When it comes to Christopher Columbus, he indeed landed in the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, in the first documented arrival of Europeans to North American soil.
The fact that Columbus sailed across the Atlantic on the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria and landed in North America should not be erased from our history books. What should be written is the whole story, how Columbus and his men brutalized the native peoples and enslaved them to help in their quest for gold.
Any Indigenous person will tell you, Columbus most certainly did not “discover” America.
I recall our first trip to the Deep South, a long weekend in New Orleans many years ago. We listened to jazz, had a mint julep at Pat O’Brien’s and visited historical sites. The Cabildo is one of them, originally built by the Spanish as the colonial city hall. The Louisiana Purchase was completed there in 1803 by American Spanish and French officials.
I was struck then – 30-some years ago – how little mention there was about the impact of slavery on the South. I recall a small exhibit on free Blacks, but no mention of the slaves who tended the plantations and built much of the South’s infrastructure.
Last spring, a road trip took us through another part of the South, to Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.
We toured the Wormsloe State Historic Site near Savannah. The land was home to Noble Jones, who arrived from England in 1733 with James Oglethorpe. Jones became a doctor, constable, Indian agent, and surveyor, and commanded a company of Marines against the Spanish who were attacking the Georgia coast.
As you read Jones’ story, it is amazing. He did all of the work, ran a massive plantation, had several children and managed to do it all alone! No mention anywhere of women and no mention of slaves. (I did occasionally see mention of the “workers” who picked cotton and did manual labor.)
So who, when Jones left for months at a time to survey new towns or to fight off the Spanish, ran the plantation? Perhaps a strong woman, his wife, kept the plantation going? And what about the “workers”? Who tended the fields and the gardens, who harvested the grains, who fed the families who lived there? Well-treated, high-paid employees? No. Slaves.
In Charleston a few days later, our tour bus guide shared some real history. One of the stops is now a farmers market, but it had originally been the area where Africans were brought from the ships to be sold as slaves. I heard one person on our tour yell, “Don’t rewrite history.” I can only guess that he believed that some of us, in order to be politically correct, feel such sites should not be identified. But no, this is another case where we need to tell the whole story. Much of early America was built on the back of slaves, mostly from Africa, who toiled in the fields, built the cities and roads that connected them.
Women, too, have been omitted from the history books. Being a woman in early America – free and slave – was hard work. You fed, clothed, and bore the children. You worked long days, seven days a week.
I was impressed with a small museum we stopped at this spring near Atlanta, the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.
The museum’s main panels told the stories of the men (yes, mostly men) who forged the railways across the southeast and then eventually across the nation. Yet, as I read through the information, I could see that they had taken great care to tell the whole story. Additional plaques and displays shared stories of women of the railroad as well as of the laborers who built the railroads, many of them Black men recently freed from slavery but destined to only find work in hard labor.
We cannot change the facts of the past. George Washington still was our first president and Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant but flawed man. And we know everything about Alexander Hamilton.
But let’s tell the other stories, too, like those of the women who held the families together and supported the Revolution. Let’s give credit to many of them who were very intelligent and influential in creating this democracy.
Let’s tell the story of slavery – why it started, where it propagated (including the existence of slavery in the northern states) and why its lingering effects remain with us today.
I hope that future history books, when it comes to the chapter called “Minneapolis 2020,” will tell the whole story. It will tell about George Floyd and what happened to him one summer’s night, and how his death led to a revolution. I hope the chapter tells about the riots and destruction, about the quick and massive effort by the townspeople of all races to clean up and support each other. I hope it tells the stories of the women, the children, the elderly who helped rebuild the city. I hope the bad guys’ stories are there, too, like the opportunists who targeted drug stores in hopes of scoring narcotics under the guise of protest.
No, history cannot be rewritten. But we can rewrite the history books – and include the whole story.
— Peggy Bakken is a former executive editor and a columnist for APG-East Central Minnesota. Reactions welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org.