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Tag: Black people

The covers of “The Pioneers,” and “If These Stones Could Talk.” These two books show separate is not equal.

Separate is Not Equal

By G. S. Norwood

It’s cloudy and kind of cold here in Texas. I’ve spent these gloomy days reading. Because I rarely read only one book at a time, I have two different works of historical non-fiction on my nightstand just now. The contrast clearly shows that separate is not equal. That’s why I’ve decided to tell you this tale of two histories.

The covers of “The Pioneers,” and “If These Stones Could Talk.” These two books show separate is not equal.
The Pioneers and If These Stones Could Talk (Bookshop)

Professional v. Amateur

The first book, recommended to me by a friend, is David McCullough’s The Pioneers:The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. David McCullough is one of America’s most distinguished historians. He’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Pioneers is McCullough’s latest release, although he is best known for his biographies of Harry S. Truman and Theodore Roosevelt.

The other book is If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountain and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey. Uncovering their community’s history moved two amateur historians, Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills,to write about it.

Old School Style

McCullough focuses on several remarkable individuals in his book. They led the settlement of the vast Northwest Territory. Britain had ceded this area to the US at at the end of the American Revolution. The Reverend Manasseh Cutler and General Rufus Putnam lobbied Congress to charter the Ohio Company and lay out the terms for settling the largely “unexplored” land on the northern bank of the Ohio River. Cutler’s son, Ephraim, and Dr. Samuel Hildreth carry the story into the second generation.

David McCullough at home in West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard.
Author David McCullough pauses by a stone wall near his home on Martha’s Vineyard. Behind him stands the small shed-sized structure where McCullough has long liked to write, using a Royal Manual typewriter. (Maria Thibodeau/Vineyard Gazette)

These interesting people did big things. McCullough worked from their letters, journals, and personal papers, bringing them to life for the reader. But the book struck me as curiously old-school in the story it told. Reduced to its most basic elements, it is just one more tale of heroic white men conquering the virgin frontier. I heard history like that all through my school years, back in the Stone Age.

To hear McCullough tell it, the Ohio wilderness was nothing but trees and bears before the white settlers moved in. Native Americans showed up only to be fought against and vanquished by the noble white guys. Despite the fact that a provision banning slavery was written into Ohio’s founding charter, Black people are mostly mentioned as slaves from Virginia, on the southern side of the river.

A Different Perspective

Authors Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck
Authors Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck, with some of their reference materials. (Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum)

Buck and Mills saw things a little differently in If These Stones Could Talk. Their book, too, stretches back into the days just after the American Revolution, when people had first began to lay down their arms and focus on the serious business of building a self-governing country.

In the Sourland Mountain corner of western New Jersey, a community grew up that included White people and Black people. Some of the Black people were enslaved, but some were not. All the people, no matter what their color, contributed to the community. Their work and their lives overlapped, crossed paths, and wove together into the history Buck and Mills relate.

Cemetery near the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum.
The cemetery near the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum. (Princeton Magazine)

Separate is not Equal

Reading this book made me see clearly that there is not Black history over on one side of town and a completely separate White history over on the other. History contains both sides and all facets. It is most complete when it tells the story of all the people in a community, no matter what their color. Separate is not equal. History should not be separate at all.

Since Ohio was free territory, I have to believe that there were Black people there, among the carpenters, boat builders, dockhands and farmers in Marietta, where McCullough’s focus lies. In later years, Marietta became an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

Yet the only Black person McCullough has identified by name so far is a gentleman named Micajah Phillips, generally referred to by his slave name, Cajoe. Phillips was educated, and trusted to oversee a major construction project for his enslaver. He was also and nimble enough to escape slavery when the opportunity presented itself. McCullough tells us that, as a free man, Phillips “stayed on in Ohio, married, had children, became widely popular as a preacher, and lived until well past the age of 100.”

Don’t you think his would have been an interesting thread to weave more fully into the story of how Ohio was settled? Don’t you think he, and his children, and their children, might have made a significant contribution to Ohio history, too?

Micajah Phillips’ Family Graveyard
Speaking of cemeteries: apparently he did have an impact. A community project put an iron fence around Micajah Phillips’ Family Graveyard in 2012. (ohsssardispatch)

A Tale of Two Histories

Back in August, Jan and I wrote a blog post about efforts to remove a Confederate statue from the Parker County courthouse in Weatherford, Texas. We made the point that what we know of history depends on who does the telling. In Weatherford’s case, the telling was left to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They championed the whole toxic Lost Cause nonsense. It will take some time to untangle their lies and distortions from the books and monuments across the old Southern states.

But we know better now and, as Maya Angelou so wisely said, “When you know better, do better.” It’s time to do better when we write our history books. It’s time to give a more complete picture of the people who build any community. And it’s always time to remember that, in history or in daily life, separate is not equal.

This famous quote from Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” separate is not equal
(Quote-image courtesy of Medium/Treadmill Treats)


Many thanks to Bookshop, which provided the cover images of the two books discussed in this post: The Pioneers, and If These Stones could Talk. We also thank The Vineyard Gazette and photographer Maria Thibodeau. They published the photo of David McCullough near his home on Martha’s Vineyard.

