A painful truth: “Black Lives” have never truly mattered in American history

Bruce Janu
9 min readJun 12, 2020

American history is a history of paradoxes.

If you want to really get into the history of race in America, you can start with the American Revolution, the ultimate of paradoxes. Justified by the words “all men are created equal,” the revolution itself did nothing to provide that equality to Black Americans (or Natives or women, for that matter either). Textbooks proudly proclaim that 5,000 black men fought for freedom with “courage” and “loyalty.” What the textbooks don’t tell you is than many of them were promised an end to slavery, freedom for their enslaved family members and land. None of that happened.

The Americans, p. 117

What is glaringly left out of this narrative is the fact that some 20,000 blacks joined the British, thinking that their odds for better treatment was with the British, not the Americans. The British promised freedom. Southerners were particularly worried about this, especially after the Dunmore Proclamation of 1775 in Virginia in which the British offered freedom to slaves. Southern plantation owners became more vigilant and oppressive to keep their slaves in check. Indeed, there was mass resistance in the colonies on the American side of using black troops because Southerners thought that this would encourage their slaves to escape. Slavery was big business in America.

After the American Revolution, slavery became thoroughly entrenched in the South and, encoded into the Constitution, was the idea that black people were only to be counted as 3/5 a person.

Not only that, textbooks tend to minimalize this whole paradox:

The Americans, p. 123

Let’s get one thing clear right here: George Washington did not free his slaves. At least, not all of his slaves.

What people don’t realize is that most of the slaves at Mt. Vernon were not his, but belonged to Martha and her family. At the time of his death in 1799, Mt. Vernon had 317 human beings held in bondage. Only 123 were owned by Washington himself (Washington became a slave owner at the age of 11). Some of the rest were “dower” slaves; that is, contracted from other owners. And most of them were owned by Martha and her family. When Washington died, only one slave was immediately freed, as provided in his will. The rest would be freed upon Martha’s death. Martha died in 1802, three years after her husband and her slaves were given back to her family. She never freed a single slave. Only the slaves owned by Washington himself were freed at that time; the majority remained in bondage.

The use of slaves on the Mt. Vernon plantation was not at all unique. Washington was really not any different from other slave owners. When slaves escaped from Washington’s plantation Washington himself spent tons of money trying to get them back. The story of Ona Judge is particularly interesting. She was a seamstress who escaped in 1796. Washington was relentless in his pursuit of her and when she was found, he tried to entice her back. She said she would under the condition that when Martha died she would be freed. And Washington flat-out refused. He then threatened lawsuits. She resisted. He tried to steal her children because, after all, they were his because he still owned her. That failed.

Ona lived until 1848, and spent most of her adult life in poverty. In an interview she gave shortly before her death, she said that she preferred poverty and freedom to being a slave on the plantation of George Washington. (A great episode of the podcast Uncivil featured the story of Ona Judge.)

History textbooks only touch on the violence of slavery and the attempts by slaves to free themselves. Denmark Vesey in 1822 and Nat Turner in 1831 are usually the only rebellions mentioned. And, of course, John Brown is often given the textbook treatment with a colorful box that touches on how he was viewed favorably among abolitionists and how he was viewed as an insurrectionist by others.

But what about Charles Deslondes? You won’t find him in any textbook, although he led the largest slave rebellion in our history. A slave overseer himself, he led some 200 slaves in an insurrection in New Orleans in 1811, setting fire to several plantations. This inspired white militias to hunt down those involved, killing some 95 slaves, many of whom weren’t involved in the uprising. Deslondes was captured using dogs. His hands were cut off and then he was shot in his thighs “until they were both broken.” And then he was placed on a bundle of straw and lit on fire. The main road leading to New Orleans was lined with the heads of those killed in the uprising, proudly displayed on pikes as a gory threat to any other slave who would even consider such an act.

In American history, racial unrest is often referred to as “race riots.” The term “riot” here is important to note. “Riot” has the connotation of lawlessness, and the violence that is perpetrated on those engaged in the unrest, therefore, is justified. That is the power of that word: to suck out any justification for unrest. By definition, riots are lawless. American history is filled with incidents that are described as “riots,” but these riots have resulted in the overwhelming deaths of black people. And the majority of these do not appear in any American history textbook.

One of the worst “Race Riots” in American history occurred during the Civil War. Textbooks refer to it as the “New York Draft Riot.”

The Americans, p. 311

When the draft was announced, Irish workers in New York rebelled, thinking that the war was going to take away their jobs for the benefit of Black workers. They attacked not just draft offices, but attacked and killed any black person encountered on the streets. Black neighborhoods went up in flames. It was an orgy of lynching. They attacked the Colored Orphan Asylum on 5th avenue and set the building on fire, forcing the 200 children inside to flee. Black people were hanged from lampposts and set on fire in the streets. The official death toll was 119, but the actual death toll was closer to 1600. It left 3,000 black residents of New York City homeless.

