Why Black Americans love Fidel Castro

By Ronald Howell
When it came to matching words with deeds on the topic of racial equality, the most stalwart leader of the Western hemisphere, over the course of the 20th century, was Fidel Castro.

I say this as a black American who came to bond closely with Latin America as an adult, living in Mexico for almost two years, traveling and staying with families in the Dominican Republic, and making more than half a dozen visits to Cuba, where I strolled through its enchanting cities and drove into the far reaches of the countryside, forging relationships with its people, especially those of darker hue.

Now we are again feeling the heat of the burning topic, the man, who bonded black Americans to his Caribbean island. Yes, it was Fidel Castro who—even though out of power now for years—is angering so many Americans, especially police officers, over his signature action three decades ago.

It was Fidel who gave amnesty to Joanne Chesimard, known now as Assata Shakur, still wanted in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper, Werner Foerster, in a highway shootout. Shakur was convicted but was busted out of prison in 1979 by comrades. As a leading figure in the Black Liberation Army, which took bolder actions than even the Black Panther Party did, not only getting into gun fights with cops but holding up banks, Shakur became a legend in her time, a Robin Hood of the black masses.

On Dec. 17, in an historical moment, President Barack Obama announced he would seek to normalize relations with Cuba. On the same day, federal and New Jersey police officials repeated their offer of $2 million for information leading to the capture of Shakur. Last year the feds made Shakur the only woman on the FBI Most Wanted Persons list.

You can be sure on black websites and newspapers there will be attention given to the increasing calls for Shakur’s capture or negotiated return. That attention will come with a history.

Castro did not just provide a haven for fugitive revolutionaries, who made the argument, accepted by perhaps a majority of Cubans under Fidel Castro, that blacks were an oppressed people fighting for fair treatment and an end to police abuses in their communities.

No, he was a kind of Martin Luther King with power. For example, before the Cuban revolutionaries led by Castro took over Cuba in 1959, there was fairly rigid racial segregation through the country, including, for example, Santa Clara in the interior of Cuba.

When I was in Santa Clara in early 2001, a woman there told me how black and white Cubans in the 1950s and earlier had walked along different paths around the beautiful downtown Vidal Park. (All it took in Cuba to be white was to have straight hair, be fair complexioned and not want to be called “negro.”)

This racial division largely ended under the government of Fidel Castro. Moreover, Castro made an effort to reach out to blacks in the US.

When he came to New York in 1960 for a United Nations meeting, Castro got upset at the management of the hotel where he was staying, the Shelburne, and he packed his bags and took his entourage up to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, where he famously leaned out of the window and waved to the black residents of the community. Thousands of Harlemites called out his name in a bonding-with-power they were totally unaccustomed to.

And it didn’t stop there.

In the 1980s, before the end of the Cold War, Fidel sent some 25,000 troops to fight in Angola, on the side of those opposing the then-apartheid government of South Africa. This aspect of Castro’s time in power was little reported in the US media. Fidel militantly opposed racist South Africa at a time when the US was diplomatically supporting it.

It was I who in 1987 first reported that Shakur had actually escaped to Cuba and was residing there, protected by Castro. I spent several days with Shakur at her apartment and walking along the Malecón; my Newsday colleague, photographer Ozier Muhammad, photographed her as she posed provocatively outside the US Interests Section, hands up in victory.

As you know, things have changed since then.

The Soviets stopped supporting Cuba; and then the Soviet Union collapsed to the ground. For two decades there has been speculation that one day a liberal American president might move to end the now-half-century embargo against trade with Cuba and allow Americans to travel there freely.

Republicans and many Democrats were outraged at what they called a concession by Obama to the communism they said Cuba—through the retired Fidel’s brother Raul—still represents.

Muffled in the discussion on cable channels are the feelings of kinship and appreciation that black Americans hold for Fidel Castro.

Many of those who harbor such tenderness toward the bearded one do not shout it into microphones because they don’t wish to be accused of being anti-American. But sympathy with Fidel can be seen in decades of blacks voting in Congress. Harlem’s Congressman Charles Rangel, for instance, has been among the most progressive of all representatives when it has come to policies toward Cuba, over the year having proposed an easing of the embargo. And few on the national scene have been more militant in opposing the embargo than black California Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

In the coming days, Assata Shakur will be mentioned more frequently in news stories about Cuba, especially in the northeast. There are growing demands that the United States find a way to bring her back and to put her in jail. And in their stories, New Jersey newspapers are noting how Assata Shakur is being treated as a heroine by many in the black communities of America.

