A History of My People
By Audreye E. Johnson, Ph.D., ACSW
Dr. Audreye E. Johnson is a Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the Creator and Director of the Black Experience Workshop which sponsors an annual conference. This report was prepared for the 1999 conference held at Chapel Hill on March 18 and 19.
© 1999 - Audreye E. Johnson
Background: Van Sertima found that Africans came to the Americas before Columbus. Africans sailed with Columbus who sought to sail to India. His exploration was bankrolled by Spain. This African connection was due to the Moors who, beginning in the 7th century ruled the southern part of Europe for many years. They became deeply intertwined in the culture and life of Spain and Portugal (read Shakespeare's Othello). The distance between the coasts of Europe and Africa at the Rock of Gibraltar is about six miles; swimming distance and/or gene swapping territory.
The crew of the three ships under Columbus included those of African decent. Their voyage was expected to sail to India, but they landed in the Caribbean of the New World. They were found by the inhabitants whom Columbus called Indians. These Natives befriended the lost sailors/explorers. Later, Columbus, and explorers from England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, etc., arrived in North and South America including Canada. These were the initial colonizers of the New World. These countries of Europe fought each other for control of land that did not belong to them, mistreating the Native Americans who had befriended them as they claimed "squatters rights" to the land of Native American tribes. England's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 made her a major player in the New World. This was played out in North America which became English speaking via war or land purchase.
The colony of Jamestown was established in 1607, in what is now Virginia. In 1619 the English captured a Dutch ship with people of African decent and Spanish names whom they sold in Jamestown as indentured servants. This was before the Mayflower arrived in 1620 with Caucasian indentured servants; most Caucasians and those of African descent in this period came to America as indentured servants. The need for labor was the backbone of indentured servitude, but did not resolve the labor need as indentured servitude was time limited or could be terminated by paying out the contract via work or money, and a labor force was still needed.
In 1624, William was born to Antoney and Isabell, the first Black child born in America; this was the beginning of the Black family. The legitimacy of the relationship is evidenced by William's birth being recorded in the Church of England in Jamestown.
Getting A Work Force: Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641, the majority (11) of the colonies had such laws by 1750. In 1644 indentured Africans (11) petitioned for their freedom in New Netherlands (New York), and won. They were kept as indentured servants longer than Caucasian indentured servants. On the other hand, it was Anthony Johnson (probably came as an indentured person, and prospered) who sued and won his suit against a Caucasian to retain a Black indentured servant for life (slave) in VA in 1653. Laws permitting slavery grew rapidly with VA taking the lead.
An integrated revolt of indentured servants and slaves occurred as early as 1663 in Gloucester County, VA. To prevent intermarriage Maryland in 1664 passed the initial anti-amalgamation law, and other colonies followed. To keep the servant groups apart, laws were passed providing privilege to Caucasians and/or prohibiting intermarriage. The separate and unequal existence in America had begun. The laws did not keep these groups apart, just as the unfavorable laws and action against Native Americans did not keep all three of the groups from interacting in all ways of life. There were interracial revolts of the three groups. Blacks became chiefs in the Seminole tribe. The alliance between Blacks and the Florida Seminole Tribe bested Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor in the their clashes. Jackson and Taylor became the seventh and twelfth Presidents of America.
Jackson beat the British in the War of 1812 in the Battle of New Orleans which was fought after the war was over. The troops were a rag tail band of Blacks, poor Whites, and Indians. He used the battle cry, "Rally round the standard of the eagle".
As President, Jackson ignored the Supreme Court ruling that recognized the rights of Native Americans (Cherokee Tribe) to land in Georgia, and ordered them to Oklahoma. He was responsible for what is known as the "Trail of Tears"; thousands of lives were lost on this travel to Oklahoma to new Indian Territory. The Cherokees were highly advanced with a Constitution. This Indian Removal Act of 1830 provided guidelines for the exchange of eastern land for western acreage to be under perpetual guaranty by the Federal Government: rules not followed.
Protest: The Germantown Quakers, in 1688, made the first formal protest against slavery and the slave trade. Unrest and continued agitation regarding slavery never ceased, despite the harsh laws and punishments assessed. The relationship between the races became more strained as the need for labor grew. African decent made identifiable people who could run but not hide. Indentured Caucasians were branded, but could and did learn manners, and improved their speech. Caucasians were able to change their behavior, and their skin color was "right". The use of appropriate language protected them from search and seizure. Native Americans, who knew the terrain could escape. Those of African decent were identifiable when they ran. Thus, began racism in the New World, separate and unequal living and treatment which would later be codified in the Constitution of the United States of America for Blacks and Native Americans. The thirteen states received the Constitution for ratification, September 17, 1787, and it became effective in 1789. It was April 12, 1787, also in Philadelphia, that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones began the initial African-American social service agency.
The Free African Society, noted by DuBois as "the first wavering step of a people toward a more organized social life." In May of the same year Prince Hall organized the Mason African Lodge No. 459 in Boston.
Labor and Land Annexation/Broken Promises: The need for labor was the driving force for enslavement. This led to White privilege, and the subsequent division of the country into separate and unequal divisions of people in society, with women at the bottom. Blacks were enslaved, and Native Americans were herded to reservations.
