African-American History M onth. Profiles of Individuals and Events Contributing to American Identity and African-American History – US-VA History 2014. African-American History Month, 1926 – the Present.
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Profiles of Individuals and Events Contributing to American Identity and African-American History – US-VA History 2014
Black History is American History, and it always has been. We acknowledge the centrality of African-Americans during the Civil War, for example, and recognize the conflict as an event that resulted in the redefinition of American History. However, there are so many stories of African-American contributions to American history that we fail to recollect. African-American contributions are omnipresent but seldom have names and biographies attached… For example, who did more to cross the Delaware River in the famous painting by Leutze to the right? George Washington, standing bravely in the front of the pontoon boat, or the African-American rower, just behind Washington’s right knee? Even locally, the Battle of Great Bridge, which took place in Chesapeake, is only rarely considered as a conflict involving African-American combatants, on both sides. But it was !
Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by the German-American Emanuel Leutze, 1851
At the end of the Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks lay dead. In fact, African-Americans – free and enslaved – made up about one-fifth of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. And this despite the fact that it was the British who offered freedom to enslaved men who enlisted!
Carter Woodson was born in Fluvanna County, Virginia, and grew up in Buckingham County. In 1910, he became the second African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University (W.E.B. DuBois had been the first.) In 1916, Woodson established the Journal of Negro History, founding the scholarly journal to bring the contributions of African-Americans in United States history into greater acclaim. In 1926, he established Negro History Week in February, to correspond to the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, two of the greatest contemporary heroes of African-American History. The holiday would later be expanded from one week to one month, starting in 1976.
Each of the individuals or events that follows are of importance to American History, and each profile has a theme related to our studies for the year. Be familiar with everyone in the slides that follow in order to be successful on the upcoming Black History Month test and quizzes.
Crispus Attucks is a prime example of the uncertainty surrounding the lives of African-Americans. Attucks was of mixed ancestry and is presumed to have been part African-American and part Wampanoag – that is, Native American. Some historians believe he was a runaway slave because there was an ad for a runaway slave from Framingham around the time he was a teenager. He later became a dockworker and seaman with ships operating out of Boston, Mass. This much we know for certain, though: He was murdered by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre, and was the fist American to shed blood in the movement for American independence. Today, he is commemorated around the nation, but particularly in African-American communities. Here in Norfolk, VA, the Crispus Attucks Theatre on Church St. is named in his honor.
Sally Hemings was an enslaved woman who lived at Monticello and had a longstanding relationship with Thomas Jefferson which is cloaked in some mystery. It is believed that Sally Hemings was the half sister of Martha Jefferson, who passed away in her thirties. Hemings and Jefferson may have been the most esoteric mixed race family in American history at the time. Exactly the nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings was historians cannot be certain. Because he held so much power over Sally and her children, it is difficult to declare with any certainty that the two were lovers who established an emotional connection.
There are no illustrations of Sally Hemings, but there was plenty of political intrigue and rumor regarding her relationship with Thomas Jefferson during the course of her lifetime. The exact nature of their relationship cannot be known except through oral histories. She is presumed to have had six children with Thomas Jefferson, and to have had a longstanding love affair with the author of the Declaration of Independence which took her from Monticello to Paris and back again. Descendants of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship went on to find freedom for the most part; some “passed” as white, while others lived as free blacks after their manumission when Jefferson died. For many years, rumors of the affair were denied by Jefferson’s estate, which had sought to salvage his reputation. More recently, DNA evidence has removed much of the doubt that Jefferson was the father of several children with Hemings. How ironic that the author of the stirring words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable right; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” would enslave his own children? How ironic that he would deny them during his own lifetime?
When the Corps of Discovery – know to most as the Lewis and Clark Expedition left St. Louis, MO for the Far West, exploring the entire Louisiana Territory for Thomas Jefferson, one African-American accompanied the expedition. His name was York, and he was William Clark’s personal slave. York is known to have been exceedingly popular with Native American tribes, many of whom had never seen an African-American before. He was the only member of the Corps of Discovery who went entirely unpaid during the three year expedition. Journal entries seem to suggest, however, that whenever the expedition voted on matters that influenced the entire group, he was allowed to participate in the balloting. York is known to have been freed by William Clark later is his life; although some accounts suggest that he refused to continue working for Clark and ran away. One even suggests that he joined a Native American tribe and lived among them as a man of some status until he died.
