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From Freedom to Equality with NEH

A sampler of NEH-supported projects on African-American Civil Rights history

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, Special Edition 2013 | Volume 34, Number 1.5

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Rather memorably, the first truth he listed was “that all men are created equal.”

Many have said that it took the Civil War for Americans to make good on this truth, but not even the bloody destruction of an estimated 750,000 Americans could make a reality of what had once seemed, to a contemplative mind, self-evident. And the following decades showed that the suppression of freedom on racial grounds could take many forms besides slavery. So, for black Americans, the struggle for freedom and equality in law and in fact continued.

Today, more historians are looking at the full sweep of this history, stretching from the Founding era to the late twentieth century, and seeing many connections between abolition and desegregation, between Reconstruction and the Great Migration, between the Civil War and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Taken together, they form a pattern not of occasional outbursts but a dialectic of related events, a tapestry of progress and regress, not a series of reform movements but one long movement culminating in “the movement.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities and the state humanities councils have funded many projects documenting, cataloging, discussing, digitizing, and teaching aspects of this important history.

After the losses of the Civil War, it is a particularly brutal lesson to absorb that emancipation did not set black Americans free. They were free from slavery, but they were not free of a thousand other impingements, legal and de facto, hobbling their course in life and their “pursuit of happiness.” The trials of Reconstruction were followed by the trials of Jim Crow. Lynchings and race riots were as much a part of African-American history as separate train compartments. And a century after emancipation, African Americans would still be fighting for the right to attend publicly funded universities, to marry whom they wanted, to travel on the same buses as white people, and to eat at the same lunch counters.

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton was, surprisingly enough, the first full-scale biography of this hero of the Underground Railroad. Published in 2004, it reminds us that well-known subjects still benefit from scholarly attention. Slavery and the fate of the emancipated have also been explored in the burgeoning study of the history of literacy and print culture, which intertwine in Barbara Hochman’s recent “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851–1911. And speaking of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Pulitzer Prize-winning Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick, published in 1995, was supported by a research grant from NEH in 1987.

Tubman and Stowe were, of course, abolitionists, as were the people described in Subversives: AntiSlavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828–1865 by Stanley Harrold, which captured the critical effort to abolish slavery in the nation’s capital. The widely praised The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South by Laura F. Edwards examined early nineteenth-century lawmaking inside the Carolinas to show that as a national crisis over slavery grew near, legislative power in the two states became centralized at the expense of local authorities.

Supported by two research fellowships in 1985 and 1992, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol is Nell Irvin Painter’s 1997 examination of the woman who allegedly, but didn’t really, utter the words “Ain’t I a Woman?” In 1851 at the Akron, Ohio, women’s conference, Truth asked, rather eloquently, “Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over mud-puddles . . . and ar’n’t I woman?”

Among the many books on slavery that have been supported with NEH grants, two recent titles by fellows have garnered especially wide attention. The Invisible Line by Daniel Sharfstein documented how the color line of race has sometimes run directly through American families, dividing slaves in one generation from slave-catchers in another. Marcus Redicker ’s book The Slave Ship dramatically recalled the process by which Africans were kidnapped and carried across the ocean to be put up for sale in North and South America.

With the support of an NEH research fellowship, Eric Foner wrote his classic study, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, which is the standard history of post-Civil War governance and society in the wake of emancipation. And John Hope Franklin received a grant to support research that led to Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, which he cowrote with Loren Schweninger, director of the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, which also received NEH support.

Another extraordinary individual relating to nineteenth-century African-American history was Albion Tourgée, the lawyer, “disturber,” and best-selling author who represented Homer Plessy before the Supreme Court in the case that led to the notorious “separate but equal” doctrine. Tourgée’s story was recently told in Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality by NEH research fellow Mark Elliott.

Numerous papers projects supported by NEH enable scholars to explore the history of the struggle for emancipation and equality before the law. Along with the Frederick Douglass papers, NEH has supported work on the Booker T. Washington papers, the papers of Martin Luther King Jr., and papers projects focusing on black abolitionists and the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The early twentieth century was a terrible period for race relations in America as African Americans migrated from the South and received a particularly harsh welcome in northern cities that became the setting for numerous large-scale race riots. The NEH-supported and National Book Award-winning Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age tells the incredible story of Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys, who were greeted by an angry mob when they moved to a white neighborhood in Detroit. As they and their friends defended their right to live where they chose, a neighbor was shot and killed. Dr. Sweet ended up on trial with Clarence Darrow as his defender.

