hunt down material and read articles, try and find Marcus Garvey's speeches. And then that led me into trying to find the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, this person who was critical of Marcus Garvey.
Minkah Makalani: Learning about your past can really energize you to want to learn more about that period. And I don't think this is something that solely inspires Black children, but I think that is in and of itself a justification for doing this kind of work in the K-12 educational system. But I think it also, in terms of those who are encountering it for the first time, it gives them a much better sense of the world that they inherit. So if you're a white kid, if you are Latinx or you're Asian American, you're learning a complex and compelling history about the world that you live in and why the United States looks the way it does. Why the questions that are being raised in public political discourse, why the questions that are animating political movements like Black Lives Matter, and why the response to that in the form of seeking to ban Critical Race Theory, you begin to get a much better sense of why you are in the world you're in, and I think that helps you navigate it so much easier than going about your life blind until the point when you get to a college classroom and you're introduced to this material for the first time.
Minkah Makalani: I think you get this stuff to kids, and you give them a context and you give them a way to think about it and help them understand some of the debates, some of the circumstances and some of the things that were at stake. They can begin to formulate their own ideas. And it isn't indoctrination, it is giving students the tools and the resources to think about the world around them and how to make sense of that world themselves.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Minkah Makalani, thanks so much for joining us and for shining a light on the thinking of this era. Thanks a lot, brother.
Minkah Makalani: Brother, thank you as well, Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, for the work you do with this podcast. It is definitely something that I draw on when I'm preparing lectures. And I know it's influencing a whole range of people around the world. So thank you as well for the work you're doing.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks, man.
Minkah Makalani: And for having me on.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: For sure.
Bethany Jay: Minkah Makalani is an associate professor of history and the director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939, and the co-editor of Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem.
Bethany Jay: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Bethany Jay: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight, examining its history and lasting impact.
Bethany Jay: Thanks to Dr. Makalani for sharing his insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Bethany Jay: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Bethany Jay: I'm Dr. Bethany Jay, professor of history at Salem State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- Minkah Makalani, History, Johns Hopkins University
- Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights
- U.S. State Department, The Negro in American Life
- BlackPast, William L. Patterson (1891-1980)
- Universal Negro Improvement Association, About Us
- PBS American Experience, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind (film)
- Library of Congress, The African times and Orient review : a monthly journal devoted to the interests of the coloured races of the world
- BlackPast, The Pan-African Congresses, 1900-1945
- Minnesota Historical Society, The Negro World
- Google Arts & Culture, Jomo Kenyatta: Light of Kenya
- BlackPast, Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972)
- Mariners' Museum, Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line
- AAIHS Black Perspectives, Audley Moore, Black Women's Activism, and Nationalist Politics
- Mark Naison, Audley (Queen Mother) Moore (audio interview)
- BlackPast, (1920) Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World
- NBC News, Racial violence and a pandemic: How the Red Summer of 1919 relates to 2020
- Poetry Foundation, Claude McKay
- Sanders Of The River (film starring Jomo Kenyatta)
- NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois
- W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
- NAACP, Our History
- NAACP, History of The Crisis
- Henry Louis Gates and Jennifer Burton (editors), Call and Response: Key Debates in African-American Studies
- The Crisis, 1921: Vol 21 No. 3
- The Guardian, Ida B Wells: the unsung heroine of the civil rights movement
- New York Amsterdam News, Grace P. Campbell, a political activist in the shadows
- Harlem World Magazine, Harlem Civil Rights Leader And Political Activist Elizabeth Anna Hendrickson, 1884–1946
- National Museum of African American History and Culture, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
- North Omaha History, The Life of George Wells Parker
- BlackPast, African Blood Brotherhood (1919-1924)
- Rare Historical Photos, Inside the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, 1931-1940
- PBS American Experience, Who Were the Scottsboro Boys?
- Zinn Education Project, March 8, 1971: FBI's COINTELPRO Exposed
- BlackPast, Messenger (1917-1928)
- BlackPast, James Wormley Jones (1884-1958)
- Southern Poverty Law Center, Nation of Islam
- Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939
- Minkah Makalani (co-editor), Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem
Episode 13, Season 4
This nation has a long history of exploiting Black Americans in the name of medicine. A practice which began with the Founding Fathers using individual enslaved persons for gruesome experimentation evolved into state-sanctioned injustices such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, among others. Award-winning historian Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens details a chronology of medical malpractice and racist misconceptions about health while highlighting lesser-known stories of medical innovations by African Americans.
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- Learning For Justice: Article, Honor Henrietta Lacks
- Learning For Justice: Article, Just Science
- Learning For Justice: Lesson, Analyzing Health Disparities (grades 6-12)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When the coronavirus stopped the world from spinning, my fraternity brothers and I did what many people did to break the social isolation of home confinement—we began meeting over Zoom.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our conversations ranged from the serious to the silly. We encouraged each other to be safe, to mask up, and ribbed each other for the hilarious ways we chose to stay busy. We were grateful for this little bit of escapism.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we were all excited when the COVID-19 vaccine was approved. But not everyone was eager to get the shot. Vaccine hesitancy among my frat brothers—all college-educated Black men—was real.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Like others in the African-American community, their caution was not irrational. It was not rooted in the fictitious belief that the virus wasn't real, a fantasy that continues to fuel vaccine refusal among politically conservative whites. It was rooted instead in historical reality.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: African Americans have long suffered from medical racism. Stories of abuse from the Jim Crow era circulate widely within the African-American community. Several of my fraternity brothers who said they did not trust the federal government pointed to the Tuskegee Experiment. For several decades, starting in the 1930s, federal officials in Tuskegee, Alabama, withheld penicillin from Black men suffering from syphilis so that they could measure the effects of the disease. Other brothers mentioned Henrietta Lacks, who while a patient seeking treatment for cancer at Johns Hopkins, had cells harvested from her body without her permission—cells that continue to replicate to this very day in research labs around the world. And still others pointed to the forced hysterectomies that Black women such as civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer endured at the hands of white doctors in Mississippi.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thankfully, though, this sordid history did not keep my fraternity brothers from getting the vaccine, but it did take several of them longer to get it—a pattern reflected in the broader Black community.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Black essayist James Baldwin observed: "We are our history." Indeed, we are that which we have experienced directly, and that which we have experienced indirectly through collective memory. And when it comes to medical treatment, these experiences affect people's willingness to seek care.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This nation has a long history of exploiting African Americans in the name of medicine, going back to the nation's founding and early outbreaks of yellow fever. After emancipation, racist medical practices were used to continue controlling the bodies and lives of African Americans, creating a painful legacy of experimentation, forced procedures, sub-standard care and neglect.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Historian Deirdre Cooper Owens is the author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology. In a conversation with my co-host Bethany Jay, she details a chronology of medical malpractice and a pattern of racist misconceptions about health in the United States. They also discuss lesser-known examples of game-changing medical innovations by African Americans.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm glad you could join us.
Bethany Jay: For those in our audience who are not aren't familiar with Deirdre Cooper Owens, she is the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine, and Director of the Humanities and Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and her first book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology, won the 2018 Darlene Clark Hine Book Award from the OAH as the best book written in African-American Women's and Gender History. Quite an accomplishment, and we're so happy you could be here with us today, your second appearance on the Teaching Hard History podcast. For those who don't know, Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens appeared on season one of the podcast in the ”Diverse Experience of the Enslaved” episode, which I think I have assigned to one or more of my classes every semester since. So thank you again for being here to share your expertise on medical racism.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Oh, my goodness. It is my pleasure to be back again. I feel very special and honored to be back a second time. And I am always happy to have a conversation with another historian who understands the import of this particular kind of American history. So thanks so much.
Bethany Jay: In season four of Teaching Hard History, we're obviously focusing on the post-emancipation experience of Jim Crow. But when we're talking about the intersections of medicine and race, we need to acknowledge that that history extends back into that very early colonial period. As we often do, we need to reach back into that era of slavery to provide context. Can you talk to us a bit about that?
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Yeah. I mean, you have European people coming to this country, and then you have a group of folk who are coming from a number of West African nations and some Central African nations, and they're also bringing their own knowledge about healing and medical care. And so I often tell students about an African enslaved man named Onesimus. I mean, obviously this is a name that was given to him by his owner. And he was gifted to a minister named Cotton Mather. And Cotton Mather was not just a minister, but an author and an intellectual, and a leader in colonial America. And in colonial America—I mean, as we're experiencing it now with this global pandemic—there were always these epidemics happening. And as people are dying from smallpox, Cotton Mather notices that his enslaved workers are not dying. Some of them are not even becoming sick. And he wants to know why, and so Onesimus tells him in his nation they practice inoculation.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: And so Onesimus is freed because of this. And Cotton Mather passes this on. It later circulates several decades later to General George Washington, right, before there's a United States, before he becomes the first president. He has to make a public health decision because his troops are dying because smallpox has reared its head again. And George Washington inoculates his troops. You know, it's a really contentious topic. People are outraged when they find out that, in fact, this information comes from an African-born person who was enslaved. You know, they think that it could be witchcraft. I mean, all kinds of things. But George Washington inoculates his troops. And guess what? They live. And they're able to fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and they win. And it really, some folk argue, changes the course of the war. And it's a public health initiative that comes from the knowledge of West African people. And so there are ways that you see African knowledge about how to heal that have really impacted early American history, even at the colonial level.
Bethany Jay: That's such a great story. I love that Onesimus's story is one where an enslaved person's medical knowledge leads to these advances in medicine. As you talk about in your book, one of the very common scenarios is one where enslaved people's bodies are used to promote the health and comfort of enslavers.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Oh, my goodness, yeah. I mean, teeth to create dentures would often be from enslaved people. Food was meted out to enslaved people, and so they weren't supping on sugary sweets, right? And so George Washington—you know, we learned as children, I don't know if children are still being taught this, I hope not, but I know when I was in elementary school I was taught oh, George Washington had dentures made of wood. No. In fact, two of his teeth were from an enslaved man.
Bethany Jay: Right. Can you give us an example or two of medical advances that have come through working with enslaved people or experimenting on enslaved people, as it were?
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Oh, yeah, there's so many. I talk about in my book a French-born physician who immigrates to the United States, and his name was Francois Marie Prevost. He performed two successful C-sections on enslaved women in Louisiana. He had first practiced performing C-sections on enslaved women in Haiti. And so he moves to Louisiana in the 1800s, and he continues this experimental work. And so he's been lauded for centuries as Francois Marie Prevost, the father of the C-section. A surgical method happened that revolutionizes gynecology, but it happens because the institution of slavery existed and Black women's bodies were very accessible.
Bethany Jay: Hmm.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: So many journals, medical journals during this time and medical case books are saturated with cases of enslaved people being used in this way. A physician or even a medical school can go to a slave owner, and they can say, "Hey, if your slaves were suffering from these conditions or illnesses, if you donate them to our school or allow me to perform these experiments on them, to fix them or to make them better, it's a good, it's a common good that I'm performing, because I'm increasing your property value, but I'm also advancing medicine."
Deirdre Cooper Owens: But there were also these beliefs about Black people. There are beliefs that Black people don't experience pain. Or if they do, it's so minimal that they can bear cutting, or they can bear really painful procedures in ways that white people cannot. So that means, "Oh! Of course Black women can give birth and don't experience pain. Oh, Black people can go through amputations of their limbs and not experience pain. Black people are in a state of intellectual arrested development, which means they don't have fear. They aren't afraid of surgeries or painful procedures." So doctors are using their bodies in ways that they would not use white patients.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: One of the clearest examples that I use for my students is the ways doctors would treat Black women for certain conditions. So there was a condition where, after women would give birth, sometimes there were tears. So they would have to be sutured or stitched. And the doctors believed that those surgeries were pretty painless for Black women. If a white woman, and in particular a white woman who was very wealthy or highly respected, suffered from the same condition, oftentimes she wouldn't even be approached because the doctor believed that she was so fragile she couldn't take the pain. And so what that means is ultimately the enslaved woman, her body is repaired surgically. But the white woman—I mean, it's really a cruel twist of fate—she's left to deal with the pain of that condition.
