Honoring the legacy of Black Soldiers is Essential

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Freedom Center Voices
November 11, 2022

Honoring the Legacy of Black Soldiers is Essential

The American Revolution officially ended on September 3, 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Along with the Civil War, the American Revolution is one of the most noteworthy events in American history. Generations of Americans have honored and commemorated the Revolution by erecting monuments to various peoples, places, and events. According to the Journal of the American Revolution, there are approximately 450 monuments, memorials, statues, and plaques to the American Revolution across the country. This reflects the significance of the event, but where are the stories of the Black soldiers who fought?

During the American Revolution, thousands of Black people fought on both sides of the conflict. But unlike their white counterparts, they were not just fighting for independence or to sustain British rule. At a time when the majority of Black Americans lived in bondage with their labor seeding the economy of the fledgling nation, many accepted to call to arms hoping for freedom from the despotism of chattel slavery.

Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 Black Americans participated in the Revolution on the Patriot side, and that upward of 20,000 served with the British. More than a few fought with bravery and great prowess, but their exploits have faded from our collective memory. There are many notable and exceptional Black American figures including Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, and James Armistead Lafayette. Their crucial contributions to the conflict have often gone unnoticed or unacknowledged within the American narrative.

Despite the patriots’ rhetoric about liberty and justice for all, America’s war for independence did not herald widespread emancipation for countless enslaved persons. But for some, the Revolution’s promise of liberty became a reality. The story of Pvt. John Scott is a brilliant example of that reality.

Pvt. John Scott's Replacement Headstone
Daughters of the American Revolution - Turtle Creek Chapter

Pvt. John Scott was born 15 Aug 1760 and died 17 Dec 1847 in Maineville, Ohio. He served as a Private with Prince Edward Company, Virginia in 1778 and did a second tour in 1779. Pvt. Scott is listed in “Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian patriots in the Revolutionary War: a guide to service, sources and studies,” an extensive study published by Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The Turtle Creek Chapter in Lebanon, Ohio was apprised of Pvt. Scott and his final resting place in 2019 and filed an application for a historic preservation grant to the DAR Historian General in August 2020. Approval was received in August 2021 and the Turtle Creek Chapter worked to replace the broken headstone of American Revolutionary War Patriot John Scott in the Maineville Cemetery in preparation for a Patriot insignia marker.

On May 21, 2022, my colleague and I were able to represent the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center at the Grave Marking Ceremony honoring Revolutionary War Patriot Pvt. John Scott. Scott served as a private in the 10th regiment of the Virginia Continental Line in Company F commanded by Colonel Thomas Posey. The regiment would fight in the Battle of Monmouth, the largest and longest one day battle of the Revolutionary War.

Picture of Novella Nimmo, Christopher Miller, and Gael T. Fischer (Regent with Turtle Creek Chapter, NSDAR) , May 21, 2022
Provided By Christopher Miller

Although the war ended on September 3, 1783, Scott was paid through November 15, 1783. His pension file indicates he was entitled to bounty land available to eligible veterans. He received his certificate for one hundred acres of land and in 1811 he received arrearages in pay in the amount of $452.

It was a privilege to stand for the legacy of Black soldiers like Pvt Scott, reminding us that Black American have been critical contributors with their lives towards the ideals of America. Let us not forget the essential role Black American soldiers have played from the very beginning of America!

Christopher Miller

Senior Director of Education & Community Engagement
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Henrietta Wood: The Enslaved Woman Who Sued for (and Won) Reparations

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Freedom Center Voices
October 7, 2022

Henrietta Wood: The Enslaved Woman Who Sued for (and Won) Reparations

By Jacqueline Hudson, Ph.D.

“The suit was about more than Henrietta Wood alone. It was about what former slaves were owed for their enslavement, as well as about the real differences that restitution could make.”

In short, reparations mean making amends in the form of compensation to individuals who have been wronged. There are diverse types of reparations, but the most common use is in reference to right the wrong of the institution of slavery. There have been small victories in cases like Bruce’s Beach where the governor of California authorized the land to the descendants of a Black couple who were banished from Manhattan Beach in a racist attack in the early 20th century. However, in the long history of reparations, enslaved people have rarely won cases against their enslavers. But a Black woman became one the few enslaved people who successfully sued for and won reparations – Henrietta Wood.

Wood was born into slavery in Kentucky between 1818 and 1820 to the Moses Tousey family. As a youth, she was sold twice: to a merchant named Henry Forsyth in Louisville in 1834, where he treated Wood under extremely harsh conditions while causing physical, mental, and emotional abuse. To settle some debt, Forsyth sold Wood to a French immigrant named William Cirode sometime between 1835 and 1848 but moved to New Orleans with Wood as the housemaid after not feeling welcomed by other residents. After Cirode abandoned his family because of a number of failed business relationships, his wife Jane moved back to Louisville to generate income for the family by contracting Wood out for her domestic services. Mrs. Cirode moved Wood with her to Cincinnati as the city continued to expand. Mrs. Cirode went to an Ohio courthouse to declare Wood a free individual to avoid creditors trying to collect her husband’s debts. The court declared that Wood had been “manumitted by Jane M. Cirode of Ky. on the 15th of April, 1848. As a result, Wood experienced a feeling of freedom by saying, “My mistress gave me my freedom…and my papers were recorded.” She called the several years she worked as a domestic as a free woman a “sweet taste of liberty.” Wood decided to fulfill that right to be free by looking at other places of employment. She found work at a boardinghouse run by Rebecca Boyd, because but noticed that the working conditions were the same as working for Mrs. Cirode. But her feeling of liberty was short-lived.

Amendment to Reply, April 10, 1876
National Archives at Chicago

Thinking she was going on a leisurely trip to Kentucky with Boyd, she was kidnapped and re-enslaved by a man named Zebulon Ward. Her kidnapping garnered attention from the media and abolitionists alike. Both Boyd and the driver were tried in a criminal case in Cincinnati based on this kidnapping, but they were cleared of any wrongdoing. There was an original case between Wood and Ward in Kentucky where it was to be determined if Ward had the legal right to purchase Wood even though Mrs. Cirode emancipated her in Ohio. Unfortunately, the courts favored Ward and Wood remained in jail. The case moved to Kentucky’s Court of Appeals, which agreed with the lower court that Wood was not free; Wood remained under Ward’s ownership.

