Ten Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About Black History

Black History Month

The Article: Michelle Obama Is Not Our First Black First Lady? 10 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About Black History by Bijan C. Bayne in AlterNet.

The Text: In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson pioneered the celebration of Negro History Week in February as a recognition to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Today, that commemoration has evolved into Black History Month. Though February has long been replete with special curriculum in schools, public events and tailored TV programming, many elements of the past remain obscured. Here are 10 examples worthy of Mr. Woodson.

1. Black Americans were once viewed as poor athletes.

Blacks have not always been viewed as athletically dominant in the major U.S. team sports, and certain Olympic events. Their impoverished living conditions, vitamin deficient diets, predisposition to illness, and the weak moral fiber of their communities served as rationale for their exclusion from top athletic competition. Many white authorities and educators also believed Negroes lacked the capacity to think fast and the intestinal fortitude that sports demanded. A prevailing stereotype of the day, depicted in radio and film, was the Negro with the “yellow streak.” In vintage movies, black character actors such as Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland bugged their eyes and fled at the mere mention of a mummy or a ghost.

“Games demanding team play are played by the Anglo-Saxon peoples, and by these peoples alone,” said Luther Gulick, the director of the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA, who trained basketball’s inventor Dr. Naismith. In 1906, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge told the Harvard class of 1906 “…the time given to athletic contests… (is) part of the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world-conquerors.” The same year, a summer physical education doctoral candidate named Edwin B. Henderson learned to coach basketball and other sports at Harvard. Henderson resolved not only to debunk the notion that blacks were inferior athletes, he decided if enough black high school students proved their athletic mettle, they could also earn scholarships to integrated northern colleges such as Cornell and Amherst.

In this way, E.B. Henderson foresaw athletics as a springboard to professional achievement. Nonetheless, 40 years after Senator Lodge’s statement and Henderson’s summer epiphany, millions of white Americans, including major league owners, players and sportswriters, doubted Jackie Robinson would make the grade in professional baseball. Many believed he was either too musclebound, or that the national pastime was too cerebral for blacks. Today, it is difficult to imagine such prejudices, although similar thoughts kept blacks from playing quarterback professionally, or coaching pro and college football, until relatively recently.

2. Michelle Obama is not our first black First Lady; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was.

Jackie O, perhaps America’s most emulated and admired First Lady, descended from a family known as the van Salee’s, who were described as “mulatto” in the 17th century. This family traced its lineage in part to a Dutch mariner named Jan Jensen, who turned Turk (what some Europeans called “going native”), which was more popular than common history reveals.

It is widely believed Jensen fathered two children, Anthony and Abraham van Salee, by a Moorish concubine. Following a dispute with his white wife, Anthony van Salee was exiled to territory across the river, where he became Brooklyn’s first settler. Until a few decades ago, this property adjoining Coney Island was called Turk’s Island after Anthony van Salle — the term “Turk,” in his day being synonymous with Moor (North African). A descendant, John van Salee De Grasse, born in 1825, was the first black American formally educated as a doctor. When Jackie Kennedy was asked about her van Salee roots during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she called her ancestors “Jewish.” Of course, her socialite father, born in 1891, was nicknamed “Black Jack” Bouvier for his swarthy complexion. In the 1960s, journalists described the First Lady’s features as “French,” earning her the cover page of countless magazines, including film and fan publications. Not only Kennedy Onassis, but well-borns Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Vanderbilt (and thus Anderson Cooper), are van Salee descendants.

3. African slave trade into the Caribbean was much bigger than that to North American colonies.

When we in the U.S. think of the Transatlantic slave trade, we think of British ships sailing into Virginia and the Carolinas, freedom fighters such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and an emancipating stroke of President Abraham Lincoln’s pen. Yet Transatlantic slave ships were primarily destined for the Caribbean. One reason the black population in the U.S. has hovered around 12 percent for decades is that more than 90 percent of African slaves were imported into the Caribbean and South America. Only about six percent of imports went directly to British North America. About 500,000 Africans were imported into what is now the U.S. between 1619 and 1807– which amounted to only six percent of all Africans forcibly imported into the Americas.

In the early 19th century, fewer than five percent of the total population of Jamaica, Grenada, Nevis, St. Vincent, and Tobago was white, and fewer than 10 percent of the population of Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and the Virgin Islands. An estimate of the slave population in the British Caribbean in Robin Blackburn’s study, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848, puts the slave numbers at 428,000 out of a population of 500,000. The number of slaves vastly exceeded the number of white owners and overseers. The islands, while much smaller than the colonies that would become the U.S., had huge slave populations. In 1789, the slave population of modern day Haiti was 455,000, while the total of African slaves forced to the current day U.S., from 1619-1860, was 4 million.

