There Was a Time When White Men Were Brave

There has been a system of slavery evolving, no, maybe more like metamorphosing, since white men invaded this country beginning with Benjamin Rush, who one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (called the Father of American Psychiatry). It was Rush who believed that Africans “possessed illnesses that were peculiar to the Negro race of humanity” (Guthrie, 1998, p. 116), and when he went about publishing and speaking about such ignorant beliefs, he helped lay the foundation for the systemic war against Blacks and freedoms.

The first system to gain footing in the US was enslavement, which was made legal through laws created by white men. Secondly, there was a legal system instituted to incarcerate Blacks who fought against the system to be committed into asylums, and because one white man taught others that any slave wanting to be free was insane, it became a tradition and this (albeit irrational) belief was, again, supported by various new laws. Today, these institutionalized, systemic injustices are acted out in the form of incarceration of Black (mainly) men into prisons with sentences that far exceed many of the crimes committed—IF they actually committed a crime.

What all these systems have in common is 1) that they continue to allow Blacks to be held indefinitely and without being sentenced, 2) religion was and continues to be used to support the white right to commit these vile acts, and 3) the Blacks held captive under all systems were made to work for white owners, without remunerations, and mainly in inhumane conditions. All of them.

The numerous, complex and inhumane ways white people used to keep Black people in slavery probably can’t ever be compiled into one document, but they included heinous acts upon Blacks such as lynching, whipping, dismembering, maiming, branding, castration, encasing them in iron fetters, branding, restricting food, restricting nutritious foods, condemning them to work from sun up until sun down (sun-to-sun), being separated from their children and/or spouses, denying medical treatment (for generations), denying them clothing (including shoes) appropriate for the weather, instituting a system of payment for good and services that always kept Black workers indebted to whites, making it illegal for Blacks to leave the land of the slave owners by threat of imprisonment, cutting the Achilles heel(s) of any person disobeying the boundaries of the plantation by going beyond it, making it illegal to communicate with freedmen, beating or death, beating AND death, raping women and children, forcing the Black youngsters to do small tasks in the fields as soon as they could walk, and even using the Black children for alligator bait.

Because illiteracy was so widespread, many illiterate whites were taught to believe that if you whipped a slave long enough, and preached God’s word of obedience long enough, the slave would be brought to their senses, understand the evil of their ways, and correct their misguided behaviors; that belief was taught, re-taught, and passed on for generations.

In order to control the slaves, who were also largely illiterate, slave owners preached to them by reading scriptures of servitude and obedience on a regular basis. Sometimes the slave owners allowed Black preachers to come to their plantations to preach, but dictated what parts of the Bible they wanted to be used. In particular, they emphasized passages like “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5), or “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (Titus 2:9). Christians who wanted to preserve slavery had the words of the Bible to back them up.

But for all this evil, there were occasional beams of bright lights of hopefulness, brilliance, amongst the weariness of the lives of slaves. For now, I’m just going to focus on just one of the many examples that stood out for me as a testament to what white men can do when they stand against the evils of other powerful white men; who actually outnumber the white men causing death and destruction in their wake.

Let me begin by explaining the basic thinking that went into the enslavement of Blacks. For many whites, slavery was an entitlement because Blacks were incapable of fending for themselves, and/or they were less than human. According to Guthrie (1998):

Supporters of slavery struggled to explain why slaves were running away… They attempted to prove scientifically that their earlier exhortations of the happy slave were truthful and that the South was a “rightful” milieu and that servitude was the rightful condition for the African. One such medical authority went so far to declare that the “Negro’s brain froze in cold climate, inducing insanity” and urged, “out of kindness to the Negro, that he be kept in the South.”[1] These supporters of slavery felt that servitude fulfilled God’s designated role because the African was cursed to be a submissive “knee bender” requiring the control of others. As frustrated slave owners searched to explain why supposedly contented and happy slaves would want to run away or escape bondage, accusations were leveled at the border state slave owners, claiming that they created the problem by being too lenient, treating them as equals, and “making little or no distinction in regard to color.”

