Op-Ed | Good community journalism scrutinizes American slavery and its evolution to today


Behind every great fortune lies a great crime, French early 19th century novelist Honore de Balzac advised.

Less flamboyantly phrased, Balzac’s message was that some fortunes start with a crime or two.

If America’s wealth can be called a fortune, an offense linked to it was slavery, of which most Americans are keenly aware and yet which many have found painful to examine in sharp detail.

One result has been that historical scrutiny of the slavery era was for a long time, with some exceptions, weak in attention paid to the daily lives of African Americans enslaved, their perspectives on that era, and their experiences during the decades after abolition when lynching was used to shore up that echo of slavery, Jim Crow.

Over the past three decades, books and studies looking more closely at African American lives in prior centuries have increased in number. Recent examples include: “The Half Has Never Been Told,” by Edward E. Baptist, out in 2014; and, “Colonial Complexions,” by Sharon Block, out in 2018. This amounts to something of a trend, and the trend has extended beyond books and other academic work. African American experiences during slavery reached popular cinema in 2013 with “12 Years a Slave,” based on an 1853 slave narrative.

Combined exhibits that opened recently in Montgomery, Ala., also carried this apparently growing area of interest beyond books. One is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, recognizing over 4,400 African American victims of lynchings over a 70-year period starting about 1880, and the Legacy Museum, tracing slavery’s impact on current-day issues. The exhibits resulted from efforts by the Equal Justice Initiative.

Wisely, the Community Word published work by two Peoria writers and a photographer examining the Montgomery exhibits. Their report on the exhibits appeared in a supplement included in this January’s Word issue. Central Illinoisans deserved to be updated on these exhibits and through them on the increased historical scrutiny being addressed to American slavery and its aftermath, something both whites and blacks are likely to find illuminating. The Word performed a valuable service with this reporting project, in effect answering a call for good community journalism.

The Word’s report did not flinch in noting the lynchings that occurred in Illinois, including some in the central part of the state. It also observed the significance of the exhibits’ location. Montgomery is a city whose local history has been wedded to the exhibits’ content and is now wedded to it in a different way.

Probably the chief benefit of exhibits like these, and of studies digging into the same subject matter, is that they leave a person understanding the U.S. better. In addition, they probably make it easier to unravel contradictions that emerge in life around you especially when race-based issues crop up.

The Montgomery exhibits and other work in a similar vein suggest the past carries impacts in the present. In this case the past was not long ago. A Jim Crow segregation system supported by lynching followed slavery in much of the country, in part resembling the slavery that had gone before it; and the Jim Crow system did not collapse until about 1970, not even 50 years ago. That slavery and Jim Crow still impact the present should surprise no one. Thus, the Word’s reporting on the Montgomery exhibits should keep some readers up to date on current inquiries into old history that is not very old at all.

Deckle McLean is retired director of the journalism program at Western Illinois University. He is a novelist and has also written about press law and privacy.

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