Federal officials and others are aware of how Shakur has become a kind of folk hero among black Americans and even blacks in the Caribbean, with a number of parents over the past 25 years naming their daughters Assata.

Adding to the appeal for blacks is Assata Shakur’s connection to the late rapper Tupac Shakur, who is related to Assata through his male ancestors (though not by blood) and is considered a nephew.

When I wrote about Tupac Shakur for a now defunct black weekly newspaper (the City Sun) I spoke with a top New York federal official, Ken Walton, who said Assata Shakur damn well better be careful of her every move—then, in 1996, and for the rest of her beating-heart life.

I wrote then of Walton “He told me in measured, angry words that he ‘or somebody like me’ will one day capture Assata and bring her back to the States.”

This I know to be true: Every time a fist was raised for Assata Shakur, sympathy was expressed also for the now old Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

By the way, Assata is not the only revolutionary received by Fidel with open arms. He also gave asylum to Nehanda Obiodun (formerly Cheri Laverne Dalton), the only person still wanted in the early 1981 $1.5 million Brinks armored vehicle holdup in Nanuet, New York, in which two police officers were killed.

These days it is not easy to find out where Assata Shakur and Nehanda Obiodun are or even what they are thinking. I hung out with Obiodun and wrote about her in Cuba in the 1990s, but I was blocked at every turn when I tried to get her and Shakur to meet with me and a group of Stony Brook University students I took to Cuba in January of 2012.

Obiodun has been almost completely off the radar in recent years, out of mind. But Assata Shakur has not been. “New Jersey hopes Cuba-US relations thaw will help extradite former Black Panther,” screamed a headline of Atlantic City News on Dec. 18.

And so, given all this as background, black Americans are not only reflecting nostalgically on Fidel Castro, they are concerned about the plight of Assata Shakur.

Some, perhaps many, black police officials publicly declare their desire that Shakur be captured and returned to jail in the US. But other blacks have respect for the courage she showed as she lived in exile for some 30 years, bearing in her torso the remnants of a bullet she took during that shootout in 1973.

Most of all, you can bet, there is a broad agreement with Barack Obama—that the time for hostility with the Cuban government—no longer headed by Fidel Castro but largely by his brother Raul—should be over.

Georgetown University Plans Steps to Atone for Slave Past 


SEPT. 1, 2016

Nearly two centuries after Georgetown Universityprofited from the sale of 272 slaves, it will embark on a series of steps to atone for the past, including awarding preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved, officials said on Wednesday.

Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, who will discuss the measures in a speech on Thursday afternoon, also plans to offer a formal apology, create an institute for the study of slavery and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution, including those who were sold in 1838 to help keep the university afloat.

In addition, two campus buildings will be renamed — one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order.

So far, Mr. DeGioia’s plan does not include a provision for offering scholarships to descendants, a possibility that was raised by a university committee whoserecommendations were released on Thursday morning. The committee, however, stopped short of calling on the university to provide such financial assistance, as well as admissions preference.

Mr. DeGioa’s decision to offer an advantage in admissions to descendants, similar to that offered to the children and grandchildren of alumni, is unprecedented, historians say. The preference will be offered to the descendants of all the slaves whose labor benefited Georgetown, not just the men, women and children sold in 1838.

More than a dozen universities — including Brown,Harvard and the University of Virginia — have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade. But Craig Steven Wilder and Alfred L. Brophy, two historians who have studied universities and slavery, said they knew of none that had offered preferential status in admissions to the descendants of slaves.

Professor Wilder, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Mr. DeGioia’s plans to address Georgetown’s history go beyond any initiatives enacted by a university in the past 10 years.

“It goes farther than just about any institution,” he said. “I think it’s to Georgetown’s credit. It’s taking steps that a lot of universities have been reluctant to take.”

But whether the initiatives result in meaningful change remains to be seen, he said. Professor Wilder cautioned that the significance of the preferential status in admissions would rest heavily on the degree to which Georgetown invested in outreach to descendants, including identifying them, making sure they are aware of the benefit’s existence and actively recruiting them to the university.

“The question of how effective or meaningful this is going to be will only be answered over time,” Professor Wilder said.

