Black History Month is as much about the future as it is the past. This year Black Voices will look back as a way of seeing the path forward. We will examine the state of black health on the 75th anniversary of the Tuskegee Experiment. We´ll look at blacks in sports 60 years after Jackie Robinson´s rookie season. Thirty years ago, television was changed forever roots ran for eight nights in January 1977. And the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, will turn 65 this, 20 years after she became the first woman inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. We check out her legacy so far.
Roots: 30 Years Later.
For eight nights in the deep winter of 1977, America was riveted to its television sets, enthralled by the saga of an African-American family playing out in the mini-series ´Roots.´ Those nights of television changed the way Americans thought about slavery and the way African-Americans thought about themselves. ´Roots´ broke all the ratings records at the time, with more than 110 million people tuning in. More impressively, it had the impact of changing the television for black people forever; more shows with black heroes and black casts and it introduced a new format to television: the limited-run, nightly mini-series.
What is Black History Month?
Black History Month was established in 1976 by The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. The month-long celebration was an expansion of Negro History Week, which was established in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, director of what was then known as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson selected the week in February that embraced the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The celebration may have had its origins in the separate efforts of Mary Church Terrell and the African American collegiate fraternity Omega Phi Psi. The former had begun the practice of honoring Frederick Douglass on February 14th, the date he used to mark his birth. The Omegas established a "Negro Achievement Week" in 1924. Woodson was friends with Mary Church Terrell and worked with her and the National Council of Colored Women to preserve Douglass´ home and personal papers. Woodson was also a member of Omega Psi Phi. While Terrell´s celebration of Douglass was a local event and the Omega Achievement Week was part of their community outreach, Woodson broadened the scope of the celebration in three significant ways. First, he conceived of the event as a national celebration, sending out a circular to groups across the United States. Secondly, he sought to appeal to both whites and blacks and to improve race relations. For this reason, he chose President Lincoln´s birthday as well as Douglass´. Finally, Woodson viewed Negro History Week as an extension of ASNLH´s effort to demonstrate to the world that Africans and peoples of African descent had contributed to the advance of history. Each year, ASNLH would select a national theme and provide scholarly and popular materials to focus the nation´s "study" of Negro history. As such, Negro History Week was conceived as a means of undermining the foundation of the idea of black inferiority through popular information grounded in scholarship. The theme, chosen by the founders of Black History Month, for 2007 is "From Slavery to Freedom, Africans in the Americas."
The Negro History Week Movement took hold immediately. At first it was celebrated almost exclusively by African Americans, taking place outside of the view of the wider society. Increasingly, however, mayors and governors, especially in the North, began endorsing Negro History Week and promoting interracial harmony. By the time of Woodson´s death in 1950, Negro History Week had become a well-established cultural institution. Indeed, it was so established that Woodson had begun to criticize groups for shallow and often inaccurate presentations that did not advance the public´s knowledge of Negro life and history.
With the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, many in the African American community began to complain about the insufficiency of a week-long celebration. In 1976, the ASNLH, having changed its name to The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, responded to the popular call, citing the 50th annual celebration and America´s bicentennial. For more on the association visit ASALH.org
History books had barely begun covering black history when the tradition of Black History Month was started. At that point, most representation of blacks in history books was only in reference to the low social position they held, with the exception of George Washington Carver. Black History Month can also be referred to as African-American History Month, or African Heritage Month. One of the few U.S. history works at that time told from an African American perspective was W.E.B. DuBois´ 1935 work "Black Reconstruction."
In the United Kingdom, Black History Month is celebrated in the month of October. The official guide to Black History Month in the UK is published by Sugar Media, Ltd., who produce 100,000 copies nationwide.
Part of the aim of Black History Month is to expose the harms of racial prejudice and to cultivate black self-esteem following centuries of socio-economic oppression. It is also an opportunity to recognize significant contributions to society made by people with African heritage.
EARLY IMMIGRATION AND SLAVERY
Most of the earliest black immigrants to the Americas were natives of Spain and Portugal—men such as Pedro Alonso Niño (1468-1505), a navigator who accompanied Columbus on his first voyage, and the black colonists who helped Nicolás de Ovando (1460?-1518) form the first Spanish settlement on Hispaniola in 1502.
