Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, come here from next door and from around the globe. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth-seekers – so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions. Come down the rabbit hole with us as we discover answers to these questions.
In this episode, we’ll be digging into a question asked by a third grade student at the Cottage – “If people saw that slavery was getting started, why didn’t they stop it?” Come down the rabbit hole with us as we talk to a historian of colonial Virginia, staff at the historic site of the 1619 landing, a former colleague, and two anti-racist facilitators.
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE 2.2, “If people saw that slavery was getting started, why didn’t they stop it?”
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, come here from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins.
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us.
CH: Let’s take that half hour now. For this episode, we’re looking into the question: “If people saw that slavery was getting started, why didn’t they stop it?”
JC: I was asked this question by a third grade student in the middle of our conversation about the beginnings of slavery in the US. I knew some of the basics, enough to say that the first enslaved Africans had landed in what would become the United States in 1619, and that the people who were enslaving them had been doing it because they wanted to make money.
CH: So to get more details, we spoke with Kathleen Brown, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who works on colonial Virginia. How did slavery get started in colonial Virginia, and why?
Kathleen Brown: Slavery got started in colonial Virginia because a vessel carrying about twenty Africans ended up in Jamestown in 1619 without anyone necessarily having a long term plan about them being there, or what they would do when they were there – and if it’s viewed from that perspective, the whole thing seems just so… kind of random and coincidental, but in fact all around Virginia, um, the Portuguese, and the Dutch, and the Spanish were actually already enslaving people and there already had been thousands, perhaps even millions, of Africans who’d been transported against their will across the Atlantic. And so Virginia was, was kind of slow in entering the world of plantations that were using enslaved people as labor when those Africans arrived in 1619. They were in a situation where tobacco had just recently taken off as a crop that looked like it was going to have great potential to make anyone with some land and some labor a lot of money, and the trick was, there seem to be a fair amount of land – although it actually already belonged to other people; the Powhatan Indians already had a pretty vital and robust economy and society and culture there – but once the English population there began expanding and was trying to figure out how they were going to make a go of it in North America, tobacco looked like it was going to be the crop, you know, the thing that was going to really make everybody a lot of money. So there’s land but there really aren’t very many people to do the labor.
JC: We also talked to folks at Fort Monroe, the historic site in Virginia where the 1619 landing took place. We spoke with Robin Reed, the Director of the Casemate Museum there, as well as with Terry Brown, the Superintendent for the National Park Service.
CH: Here’s what Terry had to say to the “why” question:
Terry Brown: I-I think at the core of it is just greed and evil.
Robin Reed: Right.
TB: You don’t have a system set up to deal with slavery, but they’re looking down in the Caribbean and they’re seeing all these fat cats get rich off this. Um, so in 1619 we have a number of things happening all at one time: you have a large recruitment of women coming in, you have Africans arriving, you have the first legislative representative government being established, and you have all these things happening in the three and ten years.
RR: Terry touched on it, but I think what everybody needs to keep in mind is that one of the most important things that collide together in 1619 is the arrival of the first Africans and the first meeting of representative government of the General Assembly. Because if slavery is a practice, that’s one thing. When slavery becomes law, that’s another thing. And the fact that you now have a General Assembly that’s going to pass codes and pass legislation – thought that’s many years in the future – that’s gonna set the template for slavery moving forward.
CH: This was an important point, that legislation was key in the 1619 landing becoming the beginning of something larger, and not just a one-off.
JC: We asked Kathleen for more details: what kind of legal changes helped institutionalize slavery?
KB: So, I think that, you know, if we think about 1662 as really this watershed moment. That’s when the colony of Virginia codifies in law the inheritability of slavery by children of enslaved mothers. And so that 1662 moment is really an incredible moment, because that’s really the thing that means that you can be born a slave, right? You’re a baby, all you did was be born, but you can end up a slave. It has nothing to do with being captured in war, not even anything to do with being sold.
JC: What about how the people back then were responding as they were watching it happen? Was anybody saying, “This is not okay?”