Mr. DeGioia’s plan, which builds on the recommendations of the committee that he convened last year, represents the university’s first systematic effort to address its roots in slavery. Georgetown, which was founded and run by Jesuit priests in 1789, relied on the Jesuit plantations in Maryland — and the sale of produce and slaves — to finance its operations.

The 1838 sale, worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars, was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuits. A portion of the profit, about $500,000, was used to help pay off Georgetown’s debts at a time when the college was struggling financially. The slaves were uprooted from the Maryland plantations and shipped to estates in Louisiana.

Mr. DeGioia said he planned to apologize for the wrongs of the past “within the framework of the Catholic tradition,” by offering what he described as a Mass of reconciliation in partnership with the Jesuit leadership in the United States and the Archdiocese of Washington.

“We know we’ve got work to do, and we’re going to take those steps to do so,” Mr. DeGioia said in an interview on Wednesday.

The two buildings being renamed originally paid tribute to the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, the college presidents involved in the 1838 sale. Now one will be called Isaac Hall to commemorate the life of Isaac, one of the slaves shipped to Louisiana in 1838, and the other Anne Marie Becraft Hall, in honor of a 19th-century educator who founded a school for black girls in Washington.

“It needs to be a part of our living history,” Mr. DeGioia said.

Mr. DeGioia assembled his working group of scholars, administrators, students and alumni last September, asking them to consider how the university should address its history. Their work took on greater urgency in November in the wake of student demonstrations. In April, The New York Times published an articletracing the life of one of the slaves, Cornelius Hawkins, and his modern-day descendants.

In its 102-page report, the committee said that the university’s dependence on slavery was deeper and broader than originally believed.

Slave labor and slave sales were envisioned as part of the financing model of the college even before the doors opened in 1789. And slaves were not only forced to work on the Jesuit plantations. Some also toiled on campus, hired from students and other wealthy people.

The committee said that it was likely that all of the earliest buildings on campus — including the ones named for the university leaders who orchestrated the 1838 sale — were built with slave labor.

More historical research needs to be done, the committee said, and that will be coordinated by the new research center, the Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies. The university has already selected the program director for the institute, which will also support Mr. DeGioia’s plans to deepen engagement with descendants of the enslaved.

Mr. DeGioia, who met with dozens of descendants this summer, plans to establish a working group for the creation of the public memorial that will include descendants. He also plans, among other efforts, to provide descendants with access to genealogical information housed in the university’s archives.

“All of these will have a substantial financial impact,” said Mr. DeGioia, who believes that Georgetown’s philanthropic community will support his initiatives. “I’m very confident that will not be a constraint.”

Karran Harper Royal, a descendant of slaves sold in 1838, said that she appreciated the decision to rename the buildings and to create a memorial. But she said the initiatives fell far short of what descendants had hoped for.

She said that Georgetown should have offered scholarships to descendants and included them on the committee that developed the recommendations, adding that she and others “felt the sting” of not being formally invited to Mr. DeGioia’s speech this afternoon.

“It has to go much farther,” said Ms. Harper Royal, who is an organizer of a group of descendants. “They’re calling us family. Well, I’m from New Orleans and when we have a gathering, family’s invited.”



Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom

By Richard Grant; 

Photographs by Allison Shelley

Smithsonian Magazine

The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp, the better I understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.

We don’t know much about them, but thanks to the archaeologist hacking through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world until the 19th century. The Dismal Swamp covered great tracts of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, and its vegetation was far too thick for horses or canoes. In the early 1600s, Native Americans fleeing the colonial frontier took refuge here, and they were soon joined by fugitive slaves, and probably some whites escaping indentured servitude or hiding from the law. From about 1680 to the Civil War, it appears that the swamp communities were dominated by Africans and African-Americans.

Thigh deep in muddy water, wearing Levis and hiking boots rather than waterproof waders like me, Dan Sayers stops to light a cigarette. He’s a historical archaeologist and chair of the anthropology department at American University in Washington, D.C., but he looks more like an outlaw country singer. Long-haired and bearded, 43 years old, he habitually wears a battered straw cowboy hat and a pair of Waylon Jennings-style sunglasses. Sayers is a Marxist and a vegan who smokes nearly two packs a day and keeps himself revved up on Monster Energy drinks until it’s time to crack a beer.