This set the stage for another physician, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, to make remarkable claims that the slave’s running away indicated a mental disorder called drapetomania[2], which he said was common to Blacks and to cats.[3] (Guthrie, p. 116).

Dr. Cartwright advised slave owners to whip slaves who became “sulky and dissatisfied… as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.” (Guthrie, p. 116).

Although it was thought to have happened prior to this time, in 1897 a Virginia slave named Henry Brown arranged to escape from freedom by having himself shipped like freight in a small wooden crate from the plantation of his owner to be received by a Quaker merchant and several abolitionists in Philadelphia; it took 26 hours of misery for that journey. His escape involved white men for both sending and receiving his body.

Fast forward to 60 years later: In 1957, a Black man named Arrington High lived in Whitfield, MS. Arrington had been committed to the Mississippi State Hospital for the Insane solely (near Jackson, MS and the Terrapin Skin Creek) because he was leading protests against the ill treatment of Blacks in the south. It was common knowledge to whites that anyone seeking to flee the south was insane (it was medically labeled Drapetomania. It was also common knowledge to all, Black and white, that anyone going into that hospital never returned.

Arrington High was the publisher of Eagle Eye (a mimeographed flyer more than a newspaper) for fourteen years. His commitment to the asylum was due to him exposing the segregationists who were seeking out Black women prostitutes for sex at an establishment that catered to politicians. In October of 1957 he was committed to the asylum for “the remainder of his life,” he was 47 years old. The asylum was more than 15 miles from the nearest city, and Blacks had little to no means of transportation in (or to) that area (Wilkerson, p. 351).

Fortunately, and although it took four months to plan, a coordinated effort of five brave white men in MS arranged for his escape by driving five cars in a caravan near the asylum where they met him early one morning. He got into one of the cars and they drove him (careful to obey the speed limits) to the state line. He was told to get out and walk across to the Alabama state line where he was met with five different cars with Alabama license plates; four of those were driven by white men, the fifth was driven by a Black man so that there was no attention called to a Black man riding in a car with white men. Once in Alabama he was put into a pine coffin equipped with air holes, it was nailed shut, and he was put on a railroad car for a FIFTEEN HOUR ride to Chicago. While in the coffin he was unable to make a sound, was unable to turn over, and had to lay still. Once the train left the station, a Black physician, Dr. Howard, who was to receive the coffin, was telephoned with the code words, “The Eagle has flown the coop.”[4]

Even though this happened in the post-slave era that was just six years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is well documented that even post-slavery whites made it physically and legally difficult for Blacks to live free and without harassment

Now, 54 years later, there seems to be a political bent to revise these old beliefs and conditions by dehumanizing people of color, and by damaging, misdirecting funds, and/or gutting the education systems for the poor and making it available only to the wealthy. We must not let this prevail!


[1] Quote from S.A. Cartwright, “Essays, being inductions drawn from the Baconian philosophy proving the truth of the Bible and the justice and benevolence of the decree dooming Canaan to be servant of servants; and answering the question of Voltaire… From a series of letters to the Rev. William Winans… Vidalia, LA, 1893. [NOTE: The Baconian method was a means of studying and interpreting natural phenomena.]

[2] Drapetomania, defined by Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright in 1851, was assigned to runaway slaves as a mental illness (in the early editions of the DSM for psychological disorders) and type of mania for wandering behavior, given to one with an uncontrollable urge to travel.

[3] Guthrie, Robert V. (1998). Even the Rat was White: A historical view of psychology (2nd ed). Allyn & Bacon (eds). Needham Heights, MA.

[4] Wilkerson, Isabel (2010). The Warmth of Other Suns: The epic story of America’s Great Migration. Random House, Vintage Books, New York, NY.

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