KB: There are few Quakers, Quakers who’ve actually seen slavery first-hand in Barbados, and they’re really horrified by what they see and they raise questions about not just the morality – I mean we would like to see them saying things like, you know, “this is really terrible for the enslaved people,” which they do say, but they tend to, to make the argument about the kind of long-term bad consequences for the world and for everyone of a system that’s based on this kind of exploitation, and kind of, just, carelessness about human beings and their suffering. But they’re not necessarily, these very early Quakers, they’re not necessarily opposed to the idea of African-descended people working for a long period of time. They just want them to do it happily and without violence, and that’s really what is motivating their vision of what it would mean to get rid of slavery. The other way to look at it is there are people in the 1770s and 1780s who come from families where they inherit a lot of wealth in the form of enslaved people who decide that slavery is evil and immoral, and they emancipate. So, you know there is also that issue of looking at a particular time period and seeing, what’s the range of possible responses to slavery? And even though most people don’t go for that radical gesture – it’s more than a gesture, it’s a radical act, um, but some people did it.
JC: Terry agreed with Kathleen.
TB: I- is, I try to be very careful of judging history with twenty first century eyes, but even in that time period there were people who were looking at this like, man th-that is evil.
KB: People in slavery were letting people know all along that it wasn’t a good thing, heh, right? I mean, they were, there was never really any question – the court records are filled with people who were using a number of different strategies to make claims not to be enslaved, who were trying to run away, who were resisting, who were banding together to try to fight their way out, I mean, so we don’t – yes. We- it’s a good reminder that there were some white people, some free people, and white and black people who were free who saw the evils of slavery and tried to do something about it, but we also have, you know, a pretty constant history of enslaved people themselves suggesting it wasn’t a happy experience for them, right?
CH: Sometimes, in conversations about slavery in the US, people today will excuse it, or try to mitigate its severity, by saying that Africans were enslaving themselves. Is that an accurate assessment?
KB: When Europeans, and this is really led off by the Portuguese, begin voyaging south and east around the coast of West Africa, they’re interested in trading in whatever the commodities are that their trading partners, West African and West Central African trading partners, are trading in. And it is true that they were interacting with people who already had a concept of slavery and had markets for slavery, but it was never true that any West or West Central African understood that slavery was something they did to their own people.
CH: [muffled] Exactly.
KB: Slavery was always something you did to outsiders. You might enslave people who had committed a crime, you might sell people from another ethnic or linguistic group, and even that fate as slaves was really very different. They weren’t commodified in the same way. And so the, the best way I can probably explain it is, that when Europeans get into the business of purchasing Africans for plantation labor, they’re really treating each African as interchangeable with every other African.
JC: Which means that using “Africans enslaving Africans” as an excuse for slavery in the United States is to repeat the error that the Portuguese made in assuming all Africans are the same. Given that the Africans on the ship that landed in the Virginia colony in 1619 hadn’t been intended for that destination at all, and were only there because their initial enslavers had been attacked by English privateers, we wanted to know next from Kathleen: was it inevitable that slavery come to the US?
KB: The answer’s yes.
KB: Given the fact that Virginia was developing the way plantation economies were developing, and it had just, you know, people had just seized upon tobacco… and slavery was all around them. The Atlantic slave trade was all around them. So I think it was inevitable, um, given the context.
CH: Terry had this to add about the happenstance arrival of those particular people in 1619.
TB: What is often lost in conversation is that, they’re actually a miracle. They – when they land here, and it’s a miracle that they survive – one. Two, they already knew how to cultivate rice, sugar, and cotton, all these things that would make, uh, American culture what it is today. So the colonists are well aware of this, so they’re embracing this in the early stages. So the question now becomes, well what happened to these people, how do they survive this horrific event? Well they adopt your name. Eventually they learn your laws. They- they- they- they find ways to survive in this crazy new world that they had never been a part of. I, I mentioned earlier that the fact that black people are still here is amazing. Well, we have every right to be angry. Right? We have every right to believe that there is no hope going forward, if you evaluate history, right? So they arrive here in 1619, and it would take nearly two hundred and forty two years before these people with black and brown skin find some sense of freedom. And the truth of the matter is, freedom is a very sketchy word because it’s only fifty years ago where we gained our civil rights.
CH: It became abundantly clear in our conversation with the folks at Fort Monroe that they take very seriously their responsibility to interpret the weight and the breadth of this African-American history, and are working hard on the challenges of doing so in a space that many locals knew only as a military base for decades.
JC: Veronica Gallardo, who manages collections there, spoke with us in depth about their new exhibits including the ledgers of the enslaved people who helped build the fort, and about their ongoing educational programming for all the local 4th graders. As Robin made clear, there’s a lot to cover, and big-picture connections to be drawn.
