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Photo: Fabio Nascimento/Outlaw Ocean Project.
Investigative reporter Ian Urbina on an Indonesian patrol ship chasing Vietnamese fishing boats suspected of illegal activity.

Because we face so many monumental problems around the world, it’s easy to get discouraged and say, What can one person do? But as Pete Seeger once sang, “One and two and 50 make a million.” In other words, individual efforts add up.

Mark Trumball at the Christian Science Monitor interviews a journalist who covers the work to protect the environment and human rights on the high seas — and shares how the informed consumer can help.

“Ian Urbina is what you might call a globe-trotting journalist, except he focuses his reporting on the oceans, not the land.

“Earlier this year he was honored for his investigative writing by the Society of Professional Journalists, for stories tied to the treatment of migrants in Libya (and off its Mediterranean coast) and disruption in Gambia’s fisheries, published during 2021 in the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Another story from his Libya reporting – about Europe’s treatment of African migrants – ran here in the Monitor.

‘Now Mr. Urbina’s Outlaw Ocean Project is launching a podcast series based on his work, in partnership with the Los Angeles Times and CBC Podcasts. …

Trumball: You explore what you call the ‘outlaw ocean.’ Why are oceans so different from land – and so difficult to police?

“From the perspective of governance, you have this situation where the high seas belong to everyone and no one, and therefore jurisdictionally it’s an unusually complicated, murky space. … The second issue is geography. The reality of the high seas is it’s so incredibly sprawling, two-thirds of the planet.

“And then when it comes specifically to the category of abuses of crimes that pertain to people – murder on camera and slavery and abuse of stowaways and wage theft and abandonment of crew, you know, all these human rights and labor abuses – a contributing factor to that subcategory of crimes is who’s getting harmed. Most often the victims of those sorts of crimes are poor, are folks from developing nations. … A lot of them are not literate. A lot of them have signed contracts in languages they don’t even speak. …

“And the boss of the [floating workplace] is from one country. The flag of the factory is to another. The guys working in there, getting abused, are from a third. The catch is being all loaded on a fourth. …

Many of us might feel like, well, my connection with the ocean is when I buy some fish for dinner. But is it much more than that?

“If you think of the planet Earth as a living organism, maybe metaphorically, it has inherent systems. It’s got lungs. The lungs of the planet – 50% of the air we breathe – are cleaned by the oceans. So the lungs of the planet are at stake. If you think of it as the commercial circulatory system, 80% of our [global] commerce gets to us cheaply and efficiently … by ship. So not just fish, but iPhones and, you know, tennis shoes and grain and oil. … The oceans are also a temperature stabilizer of our body, you know, of the body planet. … They take off a lot of the heat. …

You have a seven-part podcast with the goal of shedding light on these varied challenges. … Does the stress on the oceans amount to a disaster in the making? 

“Yes, it is a disaster. But that doesn’t mean we have the luxury of being demoralized. … Do I think it’s unsolvable? No, I think there are lots of ways in which things can be done to mitigate the disaster and better govern.

A lot of people are doing lots of things in different places, in individual fights, in individual battles.

One episode features the nonprofit group Sea Shepherd chasing down a ship on Interpol’s wanted list for illegal fishing.

“Sea Shepherd [said] We’re going to go after these guys and we’re going to find them wherever they are, and we’re going to chase them and harangue them and draw a lot of media attention on them. …

“And they succeeded. You know, they found the Thunder, which was at that time ranked the top worst illegal fishing vessel on the planet, $67 million worth of illicit catch. And they found these guys – nets in the water – and proceeded to chase them for 110 days all across the planet. And all sorts of dramatic stuff happened in the interim. And ultimately the Thunder – spoiler alert here – sunk itself and all the crew were rescued … by Sea Shepherd, handed over to law enforcement, and the officers were prosecuted and served time. So I think there are cases like that where you see various actors make savvy use of the media and the law to try to make a difference. ….

“There’s more wind in the sails of the advocates and the academics who were in the trenches already fighting this fight. Now they’ve got more media behind them. I think you also see more market side players having an awareness that, you know, this issue isn’t going away. 

