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February 27, 2013

House of Burgess – ‘Black history is American history’

Mississippi misplaces paperwork outlawing slavery

— On Dec. 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted, officially outlawing slavery. It was the first of three so-called Reconstruction Amendments following the Civil War. Of the then 36 states, 27 ratified the amendment in 1865. Of the remaining nine states, six of them — New Jersey (which initially voted “no”), Oregon, California, Florida, Iowa and Texas — later followed suit and ratified the amendment within the next five years. That left three states that rejected the measure: Delaware, Kentucky and Mississippi. And it took a long time for them to come around. Delaware didn’t get around to it until 1901. Kentucky got its act together in 1976.

And then there’s Mississippi. Oh, Mississippi.

Mississippi was literally whistling “Dixie” for 130 years before it finally joined the other 35 states and ratified the amendment on March 16, 1995.

Or so it seemed.

On Feb. 16, Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger reported that Dr. Ranjan Batra, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomical sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, had conducted some research after viewing the Steven Spielberg-directed film “Lincoln”. Batra discovered the paperwork showing Mississippi’s severely delayed ratification was never officially filed with the Archivist of the United States. Oops!

“He tracked down a copy of the 1995 Senate resolution introduced by Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson,” reported Mitchell. “The resolution called for the secretary of state to mail a copy to the Office of the Federal Register. Why the copy never made it to the office remains unknown. Then-Assistant Secretary of State Constance Slaughter-Harvey, a civil rights veteran who worked with Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry, said she remembers sending in the final paperwork.”

After the mistake was discovered, the paperwork was officially, finally delivered Feb. 7. Besides being an embarrassing turn of events for the state of Mississippi, I think this story proves why Black History Month, which ends after Thursday, is still a needed and extremely vital part of our culture. Slavery and its repercussions are closer to us than most of us might suspect. Just ask Al Sharpton. Five years ago, Sharpton wrapped up Black History Month with quite a surprise.

“On the eve of the Civil War, in segregated Florida, a white man died in debt at age 40, leaving his wife, Julia Thurmond Sharpton, alone to raise their four children and to honor his financial obligations,” reported Fernanda Santos of the New York Times in February 2007. “Determined to offer a helping hand, Mrs. Sharpton’s father-in-law, a plantation owner in South Carolina, gave her a gift: four slaves, two adults and two children, who would work to pay off the money owed. Mrs. Sharpton was a first cousin, twice removed, of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a longtime segregationist. And one of the slaves given to her, Coleman Sharpton, was the paternal great-grandfather of the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the most vocal and recognizable civil rights leaders of our time. … The results of the investigation, pieced together from census documents, slave narratives and birth and marriage registries, were unveiled yesterday in The Daily News, with the front-page headline, ‘Shock of My Life!’”

Slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow may seem as ancient to kids today as the pyramids. Black History Month is important because we need to be jostled out of our complacency every once in a while. This is not ancient history. It took until Monday for the Census Bureau to announce it had just removed the word “Negro” to describe black Americans in its surveys, the Associated Press reported.

Personally, I’ve always wished we could stop having Black History Month. I love history and I’m all about raising up the contributions people of all colors have made to this country. But to parse out the contributions of one color of people into a single month of the year always seemed unfair and arbitrary. Others have had the same thought.

“You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” actor Morgan Freeman said on “60 Minutes” in February 2005. “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”

Even the creator of Black History Month felt this way. The celebration was created in 1926 by author and historian Carter G. Woodson. Woodson began the project with the expressed purpose of making such an annual observance obsolete. He sought to create a culture where such an annual, mandatory celebration would be redundant. I desperately want this, too. But, obviously, we’re not there yet. See you next February for Black History Month 2014.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.

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