Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Case of Race

[posted by Callimachus]

The headline says Headstone to mark grave of one of the first black Army officers.

The lede (AP) calls Lt. Stephen Swails "one of the first black commissioned officers in the U.S. Army."

Swails was a Pennsylvania man who served with distinction in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry -- the "Glory" regiment -- in the Civil War. After the war he settled in South Carolina where he was a civic leader and held offices in the carpetbagger administrations.

The story is about a dedication of a marker on his grave, sponsored by the new African-American Historical Alliance, "a group working to increase the awareness of the involvement of blacks in the Civil War and Reconstruction in South Carolina."

Here's the catch: Swails' father was black. His mother was white. He was, in 19th century terms, a mulatto, and under such laws as governed race in America in those days, he would have been considered "black." He would have lived all his life forced to identify only with one half of his heritage.

Here's his picture.

This tidbit is rather buried in the story, but it does raise some interesting questions.

We deplore the old racial stigmatisms and segregations of the old America. Brave people among us invested their lives in breaking them down.

Today, what label would Stephen Swails carry in America? What label ought he to carry? Do we use labels like that anymore? Is there really such a thing as biological race? Are we honoring only half this man today? Is it accurate to describe him as "black"? If accurate, is it proper? What if someone wanted to raise a marker to him to "increase the awareness of the involvement of whites in the Civil War and Reconstruction in South Carolina"?