• Susannah Colt


Robert Gould Shaw (commander of 54th Regiment) Memorial at Boston Commons by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Having had a chance to study the videos produced by the NH Department of Education (NHDOE) in collaboration with the Woodson Center for Black History Month, I would like to explain my concerns about those videos and why I believe they are far from a “robust and complete story” of the subjects presented.

The second video in the series is about “The 54th of Massachusetts,” the first Black regiment organized after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The three-minute video tells the story of their bravery, courage, and sacrifice against insurmountable odds, but fails to give the context in relation to the whole Civil War, which started on April 12, 1861. It also assumes people know why the Civil War was fought in the first place. So, that would be the first question I would ask. The second would be why did it take so long for Black men to be able to enlist in the Union Army? The simple answer is that white people were afraid of rebellion if they put guns in the hands of Black people.

There is brief reference to Frederick Douglass (1817 or 1818 – 1895), who escaped slavery, became a national leader in the abolitionist movement, and lobbied since the beginning of the war to convince the white politicians, including President Lincoln, to allow freed Black men and escaped enslaved people to enlist in the army and carry guns. What better way to prove that the Black man deserved equal citizenship if they fought and died for the cause of freedom, Douglass argued. Then, after the segregated Black regiments were formed, only white officers could lead them, and they were not paid equally as their white counterparts. Douglass would continue his lobbying efforts to obtain equal pay and the opportunity for advancement in the ranks.

The video only scratches the surface of the story of the 54th, which suffered hundreds of casualties in the battle at Fort Wagner, but they were hailed as heroes and models for outfitting many more regiments. Ultimately, about 180,000 Black soldiers fought in the war (including Douglass’ two sons) and if not for them, it is very likely the outcome would have been different.

The third video is about Elijah McCoy (1844-1929). Again, there is no doubt that McCoy was a great inventor and produced more patents (57) than any other Black inventor up to the early 20th century, but the video falls short of its promise. It only makes passing reference to the racism he experienced and fails to mention the fact that it was white men who financially benefited from his inventions because of the systemic barriers in his way. He exhibited great talent in mechanical engineering at a young age, but he had to go to Scotland for a mechanical engineering degree because Black men could not get into those schools in America before the Civil War. When he returned to Michigan with his degree, because professional positions were not available to Black individuals no matter their training or qualifications, he accepted a job as a fireman and oil man on a railroad, which is where he came up with his idea for his famous oil-drip cup that kept the trains running.

The video loses its credibility from the beginning when it makes a mistake in saying he was born in 1837. That was actually the date that his parents arrived in Canada, having escaped slavery in Kentucky and utilized the Underground Railroad to gain their freedom so Elijah could be born a free man and reach his full potential. I would expect better editing from the NHDOE.

The last video is about Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891), and it is filled with so much misinformation and falsehoods I found it to be an abomination. The lies begin right from the start. The narrator states: “Biddy was born a slave in 1818 to a Mississippi man named Robert Smith.” Not only is that insulting to Biddy’s mother, but it is also blatantly false. Biddy was born into slavery in either Georgia or Mississippi. Both of her parents were enslaved people. (Records at that time were incomplete, which is why many enslaved people had no idea what their birthdate was or where they were born.) As an infant, Biddy was taken away from her mother and it was in the 1840’s that she and her three children were sold to Robert Smith and forced to move to Mississippi. Smith, in 1848, forced his family and enslaved people to travel to Utah with a Mormon caravan and then eventually set off for California. Biddy and her children had to walk the entire 1,700 miles and set up and break down camp, cook and jump at her enslavers’ commands the entire way.

At the end of the video the narrator describes Biddy’s early years as “humble beginnings,” which, again downplays the dire circumstances she was born into. The woman was not even legally considered a citizen when she was born. She was chattel sold from person to person and had to fight for her freedom against an oppressive system. If she hadn’t ended up in the free state of California, her fortunes would have been completely different. Biddy’s story is very much worth learning, but not from this video.

History is not something to be trifled with and the NHDOE should have reviewed the videos they put their name on with a more discerning eye. As Congressman John Lewis wrote in an op-ed piece published on July 30, 2020, in The New York Times: “You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time.” That is why we must strive to tell the whole truth about history so we can learn from our mistakes, find ways to meet challenges, and ultimately bridge the divisions of our time.

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