SIU's "1857 Project" examines racism in the Midwest

The Gateway Journalism Review, published by Southern Illinois University- Carbondale, released a special project this month documenting the history of racism in the Midwest.

In 1776, one of America’s seminal founding documents, The Declaration of Independence, declared “all men are created equal.”

Eighty-one years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Black people, whether enslaved or free “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the constitution.”

That decision lies at the heart of a recent publication from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale’s Gateway Journalism Review.

“The 1857 Project” examines the history of racism, slavery and segregation in the Midwest.

William Freivogel, former head of the school’s journalism department and publisher of the project, said the publication owes a lot to the recent New York Times “1619 Project,” which explored America’s history with slavery and racism since its beginning.

“Slavery, segregation and race have been central to the American story,” Freivogel said in an interview Friday.

The 80-page project, available online, examines issues from slavery in Illinois and racism even in the anti-slavery movement to a map of 200 lynchings in Missouri and Illinois and the “whitewashed version of history” underscoring the American Dream.

“The original sin of America’s story is slavery and segregation,” Freivogel said.

“Our brightest triumphs are all the efforts we’re making to overcome it.”

Though reporting on the project began in January, its publication coincides with recent upheaval across the country in the form of racial justice protests in the wake of several highly-publicized killings of Black people at the hands of police.

Freivogel said he believes many people underestimate the current effects of racism in America and how fallout from slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation can still cause racial injustice.

“The wealth gap between African Americans and whites is enormous,” Freivogel said.

“White families have had good fortune and sometimes the breaks that came in the ruling group.”

Freivogel said he’s seen, despite significant progress, some people are resistant to change and projects that have had positive effects in the past have been abandoned.

“I guess I see it as a step and a half forward for every step back.”

The project also highlights some of the failings of journalism before and during the civil rights era, and race-related projects that “never saw the light of day.”

Freivogel sees recent developments like removal of Confederate monuments and Mississippi’s removal of its Confederate-inspired flag as important ways of reckoning with the past.

“I don’t think we ever would have been able to do that 10 or 15 years ago,” he said.

Though the project explores a lot of negative history related to the Dred Scott decision, Freivogel said there are positive lessons to learn, too.

“The other side is the success and the part that we played in the Midwest in overcoming it,” he said.

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