Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Juneteenth and The Road to Freedom

 I have resisted responding to posts on my wall lately about Juneteenth because I am tired of trying to explain things I know to an audience that either does not even read or pay attention or that comes off with a knee jerk response attacking me about my ego. Before I begin I need to give my credentials. I am not a celebrity, I am not black (although I have an African American ancestor who was a freed slave), I am not a politician with all the answers, nor am I a recognized graduate of any Ivy League School. I am simply a retired teacher of  American history and English. 

The media, general public and government officials have criticized American history teachers and the system of teaching itself demanding reform.  This is well deserved and reform is needed. I spent the first six years of my teaching career teaching white man's political history until I lived and taught in Albuquerque, NM and had the good fortune to work with a public school system that supported the need for change. Perhaps it is because New Mexico has the most diverse population of any state and in addition, Anglos (non Hispanic or Latino) are not appreciated because of the take over of the land from Mexico during the Mexican-American War. 

When the administration came to the 8th grade teachers of English and American history at John Adams Middle School and suggested the teachers of these subjects create a new program and new way of teaching American history, I jumped on with enthusiasm. Unlike a lot of my colleagues who were elementary certified, I had duel certification in those subjects. In addition, I already had a great deal of knowledge of African-American history and welcomed the expansion of my knowledge. Because of this, I was put in charge of developing the curriculum. I was already teaching the integration of cultural history and the English and social studies content in my classes. I also had been exploring Indigenous history because of my ancestry  that included an Indigenous great great grandmother of the Saponi Indians of the Southeast. I welcomed all the training and was the leader in creating teaching based on projects, cross cultural teaching and integration of content. One of the more important units I taught had to do with the Civil War and debunking all of the myths of that complex war and its effect on our country that still exists today. One of the biggest myths is that Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. This myth has been perpetuated by partisans from both the Democratic and Republican parties and has even found its way into stories that are now being told about Juneteenth that are not true. 

I have a great deal of respect for this celebration and even taught about it when I was still teaching. When I moved to Louisville, Kentucky I took the story of Juneteenth to the librarian at the Portland Library and the presentation I gave there became so popular that I was invited to do the presentation at major branches of the library from 2015 until I moved in 2018. I understand the importance of Juneteenth and in 2019 when I made a statement to challenge something being said on face book, I was immediately attacked by those people who perpetuate these myths without the actual facts and I believe that is damaging. In response to those attacks I wrote a blog on my blog page at entitled Why Juneteenth is a Big Deal. I have even written a short story set in the neighborhood of Portland in Louisville, Kentucky entitled Juneteenth to emphasize the importance of the celebration of this day to the people who are descendants of slaves and explain the traditions around its celebration.  I am concerned about the claims made about Juneteenth and its importance that are a far cry from why this day is important. Therefore, I think I need to give some history surrounding the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Because I will be describing the events that led to the issue of this Executive Order and referring to what it actually said I am posting a link to the document so you can read for yourself.

It is September, 1862 and the Union as well as the Confederacy has just fought the bloodiest battle of the Civil War at Antietam Creek with losses of over 10,000 soldiers of either side. Sentiment in support of the War in the North (especially among those young Irishmen dying for something they didn't really believe in) is decreasing. The most critical product needed in the North is men. The Irish of the Northeast are bearing the most loss from this war and have labeled it a "rich man's war, but a poor man's fight." The men are also growing upset that the runaway slaves are filling contraband camps and taking the jobs available because the Irishmen are at war. The sentiment in the South is still a willingness to never surrender and to continue to fight despite great hardship. Lincoln is faced with one decision, he is going to have to institute the draft. This is not something he wants to do because he knows of the wrath that already exists. Lincoln also needs a quick end to the war so he can focus his energy in the territories west of the Mississippi to take over those lands from the Indigenous people living there that are resisting. Plans are already in effect to institute a draft beginning in March of 1863. Lincoln knows there will be trouble when this happens and indeed there was. Something had to be done to get the South to give up. The document chosen to convince the South to give up was the Emancipation Proclamation - a bribe to the South. It was never intended to abolish slavery, in fact, if the South had continued fighting, Juneteenth would never have happened. 

I have listed a link to the text above, but I will paraphrase here. Lincoln told the Confederacy if you keep fighting beyond January of 1863, your slaves will be free.. When Union soldiers marched into Texas on June 19, 1865 the slaves were freed - why - because the South continued to fight and lost. The information being posted about this date gives false representation about the emancipation of the slaves. I heard a speaker talk about this day as the 4th of July for African Americans in addition to the continued myth about Lincoln being the Great Emancipator. In fact, Lincoln made many statements regarding slavery and if one looks at those statements and those actions, slavery was unimportant to Lincoln. He wanted to preserve the Union and keep the South so that he could turn his attention to the territories and fulfill America's Manifest Destiny. When did the slaves actually become free then? The road to freedom was difficult and hard. That is why it has taken 150 years or more since the Civil War to bring freedom to African Americans as well as all the marginalized people (including women) who have never been fully free and why we remain a divided nation. 