“I was such a dumb-ass,” he says. “I was looking for hills, hummocks, high ground because that’s what I’d read in the documents: ‘Runaway slaves living on hills….’ I had never set foot in a swamp before. I wasted so much time. Finally, someone asked me if I’d been to the islands in North Carolina. Islands! That was the word I’d been missing.”

The Great Dismal Swamp, now reduced by draining and development, is managed as a federal wildlife refuge. The once-notorious panthers are gone, but bears, birds, deer and amphibians are still abundant. So are venomous snakes and biting insects. In the awful heat and humidity of summer, Sayers assures me, the swamp teems with water moccasins and rattlesnakes. The mosquitoes get so thick that they can blur the outlines of a person standing 12 feet away.

In early 2004, one of the refuge biologists strapped on his waders and brought Sayers to the place we’re going, a 20-acre island occasionally visited by hunters, but completely unknown to historians and archaeologists. Before Sayers, no archaeology had been done in the swamp’s interior, mainly because conditions were so challenging. One research party got lost so many times that it gave up.

When you’ve been toiling through the sucking ooze, with submerged roots and branches grabbing at your ankles, dry solid ground feels almost miraculous. We step onto the shore of a large, flat, sun-dappled island carpeted with fallen leaves. Walking toward its center, the underbrush disappears, and we enter a parklike clearing shaded by a few hardwoods and pines.

“I’ll never forget seeing this place for the first time,” recalls Sayers. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I never dreamed of finding a 20-acre island, and I knew instantly it was livable. Sure enough, you can’t put a shovel in the ground anywhere on this island without finding something.”

He has named his excavation areas—the Grotto, the Crest, North Plateau and so on—but he won’t name the island itself. In his academic papers and his 2014 book, A Desolate Place for a Defiant People, Sayers refers to it as the “nameless site.” “I don’t want to put a false name on it,” he explains. “I’m hoping to find out what the people who lived here called this place.” As he sifts the earth they trod, finding the soil footprints of their cabins and tiny fragments of their tools, weapons and white clay pipes, he feels a profound admiration for them, and this stems in part from his Marxism.

“These people performed a critique of a brutal capitalistic enslavement system, and they rejected it completely. They risked everything to live in a more just and equitable way, and they were successful for ten generations. One of them, a man named Charlie, was interviewed later in Canada. He said that all labor was communal here. That’s how it would have been in an African village.”

Dan Sayers
During more than ten years of field excavations, archaeologist Dan Sayers has recovered 3,604 artifacts at an island located deep inside the swamp. (Allison Shelley)


Wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were runaways who escaped permanently and lived in free independent settlements. These people and their descendants are known as “maroons.” The term probably comes from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning feral livestock, fugitive slave or something wild and defiant.

Marronage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery, took place all over Latin America and the Caribbean, in the slave islands of the Indian Ocean, in Angola and other parts of Africa. But until recently, the idea that maroons also existed in North America has been rejected by most historians.

“In 2004, when I started talking about large, permanent maroon settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp, most scholars thought I was nuts,” says Sayers. “They thought in terms of runaways, who might hide in the woods or swamps for a while until they got caught, or who might make it to freedom on the Underground Railroad, with the help of Quakers and abolitionists.”

By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative. They’ve also revealed the shortcomings of their methods: “Historians are limited to source documents. When it comes to maroons, there isn’t that much on paper. But that doesn’t mean their story should be ignored or overlooked. As archaeologists, we can read it in the ground.”

Voices Of Slavery: ‘They Were Saving Me For A Breeding Woman’

During 1929 and 1930, an Africa-American scholar named Ophelia Settle Egypt, conducted nearly 100 interviews with former slaves. Working then at Fisk University, she was the first person to ever conduct such a large scale endeavor. Accompanied by Charles Johnson, a black sociologist, she was able to get the former slaves to open up about the waning days of the institution. In 1945, she finally published her Unwritten History of Slavery, which collected thirty-eight transcripts of the interviews. Each account, published anonymously, painted a fuller picture of black slavery in Tennessee and Kentucky, where most of the interviewees had resided.

This first account, entitled “One of Dr. Gale’s ‘Free Niggers’,” is surprisingly candid about the rape of slave women by their owners, as well as other aspects of such relationships. 

Just the other day we were talking about white people when they had slaves. You know when a man would marry, his father would give him a woman for a cook and she would have children right in the house by him, and his wife would have children, too. Sometimes the cook’s children favored him so much that the wife would be mean to them and make him sell them. If they had nice long hair she would cut it off and wouldn’t let them wear it long like the white children.

