Today, black Americans give us a lesson in freedom.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Freedom is the other face of
creativity. Freedom is a costly commodity. We enjoy
so much freedom, earned at bitter cost. Yet we sell
it off in little pieces. We give freedom away to
convenience, to safety, and to security. That's
true of creativity, too. Creativity is risk. It
also entails the dangers of strange places -- of
daring to claim freedom of the mind.
The Civil War laid the freedom issue before black
Americans. Most Northern whites thought dying for a
cause was their birthright alone. Black Americans
knew, as no white could, how costly freedom was.
They clamored to join the fight.
The Union Army didn't form black units until 1862.
When they did, blacks poured in -- 180,000 of them.
By War's end, a tenth of our army was black. Twenty
percent of them died -- mostly from disease in
their terrible segregated facilities. But they died
in combat as well. Twenty-one black soldiers
received the Medal of Honor.
One soldier, an escaped slave from Kentucky, said,
"When I donned my Union blues, I felt freedom in my
bones." Yet the change from slave to free wasn't
always immediate. A white commander of a black unit
talked about getting rid of "plantation manners" --
hat in hand, with eyes averted.
Maybe black soldiers had learned plantation manners
under the whip. But they'd also honed a finely
tempered inner core. One surprised officer said of
his troops: "They were [so] cool and wary [in
combat. You'd think] wild turkeys were the only
Northern draft rioters lynched blacks. Southern
troops shot black prisoners. Black soldiers got
less pay. They were shunted off to labor details.
The movie Glory showed how they
marched to a hero's slaughter at Fort Wagner. That
happened again at Port Hudson and Petersburg. They
triumphed in the Battles of Millikan's Bend and New
So the Civil War ended. White America soon forgot
black heroism. Yet something was left. War is
ghastly and questionable. But it's also a great
proving ground of the human heart. 140,000
surviving blacks had faced that cold moment, and
they had not found themselves wanting.
140,000 men had gained what each of us must
eventually gain. They'd found the knowledge of
their own inner capacity that each of us must find
-- one way or another -- before we can be whole.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds