I was born and raised in St. Pete, and I grew up a racist. I have written about this process in a book titled “The Making of a Racist,” and one reason for my persistent juvenile bigotry was the fact that my racist ideas were never challenged, not once, as I went through North Ward Elementary School and Mirror Lake Junior High in the 1940s and ‘50s.
I suspect our current governor would be just fine with this.
I was, too, back then, but I am not at all happy about it now. I needed some serious education when it came to matters of race.
Racism was passed down to me, as it had been for countless generations of white Southerners, with all the certainty of a genetic trait. It was almost a process of osmosis — we absorbed the toxic culture of white supremacy. We learned the bizarre racial “etiquette” of the Jim Crow South just by watching how the white grown-ups around us acted — never shake hands across the color line; first names only, never “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss” when speaking to an African American adult; never use the jelly glasses and chipped orange china in a corner of our kitchen cabinet reserved for our maid and our yardman; never use the not-very-nice half-bath off the back porch. The list was endless.
When I was old enough to go downtown by myself and spend some of my precious allowance, the Municipal Transit System buses I rode had signs telling “Colored” passengers to move to the rear. The Kress Five and Dime Store (the sign painted on the side of the building is still there) had “White” and “Colored” water fountains. The ubiquitous green benches lining Central Avenue were for whites only. The schools were segregated. The hospitals were segregated. Residential areas were segregated. The cemeteries were segregated. Even the jokes I learned were “segregated” — all of our so-called humor was race-based, and we invariably told those jokes in dialect.
I did leave town for high school in Virginia, and I ended up getting my college education at Williams College in Massachusetts. I had an African American classmate in my freshman dorm, the first time I had ever been on a level playing field with a person of color. We shook hands when we met — another first for me — and we became friends. And it was there that my courses in American History and the History of the South introduced me to things like the institution of slavery and the rise of racial segregation in the late 19th- and early 20th-century South, the same decades when the Lost Cause myth was whitewashing Confederate history and monuments honoring Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were springing up like mushrooms after a rain on courthouse lawns across my native region.
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At Williams, I became fascinated by Southern history — how had all of this come to pass? — and I went on to graduate school and university teaching jobs in the South and the North, eventually returning to Williams, where I taught for more than 40 years.
I am now a resident of St. Pete again, and I am watching with dismay as the governor’s anti-“woke,” book banning and “don’t say gay” bills sail through our Legislature and a much-needed Advanced Placement African American Studies high school course is turned back at the state line.
Let me offer, as an antidote to this commitment to willful historical ignorance, a single document, one that I used in the opening class of my courses on the History of the Old South and the Civil War and the Era of Reconstruction. It is a single-page manuscript — a broadside — an original antebellum document from the Chapin Library, the rare book and manuscript collection at Williams. It’s printed at the top of this essay. When I handed it out to my students, I did not tell them what it was, but they soon grasped what they were holding in their hands. It is a price list of human beings, offered for sale in August 1860 by a Richmond, Virginia, slave-trading firm.
I don’t think this document needs much explanation. It represents the absolute, abominable essence of the South’s “peculiar institution”: the chattel principle, human beings as property, men, women and children (the latter priced by height) being offered for sale like livestock.
One item in this price list invariably stood out to my students, the first handwritten line in the “market report” added by the slave traders’ clerk at the bottom:
“Good Young Woman & first child $1,300 to $1,450.″
Since under slave law the child took the condition of the mother no matter who the father was, the buyer was purchasing not only this young mother and her firstborn but was also acquiring the promise of her already-demonstrated fertility. Each baby born to her in the future would constitute, at the moment of his or her birth, an addition to the wealth of the master or mistress (to give some idea of what this “wealth” represented, consider this fact: The multiplier to get those 1860 dollars into 2023 dollars is 37).
Should Florida high school or middle school students have access to this document? Should they be able to discuss it and its meaning under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher? My answer would be an enthusiastic and unqualified “yes.” If I had been exposed to this deeply educational broadside when I was a student at Mirror Lake Junior High, the process of my unmaking as a racist might have started much earlier.
Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History Emeritus at Williams College. He is the author of “The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.”