The freedwoman’s longing bleeds onto the page in a June 1865 notice she placed in the Christian Recorder, archived in the museum of Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church on South Sixth Street:
INFORMATION WANTED: Can any one inform me of the whereabouts of John Person; the son of Hannah Person, of Alexandria, Va., who belonged to Alexander Sancter. I have not seen him for ten years. I was sold to Joseph Bruin, who took me to New Orleans…This is the only child I have and I much desire to find him…
Anguished over family members gone missing during slavery, freedmen placed such ads in the Christian Recorder and other newspapers for at least 30 years after the Civil War ended, according to Margaret Jerrido, Mother Bethel’s archivist. Besides a record of loss, these notices spotlight how, by allowing slavery, the U.S. government colluded in ripping apart black families and damaging them.
Today, though President Donald Trump ballyhoos the value of families, his administration continues the country’s tradition of assault on black and brown families, committed when it seems expedient for the nation’s policies or pocketbook.
This statistic may shock, but separating families of color has deep historic roots in the U.S. — ones we haven’t seemed to learn from.
In the 1860s, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs began establishing boarding schools for Native American children, often far from the reservations where their parents lived. “Agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs took Native children from their parents, sometimes by force, and sent them to the schools,” said Ron Welburn, professor emeritus of English and cofounder of the Native American Indian Studies certificate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Welburn has Native American and African American ancestry. “These schools aimed to strip away the children’s Indian spirituality, culture, and language,” he said.
The boarding schools taught the boys trades while girls learned domestic skills, and children sometimes faced physical and emotional abuse, according to Welburn. Richard Henry Pratt — who founded Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, considered a model school for its time — declared that the schools would “kill the Indian and save the man.”
Most such schools had closed by the 1970s, but former students and their families still face a long road to wholeness. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Minneapolis nonprofit founded in 2012, helps individuals and families recover from the addiction, depression, and loss of language stemming from what some Native Americans call the “American Indian holocaust,” referring to the eradication of many Native peoples and their culture.
More recently, the U.S. government has again forced separation of brown children from their parents — now those who cross the Mexico-U.S. border illegally. The Trump administration first acknowledged family separations as part of its “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration that went into effect in May 2018. But numbers from the Department of Homeland Security indicate families were being torn apart as early as October 2016. The process has brutalized more than 5,400 young people, including infants, by taking them from their parents, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Any single case reveals the children’s tenuous position. “I worked on a case last February of a young woman who’s 20 years old, but was developmentally delayed and really functioned as a 13- to 15-year-old,” said Mount Airy attorney and social worker Judith Bernstein-Baker, who represents immigration clients pro bono. “She was separated from her mother and sister and sent to a detention center in Battle Creek, Michigan, while her mother was released to live with relatives in Kentucky. The girl was almost deported because she could not express herself. I managed to get her released and reunited with her mom.”
That is not the case for many families.
Continued outrage at our government tearing kids away from their parents and putting them in tents, cages, filth, pain, and extreme temperatures can fuel action to address this wrong — and reckon with it as a long-standing element of U.S. history.
First: We can urge our government to apologize for brutalizing not only the thousands of children and their families at the border, but also African American families separated during slavery, and Native Americans and their descendants torn away from their parents — an apology Canada has already offered to its Native peoples, with a commitment to financial remedy.
Second: We can urge legislators to enact provisions to allow reunited families to remain in the U.S. for enough time to receive the intensive therapy needed for healing, as psychologists have recommended. Violence and poverty in these families’ home countries often put those resources out of reach.
We can also donate time, money, or both to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Rescue Committee, Physicians for Human Rights, and others working to reunite families and attend to their physical and emotional health.
Finally, let’s put school administrators’ feet to the fire about addressing the government’s separating families of color in curricula and textbooks. More knowledge will spur us to remain conscious of — and thus help avoid — repeating this hateful history yet again.