Archive for the ‘American Slavery’ Category

Lesser-Known Black History Facts

Harriet Tubman  was still a slave when she married her husband John Tubman, “a free” man, in 1844.  She fled a plantation in Maryland and escaped to Philadelphia via the Underground in 1849.  It was a grueling 90 mile journey.  Harriet said she felt like she was “in Heaven” when she entered Pennsylvania. Despite this feeling, she returned South many times to rescue other slaves from bondage.  Harriet met John Brown in 1958.  When he started recruiting people for the attack on Harper’s Ferry he consulted her.  After Brown was killed she hailed him as a martyr.

Leroy W. Homer, Jr. was a 36-year-old first officer of United Airlines. He was also the co-pilot on Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 when terrorists hijacked this plane that later crashed in a field outside of Shanksville, PA.  The movie “United 93” recreates this tragedy and compounds it by portraying Homer as a white man when in fact Homer was a Black man married to a Black woman and the father of a young girl.

In 1968 Shirley Chisholm became the first Black U.S. Congresswoman.  She represented New York State for seven terms and in 1972 she made a bid for the US presidency.   She survived three assassination attempts while campaigning.  Shirley was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a longtime champion of educational opportunities for inner-city children.  In 1972 she visited her rival George Wallace in the hospital after he was shot while campaigning for U. S. president.  Years later when she worked on a domestic worker minimum wage bill, Wallace helped to get enough votes from Southern congressman to push the bill through the House.

Harry Belafonte, actor/singer/producer/longtime human rights activist was awarded an NAACP Image Award last month. In the 1980s he came up with the idea of bringing celebrities together to sing a song to raise funds for famine relief in Africa.  “We Are The World,” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, was born and became an international hit that raised more than $20 million for famine relief.  Harry’s activism included serving as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, speaking out against apartheid in South Africa and against U.S. military intervention in Iraq, etc.

The African Company: An 1821 Black Shakespearean Theater Co.

William Henry Brown was a Black man born in the West Indies.   He resided in New York City in the early 1800s and served as a steward on ships that travelled between England, New York and the Caribbean.  He was a “free” man.  Slavery ended in New York in the late 1820s but “free Blacks” were still brutalized and terrorized by whites, and Blacks were still prohibited from attending public schools, voting, traveling freely between states, etc.  In part, as a result of this, Blacks established their own businesses and institutions.

In 1816 Brown resigned from his job on a Liverpool liner and bought a house in Manhattan on Thompson Street.  He started holding soirees in his tea garden backyard where he provided various forms of entertainment (music ensembles, singers, poetry readings or dramatic works) and food and drink as well.  These events were such a big hit that people traveled from all over NY to attend. A theater company grew out these tea garden performances.

Brown moved to a larger home on Mercer Street in 1821 and built a 300-seat theater on the second floor of his home.  Brown hired Blacks to perform mostly Shakespearean plays for Black audiences.  “Richard III” and “Othello” were the most popular.  James Hewett and Ira Aldridge who was a teen at the time, were the principal actors.  The latter went on to achieve international acclaim after moving to Europe where he was a stage actor for more than 40 years.  I’ believe the group was originally The African Grove Company and at some point became The African Company.

Brown wrote “King Shotaway,” a drama about the 1796 Black Carib War against English and French settlers.  It was performed in 1823.  It’s believed to be the first Black play written and produced in America.

The African Company productions were also attended by whites although they were restricted to sitting in the back of the theater.  The more popular the company became, the greater a threat it posed to the larger white theaters.  As a result of its success and racial tensions in general, the Black company was forced to move to new locations more than a few times.

The white owner of the Park Theater (Stephen Price) had hired a famous British actor to star in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Around the same time it was scheduled to open, Brown rented a hall next door to mount The African Company’s production of that same play and it opened on the same night as the Park Theater’s production. Stephen Price paid whites to stage a riot during The African Company’s performance and the police shut them down.

Although it’s not conclusively known why the company folded, some reports say it may have been due to Brown declaring bankruptcy and others says the company folded because the last theater that housed the company mysteriously burned down in 1926. There are no records about this company after 1923.

Biddy Mason Black Philanthropist Pre-1900s

Here’s the story of an extraordinary Black woman philanthropist who died in the late 1890s.

Biddy Mason was born a slave on a Georgia plantation in 1818. In 1847 her master, Robert Marion Smith, converted to Mormonism and moved his family, via wagon train, to Salt Lake City, Utah.  The 2,000 mile trip took seven months and Biddy walked the entire distance carrying one children while her other two walked beside her.  Along the way Biddy was responsible for preparing meals, herding the cattle and midwifery.

Years later Smith moved his family and slaves to a Mormon community in California.  After he learned he was in a free state and therefore could not legally own slaves, he departed for Texas where slavery was legal.  En route he was stopped by a posse of free Blacks who rescued Biddy and returned her to California with her three children where they were officially freed in 1856.

Biddy worked as a midwife for a physician in LA.  By 1866 she was known to have delivered hundreds of babies and nursed many patients back to health.  She even risked her life to tend to those with small pox during an epidemic.