“Whether it’s the issue of slavery and the use of captive labor as a cost-saving tactic on fishing vessels, or intentional dumping of oil as a cost-saving tactic, or illegal fishing – meaning going places you’re not supposed to or using gear you’re not supposed to – all these things are cost-saving tactics. And who benefits from that but the companies? And the companies writ large, you know, the ship-owning companies, the insurers, the fish sellers, wholesalers, grocery stores, restaurants, all these market players are the ones who turn a blind eye. … The decentralization of the supply chain has allowed them to say, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s happening.’ You know, ‘we outsource’ … and so they can’t be held accountable. Well, I think there’s a reckoning coming on that. …

“We’re catching wild caught fish in places like Gambia that historically was eaten by the locals and was free at the market, often, because it was so plentiful. Now the locals can’t touch the stuff because they’re priced out, because it’s all going to the factory to get ground up and exported. That’s the crazy economy we have.

What can the average person do in their own actions? What would you recommend?

“First, I’d say, don’t get demoralized and don’t think that you should or can solve the war. Just think about battles, and choose which of the many battles interest you most, whether it’s sea slavery or plastic pollution or whaling or illegal fishing or murder and violence at sea or whatever. Just narrow it down, choose a bite-size thing, and then focus on that.” 

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Ed Meek/ Ole Miss News.
Civil Rights icon James Meredith and his immediate family have welcomed into their lives the white relatives descended from their slave-owner ancestor.

My friend Suzanne Lowe, who is white, was doing genealogical research back in the early 2000s when someone gave her a publication written by the man who broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi. In a flash, she realized she and civil rights icon James Meredith shared the same white ancestor.

Eager to reach out but full of trepidation about what Meredith might say to her, she searched the web for his phone number and called him, explaining who she was. There was a long pause, she says, and as she waited with increasing anxiety, her heart pounded. Then she heard Meredith say, “I’ve been waiting for this call for 50 years.”

Last Sunday, I had the privilege of listening in on a Coming to the Table episode describing how my friend’s white family got to know Meredith’s black family. I can hardly describe how uplifting it was. One of Meredith’s close relatives presented the history of Mississippi slaveholder J.A.P. Campbell and his role in writing the laws of white supremacy. So it was a serious occasion. But we also savored the joy of Campbell’s black descendants at finally being seen and the joy of the white family members who were thrilled to connect.

It is true, as my friend reported when asked in the chat questions, that her outreach to other white Campbell descendants did not meet with universal acceptance. A few were nasty and unbelieving — as if the country hadn’t been through all that with the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and slave Sally Hemings. But others were fascinated and delighted. As Meredith’s son John said, his side of the family always knew they had white relatives. In fact, he said, many black families know they have white relatives. Seeing the white side of the family enjoy their new consciousness had been a big part of the pleasure he experienced.

I learned new things about the disastrous effects of laws preserving white supremacy, at the same time as I got the feeling that the two families were focused on how happy they were to be united. I got no sense that Meredith’s side wanted their new cousins to bear the brunt of national reparations. (I myself believe federal reparations are due — like those that President Ronald Reagan authorized for Americans of Japanese descent after their WW II internment in US concentration camps.)

Everyone was just enjoying having a large, interesting family and new kinds of connectedness.

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Photo: Kirk Brown/via Boston Globe.
Kirk Brown is the founder and CEO of the Black think tank Melanin MeetUps. The group launched The Better Together Project, which is demanding an end to what it calls the glorification of plantation houses, and the use of their grounds for parties and weddings.

In recent years, tourists at plantations in the South and stately homes in the North have started giving more thought to the people who kept the mansions running. There’s so much that wasn’t in our school histories. I, for one, was amazed to learn that when the colonial farmers fought the British at Concord’s North Bridge April 19, 1775, many of the folks minding the farm were slaves. What? In Massachusetts? Yes.

So I was interested in a recent Boston Globe story about a new, more thorough, house tour. Jon Marcus wrote, “After she graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Carolyn Michael-Banks worked as general manager for a tour company in Washington, D.C., where she quickly noticed that certain people and events were being left out of the script.

“ ‘We had absolutely nothing in there about African-American history,’ said Michael-Banks, who is Black. … So she added information about the Black abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass. About Benjamin Banneker, a Black surveyor who helped lay out the district. About how enslaved people were among the builders of the White House.

“Then the CEO called. ‘His question to me was, “What’s all this Black stuff?” ‘ Michael-Banks remembered.

“Today Michael-Banks runs her own tour company, A Tour of Possibilities, in Memphis, which visits the birthplaces and workplaces of cultural icons including Aretha Franklin and Black investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, landmarks of the civil rights movement and sites of the city’s slave markets and lynchings.