Bethany Jay: This idea about biological difference leads to some pretty devastating results in Philadelphia during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Yeah. 1793 and the yellow fever epidemic was ravaging the city of Philadelphia. And Benjamin Rush, who was a founding father, and he was also arguably the country's most well-respected physician, and known as the father of American medicine and also the father of American psychiatry, considered very progressive for his day—he believed in women's medical education, was a staunch anti-slavery advocate—Benjamin Rush believed, however, that Black people were immune from yellow fever, although Black people were dying in great numbers in Philadelphia. But he goes to two Black leaders—they were ministers and highly respected—Reverends Richard Allen, who was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and also Absalom Jones.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: And he says, "Hey, I need you to recruit Black people to take care of sick white residents, because you all are hardier, you're sturdier," right? "This disease doesn't affect you." And although Richard Allen and Absalom Jones let him know that he was mistaken about this supposed immunity, this is a moment where Black people are really trying to prove they're worthy of citizenship. And so they recruit Black people, and guess what happens? Black people begin to die in even greater numbers. It wipes out about 10 percent of the Black population. Richard Allen, he is infected, and he nearly dies from his bout with yellow fever.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: But some white residents begin to say that Black people took advantage of white Philadelphians. This one guy, he publishes a tract, and he says, "Black residents, when they would be in the houses nursing these patients, they were stealing." And so, you know, they were really the great scourge on the city, not yellow fever. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen are like, "Wait a minute, we didn't want to do this. We were recruited. And then you have us doing"—and I'll use 21st-century language here—"You have us doing frontline work. We're the ones who are digging the ditches. We're nursing sick people. We're exposed. It's clear that we can become infected because many of us have died. And now, we're now being accused of avarice and theft."
Deirdre Cooper Owens: And so these two men, Reverends Jones and Allen, published a political tract. And it outlines all of the ways that these beliefs about Black people were rooted in discrimination. And so the first political tract written by Black leaders in the new nation was centered around medical racism.
Bethany Jay: It really is fascinating. And both the original accusation about Black Philadelphians during yellow fever and the refutation by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones are available online, and we'll link to those resources in the show notes.
Bethany Jay: That belief in biological difference hasn't necessarily gone away. Can you give us a couple of examples of where we see that legacy of the belief in biological difference?
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Oh, yeah. I mean, the one where Black people don't experience pain. There is a study that was done by the University of Virginia in 2014. The study was published in 2016, so it's a simple Google search. And several medical students and residents, they had undergone a study assessing their beliefs in pain management with regard to white patients and Black patients. And they believed that Black people didn't experience pain, that their bodies aged quicker, that Black people had thicker skin. I mean, these are the results that are coming from medical students and residents in the 21st century. It's very similar to these ideas of biological difference that stem from the 1800s, that Black people don't experience pain or Black people have less lung capacity than white people because of a study that was done in the 1850s by a physician named Samuel Cartwright.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Well, if you're talking about enslaved people in the 1850s who are living in cramped quarters, slave cabins that don't have insulation, it's a one-room shack where people are stuffing holes with paper and fabric, there's a big fireplace and chimney, there's no air circulation. Well, of course it's going to affect your ability to breathe.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Well, 2017, a study comes out. It was rife for statistical errors, but it claimed that race and biology indicated that the airways of asthmatic African Americans became more inflamed than those of asthmatic white Americans. But just as Samuel Cartwright didn't provide context, the same thing with this 2017 study. Right? So yes, do Black people or African Americans suffer more from asthma than white folk in the US? Yes. Yes, they do. But the context is, in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, you have more environmental hazards like air pollution from highways, from factories. There are disparities in access to high quality health care. And so when the context is provided, you see it has nothing to do with biology, but it has everything to do with the factors that create these kinds of conditions.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: And so you have these beliefs that have this lingering effect, it really is medical racism from the 18th and 19th centuries, still penetrating the ways that scientists and doctors believe.
Bethany Jay: How do we help students to understand the difference between the sort of faulty science that claims that there are distinct biological differences among races with environmental and contextual factors that do lead to different health outcomes at times for people of different races?
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Yeah. I remember when I was teaching students who were largely freshmen, they were just coming from high school. And so a lot of their information, you know, sometimes was anecdotal, you know, like, "I thought only Black people got sickle cell."
Bethany Jay: Right.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: It was an evolutionary response to malaria. And so anybody who was living in an area where there were bodies of water that had lots of mosquitoes, it becomes the body's response. So whether you're Greek, whether you are from Bali, whether you're from Nigeria, any place that's near a large body of water, that's the body's response to protecting itself from malaria. So if we were to think about race as the indicator, it's going to lead us down a wrong path every time.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources, as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let's return now to Bethany's conversation with Deirdre Cooper Owens.
Bethany Jay: When we think about slavery, right at the center of it is the value, the monetary value, to put it very bluntly, of Black people's bodies, and in the case of obstetrics, Black women's reproductive potential. And so how does the reproductive value of enslaved people impact enslaved women?
Deirdre Cooper Owens: That's a really great question, because everything was bound up in the issue of money. A lot of really wealthy men were interested in the reproductive health of Black women, because they can't import Africans. The Constitution made that illegal in 1807, and so that means making sure that when Black women are pregnant and Black women give birth, trying to create the best health that we can for them under that condition. And I am using "best." I know you all can't see me because it's a podcast, but I'm using air quotes when I say that.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: You can Google databases that have slave ads. Oftentimes we'll look at these ads and they'll say "Breeding woman." So that indicates to someone interested in purchasing an enslaved woman that she can give birth.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Or that she's already a mother, that she has several children. And so that increases her economic value for the person who owns her. A lot of enslaved women would have children by their owners—not of their own free will, but because they were considered property. And typically, when you had people of European descent who were enslaving others, even in Europe, the condition of the child was not connected through the mother, it was always connected through the father. But what made the US unique: slavery, the condition of slavery was passed to a child by its mother. And what this means is it doesn't matter who the father was. It could literally be Thomas Jefferson, who indeed had children by his—the woman that he owned, Sally Hemings. Or it could be an enslaved man, a free man, a white man, a native man. It didn't matter, because if the condition passed onto the children from the father, that meant there could be a loss of enslaved children.
Bethany Jay: And when I talk about that rule that the child follows the condition of the mother, I often try to talk about the fact that it's very easy to know who the mother of a child is. It's much harder to know who the father is.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Yes.
Bethany Jay: And my students often pick up on the way that that rule incentivizes the sexual assault of Black women on the part of their enslavers.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Exactly.
Bethany Jay: How does the relationship between medicine and African-American people change as we transition from slavery to freedom, from slavery to Jim Crow, as it were?
Deirdre Cooper Owens: It's interesting. One would think, "Okay, everything's going to suddenly become better from slavery to freedom." And what we find is that same fraught history. There's a belief that, in essence, freedom was not necessarily a good thing for the health of Black people—mentally, but also physically. All of a sudden, the same ways that white physicians and scientists had been writing about Black people as stronger and hardier, you know, possessing a kind of superhuman strength to withstand pain, all of a sudden you have, they're weaker. And so from life insurance policies to medical insurance, you start to see that Black people have to pay more in terms of their insurance, these premiums.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: You also have a disregard for Black women's reproductive care, because there's no longer an economic price on the heads of Black people. The hospitals become segregated by law. Because if someone owns you, you're going to be treated at a hospital that the slave owner builds.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: And so sometimes that means that he's treating Black and white patients. When Jim Crow happens, the law essentially says that Black people and white people have to be treated separately. You now have these Black hospitals that are not Black-run. And the Black hospitals tend to be poorly-funded. I mean, there were all kinds of studies that were conducted by the government on Black people. They tended to be large scale and really unethical and medically irresponsible. And informed consent doesn't really seem to be applicable for Black people. This is during the age of freedom, and so it becomes the starting point for Black people having a real distrust of the medical field because where's the great change between slavery and freedom? They're not seeing a lot of it, in terms of their treatment.
Bethany Jay: And as you point out, one of those big changes is the erasure of monetary value associated with Black people. And so the idea of preserving Black women's reproductive health completely disappears, right? And we make a left turn into seeing Black women's reproductive lives as burdensome or dangerous. How does that impact Black women?
Deirdre Cooper Owens: We start to see that Black midwives, who were responsible for being the providers for Black women during pregnancy and childbirth, they are essentially being wiped out. There are all of these licensures that are being created, and because of very stringent and oftentimes very racist practices that leave them out, Black people are not able to get licenses. And so you begin to see a decline in the number of Black midwives. And so that greatly impacts the maternal health of Black women. We also see forced sterilizations of women in their early '20s. They would go in for routine exams, maybe there's something wrong, you know, they're suffering from migraines or, you know, they have a limp. They would find out years later that they had hysterectomies performed on them. The doctors, without their consent or knowledge, took away their ability to give birth.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: And so these kinds of things are happening. But also the ways that Black women started to be seen—and especially Black mothers are starting to be seen as financial burdens.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: And when you roll into the 20th century, you now have language like "welfare queens," the idea that Black women, single mothers are gaming the system. In the 1980s in particular, with the rise of crack cocaine, we have the idea that only Black mothers could give birth to crack babies. You know, Black women were not the only people smoking crack in the '80s. You know, that these little babies were somehow going to topple the US economy. I mean, there were all kinds of news stories, and senators making these pronouncements that these were going to be the single most expensive financial burden in the United States in its history. And then 20, 25 years later, you find out it was not true at all.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/PodcastPD—PD for "professional development." That's podcastPD, all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode: consent—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. It's a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: In terms of studies that were conducted by the government on Black people, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is probably the most famous. In 1932, the government wants to find out the ways that certain diseases affect the human body. And so Tuskegee, Alabama, is a town that has a disproportionate number of Black men who suffer from syphilis. And so the federal government and also the National Institute of Health partner with Tuskegee Institute, a really famous Black college. And so the leaders at this college, which is seen as the crown jewel in the Black community, they do a lot of recruitment, and they go to institutions that black people trust: the church, they go to schools. They have trusted community members and leaders who speak out on behalf of this study. And almost 600 Black men sign up.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: They weren't told they had syphilis, they were told they had "bad blood." "You have bad blood, and we're going to set up a study to help you." And they don't know that they're signing up in 1932 for a study that would last 40 years. In fact, the government was simply interested in finding out how the Negro male—that's what Black people were called then—would respond to syphilis throughout the course of their lives.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: The federal government, the National Institute of Health, they were utilizing this study to not cure Black men, but to see how the disease would ravage their bodies. These men are never treated for their disease. By the 1940s, when penicillin is known to cure syphilis, they're given a placebo.
Bethany Jay: That's amazing.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Black men died because they were never treated. They passed on the disease to their wives and their girlfriends and their children. And it really devastates the community. And so the 1950s roll around and the 1960s and the '70s. And the government is still doing this study. And there are a couple of doctors who find out about it and they're like, "Wait, what you're doing is wrong. This is unethical." And the government ignores the doctors' pleas, and in fact blacklists many of the doctors. And it wasn't until a whistleblower goes to the press in 1972 and a story breaks that the government finally suspends its study.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: After much petitioning by Black and white public health officials and activists and family members and some of the victims, President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, 60-something years after the start of the Tuskegee study, finally issues a formal apology to the victims and their families. An apology is issued after many of the players have died.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: I think Tuskegee is a culmination of the ways that medical racism had been at play from the colonial period all the way to the so-called age of freedom. It's enraging and in some ways unsurprising.
Bethany Jay: It's amazing, and as you point out, at the base of a lot of this are these issues of informed consent, of people knowing what they are signing up for or not, whether it's the forced sterilizations of women, or whether it's the idea that you're getting treatment and you're not. The other really famous example that's become prominent in recent years is Henrietta Lacks.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Yes.
Bethany Jay: And what happened to her. And again, the idea of informed consent there. Can you talk with us just a little bit about Henrietta Lacks?
