Depicting the realities of Black history, which include many cruel chapters, clearly never crossed Rockefeller’s mind when he originally built this town. Yet it is a reality that museums across the U.S. still struggle with—especially living museums. The question of what history to present and how to present it is a challenge, and one that has, until relatively recently, been long ignored.
The challenge of integrating other people’s stories into the narrative, especially when those stories can be quite unpleasant, has led to different responses by different historical sites.
Some have decided to only showcase positive stories of African Americans and other minorities, while ignoring the atrocities. Other museums, like the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, decided to focus on the atrocities. Still others simply try to avoid the controversy all together.
Fort Monroe, Virginia, had clearly chosen the path of avoidance. This decommissioned base featured plenty of Confederate history, such as Robert E. Lee’s quarters and Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ jail cell.
Yet besides a small historical marker, the Black history at this site was ignored, and that decision wasn’t at all insignificant: in 1619, this was the site where America’s first enslaved Africans arrived.
This history was downplayed for a long time; however, a new African American superintendent, Terry Brown, was determined to change this. He started programs featuring the site’s critical history, and pushed for a large, permanent memorial at Fort Monroe, which is now in the planning stages. He also led the drive for a new exhibit at the nearby Hampton History Museum featuring the 1619 Landing.
Brown ensured some positive aspects of Black history at Ft. Monroe were also featured: Sergeant William Harvey Carney was stationed there, who became the first Black Medal of Honor recipient. The infamous Harriet Tubman, a trained nurse, treated wounded and sick African American soldiers at this historic site. (Tubman was also the first American female commander, of any race, to lead a U.S. military operation.)
Thirty minutes away from Ft. Monroe is Colonial Williamsburg. This living museum was emblematic of most historical sites that tended to paint prominent historical figures as unblemished heroes while whitewashing the past. By the 1990s, African American and American Indian historians were hired to give lectures and display exhibits on Black and Native American history during this time period. This helped to give a more honest and accurate portrayal of the full American story.
Very recently, Colonial Williamsburg also created a committee to explore the area’s queer history, since there were documented cases of prominent colonists who might have lived outside the norm of the time. There’s even a performance about a researched case of a relationship between two female colonists, although it isn’t featured on the museum’s website.
It’s relatively easy to do re-enactments depicting positive or neutral aspects of the history of people of color. For example, visitors can talk with free Black business owners of the time period, like Edith Cumbo.
Visitors can also learn about Black heroic figures, like James Armistead Lafayette, the Black spy for George Washington who discovered that British Army General Cornwallis was at nearby Yorktown. This led to the Battle of Yorktown, which literally ended the Revolutionary War. Or they could listen to a re-enactment featuring Gowan Pamphlet, a Black preacher who risked everything to found one of America’s oldest Black churches.
However, it becomes more problematic depicting the more painful—and common—stories of enslaved people. Even Lafayette’s heroic story is greatly complicated by the fact that he was still a slave.
Daryl Dupree and Raven Ford were two of the few African American visitors touring the area, and they told me they were not interested at all in seeing representations of slavery. Dupree said he had no intention of watching re-enactments involving enslaved people because he didn’t need to be reminded of the horrors. “Racism is still alive and well.” Ford, his companion, didn’t object to the programming, but said she didn’t believe any performance could properly interpret the cruelty of slavery in a 30-minute play.
One of the maintenance workers who overheard our conversation had a very strong opinion against portrayals of slavery, although he declined to be named for this story since he was contracted to work for Colonial Williamsburg. He said he feared the portrayal of slavery might traumatize Black children, and added that he didn’t think that was worth the cost of “educating white children about racism.” Although he opposed most slavery re-enactments, he also said he wanted to see re-enactments of what he called “fighting Blacks,” like Nat Turner, Charles Deslondes, and others who literally fought for their freedom.
Stephen Seals, the senior manager of Colonial Williamsburg’s African American history program, explained how he would respond to what seemed to be a common sentiment against slavery re-enactments by African Americans. “First, I understand. I used to feel exactly the same way. Yet the plight of our ancestors is not about suffering, it’s about survival. These performances humanize people like me, and that helps … so I don’t get shot!
“The legacy of slavery is racism, until we understand what happened, we can’t fix what is happening.”
Seals admits it can be hard to find Black actors willing to play roles that depict slavery. Some leave, but others, like him, view it as a duty. “Why would we expect others to care about our history if we don’t care about our own history? These stories are about our resiliency, and we show why enslaving people was so very wrong.”
These kinds of re-enactments, however, can take a heavy toll on the actors. As a result, living museums like Colonial Williamsburg pay for therapy for their interpreters. Although the actors say most of their experiences are positive and help clear up some ridiculous misperceptions, and at least one has found success with a comedic web series that highlights the ignorance of some of the guests, there are hostile and downright bigoted interactions they must sometimes deal with. Cheyney McKnight, a historical interpreter and founder of Not Your Momma’s History, recounts being in tears over rude guests.