Ten years after she was freed, she paid $250 for two parcels of land with money that she had saved.  She didn’t immediately live on her land, instead Biddy rented a home where she established the First African American Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.  At some point she had a two-story brick building built on one of her properties.  She is believed to be the first Black female home owner.

By 1884 Biddy had sold some of her property for $1,500 and over the years amassed a fortune of almost $300,000.  By today’s standard that would have made her a millionaire.  That same year she had a local grocery store give free food to LA flood victims, regardless of race.  She picked up the tab.

Her home became a safe haven for homeless and others in need of help.  It later housed the church she founded which provided a food bank and day care service.

Her savvy real estate investments helped finance 11 convalescent homes, schools, and many charities.  In addition to feeding the line of people who showed up on her door step daily, she transported home-cooked meals to prisoners.

Biddy died in 1891 and in 1988, Tom Bradley, the mayor of LA, unveiled a tombstone to mark her previously unmarked grave.  A year later the city unveiled a memorial at Biddy Mason Park.

What Frederick Douglass Failed to Realize About His Mother

When Frederick Douglass was in his late twenties he published “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” He writes about his mother, Harriet Bailey, on the book’s first page.  Here’s an excerpt from his book that is now in public domain:

“My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant — before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.”

In the very next paragraph Frederick Douglass writes:

” I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission…. I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old…. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”

I wish Frederick Douglass had realized that his mother’s love for him had not been blunted by their separation.  She traveled 12 miles on five different nights to be at his side after slaving in a field for 12 hours.  She wore shabby clothes as she snuck through wooded areas in pitch black darkness frightened from second to second that she would be discovered and severely beat.  Despite her fears and the potential brutal consequences, Harriet pressed on to see her son. What type of weather did she endure?  How often did Harriet hear people talking in the distance or dogs barking? How did she find her way?  How many steps did Harriet travel to be reunited with her baby boy and to gaze at him and stroke his face? Was she given a cup of water or something to eat when she arrived? Did someone place a comforting hand on Harriet’s shoulder and say something or nothing or just smile at her in appreciation of her unstoppable, fearless mother-love?  How terrified and weary was Harriet on her return trip?  How exhausted was she the next day when she put in another 12 hours in the field?   I wish her son had considered these things once he had reached adulthood.  I wish Frederick had read his own book that clearly states how deeply his mother cared for him.  I  wish he had recognized that his mother was a brave lioness who refused to let slavery stand in the way of loving him.  Oh, how I wish Frederick had recognized the breadth of her profound love. Oh, how I wish.

Free Slaves, Black Codes and Good Masters

FREE SLAVES

Despite the fact many books often contain some variation of the phrase “slaves were free,”  this statement is absolutely incorrect.  Slaves may have been free to leave the plantation, but in 1865 State Governments in the south enacted laws created to keep slaves in invisible chains.  These “Black Codes” were actually revised slave codes created to subjugate and exploit Black people in general, and they were strictly enforced.  The Black Codes are only one of the hundreds of reasons why it’s historically incorrect to refer to slaves as being free.  According to the Black Codes:

If former slaves failed to secure jobs they were charged with vagrancy and jailed.  Since they weren’t able to pay their fines,  local white authorities farmed them out to work on chain gangs.

Former slaves were prohibited from congregating in a group unless a white person was present.

Former slaves were prohibited from learning to read and write.

Many former slaves worked on farms, were paid meager wages and had their hours and duties strictly regulated by whites.  These are just a few of the laws Blacks were subjected to and if  they violated them Blacks were whipped or branded.

FORMER SLAVE INTERVIEWS

During the 1930s the WPA dispatched workers to interview former slaves and to record their experiences on tape.  I listened to some of these interviews a few years ago and heard white sounding male interviewers ask, “You’re master was good to you?”  These men were asking the slaves a leading question.  Were these interviewers trying to sway the slaves to say “yes?” Former slaves were being questioned by men who looked like their ruthless ex-captors who used guile  and trickery to exploit and deceive them.  Given this reality and the way the question is phrased, I don’t doubt a lot of former slaves said that their masters were good to them.  Nudging slaves to say that their masters treated them decently gives people the wrong impression that slavery wasn’t that horrible after all.

In that same vein, I heard what sounded like a white interviewer ask a former slave if her master was good to her.  She immediately said, “Yes.” He asked if she knew how to read.  She relied, “No.”   They conversed some more and again he asked if she knew how to read and again she said, “No.”  The woman told him she attended a church and that she sang.  He asked how she was able to remember all the songs and she  slipped up and said something about using a book.  Clearly she knew how to read, but she lied about that and most likely the “good master” bit because she didn’t know if this man, who resembled her master, was friend or foe and she wasn’t taking any chances.

I met someone who knew a man who had interviewed former slaves for the WPA.   I don’t know the WPA man’s race but some slaves detailed how cruelly the masters and their wives treated them.  When the WPA employee submitted that information to his white boss, the boss destroyed it.  How many others distorted,  sanitized and gave this type of Black history the deep six?