A Time of Reckoning

I believe we are in a time of reckoning, both with our past and present. It’s long overdue.

With much attention focused on 1619 — an anniversary to be marked but not celebrated – there seems to be a new focus on the foundational arrival of the first enslaved Africans on our shores. With the New York Times 1619 project, the Washington Post’s special sections and so many more contributions to the public square, Americans are learning about and having to confront long suppressed, unreported or glossed-over history.

In the Post, I would direct readers especially to the fine work done by my former colleague DeNeen Brown and by Hannah Natanson, a new name in the paper whose outstanding reporting has, among other things, told the story of the country’s largest and cruelest slave pen and brokerage house operating out of a four-story building in Old Town Alexandria, now owned, ironically, by the Urban League and on the market for $2.1 million.

No doubt the Equal Justice Initiative and Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama have had a major impact on the conversation, as communities – including mine here in Montgomery County, Md. – grapple with their own sordid histories of segregation and lynch law.  Here, there were three lynchings, two in 1880, one in 1896, and now there is a county remembrance and reconciliation commission and a nonprofit lynching memorial project that will mark the hangings of George Peck, in Poolesville, and John Diggs, in Rockville, both in 1880, Peck. In November, a citizens committee plans to collect soil at the site of Peck’s lynching to be sent to the Alabama museum.

In 2011, I wrote extensively about the county’s last lynching, of Sidney Randolph, on July 4, 1896 in Rockville, for Bethesda Magazine, including the other two as well.  The silence that greeted the article was deafening.  I reprised the tragic story of lynch victim Sidney Randolph more recently in the Washington Post, which elicited more response.  It is heartening that at long last this  lost history is finally being found.   But I believe there can be no “truth” or “reconciliation” until the names of the perpetrators (the lynchings are always found to have been conducted by “persons unknown”) are named and their descendants publicly acknowledge their ancestors’ roles.

So far, these commemorative events are being organized largely by white relative newcomers to the county and a few African Americans with local roots.  I have to ask: With whom are they reconciling?  So far, it’s a symbolic one-way street.  In my keynote speech at the Montgomery County Historical Society’s annual conference last January, I suggested that some of the descendants might even be in the audience.  That evoked some nervous laughter. So far, however, descendants haven’t surfaced.

There has also come into play a conversation about reparations.  In my speaking about FIVE FOR FREEDOM: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army, a couple of questioners have asked my view on this subject. I would say that it has evolved. I do not know what form it should take, but I believe this is a serious subject for discussion, and I would note that there is historical precedent here in the country’s 1988 formal apology to Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during the World War II’s racial hysteria and actual monetary payments of $20,000 made to each survivor. Similarly, descendants of Holocaust victims are receiving restitution. In this country, individual institutions like Georgetown University, which owned and sold 272 slaves in 1838 to remain economically viable by the cruelest of methods, are seeking to make amends. Students there have voted to pay more tuition to fund scholarships to descendants of those the university enslaved and sold.

I believe changing the names of buildings and schools (Calhoun Hall, at Vanderbilt University, and Calhoun College, at Yale, for instance) is only symbolic and not substantive.  But that these conversations are occurring at all is good news.   As I’ve said while speaking about the five African Americans with John Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1859, we must not only  acknowledge our history; we must own it, all of us and all of it.  Until we do, as former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, has said, we will never reach that aspirational goal of out of many we are one.

On a personal note, I am proud that FIVE FOR FREEDOM has been a small part of the conversation. Since its publication nearly 18 months ago, I have shared the story at some 30 public events, as well as in radio interviews and podcasts, and there is still continuing interest in these “hidden figures” and their stories, which, a National Park ranger told me, are not “of the past. They are stories from the past that are relevant in the present.”

On Sept. 10, I spoke to 70 seniors in Wheeling, West Virginia, at the Ohio County library’s “Lunch With Books” program. The county went 62 percent for Trump in 2016, and I was wary when I saw the nearly all-white audience. But to my delight (and surprise), these listeners could not have been more appreciative and grateful for hearing this history that had somehow eluded them in their own state.  This past Saturday, I shared the story with the Rock Creek Civil War Roundtable, a largely African American group, in the District of Columbia, and appreciated the warm reception. On Oct. 17, I will be at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, in conversation with author and scholar Herb Boyd on this important subject.  The invitations extend into 2020, with a scheduled talk in April at the Unitarian Universalist Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

And I’m available and eager for more. If interested, email me at gene@eugenelmeyer.com or fill out this form.

I am thankful that through the book and speaking engagements these “hidden figures” will be hidden no more.

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