Black actors depicting slaves will get uncomfortable questions, sometimes coming from children. They are asked if they are whipped, why they get punished, or how much they cost. Although one Black actor said when he asked a child why she wanted to know about the price of a slave, the answer wasn’t what he thought. “She wanted to know so she could tell her parents to buy my freedom.”
Seals said that as a Black kid, he didn’t get any of his own history. He grew up in a nearby area, but admitted he never visited Colonial Williamsburg until he was hired here. Perhaps not surprisingly, Black families make up a very small percentage of the visitors. Many see it as a museum for the American mythology of our history, but Seals said one of the reasons he came here was to try and change that by integrating Black history. The one takeaway, he told me, was that he wants people like the ones I interviewed to see these performances, which always includes a question and answer session afterward. ”I want them to leave feeling a strong sense of pride about their heritage, rather than shame.”
Some of the plays tackling the topic of slavery are metaphorical, like Thomas Jefferson having a discussion with Jupiter, his enslaved servant, over a chess game in a performance called “White Goes First.” Others, however, are much more intense. One that Seals wrote, based on a researched true story, is called “What Holds the Future?” It dramatizes the very real story of 50 African Americans who were abandoned by the last British royal governor and then sold as property by the new Patriot government.
In addition to uncomfortable interactions with the public, the actors also have to learn about the awful social dynamics of portraying their characters, such as averting their eyes when their overseers enter a room. Seals said it’s not for everyone. “We’re taught to be detached from your character. Doing these roles really tests that hypothesis.”
Chetter Galloway was at the controversial slave auction back in 1994. He said the storytelling at Colonial Williamsburg helped inspire him to become a professional storyteller. He has worked as an historical interpreter at living museums such as nearby Carter’s Grove Plantation, which has had its own controversy when they rebuilt 18th-century slave quarters in the 1990s. Galloway said he also understands the uncomfortable nature of portraying enslaved individuals, but supports it if they rise to the challenge of being accurate and respectful. “The lives about the people who were enslaved are important to tell because their voices will be silenced and left unheard if no one shares their stories.”
However, people like Seals and Galloway still have their work cut out for them in changing minds. A longtime African American friend of mine, who declines to be named, still refuses to go to Colonial Williamsburg or the other nearby sites of Jamestown and Yorktown. Even after reading the passionate arguments for historical re-enactment and watching a play online, she remained unconvinced. “There is no one arguing you need to re-enact the Holocaust” she told me. She noted that the crowd in the video she watched seemed to primarily be white, bringing up the question of who these reenactments are really for.
Yet depicting slavery is just one challenge. Another point of contention among many African Americans is the fact that so much emphasis is put on slavery. Most people think of Black history as being composed of a few major events, like slavery and the 1960s civil rights movement. However, African American history is a rich tapestry that has influenced every major event in our nation’s history and every facet of American culture.
The Harlem Renaissance marked the first time that mainstream publishers and critics turned their attention seriously to African American literature, music, art, and politics. There are beautiful exhibits at several museums, like this one at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, but unfortunately, they are normally showcased only during Black History month in February.
There were great historic successes, such as Black Wall Street in the early 20th century, which featured an affluent Black community with hundreds of businesses. It was destroyed by a two-day race riot from an angry white mob. It has a small memorial in Tulsa, and many people weren’t even aware that this community existed until HBO’s Watchmen series debuted in 2019.
There are multiple Black heroes in every single American war that most people haven’t heard of, including Colonel Tye, Abraham Galloway, Henry Johnson, Doris Miller, and my hometown Medal of Honor hero, Alwyn Cashe, just to name a few. Most people couldn’t name several prominent African Americans, such as the cardiologist who performed the first successful open heart surgery (Daniel Hale Williams); or the first female millionaire of any race in the U.S. (Madame C.J. Walker); or Robert Smalls, who is just awesome:
One teacher, Nikki Clarke, said after her elementary students tell her what they know about Black history, which is usually slavery and civil rights, she passes out potato chips (invented by renowned chef George Crum) and lets them play with super-soakers (invented by NASA engineer Lonnie G. Johnson) so they can associate Black history with things they love.
One of the big issues discussed with Seals is the fact that Black history is treated as just that: Black history. For centuries, history has been Eurocentric, and when movements started to include other kinds of histories, they were pigeonholed as separate. There will be a month, or a chapter in a book, or a separate event that showcases “other” history. Yet in reality, all history is integrated. The African American spy who ended the Revolutionary War is an American hero story, not just a Black hero story. There might hopefully be a time soon when historical events are treated that way.
Museums have to do a lot of soul-searching. One positive example comes from a different kind of museum: an art museum. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, has 60,000 square feet of art; almost all of it was composed of stodgy paintings or sculptures of old, white Europeans.
