History is often painful. For every story of valor, compassion or accomplishment we find in the past, there are an equal number of stories we’d rather not remember. As a historian–whose job is to try to put the past into the service of solving modern-day problems–I know that we can’t shy away from uncomfortable history. We must learn from it. Trying to solve the legacies of injustice and inequality that stem from our past is one of the most important things we can do, and for that reason alone, the value of history is inestimable. Unfortunately the history of racism in America is all around us: in our streets, our hills, the historic mansions of our heroes, in the very soil that was once worked by slaves. Once in a while we should open our eyes to the legacies of our history that surround us.
I’ve been doing some articles recently that showcase one of my methods of presenting history, which is what I call “geohistory”–grounding the past to modern-day, real-world locations. (For example, I did an article last week on the locations of the Charles Manson murders, whose 50th anniversary is still in progress). Geohistory is the basis of my classes and webinars. In this article, I will show you several locations connected with the history of racism in America. Especially now in 2019, as we are reeling from yet another episode of mass violence motivated by racial animus, it’s important to understand the history that led us to this moment. This is but a mere sprinkling of sites I could have chosen on this subject.
Jamestown Settlement, James River, Virginia
Slavery is the original sin of American history, and it was a part of our nation’s heritage from almost the very beginning. This archaeological site along the James River is where the first successful English settlement in North America stood. Founded in 1607, the settlers almost instantly came into conflict with the Native Americans who lived in this area; beyond those conflicts, just twelve years later, in 1619, the first black African slaves arrived in British America, here, and they worked alongside white indentured servants under much the same conditions and terms. Slavery in colonial America took a while to institutionalize. When it did, it hardened into a brutal caste system, protected by law and perpetuated by economic structures, that tore millions of Africans from their homes and cultures over the next 250 years. Racism developed as the moral and social justification for these actions. Racism in America did not cause slavery. In fact, it was more like vice-versa.
For generations, the history of ancient colonial places like Jamestown has literally been whitewashed. The presence of African-Americans, Native Americans, and many, many mixed-race peoples has long been deemphasized in favor of vaunting white colonial pioneers as heroic trailblazers. The story of places like Jamestown is so much more complicated than that. Historians and archaeologists are now devoting much more attention to the full story, but it will still be many decades, perhaps centuries, before we fully understand its breadth and depth.
Monticello, Albemarle County, Virginia
Coordinates: 38.010262, -78.452127
The magnificent library you see above was the private abode of Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of American liberty and perhaps the most brilliant American who ever lived. He died in the bed just to the right of this frame in 1826. It is right that we celebrate his accomplishments, but we must also face the fact of what Jefferson’s position in society stood upon: the uncompensated toil of the many generations of slaves who lived (and died) at Monticello. This room was built by their hands, not by his. When Jefferson died in the bed to the right, he was in the presence of Sally Hemings, a slave woman with whom he had a 38-year relationship and whose children Jefferson legally owned. Jefferson was a mighty man, but he was a small cog in the monstrous machine of injustice and inequality that powered early 19th century America.
The stories of Monticello’s slaves are slowly coming back into the picture after being excluded for generations. Slave cabins have now been reconstructed at Monticello–if you browse around on Google Maps near this site you can see them, including an interior view–and we now more fully understand how the heritage of Jefferson’s family very much includes its African-American members. But the central hypocrisy remains: the man who wrote the words “all men are created equal” owned human beings and profited from their distress. That contradiction can never be squared. It’s the central conflict in American history.
Arlington House (Robert E. Lee Estate), Arlington, Virginia
Coordinates: 38.881086, -77.072440
This magnificent Greek Revival home, built in 1803, is doubly famous: it was the home of Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee, and also serves as the backdrop to Arlington National Cemetery which is the final resting place of casualties of all America’s wars. Like Monticello, Arlington House was built by slaves; and like Jefferson, Lee was wired into the very DNA of America, being a descendant of George Washington. He left this house in April 1861 after being offered, and declining, command of the Union armies by President Abraham Lincoln. He chose to go with “his country,” Virginia, which had seceded.
Let’s make no mistake: the Civil War was about slavery. It was fought to defend and perpetuate the slave system, and Robert E. Lee, whatever his personal views on “the peculiar institution,” devoted the central act of his life to supporting the Confederate slave-based system. The “Lost Cause” mythology that grew up after the war was deeply racist, and sought to confuse Americans as to the basic causes of the conflict and what it was really about. The Union won the war and freed the slaves, but then basically lost the peace. Jim Crow, segregation and racial inequality remained entrenched–and not just in the South, but in the North too. We’ve never really solved the problematic legacies of the Civil War. We continue to fight it, year after year, in places like this and many more.
Sand Creek Massacre site, Kiowa County, Colorado
Coordinates: 38.549521, -102.511527
The Civil War had another, lesser-known act too: the war against Native Americans. On this desolate plain in Colorado on November 29, 1864, several hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho people, most of them women and children, were massacred by units of the U.S. Army commanded by Colonel John Chivington. The event stemmed out of a conflict over (what else?) land and treaty rights. The Sand Creek Massacre is a terribly complicated event, difficult to understand and grasp fully; historians continue to debate it today. But it’s undoubtedly emblematic of the very long story of U.S. territorial expansion into the homelands of countless Native American tribes, a process which began, as we’ve seen, the very day Europeans first set foot on New World shores. The legacy of that long process is perhaps the hardest thing of all to make sense of in American history.