Ward sold Wood to a cotton planter named Gerard Brandon who wanted to take advantage of the cotton boom in the South between 1820 and 1860. Wood’s experience in Mississippi was hard due to working in very harsh conditions picking cotton and watching other enslaved individuals get severely punished. During her time in Mississippi, she also gave birth to a son, Arthur, who was born into slavery. When Wood’s enslaver found out the Confederate forces had lost control of the Mississippi, he decided to move West and set up residence in Texas with several hundred enslaved individuals including her. Many of the enslaved endured a litany of unpleasant circumstances: family separation, severe punishment if they failed to comply, and walking long distances under miserable weather. The turning point for Wood was the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and when Major General Gordon Granger came to Galveston to announce that the enslaved individuals there in Texas were freed in 1865. After illegally selling Wood, Ward entered into the penitentiary industry as a keeper in Frankfort, Kentucky. He was successful in the business, in part by taking monetary advantage of the prison system and treating the inmates badly during his tenure.

Verdict, April 17, 1878
National Archives at Chicago

After enduring the harsh conditions in Texas, Wood was able to make her way back to Ohio with little money after the end of the Civil War. Meanwhile, Ward took a job with a penitentiary in Tennessee, but quickly ended his time there and moved back to Kentucky. On a trip to a city outside of Cincinnati in 1870, a local sheriff found him and informed him that a lawsuit had been brought against him by Henrietta Wood. The charges were that she had been abducted, re-enslaved, and then sold to a plantation owner in Mississippi before being taken to Texas even though she was legally free. With the assistance of a Kentucky lawyer named Harvey Myers, she sued Ward for $20,000 in damages ($500 for every year she estimated her labor to have been worth while she was held in slavery) and lost wages because of her illegal enslavement. After many roadblocks and obstacles in the case, a local Cincinnati newspaper published Wood’s story in 1876, attracting attention from the public. Eight years since the filing of the lawsuit, a jury finally heard the case. Unlike her previous lawsuit, Wood’s chances in court had improved significantly since the end of the Civil War due to the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the14th Amendment, which granted national citizenship to former enslaved individuals. In 1878, Ms. Wood won her case and was awarded $2,500 – well below the original amount. Nevertheless, her victory was recorded as the largest US court-awarded type of reparations. The news of the case’s outcome spread throughout the country. Though the prosecution filed for a new trial because the payment was well below the amount Wood originally requested, the judge hearing the case deemed the claim immaterial and the $2,500 award stood. Ward followed through with the payment.

Though Wood’s case was the largest, it was not unique. A free person was able to win “freedom suits” granted they involved the following: Plaintiffs alleged that they had been legally freed in a southern state like Kentucky by an owner in a will or by some other act of manumission, only to be held in slavery by another party; and plaintiffs who claimed to be free outside of Kentucky, only to be brought to the state and re-enslaved. While they won their cases, they were rarely paid restitution due to a law allowing defendants to choose not to pay.

Following the trial, Wood settled in Chicago, where she worked as a laundress. Her son worked various jobs including as a Pullman Porter. Feeling that he should be doing something more fulfilling, he enrolled in law school and became an attorney. It was reported that Wood used the money from her lawsuit to help her son buy a house and fund his legal education. While the restitution was a big victory for Wood, her former enslaver Zebulon Ward told a different version of the story. He made dismissive comments like Wood being the “last negro he paid for” instead of telling the whole truth about the judgment.

Henrietta Wood died in Chicago in 1912 and has inspired crusades for reparations in the generations that followed. This story brings up the complex idea of reparations as it continues to be discussed in today’s conversations. This story also informs subjects like the harmful legacies of slavery and white supremacy in American history.

Teaching and Learning While Black

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Freedom Center Voices

Guest writer Alexander Pittman reflects on a keynote lecture given by Dr. Bettina L. Love during our virtual 2021 Educator Open House titled "The Idea of Mattering is Essential." We weren't able to record the lecture, but the rest of the program is available to watch on our youtube channel.

December 10, 2021

Teaching and Learning While Black

As an African-American man in the United States, I have experienced discrimination and microaggressions in schools, both as a student and educator. I had the privilege of serving as a public school middle and high school Social Studies teacher for nearly a decade prior to enrolling at The Ohio State University to pursue a doctoral degree in Multicultural and Equity Studies in Education. One reason I care so much about equity in education is because I have never had an African-American male teacher or professor in my entire schooling experience (k-12, undergrad, and graduate school). Knowing that the education system is standards based, I have seen firsthand the harm that can occur to students of Color due to the fact that those standards are almost never developed, implemented or taught with their academic success and personal development in mind.

Teaching diverse, marginalized and historically resilient student populations has always been a desire and priority for me throughout my professional career. Currently I supervise and teacher preservice educators as they prepare to enter the classroom for the first time as a lead teacher. Aside from teacher education and preparation, my research passion, similarly to Dr. Love’s, centers the intersections of race, social justice and education.

The very fact of freedom’s incompleteness (no one is free so long as others remain unfree) necessitates action directed at changing society. Freedom, therefore, is ultimately a practice, rather than a possession or a state of being. – Michael Hames-Garcia

I find it fitting to lead with this quote, as a central theme in Dr. Love’s keynote address and abolitionist work is that freedom is NOT justice. A situation can be done justice, but freedom is an ongoing struggle. Love bluntly proclaims that to be Black in America means to be in a constant state of survival. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in America’s public school system.

During my teaching tenure I worked in schools that served predominantly Black and Brown students from middle to low-income communities. As an educator, I witnessed countless injustices; from over-disciplining of dark bodies, to deficit labeling of students of Color based on standards that center whiteness, to teachers negatively judging parents and entire communities of color, though having little to no knowledge of the cultural values and histories that make up that community. However, my time in the classroom was also, and more importantly, filled with joy as my students and I learned for each other by sharing stories and reflecting on our lived experiences. In so many ways this a microcosm of what dark people in this country must do each and every day; acknowledge and navigate marginalization and oppressive systems, while choosing to focus on our strength, resiliency and joy.

It is extremely frustrating being committed to and engaged in abolitionist teaching, yet knowing the kind of radical change Love imagines must be taken-up by the vast majority of white teachers who are currently teaching in schools to have any chance of widespread success. As I continue to explore my roles and responsibilities within abolitionist education — as a Black man, an educator and a doctoral student — an issue I wrestle with is knowing and agreeing with Dr. Love that you don't have to be Black to do this work (speaking about abolitionist teaching). However, I also know from learned and experiential knowledge that teachers of color help students of the same race or ethnicity perform better academically (Goldenberg, 2014). Never experiencing the joy and affirmation that comes with being taught by someone who I see as having similar social identities as myself did have a negative impact on my k-12 schooling experience.