As World War II transformed race relations, old ways continued to reassert themselves. The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-War World War II South by Gail Williams O’Brien tells the lesser-known history of a series of bloody confrontations between police and African Americans in Columbia, Tennessee, that followed an averted lynching as returning black veterans confronted the old-fashioned ruthlessness of local racial norms.

In Pursuit of Power, a history of the implementation of the Voting Rights Act, was written by Steven F. Lawson with the support of an NEH research grant. More recently, Going Down Jericho Road by Michael K. Honey told the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis, a book the Washington Post praised for its painstaking research.

A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi by Emilye Crosby examined the post-sixties civil rights movement in this rural, majority-black community that used economic boycotts and armed self-defense to undermine the legacy of white supremacy.

In 2013, Barnard College Professor Jonathan Rieder, published with NEH support Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation.     

Books are read, and they are also taught, sometimes to teachers, as in NEH seminars and institutes for schoolteachers and college faculty, which afford educators the rare opportunity to study with some of America’s most distinguished scholars.

A program at Harvard University under the leadership of Henry Louis Gates Jr. has, in ten recent summers, welcomed college teachers to explore the “African-American Struggle for Freedom and Civil Rights.” Under the guidance of well-known faculty, such as NEH fellow Eric Foner, who has taught the program’s segment on Reconstruction, participants receive help developing syllabi for courses at their home institutions.

The Library Company of Philadelphia has on five occasions offered an NEH-funded seminar on the abolitionist movement, working with schoolteachers to emphasize primary documents in their own research as well as in the classroom. The abolitionist movement was born in Philadelphia and this seminar emphasizes the historical course from the Revolutionary era through increasing radicalization and finally into the Civil War.

At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute approximately five hundred schoolteachers have attended weeklong workshops on the “Rise of the Magic City and the Evolution of the Civil Rights Movement.” This course begins with post-Civil War labor relations and makes its way to the racial divisions of 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. helped organize a historic nonviolent protest.

Two exceptional examples of black entrepreneurialism in antebellum America are the focus of a workshop run by the Apprend Foundation in Durham, North Carolina. More than 250 schoolteachers have thus learned about the lives and careers of Thomas Day and Elizabeth Keckly, a prominent furniture maker and dressmaker, respectively, to examine the role of business in the advancement of African Americans.

Almost 250 schoolteachers have considered the unique culture of the Mississippi Delta and its civil rights history at Delta State University. This study of what has been called “the most Southern place on earth” ranges from the great flood of 1927 to the development of the blues, the shocking murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, and the great migration of African Americans

Albany State University in Georgia is hosting twenty-five underachieving students to work through a humanities curriculum focusing on African-American history from the time of Frederick Douglass to the 1960s and later. Students focus on the Albany Movement against Jim Crow laws and study with one of its veterans, in addition to visiting other sites of the civil rights movement, including Atlanta, and Montgomery and Selma in Alabama.

More than 150 schoolteachers have studied the Missouri-Kansas border wars at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, exploring the “contested visions” of Jayhawkers versus Bushwhackers from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 through the Kansas–Nebraska Act and the Civil War. This workshop uses historic sites to see the conflict over slavery in the context of economic development and local settlements.

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, which he wrote at Atlanta University’s Stone Hall, a site visited in 2012 by approximately eighty schoolteachers studying Atlanta landmarks and civil rights history. Participants also visited Piedmont Park, where in 1895, Booker T. Washington announced what came to be called the Atlanta Compromise, accepting separate social spheres for blacks and whites and placing economic self-help before political empowerment for black Americans.