Manzanar Relocation Facility, Inyo County, California
This bunkhouse, now hauntingly empty, is part of an American-built concentration camp, the Manzanar Relocation Facility in the desert wilds of California. Between 1942 and 1945, about 110,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them U.S. citizens, were interned here as a result of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s racist policy of treating people of Japanese descent as a wartime security risk. The policy was declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Korematsu v. United States. The U.S. government began paying reparations to survivors of the camps in 1988.
The Japanese internment episode is one of the bitterest pills to swallow in America’s 20th century history. Most Americans at the time believed it was necessary and appropriate; but in views like this we can see just how obvious the injustice was, even at the time. Racism blinds good people to support many very bad things. Yes, the United States won World War II, defeated Hitler and stopped (belatedly) the horror of the Holocaust. But our side was not morally blameless. This site is as important to our World War II history as Pearl Harbor or Omaha Beach. We can’t forget it just because it makes us uncomfortable.
Former Site of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, Money, MS
Coordinates: 33.652409, -90.208852
If you know what happened here, you’ll probably agree that it’s fitting and proper that this dilapidated building is hanging in ruins, decaying, forgotten and forsaken. On August 24, 1955, a 14-year old African-American boy, Emmett Till, went into this store and said something–exactly what is disputed–to Carolyn Bryant, the proprietor’s wife. She was white. Word got out through the town of Money, Mississippi that Till had whistled at her. Considered an unacceptable violation of the social code pertaining to race relations, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother abducted Till, brutally beat and shot him and threw his mangled body in a river. The killers were acquitted by an all-white jury the next month. The events outraged the nation.
Racial lynching has long been a part of American history, but the Emmett Till murder and the way it was covered in the press made it impossible for people to do what they usually did in the case of lynchings, which was to forget about them and sweep them under the rug. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum in 1955, and Till’s murder was followed, within two years, by the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott and the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Till is but one of hundreds of African-Americans killed by racist mob violence over many decades, and he wasn’t the last. This is yet another legacy of racism in America. Given its condition, this sad building won’t exist much longer, but the deep scars of lynching remain indelible in our national and historical memory.
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL
Coordinates: 32.405556, -87.018611
On March 7, 1965, on this very spot, African-American and white protesters organized by SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, led by Stokely Carmichael) clashed with Alabama state troopers and citizens opposed to allowing African-Americans to register to vote in Selma. The violent clash, in which the troopers and counter-protesters savagely beat dozens of the Selma marchers, was critical to the Civil Rights Movement and helped spark the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965–a historic piece of legislation, which the U.S. Supreme Court gutted in 2013. As a battleground of the African-American liberation struggle in the 1960s, Edmund Pettus Bridge is hallowed ground. Incidentally, the man for whom the bridge was named was the chieftain of Alabama’s KKK. Despite its great advances, though, the work of the Civil Rights Movement remains incomplete more than 50 years later.
Florence & Normandie Avenue, Los Angeles, CA
Coordinates: 33.974466, -118.300210
The history of racial politics in Los Angeles is at once unique, but also emblematic of the broader problems of racism in modern America. On this ordinary streetcorner in L.A., on April 30, 1992, numerous acts of violence occurred, part of a broad wave of outrage that followed the incomprehensible acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers for the torturous beating of Rodney King, which made it onto the century’s most notorious videotape. The story of the 1992 L.A. riots has as much to do with geography as it does with racism. This part of town was the epicenter of the event, one of the most scarring and difficult episodes of U.S. history in the 1990s.
What can’t be missed about the 1992 L.A. events is that they were not limited to violence between blacks and whites. Korean-Americans were also a target, with over 1600 shops owned by people of Korean descent destroyed. Los Angeles split among numerous ethnic and racial fault lines in the six terrible days that left 63 people dead. And even then it wasn’t over: three years later the saga of the murders committed by O.J. Simpson wrote another ugly chapter of L.A.’s racial and political history. The L.A. riots proved that racism was not a Southern problem and not something that’s over and done with, belonging to the past. It’s still with us, everywhere, even on unassuming streetcorners like this one.
U.S.-Mexico Border, near Tecate, Mexico
Coordinates: 32.577134, -116.616514
As much as we wish it was otherwise, we cannot separate the history of immigration to the United States from the history of racism. Since the beginning of the republic–and even in Colonial times before that–various groups of people seeking to come here have been viewed as dangerous “others”: Irish in the 1840s, Chinese in the 1880s, Jews, Italians, Germans and many other ethnic groups in the early 1900s, Puerto Ricans in the 1950s, Cubans in the 1980s, and nearly everybody else in the decades since then. “It’s not about race, it’s about respect for our laws” is one of the lies we tell ourselves. If it was not about race, this ugly landscape on the U.S.-Mexico border would not exist. If you doubt that, click here to see what the U.S.-Canada border looks like.
Immigration is today, in 2019, one of the most divisive issues in American politics. Trying to solve it without reckoning with its relation to the history of racism is impossible and counter-productive. Deciding who gets to come across this border, and under what conditions, necessarily involves defining who “we” are, and who “they” are. Historically, Americans have found it difficult to make those definitions without being influenced by our long history of racism. That’s the reality we must contend with.
Perhaps this little tour was a bit ugly, a bit uncomfortable. That is as it should be, because racism is an ugly, uncomfortable and tragic subject. We must move past it–there simply is no other trajectory that makes any moral or practical sense for humanity. Once we decide that, into the roiling waters of history we must go. I hope I’ve shown you that this history remains all around us, easy to see, if only we choose to look–if only we’re brave enough to look.