There is an old maxim that says history is written by the victors. That is certainly true when we look at American history and in recent weeks the nation has started on a path to introspection. Around the country, Americans are revisiting dark periods of U.S. history. Citizens, municipalities, states, and the federal government are trying to determine what is history and heritage, and what is hate.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the history I learned canonized and lionized the virtuous and God-like founding fathers. History books made no mention of the many human flaws of our forefathers and they pushed the messages that our founding fathers were great, noble men.
Away from American educational institutions, I discovered historian Howard Zinn a dissenting voice amongst the chorus of pro-European historians and I began to see that the United States was formed for more reasons than what history espoused—patriotism, freedom, and equal rights. I learned that those men who helped construct the country were slave owners.
It is ironic that I can visit the Washington Monument and then drive just outside of Washington, D.C. and explore the slave quarters on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Somehow, we, as a nation, chose to ignore that our most popular general and first president owned human beings as property. Somehow, this information managed to elude the historians who were writing America’s history books for more than 200 years. In those instances when Washington was identified as a slave owner in historical products the mention was perfunctory, passed off as part of the period’s landscape because all wealthy Anglo-Saxon landowners owned slaves. Washington’s subjugation of his fellow man in bondage rarely raised an eyebrow.
Washington wasn’t alone. It is no secret that Thomas Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves, according to Jefferson’s own “roll of negroes” which he meticulously kept on his plantation. For some reason that information was never really pushed in our society and historians, like Zinn, who tried to teach truth were labeled as unpatriotic or unAmerican, accused of trying to rewrite history.
For Jefferson, “all men are created equal” was a legendary public slogan that became his personal brand, but his true beliefs were that all men weren’t created equal. His actions, owning slaves, coupled with his writings in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, clearly shows a man who did not believe in racial equality. In fact, Jefferson wrote in his book that blacks were inferior to whites and Native Americans. As a statesman, Jefferson made attempts to end slavery all while he profited from the slave owner trade. He was a complicated, often contradicting man.
In 1997, a Harvard historian published a book that led to the DNA testing of an African American family who had long stated that they were part of the Thomas Jefferson family tree. One of those African American descendants of Jefferson told CBS News that when he was young, he would proudly tell his classmates that one of his great grandfathers was Thomas Jefferson. Because he was black, teachers would tell him to sit down and be quiet.
As a nation, we’ve collectively done that. We’ve listened to those who have a voice, those in power, those victors who have written history, but we have muted many who have tried to share their versions of history. When only one voice is recognized and accepted, you have only a partial understanding of history.
Ask Americans from different cultures, races, and socioeconomic statuses what they know about history and they will all give you a different version of history as they know it. If we accept all those varying interpretations of history, or if we at least take the time to reexamine what we think is history, then we start to get a sharper, more focused image of who we are because it is inclusive of all people, and not just some.
In 1998, science proved what one family knew for more than 200 years, that Thomas Jefferson had fathered the six children of a slave he owned named Sally Hemings, their family’s great matriarch. For many, it was hard to accept that Jefferson had a long-term sexual relationship with a slave, starting in her teens, and that he could possibly be a rapist. Studies done by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the National Genealogical Society supported the finding. The falsity of Jefferson’s identity stood for more than 200 years, supported by historians.
About 18 years ago, I was a public affairs officer with the Florida National Guard. My job was to tell the story of the Florida National Guard which is headquartered in St. Augustine, the first European city in the Americas and the oldest city in the United States, by those same standards.
I started to research an article about Fort Mose which is in St. Augustine. I was writing a piece for African American history month and I wanted to tell the story about early Florida militias defeating the British in 1740. Leading the Florida militia on that attack was Capt. Francisco Menendez, an African-born officer who fled slavery in 1724 and joined other escaped slaves with the Spaniards.
What makes Fort Mose significant in American history is that it was the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in what is now the United States. Founded in 1738, the Spanish governor of Florida chartered the settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, or Fort Mose for short, as a settlement for those fleeing slavery from the English colonies in the Carolinas. About 100 former slaves found freedom there. Historians claim that the residents pulled from Native American, Spanish, African and English cultural customs over the 25 years the post prospered. In 1994, the site of Fort Mose was designated as a National Historic Landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As I conducted my research, I noticed an inconsistency. The Florida National Guard claimed it could trace its heritage back to 1565, the year the Spanish founded St. Augustine and organized a militia. The Florida National Guard claims they were the first to muster in 1565 as a European militia in what later became the United States. That conflicted with what I knew to be true because everyone in the National Guard knew that the National Guard was founded in 1636. The National Guard Bureau (NGB), the federal entity that manages the National Guard program, and the Massachusetts National Guard, branded everything with 1636. I knew this to be true because this is what the National Guard said. Naïvely, I didn’t question it. Why would I?
When I determined I had an information conflict, I reached out to multiple people to try to get answers. A colleague at NGB chuckled and then laughingly warned me to leave it alone. He said the two sides took the heritage thing very seriously. He said the “workaround” was to say Florida claimed heritage to the Spanish militia, but that the Massachusetts National Guard had lineage as the nation’s first militia.
