- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2004

Slavery is one of the thorniest of issues — and rightly so. Even today, with the War between the States seemingly part of ancient history, many black Americans face insurmountable challenges when they try to trace their family history. It is difficult to move forward when you do not know where you have been. Our troubled school system doesn’t help, since it even fails to teach the basic reading and writing skills that children need to advance into high school. Suffice it to say, while public schools are doing a shameful job, the D.C. Lottery is doing its part to impart American history.

In the past, for example, the Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board co-sponsored events around the Amistad mutiny. The Lottery workers made sure that D.C. school children particpated in its program by holding a written essay contest. Students from Moten Elementary School in Southeast Washington also presented Bill Pinckeny, captain of the Amistad replica, with a handmade quilt, displaying a pictorial history.

This year, the Lottery staff carried over its educational commitment by encouraging youths to open their books and minds to the infamous Pearl incident. The Pearl was a schooner docked in Southwest Washington in 1848. On July 12 of that year, 77 slaves from Georgetown and elsewhere donned their church clothes and headed to the Pearl, hoping and praying that the bay-craft schooner would lead them on a voyage to freedom. They never made it. They were nabbed after a disgruntled black man squealed to some slaveowners. It was the largest concerted slave escape ever recorded. It and the subsequent Fugitive Slave Act were inspirations for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s much-read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The Lottery staff arranged for the descendants of one of the families that was aboard the Pearl, the Edmondsons, to attend Wednesday’s unveiling of the 2004 calendar. The calendar, which includes historical drawings and photographs, documents a heart-wrenching drama. But it is seeing the living history of the Edmondson family’s dream that makes the story of the Pearl all the more compelling.

Indeed, in too many instances, the Bible and oral histories are the only references to which black Americans can turn to learn their family history. Blessedly, I traced my mother’s roots back to the Seminoles of Florida and Georgia, and I have gone back to the Scots and the mid-1700s on my dad’s side. It was an arduous task.

That the employees of a government gaming agency fill in gaps made by a lack of quality education is praiseworthy. At the very least, the D.C. government can make sure that each student receives a copy.

Expect to read and hear more about the Pearl. While Steven Spielberg memorilized the Amistad incident on film, a group of Washington-area people are working hard to make the story of the Pearl and her passengers more commonplace. The Pearl Coalition (pearlcoalition@hotmail.com) will meet again later this month in Southwest, where the original Pearl schooner awaited those 77 passengers to take them to freedom. The coalition’s Daniel Nachtigal and Lloyd Smith have high hopes, like the Pearl’s passengers. They have engaged an architect to build a replica of the Pearl and the organization wants to enjoin it with the yet-to-be-built African-American museum, which I hope will be situated on the National Mall.

The coalition’s dream might appear to be ambitious. The coalition has much support, but additional funds and resources can help. I wonder, though, what the reception will be local and federal bureaucracies. Too often, just trying to get the D.C. government to give you the necessary permits to build a deck on your own house can become a nightmare.

The dream of the Pearl Coalition and its supporters is worth fulfilling. Dreams deferred — whether at the hands of the dreamer or the hands of those who try to snuff them out (as the Pearl slaveowners tried) — are not dreams at all.

Wishful thinking seemingly is the route that school officials take far too often. They think that — by osmosis, perhaps — school children will learn American history and grasp it thoroughly enough to pass pop quizzes and standardized tests.

I’m hardly naive enough to think that a calendar can do the job, because it can’t. But, as the Lottery staff has proven, it is one tool that teachers can use to help push some of the ignorance out of the classrooms.

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