The first step toward freeing the slaves took place on April 16, 1862. This is the day slavery was actually abolished in The District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) At the end of the Civil War those slaves living in what was the Confederate States of America were set free - Juneteenth. There were, however, five border states that were slave states that did not secede from the Union and where slavery still existed. These states were: Maryland. Delaware, W. Virginia (the area of Virginia that refused to secede), Missouri, and Kentucky (my home state). Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist in Congress) began to work with Abraham Lincoln on an Amendment to the Constitution that would once, and for all, abolish slavery in the United States. Getting the Amendment passed in Congress was a long and tedious battle, even though the South was still not fully represented in Congress. There is a movie entitled Lincoln that gives a fairly accurate portrayal of this story. In fact, I think it won some Academy Awards. A lot of those awards are based on things other than a recognition of the quality of the work as opposed to the popularity, but this movie was popular and is worth seeing. 

The 13th Amendment, its text and ratification says something about the general attitude toward slaves and African Americans in general that existed not only in the South but also the country in general in 1865. This is not to defend the South for its abhorrent treatment of Black people, especially during the days of Jim Crow, but to underscore a general attitude of systemic racism that has existed throughout the country both North and South since the founding of this country and is why we are still dealing with the abhorrent treatment of people of color in this country. 

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery but there is a little known part of the Amendment that has to do with keeping slavery operational in the prison system in this country. Slavery was abolished except for those who are in prisons. That has given the government permission to take men and women  in prison to work on chain gangs instead of do what the system is supposed to do - rehabilitate. In addition, people of color make up the largest percentage of the prison population, this clause allows the government to keep them in involuntary servitude instead of addressing the things needed to keep them out of the "revolving door" that is their path. 

The ratification of the Amendment is also important to consider. In December of 1865, the Amendment was ratified when 27 of the then 36 states ratified the Amendment. By this time the 11 states of the Confederacy had been readmitted to the Union. One of the requirements for admission was ratification of the 13th Amendment. Again, it was the South that made the difference. If they had not ratified the Amendment it would not have passed. Contrary to teachings, there was no widespread support for abolishing slavery. The majority of the interest in the freed slaves came from the Radical Republicans in Congress who pushed through legislation intended to help the freed slaves but most of which ended up in the hands of corrupt administrators and scalawags. My home state of Kentucky did not even ratify the 13th Amendment until 2005 when the country's awareness of Juneteenth and other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement were coming to light. 

The road to freedom for African Americans in this country has been one that has benefited all the groups left out of participation in the freedoms set up in the Declaration of Independence. It saddens me to see these groups splinter and divide their resources when if they came together they would be much more powerful. 

For all the reasons listed above, despite the 13th Amendment people of color remained in slavery under a system known as the Jim Crow Laws and the control of the Ku Klux Klan until Black Americans organized under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others to raise awareness and people of conscious joined with them to break the system. The passage of the Civil Rights Law of 1964 was a landmark in our history not only for African Americans but also all the marginalized groups (including women) that have suffered from not only racism but discrimination because they don't fit with "American" values. Movements that sprang from the Civil Rights Movement are bringing awareness to the systemic racism that still exists and holds people of color, Asians, Indigenous people, women and even those who practice a religion such as Judaism or Islam in chains. The road to freedom for African Americans in this country has been one that has awakened our conscious but now is the time for groups such as Black Lives Matter realize the importance of unity so that their power will move beyond the level of partisan politics or become targets to be used by people such as Donald Trump and what he supports. As Americans begin to free themselves from myths and half truths about democracy and our Founding Fathers, we will begin to come together in a force so strong that we will finally have not only a government "by the people and for the people" we will live on a planet that can continue to support us in living sustainable lives of joy and peace.   

