I share the hard stories. I love telling difficult stories. But lately its’ become harder to tell them. Just as my faith was being tested I picked up my latest issue of History News and realized I was not alone. We’ve all heard how misery loves company, but this was more about the challenge. The need for getting it right was as Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries said We as a nation don’t want to deal with hard history. We don’t want to deal with those stories of the past that make us uncomfortable.(1) We can’t worry about being comfortable, we need to get it right.
When my first book A Window through Time was published in 1991, I had been commissioned to write a pictorial history. A feel good coffee table book, yet I was proud that there was one mention of slavery at least. Today, thanks to the internet, we are flooded with images and stories of slavery. And while there are many who push back, and either ban the books that tell these stories, or tear down monuments that share images that make us uncomfortable, we still have to strive to get it right. As Jeffries said We have an ethical obligation as educators and keepers of the past to get it right…We have to be bold in how we preserve this history, how we share this history, how we talk about this history, and how we breath life into this history. (2)
Currently I’m working on telling the story of an enslaved man named Archer Alexander, a story I feel really needs to be told. Not because its’ the story of an enslaved black man, or even because he was a hero. Not because he’s the ancestor of Muhammad Ali, or the slave on the Emancipation Monument either. But because we all need to get it right. In 1885, William Greenleaf Eliot, put down Archer’s story for his grandchildren saying the following narrative was prepared without intention of publication; but I have been led to think that it may be of use, not only as a reminiscence of the “war of secession,” but as a fair presentation of slavery in the Border States for the twenty or thirty years preceding the outbreak of hostilities.(3) But the publishers felt the need to change a few details, like the names of Archer’s owners, family, and even his age and the location of his grave.
Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot brought the first Unitarian Church west of the Missisisippi to St. Louis. He was a founder of Eliot Seminary, which would become Washington University. And he was one of the Directors of the Western Sanitary Commission, a private non-profit humanitarian agency that worked to bring hospitals, nurses and aid to the Union troops, both black and white. But as I often try to explain that the book doesn’t get it right, I get pushback. It makes people uncomfortable to give up their heroes. Eliot wanted Archer’s story to be told, but just like a film maker that takes artistic license, he wouldn’t let a good story get in his way.
Today many of us rely on the internet for our history. I invite you to dig a little deeper and visit a museum. Expose your children to places that make them think, ask questions and experience new stories that can prepare them for the world we live in. Read a book, especially if it is banned. See what they don’t want you to read. It might make you uncomfortable at first, but that’s how we grow, and move forward. Winston Churchill said The further backward you look, the further forward you can see (4). Maybe then we can get it right! I know I am going to keep on trying.
- (1) History News, Magazine for the Amerrican Association for State and Local History, Autumn 2021 Volume 16 #4
- (2) History News, Magazine for the Amerrican Association for State and Local History, Autumn 2021 Volume 16 #4
- (3) The Story of Archer Alexander from Slavery to Freedom, March 30, 1863, Cupples, Boston, 1885
- Winston Churchill