What I Wasn’t Taught in School

Apr 17, 2023

by Tom Cramer

The Legacy Museum, Montgomery Alabama

Last month, I participated in a Pilgrimage to Montgomery, AL, coordinated by the Association of Mid-Council Leaders. In addition to many reflection sessions with my colleagues from other presbyteries and synods, we visited “The Legacy Museum” and “The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.” The following are some of my initial takeaways from that experience.

In 1858, cotton made up 68 percent of the total value of all U.S. exports. That’s over 800 million pounds of cotton being shipped to Europe alone. Just imagine if 68 percent of all exports today (silicone chips, wheat, Ford trucks, oil, etc.) were produced by enslaved people, and those profiting were supported by every institution in society, including the church!

Therefore, I am not overstating matters when I say that our nation’s wealth was founded on kidnapping, enslaving, torturing, raping, breeding, lynching, incarcerating, and separating human beings from their families for profit. Because of the banking system that financed the institution of slavery for over 200 years (banks accepted human beings as collateral for loans), there is literally no part of American society today that is not built on the backs of enslaved Africans. The two million children and adults who died on the voyage across the Atlantic from 1619 and 1808 were the envy of many who lived through it. No wonder the African American spiritual entitled “Lord, How Come Me Here?” sings:

“Lord, how come me here?
I wish I never was born…
There ain’t no freedom here, Lord
I wish I never was born”

The legacy of white people kidnapping, trafficking, and enslaving Africans was somehow omitted from my public education when I was growing up. I may not have been the best student, but I also don’t recall any history classes teaching me about the economics of slavery and mass incarceration. I was astonished to learn, therefore, that by 1898, 73% of Alabama’s state revenue came from convict leasing, that is, from forced labor of prisoners in coal mines, lumber mills, and road maintenance, and that black prisoners were often overworked to the point of death. I thought to myself, “enslavement of Africans didn’t actually end after the Civil War, it merely changed locations.”

The Memorial for Peace and Justice. “For the hanged and beaten, for the shot, drowned, and burned… for those abandoned by the rule of law, we will remember. With hope, because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. With courage, because peace requires bravery. With persistence because justice is a constant struggle. With faith because we shall overcome.”

Of course, there is much more to say about the exploitation of human beings that continues in our era, especially of immigrants and people of color, but I wanted to share some of my initial thoughts about how it got started and why it has been so robustly maintained.

As disciples of The Great Breaker of Chains and Liberator of the Oppressed, my recent pilgrimage to Montgomery sensitized me to the history I was not taught in school and the powerful motivations of my ethnic and colonial ancestors to keep it a secret.


Want to dig deeper? These books are a good place to start:

The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism; Jamar Tisby; Zondervan Reflective, 2019
An introduction to the roots of the church’s complicity in racism and injustice in the United States.

What Kind of Christianity? A history of Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church; William Yoo; Westminster John Knox Press; 2022
In this hard look at the history of the Presbyterian Church, Professor Yoo “demonstrates that to understand how Presbyterian Christians can promote racial justice today, they must first understand and acknowledge how deeply racial injustice is embedded in their history and identity as a denomination.”

William Yoo is Associate Professor of American Religious and Cultural History and Director of the MDiv Program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.