November 11, 2020

The African American Quest for Full Citizenship: A Personal Perspective

5 min

Venable and the Washington Bar Association hosted a fireside chat with the Honorable Robert L. Wilkins, who discussed his involvement with the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (the Museum) and the genealogical discoveries of his own family tree made through decades of personal research. Judge Wilkins, a Venable alumnus currently sitting on the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, was deeply involved in advocating for and planning the Museum and is the author of Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100-Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The program, part of the firm's Moments and Movements series, was moderated by Venable partner Claude Bailey on behalf of the Venable Success Network, the firm's African American affinity group.

The arc of history tracing the African American experience is long and complicated. Judge Wilkins outlined some significant moments, starting with the end of the Civil War in 1865 and a parade – the Grand Review of the Armies – honoring Union soldiers in Washington, DC. Despite the large and meaningful involvement of African American soldiers in the Union victory, their service and role in turning the tide of the war was ignored. Fifty years later, on the anniversary of the Grand Review, African American veterans were invited to participate, but in segregated events. Over the next decade, momentum built for greater recognition of African American achievements, culminating in the passage of legislation in 1929 authorizing a memorial to Black Americans. No money was assigned to this memorial, and with the Great Depression hitting the United States, the project was shelved. It was not seriously considered again until the 1980s, when efforts were renewed in Congress and the Smithsonian became involved.

When Judge Wilkins became involved with the Museum project in 1996, Congressman John Lewis had built a bipartisan coalition in favor of building the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Committed to seeing this project through, Judge Wilkins quit his job at the public defender's office in DC and became a full-time, unpaid advocate for the Museum effort. After 18 months of this work, Judge Wilkins joined Venable and continued his Museum advocacy as pro bono work. The deliberate bipartisan effort to garner support for the Museum paid off; in 2003, it was established by an act of Congress, and President George W. Bush signed the authorization into law, and in 2016 the Museum opened its doors to the public.

Judge Wilkins emphasized that the Museum is the first national acknowledgment of the role of African Americans in this country's history, and he offered insight into the how the Museum continues to shape our appreciation of the important and extensive contributions made by African Americans throughout history and today. He noted that the Museum cannot be a panacea but can help us understand the African American journey, reach a common understanding as an American people, and move forward as a nation.

Offering his thoughts on the most meaningful artifact in the Museum, Judge Wilkins reflected on a slave auction block from a courthouse in Virginia. The knowledge that people stood on that block of wood, were forcibly separated from their families, and were sold to other humans makes real the tragedy and horror of slavery. Judge Wilkins' ancestors were enslaved people, and he shared the research on his family lineage, which has taken him decades to compile.

The inspiration for Judge Wilkins' next book stems from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth constitutional amendments, which grant citizenship and equal protection to Black men and the right to vote. Coupled with his interest in genealogy and the discovery of a family Bible entry documenting generations of births and deaths in his family tree, the idea for Judge Wilkins' book started to take shape. By identifying an ancestor born in 1842, Judge Wilkins was able to subsequently unearth records documenting the sale and purchase of his enslaved ancestors, listing their ages and sales prices, a sobering reality for generations of African Americans. Seeing these sale and purchase prices affiliated with his ancestors laid bare the cruel reality of slavery for the Judge. Freedom was granted to one of his ancestors, Edy, through the last will and testament of her deceased slave master; at the time, however, the state of Kentucky forbade free Blacks from remaining in the state after freedom was granted to them. Edy sued the state of Kentucky to be able to stay in the state and she won, prompting Judge Wilkins to muse that he likely inherited his litigious nature from his fourth great grandmother. Despite her legal victory, Edie was not considered a person per the Constitution – she was considered three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining seats in the House of Representatives and had no rights, per the Dred Scott decision. Like Edie and countless others enduring the inexcusably slow recognition of their rights – marriage, voting, and more – the pace of legal protection for African Americans mirrors the journey of the Judge's family across the generations.

Being denied the opportunity to learn to read or write, generations of African Americans had no power to record their stories, which were then lost to history. Judge Wilkins has devoted decades to researching his family history and to the creation of the Museum, which brings a shared history and voice to millions of African Americans whose family lines have persevered through enslavement, segregation, and centuries of racial injustice.

Additional information about Venable's Moments and Movements series, as well as a recording of this presentation, can be found here