RR: Um, Fort Monroe, we’ve talked about this a lot between ourselves, that we have here the arc of freedom. First arrival in 1619 of Africans. Uh, we have the, um, the contraband decision in 1861, which some people feel was the beginning of the end of slavery, and then take that all the way up to the election of the first African American president, Barack Obama, who, his first use of the Antiquities Act was to declare Fort Monroe a National Monument. So, the whole story’s right here, and we can, um, we can help people maneuver through the narratives, um, in a lot of different ways. The American Civil War is interesting in that, you would have hoped that that solved a lot of these problems. Well, in truth it solved some problems, but it created more and different problems, and we’re still grappling with those problems today.
JC: I kept seeing something in the student’s question that’s like: how come nobody did anything about this before we got to where we are? Or, could we have stopped it before we got to all the racism that has occurred since then?
CH: In our conversations with Kathleen, Robin, and Terry, we all ended up discussing the legacies of slavery we’re still living with, including systemic racism, mass incarceration, economic disenfranchisement, and even just a persistent discomfort with talking about race.
JC: In working to make connections to the present, we asked our friend and former colleague Curtis Harris, who’s currently a PhD candidate at American University, to speak about his work to try and trace his own family’s experience with the legacies of slavery. He told us about the earliest ancestor he has been able to discover.
Curtis Harris: Best as I can tell, Anna Sanders who was born in Georgia in 1805, and uh, the-this gets to the trouble of researching this is that, um, I’ve only been able to find her because of the 1870 federal census and, um, prior to that, most black people were enslaved, so prior to that you did have the names of black folks, you just had them listed as property in the slave schedules in the U. S. Census. So of course she’s listed, and I’m sure I have other ancestors listed in the census, but they would be listed as, you know, property in the slave schedules, not as people. So that’s how I was able to find her, uh, but after that point we have a pretty good idea of who our family is cause, y’know, after 1870 you have all the names listed fully but that’s her and she’s on my mom’s side of the family. Anna was born in Georgia 1805, she had at least one child, we don’t know if she had others, but she had at least one child that she was able to stick with, uh, her name was Belle, uh, she was born in Missouri, so that shows the transit that happened with slavery, but then at the end of the Civil War, uh, they had by that point been moved to Texas. Uh, and so Belle married, uh, Ben Garcia who was an immigrant from Matamoros, Mexico, he had moved to central Texas. Uh, but those – their children are the first generation of my mom’s side of family, uh, that-that would be would be born free in United States. And then on my father’s side of family, uh, we have a little less info about them, but the furthest we go back with them is, uh, Rafe Immanuel, uh, short for Rafael Immanuel, he was born in Florida in the 1830s, and don’t know at what point he moved to Texas, or was moved to Texas because he was born enslaved, uh, but, uh, by 1870, again with the census issue, uh, by 1870 we know that he was in, um, northeast Texas. Uh, they were able to purchase land, uh, out near there and, uh, it’s about two hundred fifty acres they were able to purchase. Uh, and then on my mom’s side of the family, got go back to them, they also own their land, uh, that’s outside of Luling and Seguin, uh, they got that the mid-1800s as well so.
Callie Hawkins: Land ownership and education were two major things newly freed people looked to as they tried to build security for themselves and their families after the Civil War. Curtis says both of those tracts of land are still in his family.
JC: I had a reaction in the middle of that conversation that was sort of like, 1805, that is way longer than my family has been in the United States at all.
Curtis Harris: Y’know, if you think about it, like, y’know, most African Americans, like the vast majority, have been, or at least, their families have been in United States probably since 1800, you know, that’s about when the slave trade finally was, the international slave trade was ended. Uh, so yeah, from – for the vast majority of black Americans, like their families have been here for at least two hundred years. Whereas, opposed to white Americans a lot of them, uh, like your family, Joan, might not have arrived till the-you know, 1850s, 1890s, 1950s, and so on.
JC: And that’s sometimes used as an excuse, I know – like my family wasn’t here, they didn’t have anything to do with slavery so none of it is our fault. I used to console myself with that, but as I’ve learned more, it’s become quite obvious to me that the system my family immigrated into favored white people, which benefited them, and in turn, me.
Callie Hawkins: Curtis also told us about how it came about that he even started looking into his family to begin with.