David Walker’s Appeal was published in 1829 and was one of the first tracts in American history to openly advocate for violence in order to end slavery. Walker was born free in North Carolina, and moved to Charleston, SC and later to Philadelphia during his youth. Later he moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where slavery was illegal. Enraged by slavery in general, he worked as a salesman for Freedom’s Journal, an abolitionist paper published in New York which sold copies in Massachusetts. In 1829, he published the radical tract , Appeal. He died months after the publication of the journal. While many believe he was poisoned, tuberculosis is listed as his cause of death, and many historians remain convinced this is accurate.
Nat Turner’s rebellion took place in Southampton, VA during the late summer of 1831. Although it took place just down the road from us here in Virginia Beach, it’s a quiet part of our local history. The violence perpetuated by Turner and his followers resulted in the death of approximately 55 whites. The question afterwards: Why did he do it? If the fact that he was forced to live as a slave – and that he was forced to watch his loved ones and friends sold off into slaver in the West – isn’t enough of an answer, then we may misunderstand the perpetually violent nature of slavery to begin with. But the violence carried out was only half of the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion.
For months after the slayings took place, Nat Turner could not be found. He was in hiding – most people believe in the Great Dismal Swamp region. While Turner was on the lam, Virginia’s lived in constant fear that the followers of Nat Turner would rise up upon them, and kill them when they were at their most vulnerable. When Turner and some of his followers were finally captured in October of 1831, the crisis waned. Over two hundred slaves who were believed to be a part of the conspiracy were put to death after the ordeal. Turner himself was hanged, and then skinned by townspeople eager to take parts of his body as souvenirs. The Virginia state legislature seriously considered banning slavery after the rebellion took place; however, they decided instead to ratchet up slave codes controlling the movements and liberty of enslaved people.
Richard Allen was the founder of the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. After attempting to work within an integrated church in Philadelphia and finding the racist practices and convictions of churchgoers there unseemly, Allen founded his own church in the city. Allen had been born as a slave in Philadelphia, and later sold to a plantation owner in Delaware. While growing up there, he and his siblings became involved a relief society managed by the Methodist Church. Allen would be ordained as a Methodist minister and eventually his master allowed him to purchase his own freedom. His story is important in two ways. First, it indicates the important role of the Methodist and Baptist churches in proselytizing enslaved people and free blacks – and their tendency to advocate for manumission in the years following the Revolutionary War. Secondly, by refusing to accept second class citizenship within the hierarchy of the Church, Allen helped to establish churches as the backbone of a separate and distinct African-American culture in the United States, which promoted the moral justice of ending slavery and promoting abolitionism. Churches were the center of many abolitionist societies and charitable groups; they would later become the center of the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King’s SCLC is a prime example; or the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.
Anthony Burns was a runaway slave from Virginia who had established a life for himself in Boston, MA in the early 1850s. Recall that during this period, sectional divisions over slavery had caused much animosity between the North and South. In 1850, when California entered the Union as a free state, one condition of the state’s entry was that the Fugitive Slave Law been strictly observed and enforced. In 1854, Anthony Burns was arrested in Boston and accused of being a runaway slave. Boston erupted into protest, and angry mobs attempted to prevent Burns imprisonment and deportation to his former master in Virginia, Charles Suttle. During a melee which took place as Burns was led from prison to the ship which would transport him back to slavery in Virginia, one federal officer was killed by an angry mob of abolitionists. Nevertheless, President Franklin Pierce insisted that the warrant for Burns deportation be executed; he was convinced that he must enforce the law to preserve the Union. Burns was eventually placed back into servitude. He was sold by Charles Suttle to a slave trader. Eventually an abolitionist society in Boston raised money to purchase his freedom. Burns moved to Canada and took up work as a Baptist minister there during the last years of his life. Sadly, he died from tuberculosis at the age of 28 in 1862.
