History Matters!


A favorite among the t-shirts I cycle through at this muggy time of year is a bright turquoise blue one.  I like its refreshing color but I also appreciate what it says —  on the front ROSENWALD (it promotes the documentary film of that name); on the back HISTORY MATTERS.  I’ve thought of this epigram often in the last few weeks as I absorb the news about shootings in our cities and experience sorrow, disbelief, anger, frustration. I ask myself all the questions many are asking — what can we do as a country, as states, as cities and towns, neighborhoods and individuals, to reduce racial hostility, affirm support for black lives, make people feel safe, honor men and women in law enforcement yet hold them to the highest standards of impartiality? So much feels broken.  How can we make it better?

No quick fix will do it.  If words could mend our fences and our hearts all would be well.  President Obama has been eloquent on too many occasions, calling over and over again for unity, respect for others and for the law, tolerance, forgiveness, love.  Rejection of military grade weapons in our police forces and in the hands and cars of individuals?  Yes, that could help but change in this area will be slow and tendentious.  Americans just disagree so profoundly about the place of firearms in modern life – are they all an essential right or are some of them an intolerable danger? The structured conversations we have had in churches and synagogues and university classrooms have helped some of us to see how, as individuals, we might be biased or even rendered insensitive by our own privilege but have left others feeling unheard and many feeling helpless. Free-for-all discussions over dinner or drinks or backyard fences allow us to vent.  But where does all of this leave us?  Each of us has attitudes formed by our own unique circumstances.

My perspective on issues relating to race was profoundly changed ten or so years ago as I did research for You Need a Schoolhouse, my book about Julius Rosenwald, a son of German Jewish immigrants who made a fortune as president of Sears, Roebuck in the early years of the twentieth century and directed much of his philanthropy towards African Americans.  My work led me from Rosenwald to Booker T. Washington. His was, of course, a name I recognized.  I knew he wrote Up From Slavery.  But who was he really? What was the context in which he rose to prominence?

Finding the answers to those questions was humbling.  I had thought I was well informed.  I of course knew about slavery and the agony of the Civil War and I had lived through the tumultuous days of challenge and change in the late 50s and 60s.  But it turned out there was rather a long blank space in my knowledge, the hundred years between Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent call to generosity of spirit and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.  After the 13th and 14th amendments and Reconstruction came laws restricting rather than expanding opportunity for African Americans, states rewriting their constitutions to make it more difficult for blacks and others to exercise the right to vote, lynching – in theory I knew about these things but, in fact, I had not really appreciated what they meant. I thought of prejudice as a feeling.  I had no concept of Jim Crow – prejudice enshrined in an ever expanding body of law (one later imitated by the Nazis in the 1930s as they restricted life for Jews). I thought of lynching as a very occasional horror not the gruesome deaths of hundreds of individuals sometimes applauded by gleeful white mobs that included children.

I had an elderly friend who grew up in the neighborhood where I live, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. He told me that he remembered being a little boy when a Ku Klux Klan member came to his back door and asked for a cup of water. I thought, “Oh, my.  I think Tom must be a bit confused.”  The Klan was long ago, I thought, not in living memory.  I didn’t know about 1926 when 50,000 white-robed Klan members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, a show of defiance in the nation’s capital.

I turned my ignorance to good use, making it the engine that drove me to write about what happened when Julius Rosenwald, a wealthy man with a social conscience, came into contact with Booker T. Washington, a prominent black leader.  Each man had, among his attributes, an ability to learn from and work with others.  After Rosenwald had agreed to join the board of Tuskegee Institute, the school founded by Washington to educate teachers, he wanted to do more.  He felt that keeping the descendants of slaves in ignorance was not just wrong but posed a danger for the social fabric of the country that he cherished not just as his home but as a safe haven for Jews.  So he invited Washington to his Chicago home, talked with him for hours and, together, they created a plan to work with rural communities to build schoolhouses for African American children in places where, if they attended school at all, they did so in ramshackle barns or people’s homes.  Over a period of twenty years, this program led to the construction of over 5,000 public schools and teachers’ homes.  One third of all African American children in the South during the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s passed through what came to be called “Rosenwald” schools.  A significant amount of the money that paid for them came not from Julius Rosenwald but from the men and women, most of them poor, whose children would benefit from the education they provided.

It is this story that Aviva Kempner tells in her film.  As the t-shirt says, History Matters.  Without knowledge of the extraordinary pressures experienced by African Americans in the hundred years after emancipation it is hard to appreciate their remarkable resilience, their many and varied contributions to our national life and, sadly, the frustration and rage so many are experiencing now.

History matters and learning it doesn’t stop when we graduate from high school. It is not just dates in a textbook.  History is an endless stream of stories told not just in books and movies, and at historic sites. History lives in the memories of our neighbors, our grandparents, the mail carrier, the man down the street, the lady next door. It lives in the monuments in our parks, in the names of our schools, in a Broadway musical, a documentary film and in the lives we ourselves are leading.  History matters.  We won’t find all the answers there but being open to what it has to tell us just might help us make some sense of the present and find a way forward.