Archive for the 'In the News (National/International)' Category

Elizabeth Keckley in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Today Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated new film, Lincoln, opens in theaters across the United States. Covering Lincoln’s final months in office, the film portrays the actions he took to end the war and abolish slavery.

Spielberg based more than 40 of his characters on historical figures; included in this group is Elizabeth Keckley, an enslaved woman whose 1868 book (Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House) UNC Press and the UNC Library republished last year through the DocSouth Books program.

Keckley, born a slave in Virginia in 1818, suffered through decades of slavery’s horrors, including beatings and a sexual assault. Eventually, she raised enough money to purchase freedom for herself and her son, moving to Washington, D.C. to work as a seamstress. A close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, for whom she sewed, Keckley eventually published Behind the Scenes both as a slave narrative and a memoir of her relationship with the First Lady. The book also attempted to defend the sale of Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses to help solve Lincoln’s financial problems.

Unfortunately, negative public reaction to the book’s revelations of Mrs. Lincoln’s private feelings and financial troubles caused Keckley’s dressmaking business to fail and the Lincoln family to cut off ties with her. But Behind the Scenes remains an important view into the Lincolns’ life and the White House of the 1860s, quoted to this day by biographers.

To learn more about Keckley, check out this summary from the Documenting the American South web site. To see a sketch of a gown Keckley created for Lincoln, check out this page from the Smithsonian Institution.

To purchase Behind the Scenes in print-on-demand paperback or electronic format, click hereDocSouth Books, a collaboration between UNC Press and UNC Library, brings classic works from the digital library of Documenting the American South back into print and makes them available as downloadable e-books or print-on-demand publications.

Slate recently published an article comparing historical photos of the real people to pictures of the actors who portray them. Click here to view this article.

Kate Masur, author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C., recently wrote about the movie in a New York Times op-ed. (Click here to read the story.) Harold Holzer, co-author of The Confederate Image and The Union Image, also commented on the movie in this article from The Telegraph.

From The Chapel Hill News: Unexpected library discovery unearths historical tale

The Chapel Hill News recently printed a story about new research by historian Benjamin Filene, a UNC-Greensboro history professor whose trip to the North Carolina Collection at Wilson Library (UNC Chapel Hill) set him off on a multi-year study surrounding fifty 1930s-era photographs.

The photographs, which were used to illustrate Stella Sharpe’s children’s book Tobe (UNC Press 1939), explore African Americans’ lives on North Carolina farms. Filene has traced the photos to two Greensboro families, and the stories to an African American tenant family living on Sharpe’s own land. Apparently, Sharpe wrote the book after one of the African American tenant farmers asked her why the individuals pictured in her children’s books didn’t look like him.

Filene will continue his research, with the possibility of exhibiting it in the Orange County Historical Museum, where he will give a talk this coming Sunday, October 28.

To read the Chapel Hill News article, click here.

Sharpe’s book, Tobe, is available for purchase through UNC Press’s Enduring Editions collection.

From the Civil Rights Project: Increased School Segregation and How to Combat It

The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently released three reports analyzing segregation trends in public schools.

The first report (“E Pluribus … Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students”), while acknowledging a rapid increase in minority enrollment, also shows a serious increase in segregation for Latino students, particularly in the west, as well as an increase in school segregation for African American students.

The second and third reports focus on the South and the West—areas which, although quite diverse, also show high levels of racial and economic segregation.

Addressing such issues as poverty and racial isolation, the reports suggest several ways to reverse resegregation trends and increase educational equality. To learn more, and to read the reports, check out the project’s website.

To learn more about racial and economic school resegregation, check out John Boger and Gary Orfield’s edited volume School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back? (UNC Press 2005).

In 2009, the UNC School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights brought together hundreds of educators, civil rights advocates, scholars, and government officials to discuss efforts for integrated education. To learn more and to watch a video of the presentations, check out this page from the Center for Civil Rights.

From Online Colleges: 9 Signs Student Rights Are In Danger

Staff writers from Online Colleges, a company offering resources and articles about online education, recently published a story about threats to student rights. The company outlined nine educational policies which violate students’ rights—for example, mandatory drug testing and pregnancy testing, and institutional challenges to free speech. To learn more, check out the blog post.

