Do you enjoy being told that things are racist? Presumably. Why else would you be here? And so, in our quest to dole out painful truth to balance out any bit of fun that may still exist, we have to inform you that ...
Imagine a hypothetical traveler coming to visit New York City with no prior knowledge of the place. They see towering skyscrapers, exclusive retail establishments, and residences that their proud guide says take up some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Then they reach a massive expanse of grass and ponds occupying more than a square mile. "Wow," they say. "Amazing that the city cut off developing space to preserve nature!"
Their guide then informs our imaginary yokel that, really, city parks are rarely areas of preserved nature; they're planned spaces. Before New York built Central Park, something was in its place. As for what that was ... well, the guide may be a little cagey on that. Why? Because there used to be a series of villages there until the city took the residents' land by force.
Before Central Park, meaning pre-1855, the area was home to small settlements such as the attractively named Pigtown and larger communities such as Seneca Village. The residents were mostly Black, and right before the land was seized, there was also a growing Irish population and some Germans. All were groups that had trouble making it elsewhere in the city (New York abolished slavery in 1827, but things didn't immediately turn awesome). Some people were just hanging out on unclaimed land, and the city kicked them out, telling them it was time to stop squatting rent-free. But in places like Seneca Village, the people were legit landowners until the government seized it and sent them scattering.
For decades, the official story was that the land had held only shitty shantytowns, and New York did a public service by clearing them out. That was a lie. These were multistory homes, and the people there were employed, paid taxes, and voted (Black New Yorkers needed to own land to vote). The area even included three churches, as well as graveyards whose locations have been lost to history. For the landowners, the city paid them some compensation, but not a lot. Had they kept their land, all of their descendants would be multimillionaires today. What happened to the actual descendants? Historians have been unable to track down a single one.
It turns out there's a pretty long history of cities spotting minority communities and then pulling the rug from under them, scattering the residents in all directions to be lost forever. Since we've put Manhattan into your mind, let's hop to Manhattan Beach, California. A hundred years ago or so, the area consisted of half that a developer named Shore Acres and the other half that another developer called Manhattan, since he was from New York. The two agreed to flip a coin to decide one name for the whole thing, and Manhattan won. While unoriginal, they didn't end up with the name that sounded like a canceled CW teen drama.
A few years later, Willa and Charles Bruce bought a section of the town and named it Bruce's beach. They were the rare wealthy Black couple in the largely white town and set up a dance hall and cafe that attracted Black patrons. Other Black families began buying property nearby too. Then came the campaign to drive them out -- and at the same time scare Black vacationers from making the trip to the area.
The KKK led the charge, burning one house down and setting some other fires that weren't quite as destructive but still sent a message. George Peck, one of those developers we mentioned earlier, carved up the land into paths, so Black visitors had to take as long a route as possible to make it to the beach. They weren't going to the white beaches and bothering white people, but it seemed offensive to him that they would even dare to keep coming to a beach of their own.
Finally, the town used eminent domain to seize all the land, closing the beach and sending the Black owners fleeing inland. The city said they wanted to make a park, which makes this sound similar to Central Park's origin. The difference is that New York at least really did want to make Central Park and expelled the residents just as a consequence of that. With Manhattan Beach, the park was purely a pretext for giving Black residents the boot. As evidence of this, consider that they never got around to building a park there until 30 years later, and they only did so then because they feared the Bruces' descendants might sue and get the land back.
After many years, a Black councilman got the city to name the area Bruce's Beach one more. And while there's a plaque explaining the place's history. It's ... not quite as clear about it as it should be. It reads, "In 1912, Mr. George Peck, one of our community's co-founders, made it possible for the beach area below this site to be developed as Bruce's Beach, the only beach resort in Los Angeles County for all people." That's certainly one way of putting it.
Okay, the "most racist state of all" is a pretty bold claim. After all, many other states had a little something called slavery, and while slavery did exist in the northwest, Oregon banned it a decade before officially gaining statehood. Cool, cool. The only problem was, it seems that those settlers who arrived with a distaste for slavery also had a distaste for the slaves themselves. When Oregon banned slavery, it also banned freed Black people from living or working there, something no other state ever did.
So, given that slavery had existed in Oregon, how do you go about enforcing a ban on Black residents, short of rounding everyone up and sending them out in train cars? Oregon took care of this using what is popularly known as the "lash law." All freed Blacks over 18 had to leave the state, said the law. The penalty for remaining? The offending resident would "receive upon his or her bare back not less than 20 nor more than 39 stripes, to be inflicted by the constable of the proper county." That would hopefully get them moving, else lashings would resume in six months' time.
