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Source: Philadelphia Daily News
Date: March 7, 2007
Byline: Editorial: Carol Towarnicky

Facing Up to the Slavery Factor

HUMAN harnesses. Small ankle irons used to shackle children to their mothers. A collar and leash for the slave of a well-to-do white mistress. A horrible Jim Crow-era placard showing black children as "alligator bait."

The exhibit at the National Constitution Center three years ago featured slavery artifacts collected by a New Jersey couple who had found these vestiges in barns and attics, and hanging on the walls of stores across the South — not-so-rare antiques of a not-so-distant past.

I was surprised at the depth of my reaction. I knew, of course, that Americans who had enslaved other humans used whips and collars to keep them subdued. But I'd never seen the actual tools of slavery before — tangible proof of the crime, like a murder weapon introduced into evidence.

I thought of the slavery artifacts when I read last week that a genealogist had discovered that the Rev. Al Sharpton's great-grandfather was a slave to an ancestor of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.

That story was followed a few days later by the disclosure that Barack Obama is descended, on his mother's side, from slaveowners. The same amateur genealogist who traced Obama's roots also found that two other presidential candidates, John McCain and John Edwards, also are descended from slaveowners.

The revelations say almost nothing about Sharpton or Obama or McCain or Edwards as individuals — how could they? They do say volumes about We the People.

It's something we need to hear.

These days, it's easy to avoid any reminder that slavery was a part of our nation's identity, embedded in the Constitution. In fact, millions of Americans could trace their ancestry back to slaves or slaveowners — or both.

And it's easy not to recognize how all of us benefit from an economy built on the foundation of this "peculiar institution" — including me and all the other descendants of immigrants who came to America long after the 13th Amendment ended slavery.

The "Oh, get over it" reaction to some of the news illustrates how much we want to avoid looking at that part of our past.

If we did, the suggestion in a Christian textbook that "the United States of America has been a thought in the mind of God from all eternity" might seem somewhat presumptuous. We might have to see our history as triumph and tragedy, goodness and evil — invariably mixed together.

I mean, several presidents — including our first — owned slaves. Yet there was substantial opposition to recognizing that fact in Philadelphia five years ago when it was reported that the Liberty Bell pavilion then under construction would cover the site of the slave quarters of President George Washington's residence at 6th and Market. Now an outdoor memorial is planned there to tell the story of Washington's nine slaves.

Two years ago, following a requirement imposed by Philadelphia City Council, Wachovia Bank traced its history to a number of banks that profited from the slave trade and formally apologized for it. Many firms with a history in insurance or shipping have had to make the same disclosures.

Any talk about business records and reconciliation inevitably leads to another "r-word" — reparations. But it isn't necessary, or useful, to link reparations to truth-telling. It IS necessary for all Americans to know what that truth is.

The memorial near the Liberty Bell will be eye-opening to Americans who visit Independence Hall but may never have confronted that part of our history.

It's a terrific start — and still not enough.

It's past time for a museum that tells the truth about slavery. One is planned for Fredericksburg, Va., but it's millions short of the funding it needs. Apparently, the subject matter is a "tough sell" to potential contributors.

Still, the message echoes: Without truth, there can be no reconciliation.

 

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