A U-Turn on Civil Rights

Anthony Amsterdam, the lawyer and influential death penalty advocate, recently said that “a cardinal feature of the death penalty in the United States has always been its racially biased use.” In fact, its racially biased use has been the cardinal feature of the death penalty in the United States.

This is no less true in North Carolina, a state with a reputation for the kind of business-minded practical politics that should preclude the existence of a punishment system founded on racial prejudice. But if the state’s reputation rested on its death penalty system alone, it would be very different, and much dimmer. That reputation enjoyed a boost not long ago when the state legislature passed the Racial Justice Act, a measure that addressed the operation of racial bias in the death penalty process by allowing death row inmates to seek to demonstrate bias in their cases. If they could do so, they would face life imprisonment rather than lethal injection.

In April, Michael Robinson, who is black, successfully demonstrated the role of race in his death sentence and had the sentence rescinded. Judge Gregory Weeks’s decision left no room for debate: the death penalty system that produced Robinson’s death sentence was deeply corrupted by racial bias, particularly at the jury selection level. There was no credible argument to the contrary. (More on the decision here.) Essential to Weeks’s decision were statistics that demonstrated the role of racial bias in jury selection.

Continue reading ‘A U-Turn on Civil Rights’

Oral Historians Must Hand Over Oral Histories

From the Chronicle of Higher Education: Boston College must release interviews with former IRA members conducted by oral historians who assured their subjects the interviews would be confidential. From the ruling: “The choice to investigate criminal activity belongs to the government and is not subject to veto by academic researchers.”

The decision has apparent implications for any oral historian promising confidentiality to their interviewee. That implication being, you can’t.

First African American Marines Recognized—70 Years Later

The name “Tuskegee Airmen” typically brings a nod of recognition from people across the country and world. But far fewer are familiar with the Montford Point Marines, a group of African Americans who in the summer of 1942 integrated the U.S. Marine corps—the last wing of the United States armed forces to ban African Americans from its ranks. Trained on a segregated Marine base in Jacksonville, N.C., the Montford Point recruits had a much different experience from that of their closest neighbors, the white recruits of Camp Lejeune. It would be seven years before the training facilities were integrated.

Now, 70 years later, this group—which totaled over 20,000 between 1942 and 1949—will finally be recognized today when surviving members are presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The recognition is long overdue for a group which—despite facing discrimination and hostility at home—sent thousands of Marines off to war. Only about 500 of the original 20,000 are known to be alive today.

The summer of 2010 marked a turning point in the American recognition of the Montford Point Marines, when a Senate resolution named August 26th Montford Point Marines Day. Then, in 2011, the Marine Corps marked the group’s 69th Anniversary by inviting Montford Point veterans for a weekend in Washington, D.C., with a breakfast at Marine Barracks near the Pentagon, followed by tours, town hall discussions, and other activities.

Marine Commandant General James Amos urged lawmakers to award the Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal, resulting in a bipartisan effort sponsored by North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan and co-sponsored by dozens of other legislators. The House and Senate voted unanimously, and President Obama signed the bill into law. Today, at 3 p.m., surviving members of the Montford Point Marines will gather on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to receive the long overdue honor.

To learn more about this under-recognized but highly accomplished branch of the Marine Corps, check out Melton McLaurin’s book, The Marines of Montford Point: America’s First Black Marines, (UNC Press, 2007). Based on more than sixty interviews with Montford Point veterans, this work gives voice to a group whose achievements have for many years not received the recognition they deserve. Author Melton McLaurin also directed a related documentary, which aired on PBS.

Click here to view a video clip from a House session in which U.S. Rep. Steven Pearce rose in support of H.R. 2447, the bill to award the Medal. Click here to read the final version passed by the House and Senate.

To read a story, and watch video footage from the day of the Congressional vote, including interviews with Montford Point Marines, click here.

Click here to view a slideshow of pictures of the Montford Point Marines, taken in the 1940s and in 2012.

Click here to view photographs of the Montford point Marines, as well as oral history transcripts and photos of artifacts.

To learn more, check out this page from the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program.