Fairly soon, the lashing provision was amended, so Blacks found guilty of existing were instead sentenced to forced labor in a different state, which isn't a great look if you've already gone to the trouble of banning slavery. A little later, in 1845, they got rid of the law, but they replaced it with another. Then Congress passed a law granting hundreds of acres of free land to "every white settler" in Oregon. These settlers now saw a white utopia in Oregon, and they used the old Black exclusion laws as a precedent to pass even more. As an African American, these laws forbade you from moving to Oregon even into the 1920s.
Meet someone from Oregon today, and there's a good chance they'll joke about how incredibly white they are, or how Portland is the whitest city in America. Be sure not to tell them the state's history or the jokey shame could turn to real shame, and we might lose those original, endearing jokes forever.
We've been talking all about the coasts so far, and there's a reason for that. If we told you, "Hey, would you believe whites rioted and sent Black residents fleeing Harrison, Arkansas?" we'd expect you to say, "Uh, probably. Sounds about right." Similarly, if we told you about some random spot in Oklahoma that's named after a Confederate general, that's no surprise -- there are tons of those, probably. Yet if you shift your focus to Key West in Florida, you'll learn people were surprised when they found out where Mallory Square got its name.
Mallory Square is named for Stephen Mallory, one-time marshal of Key West but more famously the secretary of the Confederate navy. We'll touch on that in a moment, but for your entertainment, let's instead start with Mallory's first major move as a Florida senator. Six weeks into his new job, in 1852, he delivered a speech on the Senate floor about how the navy must reinstate flogging.
At this point, Mallory had no firsthand experience in the navy, but he prided himself on having observed "seamen of every grade." The reason for this, though he didn't mention it, was that his mother ran a boarding house, where she made money taking in lots of seamen. The only way to properly direct your seamen, argued Mallory, is with regular flogging, Unfortunately for him, his arguments failed to convince the Senate, and naval flogging remained illegal. Seamen, one assumes, could never be suppressed again.
Mallory owned slaves, and he leased them to the government. There was a law against this -- against politicians contracting to the government, not against slave trading -- which should have disqualified him from holding office, but he got around this through some shenanigans, putting the slaves in a "trust." He went on to lead the Confederate navy, and after the war, he was arrested for treason. We'd love to tell you exactly what the nature of this treason was, but historians have been unable to find the charges laid out anywhere. It's possible that the U.S. was just wrongly arresting a bunch of Confederates on suspicion of assassinating Abraham Lincoln.
There's a plaque in Mallory Square now, and since we've established that plaques tend to be vague on details, here's how it describes Mallory's arrest: "After the war, Union forces held him a prisoner at Fort Lafayette for 10 months." So, merrymakers on the square can read the plaque and just consider him a war hero. There's no need to think about how, when he ran Key West, he'd arrest and beat any Black resident found unjustifiably walking around -- with extra beatings if they were playing fiddle music.
You might have heard something about the hills of South Dakota being sacred Indigenous land, which makes carving those American presidents up there kind of an affront. Even if true, that sort of accusation is easy to brush off. "All of America is sacred Indigenous land, what are you going to do?" you might say. Calling Mount Rushmore land stolen from Natives is roughly the same charge as saying the U.S. is cursed because it was built on an old Native American burial ground.
But the offense is more specific than that. In 1868, the U.S. signed an agreement with a bunch of tribes called the Treaty of Fort Laramie. It created the Great Sioux Reservation of Nebraska and South Dakota, and it granted ownership of the Black Hills, including the spot where Mount Rushmore would eventually be carved, to the Sioux. Permanent ownership. Later -- after the Indian Removal Act and all those other milestones of westward expansion -- the government just took the land back.
So is this just one more land grab of many, settled ancient history? Not really. True to their name, the Sioux decided to sue, and they made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1980. Against all expectations of how these sorts of things go, the court ruled in the tribe's favor. Yes, the U.S. had taken Mount Rushmore's land illegally. And so, they now owed the Sioux $100 million.
And yet the Sioux have refused to collect the money. Collecting it would be tantamount to selling the land, they reason, and they don't want to sell the land. They want to have the land. Every year, the amount waiting for them has compounded, and by 2011, the sum had reached a staggering $1.3 billion. Still, they refuse to collect because they want the hills. They're even willing to leave their hands off Mount Rushmore itself, the Air Force base in the hills, and any part where people are living. They're just looking for some kind of co-management deal over the rest. Better cut the deal quickly before they withdraw the money and spend it on a hundred Bugatti hypercars.
Top Image: Dean Franklin