Do Trump officials need a lesson in African-American history?

WASHINGTON — Comments by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson generated debate over whether slaves can ever be referred to as immigrants. 

In a speech before federal workers at HUD, Carson spoke about immigrants who came to the United States with hopes and dreams and added, “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships.”

Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said Carson isn’t entirely wrong.

“People who were captured in Africa to be enslaved in the Americas were people, technically, who ‘immigrated’ — in other words moved from one country to another,” Grossman said.

Carson’s statement becomes problematic because by using the word “other,” he implied equivalence, “which is ridiculous,” Grossman said.

Maurice Jackson, a professor at Georgetown University, is among those who found Carson’s statement offensive.

“I take special offense because, you know, I’m here at Georgetown University and here we’re doing so much to honor the legacy of the 272 slaves that were taken from Africa and brought here and then sold into slavery,” Jackson said of the slaves sold by the school to ensure its survival in 1838.

He believes that Carson’s statement is not being taken out of context by critics. “I read his words, and I read them very carefully,” he said.

Other statements from the Trump administration exacerbated the issue, Grossman said — specifically the one made by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who referred to the founders of historically black colleges and universities as pioneers of school choice.

“What we have is a record of administration officials not knowing African-American history” Grossman said.

HUD officials declined to comment to WTOP but the agency did send out a tweet in response to the controversy, which said, referring to Carson’s statement, “No one honestly believes he equates voluntary immigration with involuntary servitude!”

Grossman published a tweet of his own after the furor: “I have Tweeted an offer to all members of Trump’s cabinet, that the American Historical Association would provide — gratis — a course in African American history.”

Grossman said he’s not being facetious.

“This is my field, and I certainly have friends and colleagues who would join me in offering this course, and we are happy to offer it,” he said.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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