'Black Lives Matter' Twenty-nine Years Ago.

By Kent Hackman

[Editor’s Note: Be sure to check the bottom of the page for classmate comments, which are most welcome. And you can add one, as well!]

America woke up this year to the fact that Black Lives Matter. That sensibility was absent at Yale in the late 1950s. I might have had a Black Lives Matter moment when a Black kid on Elm Street bent his knees to shine my shoes, but I didn’t.

Black Lives Matter was not an issue when I was an air defense artillery officer, stationed at Stewart Air Force Base, on the Hudson, in an NORAD sub headquarters. Around the clock I worked in “weapons direction” with Air Force officers and enlisted men, many of whom were Black, as was PFC Taylor, one of the two men assigned to me to ensure, as we watched displays on a monitor, that our Nike missiles would attack incoming Russian aircraft. I missed the chance to ask Colonel White, a Black officer on the command dias, and other Black offices and enlisted men about their life experiences. Those conversations just didn’t happen.

In graduate school at the University of Michigan in the 1960s race did not come up in my course work in history. I was too busy with my own life to give attention to the handful of White faculty and students who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The truth is, I scarcely knew what was going on outside the academy.

For most of my professional career at the University of Idaho I was isolated from matters of race. Rural, conservative Idaho did not favor a Black Lives Matter experience. I had none of the few Black student-athletes in my history courses.

Matters shifted in the 1980s when my research on William Beckford, twice Lord Mayor of London, Jamaican planter, and slave owner, took me to study the slave trade in the British West Indies. I focused on two closely related topics, the role of the West India Interest (WII) in the House of Commons, 1788-1833, and the West India Planters and Merchants (WIP&M), an organization promoting commerce in sugar and slaves. I wanted to know how the WII, a Parliamentary minority, blocked widely supported humanitarian legislation to end slavery on West Indian sugar plantations.

My research produced papers at professional meetings, regional and national, as I worked toward articles for publication. Without knowing it, I unconsciously gained an appreciation, that the UK abolitionists had understood very well, that Black Lives Matter.

I gave a major paper at the Eighth International Congress on the Enlightenment, in Bristol, in July 1991. Bristol was as a major British port for the slave and sugar trade. In July of this year Black Lives Matter protesters toppled and threw into the harbor a 1895 bronze statue of Edward Colston, Bristol’s philanthropist and slave trader.

In “The West India Planters’ and Merchants’ Opposition to the Abolition of Slavery, 1788-1833,” I explained how ship owners justified their trade in human cargoes, with its high mortality and untold misery, and how sugar plantation owners cruelly exploited their slave labor. From the late 1780s through the early 1830s, they stood firmly against enlightened and humanitarian reforms. To modern sensibilities, the planters and merchants occupied the moral low ground, a point I stressed in paper. They thought themselves in the right, in their emphasis on profit, in their conservatism, in their dedication the Constitution of Great Britain, and in their loyalty to the King. Protection of property and profit motived them and justified their moral conduct.

The planters and merchants, represented by the WII in the House of Commons, did their utmost to maintain the status quo and their profits. To that end, they advanced three lines of argument.

● Racism: They claimed the superiority of the Europeans over Black Africans inhered in the natural order.

● Economics: The planters and merchants rightly claimed that their commerce was central to the country’s prosperity. In 1788 the slave trade had a value in excess of £2 million. The value of slaves, land and houses in Jamaica, according to an estimate of 1789, was £39 million. Mortgages in the West Indies totaled £70 million.

● The spectre of revolution and social collapse. Their petitions called the abolition movement a “perilous undertaking, pregnant with mischief out of the reach of human foresight.” They feared the “triumph of savage anarchy over all order and government” and the destruction of property by persons who exercised a “wild and lawless freedom.”

Reform eventually prevailed, although legislation to end slavery moved with glacier slowness. First the slave trade was regulated, then ended, and finally in 1833, Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire. The British government paid out £20 million to compensate some 3,000 families that owned slaves for the loss of their “property.”

When I finished the delivery of my paper, I believed that I had made a convincing case for understanding why the WII and the WIP&M had blocked reform. I stressed that their intransigence had prolonged for decades the misery and inhumane treatment of slaves on the West Indies sugar plantations. I expected an applause for my paper.

I got the opposite. A Black woman quickly rose in anger and vigorously took me to task for what she judged to be my favorable assessment of the WII and the WIP&M and my lack of sympathy for enslaved peoples.

This was my personal Black Lives Matter moment. I was cut to the core. I thought that I had been clear that I considered slavery, the slave trade, and everyone engaged in preserving those institutions worthy of moral condemnation. I had failed to communicate that sentiment in my paper. When she departed quickly, I missed the chance to talk with her. I was unable to learn her name nor did I see her at subsequent sessions or at a reception. Today, almost three decades later, I see my paper and the research behind it with fresh eyes and a deeper appreciation for Black Lives Matter.

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