Frederick Douglass is perhaps the best known of all African-American abolitionists; only Harriet Tubman rivals him in this regard. As a runaway slave, he was forced to begin his career as an abolitionist speaker by declaring, “I stand before you this evening as a robber and a thief – I stole this head and this body.” Indeed, he had. Douglas went on to demand equality and liberty for all people. He was devoted to abolitionism first, editing an abolitionist newspaper called The North Star. But he was not limited in scope to African-Americans. He was also one of the only African-Americans to attend the Seneca Falls Convention and to endorse the Declaration of Sentiments, demanding woman’s suffrage in 1848. His career expanded during the Civil War.
During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass was constantly petitioning for the acceptance of African-American soldiers into the Union Army; when he finally convinced Abraham Lincoln to acquiesce, two of his sons served in the war. After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass advocated for the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, all granting African-Americans greater liberty and legal equality in the nation. He took a leadership role within the Freedman’s Bureau’s Bank, and later went on to become the United States first African-American ambassador of color by accepting the post of charge d’affairesfor the Dominican Republic. Later in his life, he worked alongside Ida B. Wells-Barnett to publicize acts of violence against blacks in the South, and campaigned for woman’s suffrage. He was hailed as a leader for African-American rights and within the women’s movement.
Dred Scott is known for one particularly important case – the Dred Scot decision of 1857. Interestingly, he was born in Southampton, VA, the same place Nat Turner’s Rebellion took place, in the 1790s. Scott moved away from the region the year before the uprising, and was eventually sold to Dr. John Emerson, a military doctor with whom he and his family moved about the nation. Scott attempted to purchase the freedom of his family after the Dr. Emerson passed away, but his widow, Irene Sanford, refused to allow this. Hence the famous lawsuit. Dred Scott made the strong argument that because he and his family had moved into regions were slavery was forbidden – not only by state law, but by national principles established as early as the Northwest Ordinance – he and his family should be free. If there was not such thing as legal slavery in these places, shouldn’t they have been free men and women?
Unfortunately for Dred Scott and his family, Chief Justice Roger Taney did not agree. The Supreme Court voted 7 – 2 against Dred Scott, and Taney wrote the famous opinion of the court. He concluded that African-Americans, whether they were enslaved or free, “had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” In his opinion, the Founding Fathers had considered blacks to be less than human – three-fifths of a person, and property to boot. Therefore, the property rights of the slaveholder inviolable, and the enslaved had absolutely no recourse. Taney’s decision essential meant that not only was slavery legal in the South, but also, it was legal anywhere the owner of slaves wished to relocate. The Supreme Court asserted that slavery was now legal in the South, the West, and even the North! Northerners who opposed slavery were outraged, and largely ignored the verdict, which James Buchanan had hoped would end the slavery issue once and for all. Scott? He and his family were eventually freed, just months after the case was settled.
Robert Smalls story is one of the most remarkable of the entire Civil War. During the 1860s, Small lived in Charleston, SC. When the Civil War broke out in April of 1861 and the first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter, Smalls was employed as a dockworker by the Confederate Navy. In May of 1862, Smalls risked everything by commandeering the CSS Planter and sailing the ship – along with his family and some of his braver friends – straight out of Charleston Harbor, past Confederate sentries at Forts Moultrie and Sumter along the way. He surrendered the ship to the Union Navy, and he and his family won their freedom in the process. During the Civil War, Robert Smalls actively advocated for African-American participation in the fight, and after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1863, he piloted an ironclad vessel for the US Navy. In fact, he helped to lead an assault on Fort Sumter in 1863. After the Civil War, Smalls returned to South Carolina where he was elected to the House of Representatives during the Reconstruction. Smalls live demonstrated the major changes which took place for African-Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Sadly, after the Reconstruction, he was accused to accepting a bribe and never re-elected to office. He was later pardoned for the crime, which many historians believe was contrived by power hungry white-supremacists who sought to ruin his reputation and take power from African-Americans who had been elected to office. During the years after Reconstruction, Smalls and many other blacks lost their political influence in South Carolina and throughout the South.
