Black History Month is an annual celebration of black achievements as well as a reminder of the ongoing struggle against adversity. In three new books, George Washington’s runaway slave achieves freedom, members of the black elite in post-Reconstruction Washington, D.C., wrestle with Jim Crow and a Mississippi murder re-invigorates the civil rights movement.
FREEDOM FROM THE FIRST FAMILY
George Washington beat all odds to win the American colonies their independence, then surrendered his private life to serve as the nation’s first president. What he never gave up were his slaves. The remarkable story of the female slave who got away, Never Caught, is a testament to her tenacity on both sides of bondage.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s impressive research reveals the details: Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s personal slave, slipped away from the couple’s official residence in Philadelphia, the seat of the new government. She had served the family since birth, but when Martha planned to “give” Judge away to her volatile granddaughter, she decided to risk escape. Aided by the free black community in progressive Philadelphia, where slave owners were required to free slaves after a six-month residency (a law that Washington subverted by rotating his slaves to and from his Virginia estate, Mount Vernon), Judge fled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Using the power of his office, Washington pursued her. With winter on her heels, Judge had to find shelter and work, elude slave catchers and forget about the family she left behind. While there is scant historical record of her remaining days, the shadow Judge casts on the president is long and dark, as told in this obscure chapter of U.S. history.
In The Original Black Elite, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor meticulously traces the auspicious rise and steady decline of African-American influence and civil rights in Washington, D.C., and beyond, as seen through the Daniel Murray family. The ambitious and aristocratic Murray was assistant librarian at the Library of Congress and compiler of the first encyclopedia for “the colored race throughout the world,” but could do little to stop the degradations and injustices.
After Emancipation and the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution further guaranteed freedom, protection and civil rights to all African Americans—but not for long. Reconstruction led to political fence-mending between the North and South, spawning Jim Crow laws and institutionalizing racism in the largely black District of Columbia, once considered “a black man’s paradise.”
Racial exclusions went mostly unremedied by President William McKinley, and later were allowed to flourish under President Woodrow Wilson. Even at the doorstep of Congress, buying a house, dining in a restaurant or burying the dead were matters decided by color. By the time black veterans of World War I returned home, jobless and castigated as threats to whites, Washington was ready to erupt. The Red Summer of 1919 followed, and as race riots spread to other cities, it became clear that equality would be hard won.
MURDER AS CATALYST
In The Blood of Emmett Till, Timothy B. Tyson delivers a riveting, richly detailed account of the crime that reignited the civil rights movement. Tyson begins with an exclusive interview with Carolyn Bryant, in which— decades later—the white woman at the center of the crime admits to lying about that summer day in Money, Mississippi.
Emmett Till was a bright, church-going 14-year-old with a slight stutter. He liked doo-wop and baseball. Before his mother, Mamie, sent him by train from Chicago’s south side to Mississippi to spend the summer with his cousins and great-uncle Moses Wright, an ordained preacher, she warned him about the “Delta way of life,” a culture of strict segregation demanding black subservience, especially regarding white women.
Raised by his mother and grandmother, Till had never been known to cause trouble. Yet, days before he was to return home, he visited the small general store operated by Roy Bryant, where he allegedly touched Carolyn’s hand as he paid for his candy and “smart talked” to her. An alleged wolf whistle sealed his fate. Till’s bloated, mutilated body soon bubbled up in the Tallahatchie River; these murders were so common in Mississippi, and so overlooked elsewhere, it might have gone unaddressed. But Mamie called the Chicago press and insisted on an open casket: “Let the world see what they did to my boy.” Thus began a new era in the civil rights movement.