They would buy a fine girl and then a fine man and just put them together like cattle; they would not stop to marry them. If she was a good breeder, they was proud of her. I was stout and they were saving me for a breeding woman but by the time I was big enough I was free. I had an aunt in Mississippi and she had about twenty children by her marster. On Sunday they would get us ready to go to church. They would dress us up after we ask them if we could go and they would have me walk off from them and they would look at me, and I’d hear them saying, “She’s got a fine shape; she’ll make a good breeder,” but I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Then there was old Sam Watkins, – he would ship their husbands (slaves) out of bed and get in with their wives. One man (a slave) said he stood it as long as he could and one morning he just stood out side, and when he (the master) got with his wife (the slave), he just choked him to death. He knew it was death, but it was death anyhow; so he just killed him. They hanged him. There has always been a law in Tennessee that if a Negro kill a white man it means death.

Now, mind you, all of the colored women didn’t have to have white men, some did it because they wanted to and some were forced. They had a horror of going to Mississippi and they would do anything to keep from it. A white woman would have a maid sometimes who was nice looking, and she would keep her and her son would have children by her. Of course the mixed blood, you couldn’t expect much from them.

My mother was born in Mississippi and brought here. My father was born in Maryland. He was an old man when he come here, but they just bought them and put them together. My mother was young – just fifteen or sixteen years old. She had fourteen children and you know that meant a lot of wealth.

When I was quite a girl I went to a colored person’s wedding. She was a black as that thing there (card table top) but she was her young marster’s woman and he let her marry because he could get her anyhow if he wanted her.

No, they didn’t tell you a thing. I was a great big girl twelve or thirteen years old, I reckon, and a girl two or three years older than that and we’d be going ’round to the parsley bed looking for babies; and looking in hollow logs. It’s a wonder a snake hadn’t bitten us. The woman that would wait on my mother [midwife] would come back and tell us here’s her baby; and that was all we knew. We thought she brought it because it was hers. I was twenty years old when my first baby came, and I didn’t know nothing then. I didn’t know how long I had to carry my baby. We never saw nothing when we were children.

There was an old man who belonged to Dr. Shelby, and he said if he ever got free he wasn’t ever going to get up any more, and after he got free he really stayed there ’til he starved to death and died. He was an old man, too. He was just so happy to know that he could lay in bed and nobody could make him get up, he just wouldn’t even get up to eat. You sure couldn’t do that (lie in bed) on old man Shelby’s place. He’d whip niggers to death and then sell them before they died. The white folks go down on him for it and he was always in a lawsuit with somebody about selling a slave he had beat so bad that he died soon after the other man got him.

Oh, they tried to scare us; said they had horns (Yankees) but when we saw them with their blue clothes, brass spurs on their feet and their guns just shining, they just looked pretty to us.

Ophelia Settle Egypt would go on to be instrumental in exposing the abuses of the Tuskegee study of syphilis, which exposed black sharecroppers to the disease without their consent, refusing to properly treat them, even though the cure was known and available. The rest of her life was devoted to the study and research of medicine and sociology. She became a research assistant, children’s author, and was the director of Washington D.C.’s first Planned Parenthood clinic until she died in 1981.

Rare 200-year-old slave cabin still stands. But will it be preserved?


ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. –  A weathered, nearly 200-year-old slave cabin in northern Pasquotank County endures as its tenants once did.

The cabin, obscured by thick underbrush, is the only one of its kind in Pasquotank County and one of a handful in North Carolina that remains in its original state, said Reid Thomas, a restoration specialist for the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. Many were altered for rental homes and storage sheds.

“This is a nicely constructed building,” Thomas said.


Exposed hand-hewn studs and roof beams were once painted with oyster shell whitewash to brighten the room. Long flat clapboards, gray and cracked, cover the exterior of about 30 feet by 20 feet. A second story loft is likely where the families slept after cooking all day in the fireplace that once stood in the center of building.

A partition divides the house into two rooms, one for each of two families, Thomas said. A fireplace with a 6-foot hearth dominated the center of the rooms.

William Gregory, the owner, said the cabin has not been altered since his great-grandfather William James Gregory bought the farm and buildings in 1920. A tin roof replaced the original cedar shingles more than a century ago. 

“I would love to see it moved and restored,” Gregory said.