Sunday, May 2, 2021

My Old Kentucky Home - An Abolitionist Song

 I was born and raised in Kentucky and have always loved our state song - My Old Kentucky Home. Like most Kentuckians I was taught the myth of the writing of the story, that the song glorified the life of the ante bellum South and that Stephen Foster, a cousin of the Rowan family, wrote the song after a visit to what was called Federal Hill. Federal Hill was a brick mansion built by a federal judge name Judge Rowan. He owned slaves and used his slaves in the building trades because Federal Hill was not a plantation, When he died his finances were a mess and his son, John Rowan, had to sell slaves to pay off debts. Susannah fame. She is the one who visited and likely told these stories to her brother, Stephen in Pennsylvania. Stephen Foster was an abolitionist and read Uncle Tom's Cabin. The motivation behind the writing of the song was to tell the story of slavery in Kentucky, a border state, with few actual plantations. Federal Hill was not a plantation. Therefore, Foster wrote My Old Kentucky Home as a mournful tune to bring to light the way slaves were treated and sold with little regard for family and roots. The following passage in the Forward to my short story "Juneteenth" which is in a collection of short stories called "Finding New Pangaea" available on In a country where history has been so skewed even if it is taught, marginalized people can be swept up in movements to get rid of "racist" writings and documents and there is a move to do this to My Old Kentucky Home. Instead of getting rid of the song, teach its meaning and what it was all about in regard to slavery in Kentucky. It deserves to stay the state song and not only be played but have the lyrics with it, especially at the Kentucky Derby.  




There was a time in our history when people dehumanized others in return for profit. These immoral acts were shrouded in secrecy and rationalized to maintain a status quo that allowed many to be more equal than others. In the 1850’s United States’ poets, philosophers, writers and composers began to use their freedom of expression to attack the most hideous travesty of all - the institution of slavery. One such composer was a young man named Stephen Foster who died penniless and alone in 1864 at the age of 38. Perhaps his early death contributed to the legend surrounding one of his minstrel songs written in 1851– “My Old Kentucky Home.”  

The legend of “My Old Kentucky Home” grew from stories told by Madge Rowan Frost, the granddaughter of Judge Stephen Rowan who built Federal Hill in 1793. Madge considered herself a southern belle and fostered the story that her cousin Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” after a visit to Federal Hill in the 1850’s. Using this legend helped her sell the property she had inherited to the state of Kentucky in 1926. The Rowan version of the story is the one told every year in the outdoor drama “The Stephen Foster Story” performed in the amphitheater on the grounds of the state park. According to, however, “there is actually a lot to be said that Foster never stayed in Bardstown. It is even very probable that the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” provided reasons for the song.” 

When one hears all three verses of “My Old Kentucky Home” it becomes apparent that this song is more than a lyrical comment of the hoop-skirted life style surrounding a mansion in the antebellum South. Rather, the song is a lament for a young, black man who is being sold “down the river,” torn from his family still living in the Old Kentucky Home. In fact, research into Foster’s minstrel tunes from the antebellum South indicates that Foster was trying to humanize the dark skinned people in captivity and mourned the fact they were bred like horses to be beasts of burden and bought and sold like chattel.

Stephen Foster’s inspiration for “My Old Kentucky Home” was more likely an attempt to describe the sadness and grief felt by slaves who helped build the home, started families and then were forced from it. The slaves who actually lived in Federal Hill were the house servants who most likely lived in the attic or basement of the home. But whether living in a cabin, basement or attic, Rowan’s slaves worked side by side with Judge Rowan in building Federal Hill and this is where they and their children lived.

 Like any human beings, the slaves longed to live surrounded by their loved ones in homes that they not only built but maintained daily. It is probable that the subject of “My Old Kentucky Home” is a slave who has been “sold down the river” who is voicing his sorrow over his separation from his home and family. “My Old Kentucky Home” has a mournful tone that echoes what any human being taken from home and family would feel. Tom’s feeling of pain and despair is no different than what his white masters would feel in similar circumstances. The blacks felt great joy and celebrated when they were freed. Foster didn’t live to see this but I’m sure he would have felt great joy for them as well.


Monday, February 22, 2021

"She knows everything about history but nothing about her own."

 I happened to see an episode of In the Heat of the Night today. I am sure that this episode was run to coincide with Black History Month. The story was about honoring a Black woman in Sparta, Mississippi (a woman named Odessa) who was the first African-American who had tried to register to vote there in 1964. The plot is not so important as the message intended - story of a person who was a leader in the movement for voting rights for African Americans in Mississippi in 1964. The older civil rights leader (a Rosa Parks type) had a granddaughter who was in high school. The city official (a Black woman) who was to give the award was talking to Odessa's daughter and granddaughter about the importance of the ceremony. The young girl dismissed it and left the room. When she left her mother said, "she knows everything about history but nothing about her own." That statement reminded me of myself. 