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Sure. She was a relatively young woman, a young wife and mother. Goes to Johns Hopkins Hospital and finds out she has cancer. And unfortunately, she dies. The doctors harvested her cells. And what they found, it was amazing. She had these cells that kept regenerating. Most cells die outside of the body. All of a sudden, here you have this woman who—I mean, she's dead, but her cells are living. So the doctors are calling them immortal. And in fact, they named the cells after her—HeLa Cells. Capital H and small e, and then Capital L-a.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: And so the doctors are just kind of like, "Hey! We have these immortal cells," and they're sending it to their colleagues all around the world. And all of a sudden, you have research labs and hospitals and research teams and biotech companies, they're all profiting from the knowledge of Henrietta Lacks's cells.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: It's kind of hard to get informed consent from a patient who has died. But in those cases, you're supposed to get informed consent from the family. Henrietta Lacks's family was not informed of what the doctors did. And they never gave consent. The family doesn't find out until decades later. Decades later! And these places are really profiting from the knowledge of her cells, and these cells have gone into space. They're everywhere around the world. They've been on all the continents in research. Her family doesn't even have medical insurance, they're so poor.
Bethany Jay: Oh, jeez. Yeah.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: And so in 2021—remember, she dies in the 1950s, in 2021, her family finally gets the legal representation so that they can sue the biotech companies who have profited from their mother's immortal cells. So sometimes when people think, "Oh, we're talking about somebody who died in the 1950s," the legacy of these practices show up in the 21st century.
Bethany Jay: It's quite amazing, and it speaks, as you say, to the legacy and the long-term impact of these medical practices.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Yeah. Yeah. When you think about all of those things that we've talked about, I think what for me is probably the most promising in the 21st century is now we know better. So we know better. And we now have a government arm, which is the CDC, the Center for Disease Prevention and Control, who finally said in 2021, "You know what? Medical racism is a public health issue. And so now we are going to create steps to combat this." And so a part of that is through education, a part of that is through community outreach, a part of it is through creating pipelines for young students of color to become doctors and nurses. And so we are finally addressing these things through the implementation of structures that are designed to be more inclusive. And equity sits at the center of it. And so that's what makes me hopeful that hopefully in 50 years, we won't have to have another podcast. That this really can be about teaching history, and not necessarily having history be in conversation with the present.
Bethany Jay: That's absolutely fabulous, and with so many things that we've talked about this season on the podcast, there's hope, but there's also work and diligence that needs to happen to make sure that that hope turns into something tangible.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Right.
Bethany Jay: And hopefully our listeners will take up that charge. So thanks so much for being here, Dr. Cooper Owens. It was a pleasure to talk with you.
Deirdre Cooper Owens: Yes, thank you so much.
Bethany Jay: Thank you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Deirdre Cooper Owens is the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she is the Director of the Humanities in Medicine program. Dr. Cooper Owens is the author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology. She is also the Director of the Program in African-American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, where you can find an online exhibition called Déjà Vu, We've Been Here Before: Race, Health, and Epidemics.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight, examining its history and lasting impact.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Cooper Owens for sharing her insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- Nature, Henrietta Lacks: science must right a historical wrong
- McGill University, 40 Years of Human Experimentation in America: The Tuskegee Study
- PBS Independent Lens, Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States
- Bitch Media, Fannie Lou Hamer Sounded the Alarm on Forced Sterilization
- Time, I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin and a Moment in History
- Deirdre Cooper Owens, Bio
- Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology
- Deirdre Cooper Owens, History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
- Teaching Hard History, Diverse Experience of the Enslaved (podcast)
- Forbes, Meet Onesimus, The Enslaved Man Who Saved Colonial Boston From Smallpox
- The Washington Post, Enslaved African Onesimus taught Cotton Mather how to inoculate against smallpox
- George Washington's Mount Vernon, Smallpox
- JSTOR Daily, Were George Washington's Teeth Taken from Enslaved People?
- American Journal of Public Health, Black Maternal and Infant Health: Historical Legacies of Slavery
- Smithsonian Magazine, How the Politics of Race Played Out During the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic
- Harvard Library Bulletin, "Justice to Our Colour Demands It": Absalom Jones and Richard Allen’s Narrative of African Americans in Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic
- PubMed, Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites
- Equal Justice Initiative, Pro-Slavery Doctor Claims Enslaved People's Desire to Be Free Is "Curable Mental Disease"
- Science News for Students, Racial discrimination may aggravate asthma, study finds
- The New York Times, People of Color Breathe More Hazardous Air. The Sources Are Everywhere.
- American Bar Association, Implicit Bias and Racial Disparities in Health Care
- HHS Office of Minority Health, Sickle Cell Disease Awareness
- National Archives, The Slave Trade
- Yale University, Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal
- Freedom on the Move, A database of fugitives from American Slavery
- Encyclopedia Virginia, "Negro womens children to serve according to the condition of the mother" (1662)
- Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Sally Hemings
- African American Registry, The Black Hospital in America, a story
- The New York Times, Crack Babies: The Epidemic That Wasn't
- The Washington Post, 'You’ve got bad blood': The horror of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment
- Learning for Justice, Bill Clinton apologizes for Tuskegee Experiment
- Johns Hopkins Hospital, The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks
- CDC, Racism is a Serious Threat to the Public’s Health
- Library Company of Philadelphia, Déjà Vu, We've Been Here Before: Race, Health, and Epidemics
Episode 15, Season 4
After emancipation, aspects of the legal system were reshaped to maintain control of Black lives and labor. Historian Robert T. Chase outlines the evolution of convict leasing in the prison system. And Historian Brandon T. Jett explores the commercial factors behind the transition from extra-legal lynchings to police enforcement of the color line. We examine the connections between these early practices and the more familiar apparatuses of today’s justice system—from policing to penitentiaries.
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- Learning For Justice: Lesson, Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System (grades 9-12)
- National Council for the Social Studies: Lesson, Slavery After the Civil War: The Convict-Lease System, 1866–1928 (grades 6-8)
- Alabama Learning Exchange, Convict Leasing in Alabama: A System That Re-Enslaved Blacks After the Civil War (grade 11)
- Learning For Justice: Article, Teaching About Mass Incarceration: The Ongoing Narrative of Racial Oppression
- Learning For Justice: Article, From Slavery to School Discipline
- Learning For Justice: Article, ‘When They See Us’ in Schools
Bethany Jay: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Their names are familiar to anyone who watches the news, reads a newspaper, or scrolls through social media. They have become some of the most prominent examples of both the deadly police violence used against Black Americans and the systemic racism that has allowed it to go relatively unchecked. And they have become synonymous with the declaration and the movement “Black Lives Matter.”
Lawn signs, hashtags, t-shirts, and other ephemera proclaiming Black Lives Matter have become prominent in our communities, at sporting events, and in our online profiles. And, largely because of the public attention Black Lives Matter has brought to the issue, street art and memorials depicting the victims of police violence have appeared across the United States and around the world.
The hashtag Black Lives Matter first appeared after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a civilian who shot Trayvon Martin in 2012 and was acquitted on murder charges. It gained traction and visibility after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. Today, the movement is guided by the mission “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” While their declaration, Black Lives Matter, is known around the world, the names Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—the three Black women who created the Black Lives Matter Movement—are far less familiar.
On July 13, 2013, when Patrisse Marie Cullors posted to Facebook: “declaration: black bodies will no longer be sacrificed for the rest of the world’s enlightenment. I am done. I am so done. Trayvon, you are loved infinitely #blacklivesmatter,” she was, in fact, reigniting a movement—a fight against vigilantism and the legal system that allowed it—a fight that was started by Ida B. Wells during Jim Crow.
Like the founders of Black Lives Matter, Wells’ movement began in response to vigilante violence. She was already an activist when her friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Steward owned the People’s Grocery Company in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1892, a group of white men attacked the People’s Grocery Company because it was taking business away from white-owned grocery stores. During the attack, the owners of People’s Grocery defended their store, shooting three police officers that were part of the crowd. Arrested and brought to jail, Moss, McDowell, and Steward were later targeted by a lynch-mob and murdered. Wells spoke out. She advised Black Memphians to leave the city, saying “There is… only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” As a result of her journalism, Wells was forced to move to Chicago for her own safety.
But she didn’t end her crusade against lynching. From Chicago, she published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In this tract, Wells brought together data from lynchings across the country and exposed the lie that these acts were, as one article in the Memphis paper, The Commercial, put it: “the most prompt, speedy, and extreme punishment” to “hold in check the horrible and beastial propensities of the Negro race.”
In response, Wells argued, “…the butcheries of Black men at Barnwell, S.C., Carrolton, Miss., Waycross, Ga., and Memphis, Tenn., have gone on; also the flaying alive of a man in Kentucky, the burning of one in Arkansas, the hanging of a fifteen-year-old girl in Louisiana, a woman in Jackson, Tenn., and one in Hollendale, Miss., until the dark and bloody record of the South shows 728 Afro-Americans lynched during the past eight years. Not fifty of these were for political causes; the rest were for all manner of accusations from that of rape of white women, to the case of the boy Will Lewis who was hanged at Tullahoma, Tenn., last year for being drunk and "sassy" to white folks.”
Wells continued to expose vigilante violence and call out a legal system that either turned a blind eye or actively supported it, saying, “[The South’s] white citizens are wedded to any method however revolting, any measure however extreme, for the subjugation of the young manhood of the race. They have cheated him out of his ballot, deprived him of civil rights or redress therefor in the civil courts, robbed him of the fruits of his labor, and are still murdering, burning and lynching him.”
“The result is a growing disregard of human life… especially where an Afro-American is concerned.”
In other words, Black Lives Matter.
I’m Bethany Jay, and this is Teaching Hard History. We’re a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we’re offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode we explore a different topic—walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.
We know that talking about the realities of the Jim Crow era can be emotional and complex. And this podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges. This episode contains graphic descriptions of racial violence, and we will discuss strategies for sharing this difficult content with your students.
In this episode, historians Robert Chase and Brandon Jett discuss the Jim Crow era legal systems that evolved to maintain control of Black lives and labor. They’ll also explore the connections between these early mechanisms of control and the more modern and familiar legal apparatuses of the justice system, from policing to penitentiaries.
And we’ll begin by taking a closer look at convict leasing. Dr. Chase is the author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners' Rights in Postwar America. He spoke with my co-host Hasan Kwame Jeffries about what his research uncovered.
I’m so glad you can join us. Let’s get started.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Slavery was a system designed to exploit the labor of African people. And when slavery ended in 1865, the desire to control the labor of African Americans did not dissipate. But instead, new systems emerged to replace the labor controls that were lost once the institution of slavery was abolished. I'm really excited to welcome to the podcast Dr. Robert Chase, my man Robert, to help us make sense of what came after the institution of slavery and how that connects explicitly and specifically to the criminal justice system. Robert, welcome aboard.
Robert T. Chase: Thank you, Hasan. I'm so glad to be here. I always love being in conversation with you. And this is such a pertinent topic both to today's struggles, but also to how we understand our past and indeed our troubled past. And I love the content of the show, so thank you for having me.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Glad to have you. And let's dive right in. Help us understand what comes after emancipation.
Robert T. Chase: What comes after emancipation is complicated. Historians have made arguments about a rupture, whether or not what comes after emancipation is a moment of capitalist development. And they've also made arguments about it being actually a seamless shift to a new kind of slavery. And I think one of the things to understand about convict leasing that's really critical is that it was both. It was both a system of a return to enslaving African American people through coerced labor and through a system where the criminal justice system took them from their families, took them from their homes and from their communities, and into a coerced labor. And it was also a system designed for the modernization of the American South and for its development along capitalist lines, along industrial lines. And of course, because it was bound up in very important changes in the law, in the criminal justice system and in the constitutional law, it also meant that it was operating within the framework not of slavery, even as it replicated it, but of criminalization. And so it immediately criminalized Blackness, as the historian Khalil Muhammad has written about in the north in Philadelphia. But in the American South, the very moment of emancipation is dealing with problems in the South, having to do with finances, having to do with emancipation, having to do with a mobile African American community who wants to move off the plantation and into something new—as a politicized body of people who had fought for their own emancipation by leaving the plantation during the Civil War—and then attempts to push them back into a system of oppression through the auspices of a new criminal justice system.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned convict leasing as being one of the core components of this new criminal justice system that is designed in large part to control Black labor. You know, my experience in the classroom is that when I introduce students to convict leasing, they've never heard of it. And I have to back up and explain just in very rudimentary terms, what it actually was. How do you define what convict leasing was? Could you provide a broad definition that would help teachers explain it to students? And then I want us to talk about the legal aspects of it and how it evolves over time.