The Northeast North Carolina Underground Railroad Foundation wants to preserve the cabin, said founder Wanda McLean. Gregory has offered to sell it, but so far there is no funding or a place to put it, she said. 

“Only a few people know about this house,” she said. “I think it is a great structure to interpret how slaves lived.”

The cabin probably served as a cook house since it is so close to the still-standing main house, said Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, based in South Carolina. The men and women woke before dawn and worked into the night.

“That was pretty much an all-day operation,” McGill said.

McGill’s nonprofit seeks to preserve slave dwellings of the South. He has slept in several slave cabins and studied the lifestyle, he said.

Evergan Carver built the main home in the 1820s, according to “On the Shores of the Pasquotank,” a book on the local historic architecture by the late Tom Butchko. The farm once had 19 slaves and six slave cabins, Butchko wrote. Field slaves stayed in cabins closer to their work, McGill said.

Families slept on homemade mattresses, stuffed with straw or animal hair, placed on the wood floor, McGill said. They had little time for recreation. A few worked under the task system – once they finished an assigned job, there would be personal time for such things as fishing, hunting and gardening to supplement their diets.

Owners treated the workers better after an 1808 law prohibiting new slave importation, McGill said.

“You wanted to get the longest service you could out of the ones you owned,” he said.

The cabins, too, were built to endure as long as possible.

By Jeff Hampton 
The Virginian-Pilot



If you grew up white, Southern and embedded in the successor class to the Antebellum gentry, you’ve likely heard it — more than once: “I was always told that they treated them like family.”“Them” meaning slaves.

It wasn’t a lie; that was in fact what they — the heirs of those who had trafficked in human beings — had always been told. In the 21st century this can’t qualify as conscious thought. It’s reflexive recitation of a family fairytale that few would keep alive if they gave it one minute’s critical thought.

How many planters’ sons and daughters were sold and resold on auction blocks? How many spent their lives toiling from sunup to sundown without pay? How many had their families torn apart and scattered for profit or as punishment? How many routinely had their living quarters ransacked by bands of strangers searching for weapons, or for contraband that could be discreetly pocketed? How many were strung up by handcuffs or stripped naked and, wrists bound to ankles, beaten with whips?

Modern, intelligent, college-educated people don’t even need the answers to such questions. But they do need to ask them, lest perspective be lost for yet another generation while everyone’s interests suffer.
Historians can be too smug about slavery because there’s such a wealth of documentation, including not only family correspondence and tax records, but literally hundreds of first-person accounts by former slaves and their children.

From Frederick Douglass we learn that some slave families were fed “mush” in troughs, without utensils, like swine. From dry public records and the recorded utterances of prominent people we learn not only grisly details of the Atlantic slave trade, but the twisted theology that the subjugation of blacks for profit was God’s own design and the very foundation upon which freedom rested.

From the WPA Slave Narratives (accessible online) we learn both the hideous particulars and the disturbing generalities: Some masters were considered “good” and others “bad.”
It isn’t only whites who fail that test. A few days ago, in a public forum, an African-American held his own against people who were unserious about the thinking process. He did well — until he launched a line of inquiry that included this: Were his adversaries’ ancestors’ slaves well-treated by their master?
Reality check: They were slaves, and slavery is a most aggressive form of abuse no matter what variations suit the master’s fancy, whether it be a happy Christmas Day candy-pull or a sadistic holiday rape. There were laws governing the abuse of slaves, but a far larger number of laws existed to preserve masters’ discretion to do as they pleased within their respective domains, and to protect them if they transgressed.

Those are the real common denominators, and historians who persist in seeking universality among the splendidly documented anecdotes place their conclusions in peril. The treatment of slaves varied from plantation to plantation at the wish of “America’s royalty,” but slavery was in its bare essence premeditated brutality, reinforced by tales spun not to deceive outsiders but to sedate the consciences of those who spun them.
Contrary to widespread belief, the whip or “cowhide” was not infrequently an instrument of execution rather than one of punishment. Beatings often were fatal, and were meant to be. But even when no one died, slavery was divided among masters who were by choice bad or less bad; there was no “good” to be found in the institution itself.

In the 1850s, The Fayetteville Observer carried an advertisement for the sale of the Kingsbury plantation. Among its features were “nine other frame buildings, with brick chimneys to each, and rooms sufficient to to accommodate from fifty to sixty negroes.” There was no literary wink or nudge, but a canny buyer could easily have read that as living space for seventy or more.

