I had a vague idea I might do something about Independence Day for my July post, but we were busily on vacation and there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to say, anyway, so I let it slide. In fact, my muse didn’t show up until a few days before the end of the month (right around the time a client requested that I do three months’ worth of work in the space of two weeks, which I take as more than excuse enough for this post being late), and when she did, she wasn’t bearing tidy platitudes. But she sure had something to say about Freedom.
It started when my friend came to visit. Almost the first words out of her mouth were, “Is there a Brown v Board site we can visit?” There is – the former Monroe Elementary School – and it was on the list of possible activities, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it would be of any special interest and should be at the top of the list. My friend is a teacher. She’s also black. So this was slightly obtuse of me.
I was again struck by my friend’s excitement at hearing that she could visit the Historic Ritchie House, home of a conductor on the Underground Railroad. I was quite interested in going there myself, what with my interest in individual history + architecture + spies (such that I’ve written several stories about fictional underground railroads), but even so, my excitement and hers = not the same.
According to one source, when the Ritchies arrived in 1855, Mary Ritchie was the fifth woman to settle in Topeka, and their young son was the third child. These were the dramatic days of “Bleeding Kansas,” when it had not been decided whether Kansas would be free or slave territory, and the pro-slavery faction had the upper hand, by which I mean, they would stop at no level of violence and underhandedness to win their way.
For instance: when the house was re-discovered and restored in the 1990s, archeologists were puzzled by the limestone wall that runs through the basement and first floor. It’s not load-bearing, so why would Ritchie have had workers cart all that stone up the hill to build it? After considering the political and geographical terrain, the best theory is that it was intended to provide an extra level of protection in case the house was hit by cannon-fire. That’s right, the pro-slavery folks had cannon – and used them on civilians on at least one notorious occasion.
Ritchie was known to be a staunch abolitionist, so the house was under constant surveillance as authorities strove to find reasons to take him down. Another charming feature of having pro-slavery authorities was that they could demand entry to your home at any time, and if you refused, they would cut down your front door with an ax. They tried this at the Ritchie house at least once, and are reported to have abandoned the effort only because they heard the click of guns being cocked inside the house.
Another time, a US Deputy Marshall came into the house without a writ and carrying a borrowed gun. That’s always a scenario that inspires confidence in due process. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but shortly thereafter Ritchie shot him dead in the back room – ruled “justifiable homicide” in the hastily-convened trial held two days later.
Through all of this, John and Mary continued their efforts for abolition and the establishment of Kansas as a free state – and continued to conduct slaves to safety. It is estimated that “$100,000 of property” escaped with their help. It’s impossible to put an exact number to how many people that is, but some quick math using numbers from here would put it between 250-350 people.
After the Civil War, Ritchie sold or gave land to a number of black settlers. The area became known as “Ritchie’s Addition” and also became the site of a school for black children, now known as Monroe Elementary and designated a National Historic Site.
When we visited the school my friend’s obvious reverence for the site embarrassed me again. I like history so I was happy to see it, but it had no particular importance to me. (In fact, I’d only recently realized (and then by accident) that Brown v Board was in Topeka, and even then I admit I wasn’t quite sure which case it was – was that integration or was it the one with the monkeys?) There was a doll in a glass case and a guide asked us, “Are you familiar with the Clarks’ doll experiment?” My friend was, and was brightly interested to see one of the actual dolls used. I had no idea what they were talking about. I was beginning to feel ignorant, like I had failed to grasp something important.
Spoiler alert: I had.
Anyway, it’s a great little museum. Two parts of it will always stay with me.
First, the overview of the five cases that make up Brown, particularly the lengths to which white authorities were willing to go to prevent integration. Fun fact: South Carolina actually shut down its public school system for five years rather than integrate, funneling the money to white students to go to private schools instead. (The black students were left to fend for themselves.)
Still more powerful was walking the gauntlet. A narrow hallway is lined with screens and equipped with sensors so that when you walk into it, you’re surrounded by actual footage of protestors screaming outside integrating schools. Here’s another fun fact: the Brown students, some as young as five, if I’m remembering correctly, received death threats. And as you walk that hallway, the hatred that pours from all sides is stunning.
