After my first post in the last series, 8 Shameful Things Our Founders Believed, I heard from an old friend, Maurice Barboza. We worked together on the staff of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in the ‘70s, after which I moved to the Senate side and left D.C. to return to my Northwestern roots. So did Maurice—literally. He became interested in his past and learned he was descended directly from Black patriots who fought in our Revolutionary War; thus began his lifelong quest to honor them and all their comrades in arms who helped give birth to this experiment with a suitable memorial in our Nation’s Capitol. As a Son of the American Revolution, he and his late aunt, Lena Santos Ferguson, desegregated the Daughters of the American Revolution and squared things with the descendants of Marian Anderson.
He sent me this unpublished op-ed piece he did 25 years ago, on the occasion of the bicentennial of our Constitution’s adoption, with a suggestion on how to make the occasion more fittingly memorable.
As you’ll see, his as-yet unrealized dream was and remains an indispensable cause for anyone who values the blessings of liberty. To learn more and support it, please visit National Mall Liberty Fund D.C., Inc.—EGF
By MAURICE A. BARBOZA
May 11, 1987
Before “We the People” blow out the 200 candles on the U.S. Constitution’s birthday cake, maybe some of their light will be shed on this question before it is too late: What, if anything, has the Commission on the Bicentennial of the Constitution done to fulfill one of its congressionally mandated duties: to”give due consideration to the contribution of diverse ethnic and racial groups?”
The person best qualified to answer apparently wants to remain silent. Former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger—the architect of the celebration and the proposed $332 million legal holiday—“declined comment” on a recent speech by Justice Thurgood Marshall, lambasting the commission’s plans (“Marshall Blasts Celebration of Constitution Bicentennial,” May 7]. A recent [Washington] Post editorial [“Justice Marshall’s Critique,” May 9] did not seek the answer elsewhere, nor did it show even a hint of recognition that Blacks of the Revolutionary era could have at least influenced the moral climate surrounding the debates on the Constitution.
Failing to go the extra mile to explore and interpret potential Black contributions to history reinforces the lies of Jim Crow that say there were none worth exploring. With respect to the Constitution, such neglect tends to reaffirm the discredited Dred Scott decision:
We think they are not…included, and were not intended to be included under the word ‘citizen’.
This is divisive in ways which inflict damage on Black self esteem and lessen the chances for Whites to learn to understand their fellow citizens.
Neglect and fear of looking back make us accomplices to the conspiracy hatched by the earliest slave traders to keep our ancestors, in life and in death, in a degraded state. It is also too easy to dismiss the Founding Fathers as racist when, in fact, one only needs to read George Washington’s will, the letters of John and Henry Laurens, and the remarks of their contemporaries to see how enlightened some of them really were on the slavery question.
The Constitution and the framers’ lack of spine did fail the vast majority of Blacks, particularly the slave Dred Scott and those whose only path to freedom—the underground railroad—followed the quicksand of laws designed to legitimize the return of fugitive slaves. However, history and the dissenting opinions in that case show that the framers did not intend to exclude from the protection of the Constitution Blacks who were not then slaves or who might become free, either through manumission or by the states’ outlawing slavery. That at least kept hope alive among slaves.
Since Black Revolutionary life is not portrayed in history books, we are blind to facts which show that the lives of even the most oppressed of these persons enriched the nation. Instead, Americans resort to familiar stereotypes:
- Blacks were all willing slaves;
- They did nothing to free themselves;
- They did not marry and have legitimate children, develop laudable reputations, fight in the Revolution, vote and aspire to vote, run for public office; and
- They contributed nothing to art, literature and industry.
These sweeping generalities undermine the greatest principle of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—that all men are created equal.
No Blacks may have been present at the Constitution’s conception, but they would stake out future amendments by charting the void left by the Constitution on the moral high ground. These Black Founding Fathers, and their white allies, challenged the institution of slavery, the laws that upheld it, and the men who perpetuated it. They stretched the Declaration of Independence to the limit of its logic, while others retreated. Despite harsh conditions and little opportunity for individual Black genius to rise, Black people made noticeable progress toward the solidarity necessary to build institutions that would train future leaders and attack slavery, which the Constitution failed to root out. Those who were slaves tried to become free. Those who were free tried to help their fellow Blacks still in bondage.
Before the Constitution, Paul Cuffe and other free Blacks of Massachusetts won the right to vote. Elizabeth Freeman challenged the state’s Constitution in court and won her freedom and a decision that would end slavery in the state. Her lawyer said:
If there could be a practical refutation of the imagined superiority of our race to hers, the life and character of this woman would afford that refutation…
Richard Allen and Absalon Jones founded the African Methodist and Episcopal Church and the first Black civil rights association, the Free African Society of Philadelphia, in the fall of 1787. Prince Hall founded the Prince Hall Masons. Crispus Attucks symbolized the unlettered runaway slave. Lemuel Haynes, a Revolutionary War soldier, later preached at White churches in Connecticut. Five thousand Blacks—like Jehu Grant; Gad Asher; James Robinson; and Austin Dabney—served as Revolutionary War soldiers in search of freedom. These are but a few of the hundreds of stories worthy of the Nation’s attention during these bicentennial celebrations.
There’s another, and fascinating, reason to broaden the celebration. In his dissenting opinion in the Dred Scott case, Justice Curtis pointed out that some Blacks were granted citizenship under the Constitution by virtue of the freedoms they’d already won. By 1787, five states permitted free Blacks to vote, and slavery was either abolished or near extinction in the North. The ratification of the Constitution was achieved by conventions in the states whose members were elected by voters who satisfied the minimum qualifications for the election of state officers. It is probable, then, that free Blacks, many of them former Revolutionary War soldiers and freedom petitioners, voted indirectly—along with White male voters—to ratify the Constitution.
Tragically, the protections of the Civil War amendments, for which Blacks paid dearly, were emaciated in the late 19th century by no less evil an institution—Jim Crow. They were regained after a century when the Supreme Court and the American people began to heed the “petitions” of a new generation of black Founding Fathers—many of whom are still in our memory and our midst today, bearing names like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. But the changes that these men brought about were not of their own invention, except to the extent that they were a part of the historic movement for equal rights started by Revolutionary-era Blacks. When will America admit her black Founding Fathers into its pantheon of national heroes
The opportunity is at hand. Next month, the National Capital Memorial Commission will decide whether the contributions of these Black patriots and freedom seekers are of “pre-eminent and lasting historical significance to the nation” and therefore worthy of a permanent memorial on the Mall. If the site is approved by the Secretary of the Interior and the U.S. Congress, construction of the memorial at Constitution Gardens could begin as early as 1989—the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution.
As heirs to the title “We the People,” we could secure that title posthumously for our now-invisible Black Founding Fathers, especially with the support of Chief Justice Burger; Justice Marshall; the private entities now contributing money to the bicentennial; and the Bicentennial Commission itself.