I grew up in, and live in, a big, white plantation house whose outbuldings once included two lines of slave cabins — one on either side of the creek just north of the house. I remember only one (and have photos of it, a log building maybe twelve by sixteen or eighteen feet). My father remembered three there, and the ruins of the row north of the creek, although he didn’t know their number. According to his research, his ancestor had at one time held fifty slaves.

There is no evidence, anywhwere, that they were treated “like family.” No evidence to contradict, or even slightly mitigate, the obvious: They were treated like farm animals.

No sane American hopes to restore slavery. But emancipation didn’t dispose of the many myths, lies and prejudices that those of the slaveholding class embraced, imposing them on their children as well as their chattels, in order to spare themselves pangs of guilt about the misery they daily inflicted on others of their species. Those need to be hauled into the light and examined — not to “live in the past” or to “play the race card,” but because they linger, unquestioned, in millions of minds. There, they continue to pollute our nation’s unending discussion of its collective effort to better itself.

Source: North Carolina History Center

Old myths frustrate modern hopes

White House Unveils America’s College Promise Proposal: Tuition-Free Community College for Responsible Students


Nearly a century ago, a movement that made high school widely available helped lead to rapid growth in the education and skills training of Americans, driving decades of economic growth and prosperity. America thrived in the 20th century in large part because we had the most educated workforce in the world.  But other nations have matched or exceeded the secret to our success. Today, more than ever, Americans need more knowledge and skills to meet the demands of a growing global economy without having to take on decades of debt before they even embark on their career. 

Today the President is unveiling the America’s College Promise proposal to make two years of community college free for responsible students, letting students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and earn skills needed in the workforce at no cost. This proposal will require everyone to do their part: community colleges must strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate, states must invest more in higher education and training, and students must take responsibility for their education, earn good grades, and stay on track to graduate. The program would be undertaken in partnership with states and is inspired by new programs in Tennessee and Chicago. If all states participate, an estimated 9 million students could benefit. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. 

In addition, today the President will propose a new American Technical Training Fund to expand innovative, high-quality technical training programs similar to Tennessee Tech Centers that meet employer needs and help prepare more Americans for better paying jobs. These proposals build on a number of historic investments the President has made in college affordability and quality since taking office, including a $1,000 increase in the maximum Pell Grant award to help working and middle class families, the creation of the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit, reforming student loans to eliminate subsidies to banks to invest in making college more affordable and keeping student debt manageable, and making available over $2 billion in grants to connect community colleges with employers to develop programs that are designed to get hard-working students good jobs.

The President’s Plan: Make Two Years of College as Free and Universal as High School

By 2020, an estimated 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree. Forty percent of college students are enrolled at one of America’s more than 1,100 community colleges, which offer students affordable tuition, open admission policies, and convenient locations.  They are particularly important for students who are older, working, need remedial classes, or can only take classes part-time. For many students, they offer academic programs and an affordable route to a four-year college degree. They are also uniquely positioned to partner with employers to create tailored training programs to meet economic needs within their communities such as nursing, health information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

The America’s College Promise proposal would create a new partnership with states to help them waive tuition in high-quality programs for responsible students, while promoting key reforms to help more students complete at least two years of college. Restructuring the community college experience, coupled with free tuition, can lead to gains in student enrollment, persistence, and completion transfer, and employment. Specifically, here is what the initiative will mean:

Enhancing Student Responsibility and Cutting the Cost of College for All Americans: Students who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program will have their tuition eliminated. These students will be able to earn half of the academic credit they need for a four-year degree or earn a certificate or two-year degree to prepare them for a good job.

Building High-Quality Community Colleges: Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that either (1) are academic programs that fully transfer to local public four-year colleges and universities, giving students a chance to earn half of the credit they need for a four-year degree, or (2) are occupational training programs with high graduation rates and that lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among employers.  Other types of programs will not be eligible for free tuition.  Colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes, such as the effective Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) programs at the City University of New York which waive tuition, help students pay for books and transit costs, and provide academic advising and supportive scheduling programs to better meet the needs of participating students, resulting in greater gains in college persistence and degree completion.