I grew up in a family where communication with my grandparents was limited at best and secrets were well kept. All of my grandparents (except my mother's step mother who raised her) were dead by the time I was eleven and most of them were dead by the time I was born. There was never an opportunity to question and talk to any adult about behaviors that were "none of my business." Any effort to get answers was dismissed and I was told to stop being so nosey about adult matters. In my effort to learn about my past, I became a student of  history. I won awards in history in high school and graduated from college cum laude with honors in history. I spent my professional career as a high school history, government and English teacher. I also won awards for my work in the classroom. I knew everything there was to know about the his story of this country that I taught - Anglo-Saxon, male history, but knew almost nothing about my own unless it connected to the Anglo-Saxon male. While teaching American history in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the 80's and 90's, I started learning a much different version of history. This was the time after Alex Haley's book "Roots" captured America's attention and the story of the African American and slavery started to reach national attention. I started changing the way I was teaching history at this time. As the African American movement grew, other ethnicities also benefited and in the 70's the largest minority group of all (females) started realizing how invisible they had been in American history and government. In 1991 I approached my principal about a new idea I had about teaching American history based on what I was already doing in the classroom for which I was earning awards. 

My idea was based on a class I had in college titled Interrelationship of the Disciplines. I went to a college operated by the Southern Baptist Association in Louisville, Kentucky. The college did not require students to take courses in the Baptist doctrine nor even attend chapel (which was voluntary). What they required was this class that was a study of the disciplines (art, literature, philosophy, government, religion and science) of the major civilizations in recorded history - both eastern and western). Students learned about the history of the times through the study of the art, literature, philosophy, music, science, religion and government of each period. My proposal was on a smaller scale. I proposed that the administration create a class called humanities taught in a two hour block period of time to eighth grade language arts and American history students. American history and English would be taught through exploring the humanities as they developed in our history. The curriculum was approved and all eighth grade students were assigned to a humanities class. I was the lead teacher and worked with science and math teachers as well as special education teachers in developing a relevant, cross cultural curriculum that would serve students as they matured.

The course took on a life of its own as other teachers became part of the team. I included the bilingual department that focused on Spanish history, language and culture, special education teachers, a Navajo teacher to bring in Indigenous education and even taught one year with a special education teacher and the students from her resource room into the classroom. There were lots of research projects in which teachers as well as students researched the history and literature of all the cultures that have made the United States their home. As I taught this class some insights into my own history and how I fit into America's story began to take shape. During this time I began to realize how ignorant I was about my history. The thought occurred to me that with all my training and education if I had not learned these things, what about the majority of people in this country whose education about the myths of "white man's burden," manifest destiny and the building of a country based on freedom for all but in practice only a few had been imbued into the consciousness of Americans for centuries. It seemed time to tell everyone's story and not just the his story I had learned for most of my life. During these years the seeds of an idea for a book came to me. 

As I taught I began to learn. I started opening doors to my past that had been so well guarded for years and began to find out how my ancestors (especially female) fit into the scheme of America's story. When I retired in 2003 I began work on a book - a generational saga that was intended to tell America's history as it was lived by all citizens of this country since 1720. Some of the characters are loosely based on characters from my own ancestry. Others are archetypes from the groups that make up a "melting pot" of citizens in this country. The name of the book is The Peacemaker - Since 2009, I have continued research into my  own history and am finding a peace of my own about who I am as a tri-racial (Indigenous, African American and English) female whose ancestors were both victims and patriots. My ancestry includes men who have served in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, all of the Indian campaigns of the 17th and 18th centuries, Confederates and Union soldiers in the Civil War and World Wars I and II. The stories are not glamorous. These are the men who fought and returned home to live lives of "quiet desperation" unknown in the annals of time. 

 The women in my ancestry were invisible to me and the only woman I really knew that I could relate to was my mother. My mother was a strong woman who kept our family together and was responsible for our survival - both breadwinner and homemaker. She never became a great scientist or writer nor did she have any profession other than a nurse's aid. This is how she supported our family. I had no role model but her and during my formative years no national model of women of importance. My mother taught me what it was to love your family and community, keep a clean and safe home environment and always do what was in front of me to do. She did this by going to work outside the home when my father became disabled emotionally, keeping a spotless home, working in the garden, (her passion), canning or cleaning. She did this at all times with a song on her lips, a smile and gratitude for all we had. I learned a lot in my formal education and have been able to live a comfortable life style during my 74 years, but watching my mother and remembering her simple, homespun philosophy has been what has made the difference. Despite the fact that she had to work outside the home, my mother knew what it was to be a woman; compassionate, loving, loyal, joyful and nurturing. These are the qualities that we need in this country if we are to be "great again," not the qualities of attaining power and wealth by destroying the foundations upon which we live or die. I have a dream that when all the women of this country come to understand this we can reclaim our rightful position in society and become the promise of the free world.