‘Back Then Slavery Was Legal and People Didn’t Think of it As wrong’
I can recall the exact moment my elementary school teacher fell off her greatest-teacher-in-the-world pedestal. It was a high, hard fall—I know because she fell on me, a freckle-faced “mixed-race” girl so blinded by love and admiration for the woman, I couldn’t have possibly predicted her demise.
Miss Lewis* was a youthful blonde with sparkling blue eyes, a warm smile and a voice so calm and soothing, even being chastised by her felt like love. My classmates and I all adored her, though I find it hard to imagine that anyone could have held her in higher esteem than I.
She taught us we could be anything we wanted to be if we worked hard. She challenged us to challenge ourselves. She stocked our bookshelves with reading material above our grade level and introduced us to vocabulary words kids our age weren’t expected to know. She offered five dollars to the first student who could solve the brain-teasing logic problem she posted on the class bulletin board each month, and she maintained an arsenal of fun, challenging games designed to trick even the most resistant among us into learning. And learn we did.
In addition to her ability to motivate us academically, Miss Lewis seemed to genuinely care for each and every one of us regardless of the color of our skin, the brokenness of our homes, or the degree to which we used Ebonics to communicate among ourselves.
I doubt that woman ever suspected she tumbled from greatness one winter morning in 1970. It happened during a history lesson in which our class explored the subject of slavery. I vividly recall opening my textbook to a page with a startling illustration—a drawing depicting slaves hard at work in cotton fields in the South. A dozen or so black people toiling in the sun, their heads wrapped with rags, their clothing tattered, their faces smiling. I raised my hand.
“These slaves are smiling.”
She studied the picture for a moment. “Yes, they are, aren’t they?”
“They’re slaves. Why would they be smiling?”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Well, many slaves led quite happy lives. They were well fed and clothed and had a place to call home. Most slaves adopted their owner’s last name, and were sometimes even considered part of the family.”
Miss Lewis’ sweet smile dripped a poison few of us who had descended from kidnapped Africans could bring ourselves to swallow. Though most of the children in the class were white, there was a handful of “us” who had come in on busses to create the diversity forced integration was intended to achieve. Us fell silent.
One of them didn’t know what slavery was.
“Slavery is when a person isn’t free to do what he or she wants to.” Miss Lewis explained. “Black people were owned by white people, and they had to do whatever they were told. Even if it was something they didn’t want to do.”
“Well, I must be a slave,” a white boy joked. “’Cause my mom and dad make me do stuff I don’t want to everyday.”
Miss Lewis chuckled at his innocent response, but we couldn’t laugh. Our black parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older siblings, neighbors and ministers had already described slavery to us in graphic detail. We knew about the whippings, mutilations and hangings slaves endured and witnessed. Black women were raped by their white owners and mated with other slaves like farm animals. Children our age were sold away from their families never to be seen again.
“It’s wrong to own people.” I proclaimed with enough conviction, I thought, to make Miss Lewis see the error of her ways.
“Yes, that is true.” She seemed to approve of my outburst, giving me hope that she would take back what she’d said about slaves being happy family members. She dug a deeper hole for herself instead. “It is definitely wrong today. But, back then slavery was legal and people didn’t think of it as wrong.”
Miss Lewis saw our astonished faces and tried to strengthen her argument by throwing in the names of real heroes no child, black or otherwise, would dare to convict. “Why, some of our country’s greatest heroes owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson. George Washington. Benjamin Franklin.” She apologized for them with her tone. “Of course, if they lived today,” she assured us, “they would never dream of such a thing. They were good, law abiding men.”
I remembered the assignment I’d completed a few weeks previous—an essay about the cherry tree and George Washington’s uncompromising honesty. I Cannot Tell a Lie, is what I had titled the paper. I’d received an A+ for describing in glowing detail how Washington was an example of the kind of human being and patriot we should all aspire to be.
Why on earth had Miss Lewis so calmly expected us to believe that the father of our country had no idea it was wrong to own another human being? Good ol’ George would have had to tell a huge whopper to get anyone to believe that—so, I decided, had Miss Lewis.
My peers and I discussed the lesson at length in the school yard, but the subject did not come up in the classroom again. We concluded that we had been abandoned by our beloved teacher in favor of a lie that was designed to protect some old dead white people. We wanted her to protect us. We wanted her to admit that she knew how horrible slavery had been, and that those heroes who had owned slaves knew it was horrible too.
