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.