Faith Works: Racism and our own history in Licking County
I'd love to walk away from racism. It would be pleasant to not have to talk about it, or deal with it . . . and as a white male, I could in many ways, ways that friends who are people of color cannot.
But here's the thing. My ways of de-stressing and getting away from the pressures of day-to-day life as a minister are history & archaeology & nature. So I go to pull up some early Licking County narratives out of the records, and turn to one of the classic sources, Edwin Brister's 1909 "Centennial History of Newark and Licking County."
He heads a chapter "The First White Men in Licking County" and opens it with the words "Following the Mound Builders and the Indians came the superior race to occupy the soil of Licking County." Even allowing for shifts in terminology over a century and more, the framing of the chapter is jarring, and the simple impact of the words "came the superior race to occupy" jolts me even now, having read past that opening many times. Also making me wonder what other less blatant biases are filtered into my thinking as I thumb through this necessary early source.
And you may or may not notice the subtle jab about distinguishing between "the Mound Builders and the Indians." That's intentional: the racially tinged viewpoint that the ancestors of modern Native American Indians could not have build the earthen geometric enclosures of Ohio left a "Moundbuilders myth" that's still hard to lay to rest, whether it takes root in the ten lost tribes of Israel, Vikings, wandering Romans, or Welsh princes.
Oh. Welsh princes. I have a many years long fascination with Chaplain David Jones, a primary shaper of the Euro-American settlement of Licking County from his 1773 journey through our valleys for the first time to his last visit in 1820. I've found some new letters from his hand, echoing his original manuscript, a copy of which was in Thomas Jefferson's personal library; he makes it clear that any time he meets an intelligent or articulate Shawnee or Wyandot person their better qualities are always Welsh. He's convinced that there's Welsh blood in the finer native people he meets, and their language is rooted in his native Welsh tongue . . . but is continually disappointed in his attempts to preach to them in that language.
And I go for a much needed walk this afternoon, and a few hundred yards from my home, a stone marking the death of one of those early settlers in 1802, people directed here by Chaplain Jones, which has displayed along a busy road for nearly a hundred years not only that sad death, but how before Lilly Jones died she gave birth to "The First White Child Born" in the township. I'm not saying racism was the whole intent in 1938 when it was placed, but that you start to see in the historical record, especially after the Civil War, how "white" becomes an important category and a distinct marker of status.
Thanks to my dad, I often relax by reading Civil War history, and . . . well, do I have to spell it out for you? But sometimes, as I read about, say, the Vicksburg Campaign (and think "wow, Dad will really enjoy this one" then pause, and go back to reading), and the depth of the racial injustice that got us here just shakes me, the end result of that conflict notwithstanding.
This isn't even getting into my equal passion for and professional understanding of how congregational and church history more broadly is an active force in today's debates over polity and process and planning . . . echoing Faulkner's "The past is never dead. It's not even past." This has led to an ongoing and unpleasant if necessary project in unearthing and unpacking of the role the 1920s Ku Klux Klan played in the history of our county, my church, and across the Midwest and beyond for many church bodies that would be shocked today to realize how complicit their ancestors once were.
So I could kid myself, and walk away from racism. It would require lots of strategic seeing and not-seeing, evasive action and outright denial. The kinds of choices racism depends upon. So I can't escape it, even as a white male. I can only choose how to confront racism today, how to try and understand it, and learn in community how to take it apart into its constitutive elements (one of which is sin, of course) and then be able to discard that which is corruption and decay, and preserve what we need to remember.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he’s been trying to come to terms with how racism is a part of the sin that besets us for many years, and he’s not done yet. Tell him how you are working for racial reconciliation at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.