Ironic isn’t it that Black Africans and white Englishmen arrived on this land mass we came to call America about the same time a little more than 400 years ago.
Twenty Africans were brought to colonial Virginia in 1619 and a group of Englishmen, many with families and fleeing persecution in England, disembarked from the Mayflower as immigrants in Massachusetts at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
Often-used axioms like “no one lives in a vacuum” and “we’re all inextricably linked,” have proven to be true as it related to the coexistence of those two sets of refugees on foreign soil — the “new world.”
As we prepare to celebrate Black History Month, our attention turns to the notable history and contributions of those early Africans and many of their descendants.
In my ongoing study of American history, I’ve become more convinced that ‘black history’ wasn’t made in a vacuum.
There is no fully accurate way of sharing the history of African Americans without including the corresponding history of those early Englishmen and their descendants.
A couple of examples ….
Crispus Attucks, a man of color, said to have fought alongside American colonists during the Boston Massacre against the British, is also believed to be the first casualty of the American Revolution.
Further, it’s all but impossible to discuss the Pilgrims’ initial harsh winter and that first Thanksgiving without identifying one of the natives, Squanto, and his historic assistance to the Pilgrims in their time of desperation.
Transplanted Englishmen and enslaved Africans started out together in this new land, but coexisted unequally for 246 years. No Africans, or anyone representing them, were invited to participate in the colonists’ declaration of freedom in 1776, thus condemning those early Africans and their descendants to a second-class existence our nation continues to struggle with.
The Emancipation Proclamation legally ended slavery, but the residual effects endured, still limiting freedmen in controlling their own destiny. During that time, each group made its own history, but the dominant culture kept far better records of its experiences and deeds for posterity, while leaving Black achievement documentation to the benevolence of a few even-minded whites, in the hands of former slave owners, and revisionist historians.
Through the years “Black History Month,” — February — finds us dusting off the usual, tried and true roll calls of African-Americans ranging from Crispus Attucks to Martin Luther King, Jr.
The nation’s intent was to highlight some of the many contributions made by African-Americans to this country’s greatness, attempting to make amends for the omission and distortion of a people’s existence and contributions. Starting around King’s birthday and during Black History Month, many grade and high school youngsters, usually African Americans, will enter Martin Luther King, Jr. oratorical contests with contestants reciting his famous speeches while emulating his eloquent style of delivery.
Bill Russell, a professional basketball player, was the first African-American head coach in major sports. But, without Boston Celtic executive Arnold “Red” Auerbach’s support and influence Russell probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity.
Poet Laurence Dunbar’s father was a slave, actually a skilled carpenter whom his master trusted to transact business and represent him. It’s documented that the elder Dunbar was to deliver a supply of wood to a buyer and bring the money back to his master. But, rather than returning with the money, as he had done on so many occasions, Dunbar planned his escape with his family from West Virginia to freedom in Ohio.
Without question, the country needs to know more about the experiences and contributions of past African-Americans.
It’s important that a nation’s citizens, all of them, feel a legitimate connection to its greatness.
While it’s certainly important to continually remind all Americans of the significant contributions of African-Americans, past and present, let’s evolve our thinking into a mode of inclusion rather than separation, which I think will make Black history more interesting and more palatable for current and future generations of Americans.
Since Richmond is a college town, let’s take a look at another college town — Wilberforce, Ohio.
Wilberforce is a small village located in southwestern Ohio just outside of Xenia and is the site of Wilberforce University, oldest of the HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities]). This private institution was started by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856. The AME church broke away from its parent church, Methodist Episcopal Church, adding the name, “African” for obvious reasons.
Now, history starts to get interesting.
Why did those early African Methodists led by Daniel Alexander Payne decide upon the name, “Wilberforce” for their new school of higher learning?
English nobleman/abolitionist Lord William Wilberforce was a white man who lived and died in the 18th century. He led a group of fellow abolitionists in abolishing slavery in the United Kingdom. Reportedly, his family never owned slaves and was strongly opposed to slavery.
Bishop Alexander Payne and those early African Methodists couldn’t think of anyone more deserving to name their first college after. We’re talking about collaboration between Englishmen and freed Africans before the Civil War began!
Crispus Attucks, Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, The Buffalo Soldiers, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, and more recent historically important African Americans, Martin Luther King, Jr., Congressman John Lewis, and President Barrack Obama round out a frequently used roll call of past African Americans around this time of the year.
The names and achievements of past iconic African Americans have rung down through time, and that’s a good thing, but even African-American youngsters don’t readily relate to most of those early African-Americans.
We must become more creative in recalling and re-telling the significant achievements of not only African Americans, but all Americans. Perhaps we’re growing past the practice of treating past Black achievement like Christmas decorations we dust off once a year, put on display, then put them back into boxes until next season.
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