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Down on the Farm: A short-lived equality

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Morris, 56267
Morris Minnesota 607 Pacific Avenue 56267

We northerners can be a bit smug about our record on racial equality. After all, we fought to free the slaves, did we not?

The historic record is more murky, as became obvious when our tour of 40 history teachers from northwest Minnesota moved to Atlanta.

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When the Civil War began, President Lincoln framed the struggle as a fight to preserve the Union. He knew if the purpose of the war became to free the four million enslaved African-Americans, support for the effort would evaporate.

In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a war measure designed to destabilize the Confederacy and win support for the Union overseas. It worked.

But the Proclamation was worded so that it liberated slaves only in areas controlled by the Confederacy. It freed nobody. It was a propaganda device and a good one, for it created a sensation amongst the enslaved and won the support of Europe's masses for the northern cause.

But racial equality? Lincoln would have none of it. To the day Lincoln died, he believed the best solution to the race issue was to ship America's blacks to Liberia. Or Nicaragua. Or South America. Anywhere, just not here.

When the war ended, black people briefly exercised their freedoms as equal citizens. They voted. They held office. Some were elected to Congress. They assumed that not only were they free, they were now equal.

How wrong they were. As the South's economy slowly recovered from the war, Southern whites found ways to put blacks back in their place.

The gradual creation of two separate and decidedly unequal societies of black and white in the South went forward with the full assent of the North.

In fact, the North joined the South in forgetting slavery as the underlying cause of the war.

In 1913, 54,000 veterans, both Union and Confederate, arrived at Gettysburg for a reunion on the 50th anniversary of the battle. It was a sensational national event.

Not a single black soldier was invited.

The only black people present when President Woodrow Wilson gave his address were those who set up the chairs.

The theme of the reunion? Reconciliation. The war had been a big misunderstanding, little more than a chance for brave soldiers to show their manly valor by slaughtering each other for no apparent reason.

A Richmond, Va., paper crowed, "No attention was paid to the causes of the war." Veterans from both sides shed tears and exchanged hugs.

By now, whites of both North and South were on the same side: With the embarrassment of slavery ended, it was time to make sure black people stayed in their place.

Wilson's refusal to mention the end of slavery was appropriate: As president, he worked tirelessly to segregate the Federal Civil Service, which had, after the Civil War, been more-or-less color-blind.

Wilson built separate offices for black and white civil service workers and forced out black workers where he could.

A revived Ku Klux Klan arose in 1915 to terrorize blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants and whom ever else they didn't like. The organization, which enrolled approximately 15 percent of eligible males in the nation, wanted to "take America back" from minorities who threatened their jobs.

Several southern black soldiers who had the gall to return home from World War I in their uniforms were lynched upon arrival in their home towns.

The Klan moved as far north as Grand Forks. Three black circus workers were lynched in Duluth in 1920.

A system of laws solidified in the South which, by the 1950s, prevented blacks from voting, holding office or attending the far superior white public schools.

Segregation was legally enforced in every area of public life while the North looked the other way.

The "new birth of freedom" of which Lincoln spoke in his Gettysburg address failed to outlive the man himself.

Only after World War II did the wheels of change begin to turn.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black major league baseball player since baseball was segregated in 1889.

In 1954, Earl Warren's Supreme Court ruled that separate schools were not equal. President Eisenhower eventually enforced the decision.

From there, the Civil Rights movement arose to slowly tear down the humiliating system of segregation which had built up since the Civil War.

We are more familiar with those recent struggles.

What we prefer to forget are the 90 shameful years during which our nation methodically reduced the rights of its formerly enslaved black population.

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