Published February 10, 2021
By Tom Campbell
Am I alone or did it strike you as ironic that our State Board of Education met during Black History Month to determine how to characterize slavery and racism in social studies classes? Some charged the board was trying to rewrite history, but the truth is we’ve been rewriting history almost since the first settlers arrived on our Outer Banks in 1584.
“History is written by the victors,” Winston Churchill said. It’s true. Think how the early settlings of this nation were portrayed in your history classes. I can still picture the image of pilgrims, wearing largely black costumes and funny looking hats as they mingled amongst the friendly natives, who taught them how to exist in this new land. Can’t you remember the tale of how colonists sat together at table with the Indians, as they were mis-correctly called, for the first Thanksgiving feast following the fall harvest?
What we weren’t told was that those settlers brought with them smallpox, measles and influenza viruses that infected those indigenous people and wiped-out large percentages of them. And while we learned about warfare between the colonists and natives it wasn’t explained that much of the fighting resulted from white newcomers claiming ever larger amounts of lands, building permanent settlements and villages - a concept foreign to those First Peoples of America. If there was any discussion about ultimately driving them off their lands into reservations or The Trail of Tears, it didn’t stick in my memory.
It shouldn’t surprise us that our history with slavery and racism also wasn’t accurately portrayed. My history classes - back in the late fifties and early sixties - talked about how North Carolina was largely settled by yeomen freemen, granted small amounts of land to eke out a better life than the one left in England. Yes, there were plantations, but not as many as in Virginia and South Carolina. We understood those large estates required labor from slaves but, in the segregated schools I attended, we didn’t hear a lot about the horrid conditions, mistreatment or backbreaking work. And you can call it by any name you want but there was then, and is now, systemic racism. Look up the definition of systemic. Just as oxygen is part of the pulmonary system, racism is part of the class system in this state and nation.
It is past time we had a reckoning with history. We understand some don’t want to know and some are fearful of what it says, because it might change their own story. But it is time we accurately and fairly report it, warts and all.
Our state, as well as our country, has a deep schism of racial unrest, distrust and prejudice. We cannot and will not ever heal these problems until we start by telling truth. Hopefully, reconciliation and healing can come as a result.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said. Former Attorney General Eric Holder added, “...it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”
It is past time we pulled harder in that direction.