Modern American Encounters, II

Students in HIS350 Modern America are engaging with a variety of primary and secondary source materials this semester.  Recently they were given an essay assignment that asked them to consider the following:

All of us approach an historical era that is new to us with impressions: ideas, feelings, or opinions about something or someone, often formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little or disconnected evidence.  The purpose of this assignment is to reflect on how your thinking (“impression”) about the modern American experience is being reshaped by your encounters with a variety of primary and secondary source evidence.

Junior History and Social Studies major Annie Berglund reflects on diverse thinking within modern American minority groups in her essay, “History: A Study of Diverse Groups with Diverse Thoughts.”

From the beginning of human history, people have been grouped together based on similar experiences, beliefs, and personal characteristics. This can especially be said of minority groups within America. Though these communities, specifically minority groups, contain similar ties, there is still much diversity in thought between members. This realization can be applied to groups throughout American history, and the 1930’s are no exception. Minority groups during this time faced differences in opinions on segregation and assimilation. Specifically, African Americans dealt with the ongoing issues of discrimination in the workforce, in politics, and in society as a whole. From the continuing threat of lynching to the unequal segregated schools and job availabilities, black Americans faced issues that forced them to question how to bring about a better future. Likewise, Native Americans held diverse thoughts on whether they should strive for assimilation into the modern American culture or if their tribal government and traditional ways should be upheld first and foremost. These two examples illustrate the idea that no group is monolithic in thought, but instead generalizations exists that must be combatted through intense study of differing primary sources.

Diversity of thought toward segregation can be seen through W.E.B. Du Bois’ belief that segregation, in the absence of discrimination, was not inherently harmful to a minority group. This stance greatly challenged the official position of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, of which Du Bois had a significant role in helping to form.[1] In 1934, Du Bois wrote that white Americans in his time worked to segregate blacks in order to “take the most distinct advantage of voluntary segregation and cooperation among colored people”.[2] That being said, he also wrote that integration was “made difficult and almost impossible by petty prejudice” against black Americans in white society.[3] Du Bois insisted that a way in which this may be combatted could be through black Americans living and working together “in his own institutions and movements”; in a way, it is self-segregation from prominent aspects of white culture that would bring about improved emancipation.[4] The N.A.A.C.P., on the other hand, openly opposed Du Bois’ view in their response to his writings. Walter White, the executive secretary, wrote in the same year that the N.A.A.C.P.’s stance on the matter of segregation was that it would always bring about discrimination through “accommodations” and “position” within American society for minority groups.[5] In the economic hardship of the 1930‘s, White explained that living in separate communities would result in inadequate housing and sanitation for blacks, due to their lack of money and resources.[6] With integration, and through lobbying for legal assistance for all, black Americans would be able to receive better conditions and equality alongside other disadvantaged groups through the New Deal. Their response is among the most prominent of civil rights ideas that would emerge in later centuries, in that they viewed integration of black Americans as the ideal goal. Because of this, White and those who side with his view believed that segregation should be opposed at all cost for black Americans’ “own physical, moral and spiritual well-being and for that of white America”.[7]