The local community, now largely people of color, weren’t visiting. William R. Peelle Jr., chairman of the board of trustees, did something pretty radical. He made it his mission to connect with the local, minority residents, and he did this by replacing the entire board of the museum to be more reflective of the local community. He decided he couldn’t change the museum to connect with the locals without people of color on the board.
He said that decision came after a lot of his own “soul-searching”:
What do we need to do to be a better board? That’s not a negative. It’s an opportunity to look at governance and what we should be in our role in Hartford. Museums have to begin to have that discussion.
I wish all museums would. People want to go to places that represent them, and museums can’t connect visitors to the past if they ignore their past. Putting people of color on museum boards is critical and very beneficial.
In Richmond, Virginia, I used to visit the Museum of the Confederacy. This museum celebrated the Confederate States, which shouldn’t have been too surprising as Richmond used to be the Confederate capitol. That museum went through an entire transformation thanks to its first Black and first female CEO, Christy Coleman, who was named by Time magazine one of “31 People Changing the South.”
She started at Colonial Williamsburg as an historical interpreter when she was only 17 years old, portraying a young slave named Rebecca. After completing her graduate degree in museum studies at Hampton University, she returned to Colonial Williamsburg as director for Interpretive Programs Development. She was later named CEO of the American Civil War Center in 2008 after six years as CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.
At the American Civil War Center, Coleman integrated the exhibits to tell a more complete story of the Civil War from all sides: Union and Confederate, soldiers and civilians, enslaved and free African Americans. It’s a more comprehensive experience, and one that has proven very popular with the local community.
She admitted to being exasperated at times at people who wouldn’t acknowledge historical fact. “Coming into this job, I don’t think I fully appreciated just how much heritage memory had usurped forensic history. I mean the records are right there!” Although she said she makes herself stop and take a less exasperated approach in order to try and “help people where they are.”
Coleman was so successful she was asked to take over the Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation, which is one of the most prominent historical foundations in Virginia. She oversees both the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Coleman has promised to do for these museums what she did in Richmond, and tell a more complete story about our nation’s early beginnings.
Many of America’s stories are painful and difficult, but so is our history. Unfortunately, there are those who don’t want these stories to be told. Many Republican lawmakers are determined to keep whitewashing Black history. In fact, conservative southern states have enacted legislation that punish schools that focus on slavery and the legacy of white supremacism, such as presented in the “1619 Project,” claiming efforts to teach that history is “racially divisive.”
Trump responded to the 1619 Project by appointing an 18-member commission of conservatives—none of whom were historians—to present a fictional, alternative history that painted the Founding Fathers as heroes for setting “the stage for abolition.” Their report also criticized current efforts to address racial discrimination because that somehow “hurts” equality and our social fabric.
This kind of willful ignorance is why a Republican legislator fiercely defended the Three-Fifths Compromise using a completely inaccurate alternate history that it was really about ending slavery. It’s also why this legislator in Louisiana wondered out loud why schools can’t teach the “good” of slavery:
Martha Huckabay, a Republican official in New Orleans who served as a Trump delegate, responded to this by doubling-down on the fiction of “good slavery” and fiercely defended the institution by falsely declaring “many of the slaves loved their masters.” This false mindset is not uncommon, and proves the need for another difficult and necessary discussion on what to do with education beyond museums. We must integrate the resilient histories of minority populations into America’s school curriculums.
Most public schools aren’t even mandated to teach Native American history at all. Japanese internment camps aren’t covered in history classes. Slavery is taught, but there are textbooks being used right now that encourage children to come up with “positive” aspects of slavery. A Colorado school board taken over by conservatives wants to focus on “patriotism” while curtailing teaching about the civil rights movement because it condones ”civil disorder.” This is why school board elections are so important.
It is possible to learn to appreciate the American experiment without the bizarre hero-worship of our founders, just as it’s possible to learn about America’s mistakes without succumbing to cynicism. Giving the complete story isn’t just good history, and it isn’t just a popular idea, it also gives people a foundation to forge a shared historical inheritance that can inspire civic responsibility. To put it another way: it makes for a better society.
I don’t pretend to know the answer of how to best engage with some of these difficult narratives, but I do know they deserve to be told; and making that effort would be better for everyone. Having minority representation on museum boards is a good step toward doing that, and better integration of their history will bring in much-needed new visitors from communities whose heritage we have ignored for far too long.
I know these changes are painful, but the hard work and emotional labor of telling these stories are already being done by people of color. The very least the rest of us could do is listen.
Juneteenth is a new holiday for many Americans. For my family, it’s always been personal
I’ve covered some of my research successes in other stories, like 2020’s “Juneteenth: We’re still on the road to freedom and justice,” but I have not shared many of my thoughts about Texas.
Texas has a strange history when it comes to Black folks and enslavement, as documented here in the “Free Blacks” entry in the Handbook of Texas, from the Texas State Historical Association.
