Last fall, I wrote about what I was learning in my JustFaith program on racism. Overt, covert, unintentional bias, white entitlement, and white supremacy. When that concluded, I enrolled in the 2nd module, Faith & Racial Healing: Embracing Truth, Justice, and Restoration. Here we are getting a fuller history of what Blacks endured from becoming slaves in 1619 through the Civil War, Reconstruction (short lived) and Jim Crow. I opined at the time that it was like reading today’s newspapers. Some things have changed but we still see police brutality, medical and financial bias against Blacks and now voter suppression legislation is making its way through 40 states’ legislatures [i].
Black Skin, White Sin
If a full history of the United States were taught and we knew what Blacks experienced since arriving on our shores, some, and I’d like to believe most, would be appalled. I just can’t see how you wouldn’t be. So a little history lesson may be necessary. If you’ve never heard of convict leasing, here is your chance to learn. After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment was passed (1865) which forbade slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” After Reconstruction was destroyed by legislation, states began passing laws that allowed even the pettiest of crimes, or not even crimes but social transgressions, committed by a Black person to be punishable by a prison sentence. Now convicted and sentenced, these Blacks (mostly men) were then rented by the state to plantation and industry owners. When one died from being worked to death, they’d just rent another one, no questions asked. [ii] Just slave labor with another name. The practice peaked around 1880, was formally outlawed by the last state (Alabama) in 1928, and persisted in various forms until it was abolished by President Franklin D. Roosevelt via Francis Biddle’s “Circular 3591” of December 12, 1941. [iii]
When New Mexico became a state, the practice of “peonage” was prevalent in that territory. Peonage is the use of laborers bound in servitude because of debt [iv]. The Peonage Abolition Act of 1867 was an Act passed by the U.S. Congress on March 2, 1867, that abolished peonage in the New Mexico Territory and elsewhere [v]. The DOJ tried to prosecute the primary convict leasing perpetrators using this Act, but, even after conviction, President Theodore Roosevelt pardoned these criminals. No one spent time in jail for the maltreatment and death of Black lives.
Let’s fast forward to my lifetime. Not too far from 1941. I was born in 1954 in Norfolk, VA. That year, The Supreme Court of the U.S. declared in Brown v Board of Education that separate but equal was unconstitutional and schools would be integrated. In 1956 Virginia engaged in Massive Resistance [vi] to avoid public school integration and published a Southern Manifesto. [vii] It was signed by representatives from all of the former Confederate States. The schools in Norfolk were closed from 1958-59 to prevent integration. Public school families formed movements to save the schools from integration. Financial and political gyrations were enacted to prevent integration. Norfolk wasn’t forced to bus students in the name of integration, at least in the high schools, until 1970 (my junior year in high school). Sooooo many years of fighting what was good and right all because of Black skin and White sin.
White Sin Calls for Repentance
Learning about the ongoing systemic racism practiced against Black people in this country, in MY city, in MY lifetime, during Lent is a sobering experience. In this season of repentance, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that White people have so much for which to repent when it comes to race relations.
My repentance is happening now with my mind being expanded, transformed by knowledge. White people in power, in the past and in the present, participate(d) in dehumanizing behaviors against Blacks. There is so much from which to repent, so much to repair, so much to vow to change, once and for all.
Lent is a time of repentance, a time for metanoia, a turning of the mind toward Jesus. Moses tells the children of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Our ancestors who engaged in the oppression of minorities chose death. Might we, who know better, who follow Jesus Christ, choose His way, His truth, and His life.
Pray with me:
Forgiving God, Lord of all made in your image, forgive me for the times I was blind to racism in my presence, from the times I performed racist acts unconsciously, or worse, intentionally. Forgive me for the white entitlement I enjoy in a nation still segregated by race.
Infuse me with your Spirit that I may be freed from my blindness, and my refusal to recognize that we are all of Adam’s blood. Help me to change my ways so that I treat all your children with the dignity and respect they deserve.
I ask this through Christ, who is for me Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.
[i] Georgia Legislature Braces for a Battle Over Voting Laws | Georgia News | US News 1/6/2021.
[ii] Digital History (uh.edu)
[iii] Convict leasing – Wikipedia
[iv] Peonage | Definition of Peonage by Merriam-Webster (merriam-webster.com)
[v] Peonage Act of 1867 – Wikipedia
[vii] Southern Manifesto – Wikipedia