Two disparate stories this week expose America’s past and present inability to come to grips with its racist heritage:
The Alabama Historical Commission this week announced its discovery of the Clotilda, the last known ship to import enslaved Africans into the United States. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the Trump administration would not move ahead with plans to replace the image of President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with that of black abolitionist and former slave Harriet Tubman.
Taken individually, these stories could easily pass as unrelated items in the daily stream of current events. But that would be a mistake. The two stories, if read in sequence, offer insights across a shameful century of American history that illuminates the hidden racial deceit of our nation’s past and the willfulness of modern-day public officials to perpetuate it into the future.
A story published by the National Geographic Society told of the remains of the Clotilda, a 19th century schooner. After an extensive, year-long search in the murky waters of the U.S. Gulf Coast, researchers and archaeologists from Alabama, and with the help of the NGS, said on Wednesday that they were confident the wreckage was from the vessel that traveled from Benin, Africa on a sea journey to Mobile, Alabama between February and July 1860.
The human cargo aboard the Clotilda was thought to have been the final shipment of an estimated 389,000 Africans sold into bondage in the United States during the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the early 1600s to 1860. Although thousands of ships made the journey through has come to be known as the Middle Passage, very few slave shipwrecks have ever been found.
Indeed, the absence of wreckage has made it conveniently easy for some Alabamians and other historians to refute the oral histories of the enslaved descendants who have long held on to their story as told by their ancestors of a harrowing journey to America.
In addition, descendants of the Africans who came onboard the Clotilda have faced poverty and discrimination, even as they maintained that their tight-knit community north of Mobile, called Africatown, had historic roots.
“Descendants of the Clotilda survivors have dreamed of this discovery for generations,” Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission and the State Historic Preservation Officer, told National Geographic in an online article. “We’re thrilled to announce that their dream has finally come true.”
Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society said in the article that the discovery of the ship’s remains removes any doubts about what residents of Africatown have long contended, but rarely acknowledged outside of their community.
“The discovery of the Clotilda sheds new light on a lost chapter of American history,” Heibert said. “This finding is also a critical piece of the story of Africatown, which was built by the resilient descendants of America’s last slave ship.”
Perhaps the most interesting and yet appalling part of the Clotilda’s story is that it set sail from Africa more than a half-century after the importation of slaves had been banned in the United States.
As National Geographic reported, an affluent Mobile businessman and shipbuilder wagered several Northern businessmen $1,000 that he could smuggle a cargo of Africans into Alabama in contravention of federal law. After successfully doing so, the ship’s captain burned the Clotilda to hide evidence of the crime, allowing deniers to claim it never happened.
Now that irrefutable evidence of what remains of the destroyed vessel has surfaced, the sordid history is undeniable. To be sure, history can’t be repressed forever. Unfortunately, that’s not a lesson embraced by the Trump administration.
Around the same time as history was revealing itself in Alabama this week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration wouldn’t move forward with a planned redesign of the $20 bill replacing President Andrew Jackson with black female abolitionist and former slave Harriet Tubman.
During the Obama administration, Treasury officials conducted a highly visible campaign before then-Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced a plan to put Tubman’s image on U.S. banknotes in 2020.
But at a congressional hearing Wednesday, Mnuchin announced that the administration had put a screeching halt plans to honor Tubman, allegedly to protect the security of U.S. currency.
“The primary reason we have looked at redesigning the currency is for counterfeiting issues,” Mnuchin said. “Based upon this, the $20 bill will now not come out until 2028. The $10 bill and the $50 bill will come out with new features beforehand.”
But that’s obviously not true, since Treasury is moving ahead with replacing the $10 and $50 bills and delaying changes to the $20 bill until 2026 or later — well after Trump is out of office.
It’s a decision that can and should be widely condemned as a reflection of the administration’s racist eagerness to glorify a slaveholding president and its reluctance to put a black woman’s portrait on U.S. currency during its tenure in the White House.
It is, in other words, a contemporary continuation of historical denial.