Black members of Philadelphia’s Union League face a test | Michael Coard

Are they scared and selfish? Or are they courageous self-respecting African Americans?

January 31, 2023 6:30 am
The Union League building on South Broad Street in Philadelphia (VisitPhiladelphia/The Philadelphia Tribune).

The Union League building on South Broad Street in Philadelphia (Photo via VisitPhiladelpha/The Philadelphia Tribune).

PHILADELPHIA — The answer to that headline’s question will be determined by what the Black members of the Union League decide to do or not do in response to what happened on Jan. 24. More about that later in this column.

For now, let’s discuss the Union League. It’s a prestigious 161-year-old private club, founded to support Abraham Lincoln and the pro-Union/anti-Confederacy cause during the Civil War in 1862, which was three years before the 13th Amendment ended slavery.

Despite its anti-racist origins, the Union League a few days ago bestowed its highest award upon a racist whose administration rejected an Advanced Placement course on African American studies, barring the way to teaching students about slavery as well as other race-based topics. He also made it illegal to allow employees to talk about slavery as well as other race-based topics.

The (relatively) progressive founders of the Union League must be “turning in their graves” after having found out that today’s Union League betrayed the organization’s fundamental tenets, as adopted in its articles of association on Dec. 27, 1862, at the home of Dr. John Forsyth Meigs at 1208 Walnut Street.

In that document, League membership required “unqualified loyalty to the [anti-slavery] government of the United States and unwavering support of its efforts for the suppression of the [pro-slavery] rebellion.” As further noted in the document, members were required to “rebuke by moral and social influences all disloyalty to the [anti-slavery] Federal government.”

If abolition was the Union League’s goal, and it was, then the awarding of its highest honor – a gold medal first awarded to Lincoln in 1863, to a man who personifies the racist Confederacy – is treason.

That man is the same man who supported the traitorous insurrectionists who attempted a violent fascist coup on Jan. 6, 2021 in the U.S. Capitol while waving a Confederate flag.

And that man is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Black-history-hating, democracy-subverting, voter-disenfranchising, election-denying, Trump-enabling, ignorance-promoting, women’s body-controlling, homosexual-harassing, transgender-oppressing racist Florida governor who relentlessly promoted and then signed into law a bill called the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” that went into effect on July 1 of last year.

Protest set for Philly Union League event honoring Florida Gov. DeSantis

Apart from being a law created to promote racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, it’s also a law with a stupid acronym that makes absolutely no sense. In DeSantis’ warped racist mind, “Stop ‘W.O.K.E.’” stands for “Stop the ‘Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees.’ ”

And it includes, among other things, eight specific prohibitions for students in schools and employees at job sites.

Five of those eight consist of the following:

  • There can be no discussion about white “privilege” or Black “oppression.”
  • There can be no discussion about white people of the present benefiting from racist policies, practices, and laws “of the past.”
  • There can be no discussion about race that would make white people feel bad regarding benefiting from systemic racism, i.e. that would make white people “feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress” regarding benefiting from racism.
  • There can be no discussion about “diversity, equity, or inclusion” as remedies for systemic racism.
  • There can be no discussion that refutes the lie that white people’s success is based solely on “merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindedness.”
  • DeSantis’ law allows teachers and employees who violate it to be fired and state schools to lose performance funding. In addition, it allows racist parents to sue teachers and school districts that teach any Black history subject that racist parents don’t like.

The good news is that four months after this racist BS became law, a federal judge blocked its enforcement because it violated the First Amendment’s free speech clause and also because it violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ vagueness/due process clause. But the bad news is that DeSantis appealed, so now the outcome is uncertain.

I should point out that the judge ruled that this racist law is unconstitutional because it prohibits people from lawfully speaking about legitimate educational and societal issues.

And what’s worse, because this law is so vague, it could prohibit – as I recently stated on my WURD96.1FM Radio Courtroom show – “a teacher from accurately explaining that just as laws were passed during slavery to make it illegal for Blacks to learn to read, DeSantis’ law makes it illegal for Blacks to learn about those laws that made it illegal for Blacks to learn to read.”

But we ain’t having that.

And by we, I mean the local NAACP, the Black Clergy, the Black Women’s Leadership Council, Black civic leaders, Black educators, Black grassroots activists, and many other concerned Black Philly citizens- including several members of Philadelphia City Council.

Some Philly Union League members oppose club honoring DeSantis

Speaking of councilmembers, I must give a major shout-out to Councilmembers Cindy Bass, Kendra Brooks, President Darrell Clarke, Jim Harrity, Curtis Jones Jr., Jamie Gauthier, Quetcy Lozada, Catherine Gilmore Richardson, and especially Sharon Vaughn along with Kenyatta Johnson.

Vaughn and Johnson introduced – and the other eight co-sponsored – a resolution during the Jan. 26 Council session condemning the Union League for awarding its highest honor upon DeSantis.

The resolution listed a litany of un-American misconduct by DeSantis including, but not limited to, firing public health officials who had attempted to protect citizens from COVID, bullying students who wore masks to stop the spread of COVID, using immigrant human beings, including babies, as political pawns by heartlessly busing them across the country, censoring teachers and professors, and “even creat[ing] a law under which public school teachers could lose their jobs for teaching the collected writings and speeches of the esteemed abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, whose portrait adorns the Union League’s walls ….”

The resolution continues by pointing out that “a bloc of [Union League] members … stated that they intend to resign en masse in disgust.”

In fact, over 100 Union League members had demanded that DeSantis not receive the award and also had demanded that the sold-out $160 per person award event be canceled.

In light of the bloc that’s considering resignation and the more than 100 that made those two aforementioned demands, I wonder how many of them are Black.

During my interview with Vaughn, I asked her what the Black members of the Union League should do now.

She didn’t hesitate.

She responded by declaring that “they should immediately resign. They should not be part of a group that behaves so poorly by disrespecting Black history and Black people – particularly in a predominantly Black-run city that is the birthplace of democracy. That’s totally unacceptable.”

She didn’t stop there. She also said, “Black organizations should cancel all planned events at the Union League.”

And as first reported here in The Tribune by Alec Larson on Sept. 30, 2022, African-American attorney Thomas McGill, who has been a Union League member for nearly a decade, said “It is reprehensible …. [that DeSantis] is as close to MAGA and Trump as you’re going to get, and anyone who is endorsing candidates that are running on Donald Trump’s MAGA policy are … anti-democratic. [And democracy] is everything that the Union League stands for.”

Larson noted that another African-American member, dermatologist Dr. Vaughan Graves, also made his dissatisfaction quite clear by stating, “Obviously, I don’t think it’s appropriate. We’re having some meetings about it …. I’ve been seeing a lot of comments going across the internet from various pretty high-profile African-American members, and we’re meeting about it. And I’m sure we’re going to have some discussions about what the next steps will be.”

By the way, it wasn’t until 1972 that the Union League finally allowed an African-American to become a member, and that was attorney William Thaddeus Coleman Jr. Wow, that’s 110 years after it was founded. Maybe the Union League and DeSantis are kindred spirits. I hope not. I really don’t like that.

But I really do like what attorney McGill and Dr. Graves said.

I also really do like what Vaughn said and really do love what she did in introducing that powerful resolution. Therefore, as a follow-up to my questions to her during the interview, I’m now asking the following questions to all the Black members of the Union League, “How many of you are there? And, more important, are you a scared selfish negro or a courageous self-respecting African American?”

But don’t answer with words. In fact, you don’t need to say anything. Your action (or non-action) will speak volumes.

This column was first published by the Philadelphia Tribune, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. 

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Michael Coard
Michael Coard

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @michaelcoard.