Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The First 100 Years of "Freedom"

During the first 10 years or so of my life I do not recall knowing that some 100 years before my birth black people were legally enslaved in these United States of America.  I do not recall when I first heard or read that in the "land of the free" for hundreds of years black families were destroyed by the American system of slavery and people treated as property based on the dark color of their skin.  As a young boy I was unaware that my true origin was the continent of Africa. The notion that the United States government once considered people like me three fifths of a person was unknown to me.  If slavery was mentioned during my early years in elementary school, apparently it did not register with me what that meant.

I now am able to pause and look back at the history of my family. It brings about time for thoughtful reflection.  I ignore the current news stories designed to distract me into another lane of thought.  I now pause to understand how I got to this point of my life.  Sometimes you can not move forward unless you understand how you got to the place you are at now.  Some 150 years ago my great-great grandparents and their children were slaves.  They were then legally given their "freedom" by  the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

My paternal grandparents lived in Tennessee during the last years of slavery.  After a lifetime of slavery I wonder what my great-great grandparents felt when they were told they were now free? I realize that it wasn't as simple as one day they were enslaved and controlled by others and the next day slavery just ended and they were economically and socially able to do everything that a white person could.  There had to be a transition period from being enslaved to being free.  How did they support themselves economically after being enslaved for years?  Did they have land to farm?  Did they have a home?  I suspect that somehow they were still endeared to the previous slaveowner for food and housing.  Answers to those questions will take more research.

The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, and the 1865 passage of  the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution were the governmental instruments that ended slavery.  It is difficult to believe that upon passage of these documents that white people's attitudes toward black people would suddenly turn positive.  Along with financial and educational challenges, black people who were formerly enslaved faced negative attitudes of  white people who were not putting out "welcome to freedom" signs.

My descendants likely faced discrimination in all areas of their lives.  History documents that some black people flourished in those first 60 plus years after slavery was outlawed.  That prosperity was sometimes ruined by violent actions of white people.  Read about the story of the Rosewood, Florida and the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riots in the early 1920s.  Personally I've heard stories of how Hill family descendants who had migrated to Arkansas were killed for their land.

The first 100 years of freedom was a time to develop normal free lives.  Sending children to school to gain an education and develop their God given skills.  Finding a job or developing our own businesses.  Then using the money gained from jobs or businesses to purchase a home.  Those were some of the first freedom actions taken.

By the time I was born, it was 92 years from passage of the 13th Amendment.  The year I was born black people still faced discrimination in many areas of life to include housing, education, and hiring for jobs. We could not eat in some restaurants, or sleep in some hotels.  The only reason for not being treated as equals to whites was the color of our skin.  This was the America I grew up under and in some places continues to be what is America still.

In 1965, 100 years since passage of the 13th Amendment, as an 8 year old I had no notion that I wasn't being treated equal to other people of lighter skin complexion.  It was something I simply did not think about.  My daily life did not involve interaction with white people.  We lived amongst other black families.  As an 8 year old I don't recall any national celebration of the 100th anniversary of freedom for those who had been enslaved in the United States of America.  It was just another year.

Now as I reflect upon the first 100 years of freedom for the Hill family, I've begun the initial steps of discovering who were these freedom pioneers in our family.  Where did they live, and what jobs did they have are just the initial questions.  From Robert and Sarah Hill and their children in the 1860s documenting the first 100 years of freedom in the United States has begun.

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