Two slices of Americana:
The antebellum era. "M. D. Conway, a white Virginian, recorded the regular administration of the lash in his hometown:
`In the towns and villages the flogging is done by a special and legally-appointed functionary. It is only under severe emergencies or in the heat of passion that gentlemen and ladies beat their own slaves. The gentlemen shun it as a temporary descent to the social grade of the overseer or the constable, as the slave-whipper is called, and the ladies have too much sensibility to inflict complete chastisement; so they merely write on a bit of note-paper, "Mr . . . , will you give Negro-girl Nancy . . . lashes, and charge to account . . . " ' " -- History of American Slavery, 1998.
Jan. 15, 2000. "Confidential documents obtained by The Post shed further light on the wretched conditions in which [Charrisise] Blackmond's children were living when social workers first came across them digging in dumpsters for food near their Dix Street NE home in May 1997. . . .
" `Dirty clothes with feces and urine were frequently laying around the home, trash and debris on the floor of the bedroom in which the children were confined was observed on most visits . . . roaches and rodents observed in . . . the kitchen where the food is kept and prepared.' . . . `The children . . . were confined to their room for long periods . . . [and] complained of "frequent physical punishment." ' " -- Sari Horwitz, front page, The Washington Post.
After more than a century, were the Blackmond children any less degraded or humiliated than Nancy?
One Blackmond child, 23-month-old Brianna, experienced inhumanity in the extreme. She became a homicide case -- killed by a blunt impact trauma to her head -- an injury, the medical examiner said, that is "more consistent with a child falling out of a third-floor window."
Let's not stop with Nancy and the Blackmonds.
History records hardships of plantation life -- clusters of crude and cramped log cabins filled with the master's cast-offs, tucked away in slave quarters. How far have we come?
Only days after celebrating the arrival of the new millennium in the nation's capital, two mothers, 13 children and an elderly woman were found living in an abandoned building on Forrester Street in Southwest. It was pure squalor: The heating system didn't work; garbage reached a foot high in one room; feces and urine-soaked piles of refuse dominated the units.
Again, take your pick: slave quarters or 137 Forrester St.?
A stipulation: Slavery was an evil that subjugated millions. But don't believe for a nanosecond that the Blackmond kids and the Forrester Street families found in absolute filth are isolated cases in this city.
As of this week, approximately 3,200 children have been taken out of homes and placed in foster care because they have been neglected, abused or both. That's not counting 3,000 other children and youth classified as in-home cases or in programs managed by city-sponsored nonprofit groups. There are even more kids outside the system, some stealing from the school cafeteria because they are hungry or begging for food on the streets, who also are at risk of placement in foster care. More than 1,000 District children are in foster care primarily because they don't have roofs over their heads, or because what is available is too much like Forrester Street.
There are many other families living under grossly indecent conditions; a small army of kids in addition to Brianna's siblings who can't sleep at night owing to gunshots, drug dealers and strangers who stumble around in their houses.
We have children in our city who scramble each day for food, children whose school attendance records show persistent tardiness and absenteeism, children who cower and implore and cry from blows to the face and body just as many of their ancestors cowered, implored and cried during their floggings.
It may be a new century and 140 years since history recorded that the childhood of young slave children ended when the master decided it was time to send them to the fields. But there still are children in the District whose childhoods are abruptly over before they are old enough to attend school.
Don't think so? Ask the city's Child and Family Services.
There's nothing small about this problem. The troubles faced by a large number of D.C. children represent in every sense "our worst crisis since slavery," as Essence magazine put it a few years ago.
It's easy, way too easy, to point a finger at weaknesses in the foster care system, judges and the city's fraying safety net. But the problem doesn't start there.
It starts with us.
Away from the booming downtown, and our middle-class neighborhoods with their robust real estate sales and prices to match, is a side of the District where living borders on the inhumane -- where babies have babies, where marriage is as extinct as the dodo bird, where alibis supplant responsibility, where little atrocities are as common as the night and where our attention seldom strays unless the morning paper or the evening news takes us there. And there is precious little from our politicians, pulpit pontificators and wannabe power brokers that says the District of Columbia should care. The ethos of today's D.C. big shots toward the plight of poor children is indifference.
The antebellum era. "For the women and girls, the exposure to sexual exploitation was an ever present danger with the master and his sons ready to take predatory advantage of the enforced proximity. . . . These women have recently been characterized as suffering under a triple burden of slavery, race, and gender." -- History of American Slavery, 1998.
January 2000. "Ninety-six percent of [the District's homeless] families are headed by single mothers; 40 percent of the families are headed by single mothers between the ages of 18 and 21; half of the mothers had their first child as a teenager; 78 percent of the heads of families have no high school diploma; 93 percent receive welfare as their main source of income." -- D.C. Action for Children Facts in Brief.