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Published: Thursday, 2/17/2005

Expert urges learning role of whites in black history

BOWLING GREEN -The lack of discussion on the role whites played in black history and the civil rights movement has helped create an uneasiness for some whites when the subject comes up, a Kent State University lecturer told an audience here yesterday.

Christina McVay spoke in the Bowen-Thompson Student Union at Bowling Green State University as part of the university's Affirmative Direction lecture series.

Marshall Rose, a BGSU administrator who helped organize the series, said he entitled the talk "a choice of legacies" because whites took great risks to speak and act on behalf of African-Americans over the years.

Ms. McVay, who teaches in the Pan-African Studies Department at Kent State, said she could often tell the anxiety among white students by the questions they would ask during and after classes that touched on African-American history or civil rights.

"African-Americans need to know this history, but whites as well," Ms. McVay said. "So many of young white students feel, by virtue of their white skin, that they are aligned with the bad guys. They become defensive.

"When I was growing up, blacks received no credit for anything. Now the pendulum has swung the other way and we need to bring it back toward the center."

Ms. McVay said she purposely featured in her presentation whites whom the public may not have known as being involved in black history but had an impact on it at one time or another.

She said one of the more surprising voices supporting African-Americans was world-famous physicist Albert Einstein.

A German native who lived in the United States from 1933 until his death in 1955, Mr. Einstein developed relationships with noted African-Americans, such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, as well as Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Einstein wrote critically about race relations and treatment of African-Americans in the United States, Ms. McVay said. In one of his essays, he challenged Americans to put their prejudices against blacks aside so their children wouldn't carry them on.

"I do not believe there is a way in which this deeply entrenched evil can be quickly healed," Mr. Einstein said of racism in the United States. "But until this goal is reached, there is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of the good cause."

Ms. McVay said the description of slavery abolitionist John Brown as "insane" was particularly unusual when there was no evidence that he was mentally ill. She said, though, many history books mentioned that he was insane and his mental illness has been taught in classrooms as fact.

Mr. Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va., one of the preludes to the Civil War. He was captured and executed in 1859.

Ms. McVay said the writings of Frances Ann Kemble, a British-born actress, during the Civil War, kept Britain neutral even though the South provided cotton to the country's textile mills.

Ms. Kemble, who came to the United States to act, married wealthy Pierce Butler in 1834. When Mr. Butler inherited two Georgia plantations upon a grandfather's death in 1838, Ms. Kemble wrote about the horrible conditions in which the slaves lived and how they were maltreated.

Her writings, which became the document Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Planation, were printed during the Civil War and partly were credited for Britain's decision not to intervene on behalf of the South.



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