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Racism evident in hiding African-American history

Ed Wolff, Community Voices • Oct 21, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Some months ago I was having a cup of coffee with a friend. During the conversation he brought up the subject, “Slave Trail of Tears.” I said, “What!?”

He mentioned that there were such events which involved over 1,000,000 African-American slaves. There is no comparison in numbers between that and the First Nation Trail of Tears. He explained that when the land in Virginia became non-productive after years of growing tobacco, the plantation owners sold the slaves at the New Orleans slave market.

I looked it up on the internet and found an extensive article from National Geographic detailing the march from Richmond, through Tennessee near Nashville, and down to New Orleans. The slaves were marched in shackles and chains and dressed in rags. I have never read about that in history books.

Elihu Embry was an abolitionist, living in Jonesborough. Surprisingly, he freed his slaves, except one female slave. The legend has it that she was his mistress and mother to their children. I heard about this after living in Jonesborough over 14 years.

During the ’60s, when the federal government was providing block grants for urban renewal, Johnson City removed the African-American community from Roan Hill and built a golf course with the funds. I hadn’t heard about that until a year or two ago.

Lately, we have read that the Tennessee Department of Education is considering revamping state history. Included in the possible deletion is Tent City, created in Haywood and Fayette counties in the 1960s. African Americans were evicted from their residences when they attempted to register to vote

I assume you understand the point I’m attempting to make. There has been a plethora of actions that have had a lot of negative impact to African-Americans that have neither been included in published historical texts, talked about, nor openly published in our local area. Moreover, other attempts have been made to revise or delete some historical events that negatively affected African Americans.

Currently there is a lot of pushback against affirmative action policies that benefit African-Americans. Yet, it is a fact that when the GI Bill was enacted after World War II, neighborhoods throughout our nation were “red-lined” by the federal government to prevent African-Americans from acquiring homes with VA mortgage loans. Because the nation excluded African-Americans from the economic and community freedoms afforded the majority, it seems to me Caucasians have had affirmative action for a very long time.

The events of history, affecting people of color, continue to be hidden from the public.

In the 1960s our nation experienced the Civil Rights Movement. Most of us are familiar with the riots, demonstrations, violence and non-violence that occurred. It resulted in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. Yes, minorities have benefitted, thank goodness. Yet, we can, if we’re willing to accept reality, know that there are ways around such laws, especially in smaller communities where the grapevine and local networking are very effective. Furthermore, courts and legislative bodies are reversing voting rights laws. The effects of gerrymandering have also had a negative impact on minority voting.

Lately, as a result of police shooting people of color, the Black Lives Matter movement took root. Was the general response a desire to understand why this occurred? No! There arose “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” (Locally, I still wonder why a blue line was created in Jonesborough on Boone Street.)

I am convinced that laws cannot change the dynamics of racism in this nation and locally. Racism and its elimination are issues of the heart. As the Apostle Paul said, we are at war with “the principalities and powers of this world.” Those principalities and powers not only exist in the institutions of this nation, but with our religious institutions.

There are opportunities for our local community to open their hearts to the realities and results of racism, if we will only be open to change and truly embrace the basic tenets of our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. There is a group called “Black/White Dialogue” that meets monthly at the Carver Center on the second Monday of every month from 6-8 p.m. It is open to all. There are no dues, fees or attendance commitments. We discuss challenges of inclusivity.

Plans are underway to take a bus trip in February to Montgomery, Ala., to the Equal Justice Center and Museum; it is also called “The Lynching Museum.” Its purpose is to help Caucasians grasp an underlying fear and basis for the emotional lives of African-Americans. Their lives have been, and continue to be, deeply affected by the history of slavery and lynching.

The economic foundation of our nation has been founded on genocide and slavery. Our nation needs to embrace that reality.

The Rev. Edward Wolff of Jonesborough is a retired Lutheran minister and progressive activist.

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