Photo: Stephen Walker / Unsplash
William Spivey Feb 1, 2023 4 min read
It’d be a perfect opportunity to get real about the atrocities that have shaped America
Every February, when Black History Month comes around, like clockwork, a small percentage of people (you know which ones) take umbrage that Black people get a month to celebrate their history, and there is no White History Month to counterbalance it. I used to argue that white history is taught year-round and thus there is no need to dedicate a month to focus on it. But recently, my views have shifted.
I’ve come to a realization: Perhaps we do need a white history month—if not two or three. Truth is, a lot of white history has been left out of the books, and Americans of every color need to be aware. Stay with me, here.
Much of the white history we’ve been taught via public education is sugar-coated or omitted altogether. Let’s start at this country’s nascent days. George Washington, America’s first president, was rumored to have had wooden teeth. That is merely a myth. The truth is, some of the false teeth that comprised his dentures were taken from enslaved people—likely his own. Washington operated like every other enslaver of the time, authorizing beatings to maintain order and tearing apart families long before Donald Trump did the same.
Washington’s will stipulated if he died before his wife, Martha, the enslaved people he owned (as opposed to those she held) be freed after her death. Martha ended up freeing his slaves once she realized they had a great incentive to speed up her demise. She released them not from the goodness of her heart but due to fear for her life.
We know Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, most famously Sally Hemings, with whom he had a decades-long relationship as she bore his children. Let’s be clear that there’s no such thing as a consensual relationship between enslaved person and enslaver. Jefferson repeatedly raped her, although historians would never describe it that way. Many historians—and Jefferson’s descendants—denied the lineage of Hemings children, despite DNA evidence that supports the centuries-old belief.
Abraham Lincoln is credited with freeing enslaved people with the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet he only released the enslaved people in the states that seceded from the Union. He did that for two reasons: to inflict economic pain on the South and to keep France and Britain from siding with the South against the North because of those nations’ newfound aversion to slavery. Lincoln never considered himself an abolitionist. He repeatedly claimed that Black people were not socially equal to white people nor as intelligent. Given his druthers, he’d have sent all the slaves to Liberia or Central America and been rid of them.
Much of the white history we’ve been taught via public education is sugar-coated or omitted altogether.
There is so much white history purposefully unknown to most Americans that we must dedicate a month or more to its study. Then, perhaps more people would understand that the Electoral College, which gives additional power today to rural states with low populations, was initially intended to protect slave states and ensure more populated ones couldn’t outlaw slavery by the weight of their numbers. We’d know the rationale for the the Three-Fifths Compromise and the provision of the Constitution that allowed for the ending of the International Slave Trade no sooner than 1808. That prohibition had nothing to do with ending slavery; it was about the protectionism of the domestic slave trade, which led to one of the most heinous acts ever perpetrated in the world: slave breeding farms.
America has spent more time denying the existence of breeding farms—like those once based in Richmond, Virginia; and the Maryland Eastern Shore—than educating people about them. Farms whose populations were almost exclusively Black women were forced to have child after child that were ultimately shipped to Southern plantations to meet their needs. Some “benevolent” slaveowners offered the women their freedom after they bore at least 15 children. The fathers were often sent from nearby plantations, although the owners felt free to sample the wares whenever they chose.
The aforementioned Jefferson knew the value of a female enslaved person, though they may have never tilled the field or harvested a crop. He once stated: “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm; what she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”
Many of the laws that exist today stem from slavery or its aftermath. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prevented actions of federal troops on U.S. soil, was to ensure that federal troops never again protected the Black ex-slaves in the South. Their stationing allowed for the Reconstruction Era, while their removal brought Reconstruction to a swift end.
Even people who have heard of Juneteenth may not be aware of its entire history. Yes, it reflects the date Black people in Texas learned they were free, years after the Civil War ended. You won’t learn that the federal government was complicit in the delay so that one more cotton crop could be harvested. Texas history books would seem the appropriate place to look for an accurate telling of their history. Still, they would be told a tale of “American exceptionalism” that suggests slavery was a labor arrangement.
The Ocoee Massacre murdered or burned out the entire Black population of Ocoee, Florida, after two men tried to vote in the 1920 presidential election. There was a movie about a similar mass lynching in Rosewood, Florida—which happened just a few years after Ocoee—but you still hear almost nothing about it. During the Black Wall Street massacre, the Oklahoma National Guard bombed the Greenwood District of Tulsa by air, wiping out what had become the wealthiest Black community in America by 1921. The History Channel covered it in an extensive documentary titled Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre. There’s much more—The Groveland Four, Emmett Till, the list goes on and on—but this 42-minute documentary would be an excellent place to begin commemorating white history month and truly understand what coursework so often omits. But of course, you’ll have to wait until March to do so.
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