2001-09-16 Grand Rapids Press 500 years later, slavery still casts a shadow

500 years later, slavery still casts a shadow
Grand Rapids Press

Ask Hazel Lewis how slavery affects West Michigan society today, and the local NAACP chapter president will start checking off a long list:

How many blacks do you see in courtroom judges’ seats? On city commissions? On schoolboards? Who is in power? Who is getting the money?

“You can start anywhere you want,” Lewis said. “All you have to do is look around. Four people own Grand Rapids, and you don’t need me to tell you who they are. The playing field still isn’t what it needs to be.”

Lewis’ observations reflect a two-toned, centuries-long struggle. It is a struggle that is a product of the racist philosophy that justified white enslavement of blacks in America from the 1600s to the 1800s.

“Slavery will always play a role in black history,” Lewis said.

Today, by marking Sept 16 as the 500th anniversary of the inception of slavery in the Americas, people here and across the world are remembering that terrible slice of history that still casts a shadow.

The range of emotions and reactions are wide – a mix of anger, resentment, confusing and hope. One sentiment crosses the boundaries: There is still work to be done.

Some believe today’s events will provide yet another starting point.

The Beginning

A Spanish governor on Sept 16, 1501, ordered that a black man be transported as as lave to Hispaniola, modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. His action ushered in centuries of enslavement of Africans and their descendants in the Americas.

The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus is calling on churches worldwide to mark this date with special ceremonies for the next decade.

A group in Ottawa County is holding a special worship service today in Holland to answer the call of the New York-based caucus. The 3pm service at Hope College’s Dimnent Memorial Chapel will feature music, a sermon and prayer, all encouraging the spirits of forgiveness and repentance.

Fred Johnson III, a professor of history at Hope, said Americans must look to the past to solve the social ills of today.

Enslavement of blacks was justified at the time by a racist philosophy. Blacks were seen as less than human and in need of whites’ salvation. “Even though in institution goes away, the mind-set is still there,” Johnson said.

It is why notions of equality between races still are relatively new here and society is still dealing with racism and all its manifestations.

“This is an American problem, and both parties suffered. Obviously, one more than the other, but the other didn’t get out of it clean either,” Johnson said. “When you can do something like that to people, there’s some kind of disconnect with the commonness of humanity.”

For years, countless racial-justice activists have been striving to rid the collective American syche of this pervasive sense of white superiority.

They say a simple apology is needed to start.

Here and Now

“The question is, how do you change the minds and hearts of the people in power?” said Taalib El Amin, a Grand Rapids businessman and recently retired adjunct professor at Grand Rapids Community College.

El Amin and his wife, Shahedah, say they don’t hold out much hope and expect only “more of the same.”

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