In Slavery’s Shadow: George Floyd and American Legacies, Anthea M. Hartig, Elizabeth MacMillan Director, National Museum of American History

May 31, 2020

These past few weeks have reflected the complicated, paradoxical racial history of the United States in violent, vivid, and painful ways—all in the midst of a global pandemic. As we saw numbers cresting over 100,000 dead from COVID-19, with disproportionate impacts on those who are indigenous, people of color, and poor, and dealt with a devastated economy that has over 40 million Americans jobless, our crisis worsened with the senseless killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day. While processing the way in which this unarmed man died, we are mourning the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade—all African American victims of racial violence and terror.

The grief we feel is hard to bear, and yet comprehendible. The killing of George Floyd is the latest chapter of violently policing the movement, action, and freedom of African Americans. White men, whether individually or organized as “patrollers” in slave patrols, tracked and monitored the behavior of enslaved people, chasing them down, punishing runaways, and returning them to their owners. First established in the British colony of South Carolina in 1704, slave patrols lasted for over 150 years and are part of the foundation of the modern-day police force.

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures all Americans the basic civil rights of being. How is it, then, that as a nation, time and time again, we deny these basic rights to some Americans because of the color of their skin?

The nation was founded on the great paradox of a dynamic form of republican democracy based on the supremacy of white, landed men and the institution of chattel slavery. What then is our task? It must be to understand the nation’s complicated birth. And we do so while consistently working to answer what Alexander Hamilton in his 1787 Federalist Paper No. 1 called our most important question: “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” As historian Jill Lepore recently shared, the American celebration of liberty has always existed “alongside the brutality, the atrocity of slavery” and its lasting, ugly legacies.

The long shadow slavery casts over the nation’s past, present, and future must be acknowledged and overcome. As Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III reminds us, let us mourn together and turn our collective will to work to structure a nation that lives up to its stated ideals of equality and justice for all. In 1966, James Baldwin called out the centrality of racial violence: “If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom.”

At the National Museum of American History, we work to reframe the traditional, celebratory narrative of U.S. history for visitors to our museum and digital spaces. Hosting and facilitating dynamic public programming and national reckonings is critical for us to help all Americans make sense of these tragically difficult times. For we must face these atrocities together, armed with facts, blessed with empathy, and fueled by compassion, asking ourselves daily what we each must do to heal the nation’s gaping wounds and find ways to move forward.

Anthea M. Hartig, Ph.D.

The mission of the National Museum of American History is to empower people to create a just and compassionate future by exploring, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our past.