As of 1792 the Black and mulatto population constituted 15 percent of the 2,992 people living in Spanish Texas. Within the Spanish empire, the legal status of free Blacks resembled that of the Indian population. The law required free Blacks to pay tribute, forbade them to carry firearms, and restricted their freedom of movement. In practice Spanish officials ignored such restrictions, often encouraging the manumission of slaves. The small number of Spanish subjects in Texas and the vast distances between settlements also brought about the intermarriage of Whites, Blacks, and Indians. While most free Blacks in Texas before 1800 were born there, thereafter an increased emigration to Texas of free Blacks and some escaped slaves from the southern United States began to take place. After the Mexican War of Independence (1821), the Mexican government offered free Blacks full rights of citizenship, allowing land ownership and other privileges. Mexico accepted free Blacks as equals to White colonists. Favorable conditions for free Blacks in Texas in the 1830s led one noted abolitionist, Benjamin Lundy, to seek authorization for the establishment of a Black colony from the United States. While the Mexican government expressed interest in the idea, opposition from Whites in Texas and the United States precluded its implementation. Free Blacks, as did other frontiersmen, continued to emigrate to Texas seeking an opportunity for advancement and a better life. […]
The Constitution of the Republic of Texas designated people of one-eighth African blood as a separate and distinct group, took away citizenship, sought to restrict property rights, and forbade the permanent residence of free Blacks without the approval of the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Interracial marriages were also legally prohibited. Ironically, local communities and legislators that favored the new provisions often did not want them enforced within their districts. Documents show that prominent Whites were known to intercede on behalf of free Blacks in danger of being prosecuted by the new regulations. A stricter law passed in 1840, which gave free Blacks two years to leave Texas or risk being sold into slavery, was effectively postponed by President Sam Houston. […]
After annexation, the legislature passed stricter laws governing the lives of free Blacks. These new laws called for harsh punishments usually reserved only for slaves, including branding, whipping, and forced labor on public works. In 1858 the legislature even passed a law that encouraged free Blacks to reenter slavery voluntarily by allowing them to choose their own masters. The increased restrictions and the rise in White hostility resulted in a virtual halt to additional free Black immigration to Texas and may have caused a reduction in the Texas population of free Blacks. The United States census reported 397 free Blacks in Texas in 1850 and 355 in 1860, though there may have been an equal number of free Blacks not counted.
That timeline became particularly relevant when my search for my first cousin’s Texan family hit that brick wall. They do not appear in any listing of free Blacks, therefore, they must have been enslaved. I knew that Anna Gibson was listed in the Freedman’s Bank Records as born in Texas around 1823. Her daughter Idella was listed as born in 1861, also in Texas. My uncle Louis—Idella’s grandson—said she was born in Galveston. That’s all I know. My family is luckier than most Black folks, as we have a picture of Idella when she was an adult.
What is clear from that photograph is that Idella has white ancestry. What does that mean for Anna, the enslaved woman who was Idella’s mother?
We may never know. But we do know that many children were born into slavery and kept enslaved, in spite of having white fathers. We also know that enslaved Black women were raped and bred for profit. Further, we know that in parts of the South, mixed-race Black women were often kept as concubines.
Anna got out of Texas as soon as she could and moved to Maryland, where she opened a sewing school. She was listed in the 1870 census there.
Now comes the hard part: Imagining her life under the yoke of enslavement. None of it is pretty. None of it fits the fairy tales offered to white children about “happy darkies” on the plantation lazing their days away. Nowhere in those fabrications are those “massa’s offspring” mentioned.
As some of you may know, the Black community has problems with “colorism,” an artificially developed hierarchy based on light-skin and European hair texture. On the other hand, and less discussed, is the ugly underbelly to which those fair complexions point; realities which often don’t get openly talked about in families, or are tales only shared in whispers among the elders. This unspoken “downside” of being light-skinned continues to this day. I have a friend who was much fairer than her parents. She was dubbed “trick baby” in the school yard, the other kids sneeringly insinuating that her mama had been a sex worker impregnated by a white “trick.”
There are thousands upon thousands of Black families with ancestors who were light-skinned with European-textured hair. Most have long opted to claim Native American heritage to explain away that great-grandma whose “hair was so long she could sit on it.” In most of those cases, DNA testing disproved those family legends. Think of the “why” for these narratives: Few people want to loudly proclaim that their great-grandma was repeatedly raped and brutalized by her owner (or the overseer), which is why Grandma looked like she did.
In a quick check of the 1880 census (using my Ancestry.com database) I find 1,017,015 people listed as “mulatto,” and 5,572,280 listed as Black; the 1870 census listed 629,806 “mulatto” people, and 4,140,145 people as Black. Census takers weren’t “race” scientists, of course; they weren’t offering DNA tests to prove ancestry. Instead, they simply eyeballed a person and determined whether they were or were not a “full-blooded” Black person, based solely on their skin color, facial features, and hair texture.
In 2014, I wrote the following in “The ‘other’ U.S. slave trade”:
I once wrote about myself that “I am the product of a bicentennial of breeding farms.” Some of my enslaved ancestors looked whiter than many “white” people, like my great-grandfather Dennis Williams.