Ensuring Shared Responsibility with States: Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. States that choose to participate will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate community college tuition for eligible students. States that already invest more and charge students less can make smaller contributions, though all participating states will be required to put up some matching funds. States must also commit to continue existing investments in higher education; coordinate high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions to reduce the need for remediation and repeated courses; and allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone. States will have flexibility to use some resources to expand quality community college offerings, improve affordability at four-year public universities, and improve college readiness, through outreach and early intervention.

Expanding Technical Training for Middle Class Jobs. Additionally, in order to spread the availability of high-quality and innovative programs like those in Tennessee and Texas, which achieve better than average completion and employment outcomes, the President is also proposing the American Technical Training Fund. This fund will award programs that have strong employer partnerships and include work-based learning opportunities, provide accelerated training, and are scheduled to accommodate part-time work. Programs could be created within current community colleges or other training institutions. The focus of the discretionary budget proposal would be to help high-potential, low-wage workers gain the skills to work into growing fields with significant numbers of middle-class jobs that local employers are trying to fill such as energy, IT, and advanced manufacturing. This program will fund the start-up of 100 centers and scale those efforts in succeeding years. Smaller grants would help to bring together partners and start a pilot program. Larger grants would be used for expanding programs based on evidence of effectiveness, which could include past performance on graduation rates, job placement rates and placement wages. Building on the President’s community college initiative, known as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants and for which 2014 was the final year of funding, these funds will help community colleges become more job-driven.

Building on State and Local Programs.  In the past year, Tennessee and the City of Chicago initiated free community college programs.  In the first year of the Tennessee program, 57,000 students representing almost 90 percent of the state’s high school graduating class applied for the program. The scholarship is coupled with college counseling, mentorship, and community service that early evidence suggests supports greater enrollment, persistence and college completion.  This is coupled with efforts to spur innovation and improvement by funding colleges using performance outcomes based on student success and an innovative approach to career and technical education through the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology.  These Tennessee Tech Centers have a graduation rate of 80 percent and a job placement rate of 85 percent.

Building on a Record of Progress. Since taking office, President Obama has taken steps to expand federal support to help more students afford college, while calling for a shared responsibility in tackling rising college costs. Key achievements include:

Doubling the Investment in Pell Grants: The President has raised the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,730 for the 2014-15 award year — a nearly $1,000 increase since 2008. The number of Pell Grant recipients has expanded by 50 percent over that same time.Expanding Education Tax Credits:President Obama established the American Opportunity Tax Credit in 2009 to assist families with the costs of college, providing up to $10,000 for four years of college tuition.Pay-As-You-Earn Loans: All new borrowers can now cap loan payments at 10 percent of their incomes. The Department of Education has begun the process to amend its regulations and will make the new plan available on all direct loans by December 2015. We expect it to benefit up to 5 million borrowers.First in the World Grants: In September, the Department of Education awarded $75 million to 24 colleges and universities under the new First in the World grant program to expand college access and improve student learning while reducing costs.College Ratings Program: The Department of Education continues to develop a college ratings system by the 2015-2015 school year that will recognize institutions that excel at enrolling students from all backgrounds; focus on maintaining affordability; and succeed at helping all students graduate with a degree or certificate of value.Job-Driven Training Grants:Through the Trade Adjustment Community College and Career Training program more than 1,000 institutions have received $2 billion in federal funding to design education and training programs, working closely with employers and industry that prepare workers for jobs in-demand in their regional economies, such as health care, information technology and energy. These programs have shown early success — through the end of FY2013, among the nearly 164,000 individuals who had enrolled in these programs 88 percent either completed a program or continued the program into a second year.White House Summit on Community Colleges: In October 2010, the President convened community college leaders, faculty and students; business leaders; philanthropic organizations; and other workforce development experts for the first White House summit dedicated to the role that community colleges play in our efforts to increase the number of college graduates and prepare those graduates to lead the 21st century workforce. Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness: Last August, the Department of Education launched a new $10 million Institute for Education Sciences-funded Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) that is working to strengthen the research, evaluation, and support of college readiness efforts across the nation. CAPR is documenting current practices in developmental English and math education to identify innovative instructional practices that improve student success.Call to Action on College Opportunity: Last December, the President, Vice President, and First Lady joined college presidents and leaders of non-profits, foundations, and other organizations to announce over 600 new commitments to produce more college graduates. Community colleges made commitments individually, and in partnership with neighboring school districts and four -year institutions, to build seamless transitions among institutions, develop clear educational and career pathways, implement strategies to increase student completion of STEM programs, and establish more accurate measures of student progress and success.