Today's post is from Thomas N. DeWolf, author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History published by Beacon Press. The film of his family's journey, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North will be broadcast on PBS's acclaimed documentary series P.O.V. on June 24 (check local listings). Tom and his cousin, filmmaker Katrina Browne, will be interviewed on CBS's The Early Show on Juneteenth (June 19).
Oregon—where I live—held its primary election on May 20. For the first time since I moved here for college in 1972, the primary actually meant something to the presidential contest. Always in the past our primary is so late in the game that the presidential candidates for both parties have already been crowned. This exceedingly white state handed a man of color an 18-point margin of victory over a woman. That same day, far across the country in Kentucky, voters there handed that same woman a 35-point victory over the man of color.
Also that day I received an article in the mail from my father about Jackie Robinson who, while serving in the army, stationed in Texas, was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus in 1944. At UCLA a few years earlier Robinson was the first athlete to earn varsity letters in four sports (football, basketball, baseball, and track). When he enlisted in the army it was with great fanfare. Many historians believe that Robinson's trial and acquittal had a strong impact on President Harry Truman and led to his integrating the military in 1948.
Robinson first donned a Dodger uniform and trotted onto the field on April 15, 1947. Two reasons my father and I share a strong interest in Jackie Robinson are, first, we're life-long Dodger fans, and second, I was born seven years to the day after Jackie's first Dodger game.
Since Election Day I've thought about how much circumstances have changed over the course of our nation's history—and especially during my lifetime. I marvel that the choice on my ballot was between a black man and a woman. I have a personal interest. My ancestors were the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history. They brought more than 10,000 Africans to the Americas between 1769 and 1820. The slave trade was abolished in the United States two hundred years ago in 1808, though it continued illegally until 1860.
The Civil War brought an end to slavery but efforts at Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877. Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation through "separate but equal" laws. Jim Crow remained the law of the land until the 1960's.
During my lifetime Emmett Till was tortured and murdered in 1955. His subsequent open casket funeral resulted in photos of his badly mutilated body being circulated nationwide and became one of the key motivating events in the Civil Rights movement.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama eleven years after Jackie Robinson's court martial. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott and the Civil Rights movement caught fire. Events of the 1960's changed the way Americans viewed race. Laws and hearts were changed and continue to change. There is much left to accomplish before we live in an equitable land; a just society. Race remains a rather large elephant in our living room, as do inequities based on gender, class, sexual orientation, and disability.
It is easy—and justified—to feel grim over how much we still have to accomplish to live up to the ideals established by our nation's Founders. But at this moment I pause to marvel at how far we've come. Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and many other notable—and unsung—heroes stand tall. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—and all of us—stand on their shoulders.
The view from up here is grand and hopeful.
You might also want to read Tom DeWolf's dispatch from the Sundance Film Festival , Barbara Katz Rothman's post on Obama's mixed racial heritage, and this post on Juneteenth from the Oxford University Press blog.