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Three years ago I volunteered to co-chair the Northern Shenandoah Valley chapter of ComingToTheTable, a group dedicated to healing the wounds of slavery and of the systemic racism in its aftermath. 

ComingToTheTable has four approaches to its mission: 1) uncovering history 2) making connections 3) working towards healing 4) taking action. 

Over the last few months, the national mood boiled over and would no longer turn a blind eye to the symbols around us celebrating the Confederacy. A well-meaning friend asked, couldn't the insistence at removing those symbols be tempered by understanding how they stood for states rights and a heritage of defending their states from economic domination by the North? I used the approach of uncovering history to respond.

This is the language that was written in the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. How many of us have ever read this document? It is utterly unambiguous about the goal of keeping Americans of African descent in permanent bondage:

Constitution of the Confederate States of America; March 11, 1861 (Source: Yale Law School):


Sec. 2. (I) The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.

 (3) No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs, or to whom such service or labor may be due.

Sec. 3. (3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several States; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.

Lest there still be doubt about the purpose of the Confederacy, here are excerpts from a speech by Alexander Hamilton Stephens, its vice president, on March 21, 1861, weeks after the formation of the Confederacy:

“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. . . . The prevailing ideas entertained by him (Jefferson) and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was that somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error…” 

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Whatever else the symbols of the Confederacy may have come to mean to some, they explicitly stand for maintaining the enslavement of nearly four million human beings (per the census of 1860) as property to buy, sell and profit from, with no recourse whatsoever from abuse of any kind or degree, including sexual exploitation and the sale and forcible separation of family members. 

Now that we have begun the hard work of confronting the history that we are personally and collectively uncovering, we must take unambiguous action to disavow false narratives and their symbols that continue to operate in our minds and hearts. We must do this not with hate, but with the intention to use our difficult and newly gained awareness to heal these centuries old wounds and work toward a truer justice for all. 

— Ira Chaleff is an author and public speaker who lives in Huntly. His award winning books include The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders and Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong.


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