Prior to the riot, black residents of New York City were already being pushed from their homes. Seneca Village was established in 1825 by free blacks. They were evicted in 1857 for the building of Central Park. The riot of 1863 needs to be placed into that context of black people being forced out of their homes, which did not stop in 1863 but continued well into the 20th century, and was often the result of the creation of highways and freeways that were often laid over black and brown neighborhoods.

Historian Rayford Logan described the life that people of color had in the South after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 as the “Black Nadir.” Black southerners, he said, were tormented by “the five-headed hydra of sharecropping, political disenfranchisement, social segregation, anti-black propaganda, and racial violence.”

The racial violence of this period is grossly neglected in American history. The intimidation and terrorism against blacks living in the south were known collectively as the “Shotgun Policy.” It was widely used to prevent black people from voting or resisting white supremacy.

The Klan, of course, was created during Reconstruction. Acts were passed by Congress to limit their influence and had some moderate success, for a time. But that was not universal. The Klan actually won the “Kirk-Holden War” of 1870 in North Carolina, resulting in the reestablishment of white dominance there, years before the actual end of Reconstruction. In fact, the Reconstruction period is full of racial incidents as white mobs attacked the now-free black populations: Opelousas massacre in 1868, the Meridian Race Riot of 1871, the New Orleans Massacre of 1866, the Colfax Massacre of 1873, the Memphis Massacre of 1866.

With the end of Reconstruction, thousands of African-Americans were further subjected to terrorism. Many left the south to find new lives in the North. They would soon discover that the North was not too different from the South. Racial tensions followed, and what we get are events that people described as “riots.”

Some of the first flared up in Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln.” In 1908, white mobs in Springfield destroyed black homes and lynched several people in an incident papers dubbed the “Springfield Race Riot.”

Nine years later, East-St. Louis went up in flames as white mobs attacked black workers. The violence continued to black neighborhoods and buildings. People were shot trying to swim across the Mississippi River to safety. Upwards of 100 people were killed, if not more. Clear counting of dead black people has never been a priority in America. But you can be sure that the number of white deaths were clearly identified in official reports.

The East St. Louis Race Riots

Of course, much has been shared of late about two incidences regarding the destruction of black neighborhoods in our history: the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa in 1921 and Rosewood in Florida in 1923. But have you heard about Longview, Texas?

In July of 1919, this black town was attacked by white mobs. The residents fought back and in response, planes were sent in to quell the uprising. This was heavily covered in the Chicago Defender, one of the oldest black newspapers in the United States. It was also covered in papers all over the country. But you won’t find mention of it in any textbook.

The Longview Race “Riot” in a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper, 1919.

1919 was known as “Red Summer” because of all of the bloodshed. Racial unrest flared up all over the country: Charleston, SC; Chicago; Washington, D.C; Knoxville, TN; Omaha, NE; to name but a few.

Four years prior to these incidents, Birth of a Nation was released, becoming what we would call today a “blockbuster” film. Woodrow Wilson showed it at the White House. This film offered a different history of the United States in which the Klan were the saviors of white honor. White actors appear in blackface and the message of the film was that black people, without severe limitations by white society, are prone to violence and brutality. This film came out shortly before a popular book was published called The Passing of the Great Race which warned that blacks were inferior and white society needed to take drastic steps to save itself from the “darker races.” These steps included what we would call eugenics and, arguably, genocide. This book was a favorite of Adolf Hitler.

In 1915, the Klan was reformed at Stone Mountain, Georgia. The same place today people go to view the Confederate monument carved into the side of the mountain and watch a laser light show that propagates the “Great Lost Cause” myth of the Confederacy, holding Lee, Jackson and Jefferson Davis as heroes of the Confederate past.

Racial unrest flared up again during World War II all over the country: Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City; and even Beaumont, Texas and Mobile, Alabama experienced “race riots.”

The country was forced to look at itself when Mamie Till-Mobley insisted that her son’s lynched body be displayed in an open casket in 1955. Although most people know about the lynching of Emmitt Till, few know about the lynching of Mack Charles Parker in 1959.

The events of the last two weeks are deeply entwined with our history. But because our history is literally whitewashed, people believe that this unrest is unique and not part of the American fabric.

The Black Lives Matter movement is deeply rooted in an understanding of this past. However, people who do not understand our history are quick to scream “All Lives Matter,” demonstrating a complete ignorance of our past and the paradoxes that are woven throughout our history.

But even a tertiary glimpse of that history will reveal that black lives have never truly mattered.

Claude McKay said it best, in a sonnet he wrote in response to the racial unrest of 1919, but could just as well have been written today:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!