History in context(?): the ACS, “National racism” in the early 19th century, and our path forward

Posted on August 4, 2015 by


While I continue to hash out details about the ACS, I’m certainly not blind to what we consider (under our modern lenses) “racist” views held in the actions of people in the past. The difference is, however, that I think I’m able to realize the difference in views between today and yesterday, as more properly evaluated within the context of the different times, respectively.

I know… this is a nasty topic that a lot of people wish to avoid. In fact, it’s a turn-off for folks to even see “the word” introduced into discussions. The warm, fuzzyness of romantic reflection on the past disappears, turning the past dark and ugly… even repulsive.

Today’s blog post over at Encyclopedia Virginia is one such discussion from which most would probably wish to avert their eyes. Regretfully, it is part of our historical reality, and it’s inescapable.

While it isn’t the focus of his post, Brendan Wolfe does tap into an element which touches on some of what I’ve been discussing here.

After Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, Virginians debated the possibility of emancipation, and even those who supported such a radical move hoped that it would be followed by the removal of all African Americans from the state. Regardless of whether you believed African Americans were degraded by nature or by the experience of slavery, they were (in white eyes, and even in some black) degraded. And they needed to go.

As readers know, I brought up quotes from the 1831/32 debates in my blog just the other day, mostly because, in some of them, I saw how they might be perceived as having fueled the efforts of the American Colonization Society. Of course, they really didn’t end up giving it a considerable boost (and the petitions and speeches of 31/32, while speaking in favor of removal, were not necessarily aligned with the philosophies presented (at least on paper) in the early organization of the ACS). Even so, I look at these, collectively, and have to ask if all of that… wishing to push so far away from slavery… had totally vanished by 1860/61, in Virginia (and elsewhere). While there are so many folks who wish to remind us, regularly, that those in support of the Confederate war effort were, if only by default, supporting the continuation of slavery… why are so many finding it convenient to turn a deaf ear to the thought that the “as far away as possible from slavery” could not also exist in those who served for the Confederacy? I realize how ironic it is, but…

I’ve used this quote several times already, but… once again…

They are in arms, but not for the same objects; they are moved to a common end, but by different and even inconsistent reasons.

It’s apparent that this, for many, is impossible to fathom.

But let’s step back from the whole Confederate thing for a while. Let’s go back to that point in time, in the 1820s and 30s, when the American Colonization Society was increasing in momentum (though realizing only nominal “success”).

As to the idea of removal… yes, we do need to recognize, as Brendan’s post suggest, that many people (yes… South and North) believed that “they” (African-Americans)… “needed to go.” The debates of 1831/32 showed us that many Virginian’s saw the continued presence of African-Americans as a threat… but, Virginians weren’t consistent as to how they saw African-Americans as a threat. Opinions varied (history and people in history are complex… go figure). Indeed, and then there were those, like James H. Gholson, who appears to have had no problem whatsoever with their presence as long as they were considered “property” (think back again, if you will, to Brendan’s post where he refers to African-Americans as “treated as livestock in the eyes of the law but also in the eyes of their masters.”)

Yet, what about the people in America who subscribed to other thinking? (This is where I pick and choose… the colonization folks, as opposed to the abolitionists) Despite the negatives (yes, under our lens), is there not something positive in those who recognized the difficulties that freed slaves faced, and would face (including their heirs) in years and generations to come? Is there nothing positive to be found in people who not only identified the horrors of slavery that they made a point of providing means by which those held in slavery could not only thrive but succeed? Was it merely a pipe dream, or was it a real “from the heart” effort to see positive change for freed slaves in the continent from which they were seized? I know not everyone agreed with the effort, even at that time (I haven’t even reached that point in my discussion on the ACS, but I’ll get there). I also know that these same (white) people realized that the colonization effort, if successful, also worked to make a “better” world (in their eyes) for their own heirs.

Dismiss all of this if you will, but… is it not ironic that, almost 200 years after the ACS came into existence, African-Americans are experiencing some of the same obstacles that members of the ACS anticipated so long ago?

I’m not saying that we would be better if the ACS had seen absolute success. Do not take something from what I say that isn’t there. No. What I’m saying is, how do we benefit today… moving forward… by looking at all that is the past under a negative light? Our nation is more diverse today than it ever was, but if we are to move forward, shall we dismiss all that we are, in the respective heritage that is within each of us, in order to move forward? Can we not, instead, acknowledge the fact that looking back at the people of the past, and then looking at us… that we have seen progress in America (yes, even with setbacks) as it has moved forward… hopefully to something better? In doing so, can we not also look at the people of the past… people like those with high-profile names in our past who were slaveholders… and still take positive features of who they are… even emulate their positive qualities… without fear of dismissing the people altogether only because they were slaveholders?

I wonder if we are no longer capable of keeping one foot grounded in our own time (and with our own lenses), while considering the people of the past in the time in which they lived?

I know we need to face our past… the good, the bad, and all the in-between, but in our consideration of our nation’s past (and more importantly, the people in it), if we continue to chip away and consider only the flaws, are we reaching a point where we actually are about to (and as much as I hate cliches) throw out the baby with the bathwater?

Go ahead, call me over-dramatic. I don’t know. I don’t know what the right answer is. I just blog on what I see, trying to take the truths of the past, and hoping for a better tomorrow, while preserving pieces of the past that I still find valuable and inspirational. Fantasyland dream or not… the dream is still mine… the hopeless optimist, I suppose.


Note: This is not a counterpoint to Brendan’s post. On the contrary. I found it food for thought, and, from that point this post moved down a different path based on various current events.