John Willis Menard, First African-American Elected to Congress

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SMITHSONIAN.COM)

 

The International Vision of John Willis Menard, First African-American Elected to Congress

Although he was denied his seat in the House, Menard continued his political activism with the goal of uniting people across the Western Hemisphere

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John Willis Menard

The Library of Congress recently digitized this portrait of John Willis Menard, the only known photograph of the African-American trailblazer. (Composite of Library of Congress images)
SMITHSONIAN.COM

In July 1863, months after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a young African-American man from Illinois boarded a small ship in New York City and headed for Belize City, in what was then British Honduras. John Willis Menard, a college-educated political activist born to free parents of French Creole descent, made his Central American journey as a representative of Lincoln’s. His goal: to determine whether British Honduras was a suitable location for previously enslaved Americans to relocate.

Menard’s trip to Central America was undoubtedly an unusual period in his early political career—one that never came to fruition—but it set the stage for decades of internationalism. Wherever he moved and whatever position he held, Menard repeatedly considered African-American liberation in the context of the New World’s dependence on the work of enslaved laborers.

That work, and Menard’s brief foray into the world of legislation, is part of what makes his appearance in a newly digitized photo album so remarkable. The album, acquired by the Library of Congress and Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture last year, features rare portraits of dozens of other abolitionists of the 1860s, including Harriet Tubman and only known photo of Menard (shown above). While those photos offer unique insight into the community of abolitionists fighting for a better future for African-Americans, what they don’t show is the controversy that sometimes surrounded that debate.

Before the American Civil War came to its bloody end, both Lincoln and the growing community of free black Americans were looking ahead to a United States without slavery. There were around 4 million enslaved people in the United States in 1860, comprising 13 percent of the American population. What would happen when all of them were freed?

“A number of African-American leaders saw colonization to Central America, to Mexico, or to Africa as the only viable solution prior to the Civil War,” says historian Paul Ortiz, author of Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.

For more than a year, President Lincoln had publicly expressed his support for the colonization efforts of emancipated African-Americans. He’d had discussions about colonization with representatives from the government of Liberia, as well as members of the Cabinet. He even espoused his views on colonization to leading members of the African-American community.

“You and we are different races,” Lincoln told a black delegation invited to the White House in August 1862. “Even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”

“Lincoln was relatively devoid of personal prejudice, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t incorporate prejudice into his thinking,” writes Oxford University historian Sebastian Page. After the fall congressional elections of 1863, historians argue that Lincoln “came to appreciate the impracticality, even immorality of expatriating African-Americans who could fight for the Union.”

While some members of the free African-American community initially supported Lincoln’s colonization plan—11,000 moved to Africa between 1816 and 1860—many more were vocal in their opposition. Among the most vehement critics was Frederick Douglass. As historian Eric Foner writes in The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, “Douglass pointed out that blacks had not caused the war; slavery had. The real task of a statesmen was not to patronize blacks by deciding what was ‘best’ for them, but to allow them to be free.”

But Menard could be just as voluble in his defense of the colonization plan. “This is a white nation, white men are the engineers over its varied machinery and destiny,” Menard wrote to Douglass in 1863. “Every dollar spent, every drop of blood shed and every life lost, was a willing sacrifice for the furtherance and perpetuity of a white nationality. Sir, the inherent principle of the white majority of this nation is to refuse forever republican equality to the black minority. A government, then, founded upon heterogeneous masses in North America would prove destructive to the best interest of the white and black races within its limits.”

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African American leaders.jpg

African-American leaders disagreed on the issue of colonization, with some like Menard in favor of it while others, including Frederick Douglass, denounced it. (Library of Congress)

And so Menard traveled to Central America. American companies with business interests in the region made it one possible option for colonization. While there, Menard noted the potential of the landscape for a colony of newly freed African-Americans, but also worried over the absence of housing and proper facilities. Although Menard announced his support for a colony in British Honduras and wrote a favorable report to Lincoln upon returning in the fall of 1863, he worried about lack of support for such a project. As historians Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page write in Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, “Menard, long among the most vocal supporters of Liberian migration [to Africa], conceded that he was torn between resettlement abroad and working to improve the lot of blacks at home.”