Unavoidable: The Racial Justice Act’s First Run in North Carolina

In a decision that received nationwide coverage (New York Times coverage here) last month, Marcus Robinson, sentenced to death in 1994, was resentenced to life in prison without parole after proving that race was a significant factor in the process that resulted in his death sentence. The Racial Justice Act, the piece of legislation that made Robinson’s hearing possible, allows those on North Carolina’s death row to win relief from their death sentences if they can demonstrate the influence of race on the decision to seek or impose the death penalty in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or of state at the time their sentence was imposed. Unlike its only counterpart in Kentucky, North Carolina’s law allows for the introduction of statistical evidence. According to Judge Gregory Weeks, Robinson’s evidence not only demonstrated that race was a significant factor in each of those concentric circles of influence, but also that prosecutors in Robinson’s case deliberately discriminated on the basis of race in jury selection for Robinson’s trial. Read the whole decision here.

In other words, Robinson demonstrated the undeniable role that race plays in the death penalty in North Carolina in just about every possible way.

Continue reading ‘Unavoidable: The Racial Justice Act’s First Run in North Carolina’

Historians respond to the killing of Trayvon Martin

This post has been crossposted from View the original post here.

Minkah Makalani, author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939, writes at the NewBlackMan blog:

Watching Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin fight back tears and struggle through an unimaginable range of emotions in talking about their son Trayvon Martin’s death, I recognized an expression I’ve seen only once before. It was the same look on my mother’s face nearly twenty years ago, when my brother died after being shot: empty, confused, lost. Like Trayvon’s parents, my mother had no reference for how to handle that depth of pain, for how to help her other children confront the unimaginable, while simultaneously planning a funeral and having to wrap her mind around never seeing a son she had seen nearly everyday for eighteen years.

Trayvon Martin’s killing at the hands of vigilante George Zimmerman, and my brother’s murder, are similar yet quite different. Both were teenaged black boys, and both of their killers remain free. Both were adored by their families and friends, had gregarious personalities, and their losses have left loved ones searching for answers to explain the fulsome lives cut so horribly short. And their deaths have revealed to those closest to them the fabric of a social order where the loss of black life figures less as a rupture than as an intricate weave in the pattern.

Makalani goes on to explore the perception of the black body in American society:

At the risk of a sacrilege, at issue is not whether Zimmerman was racist or hated black people. Outside the hate crime provision that would allow federal prosecution, whether he used a racial slur is largely irrelevant to the question of where and how black life fits into the structure of race in America. The claims and convoluted reasoning of Zimmerman’s father, lawyer, and friends that he is not racist, even if true, do not change the fact that Zimmerman operated within the matrices of race that deems black life a perpetual threat which only deadly force can halt. That Zimmerman was a vigilante helped bring this case into our national consciousness. But as Mark Anthony Neal explains, rather than an individual act, at issue is “the way that black males are framed in the larger culture . . . as being violent, criminal and threats to safety and property.”

I urge you to read Makalani’s full post, “Death Without Sanction or Ceremony,” at NewBlackMan.

Blair L. M. Kelley, author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, approaches the subject from the classroom. She writes at

When I teach about the history of the segregated South, sometimes my students remark that things are just as bad now as they were then, that conditions for Black Americans are still as bleak for too many. Often my response is that if someone were to hang me or them by that tree in front of the building, someone would come. The law would investigate. Our citizenship would matter in at least that crucial way.

This month is challenging that assumption. When Trayvon Martin was murdered for looking “suspicious,” killed without any pretense of a trial, the police failed to come. I know that they came to the scene of the crime, but they failed to come with the force of the law on behalf of this young man. His body was tested by the state with the assumption that somehow he was the criminal and needed to be screened for drugs and alcohol. It was Martin’s guilt, not his murderer’s, that was assumed on the scene. The police decided on the scene that Martin’s death was justified, not worthy of careful investigation or trial. They didn’t even bother to use his cell phone to try and contact his next of kin quickly. Instead his body would be left unidentified for days.

Read Kelley’s full post, “A New Strange Fruit: Martin’s Murder Takes Us Back” at

The title of her article refers to an old ballad about lynching that was made famous by Billie Holiday. If you’re not familiar with the wrenching song, take a deep breath and watch Holiday sing it here:


Voices for Civil Rights Part 3

Part 3 of the Southern Oral History Program’s series on WUNC, “Voices for Civil Rights,” aired this morning. Listen to it here.