4. Three of the first five Kentucky Derby winning jockeys were black.

Black jockeys dominated thoroughbred racing from the colonial era through the turn of the 20th century. Wealthy estate owners prided themselves on their fine horses, and before emancipation, often paid talented slaves to ride them in heavily wagered races. The epicenter of such sport was Halifax County in Eastern North Carolina, not the bluegrass of Kentucky. Fifteen of the first 28 Kentucky Derbys were won by black jockeys, and five of those were trained by black men.

In a carryover from slavery, blacks served not only as jockeys, but as grooms and thoroughbred trainers, the latter a skill set valued in West Africans forcibly removed from certain tribes to perform labor in the North American colonies. Isaac Murphy was the first jockey to ride three Kentucky Derby winners. Alonzo Clayton and James Perkins won the grandest race when each was only 15. The last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby was Jimmy Winkfield who won in both 1901 and 1902. As racing purses grew and jockeys earned more money, black men were phased out of the profession and confined to support roles such as grooms and stable hands.

5. Haiti’s battle for independence precipitated the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the United States.

Haiti was the second Western nation to gain its independence from Europe. Successful campaigns by freedom fighters Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, drove the vaunted general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to demand in 1803 that his ministers sell the Louisiana Territory to the U.S. for an original figure of $22,500,000. Napoleon sought not only to recover financially from the outlay involved in fighting the slave armies, he also realized the territory in question, under the circumstances, was indefensible by the French from the British.

The ministers Barbe-Marbois and Talleyrand, further frustrated, adjusted the sale during the months it took to reach President Thomas Jefferson to $15,000,000, or four cents an acre. The acquisition not only doubled the size of the country, it tripled the area of fertile land. Due to the heroism of a vastly outnumbered slave rebellion, present-day Louisiana, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming were purchased by the U.S. The same year, Napoleon withdrew a majority of his forces from then-Saint Domnigue to prepare for a possible invasion of vulnerable France by England, Prussia and Spain. Though L’Ouverture was captured and imprisoned near Switzerland, where he was starved to death, Dessalines claimed official victory and independence on January 1, 1804, when he changed the nation’s colonial name, Saint-Domingue, to the indigenous Arawak name Haiti.

Haiti was the first independent Caribbean nation, the first post-colonial independent black nation in the world, and the only country whose independence was brought on by a successful slave revolt. The repercussions for the North American slave trade were significant, as wealthy planters and the U.S. government grew concerned a similar rebellion could occur in the former 13 colonies. Slaveholders were banned from bringing Haitians into the States, for fear they would incite resistance. Suppressive laws were passed, aimed at thwarting insurrection. This atmosphere led to the little-known German Coast Uprising of 1811 in Louisiana, in which 200 to 500 escaped Louisiana slaves, in ever growing bands as they traveled from town to town, burned down five estates and several sugar houses, for which 44 of them were later hung or beheaded. Inspired by the Haitian independence, Charleston, South Carolina’s Denmark Vesey scheduled his unsuccessful slave rebellion on Bastile Day (July 14), 1822. Word of Vesey’s plot leaked, and his effort was put down. The Haitian Revolution was a turning point in European and Western geography, economics, military history, and regarding the control of American slaves.

6. Rosa Parks was not the first black woman arrested in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

What most U.S. schoolteachers and media proclaim as the spark of the modern Civil Rights Movement was delayed by a teenage pregnancy. Rosa Parks was not originally intended to be the test case for integrated seating on the public buses of Montgomery, Alabama. That distinction was reserved for a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin. Why isn’t Colvin’s name emblazoned on the American memory? Montgomery activists downplayed Colvin’s refusal to give up her front seat on March 2, 1955 (nine months before Parks), and subsequent arrest, because Colvin soon became pregnant, and with a baby so fair-skinned, some wondered aloud if the father was white.

The Montgomery court hearing about Colvin’s seated stand for justice was named Browder vs. Gayle, in which she testified on May 11, 1956. By that time, the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association had drafted a more publicly suitable successor to Colvin, a transplanted Detroit activist named Rosa Parks who had been trained in nonviolent passive resistance at Tennessee’s noted Highlander Folk School. Despite Parks’ status as a sympathetic symbol, schoolchildren should be just as proud of Claudette Colvin. Montgomery was not even the site of the first organized boycott against racially segregated public transportation. Baton Rouge, Louisiana blacks protested Jim Crow seating laws in 1953, but local leaders abandoned the cause before victory could be won.