A 2021 Columbus Dispatch newspaper article highlighted that 94 percent of current Ohio educators are white. Furthermore, 86 percent of students in teacher training programs in the state of Ohio are white as well, these numbers are similar to national trends in teachers and teacher education. Educational inequity is not only related to curriculum, funding and discipline, but also connected to who we are encouraging to become educators. In her keynote Love made the point that often Blacks aren’t part of the curriculum, and efforts to introduce a more diverse and represented curriculum is often met with resistance, this all contributes to the educational survival complex that Dr. Love names, critiques, and resist through her abolitionist work.

Teacher Education Programs, Working for Change or Maintaining the Status Quo?

“Teacher education programs are typically designed to prepare middle-class, European American candidates to teach middle-class, European American students in mainstream schools. But these conceptions often do not fit the shifting student demographics in U.S. schools, particularly in urban communities. The dominant enrollments in many of these schools already are students of color and from poverty” (Gay, 2005, p. 222)

Even though the quote above is from a 2005 publication, I can tell you that nationally this is still very much the case in teacher education programs. In her book, We Want To Do More Than Survive, Love writes “My goal as an educator, teaching overwhelmingly White students, is to get white students to question how they are going to teach children of color with limited understanding of who these children are, where these children come from, their history, why and how they matter to the world, who loves them, why they should love Blackness, why they should want to see dark children win, how to support their quest to thrive, and how it is intentional that future teachers know so little about dark students” (pg. 126-127).

Teaching and learning with these goals in mind is not centered in the majority of our teacher education programs. Institutions of higher education, and teacher education programs specifically, are steeped in white normative thinking and ideals, Love refers to this as the teacher education gap.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

As Dr. Love highlighted in her keynote, abolition is about eliminating not restructuring. The need to eliminate, not restructure extends to teacher education programs as well. Reimagining teacher education is a twofold endeavor: one, completely rethinking the required curriculum, practicum experience and colonial logics of learning, knowledge, research that typically shape teacher education programs. This would be vital in moving the white pre-service educators who are in the pipeline already closer to what Love calls being a co-conspirators rather than ally.

Secondly, given that in 2018 students of color represented 53% of the total student population, but teachers of Color only about 21% during the same time period (source: National Center for Education Statistics), teacher education programs must dedicate time, effort and resources to the recruitment and retention of preservice educator of Color. Love spoke of the coded language used in k-12 to alienate, oppress and push out dark folks based on their appearance, noting professional, inappropriate and distraction as examples of such language. Consider the message that sends to young Black children as they decide rather they should pursue teaching as a career path.

Abolitionist Educational Research

A significant idea presented in Love’s keynote and book is that of freedom dreaming. She describes freedom dreaming, simply as “dreams grounded in a critique of injustice” (Love, 2019, pg. 101). As I reflect on Love’s powerful ideas for reimagining what our k-12 schools could be for our students of Color if we adopted abolitionist teaching as the standard, I’m drawn to thinking about how educational research, especially that which aims to study marginalized communities, could be reimagined with abolitionist principles in mind.

Patel’s 2016 book Decolonizing Educational Research traces the genealogy of coloniality in knowledge production and education research, positing that “education research, though both meaning and matter, has played a deleterious role in perpetuating and refreshing colonial relationships among people, practices, and land” (Patel, 2016, pg. 12). There are similarities and overlaps in the works of Love and Patel, they both draw on the scholarship of great thinkers such as; Gloria Ladson-Billings, W.E.B. DuBois, and Kimberlé Crenshaw to inform their scholarship. Furthermore, both scholars acknowledge and push for the complete dismantling and radical rethinking of the systems they critique, k-12 education and education research respectively. Patel questions “whether educational research could, in fact, become something more than colonizing, whether an entity borne of and beholden to coloniality could somehow wrest itself free of this genealogy” (pg. 4). Patel calls for answerability, and Love for abolition, but they both interrogate the colonial logics of learning and knowledge.

In my freedom dreaming, I think about what abolitionist education research would look like. What would the implications be for all education scholars, practitioners, and researchers, regardless of race, if institutions prioritized educational research that critiques, rather than perpetuates, injustices in education. As an educator and emerging researcher, I must be cognizant of how my actions and research agenda can undo coloniality and create spaces for ways of knowing that honor the histories and experiences of people of Color, this can serve as a first step towards abolitionist education research.

Alexander Pittman served as a public school middle and high school Social Studies teacher for nearly a decade prior to enrolling at The Ohio State University to pursue his doctoral degree in Multicultural and Equity Studies in Education. Alexander currently teaches and supervises preservice educators, preparing them to enter the classroom. His scholarly research interest focuses on the intersections of race, social justice and education.

Why We Oppose OH H.B. Nos. 322 and 327 Pt. 3: In Teachers We Trust

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Freedom Center Voices
October 28, 2021

Why We Oppose OH H.B. Nos. 322 and 327 Pt. 3: In Teachers We Trust

I am a trained, professional educator. This isn’t an opinion – it’s a documented fact. I have earned degrees and a certification from accredited teacher education programs, was awarded teaching licenses in two states, and have on-the-job experience. This provides me with deep understandings of how people learn and how to teach; understandings that someone who is not a trained educator does not possess. Hence, it really bothers me when people, such as politicians, who are not trained educators tell me and my colleagues how to our jobs. Would they interfere with the work of their dentist, mechanic, or IT technician? Yet, politicians consistently interfere with the work of educators.

The vast majority of public-school teachers in the United States are trained, professional educators. To become a social studies teacher, one must take content classes in history, civics, geography, and economics. Additionally, they learn about the academic and social-emotional needs of students, and the methodology of effective instruction. Throughout their careers, they hone the skills and expertise necessary to provide meaningful instruction to a specific age level about specific topics. Teachers become specialists in their field. So why is a contingency of Ohio legislators trying to tell teachers, specifically social studies teachers, what and how to teach?

