Separation From The Black Community Since Slavery: Black Disabled Folks

PNNscholar1 - Posted on 19 February 2018

Leroy Moore

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


Slavery ended in the US after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 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 lays out that disabled slaves were seen as non-workers, could not work therefore were kept on plantations to be "taking care of" but continue to work for their “masters”.


Did this separation of freedom of non-disabled compare to disabled 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 February 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 and to me as a Black man with a developmental disability, as I read the below statement on that came from the article entitled: 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 Thirteenth Amendment, (link is external) 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."


Ref: (link is external)


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


As we all know the forefathers who wrote the original constitution wasn’t thinking about Africans as equals and it showed in their writings so that is not surprising but what is surprising and produced a separation between African Americans with and without disabilities is how the mainstream perspective (mainly White) 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 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 some of the same treatment of Black non-disabled people in many ways like lynching Emmitt Till (who had a speech impairment/stuttering) and Jessie Washington (who had a devolpmental disability) but in other ways their disability disappeared in history as we tell these stories. It was writtene that Emmitt Till’s mother taugh her son to whistle to deal with his stuttering and in Patricia Bernstein’s book, The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP (Centennial Series of the Association of Former Students Texas A & M University) taught me that Jesse Washington had a devolmental disability what was called back then mental retardation.  


Also, Black disabled people were separated from non-disabled Blacks like the segregated schools in the Jim Crow South. How many Black disabled people lived and worked in freak shows and circus separating them from family and the Black community.?  In 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 body for public for donations.


I’m not arguing that this separation was a good thing and helped produced art and music but connecting how Black disabled people had to live and the deeper question for today is; 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?  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 the lack of knowledge and the involvement in the disability movements from rights to policies to arts and culture to creation of non-profits organizations to disability studies.  At the end of the day it leaves nondisabled Black folks always playing catchup and not enjoying empowering ways of viewing disability.  We are you and you are us, let’s do Black History together.


Leroy F. Moore Jr.

Founding member of National Black Disability Coalition


Pic:  Painting Concept by Leroy F. Moore Jr.
Painter/Artist: Alillia Johnson
Year: 2017

Title: Blues/Activist Elders Looking Out Of Windows!

Painting Concept: As Blues/activist elders look out of nursing home's windows, they see history repeats it's self with Hip-Hop children. These elders have witness the whiteness of the Blues looking out these windows all they can do is shake their heads knowing that many of them have been locked up by the Hip-Hop generation who have no time for their elders. So Blues/activist elders bang on these windows but because these nursing homes like everything else have become private no one can visit or can hear their warnings.

All they can do is sit at the windows watching their Hip-Hop children walk in pit wholes like they did back in the day from small print on contracts, institutionalizing street culture and loosing control and trading the art and culture for promises as another generation work until they too will be in nursing homes looking out windows seeing history repeats itself.

Both characters in the painting were real people, the man with a shotgun in his lap is suppose to be the late Rev. Cecil Ivory in June of 1960 who was a wheelchair user and director of the NAACP in Rock Hill, South Carolina and led a counter sit-in at McCrory lunch counter. He told the cops that he wasn't breaking the law because he was sitting in his wheelchair not a chair at the counter. Ivory went home and waited for the KKK with a riffle-gun in his lap.

Second person in the painting is suppose to be the late Johnnie Ma. Dunson, a Blues singer and a drummer of the 1960's-2010 in Chicago who played on Maxwell Street and advocated for housing for Blues elders on Maxwell Street back in the late 80's-the early 2000's. She was evicted from her home. In the painting Ms. Dunson is looking out a nursing home's window with drum sticks in her lap.

Both are looking out of windows looking what is going on outside but can't communicate to the youth outside because they have been locked away by their own people. Mr. Ivory is at home after a counter sit-in knowing that the KKK is coming and Ms. Dunson is in a nursing home looking at a Hip-Hop cypher outside her window.


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