Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Blackmon, who has extensively researched African American slavery in the late 19th and early 20th century, said he is often asked why he wrote a book portraying such terrible events. His answer: it’s a way to infuse personality into stories that were originally written in dehumanizing ways.
“I think it’s important we acknowledge how many untold stories there are,” said Blackmon, who spoke on campus Friday. “We absolutely cannot forget these things. We have to remember them because primarily it is the only thing we can do to restore some sort of dignity to the lives that were taken.”
Stories of racial injustice and 20th century African American slavery that were once swept under the rug were brought to the forefront during Blackmon’s lecture. The event, titled “Slavery By Another Name: Uncovering the Untold Stories, was part of “50 Years Forward,” Northeastern’s yearlong commemoration to the people, places, and organizations dedicated to civil rights in America and to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
About 120 people attended the event, held in the Raytheon Amphitheater and co-sponsored by the School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and the Northeastern Humanities Center.
“Today’s program takes us back a bit more than 50 years into the time of the civil rights struggles before the 1960s,” said Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. “It also takes us into the systematic enslavement of African Americans and forced labor systems that went well into the 20th century.”
In 2009, Blackmon received the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for his book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. The book examines how laws established during that time period made it difficult to live as a black person and developed a new form of slavery for hundreds of thousands of African Americans.
In addition to the stories that Blackmon researched for his book, two Northeastern law students shared the stories of two African American men whose brutal murders in 1948 were never investigated until now. Jessica Yamane, L’14, and Mary Nguyen, L’14, worked with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, in which law students investigate and litigate civil rights cold cases.
“Our mission is to correct the injustices in the historical record, educate our students on the difficulties of making justice in our country, and provide some measure of remedy for communities and families that have been victimized,” said Northeastern law professor Margaret Burnham, the program’s founder. “We are working hard, we are working fast, but time is against us.”
Friday’s event also included a performance by the band Joyful Noise led by Leonard Brown, an associate professor in the Department of Music and the Department of African American Studies. The band played four songs, including Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, which was sung by Danielle Ponder, L’11.
-By Joe O’Connell