Abolitionism thrived amid a broad milieu of reformist moral and intellectual trends, several of which can be seen in the history of Rochester, New York, where eighty schoolteachers recently explored the local scene in “Abolitionism, Women’s Rights, and Religious Revivalism on the Rochester Reform Trail.” Abolitionism is again seen in a local context in “Sailing to Freedom: New Bedford and the Underground Railroad,” in which eighty schoolteachers will consider how this cosmopolitan whaling port with a strong Quaker community also became home to fugitives from slavery.

Place is also the organizing concept of two recent digital projects relating to African-American civil rights. At Long Island University, Pathways to Freedom is planning a web and mobile-based resource of oral histories, archival materials, and other content relating to African-American civil rights history specific to Brooklyn. The Civil Rights Movement Remix is a partnership between Bank Street College and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to develop a digital game/smartphone application about African-American civil rights in connection with specific sites in Harlem. In 2013, NEH supported a workshop to help develop a game based on The Negro Motorist Green Book, the manual used by black motorists traveling in the Jim Crow South.   

Digitization of archival materials serves two basic purposes: to preserve and make accessible vital records of history. For Chronicling America, NEH has partnered with the Library of Congress to digitize over five million pages of American newspapers published between 1836 and 1922, including thirty-six African-American newspapers, reminding us of such important figures as John Mitchell, the antilynching crusader who edited and published the Richmond Planet. Mitchell would regularly publish reports on lynchings and include photos and drawings of the victims. In his editorials, he argued forcefully for black self-defense: “The best remedy for a lyncher or a cursed midnight rider is a 16-shot Winchester rifle in the hands of a dead-shot Negro who has nerve enough to pull the trigger.” 

Manuscripts belonging to W.E.B. DuBois and 21,000 pages of petitions against slavery and segregation are being preserved and digitized with the help of NEH funding, as are the archives of the civil rights leaders Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey. Audio recordings of Thurman’s lectures, sermons, and speeches will be made freely available online. The historic videotape collection of American Black Journal, the Detroit-based public television program that debuted in 1968 as Colored People’s Time, is being digitized and made available online, as are the photographs of Charles “Teenie” Harris. From 1936 to 1975, Harris, a news photographer, affectionately documented African-American culture and society in Pittsburgh.

NEH has also been helping assess and protect wide-ranging collections of manuscripts, books, periodicals, and government documents at historically black institutions such as Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina,  Atlanta University, and Southern University at Shreveport.

The Carnegie Museum of Art was recently awarded a challenge grant to endow a humanities position overseeing its archive of Harris’s photos. NEH challenge grants require recipients to raise matching funds as they help support institutions to plan for long-term growth. Many institutions, including several that are relatively new, whose mission concerns civil rights history and tradition, have applied and received one of these generous grants.

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is located in the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. With the help of a challenge grant, the museum is seeking to build an endowment to fortify its collections, broaden its educational offerings, and expand its committee of scholarly advisors. In 2008, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati received two challenge grants to build its endowment and develop new programs to complement its long-term exhibits and educational offerings, which include a distance-learning initiative.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture received a major challenge grant to help build a multiyear curriculum and teacher-training program. Endowed through the fortune of lawyer-entrepreneur Reginald F. Lewis, this museum was founded in 2002 and sits proudly in the neighborhood of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, boasting a large array of educational offerings.

The National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture at Alabama State University received in 2000, shortly after its founding, a challenge grant to help build its endowment and advance its mission of preserving and clarifying the role of Montgomery in the modern civil rights movement.

The year before it broke ground on its new African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in 1999, the Broward County Library in Florida received a challenge grant for the center ’s endowment, acquisitions, and construction. The dream of Samuel F. Morrison, the new research center was inspired by the examples of the Schomburg Center in New York City and the Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta.

The Amistad Research Center in New Orleans is not one of the new wave of African-American cultural institutions built in recent years. It is, rather, the nation’s oldest archive specializing in African-American history. With ties to the American Missionary Association, which assisted the slaves who had taken over La Amistad as they defended themselves in court, the Amistad Research Center started during World War II as a race relations department at Fisk University. With its recent challenge grant, the center endowed a collections position and supported scholarly research.