The name of Nuflo de Olano (b. 1490?) appears in the records as that of a black slave present when Vasco Núñez de Balboa sighted the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Other black men served with Hernán Cortés when he conquered Mexico and with Francisco Pizarro when he marched into Peru.
Estebanico (c. 1500-38), one of the survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez´s unfortunate expedition to Florida in 1527, was a black man. With three companions, he spent eight years traveling overland to Mexico City, learning several Indian languages in the process. Later, while exploring what is now New Mexico, he lost his life in a dispute with the Zuñi Indians. Juan Valiente (d. 1553), another black man, led Spaniards in a series of battles against the Araucanian Indians of Chile between 1540 and 1546. Although Valiente was a slave, he was rewarded with an estate near Santiago and control of several Indian villages. Between 1502 and 1518, Spain shipped out hundreds of Spanish-born Africans, called Ladinos, to work as laborers, especially in the mines. Opponents of their enslavement cited their weak Christian faith and their penchant for escaping to the mountains or joining the Indians in revolt. Proponents declared that the rapid diminution of the Indian population required a consistent supply of reliable workhands.
Free Spaniards were reluctant to do manual labor or to remain settled (especially after the discovery of gold on the mainland), and only slave labor could assure the economic viability of the colonies.
Beginning of the African Slave Trade
By 1518, the demand for slaves in the Spanish New World was so great that King Charles I of Spain (who, as Holy Roman Emperor, was known as Charles V), sanctioned the direct transport of slaves from Africa to the American colonies. The slave trade was controlled by the Crown, which sold the right to import slaves (asiento) to entrepreneurs.
By the 1530s, the Portuguese were also using African slaves in Brazil. From then until the abolition of the slave trade in 1870, at least 10 million Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas: about 47 percent of them to the Caribbean islands and the Guianas; 38 percent to Brazil; and 6 percent to mainland Spanish America. About 4.5 percent went to North America, roughly the same proportion that went to Europe.
The greatest proportion of these slaves worked on plantations producing sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco, and rice in the tropical lowlands of northeastern Brazil and in the Caribbean islands. Most of them came from the sub-Saharan states of West and Central Africa, but by the late 18th century the supply zone extended to southern and East Africa as well.
Impact of Slavery
Slavery in the Americas was generally harsh, but it varied from time to time and place to place. The Caribbean and Brazilian sugar plantations required a consistently high supply of labor for centuries. In other areas—the frontiers of southern Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia—slavery was relatively unimportant to the economy.
To tame the wilderness, build cities, establish plantations, and exploit mineral wealth, the Europeans needed more laborers than they could recruit from among their own metropolitan masses. In the early 16th century, the Spanish tried unsuccessfully to subjugate and enslave the native populations of the West Indies. Slavery was considered the most desirable system of labor organization because it allowed the master almost absolute control over the life and productivity of the laborer. The rapid disintegration of local indigenous societies and the subsequent decimation of the native Indians by warfare and European diseases severely exacerbated the labor situation, increasing the demand for imported workers.
African slaves constituted the highest proportion of laborers on the islands and circum-Caribbean lowlands where the native population had died. The same was true in the northeastern coastlands of Brazil—especially the rich agricultural area called the Reconcavo, where the seminomadic Tupinamba and Tupiniquim Indians resisted effective control by the Portuguese—and in some of the Leeward Islands such as Guadeloupe and Dominica, where the Caribs waged a determined resistance to their expulsion and enslavement. In areas of previously dense populations, such as parts of central Mexico or the highlands of Peru, a sufficient number of the Indian inhabitants survived to satisfy a major part of the labor demands of the new colonists. In such cases African slaves supplemented coerced Indian labor.
The American Revolution and Black Rebellions
During the 18th century, black rebelliousness received a new stimulus from the growing popularity among whites of democratic and egalitarian ideas. Slaves exploited the divisions in white society during the American Revolution. Thousands responded to a royal offer of freedom for those who fought with the British, and after the war several thousand black Loyalists went to Canada, most of them settling in Nova Scotia.
About 5000 blacks served in the Continental Army. After the war, revolutionary ideology and Quaker pietism inspired new antislavery activities by both blacks and whites. Blacks petitioned state legislatures for freedom, better treatment, or repatriation to Africa. The self-trained black scientist Benjamin Banneker argued against black inferiority in a famous correspondence with U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.
