Submitted to the AFRO by Congressman Elijah Cummings
One Family’s Black History
During Black History Month this year, our nation recalled the “Great Migrations” of the last century in which millions of African Americans voted with their feet to leave our southern states for the North in search of equity, human dignity and greater opportunity.
For my own parents, their migration from South Carolina to Baltimore in the 1940s was driven by a clear understanding of the harsh, generations-old reality that dominated their lives.
From hard experience, they understood that the freedom, dignity and opportunities of full citizenship can be lost – as well as gained.
Our family history recorded that, more than a century after our ancestors were brought to America during the Middle Passage, my paternal great, great, grandfather, Mr. Scippio Rhame, finally gained his freedom after spending most of his life as a slave.
In 1868, at the age of 50-plus years, Scippio Rhame registered to vote.
Yet, our family later saw their voting rights and freedom taken from them by the tragic, “Devil’s Bargain” that prematurely ended the first Reconstruction of our nation before it could be fulfilled.
Decades of Jim Crow segregation and terrorism, hardship and poverty followed in the unreconstructed South.
As a result, four generations after Scippio Rhame registered to vote, my parents, Robert and Ruth Cummings, began their adult lives politically disenfranchised and struggling to survive as share croppers in Clarendon County, South Carolina. They were working (but not owning) the same land that Scippio Rhame and his contemporaries had worked as slaves.
We, who know our history, have a very real sense of how difficult life was like for them. Their hardships were graphically described in Briggs v. Elliot – one of the five Supreme Court cases that were decided under the shared designation: Brown vs. Board of Education.
Our history documents the programmed sense of servitude and inferiority into which African Americans were subjected in those years. The sociological revelation of Black children choosing white rather than Black dolls graphically illustrated the psychological damage that was being imposed.
There in Clarendon County, my parents were denied their fundamental human and civil rights: to an empowering education and adequate health care, to economic opportunity, and even to the right to vote for which our ancestors had risked their lives.
Yet, history also informs us that, during World War II, J. Phillip Randolph had convinced President Roosevelt to integrate our nation’s defense industry. That reform created the prospect of decent jobs for hundreds of thousands of poor African Americans who, like my family, had been tied to the land like medieval serfs – and, as a result, Father and Mother could migrate to South Baltimore in search of a better life.
Our History Transformed – at Least in Part
In truth, the Baltimore and America of the 1950s and 1960s were somewhat less than perfect for many Americans – and far less than perfect for those of us who were Black.
Still, as someone who was young during those times, I can attest that more Americans were enlightened than were not – and that this was true whether the color of their skin was Black or White, Yellow or Brown.
They were times of economic dislocations and social upheaval, of the ill-advised military adventures and political assassinations. Yet, our nation’s faith in the ability of our democratic institutions to bring about needed reforms survived.
Federal laws were enacted that better protected our civil rights and included more of us in the benefits of American society. In response, Americans of every ethnic heritage thrived.
Moving Forward in Our Time
With the slowly expanding racial, social and gender integration that we have experienced in the years that followed, Black History has become, increasingly, the American History of our time.
The continuing high esteem in which the American people hold former President Obama offers compelling testimony to this insight – as, perhaps less obviously, does the relatively low popularity of the man who followed his presidency.
Beyond this observation, I remain convinced that the most significant lesson for our time is that our constitutional system has worked, more often than not, strengthening our nation as a more unified society.
Yet, our history also warns us that we must value our hard-won constitutional rights and the institutions that defend them above all else – and, if necessary, even more than we value our own lives.
We must remain strong and unified in our resistance to anyone who attacks our constitutional values and democratic institutions. Whatever may be our differing political inclinations, we are citizens, and not subjects, of this society.
Perhaps most important of all, we must never hesitate to defend the independence of our justice system, the power of our free press, and the sanctity and effectiveness of our voting rights.
From our family histories, we have learned a hard truth. Our freedom can be lost, as well as gained.
As Benjamin Franklin once observed, we Americans have been given a Republic, not a monarchy – but only if we can keep it.
His challenge to America remains a history lesson for our time.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.
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