James Parton, one of Jefferson’s earliest biographers, said: “If Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.” Perhaps it would be better to say that Jefferson, and America, have been right on the large principles, but sometimes wrong in failing to carry through on them. Jefferson, the greatest articulator of those principles, spectacularly failed to carry them through on the issue of slavery. His failure anticipated America’s greatest failure, corrected only after civil war and a long struggle for civil rights. We know of no better place to meditate on American history, right and wrong, than surrounded by Jefferson’s words in his memorial by the placid Tidal Basin.
John Rankin was a Presbyterian minister and educator who devoted much of his life to the antislavery movement. In 1826 he published an antislavery book, “Letters on American Slavery,” and in 1834 he founded the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. From 1825 to 1865 Rankin and his wife Jean sheltered more than 2,000 escaping slaves in Brown County, Ohio. The house sat on a high hill over the Ohio River, the border between the free state of Ohio and the slave state of Kentucky. A beacon in the attic window supposedly guided fleeing slaves across the river. Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the house in 1834, and John Rankin’s stories of escaping slaves influenced “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The Rankin house is a National Historic Landmark, and is now maintained by the Ohio Historical Society. Outside is a reconstruction of the stairway used by the fugitives to climb up to the house from the banks of the Ohio River.
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave” in upstate New York, near Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains. Brown bought this Adirondack farm in the late 1840s and owned it for the rest of his life. He was buried there immediately after his execution in Virginia for murder and “treason” in the doomed Harpers Ferry raid of 1859. Brown came to the Adirondacks because a wealthy abolitionist had purchased land there to develop a settlement for free African American families. He spent relatively little time there, however. His abolitionist activities took him from there to England, Ohio, Kansas, and finally Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The small graveyard at Borwn’s farm also includes several others who fought and died with John Brown at Harpers Ferry.
John Dickinson was one of the most effective spokesmen for the colonial cause in the disputes with Great Britain during the years leading up to the American Revolution. Dickinson (1732-1808) grew up on his father’s plantation near Dover, Delaware, but practiced law in Philadelphia during the 1760’s and 1770’s. He attended the Stamp Act Congress which organized resistance to British tax policies, and his series of “Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania” in 1767 became the classic statement of opposition to direct parliamentary taxation of the colonies. Dickinson eventually voted against the Declaration of Independence, but remained in the Continental Congress and drafted America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Dickinson’s restored boyhood home is now preserved. along with reconstructions of other farm structures, on 18 acres of the original plantation. Living history interpreters enact the life of a working colonial plantation, including members of the Dickinson family, plantation tenants, and the family’s slaves. The visitor center contains permanent exhibits on the life of John Dickinson and the history of the plantation.
Links: John Dickinson Plantation
The Delta Blues Museum is located in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a place of mythic significance in the history of the blues. Clarksdale has long been the social and economic hub of the the Cotton Kingdom region, also known as the Mississippi Delta, where the blues began. And according to the legend, bluesman Robert Johnson made his famous bargain with the devil, exchanging his soul for the ability to play guitar the way that he had always dreamed, at the junction of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale. The Delta Blues Museum was located in an old library in Clarksville for 19 years, and is now in the process of moving to Clarksville’s newly restored Illinois Central Railroad Freight Depot. (The Illinois Central was, of course, the railroad that so many black Mississippians rode north to Chicago, carrying the blues with them.) In its new location, the museum is the anchor of “Blues Alley,” Clarksdale’s developing historic blues district. The new museum will present exhibits in a chronological arrangement, placing key blues dates and events in historical, social, political, agricultural, and technological context. The exhibits will feature artifacts, photographs, listening stations with directional speakers, and interactive experiences (playing a real diddley bow, getting to know how a slide guitar feels, etc.).
