19th century provides a vital lesson for the 21st

September 08, 2001|By Gregory Kane

"IT'S important to know how far we've come," Chase Taylor said, standing on the lot next to the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.

Taylor is a young black man who interned this summer at the museum. He pointed to the lot next to the Banneker-Douglass building and a series of square, hut-size holes, evidence of the weeks of digging carried out by an archaeological team from the University of Maryland.

The intern showed visitors the remains of a root cellar, where vegetables and wine were stored. Then, Taylor pointed to what was left of a smokehouse where meats and shellfish were cured. His hand swept to the area where the woodshed and back porch once stood, just in front of the privy.

"It's not as disgusting as you expect it would be," Taylor said of the digging area around the privy.

Four houses once stood next to the Banneker-Douglass Museum, the former home of the Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church on Franklin Street. At one time, two of those houses were owned by whites and two by African-Americans. The time period is important here. This happened in the 19th century, in the days of slavery and when racism and discrimination against blacks were vicious and deadly.

Taylor went on.

Eventually, one of the black-owned houses fell into the hands of Dr. William Bishop, who, in 1849, was born when slavery was legal in Maryland and 15 other states. Even some of the so-called "free" states -- such as Illinois and Indiana -- had black codes so harsh and restrictive that the condition of blacks was close to slavery.

How did Bishop respond to his environment? How did he, in the language of lamentation liberal and leftist blacks use in the year 2001, answer the challenge not of the "lingering effects of slavery" but of real slavery?

Bishop graduated from the Howard University Medical School in 1885. He became the first black doctor in Annapolis and eventually the second-richest man in the city. He was a black man who understood something many blacks today don't: Bishop knew how to "find hungry samurai."

A brief explanation of how Japanese samurai figure into a discussion of African-American slavery is in order. The phrase "find hungry samurai" comes from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's classic film,The Seven Samurai. Poor villagers, hounded and harassed by bandits, take news of their plight to an old man and moan about what to do. (That moaning part may sound familiar to some African-Americans.) The old man tells them that people in his village faced the same problem when he was younger. They hired samurai to take care of the bandits.

"But we're poor," the peasants wail. "We have no money. We can't pay samurai. All we have is food."

"Then," the old man tells them, "find hungry samurai."

The phrase thus becomes not only a humorous response in a movie, but a philosophy, a way of looking at life. Don't lament your condition; do something about it. Don't make excuses; do what you have to do. Find hungry samurai.

Bishop found those samurai. So did Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and thousands of other African-Americans. Those blacks in 19th-century Annapolis who found a way to buy their freedom and establish a community of property owners and were able to rent rooms to other blacks also found it.

Facing discrimination when they went to local markets, they responded by ordering food from national companies. Taylor said the digging on Franklin Street had turned up a Heinz ketchup bottle.

"Blacks didn't buy from the local markets," Taylor said, "either because of discrimination or a boycott." They ate a lot of seafood, which didn't have to be bought. It could be caught or bartered for on the street. Poultry, which could be raised, also figured prominently in African-American diets of the era.

They followed the pattern of many blacks in the slave era. Ira Berlin, in his book Many Thousands Gone, told of slaves who made their plight better in spite of their enslavement. Some served in colonial militias. Others hired themselves out and saved enough money to buy their freedom and that of family members. Masters, fearful of rebellion and runaways, gave some slaves leave to raise their own crops in their spare time and sell them in the marketplace. A separate slave economy grew up next to the "legitimate" one, and officials were powerless to stop it.

So in spite of what their descendants so vigorously try to promote, many slaves were never just victims and never completely powerless.

They found ways not merely to cope with "the lingering effects of slavery," but with slavery itself. They could teach their descendants in the year 2001 a thing or two about survival.

"Forget about being victims of racism, children," they might tell us. "We caught more hell in a minute than many of you have caught your whole lives. Look at what we did when things were really rough and challenge yourselves to do even better with the shackles removed. And please, make no more excuses for what black folks can't do.

"Remember, when push comes to shove, all you have to do is find hungry samurai."

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