Ohio House Bills 322 and 327 are the latest attempt by some Ohio politicians to infringe upon the expertise of educators. The bills imply that teachers, particularly social studies teachers, are promoting racism and sexism. In reality the opposite is true: social studies teachers utilize their content and pedagogical knowledge to promote the dismantling of racism and sexism. They are expertly prepared to engage students in discussions about such injustices through the exploration of historical and contemporary events. Social studies teachers prepare students to become active and engaged participants in public life: citizens who recognize injustices and advocate against them for the greater good of our society.  If legislators want to combat racism and sexism, they should let the experts do their jobs.

Teachers know what they’re doing. They’ve trained for this. And if that isn’t enough, their performance is routinely evaluated by school administrations and the state. We want the best for our children. We trust the pediatrician because of their expertise garnered from education and experience. So, trust our teachers. They too have the expertise required to provide professional care for our children.


Ohio Legislative Service Commission. (2021, June 14). H.B. 322 Bill Analysis. https://www.legislature.ohio.gov/download?key=17005&format=pdf
Ohio Legislative Service Commission. (2021, June 14). H.B. 327 Bill Analysis. https://www.legislature.ohio.gov/download?key=16997&format=pdf

Read Part 1: Why We Oppose OH H.B. Nos. 322 and 327 Pt. 1: Public Education Needs to Evolve→

Read Part 2: Why We Oppose OH H.B. No. 322 Pt. 2: Social Studies for the 21st Century→

Dr. Amy Bottomley is the Director of Educational Initiatives at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She has earned a B.S. in Secondary Education: Social Studies, a M.Ed. in Reading Education, and an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. Amy has taught high school social studies and reading courses in Ohio and Maryland, as well as teacher education courses at the University of Cincinnati. She is dedicated to teaching for social justice and supporting teachers in their pursuit of inclusive classroom practices. Amy can be contacted at (513) 333-7586 or at abottomley@nurfc.org.

Why We Oppose OH H.B. No. 322 Pt. 2: Social Studies for the 21st Century

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Freedom Center Voices
October 27, 2021

Why We Oppose OH H.B. No. 322 Pt. 2: Social Studies for the 21st Century

What do you remember about social studies class? For some of us, we recall a teacher lecturing while we copy a plethora of dates, names, and explanations into notebooks. We were told what happened and why it happened and then took a multiple-choice test. Chances are you found it boring. Ferris Buhler could relate.

Current educators know that this is not how we should teach. Research has shown that students need to be actively engaged: asking questions and making connections to their lives. The goal should not be regurgitation of facts, but meaningful understanding of concepts and the application of discipline specific skills. So why would legislators in Ohio support a bill prohibiting public schools from “requiring the discussion of current events,” and “requiring or awarding course credit for lobbying or other work surrounding social or public policy advocacy?”

Democracy requires the discussion of current events. Citizens need to engage with one another, ask questions, and learn about the world around them to advocate for the issues they deem important. Social studies teachers prepare students for this. They teach how to critically examine a topic by asking questions, seeking multiple perspectives, and examining the credibility of sources. They teach how to generate evidence-based arguments and engage in discussions and debate; civil discourse required in a democracy. Additionally, social studies teachers understand that we study the past to prepare for the future, and effective instruction requires students to make connections between the past and current events.

Democracy also requires citizens to advocate for their wants and needs. A government rooted in the desires of We the people only works if the people make their desires known. Social studies teachers educate students about advocacy to prepare them for civic participation. They encourage student advocacy to foster skills development through hands-on experience; all the while facilitating the application of social studies concepts. Don’t we want students to have real world experiences? Don’t we want a citizenry prepared for civic participation?

The Ohio Department of Education understands this. In fact, educators are required to teach “Historical Thinking and Skills” and “Civic Participation and Skills” at every grade level, K-12, in accordance with Ohio’s Learning Standards: Social Studies. In terms of current events, modern day events and concepts are included in all high school courses including a course dedicated to “Contemporary World Issues.”

Ohio House Bill No. 322 is counterintuitive to social studies instruction for the 21st century. A successful democracy is dependent upon citizens educated for civic participation. Why would you stand in the way of this education? Anyone? Anyone?


Ohio Legislative Service Commission. (2021, June 14). H.B. 322 bill analysis. https://www.legislature.ohio.gov/download?key=17005&format=pdf
Ohio Department of Education. (2018, Feb.) Ohio’s learning standards: Social studies. http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Learning-in-Ohio/Social-Studies/Ohio-s-Learning-Standards-for-Social-Studies/SSFinalStandards01019.pdf.aspx?lang=en-US

Read Part 1: Why We Oppose OH H.B. Nos. 322 and 327 Pt. 1: Public Education Needs to Evolve→

Read Part 3: Why We Oppose OH H.B. Nos. 322 and 327 Pt. 3: In Teachers We Trust→

Dr. Amy Bottomley is the Director of Educational Initiatives at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She has earned a B.S. in Secondary Education: Social Studies, a M.Ed. in Reading Education, and an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. Amy has taught high school social studies and reading courses in Ohio and Maryland, as well as teacher education courses at the University of Cincinnati. She is dedicated to teaching for social justice and supporting teachers in their pursuit of inclusive classroom practices. Amy can be contacted at (513) 333-7586 or at abottomley@nurfc.org.

Why We Oppose OH H.B. Nos. 322 and 327 Pt. 1: Public Education Needs to Evolve

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Freedom Center Voices
October 26, 2021

Why We Oppose OH H.B. Nos. 322 and 327 Pt. 1: Public Education Needs to Evolve

From the beginning, the U.S. placed value on educating its citizens. As colonies became states, public school laws were passed. As the border pushed westward, public schools were erected in newly formed settlements. In fact, the one-room, frontier schoolhouse became an iconic symbol of America’s past.

In the mid-19th century, Americans decided to fund public education for all, choosing to “establish and sustain the world’s most universal and popular system of education” (Mondale & Bernard, 2001). It was a grassroots movement that created a large-scale system of local public schools funded by local tax dollars. One might say, of the people, by the people, for the people. Today, all 50 states have compulsory education laws for children.

Hinkletown, Pennsylvania (vicinity). One-room eight grade schoolhouse. Source: Library of Congress

Teaching the American Identity

Americans did this because they understood that a democratic nation would only survive if its citizens were educated. As our new nation struggled to find its identity, “citizens came to believe that schooling was a public good essential to the health of the nation” (Mondale & Bernard, 2001). The problem was deciding what to teach. What would students learn from this education? What information, understandings, skills, and values did one need to become a productive member of civic society? These questions continue to be debated and shape public education into the 21st century as the politics of education plays out in local school boards, state legislatures, and federal institutions. Currently, two Ohio House Bills targeting public education are in committee. Ohio H.B. Nos. 322 and 327 aim to prohibit what and how teachers teach in public schools and state agencies. The debate continues.

