Slavery happened right here. Justice can happen right here.

editorial

“Blacks have a collective memory,” Alice Green told us this summer just after what she described as the uprising in Albany in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Green is the founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany. Its motto is from Frederick Douglass: If there’s no struggle, there’s no progress.

Green’s great-grandmother was born enslaved. “How could you have a society that treats people like animals?” Green asks. “You own them. You own their bodies and you steal their labor. That’s just wrong.”

Green also has a grandmother who was a sharecropper, and a mother and father who lived in the Jim Crow South.

America, she notes, has a very long history of violence. For 400 years, violence has been used against people of color, says Green. “Whiteness is a capital … It’s something that gets you what you want and need … You want to hold onto that power,” she says.

Do whites have a collective memory?

Much like an individual’s memory, a collective memory is made up of the events and people we, as a group, chose to share and pass on to future generations.

The Enterprise runs a monthly history column, ably researched and written by Mary Ellen Johnson. Johnson is a retired social studies teacher and a leader in the Guilderland Historical Society.

We find ourselves not just here in Guilderland but across the country and around the world at an historic moment in time. We are, all at once, in the midst of a pandemic, an economic depression, and a moment of racial reckoning.

Sometimes local history can lend valuable perspective. Back in March, when the coronavirus disease 2019 first reared its ugly head in our midst, we asked Johnson if she could write about the 1918 influenza pandemic. Similarly, we later ran her column on how Guilderland — much of her reporting coming from Enterprise pages in the 1930s — was affected by the Great Depression.

Both of these columns provided us with useful information but none of it was shocking. Rather, both events were part of our collective memory. Some of us had parents or grandparents who had lived through — or died in — the influenza pandemic or the Great Depression.

As a world war raged, the pandemic crept up, almost without notice, on then-rural Guilderland. Johnson wrote of how one week in October 1918, activities — like a play at Altamont’s Masonic Hall — went on as usual. But the next week, the disease hit town with a vengeance.

“By the time the next week’s Enterprise was in the hands of readers, churches and schools had closed,” wrote Johnson. A front-page notice in The Enterprise announced that, at the request of the Board of Health, no public gatherings could take place in Altamont for several days.

“Both of the churches will be closed all day Sunday, the movies, lodges, prayer meetings, Sunday Schools and society meetings will be discontinued on account of the prevalence of the Spanish influenza which has made its appearance here,” The Enterprise reported. According to the notice, only a few cases had been reported in the village and it was thought these rules would help to halt the spread of the disease.

In 1932, when the unemployment rate in the United States had risen to 24 percent, The Enterprise ran this notice on Nov. 4: “While the thoughts of many of our residents are on unemployment relief, it might be well to remind ourselves that there are many others in need of help at this time of the year. The Enterprise knows of one case, not far from Altamont, where a middle-aged woman, who is caring for her little nephew, is almost destitute.

“She has been unable to obtain work of any kind. If this notice strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of those who read it, the Enterprise will be glad to furnish the name of the person needing help — or the Enterprise will receive and dispense gifts received from our readers. The need for help is urgent.”

The pages of The Enterprise in the Depression years, Johnson reports, were filled with pleas for help and acts of local charity.

At both of these historic moments, in 1918 and in the 1930s, we get a sense of a community working together as we look at the pages that recorded the first take of history. We have our collective memory reinforced by the words we read.

In the local history column we’re printing this week, Johnson takes a clear-eyed look at slavery in Guilderland. Frankly, we found it shocking. It was not part of our collective memory, not part of the stories that families tell their children or that our community tells itself.

But it should be. 

The reckoning that our nation is going through now is rooted in the slavery that was part of what built the United States of America. It is easy, as a predominantly white community here in Altamont, to think of slavery as being part of Southern history, or as people being wrongly owned only by wealthy New Yorkers.

But, as Johnson’s column clearly shows us, that was not the case. The names of families that are on historical markers in our town, in front of houses that still stand, were the names of owners of other human beings.

We should, of course, have reckoned with this long ago. The late Arthur Gregg, Guilderland’s long-time town historian wrote columns for The Enterprise in the 1930s, later gathered into a book “Old Helleberg: Scenes from Early Guilderland.”

One of those columns, now a chapter in the book, is called “The Slave Market.” In it, Gregg paints the scene at the Wayside Inn, where the Stewart’s Shop stands today, writing in 1935, “So on this very spot 122 years ago, we have the actual spectacle of the horror of trafficking in human flesh. It is not the slave market of New Orleans, or the land of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ but the present village of Altamont. 

“We may say the slaves were well treated, but the fact remains that they were auctioned off at the will of their owners and sold to the highest bidder. They could go willingly or with fear and tears — but go they must.”

Gregg had photographed, and we have reprinted this week with Johnson’s column, the 1813 bill of sale for “a Negro Wench named Nan,” sold for $100 by John Becker of Schoharie to George Severson of Guilderland.

Seeing that bill of sale horrified us. We felt the same sort of sickness in the pit of our stomach and the same sort of rage we felt when we watched the white Minneapolis police officer kneel on the neck of George Floyd until he was dead.

So many people around the world watched that video that it became part of a collective consciousness. 

It has spurred protests across our nation that have included whites as well as blacks. We’ve written about those protests in our midst. Some laws have immediately been changed. And, here in New York, our governor has required committees to review and reinvent police departments across the state.

We wrote last week about the committee that has been set up in Guilderland and recorded the philosophy of a police chief that can see the need for some change.

But the root of the harm done is so much deeper, going back to a society of European settlers that used the labor of stolen and owned people to build their society and build their wealth.

The question we need to address here in Guilderland and as Americans at large is: How do we create a collective memory that is shared?

First, if we are white, we have to acknowledge our privilege. The current pandemic has laid bare — including here in Albany County — how much more likely Blacks are than whites to be hospitalized with COVID-19. The disparities are not just in the health-care system but in the low-wage jobs that have kept essential workers laboring while the more privileged can work from home.

America has long been called a melting pot — or in more enlightened, recent times a tossed salad — as waves of people have come here from other countries to start new lives. But, as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison pointed out, Blacks who were brought here in bondage against their will were not part of that assimilation; Morrison saw Black people as the pot itself.

If the United States is to move forward, we have to realize that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was not enough. The Union’s winning the Civil War was not enough. The 1960s’ Civil Rights movement that led to laws meant to insure equal voting and housing, and court decisions meant to desegregate schools are not enough. The current movement for police reform is not enough.

Whoever “Nan” was — we’ll never know even her last name — sold for $100 in 1813, she deserves more. She deserves to be part of a society that has a collective memory that includes her worth and the wrong done to her. 

We cannot say all their names because we do not know all their names. But we do know we have to own our heritage — all of it — to build a more just future. We need now the “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln called for from the Gettysberg battlefield so that government of the people, by the people, for the people — all of the people — shall not perish from this earth.

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