Historical Hypocrisy, Part Two

I saw a comment on Twitter the other day in reference to the murder of Auhmad Arbery that referenced this rising from the roots of slavery in the South.

In his detailed history of the first battles of the Revolutionary War, Nathaniel Philbrick takes the time to include details that might not have been widely reviewed in our history classes and should make smug northern people more than a little uncomfortable. These include the basic hypocrisy at the foundation of the revolution.

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which boldly proclaimed that all men are created equal, one in five Boston families owned slaves. In fact, as the provincial soldiers (Philbrick rarely calls them patriots) headed to Bunker Hill, they passed through the Charlestown common past the place where “Mark was hung in chains.” Philbrick describes this gruesome landmark:

In 1755 the slave Mark had been executed for conspiring to poison his abusive master. Whereas his female accomplice had been burned to death, Mark had been hanged; his body was then stuffed into an iron cage that was suspended from a chain at the edge of the Charlestown Common, where the corpse was left to rot and be picked apart by birds.

The site was well-known, according to Philbrick, and he reminds us:

Slavery was more than a rhetorical construct for the city’s white residents; it was an impossible-to-ignore reality in a community where African men, women, and children regularly bought and sold and where anyone taking the road into or out of nearby Charlestown had no choice but to remember what had happened in 1755 when a black man threatened to overthrow his oppressor.

Finally, for those who may be thinking, but this is before Northern states outlawed slavery. I will end with a more contemporary example that occurred in Pennsylvania, the state formed by Quakers in support of religious freedom. My first teaching position was in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town about an hour west of Philadelphia. The division was quite diverse with African Americans from the city and whites coming in from the more rural county. New teachers were offered a bus tour of the division to help understand its dynamics.

First stop? The local hospital on the hill where, in 1911, Zachariah Walker, an African American mill worker was taken after an altercation with a Edgar Rice, a white local law enforcement officer, that left Rice dead and Walker with a gunshot wound. A mob came together and pulled Walker, still chained to his bed, from the hospital and threw him on a hastily created fire. As the fire melted the chains, Walker crawled from the fire and was thrown back at least two or three times until he died, surrounded by a huge crowd of white men, women and children cheering on his death. According to my tour guide, Rand McNally took Coatesville off the map for some time in response to this horrific event.

I lived down the hill from the hospital in the late 1980s. It was only in 2006 that a historical marker was erected. But, Coatesville carries the history in its soul as the 100th anniversary showed. 


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