From Slavery to Charleston
Our historical amnesia about slavery and race compromises our ability to understand how the long shadow of slavery continues to shape contemporary events. Without a clear grasp of the myriad ways in which two and a half centuries of slavery reverberate today, we are unable to fight effectively against the many instances of violence against African Americans that we have witnessed this year alone.
But there is a long history of violence and police brutality that every generation of African Americans since the seventeenth century has had to confront, and that has left a number of profound legacies. We will never be able to grapple effectively with the scourge of racism without understanding its historical origins and its relationship to enslavement. As legions of historians have observed, if we do not understand how the chains were forged, we will be unable to break them.
Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; Oscar Grant III in Oakland, California; Eric Garner in New York City; Rekia Boyd in Chicago; Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit; the McKinney, Texas, attack on teens at a pool party—these victims have dominated the news of late, though they are hardly the only ones. Now come the shocking murders of nine church members at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, one of them the pastor and a state senator active in the effort to revive the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court compromised just two years ago.
These are far from isolated cases that have little to do with history. Homegrown terror, as the media often calls it, was a fact of life in most slaves’ lives. Many also experienced physical and psychological torture. After emancipation in 1865, former slaveholders fully expected retaliatory violence that never materialized. But the violence meted out to freed people and their descendants never ceased, escalating into grisly public spectacles at the turn of the twentieth century whose perpetrators rarely were prosecuted.
Attacks on churches have occupied a prominent place in this history, and the Charleston massacre is a classic example of this strand of racist violence. Morris Brown, a Methodist minister who followed his Philadelphia colleagues Richard Allen and Absalom Jones out of the city's main Methodist Episcopal church over its segregationist practices, founded "Mother Emanuel" in Charleston in 1818. AME congregations were well known as centers of abolitionist and antiracist activism. In Charleston, AME elder Denmark Vesey planned a rebellion in 1822. When the plans were uncovered, Vesey and 34 others were hanged and city officials subsequently burned the church to the ground. Dylann Storm Roof, the murderer at Mother Emanuel, attacked the congregation on June 17, the anniversary of Vesey’s planned rebellion.
During and since Vesey’s day, African American churches often have served multiple purposes for their parishioners, functioning as schools, sites for political organization, job placement and counseling centers, and mutual assistance associations. As such they became frequent targets of racist violence. One of the most notorious of these cases occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, when a bomb killed four young black girls. Thus, to see the attack on Mother Emanuel as the result of a “lone wolf” or as an aberration would be to misunderstand its relationship to a very long history of targeted violence. It would also cause us to turn a blind eye to the international growth of hate groups in recent years
In addition to sharpening our understanding of violence against African Americans, slavery’s history provides us with many other valuable insights. My research examines the rich democratic and humanistic ethos rooted in slaves’ interpretation of their plight, and how they bequeathed that rich intellectual history to their descendants. Central to that ethos is the idea of slavery as the economic bedrock that fueled the US economy. Several other historians have revived this investigation into the wealth generated by slave labor, and underscore that slavery was central to the emergence of capitalism. An understanding of the causes of economic and social inequality today is therefore incomplete without a firm grasp of the history of slavery.
We need to know these histories if we are to be effective proponents of social justice in our day.
Note: Lynda J. Morgan is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and author of the forthcoming book, Known for My Work: African American Ethics from Slavery to Freedom.