They were not descendants of Irish indentured women who had children with Black indentured men. They were born out of the rape of their mothers by overseers and/or owners.
In Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, Gregory Smithers takes on the naysayers:
For over two centuries, the topic of slave breeding has occupied a controversial place in the master narrative of American history. From nineteenth-century abolitionists to twentieth-century filmmakers and artists, Americans have debated whether slave owners deliberately and coercively manipulated the sexual practices and marital status of enslaved African Americans to reproduce new generations of slaves for profit.
In this bold and provocative book, historian Gregory Smithers investigates how African Americans have narrated, remembered, and represented slave-breeding practices. He argues that while social and economic historians have downplayed the significance of slave breeding, African Americans have refused to forget the violence and sexual coercion associated with the plantation South. By placing African American histories and memories of slave breeding within the larger context of America’s history of racial and gender discrimination, Smithers sheds much-needed light on African American collective memory, racialized perceptions of fragile black families, and the long history of racially motivated violence against men, women, and children of color.
This is an ugly history we cannot ignore. So today, though I’ll celebrate Juneteenth, I’ll continue to think about Anna from Galveston. Maybe one day I’ll luck out and find someone who also has her in their family tree, and find out not just more of her story, but more of my kin.
The nightmare of enslavement finally ended on this day in 1865, but those of us descended from those who were freed back then have not all had a happy ending. In fact, the persecution faced by Black Americans has not ended at all.
We are simply in another chapter of a book that is not yet finished. We will, however, get to see the impact of Juneteenth being made a federal holiday; it passed the Senate via unanimous consent on June 15, passed in the House on the 16th with a vote of 415 to 14, and President Biden signed it into law on the 17th.
It’s been a long haul to get to this point in the road, and we still have farther to go. This victory along the way should lift our spirits and move us forward.
Voting Rights Roundup: In major about face, Manchin lays out path for compromise on election reforms
Manchin’s new memo identified several key aspects of H.R. 1 that he supports either in whole or in modified form, including provisions that would:
- Mandate 15 consecutive days of early voting, including two weekends;
- Ban partisan gerrymandering and “use computer models,” the latter of which isn’t further specified;
- Establish automatic voter registration through state driver’s licensing agencies;
- Require states to promote registration for groups such as people with disabilities;
- Ban false statements intended to discourage voting;
- Improve federal funding for training election officials;
- Require that states notify voters of polling place changes at least a week before Election Day;
- Adopt prepaid postage for absentee ballots;
- Allow voters to vote if they show up at the wrong precinct but in the right jurisdiction for races that they are eligible to vote on; and
- Require disclosure for “dark money” campaign donations and ads.
Manchin’s position on no-excuse absentee voting was more opaque, with his memo stating that the bill should “[r]equire states to send absentee by mail ballots to eligible voters before an election if voter is not able to vote in person during early voting or election day due to eligible circumstance and allow civil penalty for failure.” Separate reports, however, indicated he opposes mandating that all states that still demand an excuse (now just a small minority) remove that requirement for absentee voting.
Although Manchin’s exclusion of existing provisions from the For the People Act in his memo doesn’t necessarily indicate he opposes them, he did specifically express opposition to the bill’s provisions that would set up a system of public financing for campaigns, which has been one of the main focuses of Republican attacks.
Perhaps most controversially, he urged a national voter ID requirement. While the voter ID bills passed by Republican-run states have enraged progressives due to their undisguised aim of suppressing turnout among communities of color, the suppressive effect of such a requirement could be greatly reduced if the federal government were to create a free and widely available national ID card. Democrats may understandably not be keen to include such a compromise, but it may be well worth the cost if it means securing a much more important ban on congressional gerrymandering and major expansion of other voting access measures like automatic registration.
Finally, Manchin also addressed the content of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would revive the invalidated “preclearance” regime of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court’s conservatives struck down on pretextual grounds in 2013.
Manchin has long said he wants to see this legislation passed and has proposed imposing a nationwide preclearance system that would require all jurisdictions seeking to change their voting procedures to first obtain approval from the Justice Department or a federal court to ensure they don’t discriminate along racial or ethnic lines. Manchin’s new memo, however, called for additional changes that could undermine the efficacy of the bill, such as reducing the attorney general’s power to deem a jurisdiction’s “actions as a voting rights violation without a judicial finding of discrimination,” which could potentially mean bogging down disputes in court for years.
While Manchin’s latest demands are likely to disappoint Democrats and democracy reformers who have called for as wide-ranging a bill as possible, Democrats hold little leverage over the West Virginia senator, whose vote is essential to overcome both GOP procedural obstruction and opposition to reform on the underlying merits. Manchin’s move to detail changes that could win his vote is a key first step toward reaching some sort of compromise that could one day pass Congress, though many more hurdles remain. One of those hurdles is quickly approaching after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Democratic senators this week that a procedural vote to advance voting legislation will take place on Tuesday.
