July 4th, 2012 at the National Archives: Keynote Address by A'Lelia Bundles

Uploaded by usnationalarchives on 17.07.2012

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>> David Ferriero: Now I'd like to introduce our keynote
speaker, the chair and president of the Foundation for
the National Archives, A'Lelia Bundles.
After a 30-year career as a network television news producer
executive with ABC News and NBC News, A'Lelia Bundles now
is president of the Madam Walker/A'Lelia Walker Family
Archives, the largest private collection of Walker
photographs, business records, letters, clothing, furniture,
and personal artifacts.
"On Her Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,"
her best-selling biography of her
great-grandmother, was named -- great-great-grandmother --
was named a New York Times Notable Book.
She's currently at work on her third book,
"Joy Goddess of Harlem: The Life and Times of A'Lelia Walker,"
a biography of her great-grandmother.
In addition to her work with the Foundation for the
National Archives, Bundles serves as a Columbia University
trustee and she's on the board of the Madam Walker Theater
Center of Indianapolis, and on the Radcliffe Institute's
Schlesinger Library Council at Harvard.
Please join me in welcoming A'Lelia Bundles.
>> A'Lelia Bundles: Thank you, David.
Good morning, everybody.
And welcome to the best Fourth of July parade seat in America.
[laughs] Today we wave our flags, and I see some of you are
waving your fans, as well.
We stuff ourselves with hot dogs and barbeque, we light sparklers
and we get nostalgic for homemade ice cream
and cherry popsicles.
We wait with great anticipation for a night sky
filled with fireworks.
Today we celebrate the Declaration of Independence,
the document that was approved 236 years ago, by the men
we have come to call America's founding fathers.
Fifty-six men who sat in a hot, stuffy room in Philadelphia
during the summer of 1776, plotting their treasonous revolt
against King George III.
But today I'd like to ask you to remember and celebrate those
Americans who were not inside Assembly Hall: women, African
Americans, Native Americans, indentured servants, small
family farmers, and the generations of immigrants who
arrived on our shores after the revolution.
Beyond those doors at Independence Hall, in small
towns, in kitchens, and on farms were our founding mothers
and our founding citizens.
They, too, had a stake in the outcome
of the Revolutionary War.
And though Hollywood and the history books of my childhood
rendered them mostly invisible, they were not absent.
In 1776, barely two and a half million people, including about
500,000 enslaved people of African descent, and several
thousand free people of color lived in America's
13 newly created states.
Throughout the rest of the continent there were hundreds
of thousands of Native Americans: Cherokee, Iroquois,
Choctaw, Shawnee, and more.
While Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration,
and the Continental Congress was debating matters large
and small, black soldiers were helping stave off
King George's redcoats.
In fact, six years earlier, at the 1780 Boston Massacre,
Crispus Attucks, a sailor and escaped slave, had become
the first casualty of the Revolution, gunned down
by the King's troops in a public square.
During the spring of 1775, several slaves and free black
men fought in the military skirmishes
at Lexington and Concord.
While Paul Revere was shouting "The British are coming!"
Peter Salem was loading his musket for battle.
Two months later at Bunker Hill, that same Peter Salem killed the
officer who had commanded the British forces
at Lexington and Concord.
By the end of the war, some 5,000 African Americans had
served in the Continental Army, from Saratoga and Trenton,
to the final victory at Yorktown.
One of those free men of color was
my great-great-great-great-great- great-grandfather,
Ishmael Roberts, who traveled with Colonel Abraham Shepherd's
apparently rather motley crew in the Tenth North Carolina
Regiment to Valley Forge.
While the founding fathers insisted on freedom and liberty
for themselves, there was no critical mass willing to argue
for the freedom and liberty for human beings whose uncompensated
labor allowed their fledgling nation to prosper.
While Patrick Henry could proclaim, "Give me liberty
or give me death" on his own behalf, he also owned other
human beings because, he said, of "the general inconvenience
of living without them."
In 1776 as the words of liberation were read in public,
overheard in carriages, and debated in drawing rooms,
the servants, drivers, and valets soaked
in every phrase and spread the news.
The messages may not have traveled as quickly
as a Facebook post or a retweet on Twitter, but the information
made its way from dining room to veranda,
from plantation to city.
As the patriots listed their grievances against King George,
the enslaved men and women couldn't help but wonder why
the words that "all men are created equal"
should not include them.