Robert T. Chase: It is the selling of prison labor, principally African Americans, to private interests. The state was creating new laws that criminalize African American people for a variety of small offenses, such as vagrancy. And they ratchet up the cost of those laws. For instance, the Pig Law in Mississippi, something that had been a misdemeanor, taking a pig or something off the local farm and making that a felony with a long prison sentence. But once given a prison sentence, they were then sold to private interests. Their labor was sold, and in fact, it could be sold from one private company to the next or person, from coal mines, to road building, to the railroad construction in the American South to steel manufacture.
And convict leasing is not just in the American South. The North leased prisoners as well, but it begins first in Alabama in 1846, and it lasts really until 1928 when Herbert Hoover was vying for the White House. And it did exist in both the north and the South, but there are some differences. Alex Lichtenstein, in his work on the convict lease in Georgia, argued that, "Only in the south did the state give up its control of the prison population to the contractor. And only in the south did the physical penitentiary become synonymous with private enterprise." So that by the end of reconstruction in 1877, every former Confederate state, except Virginia, had adopted the practice of leasing—largely African American prisoners—into private hands. So it's a 50-year moment in the criminal justice system of leasing, African American largely, prisoners into private hands, private companies from, well, beginning in the mid 1860s, but really accelerating in the 1870s until the early 1920s.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But how, Robert, is this even legally possible given the 13th Amendment?
Robert T. Chase: The 13th Amendment has that exception clause that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…" And it's within that loophole of the exception clause that allowed states to then make someone what became known as "a slave of the state." As the Virginia decision, Ruffin v. Commonwealth declared in 1871 that "a convicted felon is, for the time being, a slave of the state. He is civilly dead and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man." And out of that came a whole series of laws that accelerated the criminal justice system. So, for instance, a minor theft like picking a strawberry, for instance, something that was kind of open and common during the system of enslavement, where slaves lived in an agricultural space, where they might have access to some of the agricultural goods and products of the plantation. So picking a strawberry in that context might not create punishment. But in this moment of emancipation, picking that same strawberry could land them into the system of convict leasing.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Could you explain a little bit more about what you mean and what scholars mean by the criminalization of Blackness and how that evolves from the era of slavery into this new era of freedom?
Robert T. Chase: It's important to understand that convict leasing was initiated almost immediately after emancipation. It traversed the moment of enslavement to freedom and then re-enslavement through the criminal justice system. Because the system was so potentially profitable and revolutionary for modernizing the South, there was an effort to look for any opportunity to re-enslave or re-coerce Black labor. We can look at the Black Codes, for instance, passed immediately after emancipation. These restricted African American people's access and rights to own property, conduct business, buy and lease land or move freely through public space, because public space itself was criminalized. And that was a contentious space, because the first thing that people who had been enslaved wanted to do was to reclaim their mobility, to move off the plantation where they had been. But planters were very interested in securing their labor through labor contracts. And if one didn't sign those labor contracts, that might get one a prison sentence. And that prison sentence would be then leased to these private companies.
Vagrancy laws criminalized public space, and any African American man out of work, for instance. Or failure to pay a tax, could be counted as vagrancy. Other laws included things like loud talk in a public place, engaging in sexual activity, or riding a freight car without a ticket, challenging employers without permission.
If you don't mind, I'm just going to read a little bit of this Mississippi Black Code: "That all freedmen, free negroes and mulattos in the State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together, either in the day or night [time], and all white persons assembling themselves with freedmen, free negroes or mulattos… shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction [thereof] shall be fined.” And in the case of a freed man, free negro or mulatto, $50. A white man, $200." But what's going on in this Black Code? One, they're criminalizing the idea of vagrancy, which simply means being in public space or moving in public space. They're also criminalizing the association of white folks and Black folks in that public space. And so that is one of those examples of how this criminality worked.
Another that's often cited is what's known as the Pig Law, passed in 1866 in Mississippi. And this redefined grand larceny offenses that had previously been minor misdemeanors, punishable now by five years, to include minor theft of a farm animal or any property valued at $10 or more. This Pig Law had a particular effect. Arrests quadrupled from 272 in 1874 to 1072 in 1877. So it lengthened the stay of someone in the convict lease system and made more severe the penalty. But in practice, these laws that were passed about loud talk, engaging in sexual activity, abrogating a lifetime labor contract, riding a freight car without a ticket, how they were practiced and how they were policed was targeted and focused on the Black community with the knowledge that incarcerating someone who was African American, one, meant that you had cheap labor for the convict lease system. But two, it also meant that the criminal justice system itself, through the process of criminalization and through the laws itself, was upholding the creation of the Jim Crow, white supremacist space of racial oppression.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the cornerstones of the institution of slavery was the use of violence. Do we see a similar exercise or use of violence when it comes to convict leasing?
Robert T. Chase: Sadly, I think it is impossible to root out violence from the criminal justice system. Violence is the very edifice that upholds the criminal justice system, and we see that particularly through the convict lease system. First, let me say that the daily labor itself was a punishment all of its own. Convicts were woken up at 4 a.m. in the morning, immediately put to work. That work was dangerous—in mines, on industrial lines—where during slavery, the loss of an enslaved person was also the loss of someone's commodity, someone's access to credit. A slave owner would not want to have one of their enslaved people die from their labor. That would be a loss of their wealth. But within convict leasing, they adopted the idea, as one lessee said, "One dies, get another." Also, the title of Matthew Mancini's book on convict leasing.
The death rates among leased convicts were ten times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In the first two years that Alabama leased its prisoners, nearly 20% of them died. And the following year, mortality rose to 35%. The fourth, nearly 45% of them died, almost half. As one convict said, "This place is nine kinds of hell and suffering death every day here." Of the five-and-a-half decades, 55 years of convict leasing, historians estimate that as many as 30,000 people died. So life became less valuable.
Violence happened within the individual camps. There were overseers. There were whippings, the lash, as they called them. They called the lash "a certain kind of medicine" to push them back into labor. There also were torture. One was called 'the come along,' which are steel bracelets that are snapped onto the wrists and fastened by chain to a small metal crossbar. And the lessees, the owner of these convicts, could twist the crossbar and twist a man's arms into a knot like a pretzel. And this would force him to his knees and potentially break his bones. Or the chains, when a prisoner was placed in handcuffs attached to a 30-inch long steel bar, which was then hoisted with a pulley until the man hung clear of the floor and he was suspended, stretched out. There was another really sort of medieval design called the 'alakazan degree,' in which a victim's ankles were cuffed behind his back and his feet drawn upward until his entire body was in the shape of a bow. And this was an incredible amount of torture. One convict said, "The intense agony inflicted by this method of torture is indescribable. Every muscle throbs with pain."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, what you describe is just, is just horrifying. Often when we think about convict leasing, we think about men and boys being caught up in the system. But they certainly weren't the only ones. Women get trapped in the convict leasing system as well, Black women in particular. Could you say a little bit about their experiences, both what they were and perhaps how they differed in some respects from the experiences of their male counterparts?
Robert T. Chase: They comprised a small number of the convict labor. Black women in Georgia, for instance, comprised about 2 to 3% over the years 1873 to 1908. But importantly, they represented 98% of all leased women prisoners. So the process of leasing a woman prisoner was exclusively meant for Black women. They, in some cases, did the same work as men. They worked in iron mills. In some cases, they were forced to dress as men as well. The historian Talitha LeFlouria calls that denial of their womanhood a kind of a social rape. They also, of course, experienced medical terror, as LeFlouria calls it, in that they had to have their bodies inspected. And they were stripped often in front of other male prisoners. And they were housed alongside of the men, in many occasions. In Georgia in 1874, one keeper of the convicts wrote this, "We have on hand about twenty-five female convicts, one of the number white, apportioned promiscuously to the several leases and employed as cooks, washer, women and at other light work in and about the prison quarters. They have separate lockups at night and with strict orders to keep them apart from the males. Still, the guard and trustees come in contact with them. And the result is there are children born in the penitentiary." And the legislative committee found similarly that, "In some of the camps, men and women chained together and occupying the same sleeping bunks. The result is that there are now in the penitentiary twenty-five," and this is their term, "bastard children, ranging from three months to five years of age. And many of the women are now far advanced in pregnancy."
So that also meant that there were children born in bondage, some perhaps of a consensual relationship, but more often than not a forced relationship of sexual violence. It's difficult to teach that, but important to talk about it because that was an experience that had broader cultural and societal ramifications for it did that association we've been talking about of associating Blackness, in this case Black womanhood, with criminality. And uplifting white womanhood as a more Victorian, high-minded ideal, as these white women who may have been convicted of a similar crime would almost never be placed in a convict lease camp. And then finally, women received what these historians have called sexualized rituals of punishment, where they would be stripped down and forced to be nude in front of the male prisoners. And only women would take this position. They would force their head down to the ground between their legs and then whip them in that position. They also experience different kinds of torture arrangements. For instance, the ‘blind mule,’ where a prisoner would have a rope tied around a girl's wrist and then pulled onto a pulley, quite horrible, and hoisted in the air until her toes barely reached the ground.
I'll read one last document by Lizzie Boatwright, who offered this testimony of her whipping. And it's, it's hard to read but important to grapple with. The guard "whipped me and a Negro woman convict from Greene County twice each. Both whippings were to punish us for trivial offenses, one time because our feet were sore and we stopped on the side of the road to fix the rags so as to protect them from the heavy brogan shoes that we were wearing. He ordered us to take down our trousers. We begged him to take us where the men convicts could not see us exposed. And he answered, ‘[with a pejorative], you strip.’ One time I had my monthlies, and I told him so. But he said it made no difference. And so we stripped us down and beat our naked skin with a strap. Several male convicts were all about us when we were whipped.” So that is the example of the kind of sexualized violence that women faced that made their position even more perilous than that of the men.
And historians like Mary Ellen Curtin in her book Black Prisoners and Their World; Talitha LeFlouria's book on Black Women in the Convict Lease in Georgia, Chained in Silence; and Sarah Haley's book, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, have brought women to the fore. And so teachers need to reflect that and think about how the system operated for women.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, we need those kinds of reminders that there was a real human cost suffered by those who were victimized by this system, especially the women who suffered in this way. This is something that we need to always keep in mind, especially when we're dealing with this subject.
Robert T. Chase: Hard to talk about, but important.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Do you have recommendations and suggestions for teachers with regard to how they should approach this subject so that it is conveyed accurately and effectively, but with the sensitivity and care that it needs to be treated with in the classroom setting.
Robert T. Chase: How do we not get overwhelmed by violence itself when we're trying to create understanding and empathy? That's always a very hard question to answer, and I have two thoughts about that. The first is that when we're talking about systems of oppression, it is critically important that we deal with them directly and honestly, because the history had been to forget, to ignore, to not put in our textbooks this really critical story. And the reason why it is so critical is because it's a story that we're now reliving today through the system of mass incarceration. And we cannot fully understand, countenance or confront today's mass incarceration unless we also understand its origins being bound up in the moment after emancipation and a return to a kind of re-enslavement and coerced prison labor.
But even within that, the other thing to think about, as a teacher, is to also tell stories of resistance, survivals, so that these people are not just being acted upon but also have agency and voice. And also to connect it not just to a series of lurid tales of violence, torture or sexual violence, but to the system that drives it and bounds everyone in it—white and Black—a system that relies on exploitative labor and sexual violence.
So, for instance, I think it's really important to point out that convict leasing also depressed wages. It also meant that people were less likely to join a labor union. So it had consequences for even those who were not incarcerated. And so that connection, that human empathy that we need to have, also needs to come with understanding the systemic problem of a system of industrialized re-enslavement and coerced labor. What that meant to people both bound up in that system and those having to live within a system of such exploitation who were not in prison but who had their lives impacted by it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about the parallels to the institution of slavery, sometimes we get caught up in just looking at the brutality and thinking about it as this senseless, inhumane system. But it was for a purpose. The controlling of Black labor, the use of violence, was for a purpose. And that was to generate some profit for some people. And so who was profiting from this new system?
