Up By The Bootstraps From Slavery

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Some years ago I had the opportunity to look through a collection of photographs of New York in the 1920s with the amiable old man who had made them then for a news agency. There were hundreds of pictures of every section of the city, and I was struck with the total absence of black faces in any of the busy street scenes. “Why was that?” I asked.

The old photographer looked at me as if I had lost my mind. He’d worked hard to arrange things that way, he explained; his boss docked his pay five dollars for every image in which blacks appeared; their presence made the pictures unpublishable: “Nobody wanted them.”

Two recently published books and a remarkable new series of documentary films about to begin on the Public Broadcasting System this January show how persistent that sort of thinking has been, how distorted has been the kind of history it promoted. They demonstrate once more that in the two periods during which black Americans made the most progress toward full participation in American life—the Civil War and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s—it was blacks themselves who first moved history forward, while white politicians followed in their wake, urging “patience” and taking credit for their gains.

I’m now at work on a documentary series about the Civil War with the film maker Ken Burns, seeking authentic contemporary voices with which to help tell that greatest of all American stories. Reading through traditional histories, I have been struck again at how little attention even the most distinguished scholars once thought they needed to pay to the individual men and women whose status was, after all, at the nub of that conflict.

In most books about the war written before 1970, slaves were allowed to ghost anonymously into the Union lines, there to become what it amused Gen. Benjamin E Butler to call “contraband of war”; to serve selflessly (and silently) in the Union army; and to speak, when allowed to speak at all, in the unpersuasive minstrel patois in which even sympathetic nineteenth-century whites invariably rendered their words.

The Destruction of Slavery and The Black Military Experience , the first two volumes in a projected series called Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, should help correct the record. The editors, under the direction of Ira Berlin, have sifted through tens of thousands of official documents in the National Archives to present a careful, kaleidoscopic portrait of the final days of the Peculiar Institution. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from them is that slavery was doomed the second Fort Sumter was fired upon—not so much because Abraham Lincoln hated it as because the slaves did. Whites, North and South, may have puzzled over just what the war was about and whether slaves were to be treated as property or persons. The slaves had no doubts: “Let the white fight for what [they] want,” wrote an anonymous New Orleans black in 1861, “and we negroes fight for what we want. … Liberty must take the day, nothing shorter. We care nothing about the Union we heave been in it Slaves over two hundred fifty years.”

From the first, slaves did their best to tear slavery apart from the inside, running away, refusing to work, demanding —and sometimes getting—payment for work once done under the lash. Everywhere the Union army set foot, slavery dissolved, and it was largely the slaves’ own willingness to risk retribution from their masters and flood into the Union camps that moved Congress to require officers to stop returning them to their owners; to bar slavery in the District of Columbia; to declare “forever free” the fugitive slaves of “persons … in rebellion,” and more—all before Lincoln felt he could issue his cautious Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the autumn of 1862.

The complex but moving story these volumes tell must sometimes be read between the lines; although each document is ably annotated and every chapter begins with a clear and graceful introduction, this remains raw material, much of it couched in bureaucratic language that was only slightly less bloodless then than it is now. Still, the determination of individual men and women burns through many of these pages. Here, a fugitive from Maryland assures his wife that he is safe: “My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take this time to let you know Whare I am i am now in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day i can address you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away but as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare fredom will Rain in spite Of earth and hell. …”

Earth and hell triumphed, of course, with the betrayal of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow. It would take nearly a century before many of the simplest gains granted on paper after the war could be made flesh. And as “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965,” the compelling, new six-part television account of those years vividly demonstrates, it was ordinary black men and women—extraordinary only in their bravery and grit—who again made it politically impossible for government further to delay the rectification of old wrongs. “We thought we could shame America” into doing the right thing, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a leader of the Birmingham movement, recalls during the first hour of the series, “but … ball teams don’t strike themselves out. You gotta put ’em out.”