By Jamie Drake
Special to Frost Illustrated
February means African-American history month, an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of a great people. However, when I was a student in Allen County, I learned next to nothing about the African-Americans except for some names like Jackie Robinson and that Hoosier Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. This systemic failure is harmful, for it prevents us from seeing, with an authentic lens, how vestiges of slavery are still with us today.
What I did not learn in school now offends me. As it turns out, slavery was present in both the North and the South, and it became the foundation of the U.S. economy, especially in labor-intensive agriculture. To maintain a submissive labor supply, slave owners made every effort to destroy African identity and culture and convince the enslaved of their inferiority and the supremacy of whites, which was ordained by God. Economically, the enslaved had to depend on the master for all of their needs. If economic dependence was not enough, a brutal regime of physical terror was employed, including beatings, torture, rape, and murder. This was the picture of the South in 1860 when it seceded to perpetuate the right to enslave.
Slavery Again (1870-1950)
After the Civil War, Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, granting emancipation, citizenship, and voting rights, respectively, to the freedmen. However, loopholes in the Amendments were quickly exploited, including in the 13th, which permitted involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. This allowance encouraged the creation of Jim Crow legal systems, in which laws were drafted to facilitate the arrest and incarceration of blacks in order to exploit their labor, which was regularly leased to corporations and plantations. A scarcity of educational and economic opportunities guaranteed dependence and poverty for most. Two societies, separate and unequal, existed as if the institution of slavery were simply under new management with the familiar tools of white supremacy, the twisted Cross, and terroristic violence. In this period, 4,075 blacks were lynched. By God’s grace, James Cameron, a Marion, Indiana teenager, escaped a lynch mob in 1930. His two friends were not so fortunate. By that time, the Ku Klux Klan had reached its peak in Indiana, where the white terrorists controlled state politics through the Republican Party.
Civil Rights (1950-1980)
The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s achieved desegregation, civil and voting rights, and Affirmative Action, but the activists experienced violent resistance from conservative whites at every turn, climaxing in the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even in Fort Wayne, violence characterized the desegregation of schools, which often led to white riots and ultimately flight to new white enclaves in the suburbs. Then, in 1980, national Urban League President Vernon Jordan was shot and nearly killed by a white supremacist at the Marriott Inn on Coldwater Road.
Post Civil Rights
Today, many African-Americans still feel like second-class citizens, burdened by the living past. Extreme poverty, disintegrated urban areas that feel like contemporary slave villages, feelings of inferiority, and a lack of hope and authentic educational and economic opportunities describe many communities. In Fort Wayne as a whole, black families are four times more likely than their white counterparts to live below the poverty line, and zip code 46806 has the highest infant mortality rate in the state. In addition, institutional racism persists. Statewide, African-Americans account for 9.6 percent of the total population but 35 percent of its prison population, and in Fort Wayne, African-Americans are almost five times more likely to be arrested than whites. Hoosiers on the whole seem blind to this living history, perhaps because the proper lens has never been provided.
Toward a Re-imagined Education
For these reasons, educational reform needs to happen in Allen County and throughout the state. We need to present the full and bloody historical record to our children and examine and acknowledge the ways in which the sins of the past impact all of us today. This reform would require a re-imagining of K-12 curriculum, and placement of the history of slavery at its center. Perhaps then we will all be able to see with the same lens and confront today’s racial injustices as one people with a common moral purpose. Perhaps only then will we understand that the greatest achievement in our history is that of the African-Americans, for they overcame 400 years of hell without letting hate rule their hearts. And that is definitely worthy of a grand celebration.
Jamie Drake is an Executive Committee member of People for the Common Good.