I argue that at the heart of this debate is our struggle to find an American identity. Who are we and what do we believe? The U.S. has been in constant evolution shaped by changing borders, immigration, industrialization, technology, and globalization. We’ve progressed in our understandings of science, math, literature, and the social studies. Education has evolved. Research has not only changed what we teach, but how we teach. With a better understanding of how humans learn, teachers are better equipped to maximize understanding and skill development. We’ve come a long way from the lessons taught in the one-room schoolhouse.

History for All of Us

The evolution of this country includes the diversification of its citizens. Remember when I said in the mid-19th century, Americans decided to fund public education for all, and talked about publication education of the people, by the people, for the people? That isn’t entirely true.

In the mid-19th century, there were approximately 3.5 million enslaved people of African heritage in the country and strict literacy laws prohibiting their education. Not to mention the free Black population in mostly northern states who faced discrimination in public education. And let’s not forget the approximately 300,000 American Indians who resided in U.S. states and territories. As native nations fought to maintain sovereignty, others were forced into citizenship. Many native children were required to attend boarding schools with the intent of “Americanizing” them.

Did you notice this mistake? Probably not because you were likely taught U.S. history from a white, male, European perspective. For years and years, this was the norm, but we are evolving. Educators now recognize the need to include multiple, diverse perspectives when analyzing the past. This has led to a broader understanding of our American heritage, and better represents the history of all citizens. History is a mixture of everyone’s experiences and perspectives. While there is factual evidence of people, places, and events; there often isn’t one correct way to interpret them. As James Baldwin said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” We are not a perfect nation with a perfect past. What matters now is that we learn from it and strive for a better tomorrow. This requires public education to teach history from multiple perspectives and include the beautiful and the terrible.

Ohio H.B. Nos. 322 and 327 do not support this evolution. When you read them (here and here), this becomes apparent. The bills prohibit certain concepts from being taught and aims to tell a version of America where sexism and racism did not impact our modern society. The bills also discourage educators from discussing these concepts in the classroom. The wording of the bills leaves much to interpretation and could dissuade teachers from including diverse perspectives when analyzing past and current events. They want us to focus on the beautiful but not the terrible.

Evolving for the Better

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what it never will be. - Thomas Jefferson

Acknowledging the words of Thomas Jefferson, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what it never will be,” I suggest that our American identity value an evolved, educated, participatory citizenry. Thus, public education should teach the information, understandings, and skills necessary to become a productive member of civic society. The U.S. is a representative democracy, so we need citizens who value inquiry and will question our leaders and the status quo. In the age of the internet and social media, we need citizens who value facts and evidence and can identify credible and non-credible information. Because we are a vast and diverse country, we need citizens who value diversity and seek out multiple perspectives. Since democracy is of the people, by the people, for the people, we need citizens who value communication and who discuss, debate, and deliberate with one another and then advocate for issues they believe in. Finally, because we are products of our history, we need citizens who value the lessons of the past and will apply them in creating a better tomorrow for all Americans.

Of course American is evolving. The world is evolving. The question is, will we evolve for the better? Will we learn from the past, assess our values, and move towards progress? Or will we ignore our mistakes and retreat into a past that was less accommodating to diversity and multiple perspectives?


Mondale, S. & Bernard, S. C. (Eds.). (2001). School: The story of American public education. Boston: Beacon Press.

Read Part 2: Why We Oppose OH H.B. No. 322 Pt. 2: Social Studies for the 21st Century→

Read Part 3: In Teachers We Trust: Why We Oppose OH H.B. Nos. 322 and 327→

Dr. Amy Bottomley is the Director of Educational Initiatives at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She has earned a B.S. in Secondary Education: Social Studies, a M.Ed. in Reading Education, and an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. Amy has taught high school social studies and reading courses in Ohio and Maryland, as well as teacher education courses at the University of Cincinnati. She is dedicated to teaching for social justice and supporting teachers in their pursuit of inclusive classroom practices. Amy can be contacted at (513) 333-7586 or at abottomley@nurfc.org.

The Power and Pitfalls of White Anti-Racism: Angelina Grimké Yesterday and Today

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Freedom Center Voices
March 19, 2021

The Power and Pitfalls of White Anti-Racism: Angelina Grimké Yesterday and Today

Photo: Tony Webster

Is there an enduring legacy 19th century white abolitionists offer for white anti-racism today? In recent months, I have revisited the life and writings of Angelina Grimké, the white Southern abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights. I am researching the differences among anti-slavery positions, differences that often get glossed over when “anti-slavery” is remembered only as a single position in opposition to slavery.

Returning to figures such as Angelina Grimké is tricky.  If the outcome is just a reassertion of standard interpretations of the triumph of white heroes over the power of “bad white people,” then we white folks haven’t really challenged ourselves in sufficiently meaningful ways. To access the full meaning of her legacy, I start from the belief that Grimké’s and my time have too much in common. The abolition of slavery did not open onto a wide expanse for the unfurling of Black freedom but rather to a condition that Canadian scholar Rinaldo Walcott poignantly names “the long emancipation.” Walcott’s work is not simply an argument about how slow progress is, but how devastating and unrelenting white domination continues to be. What does emancipation even mean when Black lives do not yet matter? In far too many ways, the ethical stakes and charge of the current moment resemble that of Grimké's time.

Learning from the Limits of White Anti-Slavery

While the terminology of anti-racism and structural racism are contemporary, their underlying meanings are not. And this is where Angelina Grimké stands out amongst her white anti-slavery peers. Over the course of her life, she came to understand that the moral argument against slavery had implications far beyond the abolition of slavery. That is, the moral argument against the system that converted “man into a thing” was also an argument for Black humanity. This more expansive understanding meant that Grimké also was against racial prejudice and the white superiority that rationalized it -- both of which were prominent in anti-slavery organizations. For example, historians including Shirley Yee and Manisha Sinha illuminate how racism within organized anti-slavery organizations treated Black abolitionists as “secondary,” maintaining separate seating areas and prohibiting them from speaking. 