Curtis Harris: Well, when I was giving tours here, now obviously we was, we would talk about slavery and the emancipation, uh, eh, and on my tours I always tried as often as I could to bring up, the after effects and what issues still need to be resolved and dealt with after emancipation. But then, as I started thinking about it, I would bring up examples of more, like, famous people – or even not so famous people. So, like, one of my favorite Americans is Robert Smalls who’s, like, an amazing, uh, veteran of the Civil War, and became a Congressman after the war. And I would bring him up and people would be kind of like, “Oh, wow we didn’t know, like, y’know, that emancipated people also became Congressmen after the war.” And I was like, well if they like that… I knew a little bit about my family history so when I found out more about my family history, I was like, why don’t-why don’t I just include that on the tour. Especially when I found the census documents I was able to include that on the tour as a visual aid, and I could show like, ok, here’s, uh, a page from the 1870 census, all these people listed on this page had been slaves, just, y’know, five years earlier. And here are some of my ancestors, y’know, that’s my family from way back when, so like, you could look at me and I’ve been talking to you about emancipation, uh like, I’m literally like an embodiment of, y’know, some of the after effects of this. Y’know, standing here talking to you all about this, cause like, y’know, I could tell them like, y’know there was Je – there was Ben and Belle they, they were married, there was Jesus, that was their son, you can see his name in here, uh, then there was Jesus Jr., and it’s like, my mom knew him.
Callie Hawkins: One of the valuable things about talking to Curtis was seeing the individual people that make the links between the past and the present. She knew him, and he knew them – and everyone today is descended from somebody who was directly around then, whether you know the details of their story or not.
JC: As Curtis said, history is as distant or as close as you make it. That’s where it gets complicated and interesting. He also shared with us a family story that illustrated the complicated intersections between oppressions.
Curtis Harris: So, my grandmother and my, um, my uncle and my dad, they move out to Arizona, New Mexico for several years, and she teaches at the, uh, Navajo schools out there. And to think about that, I’ve thought about it now as an adult, I’m like, well, it’s like, that benefitted my dad and my uncle and my grandmother, like, we-we-we got, they got money from that and they were able to, y’know, continue to be a family, and it’s like, well, in a way that means I’ve benefitted from, uh, the oppression that was put upon Native Americans. Because the Navajo used to have a whole lot more land than they do now. But they were, y’know, corralled and put on their reservation, but then you had those, y’know, Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, uh, which y’know by the sixties were better than what they used to be, but like, still, they weren’t run by Navajo, they were run by the federal government. And like, my grandmother wasn’t there to, to y’know, oppress Navajo herself but- she was there to teach them, she did a good job of it, but like, this is the kind of stuff you have to think about. Every American, it’s like, how are you, how has your role in society impacted and played a part of these larger things that are going on. Cause like if, if we were starting from scratch I wouldn’t say, uh, the Navajo should be put on a reservation with the school run by the federal government, uh, with people from the outside going in to teach, uh, their students or their kids. It’s complex, like you have to make the best of a bad situation, like what was my grandma supposed to do in segregated Texas, wait around forever for a job that might not come, or go to this reservation and get that job and make the best of it? So yeah, it’s-it’s complex, I think about that a lot. So just a, a little coda on all that, my uncle, y’know, he later on became an astronaut and so one of things he wanted to do to show his appreciation for having – because again like, he and my dad, y’know, they were like, five or six years old when they moved out there, so, y’know, that was really their formative years, was being out there on the Navajo reservation. So, so my uncle when he became an astronaut wanted to take the Navajo flag into space, because y’know, he was like, he was like, alright there isn’t a – there isn’t a Native American astronaut yet, there’s not a Navajo astronaut yet, but he was like, I want to take a piece of the Navajo Nation out into space, and uh, he got the blessing from the folks, uh, at the Navajo reservation, uh, they-they blessed the flag, uh, they took it out into space with the shuttle, they brought it back and now it’s in the Navajo, uh, Nation museum. Uh, so it’s that kinda stuff that-that I try to keep in mind, y’know, how we were able to benefit from what those folks did and want to show our appreciation back to them.
Callie Hawokins: Curtis also wanted to be very clear about the ways in which his family represents only part of the experience.
Curtis Harris: I think it’s really important that, um, that my family has had really a fortunate time, y’know despite slavery, we’ve-we count our blessings like we, we still have that land and all that stuff, we’ve – I’m a fourth-generation college student so like, we’ve been fortunate, but that’s not to – not to necessarily like, you know, try to impugn you know-you know other, other black people in the United States who have not had it as fortunate as us, uh, we’re also very aware of that, uh, that like you know, we were lucky that, you know, the Klan never rode up and drove us off our land. It’s not like we did this just because like, oh we were so hard working and we had foresight. So, with all I’ve said, uh, there are many other people in this country, you know, clearly, if we’re talking about slavery, uh, the descendants of slaves who have had a really rough go of it despite their best efforts. Uh, adjusting for the fact, you know, every individual has their own personality and makes their own mistakes, you know, we, we all know that – but as a society, uh, no one group of people is harder working than another one. It’s just what, what have we built to enable these people to benefit from their work in a certain fashion.