● Louisiana: Democrats have blocked the Republican majority in Louisiana’s state House from passing a constitutional amendment that had won bipartisan support in the state Senate to add two seats to Louisiana’s Supreme Court and redraw the malapportioned districts for the first time in decades, with a requirement to redraw the districts after every decennial census thereafter.
With a two-thirds supermajority needed in order to advance, Democrats had supported the amendment in the upper chamber because expanding the court would have made it easier to draw an additional district where Black voters could elect their chosen candidates. House Democrats, however, balked after Republicans stripped out a provision to require mapmakers to consider race when drawing the districts.
Only one district of the seven used to elect justices to Louisiana’s Supreme Court allows Black voters to elect their preferred candidates, even though Louisiana’s population is one-third Black and it would be eminently feasible to draw a second Black-preference district. Though Democrats had supported expanding the court in order to ensure a second Black district, that still would have left the court with fewer such districts (two of nine) than the Black share of the state’s population (three of nine).
Republicans, meanwhile, were likely interested in passing this amendment in order to moot an ongoing federal lawsuit that is seeking to compel the drawing of a second Black district under the Voting Rights Act.
● North Carolina: North Carolina’s Republican-run state legislature has passed a bill with some bipartisan support to allow dozens of local governments to postpone this fall’s local elections for offices that are elected using districts in order to allow more time for redistricting thanks to the delayed release of key census data. Instead, those localities would move their elections to coincide with the March 2022 primary by extending the terms of some officials.
While the proposed change is a one-off measure intended to address census delays, the bill also permanently moves elections in the state capital of Raleigh to November of even-numbered years, starting in 2022, and extends the terms of current incumbents by a year. This provision’s inclusion has proved divisive for Democrats: Every Democrat in the state House backed the bill, but all of Raleigh’s Democratic senators shortly thereafter opposed it, arguing that city officials had violated requirements to obtain public input.
If Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signs the bill into law, combining these election dates with federal races could lead to higher turnout and will likely save money on election administration. However, the provision switching the dates of Raleigh’s elections also eliminates runoffs, allowing a winner to prevail with only a plurality.
Voting Access Expansions
● California: State Senate Democrats have passed a bill intended to strengthen California’s automatic voter registration law by changing the way in which prospective voters are given the chance to opt out of registration. Currently, eligible voters who do business with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles are automatically registered unless they choose to opt out at the time of the transaction, known as a “front-end” system. This latest bill would instead shift that opt-out opportunity to a subsequent mailed notification, a “back-end” system that proponents hope will encourage more new voters to remain opted in.
● Connecticut: Democratic legislators have returned for a special session and passed a spending bill that includes several voting expansion provisions that had failed to pass as a separate bill during this year’s regular session. Those provisions include:
- Automatic voter registration at multiple state agencies;
- Ending the disenfranchisement of anyone with a felony conviction who is not in prison by restoring the rights of people on parole;
- Requiring employers to give their workers two hours of unpaid time off to vote.
- Allowing online applications for absentee ballots; and
- Making absentee drop boxes permanent after their temporary adoption last year during the pandemic.
The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont for his expected signature.
● Delaware: State House Republicans have blocked Democrats from passing a constitutional amendment to remove Delaware’s excuse requirement for absentee voting, with Republican opposition denying Democrats the two-thirds supermajority needed for it to pass. The Democratic-run legislature had previously passed this amendment prior to the 2020 elections, the first of two times required for it to become law, and many of the same Republicans who voted against it this month had supported the measure when the House passed it in 2019.
Democrats are two seats shy of the necessary supermajority in the state House, and while this latest vote dims hopes of passing the amendment, it isn’t completely dead just yet. Two Republican members didn’t vote either for or against the measure, and since Democratic Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst also voted against it in order to allow her party to bring up the amendment again at a later date, it’s possible that those two Republicans could provide the votes needed for passage.
However, legislators are scheduled to adjourn this year’s session at the end of June, and if those Republicans don’t come on board either later this year or by next year’s session, Democrats will have to hope they can gain a two-thirds supermajority in a future election. That would entail pushing back the earliest date the amendment could take effect, since constitutional amendments in Delaware must pass in identical form in two consecutive legislative sessions with an election taking place in between.
● District of Columbia: A majority of members on the Democratic-run Washington, D.C. Council are sponsoring a newly introduced bill that would give voting rights in local elections to non-citizens with permanent resident legal status, best known as green card holders.
A few smaller jurisdictions around the U.S. in recent years have granted voting rights in local elections to non-citizens, and San Francisco, California, has let non-citizens vote in school board elections, but no jurisdiction as large as D.C. has yet done so in local government races. Noncitizen voting was widespread in the U.S. during the 19th century but largely ended by around 1920 during an era that saw lawmakers pass major restrictions on immigration based on race and nationality.