The liberalization of white attitudes was reversed in the South as a result of the profits made possible by the invention of the cotton gin. During the 18th century, the spread of cotton cultivation to the Deep South and southwestern states fostered the rise of an archconservative southern political order based on the use of slave labor. Despite this retreat, however, ideas drawn from the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, as well as from Christian idealism and African folk beliefs, remained evident in 19th-century slave resistance, especially the major conspiracies led by Gabriel Prosser in Virginia (1800) and Denmark Vesey in South Carolina (1822). The bloody Nat Turner Rebellion (1831) prompted increased repression of slave activities, although small-scale resistance—running away, tool breaking, sporadic violence—continued to interfere with plantation operations.
Although more than 90 percent of the black population in the U.S. was enslaved at the time of the 1790 census, the small population of freed blacks had already established its own social institutions and had begun efforts to improve the conditions of the race. Most of these efforts were centered in cities, which offered more liberty to black residents than did rural areas. Even black slaves had some freedom of movement in the cities, and they generally possessed greater skills and had better access to information than was common on plantations. By the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia blacks under the leadership of Richard Allen had founded what became (1816) the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and blacks in New York City had formed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. By that time black Baptist churches had also been established in various other communities, mostly in the South. In Boston, Philadelphia, and Providence, R.I., black Masonic lodges had been organized under the leadership of Prince Hall (1748–97).
By the time of the Turner Rebellion, black urban communities sustained a variety of churches, fraternal orders, schools, self-help groups, and political organizations. Although literacy was still uncommon, these institutions fostered self-confidence among black leaders and encouraged them to express their concerns to the general population. The determination of blacks to decide their own destiny was revealed in their newspapers, such as Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827, and in militant pamphlets, including Appeal (1829) by David Walker (1785–1830). During the 1830s black leaders gathered annually in national conventions to discuss strategies for racial advancement.
Efforts by blacks to improve their conditions ranged from the adoption of prevailing white values to attempts to reform or escape American society. The black shipowner Paul Cuffee (1759–1817), for example, favored a return to Africa and in 1815 succeeded in transporting a small group of free blacks to Sierra Leone. In 1817, however, when whites in the newly formed American Colonization Society (ACS) announced their desire to return free blacks to Africa, black representatives assembled by Richard Allen firmly rejected the idea, arguing that they should not abandon their enslaved fellow blacks. In subsequent years, blacks continued to discuss the option of immigrating to Canada, Latin America, or Africa. Although the ACS established a colony in Liberia in 1822, foreign colonization ventures received little support until the 1850s.
Discrimination against manumitted slaves was intense throughout the U.S. Although blacks could vote in some northern states in the years after the Revolution, the extension of voting rights to propertyless men was accompanied by new restrictions on black political participation, landownership, and social contact with whites. By the 1830s, most southern and some northern states restricted or prohibited the entry of free blacks; Ohio law required entering blacks to post $500 bonds. An attack on the Cincinnati black community by a white mob in 1829 was followed in the next few years by similar riots in other northern cities, where white workers resented competition from blacks for jobs. Although southern free blacks lived in societies that feared and often restricted their presence, they had greater opportunities than northern blacks to work as artisans and even to acquire property. In New Orleans, La., for example, 753 blacks owned slaves, according to the 1830 census. Most urban blacks lived on the margins of society, however, barred from public educational facilities, good housing, and legal protection. For thousands of antebellum blacks, Canada (where slavery was outlawed in 1833) and, to a lesser degree, Mexico became places of refuge.
Increased discrimination, combined with the growth of black literacy, institutional strength, and economic resources, encouraged a trend toward greater militancy after 1830. Impatience with gradualist plans to end slavery prompted the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to advocate immediate abolition and, with black help, to found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Many black activists later became disenchanted with Garrison’s notion that slavery could be ended by moralistic arguments; instead they stressed the need for political action and, ultimately, violent resistance. The growing militancy was displayed in 1839, when black communities raised funds to defend Africans in the Amistad Case. Some blacks broke with Garrison to join the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, while others worked within all-black self-help societies and local groups established to help runaway slaves.
An article from Funk & Wagnalls® New Encyclopedia. © 2005 World Almanac Education Group, A WRC Media Company