In addition to the four films highlighted in this booklet, a large number of radio programs, documentary films, television series, and exhibitions have been supported with grants from the Division of Public Programs at NEH. Taking the broad view of black American history, Africans in America, produced by WGBH in Boston, began with slaves arriving in Jamestown in the 1600s through the Emancipation Proclamation two centuries later; a follow-up radio series of the same name considered current events against this sweeping historical backdrop. Yet another public television series, the eight-part Many Rivers to Cross: A History of the African American People, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and produced by WNET in New York, will broadcast in 2013 and chronicle the same history beginning in the 1500s and carry the story to the present day.

American Experience, the public television series that has retold so many chapters of our national history, as in the triumphant Freedom Riders, covered the postwar trials of African Americans in Reconstruction: The Second Civil War, while asking how the South was reintegrated into the United States and how former slaves embarked on their new lives. Reconstruction came to mean many things, one of which was the ascendancy of a new legal regime encoding into local and national laws a separate and patently unequal set of customs, rules, and institutions for black Americans, as described in The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a film series produced by Videoline Productions/ Quest Productions in Berkeley. Remembering Jim Crow, from American Radioworks/Minnesota Public Radio, recalled this era by drawing on interviews conducted by the Center for Democracy Studies’s “Behind the Veil” oral history project.

Civil rights and African-American history can also be told as biography. The longstanding argument that American blacks would be better off returning to Africa found its most powerful spokesman in a Jamaican immigrant who worked as a printer in New York City by day and by night began giving lectures on black empowerment. During the years of 1916 to 1921, he built the largest mass movement in African-American history, a story told in Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, produced by Stanley Nelson for Firelight Media.

World War II was a major turning point for American society. As women proved themselves in factory jobs and men proved themselves on fields of battle, the case for undoing Jim Crow laws became stronger than ever. In 1948, President Truman issued an executive order to integrate the American military. By 1950, American dictionaries were having to define desegregation to keep current with the rising tide of civil rights developments. In this decade, the NAACP made major inroads, forcing U.S. courts to reexamine separate but equal accommodations for black Americans.

Thurgood Marshall was the lead attorney who steered Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, all the way to the Supreme Court for review in 1954. The story of this seminal case was told in Simple Justice, a film documentary from New Images Productions in Berkeley, with NEH support, while Marshall’s life and career before being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967 was the subject of Thurgood Marshall Before the Court, a radio documentary from American RadioWorks and Minnesota Public Radio.

Bayard Rustin, another remarkable leader of the civil rights movement in the forties and fifties, worked to integrate interstate busing and led or assisted in several key marches in Washington and elsewhere. A pacifist and believer in nonviolence, Rustin influenced many in the early years of the student movement, looked to integrate the trade unions, and then went on to influence the gay rights movement. Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, a documentary film from Question Why Films, came out in 2003 and won recognition at several film festivals.

Recalling and reconsidering the civil rights movement was the purpose of Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, a twenty-six-part radio series produced by the Southern Regional Council in 1997 that considered the history of the movement in five southern communities from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Columbia, South Carolina. NEH also supported, in 2006, Evolving Attitudes toward the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi from Minnesota Public Radio, which reported on the evolving attitudes of whites.

The modern portion of the civil rights movement has left, of course, an incredible visual record in photographs, from crowds swelling the National Mall as Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the fire-hosing of marchers in Birmingham to the beatings of freedom riders in Alabama. “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” a traveling exhibition developed at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, explored how news photos and other imagery were used to influence attitudes toward racial equality.

Exhibitions can combine still imagery with text to produce thoughtful, educational programming to be enjoyed by individuals and groups alike. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, developed an exhibition and public programs for visitors to learn about the training of civil rights activists in preparation for the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi.

At the Valentine Richmond History Center, with NEH support, an exhibition and programs were devoted to antebellum black life in Richmond from 1790 to 1860. More recently, a permanent exhibition on the civil rights movement in North Carolina was developed at the North Carolina Museum of History. And at the Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum, NEH support helped develop a permanent exhibition on the movement in Albany, Georgia. The local history of desegregation is  told at the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Virginia, through a long-term exhibition focusing on how a group of high school students in Prince Edward County played a part in Brown v. Board of Education.

(updated February 14, 2014)

About the Author

David Skinner is editor of Humanities magazine.