Ultimately, the Union victory in the Civil War in 1865 and the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 made the latter option more possible than it ever had been before. In 1865 Menard moved to New Orleans, where he worked among the city’s elite African-Americans to fight for political representation and equal access to education. When James Mann, a white congressman from New Orleans, died five weeks into his term in 1868, Menard successfully ran for the seat and became the first African-American elected to Congress.

Despite Menard winning the clear majority of votes in the election, his opponent, Caleb Hunt, challenged the outcome. In defending the fairness of his victory to the House of Representatives, Menard also became the first African-American to address Congress in 1869. “I have been sent here by the votes of nearly nine thousand electors, [and] I would feel myself recreant to the duty imposed upon me if I did not defend their rights on this floor,” Menard stated. But the Republican-majority House of Representatives refused to seat either Menard or Hunt, citing their inability to verify the votes in the election.

Menard refused to give up on his vision of a democratic future for African-Americans—or forget his early lessons in the importance of building international relationships. In 1871 he moved to Florida with his family, this time taking up his pen to describe the work by immigrants and African-Americans to produce representative democracies at a local level. Menard edited a series of newspapers, and moved from Jacksonville to Key West, where he could participate in an almost utopic community, says Ortiz.

“Menard had a black, internationalist vision of freedom. That’s why he ends up describing Key West with such excitement,” Ortiz says. At the period, the island community was filled with a mixture of working class white people, as well as immigrants from Cuba, the Bahamas and elsewhere in the Caribbean. “Part of his genius was that he understood the freedom of African-Americans in the United States was connected to those freedom struggles in Cuba and Central America.”

Menard wasn’t the only one interested in building a coalition across racial and linguistic lines. During the same period, multiple states passed Alien Declarant Voting laws, allowing new immigrants to register to vote as long as they promised to become naturalized citizens. Menard wrote of political events conducted in both English and Spanish, Ortiz says, adding that Menard was representative of other black leaders who saw politics in a new way—as a system of power that impacted people regardless of national borders.

But for all his work in Florida, and later in Washington, D.C., Menard eventually came up against the system of oppression that Reconstruction-era policies failed to undo. Violent white supremacist groups like the Knights of White Camellia and the White League formed to terrorize African-Americans and prevent them from voting. Deadly attacks occurred across the South, from the Colfax Massacre in New Orleans to the Ocoee Massacre in Florida.

“The tragedy is, we know the end of the story,” Ortiz says of Menard’s attempt to create lasting change for his community and others. “Those movements were defeated. White supremacist politics were premised on everything being a zero-sum game. Economic resources, jobs, the right to even claim that you were an equal person. Reconstruction was beginning to work, and what came after it didn’t work. It’s our tragedy to live with.”

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African American History Congressmen Photography Political Leaders

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How History Got The Rosa Parks Story Wrong

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

 

How History Got The Rosa Parks Story Wrong

The quiet seamstress we want on our $10 bill was a radical active in the Black Power movement.

 December 1, 2015

Jeanne Theoharis is distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and author of the award-winning “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.” Theoharis and Brian Purnell are editors of the forthcoming book, “The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North.”

Sixty years ago, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Her courageous act is now American legend. She is a staple of elementary school curricula and was the second-most popular historical figure named by American students in a survey. When Republican presidential contenders were asked to pick a woman they wanted pictured on the $10 bill, the largest number of votes went to Parks.

Americans are convinced they know this civil rights hero. In textbooks and documentaries, she is the meek seamstress gazing quietly out of a bus window — a symbol of progress and how far we’ve come. When she died in 2005, the word “quiet” was used in most of her obituaries and eulogies. We have grown comfortable with the Parks who is often seen but rarely heard.

That image of Parks has stripped her of political substance. Her “life history of being rebellious,” as she put it, comes through decisively in the recently opened Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress. It features previously unseen personal writings, letters, speech notes, financial and medical records, political documents, and decades of photographs.

There, we see a lifelong activist who had been challenging white supremacy for decades before she became the famous catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott. We see a woman who, from her youth, didn’t hesitate to indict the system of oppression around her. As she once wrote, “I talked and talked of everything I know about the white man’s inhumantreatment of the negro.”

Parks was a seasoned freedom fighter who had grown up in a family that supported Marcus Garvey and who married an activist for the Scottsboro boys. She joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943, becoming branch secretary. She spent the next decade pushing for voter registration, seeking justice for black victims of white brutality and sexual violence, supporting wrongfully accused black men, and pressing for desegregation of schools and public spaces. Committed to both the power of organized nonviolent direct action and the moral right of self defense, she called Malcolm X her personal hero.