Moreover, over-emphasis placed on white leadership and organizations today repeats the side-lining of the free and enslaved African Americans who have always been on the frontline of freedom, forging their survival and communities in the face of unrelenting white prejudice and violence far beyond the border of the Mason-Dixon line. And yet, the names of only a few Black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman are well-known or taught in schools, while the lives and contributions of Frances E.W. Harper, Elizabeth Freeman, Sarah Parker Redmond, Grace Douglass, Charlotte Forten (who married into the Grimké family) among others, are far less known. Returning to Grimké, thus, is a reminder of the reality that anti-slavery was not anti-racist by design: this should prompt a continued reckoning with how “good white people” harbor and reproduce the very systems we declare opposition to. 

Grimké spoke directly to this reality in her well-known epistle “An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States” (1837) where she disquiets the complacency of white folks placated by their opposition to slavery from the distance of the North. She saw not the difference but the deep connections between the North and South:

The interests of the North, you must know, my friends, are very closely combined with those of the South. The Northern merchants and manufacturers are making their fortunes out of the produce of slave labour, the grocer is selling your rice and sugar; how then can these men bear a testimony against slavery without condemning themselves?”

Grimké grasped how racial capitalism widely benefited all of white society; she was equally concerned with reaching white audiences in the “nominally free” states as in the unfree South. Moreover, this awareness was linked to the realization that the North was no haven for free Blacks. Looking back to white abolitionists today, the enduring legacy lies more in the differences among them than in their “unified” opposition to slavery.

Thus, Grimké’s legacy resides not only in her individual views, but in how she related to Black abolitionists and their broader cause for dignity. For instance, Sarah Mapps Douglass was an important influence on Angelina Grimké, including her views on colonization -- the idea that free Blacks should emigrate to Africa to build a new permanent home. Through their letters and friendship, Grimké awakened to the racism that was prominent amongst white abolitionists in their anti-slavery and religious organizations. While the issue of colonization divided abolitionists Black and white, over time it became associated with racist whites (pro and anti-slavery alike) who did not want to live alongside free Blacks. Grimké listened to and was moved by Black abolitionists who decried the rampant anti-Black prejudice in the North. In a letter to Catherine Beecher she wrote:

“It is because I love the colored Americans that I want them to stay in this country; and in order to make it a happy home to them, I am trying to talk down, and write down, and live down this horrible prejudice.”  

Grimké’s friendship with Sarah Mapps Douglass is a legacy white anti-racists can draw from because it illuminates why it is paramount that white anti-racism follow the leadership and knowledge of those most affected by racism. We can and should applaud Grimké for the deep personal reflections that led to her anti-slavery convictions, but we should not mistake that self-reflection as the totality of the work of anti-racism. Ultimately, anti-racism is not about the feelings and needs of white folks even as we need to take responsibility for our role in perpetuating structural and interpersonal racism. Grimké started from that personal place, the daughter of a South Carolina slaver, and allowed it to grow out past the horizon of her personal views and experiences.

Art by Kaitlynn Radloff Justseeds

Finally, in looking for an enduring legacy in the life and relations of Angelina Grimké, she reminds us white folks that anti-racism by necessity is not easy or popular; if it were, white domination would not persist and persevere so easily. Having wrested herself from Southern culture and her heritage, Grimké was well aware of the sacrifices that anti-slavery required. She famously wrote in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison on the event of the violent pro-slavery riot in Boston in 1835 that she believed anti-slavery “is a cause worth dying for.”  The work of anti-racism has always meant grasping that racism is literally a life or death issue for people of color. White domination creates an existential crisis for Black, Indigenous and people of color. The dismantling of that is not easy. As Grimké experienced in her life, anti-racism is not popular, it runs against the grain, strains relationships, ruffles feathers; it has to come at a cost. For white folks, there is no dismantling of racism without giving something up and the first thing we need to give up is whiteness and white privilege. Writing in her recent book We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, Dr. Bettina Love explains that for white folks to be anti-racist, “means you are ready to lose something, you are ready to let go of your privilege, you are ready to be in solidarity with dark people by recognizing your Whiteness in dark spaces, recognizing how it can take up space if unchecked, using your Whiteness in White spaces to advocate for and with dark people.” 

Angela Davis wrote in her classic text Women, Race & Class that the Grimké sisters, more than any other white women in the campaign against slavery, understood that “women could never achieve their freedom independently of Black people.” It appears that the protests against police brutality over the spring and summer of 2020 shook more white Americans awake, but being awakened (or “woke”) is not a state of being but rather a constant struggle. If there is an enduring legacy to claim from white abolitionists like Grimké, it is not a single view but a life lived in struggle in the long emancipation.

Dr. Jennifer Suchland (she/her) is an associate professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality and the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures and our 2020-2021 Scholar-in-Residence. Her research, teaching, and activism are focused on critical human rights, intersectional and transnational feminism, and the intersection of law and culture. She is an avid gardener, loves to cook, bike, and go hiking with her friends and family. You can find her work online and on Twitter @mightykale.

Women’s History Month Resource Roundup

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Freedom Center Voices

Women’s History Month Resource Roundup

This March, celebrate Women’s History Month with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Our curated collection of lesson plans, online exhibits, activities for students and more highlight the (s)heros of history while also discussing the women’s rights movement as a whole.

Virtual Gallery Talk: Women’s Suffrage & the 19th Amendment

2020 marked the 100 year anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote in the United States. In this virtual gallery talk, Katie Bramell (Director of Museum Experiences) and Chris Miller (Sr. Director of Education & Community Engagement) examine both the successes and challenges of the women’s suffrage movement. Bringing the conversation into the 21st century, they also touch on voting rights and the obstacles we face today.

Online Exhibition: Rachel at Longwood

Rachel Young was an enslaved young woman that served the Wallace family in Covington, KY in the mid-19th century. What was her life like? Dive into her story through a series of historical photographs.

Blog Posts

Take a deeper dive into history with our staff on the Freedom Center Voices Blog.

Lesson Plans

These lesson plans introduce young learners to the Underground Railroad and the story of one of its most famous conductors, Harriet Tubman.

Women’s Suffrage Activity Book

Designed for students grades 6-9, this material shares the story of Women’s Suffrage in the United States, specifically highlighting the contributions of African American women to the movement.