Native Americans are another group that are not monolithic in their response to integration and segregation. Throughout the history of the United States, the government dealt with Native Americans either through segregating them in small reservation communities, reducing their land, and through “broken treaties”, or by required and forced assimilation into white society.[8] John Collier, the commissioner of Indian affairs during the 1930’s, responded to the injustice of Native Americans with the presentation of the Indian Reorganization Act, otherwise known as the Wheeler-Howard Act. Among its provisions, the act would develop day schools while ending Native American boarding schools, which many believed to be unethical and harmful to the Native Americans’ cultural values. It also repealed the Dawes Act of 1887, which sought to assimilate the Native Americans through allotting them individual property and a capitalistic approach to the economy by agriculture.[9] Collier believed that the new Reorganization Act would protect the Native Americans’ need for communal ownership of land by “consolidat[ing] what lands they now have” in order that they can have a higher quality of life.[10] Another provision of the act would be that tribes would be given the authority to organize and self-govern, without the “need for Government aid or supervision”.[11] Though Collier rightfully concluded that U.S. history had been harmful and unfair toward Native Americans, he believed that the provisions of the act would be widely accepted by Native Americans. However, from the account of J.C. Morgan, a Navajo Indian, Collier’s thoughts on assimilation were not expressed by a large minority. While 191 tribes agreed with the act, took the provisions, and decided to have a tribal government, 77 tribes ended up rejecting the offer.[12] Morgan held the view that they should be “educated in modern ways” and was especially concerned with the closing of boarding schools.[13] He upheld the importance of true citizenship; he said that, “by depriving the people of education” in boarding schools, and by forcing communal land ownership instead of the individual right to property as defined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the Indian Reorganization was, in effect, “[urging] segregation of our Indian people”.[14] Morgan’s perspective shows the great diversity in thought on assimilation by Native Americans, some of whom sided with Collier’s act and others who completely opposed its perspective and position.

While the theme of diverse thought within groups can seem obvious, my personal experience with reading these primary sources has challenged me to rethink the way in which I view history, especially the history of minority groups. It captured my attention specifically when reading J.C. Morgan’s account of the Navajo reaction to the Indian Reorganization Act. Prior to reading his objection to the act, I had always considered Native Americans to be bitter toward most, if not all, interaction with American governmental reform and provision. I had seen programs, such as Indian boarding schools, as harmful interventions into the lives of Native Americans, in which little good was accomplished and only resent was fostered. Instead, after reading J.C. Morgan’s account, I encountered a different perspective on government involvement in Indian affairs; this time, it was one of acceptance and gratitude for boarding schools and the implementation of individual property. While I found my view to be noble, in that I was intellectually fighting for the rights of Native Americans and pointing out the many abuses they suffered, I failed to realize that some Native Americans tribes respected and encouraged these reforms. Instead, by preserving Native American culture and, according to Morgan, preventing them from economic and social gains, the enforcers of the Indian Reorganization Act were protecting “a living advertisement and curio for the tourist”, not the actual needs of individuals within certain tribes who were in opposition to it.[15] Likewise, my understanding of the thoughts of segregation in the black community was also limited. I had read many primary and secondary sources explaining why segregation must end at all costs, yet I needed to be reminded that some individuals, such as Du Bois, did not believe segregation was inherently evil. Though I had heard from previous history courses and readings that Du Bois began to drift away from the N.A.A.C.P., I did not know it was for reasons regarding such differences in thought on segregation. For these reasons, the issue of generalizing group thought and concerns is challenging the way in which I view groups throughout history.

Though the excerpts and writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, John Collier, and J.C. Morgan are specific to 1930’s America, African Americans and Native Americans have dealt with differing views on their circumstances for centuries, and continue to have dialogue today. While the civil rights movement in the U.S. opened many Americans’ eyes to the discrimination and prejudice against minorities, the issues of prejudice, assimilation, and segregation are still prevalent in a society that continually grows more and more international. With new immigrants, especially from Latin American countries, it is vital that all Americans, not just historians, work to understand the various concerns of minorities and groups. In realizing that no group is monolithic, people can be fair in their assessment of how to communicate, interact, and dialogue with differing views within these groups and American society.

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[1]   Roark, James L. The American Promise: A History of the United States. 4th ed. Vol. II. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. 681.

[2]  Du Bois, W.E.B. “The NAACP and Segregation” The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 144.

[3] Ibid, 144.

[4] Ibid, 144.

[5]  White, Walter. “The NAACP and Segregation (1934)” The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 146.

[6] Ibid, 146.

[7] White, 147.

[8]  Collier, John. “A New Deal for American Indians” The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 152.

[9] Roark, 781.

[10] Collier, 153.

[11] Collier, 153.

[12]  Polenberg, Richard. The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 157.

[13] Polenberg, 157.

[14]  Morgan, J.C. “The Voice of a Navajo Indian” The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 157, 158.

[15] Morgan, 159.


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