Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”
Here follows a list of ten historical people, events, and details I learned late in life because I’m white and ignorant. As you go down the list, you go up in the level of my embarrassment for having learned these things so late.
Ten: Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells was a true suffragette, a person who wanted “The Vote” for all people, not just white men, but not just white people, either. She fought for the vote for black men, black women, and indeed all people of all races, because she believed that empowerment and enfranchisement of all people would lead to improvement for all people. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the people I had heard significantly more about, did not believe in that. As important as they were to the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s, they actively did not want black people to get the vote. They firmly believed that black men should not get the vote before white women, because they were inferior.
Nine: The first day of the Little Rock Nine
I’ve known since high school about the nine students in Little Rock, Arkansas who were tasked with integrating the public high school. I knew that President Eisenhower had to call in the National Guard to escort the students into the building amongst mobs of angry white adults. What I didn’t know until shamefully recently was that, before that, Arkansas Governor, Orval Faubus, mobilized the National Guard, armed with guns and standing in blockage formation, to keep the students out.
Eight: The Tuskegee Syphillis Experiment
There’s a longer name for this one which calls the thing a “clinical study,” but that’s straight up bullshit. There’s a complicated timeline with intricate details, but none of that is as important as the cut-and-dry facts that lay the truth out plainly: between 1932 and 1972, the United States Government took African American men with syphilis and studied them, untreated, without telling them why or how, because they wanted to know what untreated syphilis looked like, and they thought it would be unethical to not treat the study participants if they were white. Men with syphilis—a disease which, untreated, can cause blindness, heart disease, collapse of the central nervous system, and death; a disease which is easily transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex—were not told they had syphilis, were not treated for syphilis, and were not compensated for their service to the advancement of science and medicine. They were told they would receive free healthcare as subjects of the experiment: they received free sugar pills and bandaids.
Seven: Shirley Chrisholm
She was an educator, an author, and, in 1968, became the first black woman elected to the United States congress, as a Democratic congressperson from New York. In 1972, Chisholm became the first black candidate for President of the United States to run for a major party. She was also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. She frequently stated that, in politics, she met with more discrimination for being a woman than for being black. “The black man must step forward, but that does not mean the black woman must step back,” she was quoted as saying in April 1972.
Six: Thomas Jefferson’s Disgusting Racism
So, I’ve known since I was a kid that most of the founding fathers owned people. It has never sat well with me, and I will always be more comfortable with Lin Manuel Miranda’s depiction of George Washington than I am with the real man. I didn’t learn until college, though, just how disgustingly racist Thomas Jefferson specifically was. Like, they were all gross men who thought Africans were subhuman and used their loose relationship with the Christian God to justify their beliefs. But Thomas Jefferson, well, I’ll let him say it for himself. “Comparing [black people to white people] by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that…in reason [black people are] much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” This is a quote from his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, written in 1781 and 82. You can find the full text of this book online, and when you look it up, I highly recommend pages 148-150. After you read those, you’ll likely lose any love you ever had for this beast of a man, and with it will go any unconditional respect you have for the establishment of America as a country.
Five: Sally Hemmings
As disgusting and racist as Jefferson was, as much as he asserted that white men were in greater possession of dignity and self-control than were black men or women, he had a “relationship” with one of the women he enslaved, and when she bore his children, he considered them his slaves as well. There are differing accounts as to whether the definitely sexual relationship was at all emotional or reciprocated, but I think that is about as useful an argument to have as whether there were any slaves who were “treated well” by their masters. If slaves were treated so well, why did they have to be owned? Why couldn’t they live on their own and be trusted to come to work every day, like the rest of us? And if Sally Hemmings loved Thomas Jefferson, why couldn’t he give her her freedom and trust her to still live with him? There’s a line there that’s not being crossed: the line where the slave owner considers the other person a human being.
Four: Madam C.J. Walker
Wife, mother, entrepreneur, philanthropist, activist and woman on her grind one hundred per cent of the time, Madam C.J. Walker was the first recorded female self-made millionaire. I mean, I could say more, but do I need to? The woman ran her own manufacturing company, creating and selling cosmetics and hair care products directed towards black women in the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century. She couldn’t vote with “The Vote,” so she used her power, her money, and her experience to teach other black men and women how to make it to where she had, hoping for and working towards a world where it wouldn’t be so hard for them as it was for her.
Three: Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer in Virginia in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1951, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Over the course of her treatment at Johns Hopkins, two samples were taken from her cervix without her knowledge or permission. These samples contained cells that lived well beyond their expected timeline, and in fact, have outlived Henrietta herself, who died of her cancer in 1951. Her cells, called the HeLa Immortal Cell Line are still alive and are still used in medical research. It is estimated that over 60,000 scientific articles have been published that contain research done with HeLa cells, and that number is constantly increasing. Henrietta herself was buried in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery, and her descendants didn’t know about the research done on her cells until the 1970s. Neither she, nor her family, have ever been compensated for her unwitting contribution to science. Not even with “free healthcare.”
Two: Black Wall Street Massacre
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Memorial Day weekend of 1921, a young black man, Dick Rowland, was arrested for allegedly assaulting a young white woman. Word got around that Rowland had been lynched and that there were angry mobs of armed white people outside the courthouse. In response to these rumors, some of which were very true while others were less verifiable, many local black residents came to the courthouse, and some of them came with guns or other weapons. The groups of white people (angry at the idea of a young black man assaulting a young white woman) who were already present mixed with the groups of black people (angry at the alleged extrajudicial killing of one of their sons and brothers), and violence broke out. People were killed: more white people than black people, in large part because there were more white people than black people to kill, even though the neighborhood where the violence took place was a predominantly black neighborhood. As word of the violence spread, white rioters took to the streets, killing black people, burning black homes, and looting black businesses. Some of the white mob hopped in their privately owned airplanes and dropped incendiary devices on the neighborhood. Eventually, the Oklahoma National Guard came in and declared martial law, but not before thirty-six people were killed, thousands of black families were rendered homeless, and millions of modern dollars was lost in property damage.
And finally, number one: Juneteenth
I am not the person who should be telling you about Juneteenth. Not because I’m white, but because I still know so little about it. But this is my seventh Juneteenth writing for the post calvin, and I have yet to acknowledge that, and this time my ignorance feels especially icky, so here I am. I’ll give you the briefest primer, and you, like me, can pick up the shreds of what you thought was your anti-racism and do the important work of learning the rest for yourself.
On June 19, 1865, fully two and a half years after the emancipation proclamation and over a month after the defeat of the Confederate States of America, a Union Army general made his way to Galveston, Texas and read aloud from General Order Number 3, which stated “The people of Texas are informed that…all slaves are free. …The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
On this day 155 years ago, all slaves in America were really actually free. And until I moved to Texas in 2018, I didn’t know it had taken that long. Because I’m white and ignorant.
So I’m working on it.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.