With the long-awaited Murray Pool at last becoming a reality in South Miami, a flyer generated by a city commissioner touched a raw nerve for many people, raising questions about racial insensitivity in municipal government.
Commissioner Bob Welsh, who has had trouble before with attempts at humor, created and distributed a flyer with a cartoon that depicts a mule in a pool chair, corn fields in the background, with the title “40 Acres and a Pool”, apparently referring to a Civil War-era promise of “40 acres and a mule” to freed slaves. At the South Miami Commission Meeting meeting at City Hall November 19, more than a dozen residents criticized the flyer and questioned Commissioner Welsh’s intentions.
“If you are going to represent a community on the dais I would hope that you would do that on a unified basis,” said South Miami resident Rodney Williams. “This is not a ‘black’ pool. It sounds like this commissioner is using tactics to divide the community.”
Former South Miami Mayor Anna Price, Ph.D., said that the commissioner’s flyer was “…reflective of a mindset. I don’t even deal with the intent. It’s a mindset through which stuff is filtered and they don’t even know it’s there.” In 1998, a flyer circulated in South Miami referring to Dr. Price, the only African-American mayor in the city’s history, as the “Queen of Spades”. Dr. Price said she is not among those calling for Commissioner Welsh’s resignation.
Commissioner Welsh was not without his defenders, including a Coconut Grove minister, and South Miami resident Gray Read, who said, “I know there was not malicious intent. We all make mistakes. We should simply accept his apology and move on. The rest is politics.” Commission candidate Gabriel Edmond said: “We have to acknowledge the pain and the hurt. Knowing Commissioner Welsh, I know it [his apology] is heartfelt.”
Far more people were present at the meeting to criticize the commissioner’s flyer. Deltravis Williams reminded the commission of the words of Dr. Maya Angelou: “If you know better, do better.”
The harshest words came from Vice Mayor Josh Liebman: “If you want to see an ass in a chair, look at this commission.” Vice Mayor Liebman also suggested that the commission and its several boards, which meet in excess of 100 times a year, is inefficient.
At a November 13 South Miami Community Redevelopment Agency meeting, at which the groundbreaking for the community pool was noted, Commissioner Valerie Newman excoriated Commissioner Welsh: “I’m a child of the 60s civil rights movement. I know the history of African-American people in this country. I know what 40 acres and a mule was intended to do upon the freeing of slaves. I am really very offended at the flyer that has been distributed with the words “40 acres and a pool” with an ass sitting in the chair by the pool… I would think that anybody who thinks they have privilege to cross the line, which I believe this flyer does, should be chastised by anyone who sees it.”
Commissioner Welsh was contrite in his response to the remarks at Tuesday’s meeting: “The next time I get a comic inclination, I will first show it to the barber who is the pulse of the community. I apologize to those whom I hurt. I was just being my humorous self.”
During the Civil War, as General William Tecumseh Sherman carried out a campaign in the South during his “march to the sea” that was brutal in its retributive effect on non-combatants, he issued an order for millions of acres of land to be confiscated from white landowners and granted in 40-acre parcels to 18,000 former slave families. It is almost a certainty that General Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15 was not so much a racially-enlightened act of philanthropy as a punitive gesture by an officer who had seen a lot of death and was ready to deal out some punishment. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act established by President Abraham Lincoln, a more considered attempt to right the wrongs done by slavery in the South, was politically unpopular and was dissolved by President Ulysses S. Grant. Basically, when confiscated land was in play during Reconstruction, it tended to end up in white hands, and the very few black families who received land found themselves with a few acres of swamp.
The early 19th-century debate between black intellectuals Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois on the subject of reparations should be familiar to everyone. Washington, born in slavery in Virginia, was against political agitation by blacks and favored what he considered a measured approach to gaining the “respect” of whites, based on education and hard work. DuBois, born in progressive Massachusetts, the most ardently abolitionist state before the Civil War, disagreed with Washington’s approach, and argued in favor of reparations not only for slavery but for the decades of segregation and lack of civil rights that followed (and continued to follow). At this distance of time, Washington’s position seems unforgivably passive, but when they were writing, Washington’s focus on industrial and agricultural education for blacks and DuBois’ focus on liberal arts education was part of a larger national focus on what education should be; both men were exceedingly influential and inspirational. The reparations debate was and continues to be a complicated issue with many nuances impossible to capture in a short article; certainly the reader who wants more should revisit Washington’s Up From Slavery and DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and pass them along to young people. In our own time Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School has written about possible approaches to reparations.
Thousands of taxpayers have been caught up in scams perpetrated by people pretending to be tax preparers who will offer to file for a “reparations tax credit” that does not exist. U.S. Rep. John Conyers (Dem.-MI) since 1989 has repeatedly introduced a bill in Congress, H.R.-40, with the title symbolizing the 40 acres, that would establish a commission to study reparation proposals for the descendants of slaves.