Williamsburg held an ecumenical Juneteenth worship service. Christians and Jews joined with a few Buddhists and Muslims in a service of music, prayers, meditations, speeches, and joyful optimism. It was movingly encouraging to see the local community of faiths come together in the place where African enslavement began in British North America. It’s also where the American War of Independence came to a successful end, and it’s not far from the one time capital of the Confederacy in Richmond. Jim Crow flourished in the region for the next hundred years. Desegregation came grudgingly and slow.
It’s not a region where one would expect it, but the story of enslavement and its aftermath extending to our own time is being rediscovered, recorded, and celebrated through the combined resources of the entire community. It’s a matter of embracing all of the region’s history without imposing personal guilt or shame on current generations. There are, of course, other voices from the far right that scream at school boards, and sit by sulking as the rest get on with learning and celebrating. It’s not perfect. It’s more like muddling through, with more than a few stumbles but no turning back.
As a recent transplant, it’s all new to me, and I’m relishing it, and it got me thinking about the regions I know best: the Northern Great Plains and Pacific Northwest.
Physically removed from areas of enslavement, western states and territories were pawns in the Civil War era. Afterwards, the West embraced its own more subtle version of Jim Crow without admitting they were doing it, enabling subsequent generations to deny it ever had. But their version of Jim Crow laws restricting black rights is really a subplot; the more atrocious stories of the cruelly brutal treatment of Asian and Mexican Americans were buried under romantic tales of by whom the West was won. Even more cruel and brutal were the Indian wars of conquest fought savagely by both sides. The Indian nations were eventually and fully “pacified” through genocide, starvation, deception, blatant disregard for treaties and forced relocation to a remote, unproductive land.
Those stories are not unknown, but have never been told in a way that weaves them into a more complete historical narrative that celebrates pioneer courage and perseverance. Tales dribble out episode by episode, often romanticized in literature and film.
Asian immigration, for instance, was outlawed from the late 19th century until the mid 20th. Before Asian exclusion acts were enacted, Asian residents were denied the right to own property, vote or go where they liked. They were subject to vigilante violence wherever they began to prosper. It didn’t matter that it was their labor that built the West’s railroads through the most difficult and dangerous mountain terrain one could imagine. Nevertheless, they stayed and persevered, even through the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII.
During most of the 59 years I lived in the Northern Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, Mexicans were called a lot of derogatory names and always called migrants or peons. There were seasonal migrant laborers paid as little as possible and housed in miserable work camps. But many Mexican Americans were descendants of generations in the West. If they were educated, looked white(ish) and fully assimilated into white culture, they were in. Otherwise they were migrants or peons. Change is happening; Cinco de Mayo is a made up holiday celebrating Mexican American culture that is widely enjoyed by all. That’s a good thing, but it tends to veil the history of enormous Mexican American contributions to the development of the West while working under oppressive and exploitive conditions. Today’s Mexican and other immigrants continue to provide the labor needed to sustain Western productivity and quality of life for the more affluent.
These are not unknown stories, they are untold stories that must reach the greater population. Instead the greater population has been entertained and misled by cowboy and pioneer movies, and t.v. shows about frontier marshals, little houses on the prairie, and big Wyoming ranches.
Which brings us to American Indians and the Indian wars. It’s hard for today’s public to comprehend how cruelly vicious the wars were. We don’t want to admit “we” won the West by means that would be universally condemned as war crimes today. Most tribes, not all, were cautiously amenable to white settlement, as long as the settlers respected tribal culture and ways of understanding things like property ownership, care of nature, and making lots of room for each other to live as they were accustomed. The clash of cultures was too great to bridge the chasm that lay between them. The doctrine of manifest destiny brooked no interference to white European conquest, settlement and rule. Lust for silver and gold despoiled sacred places with no concern for justice. The dawn of the 20th century marked the end of declared warfare, but American Indians were not granted the privilege of citizenship until 1924. After generations of impoverished subjugation, tribal leaders are leading the way to reclaiming and asserting their rightful place in American society, and in the stories of America’s history.
The West I know, the Northern Great Plains and Pacific Northwest would benefit greatly from emulating work now being done in the historic colonial triangle of Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown to reweave the narrative of the West’s history, celebrating it in a Juneteenth moment appropriate to the West.