7. Many prominent civil rights activists and scholars were of West Indian descent.

Marcus Garvey, the father of Black Nationalism, was born in Jamaica in 1887. By 1919, his Universal Negro Improvement Association had two million members, the vast majority in the U.S. It was the largest “back to Africa” movement in U.S. history. Following in Garvey’s philosophical footsteps, the two national spokespersons for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan, share Caribbean roots. Malcolm X’s mother was from Grenada, and Farrakhan was born to a Jamaican father, and a mother from Saint Kitts and Nevis. In addition, Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay (Jamaican), black history author J.A. Rogers (Jamaican), “Black Power” advocate Stokely Carmichael (Trinidadian), historian C.L.R. James (Trinidadian), Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Barbadian), and of course entertainer-activist Harry Belafonte (father from Martinique, mother Jamaican), are or were West Indian.

Longtime director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Roy Innis, hails from St. Croix. It is worth noting that in many Caribbean American households such as Malcolm X’s and Minister Farrakhan’s, there were followers of Marcus Garvey, who influenced their children with Garvey’s emphasis on race pride, economic autonomy and physical repatriation from the U.S.

8. The college president who ushered Georgetown University into the modern era was black.

Many Americans believe that when Dr. Clifton Wharton was named president of Michigan State University in 1970, he was the first black president of a major American university. Yet Wharton’s perceived milestone had a century-old precedent. Born into slavery in Macon, Georgia in 1830, Patrick Healy became president of Georgetown University in 1874. Healy is credited with modernizing the science curriculum at Georgetown, and expanding and improving both the schools of medicine and law. Healy also created the university’s alumni association. In 1901, the medical school added a dental school. President Clinton, and 11 other current or former heads of state graduated from Georgetown. Healy is often cited as Georgetown’s second founder, after Archbishop John Carroll. The campus’ most prominent building, the administrative center Healy Hall, bears his name.

9. America’s first Secretary of the Treasury was black.

Alexander Hamilton, the man on the front of your $10 bill, was born on Nevis in either 1755 or 1757. His mother, Rachel Fawcett Lavain, was said to be of “mixed blood” and his father was James Hamilton Sr., the fourth son of a Scottish Duke. Rachel and James never married, so Alexander Hamilton was denied admission to schools run by the Anglican Church. James Sr. eventually abandoned Rachel and their two sons. Alexander’s older brother, James Jr., by the same mother and father, was dark-skinned. James Hamilton Jr. migrated to the American colonies, where he was treated as a black man, including once being refused a seat on a Broadway coach because of his race. Alexander Hamilton went on to establish the first national bank in the American colonies, founded the U.S. Mint, and wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers. His is the only “black” face on U.S. currency.

Also considered black, by U.S. standards, were Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, whose paternal grandmother was a slave in what is now Haiti; Saint Augustine, the great Christian theologian born in 354 in modern-day Souk Ahras, Algeria; and that whitest of white actresses, Carol Channing, whose father was black.

The lawman who sought to suppress the black freedom movement, from the days of Marcus Garvey to the dawn of the Black Panther Party, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, was rumored in some Washington circles to have been black. Writer Gore Vidal, who grew up in Washington DC, once said, “It was always said in my family and around the city that Hoover was mulatto. And that he came from a family that passed.” Millie McGhee, author of Secrets Uncovered: J. Edgar Hoover Passing For White, said, “In the late 1950’s, I was a young girl growing up in rural McComb, Mississippi. A story had been passed down through several generations that the land we lived on was owned by the Hoover family. My grandfather told me that this powerful man, Edgar, was his second cousin, and was passing for white. If we talked about this, he was so powerful he could have us all killed. I grew up terrified about all this.”

10. In the 19th century, St. Louis served as a musical Tin Pan Alley.

The song “Frankie and Johnny” originated in a red-light section of St. Louis, and was about feuding black lovers. Who knew? Much of America’s introduction to ragtime and blues may be traced to a bordello owned by a black woman named “Babe” Connors (1856-1918). How many music or theater majors realize that Babe’s place was where the song “Ta Ra Ra Boom-De-Ay” was first heard, and not Gay Paree? It is thought composer Theodore Metz also first heard “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” at Babe’s brothel on 210 South Street. The Library of Congress once wrote that 80 percent of what passes for pure American folklore comes out of 17 square blocks of the black Chestnut Valley community.


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