Politics

op-ed: “black history is some of the most inspiring american history of all”

July 3, 2015

I reject the nonsense that American History is not Black History. I saw an article making this claim sometime ago. Black history is some of the most inspiring American history of all. Black people, both free and slaves, fought against slavery continually from the day the first slaves were taken from Africa to the Americas. Many fought being taken from Africa or being delivered to the Americas as slaves. Numerous ships carrying slaves to America had revolts or were taken over by slaves. Some slave ships were forced to return slaves to Africa or to land them on the American continent. The story of the Amistad is a just one example of this.

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor

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Africans who forced slave ships to the American coast were called maroons. They escaped with food and supplies into the interior of the Americas. Maroons have an extensive history of asserting and fighting for their right to freedom in the U.S. as well as other parts of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Many black people came to the Americas as free people and explorers, not as slaves. Columbus’ Santa Maria was piloted by Pedro Alonzo Niño, a free black man. Estevanico, a slave, traveled with Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca for eight years, then led Spanish expeditions into the American Southwest as a free man in the early 1500s. Hernando De Soto was accompanied by a free black explorer when he reached the mouth of the Mississippi in 1541. (The black explorer chose to be left there with friendly Indians.) Free black men fought with and accompanied the conquistadores, then settled in the Americas after the conquest of the Indian civilizations in Mexico and Peru.

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black children at Memorial Day

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Benjamin Banneker stamp

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Estevanico 

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In America the Founding Fathers penned the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and championed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it is black Americans who have historically helped to challenge and push the country to live up to these ideals.

Many of the Founding Fathers were hypocrites: 40% of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slave holders. Thomas Day, an English abolitionist, summed up this American hypocrisy in 1776 by saying “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”

Benjamin Banneker, a free black man was most widely known as a gifted mathematician, astronomer, author and surveyor. He was part of the surveying team that surveyed the U.S. capitol. Banneker wrote directly to Thomas Jefferson and challenged him about the crime of slaveholding. In a letter to Jefferson he stated “Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

Paul Cuffee was born in 1759. His father was a freed slave, his mother a Wampanoag Indian. Cuffee refused to pay taxes because free blacks were not allowed to vote in Massachusetts. He sued the county of Bristol, Massachusetts and lost, but his refusal to pay taxes and legal suit was influential in Massachusetts’ legislature granting the vote to all free male citizens of the state in 1783. He later turned his carpentry and shipbuilding skill into a maritime empire, hiring blacks and Native American captains and crews for his fleet. His later years were spent helping free blacks return to Sierra Leone, sometimes at his own expense.

David Walker, a free black man, was one of the single greatest catalysts for the abolitionist movement in U.S. history. David Walker wrote the Appeal in 1829, which sent the entire country into a panic with his call for slaves to rise up and kill slaveholders. He indicted both white and free black Americans, churches and politicians for being hypocrites about the American tenets of justice and equality for all.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, one in nine black people in the U.S. were free.  Despite the fact that black Americans were barred from volunteering and serving in the military until 1863, some 185,000 black Americans served during the Civil War. Black Americans both free men and slaves have fought bravely in every U.S. military conflict for rights they didn’t yet have themselves. They hoped that their service would prove to Americans that they deserved and would defend the rights promised in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Black Americans throughout American history have helped to force much of white America to begin to live up to much of the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers.

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Benjamin Banneker 1795

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Blanche Bruce Frederick Douglass and Hiram Revels

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In 1864 1000 black men from New Orleans petitioned Lincoln and Congress for universal suffrage. Lincoln and Congress did not grant the petition, but black Americans pushed the president and Congress to move on restoring the vote to black citizens. They formed groups and pressed politicians in Washington for racial equality and reparations to slaves as part of the deal to allow rebel states to return to the Union. White men like Senators Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and James McKaye of the Freedmen’s Bureau helped, and were inspired and informed by black citizens. During Reconstruction these men risked their lives and careers to fight for equality and justice based on inspiration and information they gained from black Americans.

Racial segregation and discrimination has always been contested by black Americans. The Plessy v Ferguson case was a landmark legal fight funded by black political activists who brought the case from Louisiana to the Supreme Court.

Black entrepreneurs fought segregation in transportation by forming their own transportation businesses throughout the South, even when faced with overwhelming barriers set up to thwart their success. Black activists boycotted segregation laws in the 1880s and 1890s with tactics that would later be used successfully by black and white civil right activists of the 1950s and 1960s to bring American closer to the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

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Wiley Jones entrepreneur

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streetcar used by Nashville transportation co.

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P.B.S. Pinchback lawyer for Plessy v Ferguson case

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Today regrettably, black Americans are again forced to lead the rest of the U.S. in changing the biases in law enforcement and the court system against people of color. While rioting and protests have stolen the headlines, the reason behind the headlines is again black Americans, other people of color and white Americans of goodwill moving the rest of America to honor the tenets of the Founding Fathers to be treated equally before the law.  These protests will make history too, more great American history carried out in large part by black Americans.

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First African man painted during the renaissance

* Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. He has a contact blog www.findingoctave.com/contact.html for readers who may want to contact him.

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