Ida B. Wells. Why had I never heard her name? Born a slave in 1862, Ida was a journalist, early feminist, and anti-lynching activist, as well as one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her name should have been as familiar to me as Carrie Nation or Susan B. Anthony. But it wasn’t.
I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture (MAAHC) last week and could have spent a few days there. The experience started with a trip through time, in Africa before the slave trade began, illustrating the culture of tribes, nations, and many notable individuals. Then the story changed to the slavers in about the 16th century, displacing entire nations, devastating entire cultures. A darkened room held artifacts from a slave ship.
A nauseating quotation from Alonzo de Sandoval, a Spanish Jesuit priest, covered one wall. As we walked forward in time, attention focused on the introduction of Africans to the Americas and Caribbean and the subsequent development of the slave economy. Exhibit: a huge cauldron in which sugar was boiled and refined. Statistics: life expectancy for a slave working in a sugar plantation was a mere 7 years. Exhibits illustrating slave life—including two actual homes reconstructed in the museum—moved us closer to the modern day. I felt the bleakness of that existence.
I cannot give justice to the numerous exhibits surrounding the Abolitionists, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and its aftermath. The exhibits shone light on the formation of negative attitudes toward Blacks, and the spread of virulent prejudice against former slaves and their offspring.
The Jim Crow laws developed as a direct result of these attitudes. If a person of African Descent was not viewed as a human, then why would someone care to treat them as such? I reacted strongly, sickened to my stomach, at the exhibits depicting our nation’s shame. I was especially tormented by the exhibits on segregation. My stomach churned. I grew up in the North where no overt, institutionalized de jure aspects of segregation met my view. I realize that as a child I was not attuned to the de facto social and institutionally segregated segments of society. School integration proceeded calmly at my elementary school in the late 1960s, although there were race riots at my mostly-white high school in the early 1970s. However, enforced segregation didn’t touch me directly. I had friends of color, but we didn’t discuss those matters.
It’s easy to think that everyone had the same experience as me. The museum exhibits showed me tangible evidence that this is not so. I have friends who grew up in Baltimore, and remember seeing signs enforcing separation of the races. That occurred within my lifetime? How can that be? Man’s inhumanity to man stuns me.
I cried after peering at the open coffin of Emmett Till, a solemn line of people passing by it. My stomach clenched as I read the account of his murder. In 1955 this 14-year old Chicago boy who was visiting relatives in Mississippi sustained a brutal beating and mutilation, was shot in the head and sunk in the river—likely because a white woman lied about him making a pass at her. An all-white jury acquitted the murderers. (She recanted her story recently, as told in “The Blood of Emmett Till,” by historian Timothy B. Tyson.) The Jim Crow laws set the stage for this heinous crime. My head swam. This occurred a scant few years before my birth!
The United States prospered upon the backs of immigrants. Some, like my grandparents, were willing newcomers, escaping persecution and dreaming of freedoms and prosperity they lacked in their homelands. Another immigrant group, however, had no choice in coming to America: enslaved Africans, who served as the engines of the Southern economy. Although slavery was abolished in 1865, the residual effects of this grim institution last until today. We live in a color-conscious society where sadly and shamefully, people are not judged solely upon the basis of their works and deeds.
“We were slaves in Egypt,” Jews recite every year at the Passover holiday, and “in each generation each person is obligated to see himself as though he personally came forth from Egypt.” We Jews remember our enslavement—and G-d’s mercy in redeeming us—every day. We were persecuted and murdered. In regard to the Holocaust, we intone, “Never forget. Never again.”
In our country, in our day, another situation must be remembered and not repeated. Museums such as the MAAHC provide vital tools for remembering the heartache and shame of the past. They bear witness and educate. They too intone, “Never forget. Never again.” I want to say that the story the museum illustrated had a shining happy ending, but it didn’t. The exhibits closer to today’s time, after the Civil Rights Act, showed advances in opportunity for African Americans and “normalization” of people of color in our society. I want to say the story has a happy ending, but there is no end to history. That’s why we must continue to learn, strive for equality, and squash hatred born of ignorance.
I won’t forget Ida nor Emmett.