It is, designedly I think, overwhelming. As a white person, it strikes you that it is highly unlikely that this much hatred will ever be directed at you. Even if it is, it will probably be because of something you’ve done (something that results in a well-publicized trial, perhaps) or a cause you support. Not because of who you are, something you have no more control over than the color of your eyes.
The other thing I thought is that we so often make the mistake of expecting evil to look evil. We picture the mustache-twirling villain who knows full well that what he’s doing is wrong. We don’t picture the young middle-class white mother who genuinely wants what’s best for her children. That’s the image I can’t get out of my mind: the woman hurling invectives, face contorted with rage, saying she would rather her children not go to school at all than go to school with black children. I just keep thinking: she thought she was right.
The similarity between 1855 and 1954 is also fairly stunning.
I admit, the term “white privilege” has always made me bristle a little. It always sounds to me like I’m being accused of being part of the 1% just because I’m white, like we’re all being lumped in with the spoiled, entitled frat boys whose corporate-executive dads will get them off rape charges and secure them cushy jobs even if they flunk out of college. (I do realize that probably isn’t actually what is meant.) But these experiences made me realize there is a privilege that comes with being white, and it is this: this history doesn’t have to be important to me. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t be important, because it should. I mean –
All these historic moments could have gone the other way and I’d still be free.
I’m actually glad this post was so late, because I’d been thinking about how I could talk about how it’s still, unfortunately, not just history, and I hadn’t quite found the words. Then a few days ago a friend posted this article on Facebook, and one of the responses was this story from another friend:
“A few years ago cops were called by our friends’ neighbors while we were visiting. Our [white] hosts had to reassure the cops we weren’t holding them hostage. We had all gone to bed but the police would not leave until they saw my husband. Just several months ago something similar happened to my brother and his wife.”
These stories are being talked about more now and I’m glad of that, because without the conversation, I would never be able to imagine this happening. I still can’t quite comprehend – though I absolutely believe – this particular story. The couple it happened to, middle-aged and elegant, somehow always call to my mind images of luxury cars and international travel. They could not possibly look like a threat to any halfway rational person. But then that’s the point, isn’t it?
Racism still exists, but we don’t see it because it’s not wearing a white sheet and carrying a torch. What nice neighbors, keeping an eye out for the neighborhood. What Good Samaritans, actually taking action when something doesn’t feel right rather than standing idly by. How could such nice people possibly be racist?
Thinking that these things don’t happen, and happen all the time (“Every black person has a story like that,” I’m told), is another privilege and luxury that comes with being white. I can only begin to imagine the effect that would have on a person’s psyche – knowing how fragile my freedom is. What if the cop called is just as racist as the neighbors? What could happen then?
Equality doesn’t mean everybody is the same. It’s quite obvious, after all, that we aren’t. But it ought to mean that everybody has the same access to opportunity and the same odds of receiving justice. We can see that this is not so.
Lately a large portion of our citizens have been telling us that there are divisions between us and that certain groups are not receiving justice. Rather than flatly denying it (are you calling a majority of a race liars?, one might ask), we might ask to learn more about their experience. We might say, “If this is true, this is not the America we want. We must do something about it.” (I was going to say, “If this is true, this is un-American,” but obviously, there’s been plenty of entrenched injustice in American history.)
I don’t know how often the pledge of allegiance gets recited anymore, but I grew up declaring my dedication to a republic which is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I’m guessing you did too.
John and Mary Ritchie risked their lives – and that of their young son – to fight for freedom and justice for those less fortunate than themselves. Every plaintiff in the Brown suite of cases risked their livelihoods – and, often, lost them – to fight for justice for those who would come after. Some of them even endured attempts at their lives. Granted, the fight isn’t as obvious now. Institutionally, “officially,” racism is over. But its effects and its mindsets live on. The fight has gone underground and inside and if we aren’t willing to look at that honestly, then honestly, we’re part of the problem.
If we want to make America great (“again” or otherwise), this is where we start. With liberty and justice for all.