A Message from Gilder Lehrman Institute President James Basker

Dear Friends of the Gilder Lehrman Institute,

I write to our entire Gilder Lehrman Institute community with concern as, in the midst of a global pandemic, a new crisis with terrible historical echoes has arisen. The killing of George Floyd reverberates across our country, evoking memories of lynching and the painful history of slavery and Jim Crow. For many, though, it has been seen with too little historical understanding or context.

From its inception in 1994, the Institute has placed the history of slavery and abolition, and the whole of the African American experience, as a central theme in the fabric of American history. It has been a core element in what we do, every year, in every setting—the collection, seminars and professional development programs, exhibitions, publications, web site resources. We work with historians like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to bring the history of Reconstruction and its undoing to the K-12 teachers and students we serve. We have worked as partners with Hamilton to bring the Hamilton Education Program to students in Title I-eligible high schools across the country, enabling students who often have had no other opportunity to see themselves represented on stage to experience that phenomenon.

As an Institute, we hope to provide what many are sorely lacking: historical context. With the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress exams demonstrating that only 15 percent of American 8th graders are “proficient” in US History, we see our role in the ongoing struggle for equality as vital. We strive to provide the instruments of history to educators of the present, for the sake of the students and citizens of the future.

From where I sit, as the president of this Institute, I see the protest in our country through a lens of historical civil rights struggle. I regard the birth of the civil rights movement in America as taking place as far back as January 13, 1777. On that day, a petition created by eight black Bostonians was presented to the Massachusetts legislature, the first of its kind to echo the Declaration of Independence (e.g., "unalienable right") that had been issued six months earlier. The Declaration asserted and codified American rights, and these black men used that as a basis to claim the same rights for the black community. They were denied, as would be so many over the decades leading up to the Civil War, and after. But reflecting that this struggle for civil rights began long before the 1960s—almost 200 years earlier—gives context to our present moment, when there is still so much work to be done.

While the nation continues to grapple with its identity and values, while justice is served and denied in varying degrees, we endeavor to hold ourselves to the standards and ideals of our most important founding documents and their amendments, beyond the personalities that first drafted them, toward the improvement of our country, even in its times of greatest pain.

Here are the remarkable words of Lancaster Hill, Peter Bess, Brister Slenser, Prince Hall, Jack Pierpont, Nero Funelo, Newport Sumner, and Job Look, African Americans appealing for equal rights during the Revolutionary War:

“…your Petitioners apprehend that they have, in common with all other Men, a natural and unalienable right to that freedom, which the great Parent of the Universe hath bestowed equally on all Mankind, & which they have never forfeited by any compact or agreement whatever—But they were unjustly dragged, by the cruel hand of Power, from their dearest friends, and some of them even torn from the embraces of their tender Parents—from a populous, pleasant and plentiful Country—& in Violation of the Laws of Nature & of Nation & in defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity, brought hither to be sold like Beasts of Burthen, & like them condemned to slavery for Life…In imitation of the laudable example of the good People of these States, your Petitioners have long & patiently waited the event of Petition after Petition by them presented to the Legislative Body of this State, & can not but with grief reflect that their success has been but too similar—They can not but express their astonishment, that it has never been considered, that every principle from which America has acted in the course of her unhappy difficulties with Great-Britain, pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your Petitioners…whereby they may be restored to the enjoyment of that freedom which is the natural right of all Men—& their Children…”

That plea is from 1777. We believe that black lives matter now, and have always mattered. Affirming that truth is part of our commitment to fighting historical illiteracy, among K-12 school children as well as the general public.

James Basker
President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History