And so they embraced the spirit of the Revolution and applied
it to their own condition of servitude.
In February 1774, a full year and a half before the second
Continental Congress, Phillis Wheatley, the black poet, wrote,
"In every human breast, God has implanted a principle,
"which we call love of freedom.
It is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance."
I will assert that same principle lives in us.
But her plea went unanswered by the generation
of the founding fathers.
After the peace treaty between the United States of America
and Britain was signed in 1783, slavery remained
the law of the land.
Although Benjamin Franklin later served as president
of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition
of Slavery, George Washington continued to own slaves,
as did Thomas Jefferson and 10 other presidents.
John Adams, though, was the exception,
with no slaves in his household.
His wife, Abigail Adams, was even more anti-slavery than he.
In September 1774 she wrote, "It always appeared a most
"iniquitous scheme to me to fight for ourselves what
"we daily are robbing and plundering from those who have
as good a right to freedom as we have."
Mrs. Adams is, however, perhaps even more well known for her
stance on women's rights, a topic the founding fathers
seemed to have found as unworthy as the rights of bondsmen.
"I long to hear that you have declared an independency,"
Abigail wrote to John in March of 1776.
"And by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will
"be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember
"the ladies and be more generous and favorable
"to them than your ancestors.
"Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands.
Remember, all men would be tyrants, if they could."
John Adams' reply a few weeks later
was entirely unsatisfactory.
After calling Abigail saucy for her sentiments, he wrote,
"As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh."
Seventy-six years later, women still could not vote and slavery
had expanded into new states and territories.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist, and one
of America's greatest orators, could stand
the hypocrisy no more.
He admired, he said, the eloquent words of the
Declaration, but when invited to present a Fourth of July address
in Rochester, New York, he felt duty-bound to speak frankly.
"Fellow citizens," he said on July 5, 1862, "the signers
"of the Declaration of Independence were brave men,
"they were statesmen, patriots and heroes.
"And for the good they did and the principles they contended
"for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
"Fellow citizens, please pardon me, the rich inheritance
"of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence
"bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.
"The Fourth of July is yours, not mine.
"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?
"I answer: a day that reveals to him more than any of the other
"days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which
"he is the constant victim.
"To him, your celebration is a sham.
"Allow me to say, not withstanding the dark picture
"I have this day presented of the state of the Union, I do not
"despair of this country.
My spirit is cheered with the obvious tendencies of the age."
That was his words were meant to make his audience squirm,
in much the same way the founding fathers intended to put
King George III on notice.
Just as the patriots wanted the British Parliament to recognize
their political and property rights, Frederick Douglass
implored his audience to confront the inconsistencies
in their words and deeds.
But he did not abandon America.
Instead he continued to challenge the status quo with
his anti-slavery newspaper, "The North Star."
After the Civil War he served as a U.S. Minister
and Council General to Haiti and president
of the Freedman's Bank.
He advised President Abraham Lincoln and lived the rest
of his life forcing America to confront its imperfections.
And so, when I ponder Frederick Douglass's question,
"What is the Fourth of July?"
I can't help but imagine what he hoped the answer might become.
Did he envision a day when his descendants might claim the day
as their own?
Today, because of Douglass and the generations of righteous
and courageous men and women who came after the founding fathers,
I choose to claim the Fourth of July as my own.
It is as much mine as it is yours.
It is mine.
It is yours.
It is ours.
It belongs to me as much as it belongs to the founding fathers,
because I know my ancestors on farms, in factories,
and on battlefields helped build America and make
it what it is today.
In 1776 we were a loose confederation of two and a half
million people clustered in 13 newly created states.
Today we are a nation of 312 million in 50 states, a land
of immigrants who have come from every continent.
And today we all can claim a place in this American family.
We all can look to the documents that are just inside these
gigantic doors at the National Archives:
the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution,
and the Bill of Rights, the documents we call
the charters of freedom.
We can also look to the Emancipation Proclamation,
the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the 19th Amendment,
and all the other laws and statutes and executive orders
that have helped clarify the unfinished business
of the founding fathers.
We can use the charters of freedom as a framework for
debate, to settle conflicts and promote civility, to seek common
ground and common cause, to work together to turn our ever
evolving, ever imperfect nation into a more perfect union.
Thank you.
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