‘History can be uncomfortable but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it,’ Michael-Banks said. …

“Offerings like these are popping up all over the country, by and about people often excluded from the narratives delivered on those jump-on, jump-off bus and trolley tours.

“There are women’s history tours of Philadelphia, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Detroit, and LGBTQ tours of Charleston, S.C., St. Louis, New York’s West Village, and San Francisco’s Castro district. Native Americans tell their own stories on Navajo Tours USA in New Mexico and Nez Perce Tourism in the Pacific Northwest. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle offers tours of Chinatown that cover its history and not just its food.

“There are growing numbers of tours focused on Black history and culture, not only in Memphis, but in Austin, Texas; Birmingham, Ala.; Charleston; Chicago; Miami; Savannah, Ga.; Selma, Ala.; and Washington. Atlanta has Black history and civil rights tours and a cycling tour of off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods called Civil Bikes. In Tulsa, Okla., there are now tours of the places where the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred.

“A ‘truth and reconciliation’ tour of Montgomery, Ala., is run by a nonprofit from an office in a building where the words ‘white’ and ‘colored’ are still chiseled in the wall above a water fountain. And Alexandria, Va., last year launched a Black history trail and an Underground Railroad-themed tour. …

“Several house and plantation museums including Monticello and Belle Grove Plantation in Virginia and the Belle Meade Historic Site and Winery near Nashville, have started telling more about the enslaved people who built and worked at them. The state of Nevada last year converted the Stewart Indian School into a museum to illustrate the story of how Native American children were taken there to be assimilated. …

“When historic sites are treated solely as places for entertainment, said Stephanie Rowe, executive director of the National Council on Public History, ‘it becomes easier to focus on the furnishings and the stories of success and riches. But when we approach these sites as places to learn about our pasts, we’re called to broaden the narratives’ to include such things as who did the work, and under what conditions.

“In fact, said Paul Melhus, CEO of ToursByLocals, whose guides increasingly focus on the people who have been left out, ‘the history of America is the history of Black people. And gays are part of American history, and Hispanics. It’s all real, and you don’t really understand anything if all you’re doing is just looking at the pretty houses.’

“Others want to do more than change the script. The Better Together Project is demanding an end to what it calls the glorification of plantation houses, and the use of their grounds for parties and weddings.

“ ‘These were labor homes,’ said Kirk Brown, founder and CEO of the Black think tank Melanin MeetUps, which launched the project. … ‘Why is there this glamorization of these homes? It’s depressing and it’s disrespectful and it prevents us as a country from truly healing.’ …

“ ‘We haven’t been able to express ourselves in a way that’s proud,’ said Stacia Morfin, a member of the Nez Perce, or Niimíipuu, tribe and CEO of Nez Perce Tourism, which she started after finding that none of the tourism-related businesses in her part of Idaho were run by descendants of tribal people. … ‘The marginalized and the indigenous people are taking that power back.’ ”

More at the Globe, here.

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I learned recently that years before Thoreau built his famous little cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., a former slave called Brister Freeman and his family made their home in Walden Woods.

Robbins House reports, “Brister Freeman was enslaved in Concord for the first 30 or so years of his life. After taking his freedom in the late 1770s, he purchased an acre of ‘old field’ in Walden Woods. Other formerly enslaved people followed and Walden Woods became one of three black enclaves that sprung up in Concord following gradual emancipation in Massachusetts.”

I happened upon Freeman’s house site this morning when I took my walk, and because my photo is hard to read, I copied down what the marker says.

“Near here lived Brister Freeman (d. 1822)
formerly enslaved in Concord
Fenda Freeman (d. 1811) and their family

” ‘Down the road on the right hand on Brister Hill lived Brister Freeman, there where grow still the apple trees which Brister planted and tended.’ Thoreau, Walden, 1854.”

When I got home, I looked up more information. I felt woefully ignorant considering that I have lived in the town for many years.

The National Endowment for the Humanities posted about Black Walden back in 2010. It’s painful to read some of these details though we already know slavery is repellent.

