As we transition through this month in which our nation’s Independence Day is celebrated, I’ve been reflecting on this critically important moment-movement we are all witnessing. The United States has made a tradition of celebrating the incredible story of the American Revolution, a story that defines us as a nation with an insatiable thirst for freedom!
This is our country’s story, but it’s not the story for everyone! The dichotomy of the desire for freedom is that the early American government wanted freedom from the tyranny they experienced under King George. Americans knew that the only way freedom was going to manifest was through persevering resistance! Gen. George Washington was quoted to say, “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages;” it was common consent among early patriots that a upheaval was necessary to obtain the freedom they desired.
The dichotomy of freedom gained and freedom desired was profound. What was clear during this period is that the fruits of the patriots’ victory were for those who were deemed worthy or entitled to the benefits of this new freedom.
Unsurprisingly, Black people were not even contemplated to be included in this anticipated freedom! Nevertheless, how ironic is it that the first person who was shot and killed during a protest of resistance was a Black man who had escaped slavery. Crispus Attucks and four other demonstrators were killed in what was known as the Boston Massacre. It launched the American Revolution. Attucks probably knew that the struggle for freedom did not have him in mind, nor others with Black skin. However, he was willing to risk it all, just in case the dream of his freedom eventually came true!
As important as it is for us to know our individual stories, it’s even more important to know how our stories often intertwine or intersect with others, whether in a historical or contemporaneous context. It is empowering to know that Black people are part of a grand story.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
In today’s parlance George Floyd was the Crispus Attucks of the current racial equity revolution. While the knee of the officer was on Brother Floyd’s neck, he stared arrogantly into the crowd. It was clear to everyone he was sending message that White supremacy still reigns!
Oh, but a strange thing happened on the way to the office that dreadful day. The office for matter is the community that the police are charged with protecting and serving responsibilities. The mockery is that the police officer attempted to massacre the community’s spirit, but he ended up transforming the collective spirit of the world watching into a Black, Brown and White uplifting resolve. That moment was the beginning of an uncompromising revolution fueled with untiring determination
The Crispus Attucks story is not an anomaly. Black men and women have been historically taking beatings and bullets since they arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, not as immigrants, but as captured Africans who were brought here to serve as slaves.
You see, African-American and Africans in diaspora story does not start with Attucks or slavery! It doesn’t start with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, when 12.7 million Africans were shipped to the new world. (Approximately 10.7 million survived the trip.) The African-American’s long – not short – story goes back to the various historic African dynasties which occurred in places like Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana and Sub Sahara. These are places where math, chemistry, astronomy, architecture and medicine were discovered and studied. It’s common consent by anthropologists that the oldest evidence of homo sapiens presence on Earth was discovered in East Africa (Tanzania) and a more recent discovery in North Africa (Morocco).
Therefore, the long story of Black people is incredibly rich and important. Because we don’t teach the long story of Black people in our schools, students learn about the Black race in bits and pieces, often from TV and movies, and they usually start with slavery or the civil rights movement with little continuity and context. However, Black students are given a heavy dosage of Europe history.
The irony of this new racial and social justice movement is that it has become pervasively inescapable that Black folks have been fighting for the ideals, aspirations and equity in every aspect of life, fighting for quality-of-life attributes that were not meant for them at the time the Constitution was promulgated. This was sadly affirmed when the initial framers of the Constitution defined Black people as 3/5ths human.
The good news is Blacks and many Whites who have a healthy since of humanity have never given up on their quest for real, unequivocal, all-inclusive freedom. Guided by faith and perseverance Black people will continue to see significant progress, particularly if we take heed to Congressman John Lewis’ ending of his speeches: “Don’t ever give up!” Also, we must remember Curtis Mayfield’s message: “This is my Country.”
Every time Curtis’s song comes up on my play list, I reflect on my family story. here has never been any equivocation by generations of my family as to whose Country this is. It is just as much ours as it is every citizen of the imperfect but great country.
My maternal great-great-great grandfather, Charles Hamilton, served in the U.S. Calvary’s famed 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. He served along with my great-great-great uncle, Alfred K. Persip. This was an all-Black regiment which existed only because White supremacists believed that Black soldiers would be inferior on the battlefield.
Don’t think for a second that Blacks didn’t know what the White soldiers thought. Black men were determined to serve. They pleaded for Fredrick Douglass to talk with President Abraham Lincoln to convince him to approve the Black soldiers to serve. Pragmatically, Black soldiers knew Black people will be a lot worse off if slavery prevailed as an economic engine for Whites to make money. The 54th got their wish, and they fought with great valor!
There again, it is important that we learn each other’s full story. When that occurs, we will discover many of our aspirations are similar. Black people wanted then and still want three basic things: truth; safety; and equity for our families and our community. I venture to say that these desires are no different than what White people want!
Our family story doesn’t end there. My great-grandfather, Harry Lemuel Persip, and His three brothers volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army in 1917 during World War I. White military bosses did not want Black soldiers in their Regiments, which resulted in the 372th, 371st, 368th and 369th regiments being established in 1917. At that time, the Germans were having their way with France. France called U.S. to request military support. Reluctantly, U.S. Army Gen. John J. Pershing relented and gave over the Black regiments. It was the first time ever that American troops were officially authorized by the U.S. government to serve in the armed forces of another nation! The Black regiments lost over 50 soldiers, but still managed to push the Germans back to their border.
These Black soldiers were treated with dignity and respect when they first arrived in France. This was a stark contrast to how they were treated by their fellow White soldiers back home. The Black regiments are credited for helping France win that part of the war. The poignant story ends with a remarkable frame: France awarded the Black regiments with France’s highest unit decoration bestowed by the French military, the Croix de Guerre with palm leaves.
My father, Henry M. Thomas II, volunteered to serve in the Coast Guard during World War II, after President Harry S. Truman integrated the arm services. He spent most of his service patrolling the Atlantic coastal waters along the North and South America and chaperoning battle groups of Navy vessels across the Atlantic.
In Pittsfield there is a park named in honor of the Persip family for their contribution to the country through military service. There is also a monument in downtown in Pittsfield saluting the Persip family. American Legion Post 68 carries the name of my great-uncle, Charles Persip, who served in World War I with distinction in the Black regiment.
The awakening we are witnessing today among Black and Brown people as a result of an unbelievable display of inhumanity allows me to feel hopeful. I see young and seasoned Whites and Blacks who are rejecting the status quo and are relentlessly inspiring change across the board and across the globe.
Further, I believe there is an overwhelming majority of Whites and Blacks that is poised to move to higher ground and become the change they dream about! I’m optimistically betting on the oneness of humanity!
Henry M. Thomas III, who grew up in Springfield, is president and CEO of the Urban League of Springfield. He recently completed more than 12 years as a member of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees, for which he served as chair. A graduate of American International College, he holds a law degree from Western New England University School of Law.