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Welcome Remarks for Forgotten Legacy: William McKinley, George Henry White, and the Struggle for Black Equality

Greetings from the National Archives. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s virtual book talk with Benjamin Justesen, author of Forgotten Legacy.

Before we begin, though, I’d like to tell you about two upcoming programs you can view on our YouTube channel.

On Thursday, February 4, at 1 p.m., Alice Baumgartner will tell us about her new book, South to Freedom. In the years before the Civil War, thousands of people in the south-central United States escaped slavery not by heading north, but by crossing the southern border into Mexico. South to Freedom gives us a new perspective on antebellum America and the causes of the Civil War.

And on Wednesday, February 10, at 1 p.m., Alex Tresniowski, author of The Rope, will relate the story of a murder investigation in 1910 that helped launch the  NAACP.

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When William McKinley was inaugurated as the 25th President of the United States in March 1897, the era of Jim Crow in the American South was firmly entrenched. Reconstruction had been over for nearly 20 years; African Americans’ voting rights were suppressed; and the terror of lynching was real and widespread. Among our records you will find heart-rending petitions and letters to the federal government, appealing for justice and for protection of citizens’ rights.

Against this backdrop, it is surprising to learn that President McKinley, in his four and a half years in office, supported measures promoting racial tolerance and the advancement of African Americans, even appointing a number of African Americans to federal office.

In his new book, our guest author, Benjamin Justesen, makes us aware of this “forgotten legacy” of William McKinley. In telling this story, he reveals an unlikely alliance between the last President to have fought in the Civil War and the nation’s only black congressman at the time—George Henry White of North Carolina. Although the cause of equality would need decades more to fulfill its promise, the efforts of McKinley and White flesh out our historical knowledge of the struggle for rights.

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Benjamin Justesen is the author of five books on historical subjects, including the Pulitzer Prize–nominated biography George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life.

A former journalist and teacher, Ben currently works as an editor. He was also a commissioned Foreign Service officer for the U.S. Department of State for more than 14 years, serving at embassies in Jamaica, Denmark, Suriname, Singapore, and Latvia.

In addition to articles for scholarly journals and magazines, he has also written the script for a 2012 documentary film about White—American Phoenix.

Now let’s hear from Benjamin Justesen. Thank you for joining us today.