Agitation and Activism: The Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass

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Freedom Center Voices
February 14, 2021

Agitation and Activism: The Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born enslaved in or around 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore. As is the case with many enslaved people, Douglass was unsure of his exact date of birth. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Douglass writes:

“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”

It was after Douglass escaped enslavement in 1838 that he chose his own birth date—February 14th. Later in the 20th century, historian and “Father of Black History” Carter G. Woodson timed his annual “Negro History Week” (the predecessor of Black History Month) to the second week of February to honor the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

So, in honor of Black History Month, let’s examine one of America’s most famous—and my personal favorite— abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

Early Life

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (the name of his mother), Douglass was separated from his mother as an infant. He lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey until he was “hired out” to work in the home of Hugh Auld in Baltimore. It was while in Baltimore that Douglass was able to teach himself how to read and write based off of lessons he observed from some of the poor, white children in the area. He then began to teach other enslaved people how to read, teaching lessons every Sunday.

Douglass circa 1847-52, around his early 30s. Image source: Samuel J. Miller; American, 1822-1888 - Art Institute of Chicago

At one point, Douglass recounted teaching up to 40 enslaved people from neighboring plantations how to read. When his owner, Thomas Auld, learned what Douglass was doing, he was sold to Edward Covey, a slave owner and farmer with a reputation for brutal treatment of enslaved peoples. Douglass was roughly 16 at the time and later wrote that he was “broken in body, soul, and spirit.”

Escape From Slavery

Douglass attempted to escape slavery twice before finally succeeding in 1838. After his second attempt, he was arrested and sent to Baltimore by his master to work in the city’s shipyards. Douglass became determined to reach New York and ultimately, freedom. He later wrote, “I felt assured that if I failed in this attempt, my case would be a hopeless one—it would seal my fate as a slave forever.”

Yet his case wasn’t hopeless. With the knowledge he gained from working on the shipyard for two years, Douglass was able to disguise himself as a free Black sailor. Armed with a uniform and a sailor’s protection pass that could substitute for “free papers,” Douglass jumped aboard a moving train headed north from the Baltimore and Ohio railroad station. Despite the many obstacles he faced, Douglass arrived safely in New York nearly 24 hours after leaving Baltimore. Abolitionist and anti-slavery activist David Ruggles sheltered Douglass until Anna Murray, Douglass’ soon-to-be wife, met him in Baltimore. Murray was a free Black housekeeper Douglas met while enslaved by the Aulds. It wasn’t long before the couple married and would go on to have five children over the span of their marriage.

Anna Murray Douglass, 1860. Image source: Rosetta Douglass Sprague, "My Mother As I Recall Her," 1900.

The Birth of Activism: Abolitionist Years

Soon after Douglass and Murray were married, the couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The couple met Nathan and Mary Johnson there, a freed married couple. The Johnsons inspired the couple to adopt the new surname of Douglass after a character from the Sir Walter Scott poem, The Lady of the Lake.

Douglass became active in the abolitionist movement during their time in New Bedford. He attended anti-slavery meetings that connected him to a variety of notable abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison. Upon hearing Douglass’ story of enslavement, Garrison encouraged him to share his story with others in the community.

Douglass did so and by 1843 he was one of the many abolitionists involved in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project, a six-month tour through the United States. Along the stops of the tour, Douglass was repeatedly attacked by pro-slavery supporters. One incident in Pendleton, Indiana left Douglass with a broken hand; the injury never fully healed and impacted the function of his hand for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, a determined Douglass continued to travel and share his experiences with others. In 1845, Douglass traveled to Ireland and Great Britain to speak about American slavery. He also published the first and most famous of his three autobiography’s that year—Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Within four months of its release, nearly 5,000 copies were sold and six new editions were published between 1845 and 1849. Douglass would go on to write two other autobiographies—My Bondage and My Freedom (1881) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892).

When he returned to the United States from England in 1847, Douglass began publishing an abolitionist newspaper called The North Star. Sold by a subscription fee of $2, The North Star acquired more than 4,000 readers in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean before merging with the Liberty Party Paper in 1851.

Activism for All: Douglass’s Role in the Women’s Suffrage Movement

In addition to Douglass’ work as an anti-slavery advocate, he was also a staunch supporter of the women’s movement. At the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, he was one of only a handful of men in attendance and the only African American present. In fact, it was Douglass who persuaded the convention to support Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s resolution asking for women’s suffrage.

“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”

— Frederick Douglass, Seneca Falls Convention, 1848

 

Douglass continued to support the cause of women’s suffrage throughout his life, even after many suffragists abandoned the idea of universal suffrage with the passage of the 15th Amendment.

The Great Agitator and the Civil War

During the American Civil War, Douglass found his pivotal role in agitation and activism. He continued to pressure politicians for the full emancipation of enslaved individuals. In fact, Douglass’ constant agitation of President Abraham Lincoln helped usher in the terms of the emancipation to come. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the document which ensured freedom to those enslaved living in the South. In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation had no legal standing, as the states in secession no longer recognized the authority of the United States. However, the document did what Douglass had been encouraging Lincoln to do since the eve of his election—send a message that the Civil War will not be won until all are free.

Douglass believed that African Americans, both formerly enslaved and legally freed, had a moral obligation to join the Union Army and fight for the cause against slavery. Because of this, he was a strong proponent of allowing African American troops to serve in the Union Army. Douglass served himself as a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment—the second African American regiment in the Civil War.

Douglass spent the remainder of the war traveling around the North, encouraging African Americans to enlist with the Union Army. His efforts did not go unnoticed. In total, African Americans made up 10% of the Union Army, with numbers totaling close to 200,000.

Later Life and Legacy

During Reconstruction, Douglass served in many positions within the U.S. government including a stint as president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank. In 1889, President Harrison appointed him to the posts of “Minister-Resident and Consul-General to the Republic of Haiti” and “Chargé d'Affaires for the Dominican Republic.” This made Douglass the first Black man to hold “high office” in the United States.

In 1882, his wife of 44 years, Anna, died after battling a long-time illness. Two years later, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white suffragist and abolitionist twenty years his junior who served as his secretary. The controversial couple were married for 11 years until his death, traveling extensively around Europe in 1886 and 1887.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center). Image Source: National Park Service.

Frederick Douglass died of a heart attack on the evening of February 20, 1895 after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. Throughout his life, Douglass remained a vigilant activist, agitator and supporter of human rights. In the 1907 biography on Frederick Douglass, scholar and African American historian Booker T. Washington says of Douglass:

“While it is true that Frederick Douglass would have been a notable character in any period, it is also true that in the life of hardly any other man was there comprehended so great a variety of incidents of what is perhaps the most memorable epoch in our history.”