In the days following that lesson, I believe Miss Lewis sensed the shift in demeanor that left us sullen and moody, but I don’t think she realized that a wide chasm of distrust had developed between her and her black students. We continued to benefit from her skills as a teacher, but our admiration for her as a human being was diminished–and each of us in our own way mourned the loss.
I was reminded of that incident many years later as I sat in a Black History class taught by Dr. Darryl Milner at Portland State University. We were required to read a booklet by Thomas Jefferson entitled Notes on the State of Virginia in which we learned that Jefferson believed the black race to be inherently inferior and therefore incapable of co-existence with whites on an equal basis.
In defense of his views, Jefferson wrote that blacks “in reason are much inferior…in imagination are dull, tasteless and anomalous.” He commented on “the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species” and said that blacks “have a very strong and disagreeable odor…seem to require less sleep…” and experience only “transient” grief. Jefferson concluded that “…their inferiority is not merely the effect of their condition in life.”
Most of us knew well the famous 1785 Jefferson quote condeming slavery “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” but few, including myself, had ever heard of Notes on Virgina, which Jefferson had penned in 1781. The ensuing discussion in Dr. Milner’s classroom was quite intense. A student who had attended nearby Jefferson High School voiced his outrage and disbelief that his alma mater was named after such an avowed racist.
In Jefferson’s defense, a white student stood and calmly reminded us what Miss Lewis had tried to teach me so many years before. “It’s not fair to judge Jefferson by a moral standard that did not exist during that time. In those days Thomas Jefferson was an example of the best of men.” She seated herself with a flair that said she had no doubt that the professor would have to agree with her.
He did not.
Dr. Milner neither excused nor denegrated Thomas Jefferson, he simply presented us with a lesson on Jefferson’s contemporary, Thomas Paine, a founding father whose views and actions regarding slavery were the very antithesis of Jefferson’s. We had all heard of Paine–his pamphlet Common Sense inspired the Declaration of Independence, and it was Paine who coined the term “United States of America” But we did not know that Paine had been an ardent antiracist who insisted slavery should not be allowed in the new country. In a pamphlet he’d written entitled African Slavery in America he warned:
“That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain is more lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve and be [involved] in the savage practice is surprising… Our traders in men must know the wickedness of that slave trade, if they attend to reasoning, or the dictates of their own hearts… Most shocking of all is alleging the sacred Scriptures to favor this wicked practise… How just, how suitable to our crime is the punishment with which Providence threatens us?”
Of course Thomas Paine was not the only white American who loathed the institution of slavery (though not one of my elementary school teachers saw fit to mention any of them during our history lessons). In high school we learned of the abolitionist movement, but its participants were always portrayed as the fringe of society. John Brown was depicted as insane, and the Quakers were presented as a group of odd religious zealots.
As it turns out, Miss Lewis’ assurance that “back then slavery was legal and people didn’t think of it as wrong,” is proved untrue by the existence of Thomas Paine and thousands of other white antiracists who listened to their consciences, refused to bow to America’s racist status quo, and instead spoke, wrote, worked, sacrificed, suffered and in some cases died to uphold the ideal of “liberty and justice for all” upon which this country is founded.
In his book Heroes in America Peter H. Gibbon writes:
“In this short life, we wage a daily battle between a higher and a lower self. The hero stands for our higher self. To get through life and permit the higher self to prevail we depend on public models of excellence, bravery, and goodness.”
With the omission of white antiracist heroes from our national history, the message is sent that “good” white people need not bother themselves with issues of racial justice. Thomas Paine would disagree, as would John and Jean Rankin, William Garrison, John Brown (and his sons, Owen, Watson and Oliver), Wendell Phillips, David Ruggles, Susan B. Anthony, Thaddeus Stevens, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Shurz, Albert Einstein, Jessie Ames, Judge Julius Waties Waring, Elizabeth Avery Waring, Viola Liuzzo, John Griffin, Nathan Rutstein, Morris Dees, Peggy McIntosh, Jus Rhyme, Tim Wise, Katrina Brown, Tom DeWolfe… –the list is much longer than most would imagine.
On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
*This blog exists to introduce and honor antiracist heroes, to create unity and to inspire personal and civic transformation — it is not a forum intended to denegrate or dishonor anyone — including those whose actions were intentionally or unintentionally harmful. I did not use my teacher’s real name.