“In our schools and libraries are books that create hatred and dislike among the people of different sections of America. [We] are pledged to true history.”
The sentiments expressed above are pertinent to the battle for control of American history. The quote did not come, however, from current Texas governor Greg Abbott or Florida governor Ron DeSantis. It came from the Ku Klux Klan in 1922.
As Juneteenth approaches, we are experiencing a furious attack on “critical race theory.” Instead of marking the long, unfinished struggle for Black freedom, today’s slavery apologists think they have found another way to erase the sins of the past.
Politicians and right-wing think tanks fear the truth and desperately want to obscure it. “Denying a tragic history won’t make it any less so,” says Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin and Coretta King. “Grappling with it will help us challenge current pain and injustice.”
The point is not to use the history of slavery and oppression as a club. “Those tears, that anger,” wrote historian Howard Zinn, “deplete our moral energy for the present.” A truthful reading of our past can actually help us create a new future. Celebrating holidays like Juneteenth should not be seen by white people as exclusionary, but as a chance for reconciliation.
The struggles against slavery have been celebrated by the Black community in Hartford since the early 1800s, often several times a year. African American churches first gave thanks on May 17 when Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, and again on January 1 when the edict went into effect. The end of the Civil War was observed on April 9 with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. On August 1, men, women, and children marched through city streets to commemorate freedom from slavery in the West Indies.
Over the years, Connecticut celebrants came out by the thousands to reflect on the hard struggles they had fought and to gather their collective strength for the fights to come. Community suppers, church services, street marches, band music, speeches, and parades with symbolic floats were all part of the festivities.
This is where African Americans learned their history, since it wasn’t taught in school books. In 1856 Rev.James Pennington of Hartford’s Talcott Street church instructed his audience on “thirteen distinct acts of emancipation” over past decades which he believed would eventually lead to the ultimate defeat of slavery.
As Texas and Florida take on the absurd task of rewriting history to suit partisan needs, the mean-spirited efforts of Governors Abbott and DeSantis only serve to foment resentment and hatred. It’s part of their modus operandi to keep us confused and afraid.
But all knowledge about our past is worth learning, even the hard parts. Let’s face it, as James Baldwin said: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anyone has ever said about it.”
Steve Thornton writes for ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com.