By Stacy James, Co-Managing Editor, 2L
I am originally from Jacksonville, Florida and had lived more than half of my life in Atlanta, Georgia before moving to California for law school. Growing up in the south you are used to seeing names like Andrew Jackson, Lee Butler, Robert E. Lee, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. They are just as revered in the south as saints are in Catholic homes, honored with their names on schools, bridges, statues, streets and parks. In fact, Jacksonville is named after President Andrew Jackson. You learn that those figures are just as much a part of the “southern way” as red pickup trucks, confederate flags, and the occasional white-robed KKK parade. Growing up black you learn to ignore such things, you put your head down and keep walking. You and your friends question, but no one has answers. It is just the way it is.
Of course, you discuss these things at home around the dinner table with your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I must stress “at home” part. I still remember being in a small semi-crowded restaurant near Gainesville, FL with my dad and older sister when I was about 7 years old. I innocently asked out loud, “Daddy, what is the KKK?” My dad literally spit out his coffee, and said, “Check please!” We still laugh about that till this day. However, that story perfectly illustrates the life of a black person, growing up in the south. There are just some things you don’t talk about out loud, you get your education from your elders, those who experienced it first-hand, those things they do not put in your school’s history books. This also accounts for why black and white Americans have such a different view on life, and why there is such a disparity in the historical knowledge regarding race in America.
Most Americans learn, names like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. You learn that Washington, Jefferson and Jackson were the “Founding Fathers of our nation, with Washington being the very first President. I remember being taught the fable about Washington not being able to lie as a child when asked about chopping down a cherry tree. I learned that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence. And, of course, we learned about Abraham Lincoln who was assassinated, shortly after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation effectively ending “plantation slavery”. *The 13th Amendment did not end all slavery.
However, what I don’t recall being taught about is that twelve of our early presidents owned slaves to varying degrees (either before, during or after their time in office). Of those, Washington, Jackson, and Jefferson were considered major slaveholders who owned slaves while they were President. According to tax records, Washington owned as many as 300 and Jefferson and Jackson owned at least 200 human beings whom they held in bondage and forced to work for no pay until they died. Jackson, was notably one of the worst slaveholders because of his cruelty towards his slaves. And because he remained unrepentant until death, refusing to free slaves even in his will as others had done. Jackson is also known for signing laws that systematically removed Native American tribes from their homelands culminating in the deadly “The Trail of Tears”.
DNA has proven that Jefferson fathered multiple children with his teenaged slave Sally Hemings. Although public perception differs on whether the sexual relationship was of a romantic nature or forced, as many female slave-master relationships were. However, many argue that because Sally was not only a minor but a slave, she lacked the freedom to choose and therefore Jefferson should be regarded as a rapist by today’s standards. While that debate will likely continue for some time, what is not debatable is that a large number of Presidents and political leaders have been celebrated despite their participation in what we today call Human Trafficking. There is absolutely zero distinction between the activities that took place during the period of slavery from and what is going on now (human beings bought and sold for labor, sex, and organs).
Over the past few years, social media has emerged as a powerful tool in breaking down those walls of silence and giving a voice to African-Americans all over the country. The sharing of information has led to many states removing those names from landmarks. And several states who still had some variation of a “Lee-Jackson-Jefferson Day” have changed the names of those celebrations in light of recent controversies. Despite this, in the first 100 days of his Donald Trump’s presidency, he went out of his way to honor President Andrew Jackson, laying a wreath on his grave and hanging his portrait in the Oval Office. Contrast this with President Obama’s removal of Jackson from the 20 dollar bill and The Democratic Party removing his name from symbolic places of honor. Many argue that regardless of the contributions men like Jefferson may have made and even perhaps their personal views against slavery, that no American President who ever owned and profited from forcing human beings into a life of slavery should ever be honored, period. America would never allow Hitler or a Nazi to be honored in America, Germany would never even consider it. So why does America honor those who enslaved millions of African-American human beings and slaughtered Native Americans?
The irony is not lost on me that it is the writings of Thomas Jefferson a former slaveholder that inspires me to pursue an education in law and whose name will be forever printed on my law degree. But, it is that same education that will not allow me to pardon the sin of slavery that is forever attached to his name. Many Americans who have not had to suffer the legacy of slavery in their own family line have lamented, “if we get rid of the past what kind of history will America have?” To that, I say one that does not include honoring slaveholders. Yet, I think the more important question is, what kind of future will America have if we don’t?
* The 13th Amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Advocates for ending mass incarceration argue that this exception has allowed slavery to exist in the form of the criminal justice system which has consistently held a disproportionate amount of black Americans in correctional facilities since 1866.