Robert T. Chase: I think there are a couple of things to note. First, that the criminal justice system in the American South before the Civil War was very small. Most Southern states had perhaps one penitentiary and very small prison populations. After the convict lease, the movement of prisoners out of the penitentiary, either to the fields or to these industrial spaces, were those occupied mostly by African American people. For instance, in Georgia, the antebellum penitentiary, in its entire existence from 1817 to 1854, received only 1343 prisoners. In 1850, Georgia with a total population of 900,000, had only 43 prisoners and convicted only 80. But in 1868, just three years after emancipation, Georgia had 205 prisoners and 177 of them were African American, and only 28 were white. And thereafter, year after year, African Americans comprised 90% of the Georgia prison population.
So it was a system that shifted from a penitentiary that held largely white prisoners. African Americans in the South were disciplined on either the prison plantation or through extralegal violence, through vigilante white violence, not so much within an institutional setting of the criminal justice system. And the crucial point to your question is that this process not only conditioned questions of race, but it also created a new capitalist design in the American South. And we have to understand that the convict lease system also created political power within the system. It created what historians have called that Bourbon southern alliance between capitalists and planters.
There was political power in the lease, for instance, Joseph Emerson Brown, who called for the abolition of the penitentiary in Georgia in 1865, then made a fortune leasing convicts as a senator in the 1880s. Jeremiah W. South, a lessee in Kentucky, who leased convicts from 1869 until his death, supposedly exercised greater political power over Kentucky government than any other official. "He controlled the legislators," it was said, "as absolutely as he controlled the convicts." And then in Alabama—from state to state we can see this—Governor Robert Patton, for instance, in a return for the sum of just $5, leased for six years 374 prisoners to a firm called Smith and McMillan. And this firm, Smith and McMillan, was actually controlled by the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad System, which he had invested in. So it's this direct linkage between Southern political power, and the development of the convict lease as a modern capitalist system and the profits that come out of this system, that we can see across various Southern states, including Georgia, where Governor Bullock, who leads the entire penitentiary to the railroad contractors, Grant Alexander and Company, for a very small amount, 3 cents a day. And at the end of that year, Grant Alexander and Company held 109 convicts. And then they would invest in these railroads, for instance, and gained great profits from them.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So are we literally talking about the modernization of the South on the backs of African Americans who are imprisoned?
Robert T. Chase: Well, that's precisely it, Hasan. That's precisely it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm.
Robert T. Chase: It's about profitability. In Tennessee, for instance, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, they charged the convict labor that allowed them to build the railroads that crisscross the American South. And it's estimated that that effort of using almost-free convict labor, paid very little per person to the state, that that gave them a $70,000 annual advantage over all the other mines that depended on free labor. So it thrust them into a position of being able to build more, faster and cheaper. And they're doing that, as you said, on the backs of Black labor.
And it's important to note that then Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad was then purchased by U.S. Steel. Right? U.S. Steel, the biggest national steel maker and the country, at the moment when steel was king during the Gilded Age outside of the South, in the north. And U.S. Steel acquired the Tennessee Coal, and Iron Railroad Company in 1907. So this is about creating a new breed of industrialist in the American South, men like John T. Milner and James W. Silas. Milner, who famously said that, "Negro labor can be made exceedingly profitable in manufacturing iron and in rolling mills, provided there is an overseer, a southern man who knows how to manage Negroes." And so that link is very clear, even in how they imagine the industrial world that they're building—industry, and capitalism and racial oppression.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The racial oppression. I want us to pause there and probe that a little bit, because I'm curious as to what the public justifications were. What rationalizations were being offered by those individuals, companies, politicians and the like, for this kind of inhumane treatment that enabled this system to proceed, as you said, for half a century?
Robert T. Chase: I think the first thing to note is that the inhumanity of it took time to come into the public's awareness and consciousness. There were moments where the public decried what was happening. But for the most part, at its inception, it was argued that this would create an economic boom that the South sorely needed. The South was beset with Confederate scrip, now worthless. The enslaved were not only coerced labor, they also meant access to credit. And the loss of that, in addition to a war-torn economy, devastated the American South. And what those who lived in the South saw was not the human degradation or the beatings, but they heard the beat of the railroad line coming through their town, the rush of mercantile interest through the mines or the steel mills that started to redevelop the American South.
And at its very beginnings, for instance, there also was, I think, a desire among white Southerners to find a system that would deal with some of the political energy that had been unleashed by Reconstruction, with African Americans going to Congress, in their state militia or police, taking up arms. And these whites wanted to re-instill white supremacy. And the criminal justice system allowed them to do that. In Mississippi, one future warden, A. Phillips, for instance, made a thorough study of what to do after emancipation with the penitentiary system. And he said in the study, "Emancipating the Negroes will require a system of penitentiaries. The one in Jackson," Jackson, Mississippi, "was nearly full when the courts had it, but little to do with the Negroes. So how will it be now after emancipation?" So a clear sense that the system of convict leasing was modernizing, industrializing the South, making it a more palatable space for capitalists and industry and, at the same time, creating the kind of racial oppression that those who were white elites wanted the South to embrace. So it also erected the Jim Crow South.
I would say too, Hasan, it had another advantage economically in the labor system for planters, in that while the industrial convict labor was going on this depressed wages in the American South. It also meant that organizing of labor unions in the American South would be more anemic. Because if one wanted to organize a labor union and you were African American, well, you could be then the target of the criminal justice system. So it depressed wages in the South, kept labor anemic and at the same time modernized it and brought to those who wanted to re-embrace white supremacy, a system to uphold it.
As the historian Edward Ayers said, "Convict leasing drew on the worst of the past," meaning enslavement or here a kind of re-enslavement, "and the worst of the future," meaning capitalism and the profitability margin that drove convict leasing.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And African Americans, whether they were caught up within the system or were viewing it from the outside, were clearly aware of what was happening. What were some of the ways in which they responded and resisted?
Robert T. Chase: Within the system, those who were convicted had a whole variety of ways to try to resist what James Scott called the everyday 'weapons of the weak.' Some things involved theft, taking a small amount of material out of a steel mill, for instance, malingering, slowing their labor, timing it in a way that they were trying to reserve whatever strength they had to get through their day. Women, for instance, they would burn the shirts of the convict laborer. They would burn these clothes. Escapes were common. In Georgia, between 1866 and 1877, 555 convicts attempted to make their escape, which tells us that they were trying to take freedom in their own hands, in the same way that runaways from slavery did just a generation before. The company, Grant Alexander and Company, one of the overseers wrote that he whipped convicts for, "disobeying orders, for not working, for impudence, for running away or plotting to run away, for fighting, for screaming from each other and for abusing stock." Now, while he talks about it in terms of punishment, all of the things that he's punishing them for are the convicts themselves trying to confront the system in the very few tools that they have at their disposal.
Bethany Jay: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources,as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let’s return now to Hasan’s conversation with Robert Chase.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We talked a little bit earlier about how the system of convict leasing ends. Could you explain what leads to its eventual demise? And then I want us to talk about what follows in its footsteps.
Robert T. Chase: Convict leasing was phased out across the South beginning in the late 19th century, continuing on in some places until the 1920s. Only two states completely abolished the lease before the end of the 19th century. But by 1920, only Alabama had failed to pass a law to end the system. So it was coming to its decline. Georgia ended in 1908, Mississippi and Tennessee by the 1890s, so it was a system in decline.
For a long time, historians argued that it ends because it's a blemish on the Southern sense of honor, of that Lost Cause rhetoric of a renewed New South coming at the same moment of Jim Crow. But historians, beginning in the mid 1990s, revised that to think about the ways in which two things happened. One, they were affected by some of the progressive humanitarian impulses. There were proceedings in state legislatures about its inhumanity. There were exposés that did damage the system. But at the end of the day, Hasan, it's not a matter, I think, of conscience, but it's the end of its profitability. In an economic downturn, you can fire someone when your business goes south, but you can't diminish the number of convict labor that you have. And so as the economic winds changed at the turn of the century, suddenly convict leasing went from being very cheap, and a way to modernize the South, to increasingly expensive.
And it's really important to point out that the oppression that we see in convict leasing just simply moved from the private sector to the public sector. Roadwork became really important, and that was run by the state. The state would take convicts that had been once part of the convict lease system in Georgia, for instance, and move them into developing roads all across the state. And then another thing I would note, it also created another form of white supremacy. In my own book, I call them prison plantations, but at the time they were called farms.
So let's talk about James Vardaman, elected in Mississippi in 1903, a populist champion of white supremacy. But he thought convict leasing was bad. He thought it was bad for poor whites, that it hurt them in the labor market. And he believed that it hurt the image of the New South and the idea that somehow plantation life for African Americans was benevolent or paternalistic. And he turned to what's known as Parchman Prison Farm, even calling it these false nomenclatures to create this idea of a bucolic return to a rural, ideal space. Parchman Farm returned prisoners from private companies back to the state. But there they labored like slaves, picking the cash crop of cotton, clearing the land, a return to agricultural work but for state-made use. For in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, a series of three successive laws at the national legislature more or less outlawed the private leasing of prisoners to companies or individuals, but it returned those prisoners to state-made use. And across the American South, prisoners continued to labor, but they did so for the benefit of the state. So it changed the shape of how the prison system operated in the American South, but not the fact of its racial oppression.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So does the desire to exploit Black labor then end when we see the end of the convict leasing system?
Robert T. Chase: No, far from it. Convict leasing propelled and placed Black labor at the center of the criminal justice system, but it never left that center once it was achieved. African Americans are continuously incarcerated in the system. But important to note that from the 1930s until the mid 1960s, the rates of incarcerated people who are African American are less than they are after the 1960s. On the eve of Brown v. Board of Education, African Americans are incarcerated at four times the rate of whites relative to their number in the population, so still more than whites. But after 1965, after the Civil Rights Act of '64, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the acceleration of mass incarceration leads us to a number today where African Americans are incarcerated almost twice as often as they had been on the eve of Brown v. Board of Education, seven times the rate of whites. And of course, we know that a prison population of nearly 2.2 million draws heavily on Black and brown populations. Latinos are the fastest growing number of prisoners, along with women, in the modern-day prison system, such that the majority of our prisons today are filled with African American and Latinx people.
And there they work. They work for over a $2 billion industry. They are paid an average daily wage of about 89 cents. Four states, including the one that I study, Texas, pays them nothing at all. So that is coerced labor with no pay. And the work that they do builds a prison industry. The tables and chairs that we have in our universities are bought by state-made prison use. Prisoners produce all manner of commercial goods. In some political campaigns recently, prisoners were the ones who made the phone calls for politicians calling for more law and order. So while it changed from the period of 1930 to 1979, in 1979 the national legislature passed the Prison Industries Reorganization Act, which in many ways, Hasan, returns us to a moment where prisoners can labor once again for private companies and for profit.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One thing has become clear as we've been discussing, that this is no simple thing. What suggestions do you have for teachers to help them unpack this history for their students?
Robert T. Chase: One thing I would suggest is that there's a vibrant literature of prisoner memoirs, stretching from the period of the convict lease system to today. In Texas, for instance, Andrew George wrote The Texas Convict in 1893 [(sic) A Texas Prisoner]. A very vibrant memoir was written by Charles C Campbell called Hell Exploded: An Exposition of Barbarous Cruelty and Prison Horrors. There's also a book called Mama Emma's Boy [(sic) Racehoss: Big Emma's Boy], which is about African American prison labor in Texas in the 1950s and 1960s.
But I would also say importantly that some of the other sources are these state legislative committees that reviewed the convict lease system. There also was just a plethora of material that one can find in newspapers on the system of convict leasing. And then, of course, African American organizations also tried to address this problem. For instance, Carrie Steele Logan and Martha Holsey found philanthropic institutions to keep children out of the prison system. And Carrie Logan then founded the Orphan's Home in Atlanta. Mary Church Terrell has written about the number of African Americans in the prison system, and particularly the children born through moments when convict guards sexually assaulted convict women who had no other choice but to consent.
