Fading To White

One woman’s journey into her family’s past uncovers a story that affects every American

April 1997

I peered down a narrow alley separating big houses that overlook Pleasant Bay in South Orleans, Cape Cod, part of a row of brand-new summer homes so close-built that they prevented me from seeing the dunes and the water beyond. Then I turned around and gazed at the meager little apron of a field this subdivision of grand houses shared. I spotted a gnarled apple tree and wondered if my grandmother had climbed it as a child… Read more »

Why These Three Men Are Part Of Your Soul

“Of late the American character has received marked and not altogether flattering attention from American critics.” The comment, from the opening page of Constance Rourke’s great, unjustly ignored book American Humor , bears one of her trademarks, a gently ironic understatement. “Not altogether flattering”—a muted characterization, indeed, of the jeremiads hurled against their homeland by the members of Rourke’s generation, the American writers who came of age just before World War I. Read more »

Crossing The Line

On April 15 Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in their opening-day game against the Boston Braves. In so doing, he became the first African-American to play in the major leagues since an abortive attempt at integration in 1884. Robinson’s courageous breaking of the color line would eventually have great repercussions inside baseball and out. Yet on the day of his momentous debut, fans and journalists alike were oddly blasé. Read more »

Passing

QUESTIONING THE MYSTERIES OF HER OWN FAMILY, THE AUTHOR FINDS ANSWERS THAT AFFECT US ALL

In 1916, when Margaret Morris was a little girl living in Washington, D.C., she lost her family and they lost her. First her mother died at the age of forty-one. Then her father, uncles, aunts, sister, brothers, cousins, and even grandmother vanished. This family cleaving left in its turbulent wake a frightened four-year-old who would become my mother. Read more »

Selling Poor Steven

The struggles and torments of a forgotten class in antebellum America: black slaveowners

In the 1640s John Casor was brought from Africa to America, where he toiled as a servant for a Virginia landowner. In 1654 Casor filed a complaint in Northampton County Court, claiming that his master, Anthony Johnson, had unjustly extended the terms of his indenture with the intention of keeping Casor his slave for life. Johnson, insisting he knew nothing of any indenture, fought hard to retain what he regarded as his personal property.Read more »

The Word Is ‘Slaves’: A Trip Into Black History

Deep South states are taking the lead in promoting landmarks of a three-hundred-year heritage of oppression and triumph—and they’re drawing visitors from around the world

Kate is waiting for us by the kitchen garden. Her owner, Benjamin Powell, has warned us that she “often has a case of the grumps,” so we approach her cautiously. I am with a class of fourth graders from Nashville, Tennessee, and together we are taking a trip back to 1770, the year at which time has stopped in Colonial Williamsburg. Despite the difference in our ages, the children and I have things in common: we are white, and we have never met a slave before. Read more »

The First Kansas Colored

They were the first black men to fight in the Civil War. They were the first to serve alongside whites. And they were the first to die.

I had long been of the opinion that this race had a right to kill rebels.” Col. James M. Williams, commander of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, always spoke, said a contemporary, as though he were “grinding his molars or gritting his teeth.” His regiment of escaped black slaves had been the first organized into service for the United States government, and he was determined that it give a good account of itself. They had already been the first blacks in combat in the Civil War and the first to die serving the flag.Read more »

The Conversion Of Harry Truman

“I think one man is just as good as another,” he said, “as long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman.” Yet Truman broke with his convictions to make civil rights a concern of the national government for the first time since Reconstruction—and in so doing he changed the nation forever.
 

Harry Truman approached national politics with divided memories and diRead more »

Black And White And Red

In 1932 the Communist International paid to send a cast of American blacks to Moscow to make a movie about American racial injustice. The scheme backfired.

In 1932, while Scarface, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Shanghai Express filled the screens of movie theaters across America, another film, for which entertainment was only a secondary goal, was germinating far away from Hollywood. “The American Negro has never been portrayed on screen or stage in his true character,” wrote the black activist W. A. Domingo, “and this film … will be the first departure from the traditional pattern.Read more »