I found that comment curious since the National Guard had sponsored a book, I am The Guard: A History of the Army National Guard 1636-2000, where the author claimed that there is a militia roster from St. Augustine dated 1578 that carries the names of forty-three citizen-soldiers. Why then, wouldn’t they recognize the Spanish militia as the first as they do Massachusetts?
On NGB’s website, all of the public facing information about the history of the National Guard excluded a Spanish voice, despite the fact that in Florida it was celebrated, recognized and embraced as part of the Florida National Guard. NGB content positioned the Anglo-Saxon former British militias as the birthplaces of the modern National Guard.
That was 18 years ago and people back then could dismiss legitimate queries as if they were shooing away flies. Today, it isn’t that easy to avoid a reckoning. America’s social climate isn’t asking, it is demanding that institutions conduct some level of introspection. Why are U.S. bases named after confederate officers who took up arms against the nation and how did that happen? Why were certain symbols attached to the nation’s history of slavery allowed on military installations?
As things have unfolded nationally in the wake of George Floyd’s death, I have found myself examining my own experiences as a minority in this nation and I have looked at my own involvement with organizations and institutions in my life. That said, I began to wonder about the National Guard and what I saw 18 years ago. Why did NGB select the Massachusetts National Guard as the “Nation’s First” militia over other militias, including the Florida National Guard? Moreover, what evidence did they have to prove their claim and how was the criteria developed to assert that claim?
Simple questions, right? A few weeks ago I asked NGB for evidence that shows transition from British colonial militia to American militia; I asked for the names of people from NGB who petitioned the Army for the lineage; I asked to see the supportive documentation; I asked to see what the criteria was for determining the lineage.
The responses to my two weeks-worth of queries have been disappointing. My many questions remain unanswered which naturally stirs my suspicions. Why won’t they simply answer my questions? Maybe it is because the answer isn’t so simple.
NGB has passed me to multiple people on their history team. I still have no answers. My interactions with their chief historian have been unproductive and at times were argumentative as he spoke about nuances and danced around the questions I asked. When I pointed out that my questions were not being answered, he became upset and accused me of having an agenda and he referred me back to the NGB public affairs officer.
I’ve interacted with a historian from the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) who recommended I read a list of history books to get answers to my questions. One of his colleagues told me “I’m too busy to argue with you” and asked me to prove my case that the Spanish were the first to muster. I’m not sure that these men understand that questions are not arguments. I explained that I didn’t have a case to prove, I didn’t care who was first, but that I was merely asking them to support their position and he then stated that it wasn’t NGB’s position to defend, that it was the U.S. Army’s position. His response implied NGB had not been responsible for petitioning the U.S. Army for lineage honors for the British militia. This, like the exchanges with the chief historian, only added questions to my list.
The historian who said he wouldn’t argue with me then said something interesting. Rather than provide answers to the questions as I requested, he said: “On my side of this how do you account for the 60 years of military and diplomatic opposition from Florida to the early US republic? How do account for how Florida Militia fought and was driven away by the US Army? How do you account for how this was a Spanish militia and the Spanish Colony sought to divide the United States territories with the Burr conspiracy?”
His colleague had done the same thing. The chief historian had focused on facts that disqualified the Spanish from being considered rather than providing evidence that the British militias were the first. Did the NGB have some type of institutional historical grudge against Spain despite the fact that it was the British that we had to fight in order to win our independence? Even with their place in history as the main obstacle standing in way of the creation of the United States, NGB chose to align our U.S. military history with our primary former enemy. Why is that? If being an enemy did not matter, then why not Spain?
My last interaction with the historians at NGB was when I was told that the chief historian had advised everyone to “disengage” from me.
We are back to where this blog post started. A long time ago someone, or some people, decided to teach kids that Christopher Columbus discovered America. That story was regurgitated for centuries until we as a nation decided that the facts were too many to ignore and while we couldn’t determine how these teachings started, we did conclude that they were not only inaccurate, but dismissive of other cultures in our nation’s history. Slowly that archaic narrative of Columbus is fading.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to examine how the National Guard Bureau asked the U.S. Army Center of Military History in 1956 to award lineage honors to several British colonial militia of Anglo-Saxon heritage, ignoring the Spanish colonial militia history of Florida that included Africans, Native Americans, Spanish and other nationalities.
It’s important to note that in the 1950s, the struggle against racism entered mainstream American life with the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. In 1956, the same year that NGB petitioned for lineage and honors to recognize the Anglo units, the 84th U.S. Congress introduced The Declaration of Constitutional Principles, also known as the Southern Manifesto, in response to the 1954 Brown ruling and to counter threats to Jim Crow laws.
The objective of this series is not to rewrite history, but instead to get a proud and great American institution to examine its heritage and to ensure that it is accountable for the decisions it has made. If all of the decisions made to support lineage to the Massachusetts units can be supported, then there shouldn’t be any problems. But when things start off as they have, based on the current climate of social injustice, I can’t help but feel that the destination isn’t going to be good.
And this fly won’t be shooed away.