“LET CHILDREN'S CHILDREN NEVER FORGET”
REMEMBRANCE AND AMNESIA, 1870s–1910s
[The negro] has never createdfor himself any civilization…. No monuments have been builded by him to body forth and perpetuate in the memory [of] posterity the virtues of his ancestors.
—Senator James K. Vardaman, 1914
As a race, the present is, our Heroic age…. Theone question is: Will we embrace the present opportunity to immortalize ourselves?
—The Reverend Benjamin Tucker Tanner, 1874
B ETWEEN THE 1870s and the first decades of the twentieth century African Americans' experiences as formally sanctioned citizens covered an expansive range. At first the promises embodied in emancipation and enfranchisement seemedto bode well for the future. But even as blacks celebrated ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, they realized that those promises wouldnot easily be fulfilled. RichardT. Greener, then a young man on the verge of becoming Harvard's first black graduate, articulatedconcerns that most Freedom Day orators in 1870 were reluctant to express. Addressing his audience at Troy, New York, Greener admitted to a “fear which makes my few remarks… more like a dirge… than a paean of joy. I do not believe that one-third of the American people have forgotten their feeling of caste…. It will take some time yet, much calm, laudable work on our part, before they do forget. ” 1
This well-founded observation, however, did not prevent young Greener from using the public Freedom Day forum, as had his predecessors throughout the nineteenth century, to place the history of African Americans prominently in the larger story of the American republic. As he did so, Greener offereda profound reinterpretation of the significance of the presence of both African Americans andthe institution of slavery in the UnitedStates. “It has been said, ” Greener recounted, “that our history in this country has been its romance; but it might have been as truly said… that it has also been its tragedy. The slave ship, the slave hut and pen, the overseer's whip, andthe burning tears of separated husband and wife, andthe equally cruel caste and prescription which has houndedthe negro when free from the cradle to the grave, have mingled in far unequal proportions the romantic