I like to use, in my class, convict labor songs. I find them to be really powerful material. And we have recordings of these at the Smithsonian. Bruce Jackson, who was an anthropologist who went down to Texas in the 1960s, recorded prison work songs. Now, you know, they may have been changed a bit from convict leasing, but they're there. And he has a book called Wake Up Dead Man, as well as a recording by the same name of these work songs that one can use in the classroom. And if it's okay, I'd like to read and interpret a couple of lyrics. These are things I use in the classroom. Would that be all right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely.
Robert T. Chase: So here's one. And it reads as follows: "The Captain hollar 'Hurry.' I'm going to take my time.’ Says he's making money and trying to make time. Says he can lose his job, but I can't lose mine." So one thing to think about, that cadence when we move into agricultural labor. The cadence of these songs are hammers and hoes hitting the ground or trees, and that is the percussion element, just as it had been in some slave songs. But the lyrics also allow them to have some resistance or speak back to their keeper. In this one, he says, "The captain is hollering, 'Hurry.' But I'm going to take my time." Right? I'm going to slow it down. "Says he's making money and trying to make time. He can lose his job, but I can't lose mine." Right? So I'm still going to be here tomorrow, no matter how much I produce for him.
Another one that I like, which Bruce Jackson recorded, is called "Jody." And I'll just read a little portion of it. "I've been working all day long picking this stuff called cotton and corn. We raise cotton, cane and corn, taters and tomatoes. The boss is on a horse." The boss is the prison guard up on a horse above them. "And he's watching us all. Better tighten up if you don't want to catch the hall, wonder if the major will go my bail or give me 12 hours standing on the rail. I see the captain sitting in the shade. He don't do nothing, but he get paid. We work seven long days in a row, two packs of Bull and a picture show. In the wintertime we don't get no lay, cutting and cane and making syrups every day."
Now that that is a language that one has to decipher in the classroom. The boss on a horse is the prison guard “watching us all.” “Better tighten up,” means you got to work faster, harder. Or if you don't want to catch “the hall,” what could that mean? “Catching the hall” meant that you were put out into the hall of the prison and standing there with your nose in a circle for 24 hours, as people file past you. And if you moved, tried to sit down, tried to sleep out of that circle, you'd be beaten. They then say “12 hours standing on the rail.” That meant standing on a rail, two by four, with your hands extended outward and balancing on that rail. And if you fall off that rail on either side, you will be beaten.
"I see the captain sitting in the shade. He doesn't do nothing, but he gets paid. We work seven days in a row." Meaning they're working seven hour days, ten hour days, which they were. And what they get is two packs of Bull. That means Bull Durham, the cigarette rolled in the prison, and a picture show, meaning a movie. But the point at the end of the song is, they can never go home. This is their existence day after day. But within that existence, these songs allowed them opportunity to mock their keeper, to have some say and some resistance, to time their labor and to have some control over their day.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow. I can see teachers, you know, playing those songs. I can see teachers dissecting those songs. Are there documentaries or films that you would suggest teachers use as well?
Robert T. Chase: There are some really important documentaries that have come out. Of course, The 13th situates the criminal justice system principally after 1965 and its growth to mass incarceration. But if we were looking at the convict lease, Douglas Blackmon's book, A Slavery by Another Name, also developed a very good documentary. And what I liked, Hasan, about that documentary is they hired actors to read the words of convicts, and their letters and so on. And when I show it to my students, that really humanizes them and brings them into the conversation. And then, of course, there's a whole host of fictional movies from the 1932 I'm a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to Orange is the New Black. Both films though, or film and TV show, I should say, are interesting in that it takes a white protagonist in that condition to elicit human sympathy. And then, of course, there are those that had a more humorous take, like. Oh, I can't think of it, Hasan. What was the George Clooney convict lease?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Oh, yeah. I thought you were going to say Life with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence.
Robert T. Chase: Oh, Life. Right, right. Life. And even, you know, I grew up in the late seventies, 1980s. I'm a Richard Pryor guy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm.
Robert T. Chase: So Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in their film where they go to prison and perform in a rodeo. I mean, there's a whole thing to talk about there with performance of Blackness in public space and these prison rodeos. One in Angola, in Louisiana, which was known as the worst, baddest farm. And I mean bad in a bad way for being violent. And then one in Texas, which operated all the way until the early 1980s. But the performance that was going on there, for instance, there was a greased pig contest where African American prisoners, principally women, would be forced to catch this pig or 'convict poker' where they released an angry bull, and the prisoner that sits the longest at that poker table gets the money. It's a kind of public minstrelsy that is performing the condemnation of Blackness in public space as criminal and worthy not of human empathy, but of degradation and also of mockery.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And whether it's the movie Life or O Brother, Where Art Thou, the 2000 film with George Clooney, often there's not enough time to show the whole film in the classroom. But what can be done is to use clips from the films. And then you also are able to sort of limit some of the exposure for younger high school audiences with language and the like. But a clip then put into context and interpreted can be used quite effectively, I think, in this context of teaching.
Robert T. Chase: Yeah, I would agree. The thorny problem of using the Hollywood fictionalized accounts, particularly when they're depicting the convict lease system, I can't think of a film that's handled it seriously.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm. Mmm hmm.
Robert T. Chase: It's always through the realm of making it a joke.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm hmm. Yeah.
Robert T. Chase: Now, why is that? Why is that? I think it's because of that reason you’d pointed us to earlier, Hasan, that most schools don't teach this. And if they were to teach it, as we're trying to do now, think of all the things we've had to talk about. We've had to talk about economic exploitation. We've had to talk about sexual violence. We've had to talk about torture. We've had to talk about mortality through labor, all of these things that are really hard subjects. On the one hand, these films give us opportunity to talk about them. But on the other hand, I think that they have yet to make a film that deals with these things in the way that, say, 12 Years a Slave did in depicting slavery.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. Robert Chase, I can't thank you enough for coming on and enlightening us about the criminal justice system and the Jim Crow era, and especially about convict leasing and its origins and long legacy. Thank you so much.
Robert T. Chase: Thank you, Hassan. It's always a pleasure to talk to you. I always enjoy our conversations.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely.
Bethany Jay: Robert T. Chase is an Associate Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He is the author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners' Rights in Postwar America from UNC Press. Dr. Chase is also the editor of the anthology Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance.
The Jim Crow era saw a changing Southern landscape that promoted reliance on formal methods of racist social control. Brandon Jett is the author of Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South. In our next segment, he examines the social and commercial factors behind the transition from extralegal lynchings to police enforcement of the color line. He shows us how his students use a local lynching case to begin examining this subject.
Here’s Dr. Jett.
Brandon T. Jett: When people think about the role of racial violence in the Jim Crow period, I think the thing that immediately pops out is these extralegal acts of violence known as lynchings, which are typically understood as extrajudicial killings or killings that happened outside of the formal processes of criminal justice, whereby a group of people—could be three people, it could be twelve people, it could be hundreds, in some cases thousands of people—who participate in these spectacles of violence and brutality. But it's a mob of people, a group of people who are exacting some form of punishment against someone who has in some way, shape or form, transgressed community ideals or in some cases, laws—segregation laws or really any kind of law on the books that we would think of today.
Extralegal violence, like lynchings, had occurred throughout American history, typically in places that didn't have robust criminal justice institutions that we would typically associate with communities that are kind of on that western cusp of American migrations or white-Anglo migrations into the territories that were previously claimed by Native Americans.
But lynching was something that was taking on new forms in the 1890s and early 20th century. We know about those legal things, right? The segregation laws. The disenfranchisement laws. And they were clearly racially biased and racist in design and implementation. But it's this aspect of violence that really plays a crucial role in creating and perpetuating this new racial hierarchy and enforcing a lot of those legal aspects of Jim Crow.
There were something like 4000 African Americans lynched in the late 19th and early 20th century. And again, these are all people who were in some way, shape or form charged, although not always in the way that we would think of someone being charged of a crime, but at least suspected of committing some kind of crime or violating some social custom. This could range from murdering a white person. This could be alleged criminal assaults on white women. It could be something as small as owning land or even looking a white person in the eyes. So there's there's there's accounts of myriad issues that resulted in the lynching of an African American, largely men, but but there were also African American women who were subjected to lynch mob violence as well.
Lynching acted as a form of social and racial control. What more terrifying thing to make sure you abide by the rules and customs of this new white racist society that's being created and implemented in the Jim Crow period than the threat of being brutally killed and tortured, hung, burned alive, in front of dozens, if not thousands, of onlookers. And this proved to be a fairly effective way at reimposing white supremacy in the Southern landscape in particular, again, in the wake of the end of Reconstruction.
But what was widely accepted in the 1890s—at least among white Southerners and to an extent white Americans, broadly speaking—by the early 20th century, and especially into the 19 teens and 1920s, became increasingly problematic. The real specter of mobs of white people parading through towns and destroying property, taking lives, without going through these formal criminal justice processes was really problematic from the perspective of white ‘civic boosters,’ is the phrase I've associated with them. These are people who are promoting their cities and in some cases their states to outside investors. And in many ways, the name of the game in terms of the economy in the South and in the late 19th and early 20th century was cotton agriculture—reliant upon sharecroppers, largely African Americans, although not solely. And this kept them in a cycle of peonage, basically, that they could never pay off their debts that they owed at the end of the sharecropping season. And so they were kind of stuck to the land perpetually, producing a cotton crop for a white plantation owner.
But another part of the southern economy and one that these civic boosters were really pushing for is outside investment, largely from northerners. So banks in the north, private investors in the north, businesses in the north coming into the South and opening up new factories and really diversifying the Southern economy. And this was part and parcel of a larger strategy, and basically PR campaign by many of these boosters, that tried to depict the South as something that was fundamentally different. In fact, they called this the New South ideology. So not the Old South, that Antebellum South, the South of plantation slavery. But this was a new South, this was a progressive South. It is a place that is more economically diversified, attractive to outside investment, a place where new businesses, manufacturing businesses can come in and be successful. This was the South that was not mired down by the institution of slavery. It was not solely devoted to mono crop agriculture. But it was diverse and, as they would argue, ripe for investment from outsiders.
But by the early 20th century, investors were increasingly wary of placing their money in Southern locations, especially locations where it seemed like lynch mobs ran rampant and rarely, if ever, met with any kind of actual prosecution. And so as part of this promotion of the New South ideology, the ideas of lynching became challenged in ways that they really hadn't been, at least among white society in the 1890s. Many white Southerners defended the institution of lynching in the 1890s as something that was necessary to control this Black population that had been untrained by the civilizing, as they called it, the civilizing influences of slavery. So this was that first generation that was born free.
And part of their argument—that was completely discredited by Ida B. Wells and her really important investigative journalism in the 1890s and early 20th century—there's this idea that this new generation of African American men in particular, that that were born free, had this almost insatiable sexual appetite for white women, and there was this outburst of Black men raping white women. And to stop that from happening, to stop those Black men from engaging in that type of criminal activity. lynching was required. The criminal justice system was too slow. It was too undependable. It let people off for trivial reasons. This is what they argued. And so they needed lynching to demonstrate to African American men, in particular, and again, this is the argument that white southerners are making to defend lynching, that they couldn't get away with criminally assaulting white women. And while this may be held up for a little while in the 1890s, by the early 20th century that had largely been discredited too. And so the conversations around lynching also changed. This wasn't something that was necessary or required to protect the white community. At least many outsiders suggested, instead, this was just an example of sheer brutality and was really out of place and anachronistic, in terms of what the South was trying to present itself as and what the United States was trying to present itself as.
And so what we begin to see in the early 20th century is this move away from reliance on extralegal forms of racial and social control like lynching and an embrace of more formal institutions of criminal justice assuming that role from the community. These civic boosters, state officials, local criminal justice officials, like county sheriffs, police chiefs and county prosecutors, really wanted the onus of maintaining control over their community to place in their hands, not the wider community as a whole. And this was supposed to curtail instances of lynching. It's not necessarily done because they feel sorry for African Americans, who are overwhelmingly the victims of lynch mob violence in the late 19th and early 20th century. But it's really done out of their economic self interests.
