‘Hidden History’ Panel participants (clockwise from upper left): Christopher Everett, J. William Harris, Ph.D., ABC57’s Brian Conybeare and Kate Masur, Ph.D.

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.—Is there a direct line from the suppression and sometimes outright mob violence African Americans experienced in the late 1800s to the deficits they experience today in things like wealth, health and political power compared with white people?

One veteran historian answered the moderator’s question by saying most lines connecting eras are “crooked,” but the straightest line in this case is the continuous nature of the struggle by African Americans. “It never goes away,” said J. William Harris, Ph.D. Black people, sometimes with white allies, have been fighting back against white supremacists for a long time.

That fight continues today, including over voting rights in some states, he said.

Harris’s comments characterized a theme shared by his two co-panelists in the second of three webinars called “Hidden History: Understanding the Origins of Racial Inequity,” part of the ongoing Community Grand Rounds program about how systemic racism harms the health of people of color. This May 11 webinar covered the period from the Civil War to the start of the 20th century. 

Harris, a professor emeritus of history at the University of New Hampshire, was joined by Christopher Everett, documentary filmmaker and communications manager at Duke University, and Kate Masur, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Northwestern University. ABC57’s Brian Conybeare moderated the panel. 

The zigzag, still-unfinished journey by African Americans to secure their full humanity was exemplified in various stories about how they fought back—on the battlefield and in courts, for example—especially for voting rights and political power.

Masur said historians agree that the Civil War, despite what some people might have learned in school, was “absolutely” about slavery—specifically the possibility that it would expand into free territories. But white men in uniform were not the only means of freedom: Enslaved Blacks in large measure helped themselves, seeking freedom by rushing to Union troops wherever they advanced. And, by war’s end, about 180,000 Black men had served in the Union military. 

The end of the war and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution seemed to promise the birth of a multiracial nation not created the first time around in 1787, Masur said. But “tragically and horrifically,” a white backlash in the South and the federal government’s failure to enforce what it had promised regarding Reconstruction led to suppression and terror for Blacks in the South.

For southerners, the social climate in the 1890s was Jim Crow, which Harris termed a complex system of white supremacy that he said was made up of three things: denial of voting, segregation and violence—

Disfranchisement and segregation have created a vast series of consequences for people’s health. – J. William Harris, Ph.D

“The Iron Triangle.” Blacks contested Jim Crow, but it got a pass from courts and the federal government. Noting the mission of Community Grand Rounds in Berrien County, Mich., Harris said disfranchisement and segregation have created “a vast series of consequences for people’s health,” including fewer resources such as sewers, paved roads and clean water for Black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods.

But even during Jim Crow, some Black people were doing well, which white supremacists sometimes found threatening. Everett’s documentary film, “Wilmington on Fire,” talks about the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. This North Carolina port city, with more Blacks than whites, was considered a “mecca” for African Americans, who were prospering and gaining political power. That power largely came from “fusion politics,” with Blacks and white populists joining forces.

White supremacists wanted to break up the fusion movement and bring its white men back to the side of white supremacy. This led to a white mob’s attack on Nov. 10. It was well organized over a long time and fanned by propaganda—not a spontaneous act, Everett said. It left countless Blacks dead and exiled from Wilmington, and amounted to the violent overthrow of a local government.

The third and final “Hidden History” webinar, “The Struggle for Civil Rights and Beyond: 1900s to present,” will be Tuesday, June 15, 2021, at 7 p.m. ET. To register, click.

The “Hidden History” series is sponsored by Spectrum Health Lakeland and Lake Michigan Community College in cooperation with St. Joseph Mayor Mike Garey.