Four of the five Philadelphia-area Congresspersons have co-sponsored a bill to posthumously award the historic Congressional Gold Medal “to Africans and their descendants enslaved within our country from August 20, 1619, to December 6, 1865.” The one who hasn’t is Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, who represents the First Congressional District which includes all of Bucks County and a sliver of Montgomery County.
HR 1244, introduced Feb. 28 by Texas Congressman Al Green, promises Congress’s highest civilian honor as a way to atone for the nation’s historical injustice, and to recognize and confront this history that states like Florida are trying to erase.
It might seem like a no-brainer to grant millions of enslaved African people, and those of African descent, recognition for building – what can only be described as – an ungrateful nation. The four Pennsylvania co-sponsors, all Democrats, are Reps. Brendan Boyle (PA-2), Dwight Evans (PA-3), Madeleine Dean (PA-4) and Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-5). The Bucks County Beacon gave Fitzpatrick’s staff several opportunities to explain the Republican’s (and self-described bipartisan moderate) hesitancy, but they failed to comment. The bill won’t pass without some Republican support.
Having read the bill, Bucks County NAACP President Karen Downer doesn’t expect Fitzpatrick will become a sponsor. “The bill is brief, but to the point. It puts into the official records the facts about slavery and what it entails. The bill talks about the contribution slaves made.” Downer noted that the bill reminds the reader, “the Whitehouse was built by slaves. Monticello – the early presidents’ homes – were built by slaves.”
Downer thinks that because the legislation reminds Americans that enslaved people built the nation from the early 1600s on – that it’s not something Fitzpatrick is likely to endorse. “He subscribes to the 1776 narrative. That the nation began in 1776. And that’s just another falsehood.” Downer’s grateful that the bill appropriately states that the country was built by kidnapped people, transported across the ocean and forced to labor without hope for freedom. “Over the last few years there’s been an attempt to erode what slavery is about.” Downer feels that the bill sets the record straight as it reveals the thieving and violent nature of America’s slave holding past, “Sections 6, 7, 8 and 9 of the bill need to be in the official record.”
While the medal hasn’t gone to enslaved persons before, it’s been given to plenty of slave holders – not least of which was the first president of the United States. As for large anonymous groups: other collectives have been honored. When Washington received his Congressional Gold Medal, all his soldiers were likewise recipients.
The first president and his men, those first Congressional Gold Medal honorees, paved the way for many other landed white men. It wasn’t until the late 20th Century that any of the honorees were people of color. And while all the white men weren’t slave holders, many were. Andrew Jackson, for example, didn’t just own other humans – he had genocidal expansionists ambitions – and a Congressional Gold Medal.
In this first quarter of the 21st Century, the U.S. Congress has worked feverishly to make up for lost time by honoring America’s unsung heroes of color.
The Navajo and other Native Code Talkers, Jackie Robinson, the Tuskegee Airmen, Emmett and Mamie Till (Mobley) – even Martin Luther King Jr. had to wait for the 2000s to get their well-deserved honors.
Hugh Magbie, an inventor, businessman, and the first U.S. African American TV producer, believes it is a difficult time to be talking about both this history, and the bill, and if you do you’ll likely face vitriolic blowback. The show Magbie pioneered, Say Brother, now better known as Basic Black, is the longest running television show for people of color in the nation. “We billed the show as Black people talking to Black people.” Magbie doesn’t think talking about history to the general public is enough or even appropriate. “Frankly, this isn’t the time. It’s just an additional red flag in front of some angry bulls. For anyone who is different [from cis white men] it’s a pretty seminal time right now. We’re under attack!”
Magbie went on to explain, “I seriously doubt that the politicians and I are seeing it from the same point of view. For Black people, having our history valued is a fairly new thing. And now that entire history is under attack. If we’re going to get federal recognition, I’d rather it be in the form of voting rights. Make those sacrosanct.”
Downer agreed, at first. “When I heard about it, I said, ‘woop de do, a medal!’” But after reading it, she liked what the bill explicitly states. “Over the last few years there’ve been attempts to erode what slavery is about. This pushes back at that.”
Magbie’s American ancestors – apart from those that were Native American – were all enslaved people. “I’ve traced it back to the 1600s. My one relative was sold at a slave market in Annapolis. Their children shipped south.” Magbie says that after the Civil War, his family founded Fort Payne, Alabama, “But you won’t find their names in Wikipedia or anything. Only the white names were recorded.” Ancestors on his mom’s side settled in New England. “We have a pin that my grandmother had for being the daughter of one of the colored troops from the civil war.” Not until Magbie thought of that pin did he see the medal as a positive. “My grandmother’s pin is a family heirloom. I guess as a memento, this medal might have some merit.”
Historian and author Maurice Butler just sees history repeating itself. “Being an historian, I can tell you they got to do more than that medal. Look at Texas. And what DeSantis is doing in Florida. Congress should be passing legislation to protect African American history in schools. What they’re doing in those states is sacrilegious. They’re not just doing it to Blacks. They’re doing it to women. These people are making decisions that will wipe our history out.”
When asked if awarding the gold medal to every enslaved Black person in U.S. history is an attempt to codify the contribution made by his ancestors, Butler responded, “Yeah, maybe this is an effort to keep African American history at the forefront. But this reminds me of the reconstruction period. After the Civil War we had all this positive movement toward truth and justice and then powerful whites stepped in and wiped it all out. I’ve read this story before.”