During this election season, educators are navigating conversations with their students about politics, race, and racism in ways that seem without precedent, all while facing real pressures to remain nonpartisan. This tension notwithstanding, it’s necessary to understand race and racism as a political issue of membership and power, rather than a partisan one of liberal or conservative ideology. Doing so creates space to more truly confront injustice in policy and practice. As educators, this critical distinction can help us have the nuanced discussions we aim to have with our students around civic engagement, with a historical lens that contextualizes our moment.
Each year for Independence Day, students of history read and reflect upon Frederick Douglass’ landmark speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” In recent years, scholars have begun to reexamine the life and legacy of this famous abolitionist and orator. Guest writer Thomas Simpson offers a review of historian David Blight's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Thomas holds a master's degree in History from Georgetown University and is a core member of Facing History's Marketing and Communications team.
Described as a second independence day, June 19th or Juneteenth marks the day that emancipation reached slaves in the furthest reaches of the South. While the Emancipation Proclamation proclaimed that all slaves held within the rebellious states were freed, plantation life continued as though no change had occurred in many parts of the slaveholding South until this day. Juneteenth is a time to reflect upon this history, including the steps toward freedom that have been achieved and the forces that continue to undermine the freedom of African Americans. Juneteenth entered public consciousness recently when it was announced that the Trump campaign would hold a rally on that date in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of what is considered the worst race massacre in American history—one in which white mobs murdered over 300 African Americans. These plans were amended after provoking a wave of criticism about the insensitivity and even threat contained in such a decision in these times of ongoing unrest. These events provoke a number of questions but one thing is certain: finding the gumption to face our history, connect it to current events, and take action is perhaps more crucial now than ever before.
Guest writer Thomas Simpson offers a review of historian Eric Foner's towering new book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. Thomas holds a master's degree in History from Georgetown University and is a core member of Facing History's Marketing and Communications team.
In Frederick Douglass’ landmark 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” he exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of American democracy in the antebellum period. Douglass addressed descendants of white American colonists in Rochester, New York—colonists who had declared independence from the oppression of British rule only to construct a new world predicated on the enslavement of other human beings. He galvanized the audience to examine these contradictions in the wake of a legal decision that would seal the fates of many thousands of enslaved Africans for over a decade.
A governor is revealed to have dressed up in blackface (at least once); an attorney general is shown to have done it, too; a senator is exposed as having edited a yearbook full of racist images and language; a team at Gucci apologizes for creating a balaclava sweater that evokes blackface.
On December 15, 1791, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution—known as the Bill of Rights—were ratified. Designed to spell out limits to the federal government’s power and to protect the individual liberties of Americans, these amendments include many of the hallmarks of the country’s democratic ideals: freedom of speech, the press, and religion; and the protection against being punished by the government without due process of law.
Up until late last May, the bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was featured prominently in the center of Lee Circle in New Orleans, Louisiana. Now, the nearly 60-foot column it rested upon is bare and empty after the city removed the last of its Confederate era monuments. Sparked by Mayor Mitch Landrieu after the 2015 massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, the effort to remove these monuments has ignited emotionally charged responses and debates all across the country: Are we erasing the past by removing them? Or are we upholding legacies of racism and discrimination by keeping them?
A few years ago, a book came into my possession that has been tossed around in my family like a hot potato for several generations.
Entitled, Religion and Slavery: A Vindication of Southern Churches, the book's author was James McNeilly, a Presbyterian minister and Confederate veteran from Nashville, Tennessee. Inside the front cover is an inscription from the author to my great-great-great-grandmother.
"To Corinne Lawrence: A tried and true friend of many years—and a devoted lover of the Old South, which I have tried to vindicate."
As the first black president, Barack Obama's legacy will always include issues of race. At his farewell speech he acknowledged this: "After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” His presidency reveals the longstanding myth that American history has always been on a steady, progressive path towards embracing equality for all.