To Mayor Riley of Charleston: Everything Has a History

Today’s New York Times reports that Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, South Carolina, has declared that our task is “to help get evil thoughts out of the minds” of Americans. According to the Times reporter, “Mr. Riley added that it was time for dialogue about race in America.”

Time? Those of us who study, teach, and write history are probably not the only people likely to suggest that he’s a bit late to the table on this issue. “It was time” quite a long time ago.

But better late than never, Mayor Riley. You and your colleagues can open the dialogue by taking down that Confederate flag, a symbol of a military struggle on behalf of the right of some human beings to own other human beings.

Mayor Riley, to his credit, acknowledges that there’s a reason why he has not been aware of “the time for dialogue” earlier. “We in America were not taught African-American history. It was never in the history books, and we don’t know the story.”

As a historian and former college professor who taught the African American history course that was apparently unavailable to Mayor Riley, I am deeply gratified by the mayor’s appetite for the history education that has until now eluded him. The American Historical Association will be sending him a small library in African American history.

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  1. Jim Powers

    Mayor Riley is correct about African-American history and our public schools. Certainly students learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglas and others are mentioned too. Mentioning something, or someone, is not the same as teaching it. While you may have taught that history, not every college student takes that class. Then there are those that don’t go to college. It shouldn’t be surprising to an history teacher that so few know, or understand, American history.

  2. anon

    I understand the sentiment of this, but just a quick look on Wikipedia shows that this mayor organized a five-day-long march of hundreds of people against the installation of the Confederate flag at the statehouse back in 2000 (see article:,6538657&hl=en ).

    Can we send the mayor of Charleston some good and useful books without making it a snarky comment on his ignorance? Maybe his quote was a little off the mark, but he seems to have been working for positive change in SC for a while.

  3. Geraldine Beckford

    If we are serious about the “race problem”, we cannot wait until our young people get to college or even high school before they know the history of African Americans or any other group in our great country. What about those most impressionable years between first and fourth grades? Google Sam Whiteman and Dr. Ulysses S. Bourne and you will see what can happen when an innovative 4th grade teacher introduces her class to American history.