“In Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Elise Lemire (rhymes with sheer), a literature professor at Purchase College of the State University of New York, describes an aspect of Concord’s history that most accounts have overlooked. …

“[One] former slave, Brister Freeman, is the hero of Black Walden. He was named with a diminutive form of Bristol, after the English slave-trading port, whose ships plied routes to both Africa and the West Indies. Black Walden’s other main protagonist is Colonel John Cuming, a wealthy landholder and doctor in Concord who was Brister Freeman’s master for twenty-five years, having received the nine-year-old slave boy as a wedding present from his father-in-law. …

“Ironically, history has reversed the two men’s positions. ‘Unlike Brister Freeman, whose name survives in Walden the book and at Walden the place, where a hill [Brister’s Hill] bears his name,’ Lemire writes, ‘John Cuming has been largely forgotten.’ His large estate was broken up long ago and is now the site of a state prison; Cuming’s mansion house is a prison office building. The Cuming name survives only on a local medical building. …

“Freeman, who served alongside Cuming in the Revolutionary War, had acquired a wide range of farming and survival skills while managing the Cuming estate during his master’s numerous absences, and likely learned a good deal about local politics by watching Cuming rule the town of Concord. Though many liberated slaves continued to live on their masters’ estates as paid servants (their options being few), Freeman, who took his telling surname after gaining his liberty during the Revolution, instead managed to buy and farm an acre of ‘lousy, sandy soil’ near Walden so that he could marry and have children. ‘He was harassed all the time,’ Lemire says, ‘but he never gave up. I see why Thoreau saw him as heroic.’”

Then there’s this from the Walden Woods Project: “Brister’s Hill is a few hundred feet from Walden Pond, and was one of Henry David Thoreau’s study sites later in his life. In the late 1980s, a large commercial development was proposed on Brister’s Hill that was such a significant threat to the Walden ecosystem that the National Trust for Historic Preservation twice listed Walden Woods as one of America’s Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places. This threat, as well as another proposed development at Bear Garden Hill, spurred the foundation of the Walden Woods Project. …

“In 2013, we installed a Toni Morrison Society Bench by the Road at Thoreau’s Path on Brister’s Hill. The Bench by the Road Project seeks to recognize the contributions of enslaved people to the building of this nation. For much more about the program, we encourage you to visit the official Toni Morrison website.

Find more information at the historic Robbins House website, at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and at the Walden Woods Project. Enjoy!

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It’s been sweltering in Southern New England lately, but one doesn’t want to stay indoors all summer.

Taking pictures can be a distraction from the heat. Some of the pictures I’m posting may actually look like they were taken on a cool day, but take my word for it, they weren’t. Even the indoor photo of my grandson and his construction project reminds me it was too hot to play outside last Thursday.

So, here’s what I have: A weed by the dry cleaner’s, Ragged Sailor (chicory) beside a lichen-covered rock, a Fourth of July reading outside the home of a former slave who fought in the American Revolution, my grandson, boats moored in New Shoreham’s Old Harbor, the Indian burying ground at Isaac’s Corner, a city scene on the Painted Rock, Crescent Beach swimmers, Bouncing Bet flowers at Fresh Pond, and yours truly reading Evicted and trying to stay cool.

To expand on a couple of these: I’m told that the Manissean Indians in the cemetery were buried standing up so they could walk into the next life.

And the Fourth of July reading at the home of ex-slave Caesar Robbins was amazing. First the Declaration of Independence was read, which was an eye opener for me because I remembered only the first lines.

Next, anyone who wanted to could read aloud a section of Frederick Douglass’s powerful 1852 Fourth of July speech on the lack of independence for so many people on that Independence Day. Hearing this speech, I could readily imagine how Douglass’s soaring rhetoric helped pave the way for the Civil War and Emancipation.

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When I first wrote about the Concord home of former slave Caesar Robbins, a group of concerned citizens had just raised enough money to save it from demolition and move it near the North Bridge (in the Minute Man National Historical Park). See that post here.

Quite a lot has happened since then, and it looks like the refurbished house should be open to the public soon, if not in time for Patriots Day 2012, celebrated today.

Concord was once a stop on the Underground Railway, so saving the first Concord home owned by a freed slave is in keeping with that history.

By the way, if you are my reader in Australia or South Korea, you may not know about Patriots Day, which is a big deal in most of New England. People here consider April 19, 1775, the start of the American Revolution, although there are other worthy claimants for that honor. Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott rode to warn colonists that the British were coming, and shots were fired in Concord and Lexington.

Nowadays the day is commemorated on the closest Monday. Schools and libraries close. The Boston Marathon is run. Parades and reenactments sprout all over the region. One of my colleagues gets up at crack of dawn to march between towns in costume, playing the fife. In spite of all the hoopla, there is something about it that touches people.

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