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From Abolishment of Slavery to Greater Freedom

Abe Lincoln died while leading America against slavery
Imagine being born into slavery. The one constant you have learned since birth has been that you are treated as an inferior person. You work for no pay, you are not allowed to enter the master's house and you would be whipped if you ever attempted to read from his library. The only thing you know for sure in your life is that you will always live under the threat of violence from the overseer until the day you die.

And then one-day word comes from a Union soldier. You are free.

Oral histories taken during the 1930s tell of slaves so elated when they heard the news of their emancipation that they leaped up and down, hugged and cried. Freedom was a word so sacred to the slaves that they kept it hidden in their prayers. The waiting had finally ended, after three centuries of bondage they were finally free people.

Now what?

Simply saying that people are no longer property does not mean that all freedoms are immediately accessible. After hundreds of years of being treated as less then human, they were suddenly allowed to vote, run for office, and defend themselves in court like all white men. Black women had to wait a little longer to gain these same civil rights.

One of the biggest problems the new class of emancipated slaves had to confront was the severe education gap that separated them from other free men. In the span of two years it went from being illegal to teach a slave to write to the establishment of America's first black colleges. The job of helping blacks to get access to education and health care fell in the lap of the newly created Freeman's Bureau.

The Freeman's Bureau was the created by the US Government to fill the massive social gap that centuries of slavery had created. In its first year, the Bureau established 4000 schools, 100 hospitals, and provided food and homes for former slaves. Here is what their stated purpose reads:

We must not treat them as stepchildren; there is too much danger in doing too much as in doing too little. For a time we need a freedmen's bureau, but not because these people are Negroes, only because they are men who have been, for generations, despoiled of their rights.

The number one enemy of the Freeman's Bureau was President Andrew Johnson. An openly racist man, Johnson rejected the continuation of the Freedman's Bureau after one year on the ground that it "proposed to do more for Negroes than for whites." Interestingly enough, that is essentially the same argument that anti-affirmative action conservatives use today.

Johnson battled the radical Republican Congress that sought to fully naturalize all slaves as American citizens. Congress would eventually attempt to impeach the president.

General Howard's namesake

On one day in March 1867, Congress overrode Johnson's veto of the first "Great Reconstruction Act." Ironically, on that same day Johnson swallowed his bitterness and signed the charter for Howard University.


Howard's Arm's End

Howard University is located in Washington, D.C. It was one of the first black colleges created in the United States. It was named after general Oliver Howard, a one armed General who lost his appendage in the civil war. He was the college's first president. It would take almost a century for a black man to head Howard University.

Nick and I visited the campus one crisp Thursday afternoon. It is a nice place to study. There is a large green surrounded by academic buildings dedicated to "Astronomy", "Humanities" and "Industry". It looked like any college campus in America except for one difference. Virtually every student at Howard is African-American. Occasionally there would be a white or Asian student sticking out, but about 95% of the students are black.

Nick takes a little nap on Howard campus
I talked with one student, whose initials are M.L. She said her schoolwork was very grueling but she enjoyed being in a setting where she could learn and "marinate" in an African-American community. What struck me while I was talking to her was that she clearly believed she could succeed at any level while retaining her African heritage.

That is beautiful! That is what America is all about! While the Freeman's bureau was disbanded only a few years after its creation, it was the first step in righting the wrongs of America's slavery past. Without the bureau, former slaves would have had to educate themselves all on their own.

OK, let's bring this to the present before we close.

Teddy jumps to the future
We created the Freeman's bureau to fill the gap between black and white educations. Today anti-affirmative action advocates claim that there is equal opportunity in schools and jobs so racial preference should be disbanded. When shown the fact that 75% of black students attend racially segregated schools (where 90% of the students are of one color), they reply that today's generation is not responsible for something that happened over a century ago.

We may never be free of the legacy of slavery, but as long as blacks receive the worst educations, the harshest prison sentences, and a fraction of the incomes half those of their white peers, we will not live in a just nation.

"Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest." -Gospel song I heard on the road


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Taking freedom back
Nick - Sojourner's Truth marches on
Daphne -- A couple of aliens and a not-so-grand wizard
Stephanie - African American Home on the Range
Rebecca-Americans torturing Americans
Kevin - Welcome to New York. Now get in line for delousing