Hello, history mate. Let me greet the new year with a new monthly installment:
“An Idle and Slouthful People.”
A chapter of my book Embattled Freedom
tells the story of William Fogg, a freeborn black settler in Northeastern Pennsylvania who brought suit in 1835 when he was denied the right to vote because of his race. The case made it up to the state supreme court–where the chief justice slammed the door on voting for all
people of color. He held that even free blacks don’t deserve equal rights. Why? Because they are “an idle and slouthful people.” The ruling cited a 1725 law passed by the Quaker-led Pennsylvania colonial legislature that said “free negroes are an idle
, slothful people and often prove burdensome to the neighborhood.” That ugly turn of phrase stayed with me. I was struck to see it again recently in historian Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
Kendi says a 1712 slave revolt in New York led to not only a brutal new slave code but also the stripping of rights for free blacks. Why, again? Because the New York legislators considered free blacks “an idle, slothful people” who burdened the white public. Similarly, a 1713 New Jersey law said any master who freed a slave must subsidize the freedman to keep him off the public dole. And why? Because “it is found by experience that free negroes are an idle, slothful people.” You’ll find no sympathy among whites, nor interest in how their institutions were stacked against wayward freedmen. From the beginning our puritanical founders had denounced individual slothfulness as the crudest of sins. But to regard an entire class of people as a priori
slothful is the crudest form of racism. Speaking of Ibram Kendi, check out his essay, “The Heartbeat of Racism Is Denial,”
that appeared in the Jan. 14 New York Times; it bears a most timely message.
“Safe on This Gentle Breast.” Not long ago I visited the Clarks Summit library to look for any stray tidbits on the history shelves. In the minute books of the regional Abington Baptist Association, I happened upon a cache of remarkable obituaries from 1878. The Abington church recorded the loss of Sybil Dean, an original settler, at age 91: “As a shock of corn cometh in his season, so she ascended into the saints’ rest.” And Cordelia Armstrong: “Through wasting consumption, she gradually approached life’s verge, but she feared no evil. Jesus was the precious name that sweetened the bitterness of separation. ‘Safe on this gentle breast’ she passed out of sight.” Nearby Factoryville lost Ruth Sisson, 78, the widow (“relict”) of Rodman Sisson, one of the white heroes of Embattled Freedom: “She enjoyed the comforting assurance of a blessed immortality all through her life; was trusting and waiting, ready to depart and be with her Lord. Without a struggle she fell asleep in Jesus.” Those sentiments reminded me of the powerful newspaper obituary that Rev. William Johnson, a pastor of Waverly’s old black church, wrote for his 16-year-old son in 1865. Young Asbury Johnson had joined the U.S. Colored Troops, was shot in battle, and went home to die. “His sufferings were great. When a strong man Death was about to take him, he bade us all good-by, laid his head in his mother’s arms, and stepped into the chariot which bore him to the skies. He sleeps in Jesus, beloved and mourned by many friends.” Ah, may our passings inspire such touching words.
I’m excited to report that the umbrella organization for 13 school districts in Luzerne and Wyoming Counties is bringing me in to address high school curriculum directors on Jan. 30. They’ll learn about the classroom applications of Embattled Freedom
and the companion website embattledfreedom.org
. This follows a similar presentation I made to school districts in Lackawanna, Wayne and Susquehanna Counties.
Meanwhile, I’ll be on the road giving six public talks in the next month:
– Feb. 6, Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pennsylvania (6:30 p.m. at Holiday Inn Conference Center, Breinigsville, Pa.)
– Feb. 7, Wallenpaupack Historical Society (1 p.m. at Environmental Learning Center, Hawley, Pa.)
– Feb. 8, Old Baldy Civil War Round Table (7:15 p.m. at Camden County College, Connector Building, Blackwood, N.J.)
– Feb. 14, Temple University Black History Symposium (3 p.m. at Walk Auditorium, 13th and Montgomery, Philadelphia)
– Feb. 15, Luzerne County Historical Society (6 p.m. in the society museum, 49 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre)
– Feb. 16, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (6 p.m. at the church, 232 Wyoming Ave., Scranton)
Lastly, if you live in Northeastern Pennsylvania, keep an eye out for the Black History Month segment that WBRE-TV will be airing. In it, I and two descendants of one of Waverly’s black Civil War soldiers, Richard Lee, tour historical sites in Waverly and reflect on the soldiers’ deeds and legacy.