Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Racist History

My car book these days is At Canaan's Edge the third in Taylor Branch's trilogy of history books on the American civil rights movement. This is history that I have a memory of, and I am ashamed of my own uninformed and racist views as a young man of Martin Luther King and the struggle for black equality. I remember very well confidently proclaiming that passing laws would not do any good; there had to be a change of hearts first and that the marchers and protesters were setting back the cause of civil rights by making enemies of sympathizers.

I was wrong then, as I have been many times in my life. First came the laws; and then hearts and minds were changed, proving an axiom about which I have been right over the years; i.e. that a person will not consistently act contrary to what the person believes. The person will either change his/her actions to fit the beliefs or change the beliefs to fit the actions. My theory is that when it became unlawful to act racist, most people also changed what had been thought to have been deeply held beliefs and became in favor of racial equality. And so, George Wallace, the symbol of stubborn segregationism, by the end of his life had become respected by many blacks in Alabama for his work in behalf of blacks. He changed his mind, not because of a Road-to-Damacus type of conversion of his heart, but because the laws were changed and he had to change his behavior.

All this is a long way around to say that I was jarred by a little blurb in our local newspaper tonight, a daily history feature summarizing news stories of 100 years ago and 50 years ago. This is the item as it appeared:
In 1907. U.S. Commissioner of Pensions Vespasian Warner of Clinton went to court to have his stepmother declared part Negro in an effort to prevent her from obtaining the widow's share of the $2 million estate left by his father, Dr. John Warner, who was one of the richest men in central Illinois. There was great indignation in DeWitt County, and it was likely that a petition would be passed by Warner's neighbors asking President (Theodore) Roosevelt to remove him from his position.

It is stunning to me to read that 50 years after the Civil War, in my grandfather's lifetime, a way to keep someone from inheriting money would be to have them declared "part Negro." I did a google search to see if I could find out any additional information and I did come up with this site which doesn't mention the "part Negro" defense, but does indicate that there was litigation which resulted in Mrs. Warner getting a dower interest (1/3) in her husband's estate of $1,650,000, giving her approximately $500,000.

What I would be interested in knowing is whether the neighbors were outraged that Vespasian Warner was insulting a white woman by trying to establish that she was part Negro or that he was trying to cheat his step-mother, no matter what her race.

This is just another reminder that people who say that blacks have been free for 150 years and should just get over slavery are not really considering the long residue of racism that existed (and still exists) to deny blacks basic human dignity that we whites take for granted.

1 comment:

rdl said...

Great post. And it takes a big man to admit his errors.