Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Completing the story. . .a struggle

Lots of white Americans remain bewildered by the feelings and comments of some black Americans, especially those of a generation ago (just see the comments on one of my posts from yesterday!). The legacy of segregation, Jim Crow, lynchings, and a system born of prevailing racism shaped all of us as a people, and it infected our systems and institutions where it still lingers today.

Frankly, our national story to date has not been completed, not fully reported, not sufficiently understood and certainly not appropriately honored.

On Monday, I listened to a fascinating report on NPR's new program, "Tell Me More," moderated by Michel Martin. "Built by Slaves: A Capitol History Lesson" is worth your time.

Most of us don't realize that the rotunda of the capitol was built from ground to dome by slave labor.

Did you realize that the statue Freedom atop the capitol dome was the work of Philip Reed, a slave who saw the work of his hand and heart lifted to the top of the dome on December 2, 1863, by which time he had been freed?

Slaves cut the stones of the capitol walls and their masters were paid $5 per month for the labor of each worker.

Eight paintings grace the walls of the Capitol Rotunda.

None include African Americans.

A history frieze is painted around the inner perimeter of the rotunda. The frieze ends with the Civil War. An original painting depicted Abraham Lincoln delivering the Emancipation Proclamation. This painting was later removed and replaced by a portrait of a Union soldier shaking hands with a Confederate soldier.

Not until the Congress acted in the mid-1980s did the Capitol enjoy the presence of a sculpture of any African American national leader. It was at that time that our representatives commissioned the depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before the establishment of his birthday as a national holiday.

Listen to the report. View the photos. Open your heart of a huge group of people who have reason to be rejoicing today, but who also need us to agree that we will not forget.



Chris said...

Although Phillip Reid helped cast the Statue of Freedom, it was conceived and the plaster mold made by sculptor Thomas Crawford who lived in Rome at the time. It was shipped over in about 5 or 6 parts.

Jefferson Davis who was Secretary of War objected to a cap on top of the statue, which was called a Liberty Cap, because this cap was worn by freed slaves and of course slaves were not free. Instead, a Roman helment was substituted.

No one knows how many slaves were used in construction of the capitol because records were not kept, but it is estimated that about 1/2 of the work force were slaves.

J-Wild said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J-Wild said...

Chris, you seem to be missing the point. The point is that slaves were used at all. That is the travesty that stood for so many hundreds of years in direct opposition to the founding of this country. Yesterday came about inspite of the justice of the distant and recent past. That is a victory for that 233 year old document all US patriots love.

While we aren't directly accountable to the sins of our fathers, the consequences of those sins follow us into the distant future. And as believers we should understand this better than anyone, and want to extend grace, peace, reconciliation in light of those sins. Which when accepted should be met with humility and thankfulness. And our efforts should be redoubled in the cases where "carrying the soldiers sandals" the extra mile is required.

Larry, I read your blog just about every day. I am convinced that the majority of people who choose to comment don't actually read the words you write, especially those who hide behind anonymity. I know it's your blog, but I beg you for sanity's sake to disable the ability for people to post comments anonymously.

We can only be our true selves when we are willing to stand behind the words we write.

Chris, at least, has the courage and integrity to do that.

Yesterday was one of the most beautiful and inspiring days of my life. I love what this country can do, and is capable of.

rcorum said...


Even though I post as anonymous I do normally sign RC, but I will be glad to go public and I too wish everyone else would do the same.

Lynn Leaming said...

My struggle with comments yesterday and today is we don't just live in a black-white world. The blacks were not the only people who were not treated "right", look what was done to the Indians, Mexicans, Japanese, Jews, Tutsi's, etc. And it isn't like whites haven't mistreated whites. The bottom line is that Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves and regardless of our color we are called to love with the love of God which is full of compassion, mercy and grace and forgiving the way that we have been forgiven. Politics isn't going to change anything...only hearts surrendered to our God and being conduits of His love to everyone, everywhere. Including the way we address each other in these posts.

Larry James said...

Lynn, with all due respect, the African experience in America is like none other, save the almost complete distruction of Native American culture. This is an undeniable and certain fact of our history. So, it is different in terms of community or group experience. While politics may not change individuals, political systems do protect and empower options for people when human hearts lead us into oppressive ways. For example, the Voting Rights Act 1965, 1966 made an enormous difference in spite of the evil heart of George Wallace and many Americans. The church I grew up in would not have been in favor of these acts of the government. The notion that we should wait for every heart to change is both unnecessary and completely unaccpetable; in fact, in a society of law and human rights we should not wait, we cannot and we must not wait. Those who refuse to change should be left behind and progress should continue. The American political process was not available in the first century BCE. It is now available and we should be grateful and work as hard as possible for justice, human rights and equal opportunity. Those who resist should pay the price under the law. God deals with hearts; our responsibility is policy and practice and action. For people of faith to ignore or fail to be involved is a moral failure. Our heritage has not taught us well about this issue because it was largely defined by racism itself. Repentance is calle for, not a refusal to be engaged. I wish it were different, but it is not. Thanks God for our ability to change policy and open new doors of opportunity! I consider it the work of realizing the will of God on earth as it is and will be in heaven.

Alan Bean said...

I'm with Larry on this one. There is certainly more than enough pain to go around, and every ethnic and racial group in America has suffered to a considerable extent. But only one race was systematically enslaved. The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and, more recently, the "Southern strategy" is singular and must be considered and addressed separately from all other grievances.

The damage wasn't just done to African Americans; the souls of white Americans were damaged as well. We too need healing. But first there must be confession.

More than anything else, white Christians and black Christians need to talk--long and often. Given the misunderstandings that Larry mentions early in his post I don't think the conversation will unfold in the natural flow of life. Somehow, we've got to jump-start the dialogue.

Alan Bean

Geoff Whitcomb said...


The Anglo-American church has much to learn from the African-American. I have learned so much, as an Anglo-American, from being an active part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, including different ways of looking at Scripture, life, church, community, family, and etc. One of the principal things, which I had previously only 'book-learned', is that Anglo-Americans - and, most particularly, evangelical Christian Anglo-Americans - are so caught up in the supposed individuality of life and faith (an individual confession of salvation; an individual focus on self-determination; an individual incredulity regarding ownership of the deeds of our racial ancestors vis a viz the enslavement, murder, and genocide of non-Anglos; and etc.) that they - we - are unfailingly inable to see the collective ways in which we have perpetuated the institutional crimes and tragedies of our nation, both past and ongoing.

Jesus did not say, in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, that we are to go and disciple individuals. Moses and Joshua did not deliver a number of individuals out of individualized slavery. Paul did not write his epistles to one, two, or fourteen individuals residing in different parts of Asia Minor. John of Revelation did not see a vision of individuals gathered around the throne of the Lamb.

We are not called as individuals to relationship with God, so much as "an holy nation, a peculiar people", set apart unto the Lord.


What I encourage all of my 'incredulous' Anglo-American brothers and sisters in Christ to do is to not wait for a dialogue to unfold, but to actively seek koinonia - communion, fellowship, community - with brothers and sisters in the African-American church. Attend, join, a church where YOU are the racial minority! Refrain from commenting or making judgements for AT LEAST six months, while you sit at the feet of others and learn!

(At the same time, read "Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America", by Emerson and Smith.)

Thanks, and God bless you.