JC: It can sometimes be tempting to blame people’s individual failings for their struggles, rather than systemic problems. Housing discrimination, unequal educational opportunities, and disproportionate incarceration, for example, all change how individuals are able to express their strengths or benefit from the fruits of their labor. Looking at a larger context can help us see more clearly. As Terry put it:
TB: And to learn history is very important, for people to understand history because it allows you to see a trend. It allows you to see a trend, and if you can look at a trend you can go, that’s heading in the wrong direction, and if I don’t do something in my own space, then it can happen around me.
Callie Hawkins: For myself, I have become increasingly interested in and engaged in ways that, as a white person, I can take a more active role in my own education about these issues. I’m a big fan of the work of an organization called Point Made Learning, they’ve done some training with us here at President Lincoln’s Cottage, and so when this topic came up I was hoping that we would be able to talk to them about society’s responsibility in taking action in the present. So, we reached out to Catherine Wigginton-Green and André Robert Lee, who work together at Point Made Learning. André and Catherine made a documentary film, called “I’m Not a Racist, Am I?” which followed a group of teenagers and their families through a year of learning about race and racism, and they facilitate discussions around the country using the film as the starting point.
JC: We wanted to know: what keeps people from stepping up when they see something wrong that’s happening?
Catherine Wigginton-Green: One of the things we talked about is context and situations really matter, of course. So, um, I think a lot of times what can keep us from standing up or speaking up is fear of people not liking us, of rocking the boat in a given situation. We are so well trained, whether it’s been implicitly or explicitly, to maintain peace and order in situations. Like, fear of just rocking the boat can really keep us from speaking up and standing up, because we don’t want to be seen as this troublemaker. That’s fear. That’s… sometimes just protecting ourselves.
André Robert Lee: Well often times when it comes to something that someone does that’s wrong, we work a lot to deal with the person who receives the results of the person doing something wrong, and we don’t spend as much time, in my personal opinion, actually going to the person and saying “you did something wrong, and we need to work with you to figure out how we can help you behave better.” I think if we start looking at these questions and issues from that perspective and say, you know what, “you did something wrong, I’m going to deal directly with you and deal with what you did wrong, and try and fix it and turn it around.” Um, as opposed to, uh, with the fallout when something wrong happens.
Callie Hawkins: It strikes me that in all of the conversations we’ve had for this episode, the word or the idea of fear keeps coming up. The fear of losing something, perhaps. And that got me thinking: what can we do to counter that fear?
ARL: One way to counter that impulse of folks’ fear that they’re going to lose something by standing up and challenging, is to let people know that this isn’t a zero-sum game. When we say “hey, I want to fight for and I want to interrupt inequity, I want to interrupt racism, it doesn’t mean that you will lose all that you have. It may mean that things will change for you, but I like to imagine and think that we can be compassionate, and caring enough about our fellow human beings, that, um, that small, what may appear to be a sacrifice, is beneficial for everybody. And, you know, some, some of the people, someone that we work with, um, from the podcast in Phil, Philadelphia – Chenjerai…
CWG: Oh, Chenjerai Kumanyika?
ARL: Yeah, so, this this gentleman named Chenjerai Kumanyika gave us this concept and idea that we’re trying to build America that never was. All the laws and practices that we have on paper? We haven’t truly achieved them and to really trying to achieve them, we have to change and push and work for a better world, and as long as folks stand up and live in spaces of fear and doubt, we aren’t going to achieve that equity and justice that’s written on paper that was, that this country is based on.
CWG: Something that helps me specifically in those moments where you have a choice, in a very specific moment, about whether to engage and speak up or not – or take that easy route and just let it go, or shut down, or remain silent. You have to take the long view, and in that moment, you might be a little bit more comfortable. But long term, you will be so much more proud of yourself, and who you are, and what you have done in your life if you grasp those moments and you take them on and you actually speak up. I mean I think about, I think about that sometimes with this work, and I think about it specifically with my own children, is: what do I want to tell them and pass on to them about what I did and how I chose to interact and engage and fight against injustice. And I don’t want to tell them that I was too scared in all these different moments. I want to be able to, to let them know that I did the right thing and stood up for what was right.
