Talking about racial injustice and restorative action with Black leaders

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racial injustice conversation
Stefan Wheelock, Spencer Crew and NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson in conversation during a virtual discussion about historic and current racial injustice.

Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO, and Spencer Crew, former director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Robinson Professor of U.S. History, spoke about historic and current racial injustices in a virtual discussion hosted by George Mason University’s Center for Humanities Research on Wednesday.

Stefan Wheelock, an associate professor in the Department of English, moderated the virtual conversation, which was attended by about 130 people.

“The legacy of slavery persists through the system of segregation and discrimination which came into operation in the years after the Civil War,” Crew said. “Supreme Court rulings—Plessy v Ferguson—supported it and made it legal for decades. These laws or ways of operating severely handicapped the ability of African Americans to create stable lives.”

The process of “repair” will take many years to execute, Crew added, and involves equal access to jobs, housing, education and other things critical to success in society. Fixing these things will begin the process of repairing the decades of harm already done, Crew said.

“History has always been a vehicle for storytelling and for impacting social change,” Crew added.

Johnson, who appeared during the first part of the event, effectively described how the United States' longstanding racial fight over economic power and opportunity both sets the stage for the limited success of Reconstruction-Era legal provisions to procure Blacks' rights in the period following the Civil War and continues to frame the partisan debate on voting-rights legislation today.

“The conversation on racial justice and restorative action between Dr. Spencer Crew and President Derrick Johnson focused, in meaningful ways, the public’s attention on the relationship between the nation’s current trends in power and its history of racism and white supremacy,” said Wheelock.

Crew’s most pivotal exhibition at the museum was the groundbreaking “Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940,” which generated a national discussion about migration, race, and creating historical exhibitions. He also co-curated “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden,” one of the Smithsonian Institution’s most popular exhibitions.

“The idea for the museum goes back 100 years,” said Crew. “However, it did not pick up momentum until the 1980s.” Crew described his proudest moment as unveiling the first exhibition solely focused on African American history, and elevating the story of African Americans to a more prominent role at the Smithsonian.

During the live event Crew was honored and his career celebrated by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences issuing a proclamation and presenting him with the Dean’s Faculty/Staff Award for Civic Excellence.