Remembering the Past

July 10, 2003
Remembering the Past
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Le Moyne professor takes part in documentary on African-American spirituality

Douglas Egerton, professor of history at Le Moyne College, recently made his own indelible mark in history. On June 24, he appeared in the PBS series “This Far By Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys.”

The three-part series chronicled the history of the African-American religious experience. Egerton appears in the first episode of the series, “There Is a River,” which explored the spiritual experience that Africans brought to America, their initial encounter with Christianity and how African Americans took that religion and made it work for them. According to Egerton, he was honored to take part in the series. “I have always had a deep interest in the South, which was, in fact, far more complex and complicated than I ever imagined,” Egerton said. “To participate in the series was a great opportunity.”

Egerton, born in Arizona, developed a passion for history through his family. His father, an “old West history buff,” created a household where the past was just as much alive and well as the present –– in conversation at least. “He would always be talking about the past,” noted Egerton. “You couldn’t escape history in my house.” Egerton’s paternal grandmother was born in Tennessee in 1885, the daughter of an elderly Confederate officer and slaveholder. Egerton recalled the two of them watching the series “Roots” together when he was a teenager and his grandmother becoming furious at the way the old South was depicted. “My grandmother, a lovely and educated woman, assured me that they, meaning the planter-class, were ‘always good to our people’ –– an inadvertent admission that African-American slaves were indeed human property,” he explained. “I think that’s when I decided to write and teach about race relations in the early American South.” This decision would eventually take Egerton east to Georgetown University where he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. The rest, as they say, is history.

Egerton has written extensively on slavery in the South. He is the author of Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey, Charles Fenton Mercer and the Trial of National Conservatism and Rebels, Reformers and Revolutionaries. Blackside Inc., who produced “This Far By Faith” along with The Faith Project, Inc., approached Egerton in 2000 to participate in the production. Dante James, executive producer, developed the series with an important message in mind. “One of the main principles we want all of our viewers to undersand is that African-American religion, spirituality and faith have not only been a source of comfort and strength, but have challenged society to deal with and appreciate what humanity really is,” James said in a statement about the series.

Egerton, in the first episode, elaborated on the struggle of Denmark Vesey, a slave who settled in Charleston, S.C. after the Revolutionary War. Eventually, Vesey bought his freedom and took on the slave enterprise condoned by the Catholic Church. He adopted Christianity and used Bible passages to justify his organizing a slave rebellion in 1822, Egerton said. Vesey challenged slave owners who were instructing their slaves to adhere to Bible verses such as “Turn the other cheek.” Rather, Vesey cited Scriptures from the Old Testament, particularly Exodus, to urge slaves to rebel against their owners.

The story of Vesey demonstrates that religion is not solely an historical passage; it is something that is present in people’s everyday lives, James said. “We are looking at the idea of taking Christianity and, in a sense, reinventing it, using it, reinterpreting it to deal with a hostile situation,” he explained. “This comfort, strength, and humanity might have been reflected in the person who drew from his faith the discipline not to attack his master because there were major repercussions to pay. Or it might have been the person who drew upon her sure belief just to get through the day in that hot cotton field with a child on her back.” As it was then, religion is still a powerful force in shaping people’s identity, said Egerton. “These people found faith to help them survive difficult periods. When life was unrelentingly harsh, the only thing that got them through the day was knowing that God loves them,” Egerton stated. “We are not very different from them; faith is a powerful thing that also sustains us through hardships and challenges.” This is an idea that he tries to get across in the classroom as well. For the past 16 years, Egerton, who also serves as the chair of the history department at Le Moyne, has worked to share his knowledge of Southern history with students. “They think that slavery only happened in Alabama,” Egerton said. He tells students the story of Sojourner Truth, who was born a slave in New York in the late 1700s. Truth became an advocate for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. “A majority of these students are from cities in the Northeast. I think it surprises them to hear that slavery, at one time in history, was present in this area,” Egerton said.

Egerton hopes that studying history will give his students a viewpoint from which to look at the world. In a time filled with turmoil, examining the past will allow them to grapple with issues such as diversity, morality and democracy. “Looking at history helps you to understand why things are the way they are now,” said Egerton. “A connection exists between the past and present that we can take and learn from.”

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