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The impact of 400 years since slavery arrived on U.S. soil

Editorial Board • Updated Sep 1, 2019 at 10:58 AM

In August 1619, a Jamestown, Virginia colonist wrote, a “Dutch man of war" arrived with "not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the governor and cape merchant bought for victuals.” So began the institution of slavery in what was to become the United States.

The anecdote is told in a powerful New York Times article about this month’s 400th anniversary of the arrival of slavery on U.S. soil, an article titled, in part, “most Americans still don’t know the full story of slavery.” The article tells that story through artifacts and documents housed in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., that reveal slavery’s reality in brutal, graphic terms.

It’s a story of enslaved peoples spanning 246 years, more than half of the 412 years since the 1607 founding of the first U.S. colony of white settlers at Jamestown.

It’s a story that too many of us assume (wrongly) ended in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation or in 1865 with passage of the 13th Amendment. It’s a story of a legacy of inequality and discrimination that continues through Jim Crow and that, some argue, continues today in enduring inequities in opportunity, in the privileges conferred by inherited wealth (wealth accumulated due in part to slavery and the denial of full rights to the nation’s people of color) -- and in what many people of color see as a national blindness toward the roots of racial injustice today that have consigned so many young black men to prison. Those roots may start in the failure of our schools, partly out of squeamishness, to teach our children about slavery in all its raw savagery and in the context of the power it granted to whites over blacks, including to some of our Founding Fathers.

In a telling essay accompanying the Times series, reporter Nikita Stewart quotes from Ohio State University professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, who "recalled how his 8-year-old daughter had a homework assignment that listed ‘fun facts’ about George Washington, and it noted his love of rabbits. Jeffries corrected the assignment. ‘He loved rabbits and owned rabbits,’ Jeffries said. ‘He owned people, too,’ he told his daughter. The assignment said he lost his teeth and had to have dentures. ‘Yes, he had teeth made from slaves.’”

Did the nation’s first president use the teeth of his slaves? Like much of history, the evidence is murky: a 1784 ledger entry at Mount Vernon recording “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire,” that is, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, Washington’s dentist; and a surviving pair of Washington’s dentures that include human teeth. That doesn’t mean those teeth came from slaves. But it could mean that.

Either way, that’s raw, unexpurgated history. Modern-day Germany seeks to dig out of the Holocaust’s terrible legacy by requiring truth-telling about its depravities. Why does the United States not do the same with slavery’s legacy?

What more can or should be done to teach the full story of slavery to future generations, and to address the impacts it leaves with us today? Does the legacy of slavery, in enriching this nation at its founding, and some would argue since, add extra weight to increasingly vocal calls for reparations? Our Editorial Board Roundtable offers its thoughts.

Jarvis DeBerry, cleveland.com columnist:

Frederick Douglass pushed back against fellow abolitionists who thought the passage of the 13th Amendment meant slavery had been eradicated. “[Y]ou and I and all of us had better wait and see ... in what new skin this old snake will come forth.” Chain gangs, lynchings, land theft, prisons, voter suppression. That constantly molting snake keeps swallowing folks whole.

Thomas Suddes, editorial writer:

Others said it first, and better, but slavery is America’s Original Sin. That, in turn, has made race the central fissure in American life. Until we recount our nation’s history frankly -- among other features, that means portraying the Confederacy for the treason it was -- not much will change.

Ted Diadiun, cleveland.com columnist:

Is there someone in this country who has not been taught about the evils of slavery – the whippings and lynchings and cruelty? Holding up Germany, which resisted teaching the details about the Holocaust until just a couple of decades ago, as a role model is outrageous, as is presenting the story of George Washington’s teeth, which hangs by a thin historical thread, as “unexpurgated history.”

Lisa Garvin, editorial board member:

As long as we have state boards of education stacked with ultraconservatives rewriting history to minimize or distort the American black experience, nothing will change. The Texas textbook wars had national repercussions that continue to reverberate today. As time marches on, I fear that a truthful, non-biased account of slavery will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Victor Ruiz, editorial board member:

Our inability to discuss our country’s difficult and tragic history leads to inaction. Having honest conversations is necessary in order to move forward and not continue the horrible legacy that slavery has left. This is the type of political correctness that is holding our country back. We must face our past and be truthful about it, no matter how ugly it is.

Eric Foster, editorial board member:

A 2017 study found that only 8 percent of 12th-graders could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Less than half of the students knew what the Middle Passage was. Only 22 percent knew that slavery was protected in America’s founding documents. This makes sense: Only 52 percent of teachers even taught about slavery’s legal roots and just 54 percent of teachers taught slavery’s continuing legacy to today. Start by telling the truth.

Mary Cay Doherty, editorial board member:

Slavery is a challenging subject, and the polarizing racial politics of both parties create additional tension. Grade-specific guidelines would help teachers. We must address racism and discrimination where they persist. But reparations go too far. People who never owned slaves (and whose ancestors might not have even owned slaves) don’t owe money to people who themselves were never enslaved.

Elizabeth Sullivan, director of opinion, cleveland.com:

We cannot even begin to come to terms with slavery’s reality, its deeply unjust aftermath and its ongoing human costs without a common language to “know” it in all its ugliness. That requires open minds, a focused effort at honest teaching, and a new basis for understanding that will allow us to have an honest conversation, for once, about this terrible stain on America’s past, and the injustices it’s stoked.

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