As a father, educator and public servant, I believe it’s important that we deal honestly and open with the uncomfortable aspects of our country’s past. We can never take away what the “Founding Fathers” did to create a country by declaring independence from Britain, writing the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and establishing a bicameral form of government. But the fact is that on July 4th 1776, 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence owned African Americans as slaves.
Revered “Founding Fathers” such as George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Benjamin Franklin and even Thomas Jefferson, the individual credited with drafting the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, all owned other human beings as slaves based solely on the color of their skin. Washington owned over 300 African Americans as slaves at his Mount Vernon plantation and Jefferson owned over 600 at Monticello.
All told, 12 US Presidents including later ones such as Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and even Ulysses S. Grant all owned African-Americans as property and promulgated a Constitution which legalized Black lives as worth only 3/5 of a human being. Capital assets to be used, traded and sold in the creation of wealth with no regard to their humanity counted only for the purposes of taxation and representation in Congress.
It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 when Union Solders informed still enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas that President Lincoln “freed them” nearly two years earlier with the Emancipation Proclamation. This day now known and celebrated as “Juneteenth” is seen by many of us as our true Independence Day – 89 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 246 years since the arrival of the first African Slaves in 1619 on the shores of the Virginia colony. Unfortunately, despite being freed African-Americans were still not equal and were systematically and legally deprived of the same freedoms and promises made in the constitution to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Even after the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights act of 1965 that African-Americans were truly seen as equal under federal law. However, even after witnessing the eight-minute and 46 seconds public lynching of George Floyd by law enforcement officials, Congress is debating whether or not to make lynchings a federal crime. To think that in the year 2020 this is even a debate with many Americans and some political leaders including the President still can’t muster the basic acknowledgment that “Black Lives Matter”.
On this our country’s 244th birthday, it is admirable to see how far we have come with race relations but disappointing that we haven’t come further. There is still hard and necessary work that must be done to deal with the legacy of our country’s first sin and make the changes of the unacceptable and unnecessary conditions of our present for many People of Color. So as I celebrate this holiday with my children, I reminded them of our county’s true history unedited or whitewashed and let them know of the work paved by our ancestors to get to this point. I also recognize my responsibility for making this world better for them as one day they will be the recipients of the torch in the race for a more perfect union. Until that day comes…
God Bless America!
Patersonian Theodore “T.J.” Best is a Passaic County Freeholder.