Links: Delta Blues Museum
Rosedown Plantation is in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, north of the town of St. Francisville. West Feliciana has historically been a largely agrarian region where the proximity of the Mississippi River, which forms its western boundary, has created deep soil deposits in relatively flat valleys. These rich soils became extremely productive and valuable during the cotton boom of the nineteenth century. Rosedown Plantation was one of the largest and richest of the plantations that developed out of the cotton boom. At its height, Rosedown Plantation comprised approximately 3,455 acres, the majority planted in cotton and worked by as many as 450 slaves. The main house at Rosedown was constructed in 1834 in the Carolina Tidewater style with a neoclassical columned facade and double front galleries. The home was furnished with the finest pieces the family could obtain, many of which are still on display at Rosedown today. Formal gardens covered approximately 28 acres around the house. The plantation declined after the Civil War because of the loss of slave labor. Today, the main house, historic gardens, thirteen historic buildings, and 371 acres of Rosedown Plantation are preserved as an historic site by the state of Louisiana.
Somerset Place is a classic antebellum southern plantation. The plantation at Somerset Place was active from 1786 to 1865. It cultivated rice, corn, and wheat and included as many as 100,000 acres during its history. The plantation was worked by more than three hundred slaves of African descent, including 80 who were brought to Somerset directly from their west African homeland in 1786 because of their experience with rice cultivation. The plantation house was built by wealthy planter Josiah Collins III, around 1830. The plantation declined immediately after the Civil War when the end of slavery deprived the plantation system of its economic viability. Today the main house at Somerset Place is furnished with period pieces, including a few that belonged to the Collins family. Outbuildings include the kitchen, smokehouse, dairy, and a small house which served as the residence for the Collins family until the mansion was built. Since the early 1950’s archaeological excavations have investigated the lives of the plantation gentry and the slave community. Living history reenactments depict the persistence of African culture and traditions in the slave community as well as the agricultural and domestic technology with which the slave laborers worked.
Links: Somerset Place Plantation
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was among the first black regiments to take up arms for the Union during the Civil War. The 54th was composed predominantly of free blacks from the North including two sons of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The use of black troops in combat was highly controversial in both the North and the South. In the northern states, it was widely believed that black soldiers were not as dependable as their white counterparts. In the South, the use of black soldiers was met with great disdain. So much so, that the Confederate Government issued a proclamation stating that any colored soldiers captured at arms against the Confederacy would be sold into slavery, and any white officers leading black troops would be put to death. The 54th Massachusetts was organized in 1863 as a test case in this controversial debate. Unlike earlier black regiments, the 54th was equipped and trained as well as white regiments. On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts led the attack on Battery Wagner, a part of the coastal defenses of Charleston. In a vicious assault, the 54th charged into the teeth of the forts defenses. The attack penetrated the Confederate lines, and under withering musket and cannon fire the flag carried by the 54th was planted atop the parapet of Battery Wagner. The intense fire from the Confederates and the staggering casualties, including the regiments Colonel, Robert Shaw and over 250 men eventually forced the 54th to retreat. In the aftermath of the assault, some 60 members of the 54th were captured and taken to the Charleston Jail to await trail for insurrection. Two of these men, a sergeant and a corporal, were tried for their lives at the Charleston County Courthouse. With the help of local barrister and northern sympathizer, Nelson Mitchell, the men were aquitted. Spared the death penalty, the men of the 54th remained imprisoned until the end of the war. They were finally released in the spring of 1865. Today, the Courthouse where the trial took place, as well as the jail still stand.
Mary McLeod Bethune was one of a formidable generation of leaders who arose in the early 20th century within the African American community to confront racism and segregation, and to claim the community’s rightful place in the American dream. “What does the Negro want? His answer is very simple. He wants only what all other Americans want. He wants opportunity to make real what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights say, what the Four Freedoms establish.” Mary McLeod Bethune founded Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida and served as an advisor on African American affairs to four presidents. She founded the National Council of Negro Women to address the problems of the black community. Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site is a three-story Victorian town house that was Mary McLeod Bethune’s last Washington, D.C. residence and the first headquarters of her organization.