Katie Bramell, Director of Museum Experiences
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Katie’s passion is sharing the untold stories of history, and she loves to think of new, creative ways to engage museum visitors. She is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University (Masters of Public History) and the University of Central Missouri (Bachelors of History). Her primary fields of study include the Underground Railroad, human rights, and early 20th century American History.

Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part II

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Freedom Center Voices
January 25, 2021

Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part II

“In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”

Matthew Desmond, 1619 Project

The above quote crystalizes the idea that, while racial slavery was abolished in the 19th century, many aspects of that system continue to shape our economy if not also persist under different names. In this second blog post for Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I emphasize the importance of explicitly connecting the past and present when it comes to worker’s rights and the persistence of unfree labor.

Why does this connection matter? When human trafficking is treated as a new (and distinctly different) problem from historical slavery, we can lose touch with how the demise of slavery continues to shape economic and social relations. As a result, we move further away from reckoning with the living legacies of slavery as central to contemporary social justice struggles. The reality is we are still very much living in a world shaped by the African slave trade and European colonialism.

While much has changed since the 16th and even the 19th centuries, there continues to be an enduring and evolving reliance on unfree and low-wage labor. This is particularly obvious in the legacy industries of plantation slavery like the agricultural sector. In the U.S., this reliance started in the slave-based economies of the past and transformed as the institution of chattel slavery was formally abolished. While it became illegal to trade and own people, it was not illegal to expect that certain forms of labor be done for very little pay and under a certain degree of coercion. For example, Southern white land-owners in particular did not want to give up the economic benefits of unfree labor, although industry in the north also was dependent on repressed commodity prices made possible by that same labor. The challenge was how to rebrand unfree labor as something other than slavery. Consequently, new categories of labor and labor contracts emerged in order to feed the demand for unfree and low-wage labor. It is crucial we remember that the continued under-valuing and de-valuing of the racialized labor once performed by Black slaves is a legacy of African slavery.

New Systems, Similar Results

An example of a new labor category was the convict lease system used by local governments, white farmers and corporations. The system essentially replicated a slave labor force by using so-called Black Codes (in effect anti-Black codes) to incriminate newly freed African Americans for anything from walking on the “wrong” side of the train tracks to vagrancy and unemployment. Many are familiar with the impact of the Black Codes on the ongoing criminalization of Black life in America, especially in regard to policing and sentencing.

When we consider how anti-Black racism has contributed to the over-incarceration of African Americans in the U.S. prison system, it is not hard to see how a form of convict leasing still operates today. Prison labor is a multi-billion dollar industry, and while different from the convict leasing system in important ways, it is still the one loop-hole in the 13th Amendment that technically allows for slave labor. Incarcerated workers can receive important training and job skills, but they are one of the most vulnerable and exploitable work forces in our system. They are asked to fight fires, make PPE during a pandemic, and recycle waste yet are frequently unable to set the terms of their labor contracts. Furthermore, the impact of incarceration on someone’s prospects for work once they are released is still highly detrimental, from wage decreases to outright refusal to be hired. Some businesses and municipalities are “banning the box” as a way to advance the rights of formerly incarcerated people.

Convict Leasing of Children, 1903, Library of Congress, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, another dimension of that legacy is the ongoing racialization (and criminalization) of select laborers including non-white and migrant workers. U.S. immigration law has a long history of racism and abuse that is relevant to understanding the enduring legacies of slavery here and globally. While systems of migrant labor contracts existed before slavery was outlawed, our dependance on migrant and immigrant labor significantly deepened after emancipation.

Along with increased demand for cheap labor, there were shifting rationalizations for why certain ethnic groups were “better” able to perform certain jobs. These rationalizations were used to validate migrant labor contract systems (such as the Bracero program) which also gave legitimacy to repressing wages. It was harder to reduce the wages of white farmworkers than non-white and non-U.S. citizen workers. Thus, it benefited the farm owners and corporations to have low-wage migrant laborers. At the same time, migrant and immigrant workers were subject to virulent racist backlash both in their local communities and from the federal government. The Chinese Exclusion Act is an early example of that backlash and its impact is still evident today with examples of anti-Asian racism. Another example is the criminalization of immigrants, migrants and refugees from Central and Latin America and Mexico.

The struggle for farmworker’s rights has a long and vibrant history in the United States that intersects with other civil rights movements, including Black freedom struggles and Indigenous rights movements. While recent attention to human trafficking has increased awareness of the essential yet often vulnerable labor of farmworkers, it is important to contextualize these more recent anti-trafficking efforts in this broader history because migrant farmworker activism is and has been the primary engine behind advancing worker’s rights in the agricultural sector. From the coalition of Mexican and Filipino American workers who led a nation-wide strike of grape growers in Delano, California in 1965 and birthed the modern farmworker movement, to the recent Fair Food boycott of fast food chains who refuse to ensure migrant farmworker rights on tomato farms, farmworker-led organizations are essential to abolishing unfree labor. This context also is important because as attention has grown in the U.S  for what is called “domestic trafficking” (a term used to describe sex trafficking of U.S. citizens and legal residents) and cast as “modern day slavery” “in our own backyard” attention has turned away from an injustice that has long been in our own backyards – the exploitation of migrant and immigrant labor.

Source: Coalition for Immokalee Workers

It is vitally important that anti-trafficking efforts recognize the connections between unfree labor and the history of slave economies and racist immigration laws. When human trafficking is treated as a contemporary aberration rather than as intertwined in the legacies and endurance of old systems, then efforts to advance human rights may in fact undermine them. As we learned from Silvia Perez and Uriel Zelaya-Perez of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers during our webinar on January 22, human trafficking and slave-like conditions exist on a spectrum of labor exploitation including wage theft and gender-based violence. We must address the entire spectrum in order to create a more just and equitable food system and one that does not operate in the long shadow of African slavery. This is relevant more than ever as we depend on farmworkers as essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. They risk their lives in order to ensure food stays on our tables. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers as well as the Ohio-based Justice for Migrant Women have COVID-relief campaigns for farmworkers. Supporting farmworker-led organizations is one of the most important ways to fight human trafficking.

Read Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part I

Dr. Jennifer Suchland (she/her) is an associate professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality and the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures and our 2020-2021 Scholar-in-Residence. Her research, teaching, and activism are focused on critical human rights, intersectional and transnational feminism, and the intersection of law and culture. She is an avid gardener, loves to cook, bike, and go hiking with her friends and family. You can find her work online and on Twitter @mightykale.