● Louisiana: Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed a bill passed by Louisiana’s GOP-run legislature with widespread bipartisan support to extend the early voting period in presidential elections from seven to 11 days.
● Nevada: Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed multiple bills passed by Democratic legislators that aim to expand access to voting in Nevada, including measures that:
Abolishing the presidential caucus in favor of a primary will both make it easier to vote and let Nevada’s diverse electorate weigh in before heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire, the traditional first states. However, officials in those other states will almost certainly take action in retaliation that could involve moving up their own elections, which risks the national party committees imposing sanctions on states if they violate party rules governing election timing.
The enactment of these new laws follows on Sisolak’s earlier signing of another new law that will permanently adopt universal mail voting after its temporary adoption last fall due to the pandemic.
● New York: Shortly before adjourning this year’s regular legislative session, New York’s Democratic-run legislature passed multiple bills to improve voting, including measures that would let voters request absentee ballots online and “cure” supposed problems with their provisional ballots, known in New York as affidavit ballots; currently this latter process is only available for absentee ballots. However, Assembly Democrats failed to approve a Senate-passed bill that would have made absentee ballot drop boxes permanent after they were temporarily introduced last year due to the pandemic.
In addition to the above measures, Democratic lawmakers also passed two other election-related bills recently. The first would let voters track the status of their absentee ballots and applications, while the second would require election officials to begin processing absentee ballots shortly after they receive them rather than waiting several days after Election Day to begin doing so. All four bills now need Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature before they can become law.
● Florida: Voting advocates have filed what is now the fourth federal lawsuit challenging Republicans’ new voting restriction law, which among other things adds new limits on absentee ballots and drop boxes along with banning giving food or water to voters waiting in line. We’ve previously detailed the other three lawsuits here.
This latest lawsuit takes aim at part of the law that adds restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts. The plaintiffs claim that the law requires them to include warnings on registration forms that misleadingly tell potential registrants that the organization might not meet the deadline for delivering the forms, even though there’s no evidence that such groups have regularly failed to comply with relevant deadlines.
● Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Republicans just unveiled a major new voting restriction bill, which they’ve already passed out of a state House committee. The legislation would roll back many of the voting access expansions that GOP lawmakers approved in a bipartisan deal in 2019. Among other things, the bill would:
- Implement a voter ID requirement (voters who lack ID could sign a sworn statement that they’re eligible to vote under penalty of perjury);
- Eliminate the state’s permanent absentee voting list;
- Move the voter registration deadline back to 30 days before Election Day—the maximum allowed under federal law—from the 2019 law’s 15 days;
- Require signature verification for absentee ballots; and
- Ban private grants for election administration.
The bill also contains some policies that would strengthen voting access and election procedures, including measures that would:
- Create six days of in-person early voting, but not beginning until 2025;
- Let counties begin processing mail ballots five days before Election Day instead of waiting until Election Day, which caused delays in 2020 that helped fuel Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories;
- Allow absentee ballot drop boxes for a week before Election Day;
- Let voters fix problems with absentee ballots that are missing a signature;
- Enable counties to open satellite elections offices where voters could cast an in-person absentee ballot, akin to regular early voting;
- Require counties to obtain electronic poll books, which would help facilitate the adoption of early voting and eventually same-day voter registration (a policy Democrats support but Republicans generally oppose).
Republicans hold gerrymandered majorities that they could use to pass this bill over any Democratic opposition. However, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf sounded very skeptical toward the proposal and unless some of the voting restrictions are removed, he’d likely veto it, a move the GOP lacks the votes to override.
Republicans, though, have another plan to try to get around Wolf’s veto pen by passing these changes as constitutional amendments. Such amendments require legislative approval in two consecutive legislative sessions with an election taking place in between, followed by a voter referendum. Crucially for the GOP, the governor has no role in the amendment process.
To that end, Republicans in a state Senate committee have passed a constitutional amendment that would require voter ID, which could potentially go before voters as soon as 2023 and take effect ahead of the 2024 elections. Republicans previously enacted a strict voter ID statute in 2012 but a court struck it down.
● Texas: Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that would ban the use of post office boxes for voter registration, which could prevent homeless people or voters living in remote rural areas with limited mail service from registering. In response, Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, whose firm has been involved in a prolific amount of litigation in recent years, indicated he would sue over this latest law.
● South Dakota: A federal court has issued a preliminary injunction blocking a Republican-backed law that required paid signature collectors to register with the state, indicating that it likely violated the First Amendment. The plaintiffs had argued that posting petition circulators’ information online could open them up to harassment.
South Dakota is one of many states where Republicans have tried to restrict the ballot initiative process to thwart progressive policies and democracy reforms in recent years, including upcoming efforts to put Medicaid expansion and an independent redistricting commission on the 2022 ballot. Republican legislators have already placed their own constitutional amendment on the ballot during next year’s primary that would raise the voter threshold needed for passage from a simple majority to 60% for any initiative that would tax or spend more than $10 million during a five-year period, which could affect measures such as Medicaid expansion.
Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Joe Manchin, Juneteenth and the ongoing insurrection
Joe Manchin’s sweeping new voting rights proposal, explained
The pivotal senator has released a potentially transformative plan to promote fair elections.
No voting rights bill will become law without Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) approval, at least in the current Congress. The conservative Democrat is the median vote in the Senate, and he’s a frequent source of frustration for other members of his party. Earlier this month, Manchin came out against the For the People Act, a comprehensive voting rights bill backed by Democratic leadership, effectively killing any hope that the bill could become law during the current Congress.
But on Wednesday, Manchin did something unexpected: He released a long list of voting reforms that he does support, potentially scrambling the congressional debate over voting rights as the Senate prepares to vote on Democratic leaders’ proposal.
Manchin’s list includes many reforms drawn from the For the People Act as well as from a companion voting rights bill known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Significantly, Manchin endorsed banning partisan gerrymandering — a high priority for both small-d democrats and large-D Democrats, who want to prevent the GOP from seizing control of the House of Representatives with rigged congressional maps.
Not everything on Manchin’s list will delight his fellow Democrats.
You read that right.
No need to worry about people using marijuana – they already do
Ladies and gentlemen, start your gummies.
Connecticut has legalized the production, sale and adult use of recreational marijuana, which is a big step because I’m pretty sure nobody in marijuana has tried Connecticut before. Wait. I wrote that wrong. Am I high already? Just because the law changed? …
But anyone familiar with the workings of the legislature over the last several decades knows that they were blotto when they passed lotto and they were hammered whenever they retooled the state budget and they were toasted whenever they asked us to part with more of our bread. There were wine nights and beer nights, and often the libations were provided by lobbying firms or regulated industries.
So how do you drink that much and then tell a 21-year-old he has to watch Marie Kondo on Netflix without the aid of marijuana? I’m a little sensitive on this subject because I went to college from 1972-76 and did not get high. Marijuana must have been legal at the time because everybody seemed to have it.
Juneteenth Isn’t Just a Celebration of the End of Slavery. We Also Honor the Black Americans Who Helped Create Their Own Freedom
If you ask Black people born and raised on the island, Juneteenth marks the day Black soldiers in blue uniforms came with their guns to Galveston. That is the story they have told for generations, about the moment some of their ancestors knew freedom had finally arrived in Texas, the westernmost Confederate breakaway state.
That’s the truth as it’s widely understood by Black people in Galveston, even if the common story of that day often focuses on a single white man: General Gordon Granger, who led Union troops to the harbor there on June 17, 1865. Two days later, records in the National Archives tell us, he issued what’s known as General Order No. 3.
A reminder of the importance of oral history.
Eleanor Janega/Going Medieval:
I assure you, the Black Death was actually bad
But in case we need an English example (can’t imagine why I think my man here might not considered other people’s accounts worthwhile) how about the chronicle from Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire:
“The pestilence held such sway in England at the time that there were hardly enough people left alive to bury the dead, or enough burial grounds to hold them. During that time two closes or crofts were consecrated for the burial of the dead in London, and two monasteries were afterwards founded in them….The pestilence grew so strong that men and women dropped dead while walking in the streets, and in innumerable households and in many villages not one person was left alive. … The shortage of labourers and of workers in every kind of craft and occupation was then so acute that more than a third of the land throughout the whole kingdom remained uncultivated…”
Andy Slavitt/USA Today:
Trump’s Supreme defeat: Will Republicans finally stop trying to cancel people’s health care?
The Supreme Court has handed Republicans the perfect opportunity to lay down their weapons. Attacking this health care law is both cruel and futile.
An interesting question is why. Why did Trump and Republicans fight so hard to do something so plainly unpopular and harmful to millions of Americans? Especially because, as the ruling yesterday showed, the plaintiffs in this case didn’t even have standing to bring the case – in other words, they were not being harmed by the law. So why try to eliminate a law that helps some in such a deeply personal way, particularly if it causes no harm (and is budget neutral)? The Republican politics of health care and the politics of Trump are the politics of cruel indifference.
The far right rushes to embrace Tucker Carlson’s FBI-Capitol riot conspiracy theory
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) rose to speak on the floor of the House on Thursday, a sheaf of news articles in his hand and the spirit of a Breitbart commenter in his heart.
He began by defending his recent question to a Forest Service official asking if that agency might be able to shift the Earth’s orbit. Then, a riff on a Washington Times article about criminal activity in Mexico, a country that enjoyed a “fantastic location.” Then, in conclusion, Gohmert shifted to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, an event that he has in the past dismissed as “people without any firearms coming into a building.”
“There’s been so much appropriate concern about January 6,” Gohmert said. “What happened that day. Unfortunately, we don’t know all that happened that day. There are some major, major questions that need to be answered.”
Perhaps we need a bipartisan commission to look at what happened, then?
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Juneteenth is a new holiday for many Americans. For my family, it’s always been personal
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