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State senator calls for Democrats to rename Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, citing ties to slavery

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2013: State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, skipped this month’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner – the Missouri Democratic Party’s largest fundraiser – and says she has no intention of attending the event in the future unless one condition is met.

She wants the dinner’s name to be changed.

With all due respect to former presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, Nasheed contends that it’s inappropriate for a Democratic event to be named after them, when both owned slaves.

“These are the two presidents that did … major harm to African-Americans,’’ Nasheed said.  She also points to Jackson’s role in approving the Indian Removal Act, which historians say resulted in the forcible removal and subsequent death of 4,000 Cherokees in 1838-39, under his successor, Martin Van Buren.

Democrats long have embraced Jefferson and Jackson, considered the key early founders of what became the modern Democratic Party, and touted as the most popular early presidents.

Nasheed said that both men did great things. But Nasheed said it’s wrong for Democrats to ignore their roles, she contended, in “perpetrating nothing but death and destruction of a race of people.”

Missouri Democratic Party executive director Joe Duffy replied, "While we don't believe this issue has ever been brought to the attention of the state party, we welcome a conversation about it."

Most early presidents owned slaves

Jefferson, who served as president from 1801-09, is believed to have owned more than 600 slaves during his lifetime, according to various accounts. He freed a handful when he died, all them the children of slave Sally Hemings, who is widely believed to have been his mistress.  

Jackson, president from 1829-37,  owned about 150, according to the foundation that oversees the museum, buildings and grounds that make up the Hermitage, his former plantation and now an historic site near Nashville, Tenn.

Historians say that 12 of the nation’s first 18 presidents owned slaves -- eight of them while in the White House.

That includes the first president, George Washington,who oversaw over 300 slaves, but most were the property of his wife’s family. When he died, he freed the 128 slaves he owned outright.

The nation’s last president to own slaves during his lifetime was Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, who had no slaves by the time he took office. Abraham Lincoln, also a Republican, won congressional approval of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865, shortly before he was assassinated. (It was December 1865 before enough states ratified it.)

Nasheed recommends that state Democratic leaders consider changing the name of the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner to perhaps two of the most popular modern Democratic presidents.  She suggested John F. Kennedy and current President Barack Obama, who she said were seen as “more inclusive.”

There also is, of course, Lyndon Johnson (although many Democrats say his legacy is tainted by the Vietnam War) and Bill Clinton (who appears to have overcome much of the controversy generated by his relationship with Monica Lewinsky). There's also the longest-serving president (and a Democrat), Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

And then there is Missouri's favorite son, Harry S Truman, who garners the credit for desegregating the military after World War II. However, Kansas City Democrats long have named their regional dinner after Truman, who grew up in western Missouri and spent most of his non-presidential years in nearby Independence, site of his home and presidential library.

Nasheed acknowledged that the other modern-day Democratic presidents also had their share of flaws. But she emphasized that none had been slave owners:  “I can never move away from that history.”

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