The 13th Amendment was passed in 1865 to give enslaved people their freedom. This was done before the Confederacy was fully restored, so southern states had no input. It states that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The Senate had passed it a year earlier, but it took some wrangling to get the House to do the same. (Here is a good explanation – 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865) | National Archives). Of course, I don’t remember learning about the second part of the amendment; only that Lincoln freed the slaves. Excellent. But not the whole story. It seems that a loophole was left wide open to keep formerly enslaved people in servitude.
Sure, white people were convicted, but in 1870, 95% of the prisoners in southern states were (can you guess?) of African descent. This new system of slavery worked so well that southern states increased their prison budgets every year to meet the need of unpaid workers for local plantations and businesses. Louisiana tripled their prison budget in 1868 from the year before. Incarcerated men became the new production line, and it was all legal, thanks to the 13th Amendment. In South Carolina and Georgia, the death rate of incarcerated black men was between 40-45% in the late 1870’s. White America had found a way to continue the institution of enslavement of people of African descent.
Why does this matter? It matters because too many Americans don’t understand the way this country was set up to thrive on the lives and deaths of people brought here from Africa. We see educational systems blocking teachers from educating our children about this history; some schools have changed the word “slavery” to things like “workers brought to this country”. The same people who don’t want the word “gay” used in schools also don’t want the word “slave” used in the classroom. The fear of an honest and real education comes from guilt and defensiveness, not protection of child-like sensitivity. I don’t want sex education taught to young children, but if Johnny can talk about going on a picnic with Mommy and Daddy, then Suzy should be allowed to brag about seeing a movie with Mommy and Mommy.
We are literally whitewashing our history; taking out the parts that embarrass our racist, misogynist ancestors to sooth our consciences so we can feel less guilty. This is why so many people in Pennsylvania can look at a man running for governor wearing a Confederate uniform for a War College photo and think little of it. This is how insurrectionists can wear swastikas and get away with it. The foundational message of the Jewish faith (Deuteronomy 24) is “Do not deny justice to the foreigner or the parentless, and do not take a widow’s cloak as security. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you from that place. Therefore, I am commanding you to do this. If you are harvesting in your field and forget a sheaf there, do not go back to get it. It is to be left for the foreigner, the parentless, and the widow, so that your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.…” Don’t just remember – act kindly with justice and care for those suffering now.
If we aren’t taught what really happened, how will we remember? If we don’t remember, it will happen again. That is what White Christian Supremacists are counting on – that we will forget. We won’t forget. Ever.
Prayer – We remember, God of justice and renewal, that we were once in pain or suffering or treated unfairly. We will act with justice. Amen.