Another thing to consider is the changing demographic of the Southern landscape, a region that had been largely rural and agricultural in the mid-19th century, still was that way by the late-19th century, but this was beginning to change, especially in the first several decades of the 20th century. And so another thing that is encouraging this idea of reliance on formal institutions of criminal justice is just the sheer growth of Southern cities at the time. The city of Birmingham in 1880 had 3000 people in it. By 1950, it had almost 330,000. Memphis had 15,000 people in 1880 [(sic) 33,592 people]. By 1950, almost 400,000 people living in the city. New Orleans, which was in many respects the most important and the largest Southern city in the Antebellum period, in 1880 had 216,000 residents. By 1950, it had 570,000 residents. And so relying on informal methods like lynching to control a population that is in the hundreds of thousands just really didn't seem to be effective or as effective as it could be in a small rural place of only a couple of thousand.
And so what we began to see in the early 20th century is a real robust investment in formal institutions of criminal justice on behalf of the southern states and southern localities. We see investments in prisons. We see investments in the police, which a lot of people don't realize were a relatively new invention. Modern policing, in terms of the police department, really wasn't introduced to the United States until the mid-19th century, in places like New York and Boston, to an extent. And so in the South, this is something that's relatively new. And it isn't until the late 19th and particularly early 20th century that southern cities began investing in their police departments and the police departments begin to look like things we could readily identify today.
Another really fascinating thing that the police do, in particular, in this 1920 to 1945 period is become increasingly militarized. And this is a result of a number of different factors, one being the end of World War One, which comes about right before 1920. And all of a sudden, the American military finds itself with a bunch of equipment. And police departments start getting their hands on some of these things, like grenade launchers, vehicles and weaponry that was previously used in wars, are now being introduced into the streets of American cities and in the South, in particular.
We don't really hear much about police forces in the South. Like if you think about the typical US History since 1877 or since 1865 course, we kind of talk about the Jim Crow South. And perhaps you talk about segregation, and disenfranchisement and maybe to an extent the violence that was used to maintain Jim Crow. But we don't really talk about formal institutions of criminal justice or their development over this time period. But by the time you get to the civil rights movement, there's Bull Connor with this robust police force. And they are relying on these aggressive military-style tactics, using weapons of war, in many respects, to thwart any progress that civil rights activists might make, especially in their street protests. And I think this is the link that's missing—in between that discussion of Jim Crow and then the efforts to really push back against civil rights activism using the police and the jails—is just where these police forces came from, where these institutions came from, that really allowed white southerners like Bull Connor, to tap into and really thwart efforts by activists during the civil rights movement.
And so as these formal institutions of criminal justice are expanded—as they're invested in, as they incorporate new technologies, prisons are being built, police are being invested in, prosecutors become stronger—we see a rise in incarceration rates. This can't be separated from this larger question of race and capitalism developing in industrialized ways in the South, not for the first time, but for much of the South for the very first time. Something that relies on more formal processes of criminal justice, like arrest for offenses ranging from, you know, typical things we would think of as as criminal acts—murder, assault, theft. But also smaller things, like vagrancy or not having visible means of employment, also became crimes in the context of the Jim Crow South that African Americans could be arrested for, placed behind bars, upending their life in many ways.
And so law enforcement and formal criminal justice service serve these dual roles of maintaining the racial status quo and perpetuating this racial hierarchy that has been created by Jim Crow, while also kind of stymying threats to this capitalist development that emerges in this more industrialized New South, but also kind of working-class activism that might develop from the working class. And if you're talking about the South, African Americans comprise a very large segment of that working class. So they're intimately bound up in questions of race, and class, and labor and the role of these institutions, in creating an atmosphere that is conducive to capitalist exploitation of the resources of the South. And also imposing this Jim Crow, white supremacist system that also has to be monitored and maintained.
And so that's this larger transformation that's taking place during this late 19th, early 20th century period. This shift away from reliance on informal methods of social control and racial control to more formalized institutions—the police, prosecutors, prisons, jails and the like—to maintain and perpetuate the system of racial inequality.
Bethany Jay: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity, just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/podcastpd. PD for professional development. That’s podcastPD, all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode, all lowercase. You’ll also find a link in the show notes. It’s a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.
Brandon T. Jett: When we think about this transition period—from this central role that extralegal violence played in establishing and perpetuating the new racial hierarchy that Jim Crow created, to this period where we've got this robust criminal justice apparatus that has in many ways supplanted the role that extralegal violence played—the way I like to introduce this into the classroom is through looking at lynching and the ways in which the responses to lynching unfolded over time.
One of the things that I think is really important to do in the classroom is not only look at what lynching was. There are professional websites that have been created with a vast number of lynching photographs to provide the larger public with access to some of these things to fully grapple with the atrocity that was racial violence and lynching in the Jim Crow period. One of the ones I used to use was Without Sanctuary, but the Equal Justice Initiative has also been doing a lot of work toward publicizing just how widespread and violent lynchings were. So you can certainly find some photographs on their website as well.
One of the things that I find useful for students is engaging with primary sources, these actual responses to lynchings that took place in the United States. And much like photographs were widely available, both then and now, so are newspaper reports of lynchings and other forms of extralegal violence. There are also books that were written, pamphlets that were written, in response to a lot of these actions. So I've had students delve into into both of those things, both the photographs to kind of grapple with what lynching was, what it looked like, the crowds that are there, how people are seemingly responding to these things. But also the responses. And the responses that I like to show them are, again, this kind of juxtaposition between the response that was there in the 1890s that is largely supportive and defensive of the institution of lynching to some of these responses that come later, like in the 1920s, that are that are critical of lynchings.
So I'd like to just kind of walk you through a couple of things that I've tried in the classroom. Some of them went very, very poorly. Some of them went and went really, really well. The very first thing I tried was to recreate this exhibition that the Without Sanctuary book and website grew out of. James Allen collected lynching photographs for a series of years, and then they displayed all of these photographs somewhere in New York City, I believe, and I think it was also a traveling exhibition in the early 2000s.
And I tried to recreate something like that. This was an undergraduate course, so largely freshmen students, and I just hung pictures that I found off the Internet of lynchings that had taken place around the classroom. And this came on the heels of our larger conversation about the Jim Crow system that had happened in a previous class. And I told them what we were going to be doing beforehand. But they essentially walked in, and then I kind of briefly introduced the concept of lynching and the role that it played in the Jim Crow system. And then just had students walk around silently, individually and take notes on all of the photographs that they saw around them. And then we just had a larger conversation about it.
And that was okay. There were a lot of mixed responses. I think it was an awful lot for students to handle for, you know, a 50-minute class. It was almost too much for them to handle and really adequately process what they were looking at and why this is significant. And so I would really discourage teachers out there from doing something like that, where you just throw these really traumatic images in front of students. Even if you kind of preface it the class before, I still think it is almost too jarring to really have a robust conversation about what this means and the roles that it played in American society.
But the second time I tried it, I actually introduced the idea at the beginning of the semester, and this was actually in a US history survey course from 1865 to the present. I told them we were going to be doing this at the beginning. And I actually encourage students to find a photograph that they thought was really significant. And they posted it in an online forum that I created for the class. And each student picked a photograph, and they explained why they thought it was significant and what their reactions to it were. And this allowed them to grapple with some of this stuff more, and also on a personal level, before it was just thrust upon them in a very public setting in the classroom. And this actually went better than the first approach of just kind of throwing it up there and having students react to it in real time. It allowed for a much more robust conversation about what lynchings meant. Students were particularly drawn to the mobs and more drawn to this conversation around what it meant that so many people seemed so comfortable and even proud of their participation in these acts of violence.
And I asked for student feedback at the end of the semester when we had these discussions. And I got a couple of reactions. Some students were not all that interested in doing this kind of assignment. They were really turned off by the violence of it, by the brutality of it and just found it a little off putting. Others didn't like it at first. I had several students who were very angry, they told me, that this was an assignment that they were having to do in class, when they first started looking into it. But they said that this 2-to-3 week window that I gave them from when they were supposed to find images and then come to class and have our conversations about it, they said that it really helped them process and went through this kind of mental transition away from just being mad, angry or overly upset, and instead recognizing the importance of grappling with the reality that was lynching and racial violence in the late 19th and early 20th century.
And I thought that was really an important experience for students to have and share that I would really encourage educators to incorporate into their classes, if they're interested in doing something that grapples with the photography and photographs related to lynching and racial violence, is provides students enough time to kind of process this stuff on their own, with your assistance, with their peers. Because I think in many ways it's that reaction and reflection that is more important than anything that could really happen, in real time in class, when you just try to get these knee-jerk reactions.
Introducing photographs of lynchings into classes is something that needs to be approached very delicately. Make sure that they have enough time and space and preparation to fully engage and understand what they're going to be looking at, because these are really graphic images. In some cases, they are hard to look at. And without appropriate framing, and contextualization and preparation, it can be an exercise that goes really poorly, really quickly.
I just try to prep them for what they are going to see. And I introduce the idea that we're going to be looking at lynching photographs well before we ever get to that point in the semester. Sometimes I've introduced it at the very first class. When we're talking about the syllabus, what we're going to be doing, I point out that, 'Hey. Understand, we're going to be engaging with primary sources, and photographs and music recordings throughout the course of the semester. But some of these are going to be pretty difficult images.’ And I'll point their attention to the week that we're going to be discussing Jim Crow, and the week that the activity will take place. And usually at that initial conversation, it's just a brief introduction. I'm not dwelling on it because it's an overview, but I do just prep them that these photographs depict people who are participating in the killing of other people. They, in some cases, are dead bodies. And they can be really, really difficult to look at. So I just kind of give them the sense that, 'Hey, something pretty hard and emotionally complicated is coming up in a few weeks. So I need to be ready.’
And then when we get closer. Say, when we're two weeks out, and I give them the assignment of, 'I'd like you to go see if you can find a lynching photograph that really resonates with you, that you find really powerful, or upsetting or something that you think helps us understand the context of of the Jim Crow South more broadly'. And when I introduce that idea, first, I tell them about how lynching photographs originated. Why it was unique to this period. I also introduce the idea of how long it took for photographs to be taken. Photography is relatively new. This isn't like our time period, where you can just snap it with your phone. But this is something that takes time. People have to set these things up well in advance in many cases.
We talk about the fact that many of these photographs were actually postcards that people were sending around to each other, kind of bragging about their experiences, what they did, the role that they played in this, or just to let their extended family and relatives know what's going on in their lives. And then I just remind them again about what's being depicted. These are human beings whose lives were brutally taken from them in front of dozens, hundreds in some cases, thousands of onlookers. And just really solemnly explain what lynching was in the context of the Jim Crow South. I show them a picture of a mob. So not a lynch mob victim, but the zoomed out photograph of what the mob looked like. I just say, like, 'These are all people who gathered to watch a human being be tortured to death,’ so we can just have conversations about what that means.
Again, I give them the opportunity to just reflect, and respond and grapple with this stuff on their own. And if they need to reach out to me, of course, I'm always available. I also give students the option to opt out. Just in case this is something that they are wholly uninterested in engaging with or don't think that they are emotionally comfortable exploring. So I always give students the opportunity to opt out.
Giving them that two-week window, and kind of explaining what lynchings were, broadly speaking, without any imagery, I think really helps. And then framing it, and introducing it, and prepping at multiple points throughout the semester, emphasizing what they're going to be looking at, the context within which these photographs were taken, what the Without Sanctuary exhibition was and why it's significant, and how what we're doing is not an exercise in continuing to push these these violent images to oppress African Americans, which is what the motivation was at the time. But instead try to come to a full realization of what Jim Crow was, what the United States was in this late 19th and early 20th century in very visible ways.
I’ve found that coming up with a local topic, as localized as you can get it, really helps. It kind of gets buy-in from school administrators too. You say, 'This isn't just about criminal justice change. This is local history. And this is something that public schools should be engaged in anyway,’ really provides buy-in, or at least in my case provided some buy-in from the institutions and also from the students as well. They were already interested in this topic because it was local.