More thanks go to the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum for the great photo of Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck. And we extend gratitude to Ohio Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. They provided the photo of the Micajah Phillips Family Cemetery with its new fence. Finally, we thank Medium and the blog “Treadmill Treats” for the illustrated Maya Angelou quote.

Superimposed over a painting of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on a document are the words: "We've just created the separation of Church and State. It's so simple, a child can understand it. Right?"

Freedom of Religion

Is the First Amendment an aspiration, or reality?

Freedom of Religion: do we really have it? During our passage from Juneteenth to the Fourth of July this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And especially the specific freedoms it enshrines.

The “Defund or Abolish the Police” movement has driven me (along with many others) to take some long, hard looks at the institution of policing, its history, and what it could become, if remade in a better way.

But—also in light of recent events—I’ve begun to wonder: Is the First Amendment just as aspirational as the police motto “To Protect and Serve”? In this and several future posts, I’ll consider our ideals, and how they add up next to our reality.

The text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Many thanks to Indivisible of Door County, WI.

Freedom of Religion

Today’s post interrogates the first sentence in the First Amendment (but not using the Reid Technique).

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” is how the First Amendment begins. Yet, for much of our history, Americans have—and still do—strenuously seek to limit, abridge, and deny the religious freedom of others.

Superimposed over a painting of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on a document are the words: "We've just created the separation of Church and State. It's so simple, a child can understand it. Right?"
Many thanks to Imgflip and Marshal Tenner Winter for this image.

Black people

Since well before the birth of the United States as a country Black people were enslaved in North America. Freedom of religion was one of the many freedoms they were denied.

For centuries, the home religions of enslaved persons were suppressed by many slaveowners. Some resisted converting their slaves to Christianity because it might make them seem “too equal.” And some enslaved Muslims tried to hold onto their religion.

But most owners insisted they be converted, to make them see their enslaved state as God’s law. Some even altered the Bibles they allowed their slaves to have—they feared the Exodus story might give them too many ideas.

It didn’t ultimately work. The Black Church became a powerful force for freedom. But those slaveowners and their enablers gave religious suppression a real good shot. And they successfully stamped out a lot of African beliefs, or forced them to “go underground.”

This quote from Thomas Paine reads, ““Spiritual freedom is the root of political liberty...As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both.”
Many thanks to Ammo.Com.

Native Americans

The American authorities made far fewer bones about suppressing Native American spiritual and religious beliefs. “Freedom of religion for Indians” was never a consideration, even well into recent times.

They didn’t go about it quite like European invaders in what would become Mexican, and later western U.S. territories. Those “missionaries” enslaved and forcefully converted the Indians under their control.

But the US Government focused increasingly virulent ethnic cleansing energy on “pagan” ceremonies, starting in the 1830s. They made many practices illegal, punishable by imprisonment.

They often forcibly kidnapped children and held them in boarding schools where their home languages, customs, and spirituality were brutally suppressed. This continued well into the 20th Century.

This graphic design by Mark Forton, based on the US flag, features symbols of many major religions in the "star field" with the words "Religious Freedom Makes America Great" below.
Right on, designer Mark Forton! This image is available on several products.

Contemporary hate and intolerance

More recently, white supremacists have felt free to attack churches, synagogues, and temples. Using domestic terrorism to suppress religious diversity flies in the face of the First Amendment, but law enforcement usually has focused on the egregious violence to persons and property. I wrote about this last year on my Artdog Adventures blog.

Lawmakers have tried and sometimes succeeded to use Christianity as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ individuals, in what future generations may view as a violation of the “establishment clause.”

The organization Human Rights Watch published a US map in 2018 that highlighted states with what it called "License to Discriminate" Laws, attacking LGBTQIA+ rights in the areas of adoption and foster care, counseling, and more. The states are: North Dakota, South Dakota, Michigan, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.
Many thanks to Human Rights Watch for this map.

Some people welcome these laws and court rulings as “freedom of religion.” But many others see them as “freedom to discriminate.”

And unfortunately the current President of the United States seems determined to violate the full spectrum of First Amendment. He got started right away on freedom of religion.

Early his first year, he tried to keep Muslims from several countries out of the U.S. And eventually he succeeded. Does he value the appearances and trappings of religion far more than the substance? Looks that way to this writer.

How far have we really come?

We like to think that, as a nation, we’ve come a long way forward into a more equitable and enlightened society. We earnestly want to believe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

But recent events have laid bare just how deeply our country is divided. We disagree more sharply than ever on liberal/conservative lines. This has even gotten to the point where we disagree over simple public safety measures.

Savage injustices tear us apart on many other fronts, too. Economic equality. Access to health care. Our dealings with the justice system. And many more. So of course the intolerance issues extend to freedom of religion.

The challenge before us is clear. If we want that arc to bend toward justice, we must work to make sure it heads that way.


Many thanks to Indivisible of Door County, WI, for the text-image of the First Amendment. I want to thank Imgflip and Marshal Tenner Winter for the “So simple a child can understand” image. Much gratitude to Ammo.Com, for the Thomas Paine quote. And many thanks to Human Rights Watch for the “License to Discriminate” map. I appreciate you all!

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