by Leroy F. Moore Jr.

What did it mean when non-disabled slaves were set free?

Leroy F. Moore Jr., founding member of the National Black Disability Coalition, visited Burlington, Vermont, for his brother’s wedding in July 2011.

Slavery ended in the U.S. after the 13th Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865. However, disabled slaves were kept on plantations because slavery was connected to the ability to work. Jim Downs, among other scholars, wrote an essay entitled, “The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves during Emancipation,” which explains that disabled slaves were seen as non-workers.

Because they could not work, they were kept on plantations to be “taking care of.” But in reality, they continued to work for their “masters.”

Did this separation of freedom of non-disabled compared to disabled people set a standard or practice on how to treat disabled African Americans within and out of the Black community? How does this continued oppression of disabled African Americans show itself from the civil rights movement to the cultural art movements?

On Feb. 6, 2017, the National Black Disability Coalition published my article on the 13th Amendment, the exclusion of people with developmental disabilities and its impact on today’s Black scholars when writing about Jim Crow, prisons and the film industry, to name a few topics. I found that the 13th Amendment didn’t apply to me as a Black man with a developmental disability, as I read the following statement on http://disabilityjustice.org/ that comes from the article, “The Right to Self-Determination: Freedom from Involuntary Servitude (Employment).”

“’Involuntary servitude,’ or ‘peonage,’ occurs when a person is forced to work against his or her will, with little or no control over working conditions. This work might be paid or unpaid. The 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery and outlawing involuntary servitude, was passed in 1865 shortly before the end of the Civil War. Unfortunately, this protection was not extended to people with developmental disabilities until nearly a century after the passage of the 13th Amendment.”

Did this separation of freedom of non-disabled compared to disabled people set a standard or practice on how to treat disabled African Americans within and out of the Black community?

I return to the original question: What does it mean when non-disabled slaves were set free and disabled slaves were kept on plantations after the ending of slavery after the 13th Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865?

As we all know, the “founding fathers” who wrote the original Constitution weren’t thinking about Africans as equals and it showed in their writing, so that is not surprising. But what is surprising and produced a separation between African Americans with and without disabilities is the mainstream – mainly White – perspective toward people with disabilities and how this early perspective on disabled people, especially Black disabled people, set the future experiences of Black disabled people in America.

This history has not only separated Black disabled people from their Black community as they moved from slavery, to Jim Crow, to Black Reconstruction, to the Blues era, to the Black Arts Movement, to the Black Civil Rights Movement, to police brutality and to Hip-Hop, but I argue this separation also created a subsection of the Black life experience in America that has only recently been uncovered and written about.

Although Black disabled people experience much of the same treatment as Black non-disabled people, including the horror of lynching, their disabilities can easily disappear as we tell their stories. Emmett Till, only 14, was lynched after he was accused by a white woman of whistling at her. Emmett had been stricken by polio at the age of 5 and had made a full recovery except for a stutter that his mother taught him to deal with by whistling.

On May 15, 1916, after 17-year-old Jesse Washington was given a death sentence, “a mob seized him and dragged him to City Hall, where they doused him with coal oil and hanged him over a pile of burning wooden crates” in front of 15,000 spectators, according to the Waco Tribune. “They carved his charred body into souvenirs and dragged it around town.” His case brought the NAACP, founded in 1909, and its anti-lynching campaign to prominence. – Photo: Fred Gildersleeve, courtesy Baylor University

And Patricia Bernstein’s 2006 book, “The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP,” published by Texas A&M University, taught me that Jesse Washington, lynched in Waco, Texas, in 1916, had a developmental disability then called mental retardation.

Also, Black disabled people were separated from non-disabled Blacks the same way Black and White students were segregated in the Jim Crow South. How many Black disabled people lived and worked in freak shows and circuses, separating them from family and the Black community? Out of this history of separation came ways of surviving, however. Many times that meant exploiting or using their disability to make money or learning an art like singing, playing an instrument or even making things by hand and displaying their art, music and even their bodies to the public in exchange for donations.

I’m not arguing that this separation was a good thing by helping to produce art and music; I want to connect the way Black disabled people had to live with the deeper question for today: Are Black disabled and non-disabled people still separated? Does the commonality in experiencing almost the same oppression from police brutality to the school to prison pipeline impact us?

Black disabled people were separated from non-disabled Blacks the same way Black and White students were segregated in the Jim Crow South.

My answer is yes and no. Yes, Black disabled people experience almost the same racist injustices as our fellow Black non-disabled brothers and sisters; however, because of our disability the injustices are compounded. We share these experiences, bad and good, in isolation or with other Black disabled people but not inside the Black community as a whole.

Although we have seen great strides in the disability rights movement and in the disability culture movement, yet there is still a lack of Black disabled programs within the Black community. Even today Black parents must leave their community to receive services.

This continues the separation from the larger Black community, resulting in a lack of knowledge and involvement in the disability movements, from rights to policies to arts and culture to creation of non-profit organizations and disability studies. At the end of the day, it leaves non-disabled Black folks always playing catch-up without enjoying empowering ways of viewing disability.

We are you and you are us. Let’s do Black history together.

Leroy F. Moore Jr., poet, researcher, journalist and activist, founder of Krip-Hop Nation and founding member of the National Black Disability Coalition, can be reached at Kriphopnation@gmail.com.

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