As most of you know, February has been designated as “Black History Month.” Consequently, I thought it would be appropriate to present a brief history of Blacks in America as well as a thumbnail sketch of some of the many Blacks that have had a profound influence on (all of) us.
Slave trading is as old as recorded history. Ancient peoples, such as the Egyptians, Arabs and Romans, among others, were active practitioners. Before the industrial revolution took hold slaves were essential to do the back-breaking physical labor required, such as, for example, building the pyramids, tilling the fields, and rowing the huge warships. Basically, if you lost a war you were either killed or enslaved. Slaves were not viewed as people. They were perceived as property to be bought, sold, raped, beaten, or otherwise mistreated.
Most present-day African-Americans (AAs) are the descendants of slaves that were transported from the west coast areas of Africa to the Americas from the late 16th century through 1865. Most of these slaves were captured in raids conducted by white slave traders, however, it was not uncommon for African chiefs, (for example, those located in Benin and Mali), to sell black prisoners of war to these “slavers.”
The slaves’ passage from Africa to America, which normally took six months, was beyond brutal. Without going into too much graphic detail, the trip, itself, was probably worse than what awaited them at the end. First of all, the slaves were separated by gender. Men were generally put in the ship’s hold where they were so crowded that often they had no space to lie down. Starvation and disease were rampant. Many slaves died enroute and were dumped unceremoniously overboard. Women were kept closer to the crew. Rape was common. Occasionally there would be a rebellion, but these were quickly and brutally suppressed. All in all, some 12 million AAs were transported to America in this manner, but countless never made it.
The first slaves arrived in present-day US in 1619 at the ironically-named Point Comfort near present-day Hampton, VA. This was some 30 miles from Jamestown, which, as some of you will recall, was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The English settlers treated these early arrivals as indentured servants, rather than slaves, and released them after they had completed their period of indenture. However, before long, this practice was replaced by outright slavery. It is estimated that only about 5% of the slaves were transported to the American colonies. The vast majority went to the West Indies, or even South America, where the working conditions were significantly more brutal (harder work and inferior food and medical care) and the death rates substantially higher.
[Quiz question: What was the first American colony to legalize slavery? Answer below.]
In early America, owning slaves was common. In fact, many, if not most, of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. For example, Thomas Jefferson owned some 200. Before you condemn them for that, however, consider that slave ownership was a symptom of the times in which they lived, and I do not believe it is appropriate to judge them by today’s standards as many are wont to do. It has been documented that even some free blacks owned slaves.
By the early 19th century slavery had become more commonplace in the South than the North. Without going into excessive detail, slaves were an economic necessity to work the vast plantations that produced cotton and other crops on which the South’s economy depended. Meanwhile, the North had become more industrialized and less reliant on slave labor. The two regions were on a collision course that ultimately resulted in the Civil War, followed by reconstruction, “Jim Crow” laws, and segregation that lasted well into the 20th century.
AAs have distinguished themselves in every war. For example, the first person to give his life for freedom during the Revolutionary War was an AA, Crispus Attucks, who perished at the Boston Massacre. Some 5,000 AAs fought in the Continental Army, side by side with whites. Therefore, technically, the US’s army was integrated before it was segregated. Even after the British and their loyalist supporters offered to free any slave who joined their side, many AAs stayed loyal to the Revolution.
During the Civil War approximately 200,000 free blacks and former slaves fought for with the Union Army both before and after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
During WWI the armed forces were still segregated, and most AA units were relegated to support roles. Even so, a few units, such as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” did see combat. That unit ended up serving on the front lines for six months, longer than any other unit, and 171 of its members were awarded the Legion of Merit. Moreover, Corporal Freddie Stowers of another unit was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously. Sadly, somehow, the Army (intentionally or not) “misplaced” his paperwork at the time, but his surviving sisters received it on his behalf from President Bush 41 in 1991.
Nearly 2 million AAs served in the US military during WWII, once again, in segregated units. Many of them, such as the famed Tuskegee Airmen, did so with distinction. Over 700 AAs were killed, and many more were wounded. Undoubtedly, their bravery and patriotism was one of the factors that led President Harry Truman to order the integration of the armed services after the War. AAs have continued to serve with distinction in every war since.
AAs have made innumerable contributions to society in all fields of endeavor. Below please find a brief list. Most of these name should be very familiar to you. Due to space limitations I am sure I have omitted some very important people. Feel free to make additional suggestions to the list.
- Martin Luther King – In my opinion, the most influential civil rights leader ever. His espousal of non-violent protest won over many whites as well as blacks. His assassination was a tragedy for the civil rights movement.
- Rosa Parks – The simple act of refusing to give up her seat on a bus was a landmark event in black civil rights history.
- Frederick Douglas – Escaped slave who became one of the leading abolitionists of the 19th century.
- Harriet Tubman – Escaped slave who was an integral “conductor” of the “underground railroad” in the 19th century.
- Jesse Jackson – Renowned civil rights leader. Ran for President in 1984 and 1988.
- Sojourner Truth – Influential 19th century abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. Fought for equal rights for women as well as blacks.
- Ida Wells – Civil rights activist, journalist and newspaper editor. Relentlessly investigated and exposed lynchings, which were all too commonplace in the South at the time.
- Barack Obama – Served two terms as President of the US.
- Shirley Chisholm – First AA congresswoman (1968-1983). Ran for President in 1972.
- Douglas Wilder – In 1989 became the first AA to be elected governor (Virginia).
- Carol Moseley-Braun – First AA senator (Illinois). Presently, there are thousands of AAs holding elected office and dozens who hold or have held significant government positions, such as Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, and NSA Head Condolezza Rice.
Sports and Entertainment – There are a plethora of examples in this field, but, to my mind, these four stand out.
- Jesse Owens – “Stuck it” to the Nazis by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 demonstrating that AAs were not inferior as many thought at the time.
- Jackie Robinson – Broke the “color barrier” in major league baseball in 1947, paving the way for thousands who have followed and will follow, prospectively.
- Muhammed Ali – World champion boxer and an inspiration to blacks worldwide.
- Oprah Winfrey – Strong media personality and role model to AAs and women, in general.
Answer to quiz question: Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641. Kudos to you if you got it right.