Then and Now

This afternoon I was researching a talk I have to give next week. I was reading about the pre-emancipation efforts by Northern businessmen to force Lincoln’s hand on the issue. As opposed to their more moralistic counterparts, men like John Murray Forbes and Amos Adams Lawrence focused on the practical, almost commonsense reasons for emancipation which were largely that free black laborers would contribute more to the nation in terms of production and consumption than they would as slaves: essentially a free labor argument. These were men who cared little for the slave, were often pejorative about those they met. Their real concern was their fear of the Slave Power in national politics and their sense that the institution of slavery undermined the free market system. And yet their money and enterprise was focused on proving the ability and the worth of slaves to survive and prosper outside of bondage at a time when most Americans doubted that possibility.

This evening the phone rang as I was listening to the debate between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren for the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy. The voice was that of a southern Afro-American woman phoning for a political solicitation. We danced around initially with me a little reluctant to get drawn into a phone conversation when I wanted to listen to the debate which was scratchy and substantive and exciting. But then she mentioned that pledges would be tripled. So I agreed to give some money. Soon she was calling me “Miss Carol” and we were upping my pledge by a symbolic $2.50 for the 25 seats needed to win in the House of Representatives. As we said goodbye she reminded me to vote as my vote was as important as my contribution.

Three days before I had stood in Mount Auburn Cemetery as the reconstituted Company A of the 54th Regiment laid a wreath at the restored memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. I had drunk a glass of wine with two re-enactors whose ancestor had served as enlisted men in the original 54th regiment. He had survived. Mine, an officer, had not. But the rise of the black Americans from slavery to full citizenship, begun more than 150 years ago as a mix of ideals, pragmatism and the most basic self-interest, is still part of our on-going history and the young volunteer who phoned me tonight brought it to life vividly.

A Southern woman of color, embracing both the flavor and heritage of the South as she spoke to me, a white northern woman, calling me respectfully, and deferentially, Miss Carol.  At the same time she was manning the phones, raising money and urging me to exercise my fundamental right to vote all in the interest of protecting her political interests.

Gotta love it!

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