Booker T. Washington was one of the last African-American leaders who was actually born into slavery. He grew up in Virginia, and lived as a slave there until the age of nine, when the Civil War ended. Washington worked as a young man in the coal mines of West Virginia, eventually earning enough money to attend classes at Hampton Institute – today, Hampton University. He also attended the former Wayland Seminary School – today known as Virginia Union. As a leading student in both institutions of learning, Washington became active in the blossoming field of education in the post-Reconstruction South. He would become the leader of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he emphasized the need for vocational skills and work ethic instead of absolute individual rights and equality.
While his style of leadership is much criticized today for allowing gradualism, as a practical leader living in the South during Reconstruction, his methods were in many ways constructive. Many African-Americans had been robbed of an opportunity for education during the time of slavery, and very few had job skills which extended outside the realm of agricultural labor in the Deep South. Washington’s famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech encouraged African-Americans to focus first on the acquisition of education and vocational knowledge, and later to demand social and economic equality. Booker T. Washington was also the founder of the National Negro Business League and the author of the book Up From Slavery. His most active critic and rival of the period, W.E.B. DuBois, on the other hand, demanded immediate social and economic equality. Washington opened himself to some criticism by aligning himself with some of the wealthiest industrial leaders of the day – men like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie – who helped him to fund Tuskegee Institute with their philanthropic donations to the school. Both men, however, had mixed records with regards to the treatment of African-Americans and laborers in general.
W.E.B. DuBois was perhaps Booker T. Washington’s greatest rival, but the men had little in common in terms of life experience and upbringing. DuBois was born in a small New England town where the sort of transparent and violent racism Washington had experienced was rare. After attending Fisk University and encountering the segregated South as an undergraduate, he was accepted into Harvard University and became the first African-American to win a doctorate in History, publishing a thesis on the failures of the Reconstruction Period of United States history. After briefly teaching abroad in Germany, DuBois returned to the United States and took an active role in advocating for political, social, and economic justice for African-Americans. DuBois authored the book The Souls of Black Folk, and made the argument therein that all cultures are led by their greatest successes; he expected the “Talented Tenth” to lead all African-Americans to a better social condition.
Dubois considered himself a part of this “Talented Tenth” and began his work strongly. He led an international group to promote African-American business ventures known as the Niagara Movement, and was a co-founder of the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group which he led as President for many years. Under his direction, the NAACP became the most important organization in American for challenging racist law in court; the NAACP legal fund was the forum from which Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall emerged, to lead the fight against segregation in the American South. Later in his life, DuBois became frustrated with the limited scope of the Civil Rights Movement in terms of economic and social justice, and joined the Communist Party. He left America, and died in Ghana on August 27th, 1963 – just one day before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the famous “I Have a Dream Speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
W.E.B. DuBois, late in his life, meeting with Communist Chairman Mao Zedong of China.
Ida B. Wells was an important Progressive reformer of the late 19th and early 20th Century, who’s muckraking articles exposed the practice of lynching across the South. Wells published detailed articles recounting the murders which took place across the South, including the names of prominent Southern whites who were participants in or complicit in the crimes. Her book, A Red Record, exposed the criminal behavior of hundreds of whites across the South, and the paralyzing violence which undermined all efforts towards economic and social justice for African-Americans in the United States. Ida B. Wells would go on to become one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.)
Homer Plessy was a creole in Louisiana, who had one great-grandparent who was African-American. In most aspects of his everyday life, he “passed” as white, as they said during the period. Plessy, however, was devoted to the principle of equality for all, and quite literally informed the conductors of the train that he was on that he was “colored.” When they removed him from the first class train cart, he became the center of one of the most important Supreme Court cases in all American history. Plessy and his lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that his rights – guaranteed under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution – had been violated by the railroad company, and that any laws segregating public facilities were therefore unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not rule in his favor in 1896. The majority ruling read, in part, “The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to the either. ... If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of voluntary consent of the individuals.“ This ruling would establish the policy of “Separate but Equal” throughout the South for the next sixty years or more, validating segregation and the humiliating “Jim Crow” system which favored white supremacists over individual rights.