The Rosa Parks Collection, which opened in February, reveals how broadly Parks has been distorted and misunderstood. Her papers languished unseen for years following her death because of disputes over her estatethe hefty price the auction house put on the archives, and its refusal to allow any scholars to assess the papers before the sale. Last year, the Howard Buffett Foundation bought the archive and gave it to the Library of Congress on 10-year loan.

Though Parks later wrote an autobiography, her notes from decades earlier give a more personal sense of her thoughts. In numerous accounts, she highlighted the difficulty of navigating a segregated society and the immense pressure put on black people not to dissent. She wrote that it took a “major mental acrobatic feat” to survive as a black person in the United States. Highlighting that it was “not easy to remain rational and normal mentally in such a setting,” she refused to normalize the ability to function under American racism.

For her, the frustration began in childhood, when even her beloved grandmother worried about her “talking biggety to white folks.” She recounts how her grandmother grew angry when a young Rosa recounted picking up a brick to challenge a white bully. Rosa told her grandmother: “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’ ”

Parks viewed the power of speaking back in the face of racism and oppression as fundamental — and saw that denying that right was key to the functioning of white power. Parks’s “determination never to accept it, even if it must be endured,” led her to “search for a way of working for freedom and first class citizenship.”

[Don’t criticize Black Lives Matter for provoking violence. The civil rights movement did, too.]

Parks carried that determination into adulthood, though she made clear the impossible mental state it required. She lyrically described the difficulty of being a rebel, the ways black children were “conditioned early to learn their places,” and the toll it took on her personally: “There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take…. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.”

In the longest piece of the collection, an 11-page document describing a near-rape incident, Parks decisively uses the power of speaking back. When the document became public in 2011, there was controversy around its release and questions about whether it was a work of fiction. But it does not appear that Parks wrote fiction, and details of the story correspond to Parks’s life. Like the narrator of the story, Parks was doing domestic work during the Scottsboro trial, during her late teens in 1931. It’s written in the first person, though the narrator is unnamed.

In the account, a young Rosa is threatened with assault by a white neighbor of her employer, who was let into the house by a black worker, “Sam.” The heavy-set white man she aptly called “Mr. Charlie” (a term black people of the era used for white people and their arbitrary power) gets a drink, puts his hand on her waist, and attempts to make a move on her.

Furious and terrified, she resolved to resist: “I was ready and willing to die, but give any consent, never, never, never.” When Mr. Charlie said he’d gotten permission from Sam to be with her, she replied that Sam didn’t own her, that she hated the both of them, and that nothing Mr. Charlie could do would get her consent. “If he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body,” Parks wrote, “he was welcome but he would have to kill me first.”

It is significant that Parks’s philosophy of resistance is framed through an experience of sexual aggression. She was committed to women’s rights throughout her life — from working to get justice for black women who had been raped, such as Gertrude Perkins and Recy Taylor, to defending the rights of women prisoners. When Joan Little, a 20-year-old black woman serving a seven-year sentence for robbery, killed a white guard who sexually assaulted her, Parks co-founded Detroit’s Joan Little Defense Committee. Little was acquitted, becoming the first woman in U.S. history to successfully use self-defense against sexual assault in a homicide case.

Parks used this power of speaking back again on the evening of Dec. 1, 1955, when bus driver James Blake ordered her to give up her seat to a white passenger and she refused. Blake chose not simply to evict her from the bus, as he had done in the past, but to have her arrested. Calling attention to the larger power in the system, Parks questioned the arresting officers, “Why do you push us around?” One officer answered, “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.”

[I was a civil rights activist in the 1960s. But it’s hard for me to get behind Black Lives Matter.]

After years of activism, Parks had reached her breaking point on the bus that December evening: “I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it any more.” Her writings reveal the burden that this decade of political activism — which, with a small cadre of other Montgomery NAACP members, had produced little change — had been on her spirit. Describing the “dark closet of my mind,” she wrote about the loneliness of being a rebel: “I am nothing. I belong nowhere.”

Repeatedly in her writings, Parks underscored the difficulties in mobilizing in the years before her bus protest: “People blamed [the] NAACP for not winning cases when they did not support it and give strength enough.” She found it demoralizing, if understandable, that in the decade before the boycott, “the masses seemed not to put forth too much effort to struggle against the status quo,” noting how those who challenged the racial order like she did were labeled “radicals, sore heads, agitators, trouble makers.” Indeed, Rosa Parks was red-baited and received death threats and hate mail for years in Montgomery and in Detroit for her movement work.

Though the righteousness of her actions may seem self-evident today, at the time, those who challenged segregation — like those who challenge racial injustice today — were often treated as unstable, unruly and potentially dangerous by many white people and some black people. Her writings show how she struggled with feeling isolated and crazy, before and even during the boycott. In one piece of writing, she explained how she felt “completely alone and desolate as if I was descending in a black and bottomless chasm.”

Despite the boycott’s successful end, the Parks family still faced death threats and could not find steady work. In August 1957, they left Montgomery for Detroit, where her brother and cousins lived — “the promised land that wasn’t,” as she called it. There, in Detroit, she remained active in various movements for racial, social, criminal and global justice in the decades to come. Mountains of fliers, programs, letters, mailings, meeting agendas and conference programs document the span of her political activism there — though very few writings have survived in her personal papers from these later years.

The few that remain tell us that her radicalism never weakened. “Freedom fighters never retire,” she noted in a testimonial for a fellow activist. As she had for decades, Parks drew sustenance from the militancy and spirit of young people, working in and alongside the growing Black Power movement. Understanding the impact that years of activism with limited results can have on a person, she continued calling for rapid and radical change. In a 1973 letter posted at the Afro-American Museum in Detroit, she noted the impact that years of white violence and intransigence had on the younger generation:

The attempt to solve our racial problems nonviolently was discredited in the eyes of many by the hard core segregationists who met peaceful demonstrations with countless acts of violence and bloodshed. Time is running out for a peaceful solution. It may even be too late to save our society from total destruction.

Writing this after what many mark as the successful end of the modern civil rights movement, Parks clearly believed that the struggle was not over. In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, she continued to press for change in the criminal justice system, in school and housing inequality, in jobs and welfare policy and in foreign policy. She worked in U.S. Rep. John Conyers’s office and spoke out against Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, dismayed by his poor record on civil rights. Sometime in the 1990s, an older Parks doodled on a paper bag (preserved in the collection): “The Struggle Continues…. The Struggle Continues…. The Struggle Continues.”

[Five myths about Rosa Parks]

Much of the memorializing of the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement misses this side of Parks. Instead, we’ve become content to celebrate her “quiet” bus protest as a historic triumph in a movement that has long since run its course. But listening to Rosa Parks forces us to reconsider our view not only of our civil rights history, but also the demands of our civil rights present. We are forced to reckon with the fact that today’s rebels could be tomorrow’s heroes.

More from PostEverything:

Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?

On Twitter, Bernie Sanders’s supporters are becoming one of his biggest problems

Black people had the power to fix the problems in Ferguson before the Brown shooting. They failed.

Under A Mountain Range In Virginia, An Old Nuclear Bunker Now Houses Explosive Cinematic History

 

Nov 2, 2016 George Winston

The building perched in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, designed to protect the president and $4 billion dollars in gold in case of a nuclear fallout during the Cold War, is put to new use: archiving old films with explosive properties.

A video, recently released by Great Big Story, tours the facility that houses 6.3 million items of cinematic history ranging from Adam Sandler movies to Frankenstein.

A substantial number of the films were made on nitrate film which has the same chemical footprint as gunpowder: extremely flammable and hazardous. They are kept in thick-walled vaults to not only protect the building but also other nitrate films.

Walking down a corridor takes a person past many vaults. There are 124 of them, part of the complex which is the Library of Congress’s film headquarters.

George Willeman’s job is to work with the most volatile films in the storage facility, including the nitrate-based films.

Willeman describes a nitrate fire as being similar to a controlled explosion or a rocket taking off. Willeman works with more than 140,000 films.

The center also has a room dedicated to conserving old films in various conditions from around the country discovered in basements, attics, and barns.

A large number of them have no value, but they are part of the historical record with some 100-years-old. The building also has a viewing room with 206 seats for screening films, Digital Trends reported.

The purpose of the Packard Campus is to preserve the TV, movies, and sound that help to preserve a large portion of what life was like at different time periods throughout the past, as well as how recording technology changed over the decades.

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