During a visit to Poolesville, Md., which is celebrating 150 years as a chartered city, I met two African Americans whose ancestors had worked the surrounding land as slaves. James “Skip” Etheridge and Gwen H. Reese were steeped in their family’s history and proud of the journey from slavery to freedom.
They pointed out that Poolesville, in northern Montgomery County, is ringed by areas where plantations once stood. After the Civil War, the land was deeded to freed slaves. Etheridge and Reese are descendants of the men who in 1871 helped found one of the most vibrant towns, Sugarland.
But in her 75th year and having seen so much progress, Reese finds herself worried about the direction the country is headed, and at times angry that a man like President Trump was somehow put in charge.
“I don’t want to be bothered with Trump, but my eyes are glued to him,” she said. “It’s like watching a seedling that you know at full bloom will bear bitter fruit.”
Etheridge is with her. He said Trump’s recent tweets condemning those athletes who sit or kneel during the playing of the national anthem show a lack of understanding about just what they’re protesting. The symbolic act, started last year by then-San Francisco 49ers players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, was intended to protest police brutality.
Etheridge, 70, is a retired Maryland state trooper. His father had been a D.C. police officer. So he knows the difficulties officers face. He also knows how dangerous it is to be black in America.
“I know how easy it is for a police officer to draw down on a carload of black boys and have their finger on the trigger,” he said. “I tell my sons that you never know who’s behind those flashing lights. . . . Some police officers are raised to fear black folks, and that just doesn’t change.”
Etheridge said some people are surprised to learn that he opposes efforts to remove Confederate statues and flags from public spaces. He explained his stance. “I know guys that wear the Confederate battle flag who would have my back under any circumstance,” he said.
Furthermore, he said, he cares less about what the Confederate flag stood for than what the American flag should stand for now: justice and equality under the law.
“I admire the athletes today for taking a stand against police abuse of black people,” he said.
Etheridge recalled that, as a student athlete at Howard University in the 1960s, he and his teammates traveled by bus to compete with other black schools. Going south, they suffered the indignities of not being able to use restrooms and restaurants that were declared “whites only” under Jim Crow law.
But they rarely protested.
“We kept a lot of our anger to ourselves,” he said. “So, I’m thinking these guys probably have stronger feelings than what is being conveyed by their symbolic acts. But if Trump keeps trying to discount those concerns, I think you’ll start seeing more of their anger coming out.”
Reese, who joined the Army, eventually returned to the Sugarland homestead. She had been birthed by a grandmother who was a town midwife, born in the house that her great-grandfather had built for his family. Looking back on her childhood, she can clearly see how newly freed slaves were laying the foundation for the future success of black people.
“Coming out of slavery, they banded together and decided how they wanted to live,” she recalled. “They developed their own culture, defined what freedom meant to them and created a faith-based community.”
The black towns were self-sufficient and self-policing. They had their own court systems, schools, churches and post office. They lived off the land — raised animals, grew crops and shared the bounty with the less fortunate among them.
What they did not do, however, was talk a lot about slavery.
“They didn’t want to pass along a lot of negative stuff to the children who were born free,” she recalled. “They wanted to pass along the values — integrity, discipline, honesty — but not the examples of how those character traits had helped, or how not having them had hurt, when black people had been enslaved.”
That might have been a mistake. To sustain a fight against injustice, Reese said, it’s important to know what it took for black people to prevail in the past. “Many were willing to risk their lives for what was right,” she said.
That included enslaved men and women who joined with abolitionists to push for freedom. Freedom Riders who went south under the threat of death to push for voting rights, and Black Panthers who organized to monitor police. Residents of Sugarland who were subjected to threats when they sought to integrate Poolesville High in 1956 and backed a black man who wanted to marry a white woman in 1967.
And maybe it includes supporting some people who want to do something as simple as take a knee during a game.
“What the players are doing will keep the protests going and at least not let Trump bully the country into silence,” Reese said.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.