Monday, June 25, 2012

Want Your History 'Neat'? Sorry, it Doesn't Work that Way...

On last Sunday, the Dallas Morning News began a series of three articles which told the story of Isaac Bruce, a black man who in 1892, in Hillsboro to celebrate Juneteenth, was almost lynched by a mob after being arrested for the rape of a white girl. Bruce was eventually found innocent and exonerated of the crime by then Texas Governor James Hogg. Reporters Diane Jennings and Selwyn Crawford did a stellar job on this series.

It's a fabulous story, one which I vaguely remember hearing about and one that I deeply appreciated. In many ways it seemed very appropriate for both Juneteenth and Fathers' Day. You can read the stories here.

Of course those feelings weren't shared by everyone.

Sheriff John Cox who defended Isaac Bruce from the Hillsboro , TX  lynch mob

A couple of 'Letters to the Editor' took particular exception to having this tale recounted...

Don Skaggs of Garland, Texas wrote:

"For what purpose does The News select an incident from 1892, a period in our history that no one is proud of relative to race relations, that highlights an incident where a black man is being unfairly treated by whites, to celebrate Juneteenth? Since two reporters were assigned to this story, could they not find a story that emphasized a positive relationship between blacks and whites to celebrate Juneteenth? Over 120 years, could they not find one positive story?"

"Even expressing sympathy for the raping and killing of a 3-year-girl mentioned in the story would have been a better focal point."

Chris Bolt of Frisco, Texas opined:

"What we know is that all races have both good and bad in their midst, and when all of the good of all races assemble together, we have unity, not diversity."

"In this series, Sheriff Cox showed the good side of the white race when he told the crowd, "I will be a dead man before a prisoner in my custody is harmed.""

"More than 300,000 predominantly white soldiers fought and died in the Civil War in an attempt to end slavery -- a movement supported by 6 out of 11 items in Abraham Lincoln's platform, which was endorsed by a predominantly white voting population."

"The Constitution, the Abolition of Slave Trade Act, the Emancipation Proclamation and nine Civil Rights Acts all give further evidence of goodwill by whites toward their black brothers."

"God gave human beings different skin colors in order to provide additional opportunities for them to act stupid and make asses out of themselves."

The dungeon where Isaac Bruce awaited execution in 1893

And then there is Bob Dewberry of North Dallas:

"Does editor Bob Mong really believe that dredging up a hurtful, racial history of events occurring over a century ago is helpful to race relations? What are the editors thinking, other than selling more newspapers through even more racial division? Good luck with that."

I found these responses very interesting.

A friend of mine called me an 'historian'. Far from it. I like history, because I like real human stories.
Whatever else the story of race is in America, it is fascinating human drama; a drama that is still unfolding.

The critics appear to want us to excise the painful part of that drama from our history, as if progress in the area means that we ignore the past. But in order to maintain what progress we achieve, it is critical that we remember those painful parts of our history.

The story of Isaac Bruce, is a story that tells an ugly part of the relationship between blacks and whites in this country. But THAT is the story. Far too many people, particularly white, would like to relegate America's racism to a remembrance of incivilities, impolitenesses, and insults, perpetrated by the boorish among them. But racism is more vile than that. It is the brutality practiced and perpetrated by a people whose collective psyche was unable to deal with the horrendous inhumanity visited on an entire race. The coping mechanism was to further dehumanize those people legally and culturally by further seeking to rob them of rights accorded by the Constitution and deny them the very protections due citizens under that same Constitution.

When Chris Bolt invokes the 'goodwill' of whites toward blacks, as evidenced by 'The Constitution, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the Emancipation Proclamation and the nine Civil Rights Acts' he fails to acknowledge that the Isaac Bruce affair took place WHILE these evidences were still in effect! He also seems to comfort himself by failing to mention that the realization of the goals of the Constitution as evidenced by these laws, were not the result of an awakening of the benign beneficence of whites, but by cost of blood of countless black men and women who fought for their freedom, often having to prod the conscience of whites to the actual justice of equality.

James Hogg Governor of Texas 1891-1895

When Dewberry asks about 'dredging up a hurtful, racial history of events occurring over a century ago', I actually don't know whether to be amused or offended. It's very interesting that we tolerate graphic depictions of other ugly sacrifices of other Americans: the Revolutionary War, our World Wars, the Vietnam War, our country's westward expansion, just to name a few. It seems only when we want to deal with race, that we want the telling of our nation's story to be ahistorical.

I would like to ask people who share Mr. Dewberry's view, 'What part of your history do you want forgotten? Not your own personal mistakes, but who in your family do you want never to be mentioned? What are the stories of your people, in their struggle for freedom (because we all have them) do you want unacknowledged because they are painful to the descendants who inflicted the wrong upon your ancestors?

It's a little too convenient.

The facts are the Isaac Bruce story has plenty of heroes: the white sheriff, who, on more than one instance, said to his own townspeople that he would rather die allow them to do harm to his prisoner.
Governor Hogg, who sought to do justice rather than dismiss Isaac Bruce's case because of the color of his skin. Because I don't know enough about Hogg or this sheriff, I have no idea of where they stood personally or publicly on the issue of race. What I do know is that I will never again hear mention of this story without thinking of their courage. And while the mob shows the ugly, vicious side of race relations in this country, it is a reminder that progress comes both with pleas and demands for justice and hearts that can be moved to do the right thing.

The home of Isaac Bruce's now abandoned home in Waxahatchie, TX.
No pictures exist of Isaac Bruce
History is not always neat or pleasant. And when we think of how where we stand on the issues of our day, it would do us well to remember that one day people will look back on us and will judge us based upon that stance. I'm sure some of those in the mob that called for a lynching, were perceived by some others as faithful husbands, generous fathers, hard workers and even leaders in the community. They come to us as bloodthirsty and inhumane because in this instance of recorded history that's what they were. How will people look upon us 60-70 years, or more from now, when they look at how we stand on issues of immigration, war, the environment, poverty, women's and gay rights? Maybe someone will be there to say that the generations of the future should dismiss it if we are not getting those issues right. But I hope not. As our country matures, we must look back and decide what we wish to emulate and what we hope we never repeat. 

It's our story. If we want it to be more of a fairy tale, then we need to write our chapter much more carefully...

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