Slavery: America's continuing challenge

Opinion: Columns

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Robert Sullivan

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I suggest that America should give special status and priority to descendants of freed slaves who are still living in poverty after almost 160 years. This is around 8 million people, less than 3% of our national citizenship.

When I was in primary school, I thought our country was the first to free slaves, and therefore we were a great people. I did not know much about what the world is and has been. For example, later I learned that the Russian King freed the Russian property slaves two years before American slaves were declared our fellow free citizens.

Several generations ago, the Southern slave class became unschooled, unskilled, destitute freedpersons in a highly competitive America. These easily identified souls were prey for the worst elements of our society. They have been targets for exploitation, immorality, murder, constant slander and exclusion. They have struggled through all of this trauma toward a better life.

Was Frederick Douglass the first highly successful self-freedperson? He said, "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." Who exemplifies American values more than this escaped slave? Why aren't there more statues of him? Since his success, at least half of freedperson descendants have transitioned into the middle class and beyond, but many are still stuck in an American nightmare.

Is there a difference between freedpersons and immigrants? Humans brought here as slaves lost at least three important things that immigrants kept and come with even today. First, the choice of country. Second, the pride, sense of self, and support systems that ethnicity provides. Third, family. Upon emancipation, the freedpersons' disadvantage compared to immigrants was immense.

Efforts to assist, always a low priority for our government, have been hampered by constant dilution and the confusion of appearance versus culture. Desegregation and integration became "diversity," and that takes the focus off of freedpersons' descendants by including immigrant-descendant women, new immigrants from all over world, and a growing alphabet of gender variations. Government financial assistance has punished fatherhood and family life. Appearance-based education solutions are having increasing problems. For example, the Ivy League now fulfills "diversity" with rich students from Nigeria and Ghana.

How does a country make things right for descendants of a former slave population that have become a permanent underclass as new immigrants have joined the middle class every year for more than a dozen decades? I suggest starting at the beginning with the four basics. Give the still impoverished descendants of freedpersons what was originally taken from them. First, the chance and choice of country. We can pay for any of these citizens that wish to transfer for a fresh start to any other country in the world. Anyone leaving will open an immigration spot for someone from their ancestors' origin area. Second, we should offer them free genetic testing so that they will at least know their more specific connection to their ancestors and the world. Third, government financial assistance programs must immediately support and reward fatherhood and family life. Finally, the Freedman's Bureau died with President Lincoln. It should be revived as the Freedperson's Descendants Bureau with NASA level funding and the specific purpose of strategically supporting and advocating for slave descendant underclass individuals' move into the middle class. 

Robert Sullivan is an Oak Park resident.

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