Beliefs of Leaders Evolve Over Time and are Influenced by their Time

Article 1: In Search of the Slave Who Defied George Washington by Jennifer Schuessler

Article 2: A Lesson in Black History by Charles M. Blow

Book: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

In Honor of Black History Month, February 2017

Two fascinating articles and a book reveal how a leader’s bias can be transformed into inclusion. It is interesting to learn that back in 1799 in Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington pursued a valued slave, Ona Judge, who had fled to marry and raise a family in New Hampshire. The author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Ona Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, wants us to learn about the life of a slave who lived decades before Fredrick Douglass. She describes the relentless pursuit of Ona Judge, who was the personal maid to Martha, even though the president later freed all his slaves upon his death. The Washingtons even went as far as to avoid the 1780 Abolition Law in Pennsylvania by rotating their slaves in and out of the state every six months. It’s almost as if there was a stage of bias before emancipation, that played out something like: “They are my total property today, but I will free them tomorrow.”

I for one never knew Washington’s participation in the institution of slavery. I suppose the facts reveal a more complex man and leader — possessing both strong attributes and some significant areas for improvement. However, those who study history know we cannot simply judge a person without taking into account the time period and environment in which they lived. Washington’s time was more than sixty years before Lincoln’s tenure. Washington served as the first president of the United States, serving from 1789 to 1797. Lincoln served as president from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. When those dates are compared, we can see there are over 60 years of change between Washington’s and Lincoln’s Presidency. Lincoln had the benefits of greater social consensus for emancipation and the guidance of people like Frederick Douglass.

Charles Blow’s article suggests that Frederick Douglass influenced the legacy of black intellectual thought and civil rights activism up to current times. Interestingly, Douglass was a big critic of Lincoln’s early career because Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave Act. Douglass apparently had a role in changing Lincoln’s mind to support passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln seemed to evolve his views throughout his leadership around equity and diversity, perhaps due to Douglass, and the cultural shift toward emancipation. Lincoln helped give new meaning to our founding fathers’ belief that all people are created equal and he was not the last to do so. Isn’t that the way it seems to go — that each generation is tasked to give the Constitution new breadth, understanding, and life?

Some leaders continue learning through the life span and others seem to stick to their current beliefs. What do you think about Washington, Lincoln, and our current times?

When do you welcome change and when do you want it to stay the way it is?


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