ARL: It requires failing a little bit-
ARL: And getting back up. You’re going to make mistakes, it’s going to be hard, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try.
JC: So there’s 400 years of oppression, and 400 years of people trying to do something about it – how do we grapple with that? Which of those wins out? How do we understand the weight of all of that history?
Curtis Harris: Neither one ever wins, you can say, uh, like defeats the other one. They’re just in tension with each other. So, like we’ve talked about you know, after the Civil War the freed people are like, “we want education so let’s found these schools.” And of course what eventually happens is, they still have the schools, but they become you know, “separate but equal.” That’s the tension. It’s like, okay we get our schools but then you segregate them and give us the inferior product, or inferior, uh, books and, um, everything else with the school. No-nothing’s ever finished, so you always got to keep it up, got to keep working towards this, you have to have that determination to make sure that whatever gains were made are kept up and are still progressed even further. So…
Callie Hawkins: Where can we look for hope in the face of what can seem like an impossible problem?
ARL: I find hope, in the fact that a student is verbalizing that they’re struggling with the concept. Because I really feel when I heard the little bit, that I studied in elementary school and middle school and high school, I didn’t feel brave enough. I didn’t feel that I had the right to really ask the question that you mentioned the student just asked. You know I just kind of shut tight lip and thought “well this is wrong,” but I didn’t step forward and say, say it out loud. The fact that a student would step forward and say “wait a minute this is wrong,” it makes like a tiny baby step, but it’s a step.
CWG: I- I’d like to add something as well to kind of just amplify and add on to what André is saying, because it is really easy to get discouraged, and I would not be truthful if I were to say that there aren’t days where I am completely discouraged myself. You know? So here’s what I think though, if you think about, you know André mentioned 1619, if you think about 1619 to 1865, that’s two hundred and forty-six years that it took for us to officially-
ARL: On paper.
CWG: On paper, heh, at least, uh, make the steps towards ending that institution of slavery, at least in that current form of chattel slavery. So, that is a long time, but if people in the late 17th century had not started saying and speaking up and beginning the work of abolition, we never would have gotten to that point. So you, it – that chipping away is consistent. So even though we cannot solve every problem right now or today or even in our lifetimes, that does not mean that we cannot start. And that’s again going back to this idea of the long view. The other thing I will always talk about with this is that, um, I, my children, when they each went through first grade, they learned about the monarch butterflies and I did not know very much about the monarch butterflies, but what I learned through my children, as they were learning about them, was that the monarch butterfly sets off on a journey, their migratory pattern starts off in Canada to end up in Mexico, and five generations of butterflies are born and die before they reach their destination. So the butterfly that sets off on that journey will not see the destination but their descendants will not see that destination if they do not start off on the journey. And so that is what is required of us if we truly want to make change.
JC: For a long time I saw Lincoln and his work to create the Proclamation as an example of this, of getting started on something even though you were pretty sure you weren’t going to see the end, or starting the work even though you couldn’t completely solve the problem. At the moment sometimes I feel like that is enough, and that is where we all should be starting, and other times I feel like it’s not. I was thinking about hope in relationship to this question because hope is the feeling of moving forward even though your effort seems impossible. I think hope and fear are intertwined with each other, and we’ll have to carry our fear that we won’t succeed with us if we hope to make a difference.
Callie Hawkins: Over the Thanksgiving holiday my 10-year-old nephew asked me, what will your lifetime achievement award be for, Aunt Callie? And I didn’t have a good enough answer for him. I don’t know if it was the naiveté of a 10-year-old who had just assumed that everyone gets a lifetime achievement award, or the wisdom of, of someone maybe, you know, beyond his ten years, but what I took from that is that he was saying that we have the ability to determine that ahead of time. I think, with some reflection, I’ve realized that I would want it to be for taking an active role in educating myself about systemic issues like this, and determining ways that I can help. Which really leaves us with some pressing questions. What more can you learn about the legacies of slavery in the United States? What do you want the legacy of 2019 to be? Will your lifetime achievement award for helping to combat injustice in the present?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, with Callie Hawkins. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by, Clancy Newman.
Callie Hawkins: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit www.lincolncottage.org.
JC: To the inquiring student who asked the question behind this episode, thanks for reminding us to keep our eyes open and be the person doing something to stop it this time around.
Callie Hawkins: Comments? Questions? Write to us at [email protected], or leave us a review on your podcast app.
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!