And so just to give you one example that I've used in the classroom, There's a small town in Texas. It's called Paris, Texas. It's a small town in northeast Texas. It kind of hugs the Red River. You probably never heard of it, but in the 1890s, it rose to infamy. It first rose to infamy in 1893, when white residents there basically committed one of the first spectacle lynchings that took place. This was a lynching of a man named Henry Smith. In 1893, he was accused of assaulting and killing a four-year-old white girl named Myrtle Vance. He was captured, tortured, burned alive.
But the thing that really stood out to a lot of Americans at the time was that this was photographed. Photographers set up cameras. It was advertised in local newspapers. Train companies redirected more routes to Paris so people could come and watch. Thousands of people watched, watched this barbaric act take place. And in response to that, one of the local residents of Paris, Texas, a well-to-do businessman, J.M. Earley, actually publishes this really robust defense of the lynching of Henry Smith, in response to all of the attention that is being focused on Paris, Texas.
He says, "What have we done or left undone as a people of pride, as a people capable of being wrought up to indignation, in the vindication of our homes, our wives or daughters against ravishment. That when it is wired abroad, we have burned at the stake a monster for having ravished a baby to death. That it should not be credited, we go on record now as being credible." So he's essentially arguing that they're not ashamed of what happened. They are very proud of what they did.
He continues, "The burning of Smith for the crime, as herein related, was an act at the hands of the citizens of Paris, Lamar County, Texas, the sublimity of which has no precedent upon the American continent, perhaps not on earth. The sun will never rise upon another day in which another act more just, more sublime, in the vainly attempting by man, an eye for an eye." So he's simply saying this was perhaps the most just action that has ever been committed by a group of people. So you can just clearly see how enthusiastically he is supporting the lynching of Henry Smith.
And he's got economic interests in this town. This town is trying to attract outside investment. It's trying to attract newcomers to come to the city and set up shop. And J.M. Early is someone who's positioned very well to capitalize on some of that. And instead of saying this lynching was an aberration. This was something that, you know, a couple of rabble rousers participated in. He defends it as completely necessary and just. And one of the really fascinating things at the end of this book that he publishes, it's called *Eye for an Eye*, is he basically ends by saying 'this is a really great town. This is a really great place. You all should come and move here. We've got fertile ground. You can grow cotton. And we are really proud of our ability to protect white women and our community. And he kind of makes this offhanded remark, "even if it takes a little fire." So his defense of the lynching is also a kind of PR move designed to attract people to Paris, or at least assuage their concerns about the violence they just read about or saw on those postcards and those photographs that were taken.
But if you fast forward to 1920. Once again, whites in Paris, Texas, burn two Black men alive. These are two World War One vets who've returned. And they express some dissatisfaction about their continued employment as sharecroppers at a local landowner's plantation. And there's some confrontation, and they kill the white landowner. And they end up fleeing. They're captured, eventually tied to a stake and burned alive. But after this lynching takes place, you don't see that same robust defense of it that took place in 1893. Instead, you see the local Chamber of Commerce, religious leaders in the community, really condemn this lynching as something that is horrific, shouldn't be allowed to happen, and, they argue, won't happen again.
It's not necessarily that the J.M. Earley's of the world, and the leaders of the Chamber of Commerce in Paris, Texas, really changed their views on African Americans in 30 years. Instead, they probably had very similar views about the proper role of African Americans in American life and in Southern life, in particular. And that was to be decidedly below or subordinate to white Americans. Yet they are they are different in their reactions to lynching, because they feel like the economic well-being of themselves and their community, at least in 1893, depends on them defending and justifying what had happened. But by 1920, certainly suggesting that this is something that won't be able to happen again, because it is so problematic from an economic standpoint.
And again, this is all part of this larger PR campaign that Southerners are undertaking—it's not necessarily coordinated across a region, but within these communities—to try and bring people in. And we are making sure that things like this won't happen again, because we are going to handle things through the formal criminal justice system. The sheriff is going to be more responsive and reactive in these cases. So you begin to see this uptick in sheriffs moving prisoners and suspects who have been charged with crimes that could spark a lynching. They begin moving those in their custody around to protect them from the lynch mob and then prosecute them through the formal institutions of criminal justice.
The South in 1890 is really creating or recreating this racial hierarchy. They are enacting segregation laws. They are introducing disenfranchisement measures. That hierarchy isn't necessarily firmly entrenched just yet. It's getting there. And so they're relying on extralegal violence to help put it in place, right. 'If you don't abide by these new rules, this is the potential consequence.’ By 1920, in many ways, the Jim Crow system is more advanced. Some of those legal mechanisms, like segregation, disenfranchisement, are fully implemented. They had been upheld by the Supreme Court and broadly implemented across the South, and in some cases the country. You've also got this increased development of the more formal apparatus of criminal justice.
And I think having students play around with those different reactions, those defenses at the local level, is really important for helping them understand this change in mindset. And so I push the idea of motivation. I push the idea of motivation and audience a lot when I ask students to analyze primary sources. And I always tell them, you know, ‘The things they say me, and how they say them to me, are fundamentally different than how they would talk about me to their peers. So audience matters, motivation matters, when talking about analyzing primary sources.’
And so one of the assignments that I did with with looking at these different responses to lynchings that took place in Paris, Texas, one in the 1890s, one in 1920, is have students assess ‘Why.’ Why white people in the same town, who are presumably just as inculcated in the larger mindset of white supremacy and the Jim Crow South, even if they don't believe that that African Americans should be lynched, but they still certainly don't believe that they are equal to white Americans and still firmly ensconced in the kind of zeitgeist of the Jim Crow South, ‘Why are they responding differently?’
And so, I would have students come into class, and they would read both of these primary sources. And we’d just talk through what potential motivations could be. ‘What are some of the changes that had unfolded over the course of the 1890s, 19-tens, 1920s?’ And again, just try to put themselves in the shoes of these two groups of people. 'Why are they saying the things that they're saying? Who is their audience? What are they trying to accomplish? And what changes have occurred over that 30-year period that would maybe prompt this different response?'
If you think about it from the perspective of a rural place. You know, a place like Paris, Texas, has a relatively small population. Maybe they're trying to modernize in certain ways, introducing electricity, and paved roads and things like that. But one of the things that hurts Lamar County, Texas, which Paris is the county seat, really after 1920, is this exodus of African Americans from the region and from the county in particular. I forget the numbers, but the drop in Black population in Lamar County, Texas, from 1920 to 1930 is dire from the perspective of landowners there. They're just fleeing. They're going to places north. They're leaving a county that had proved to be incredibly violent, again and again and again and again. And so the threat of violence and Jim Crow is really pushing many African Americans. And this is obviously bound up in the larger Great Migration narrative of millions of African Americans leaving the South and going to northern cities where they had more job opportunities and didn't face the same vehemence, and violence and threats that they did in the South. There were certainly still threats and racial discrimination in the North, too, but wasn't quit as problematic. You treat people like the way white Southerners were treating African Americans for generations, eventually they're going to leave. And they did. So that's the labor pool that many of these rural places that relied on agriculture. That's their workforce. And all of a sudden they're leaving. So part of this is, 'Hey, we can't keep lynching African Americans, because they're just leaving. And now we don't have a pliable labor force to pick all of our cotton and continue to subjugate in economic ways.' So that's one way.
The second way is, if you're trying to convince an investor to sink a significant amount of money into your town, into your city, they're going to want to make sure that there aren't going to be mobs of lawless, violent people rampaging through town. There are numerous examples of these mobs kind of spiraling out of control and attacking businesses. And so that's not a very conducive place for investors to sink a bunch of money into, if this kind of lawlessness, at least from their perspective, is allowed to go unpunished and unmitigated. What's to stop this mob from turning on their businesses if they happen to employ African American laborers?
The other side of it that also needs to be emphasized in terms of this transition to the police in particular, especially in these urban spaces in the South, is that police become a very effective source of labor control. In northern cities, like Chicago and New York, many historians have argued fairly effectively that the police are introduced at the exact same time that industrialization is really picking up speed. And they are imposing regulations. They are breaking up strikes. They are challenging labor leaders and the like. And that's also true in the South.
Some of the most violent places in terms of police violence are places that have incredibly robust union efforts in the South. Birmingham, Alabama, in particular, had a pretty robust Communist Party presence there. And they were focused on organizing the working class and largely on working-class African Americans. And they are organizing at the exact same time that the police are becoming more aggressive, more violent, more technologically advanced. And they are the focus of police activism in many ways. They are facing threats of violence. They are actually being killed and threatened multiple times. There's one case where I believe it's the Communist Party in Birmingham holds a meeting, and something like 25 to 30% of the Birmingham Police Force was tasked with just monitoring that meeting. So in a city that has hundreds of thousands of people, a significant chunk of the police has just focused on the organizing activities of just one group. It’s pretty telling.
So the police are attacking labor organizers, labor leaders, chasing them out of town. They're arresting them. They are coming up with rules and laws in these places, like you can't distribute radical literature. Well, this gives the police a tool and an incentive to now go into these Black communities, and these working-class communities, and arrest and prosecute people.
And so one of the reasons why these civic boosters are also turning to formal institutions of criminal justice is they think this will be a way to limit the likelihood and the chances that that kind of lawlessness, as they would call it, mobs, destruction, would be present in their communities. But also they can rely on these more formal institutions of criminal justice and the law to also impose this kind of labor control. And in the context of the South is also very much bound up in racial control as well.
Those are the ways, I think, that this concern about lynching, and the buildup of the criminal justice apparatus in response to it, is also bound up in these notions of making the South look like a viable place for economic growth, and in some cases economic diversification. And so that was one of the ways I encouraged students to engage with this shift, in not only response to lynching, but the criminal justice apparatus.
So if I could give advice to any teachers out there who are interested in exploring how you can introduce these topics into the classroom, I always find doing things at the local level is way more impactful. Even though I didn't teach classes in Paris, Texas, I was teaching in Texas when I first came up with this idea and this teaching strategy. And so even something from the state that you are working in, and especially if you're in the South, there will be hundreds of examples that you can tap into.
This will really allow this kind of more intimate connection with what's going on, because it's places that students can recognize in many ways. But it also allows you to look at local newspapers, which most local historical associations will have. You can even find some of these readily available through the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America. There's just myriad digital resources that are also available for you to look at how how white Southerners are responding at the local level to lynchings that take place in their community.
And that just opens the door for you to explore these changes in legal processes that would probably typically be fairly boring to a class of students, if you just 'bullet point' talked about these changes. But this allows you to tap into the issue of lynching, and look at the ways in which reactions are related to the changing nature of criminal justice in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Bethany Jay: Brandon T. Jett is a Professor of History at Florida Southwestern State College. He is the author of Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South: African Americans and Law Enforcement in Birmingham, Memphis, and New Orleans, 1920-1945. Dr. Jett is also the creator of the digital history project Lynching in LaBelle. We’ll put a link in the show notes.
Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight—examining its history and lasting impact.
Thanks to Dr. Chase and Dr. Jett for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintiss and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. “Music Reconstructed” is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback. I’m Dr. Bethany Jay, Professor of History at Salem State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
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- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (film)
- Orange Is the New Black (TV series)
- The Laugh Button, Revisiting “Stir Crazy,” arguably the best Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor film
- The Guardian, Angola prison rodeo offers risks and rewards for Louisiana's hard-knock lifers
- Brandon T. Jett, History, Florida SouthWestern State College
- Brandon T. Jett, Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South: African Americans and Law Enforcement in Birmingham, Memphis, and New Orleans, 1920–1945
- Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror
- Encyclopedia of Alabama, New South Era
- Library of Congress, Ida B. Wells and the Activism of Investigative Journalism
- Law and History Review, Policing Jim Crow America: Enforcers’ Agency and Structural Transformations
- Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (book and film)
- Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching Memorial
- Lynching in America, Remebering Henry Smith
- Texas Monthly, Can the Black Lives Matter Movement Heal Paris, Texas?
- Dr. Brandon T. Jett (website)
- Lynching In LaBelle: A digital history project about the lynching of a man named Henry Patterson.