Sarah Hale, Reparations in the USA, and My Thanksgiving Tree

An odd thing about Thanksgiving – those arguments family members have over the dinner table and around the TV, while eating too much food and watching the football game, are actually one of the few truly authentic Thanksgiving Day traditions. Allow me to explain…

In 2014 I posted a quote from the book Thank You Sarah, written by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Matt Faulkner. It was one of many books I’d checked out of the local library and brought home as potential bedtime-story-reading-material for my child. It was just an illustrated history of the founding of Thanksgiving, but the details were both eye opening and surprising (to me, at least). The most important details were these:

  1. Thanksgiving was created with the express purpose of setting aside one day a year where families and community members could put aside their differences and share a meal, in the hopes that the community-based connection would heal the wounds of the civil war.
  2. The Thanksgiving myth that is retold every year, is actually a story that Sarah Hale used to convince people to both participate in the holiday and to behave civilly while doing so. The objective was to bring (white) people together and repair relationships after the civil war, which pitted family members against one another in battle – imagine the dinner table after your cousins come back from a war where they, literally, tried to kill one another (or where one succeeded in killing the other). The myth was basically a parable told in the context of ‘if the tribes can behave civilly when in the company of their enemies then, surely, we white folk can do better.’

Put another way, the Thanksgiving myth is blatantly racist story that uses a fictitious (or grossly exaggerated) story about a community the US government was actively committing genocide against (before, during, and after the civil war) as a form of mass emotional blackmail. When the objective is reparations, even highly specific reparations (like veterans of the civil war and their families), that isn’t the best tactic. Unfortunately, over time, the myth stuck and the emphasis on reparations was lost.

Quick aside – Here are some historic resources about the history behind Thanksgiving:

As a day to heal the wounds of a nation…

Since learning about the historically accurate reasons for our annual Thanksgiving celebration, those reasons have been quietly nagging at me. We’ve, quite literally, had an official day of reparations in our federal calendar since 1863, and somehow that purpose got lost in a collective hyper fixation on a racist myth and excessive eating.

The idea of Thanksgiving returning to its roots as a day focused on making amends, both personally and nationally, is something worth discussing. Given that focus, what should the holiday look like? What should communities, families and individuals do to celebrate?

I don’t have an answer, I just wish the questions were being asked and answered, sincerely and thoughtfully, throughout the month of November.

My Thanksgiving Tree

What does all of this have to do with my Thanksgiving tree?

Since the holiday is not used for its intended purposes, I decided to play with those themes in my Thanksgiving Tree. Sadly, I am only marginally successful. Honestly, I look at the current in-progress collection of ornaments and I worry that it comes across as a cringy left-leaning white-culture holiday tree.

By way of explanation, here is my list of topics for the ornaments (in no particular order): a) strong women, b) peace, peace symbols, c) the planet, environmentalism, d) family, community, e) nostalgia (things from my childhood that I associate with Thanksgiving, like Snoopy, woodland creatures, etc.), and f) reparations that should be addressed during this holiday.

Obviously, this is less a form of activism and more akin to a vision board in the form of a Christmas Tree.

It’s a way to contemplate the topic and maybe even begin conversations.

It’s something small and tangible I have started doing in recognition of what should be happening during this holiday.

It’s something. Not enough, but something.

Also addressed on Quora in (7) Adora Myers’s answer to What would be the best form of reparations for the descendants of slaves besides money? – Quora

Blame My Timid Soul

“A few months ago I thought the slaughter of the Civil War, and the agitation of the violent Abolitionists who helped bring it on, were evil. But possibly they had to be violent, because easy-going citizens like me couldn’t be stirred up otherwise. If our grandfathers had had the alertness and courage to see the evils of slavery and of a government conducted by gentlemen for gentlemen only, there wouldn’t have been any need of agitators and war and blood.

“It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt ourselves superior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It’s I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It’s I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord!

“Is it too late?”

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

  • Biography from Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969


Visualizing Emancipation is a map of slavery’s end during the American Civil War. It finds patterns in the collapse of southern slavery, mapping the interactions between federal policies, armies in the field, and the actions of enslaved men and women on countless farms and city blocks. It encourages scholars, students, and the public to examine the wartime end of slavery in place, allowing a rigorously geographic perspective on emancipation in the United States.

Visualizing Emancipation (Map) (About) (Crowd Sourcing)

This map shows the cities where black abolitionists lectured in Britain. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives some idea of how far these men and women travelled – literally the length and breadth of the country!

Black Abolitionists Speaking Locations (Map) (About) (Home)

This map shows the cities where Frederick Douglass lectured in Britain. It also shows the emerging industrialism within Britain – a railway boom was sweeping the nation in the 1840s, and the routes Douglass travelled align almost exactly with new railway lines. For example, the line from Bristol to Exeter via Taunton in the South West, and the route from Sheffield to Edinburgh. In some parts of Scotland, transport was fairly limited, and you can see Douglass hugged the coastline around Aberdeen – he was speaking so often that it was necessary to reach places easily and as quickly as possible.

Frederick Douglass Speaking Locations (Map) (About) (Home)

The animated thematic map Slave Revolt in Jamaica narrates the spatial history of a large-scale slave uprising in 18th-century Jamaica.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database has information on almost 36,000 slaving voyages that forcibly embarked over 10 million Africans for transport to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The actual number is estimated to have been as high as 12.5 million. The database and the separate estimates interface offer researchers, students and the general public a chance to rediscover the reality of one of the largest forced movements of peoples in world history.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

An interactive map created from this database can be seen in many places.

Dainty Ladies, Civil War and Thanksgiving



“Never underestimate dainty little ladies.”

Thank You Sarah, written by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Matt Faulkner

“Whenever Sarah found a spare moment, she wrote. But this time it wasn’t for the thrill of seeing her work in print – it was to keep her family from starving. Soon Boston magazines began to feature Sarah’s writing. Much to Sarah’s delight, with many publications came payment.”

“Sarah made sure Ladies’ Magazine was different. She published articles on history and science and new schools for women.”

“When Lincoln received Sarah’s letter, the nation was in the middle of a civil war. Lincoln understood that sometimes it was hard to remember good things in bad times. People needed a day to be thankful for food on their tables, roofs over their heads, and the blessings in their lives. Thanksgiving was exactly what this nation needed.”

Sarah Gives Thanks, written by Mike Allegra and illustrated by David Gardner


Slavery and Sugar


Bruce gave me his short talk on the history of the maple syrup industry in the United States. It peaked around the time of the Civil War, when maple syrup was associated with the abolitionist movement. “No sugar made by slaves,” went the slogan. Sugarmakers actually made sugar then, dry or partially wet. For most families in those regions maple sugar was the primary sweetener. After the war, when the tariff on white sugar was reduced, dry maple sugar could no longer compete broadly in the marketplace.

-The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest by Douglas Whynott