“The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future.”—Dr. Michael Eric Dyson
America has a long and shameful history of racial brutality and injustice, going back 400 years to the earliest settlements of English colonists. There were over two centuries of chattel slavery, followed by a century of Jim Crow oppression, during which former slaves and their descendants were systematically deprived of their freedom, dignity, political power, educational opportunity, physical and financial security. This should be self-evident to all Americans, but it is not. Amazingly, over 150 years after the Civil War, some are still arguing over how, and even whether, slavery was bad for African Americans.
The Reckoning is a public radio project that will examine the many ways in which America continues to be affected by its tortured history regarding race, and how that history has affected many of today’s most troubling social issues—immigration, mass incarceration, drug policy, and inequality in income, housing, education, and criminal justice. But this project isn’t just about defining the problem, it is about finding real and tangible ways of facing this past which may serve to heal this country’s brokenness, and make some of its most wounded citizens whole.
To make this story less abstract and more personal, we will look at two families from Kentucky that have been intimately affected by the institution of slavery. One is a prominent family descended from both a major slave trader and one of Kentucky’s largest slave owners, the other is descended from two of the enslaved people owned by that family.
Through the process of looking closely at these families and how their circumstances progressed through the decades after Emancipation, we will try to explore many of the most significant issues related to race in America. In particular, we plan to look at the money that was made through slavery and how that wealth has been passed down to subsequent generations of white families and, conversely, how American society made that kind of wealth creation difficult, if not impossible, for most African American families.
Kentucky has a unique status for those who study slavery. It was a slave state that remained part of the Union, and due to its proximity to the Ohio River, it was a key shipping hub for both the slave trade and the raw materials that were being produced by slave labor. And, significantly, it was the number two exporter of slaves to the Deep South cotton plantations. This was especially true during the 1850s, when the price of enslaved people nearly doubled and the slave trade became a very lucrative business.
Kentucky was also an early adopter of slave mortgages, which allowed already wealthy slave-holding families to increase their wealth by borrowing against the market value of their slaves. This allowed them to invest in land, business ventures, or purchase more slaves. Some of these slave mortgages were then turned into bonds which were traded internationally, allowing investors in the North and in foreign nations which had outlawed slavery to continue to benefit from it.
Governments throughout the slave-owning states also benefited from the institution of slavery. By 1860, approximately 20% of all Kentucky state tax revenue came from taxing the value of its enslaved population. County and municipal governments also depended on slave taxes. In Louisville, it represented about 20% of its tax revenue. And local governments also made money from auctioning enslaved people that were part of legal proceedings—lawsuits, foreclosures, bankruptcies and estate settlements.
Enslavers in Kentucky and elsewhere prospered in many different ways from their ownership of enslaved people—from their free labor, as commodities to be borrowed against, and from the profits made in buying, selling, and leasing them. However, many of their present day descendants have little or no knowledge of their family’s connection to slavery. That is the case for the white family at the center of this series. This history was largely hidden in the recesses of their collective memory. But now that they have learned about this history, some members of the family have been grappling with just and appropriate ways of acknowledging this past, and working towards repairing it.
But what effective amends can be made to contemporary African Americans for centuries of slavery and racial oppression that would significantly improve their lives and that of their descendants? Some have suggested direct financial reparations, or targeted investment in long-term initiatives proposed by communities of color. Perhaps truth and reconciliation commissions could be organized, as they have been in South Africa and Canada.
Another thing we wish to examine is how our country has developed such a twisted understanding of its own history. In the aftermath of the Civil War, a coalition of Confederate veterans and their family members began to promote an alternative history of slavery and why the war was fought that came to be known as the Lost Cause. Kentuckians were central to this effort, which worked tirelessly to publish books, text books, and periodicals that deeply affected the national narrative about slavery and the Civil War to this day.
We will interview numerous writers, historians, social scientists, legal scholars, activists and others who can help us better understand the ways that slavery was integral to the United States and its economy, how racial violence and oppression were used to control African Americans after slavery, and what, if anything, can be done to atone for this history. In addition, we will speak with people from other countries around the world who have dealt with similar legacies of violence and injustice toward certain groups. We will find out if they have arrived at successful initiatives which the United States could emulate.
The final product will be a series of four hour-long specials for public radio, also available as a podcast, with a robust website providing listeners with a detailed bibliography and links to related resources. We are partnering with Louisville’s WFPL as the presenting station of this series, which will be available in March 2020. Louisville Magazine will publish print articles of local interest drawn from our Kentucky research, and we are seeking a publisher for a companion book.
The series will be produced by Dan Gediman, who has been producing award-winning programming for public radio for over 35 years, including the NPR series This I Believe, the Audible documentary series The Home Front: Life in America During World War II, and 50 Years After 14 August, which won the duPont-Columbia award, one of the highest honors in broadcasting.
Public radio veteran Loretta Williams will be the managing editor, bringing a personal connection to the project as a descendent of enslaved people, plus her recent experience working as editor for the Peabody Award-nominated podcast series on race in America, Seeing White.
Acclaimed Louisville composer Jecorey “1200” Arthur will create original music for the series.
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