Why the lies my teacher told me about race in America after the Civil War matter in 2019

tags: Civil War

Will Bunch is an opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

(The title is a reference to James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me)


Jeffrey Rosen, the CEO of the National Constitution Center, is the kind of guy who gets as wound up talking about things like the 15th Amendment as a Phillies fan might get after a Rhys Hoskins walk-off homer, but nothing gets him as excited about the center’s new permanent exhibit on Civil War and Reconstruction as when he shows off a simple box wrapped in bright green paper.

“This in some ways is the most moving artifact — the first time that African Americans voted in Virginia!” Rosen enthused, gesturing at the separate-but-equal (since whites continued to use an ornate wood ballot box) relic from 1867. It is literally a cereal box — there’s still an ad for Jamaican ginger on the back — but, Rosen explained, “the people who made it wanted to dignify it by creating this beautiful green paper” to signify the very first black votes.

The green box spotlights the feel-good narrative that my generation of baby boomers — and presumably today’s kids, to the extent that they learn American history and civics at all — learned about the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves in the mid-1860s. But right at this very moment, the 19th century abolitionist and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper — performed with amazing grace by actor Nastassja Baset Whitman — strolled into the exhibit space, stepped up to podium and dropped a truth bomb from 1875 about what else happened in the decade after Appomattox.

“And yet, with all the victories and triumphs which freedom and justice have won in this country, I do not believe there is another civilized nation under heaven where there are half as many people who have been brutally and shamefully murdered, with or without impunity, as in this Republic within the last ten years,” she said. Harper’s speech — delivered here in Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery — focused on how far America still lagged in delivering racial equality.

Read entire article at Philadelphia Inquirer

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