There were 370 Indian treaties that began 1770 with the Delawares. Native Americans were betrayed for they "made treaties to last as long and the grass grows and the river flows". The United States after herding Native Americans onto reservations, denied them the right to vote, and violated each of the 370 treaties made. The Constitutional Convention, completed September 1787 gave recognition to what they called the Five Civilized Tribes; Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, but did not give them the right to vote. Enslaved African-Americans were counted as three/fifths of a person for taxation, and were denied the right to vote. Laws were enacted to deter escape from slavery; first Fugitive Slave Law passed by Congress in 1793; slave hunting became a business developed to track runaways. translated to mean money/property. If caught, slaves were not only returned, but often beaten for their action, and in some cases maimed.
Noted fugitive slaves were Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Douglass became an abolitionist; published his story about slavery; went to England to escape capture; returned and published the North Star Newspaper in Rochester, NY; became an abolitionist leader; was a recruiter for the Union Army during the Civil War; and a significant person during Reconstruction as he became a federal office-holder (i.e. Minister to Haiti, recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia). Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland. Though illiterate, she was naturally smart and brave. She had a permanent head injury caused by the slaver hitting her in the head with an iron anvil. She used the North Star as her guide to freedom via the Underground Railroad. She often brought slaves into the Philadelphia office of the Anti-slavery Society run by William Still who set up a social service agency to meet the needs of the newly freed African-Americans. Tubman returned 19 times to rescue her siblings, parents, and others from slavery, though there was a $40,000 bounty on her head. She carried a gun to dissuade any from betraying them. She never lost a passenger! During the Civil War she served as a laundress, scout, spy, and soldier leading troops into battle. She did not get the pension due her for her war efforts for more than 40 years after the end of the Civil War. She used the funds to open a home for the elderly in her adopted home of Auburn, New York.
The Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision of 1857 ruled that a slave was not a citizen, and denied the vote to Blacks. Judge Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, stated that Blacks had no rights that a White was bound to respect.
Lincoln issued Emancipation Proclamations on September 22, 1862 that freed all slaves in states that were in rebellion against the Union. On January 1, 1863 he issued a proclamation that freed all persons held as slaves. The Civil War that ensued was won by the North. This war was about money. Both sides were involved in the slave trade. The Constitution of the Confederacy closely followed that of the Philadelphia Constitution Convention, except that the South would make slavery hence then, and forever more.
Constitutional Amendments passed after the Civil War: 1. the 13th prohibited slavery, 2. the 14th allowed due process in the courts, 3. the 15th gave the right to vote to Black men over the objections of Caucasian women, i.e., Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony among others that caused a rift between them and Frederick Douglass: he had been at Seneca Falls in 1848, was a strong supporter of the women's suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony and Douglass later made peace, but Cady Stanton maintained her stance. The first Civil Rights Law was passed, but overturned by the Supreme Court in 1873. Amendment 19 gave women the right to vote.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs was established for Native Americans, and housed in the War Department as was the initial Welfare Agency (The Freedmen's Bureau) that gave rations after the Civil War to Blacks and Whites, and built hospitals and schools used by both groups in the South. Destruction of these small gains came with the compromise election of Rutherford B. Hayes, as the 19th President.
Native Americans got the right to vote, June 2, 1924 when Congress granted them citizenship!! Reservations are still maintained for Native Americans, and the Bureau of Indians Affairs continues to exist.
The further erosion of African-American rights came after the Civil War via the enactment of Black Codes by Southern States to deny citizenship rights to Blacks, and the organization of the Ku Klux Klan in TN by General Nathan Bedford Forest that spread through the South. This led to a reign of terror against Blacks in the South. Voting rights were denied. The poll tax was used against Blacks voting; in a nut shell, your parents or grandparents had to have paid taxes to allow you to vote. The poll tax was abolished via Article 24 Amendment to the Constitution, and ratified January 23, 1964.
The latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th was fraught with violent acts toward Blacks. They were lynched in the South for attempting to exercise the right to vote, or for looking, or being disrespectful to a White, even a child. Reported Black lynchings: 1882, 49; 1884, 51; 1885, 74; 1886, 74; 1887, 70; 1888, 69; 1889, 94; 1890, 85; 1891, 113; 1892, 161; 1893, 118; 1895, 113; 1896, 78; 1897, 123; 1898, 101; 1899, 85; 1900, 106; 1901, 105; 1903, 84; 1904, 76; 1905, 57; 1906, 62; 1908, 89; 1909, 69; 1910, 67; 1911, 60; 1912, 61; 1913, 51; 1914, 56; 1916, 50; 1917, Thirteen Black soldiers hanged on alleged involvement in a Houston riot, and 36 civilians; 1918, 66; 1919, 66; 1920, 53; 1921, 59; 1922, 59; 1923, 29. In 1952 Tuskegee Institute reported that as the first year there were no lynchings in this country for 71 years. Emmett Till, a 14 year old who was visiting relatives was lynched in Money, Mississippi, August 28, 1955.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a newspaper publisher and one of the signers of the call for the formation of the National Association of Colored People was an active watcher of the violence against Blacks. She called for record keeping on lynchings that was done by Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. She was one step ahead of being lynched when she left Memphis, TN because of her civil rights views.
The last lynching was in Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan in 1981 or 82, of Michael McDonald, an 18 year old youth, because he was Black. Justice was sought by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, AL, led by Attorney Morris Dees. After several years justice prevailed, all the Klan's assets went to Mrs. McDonald, Michael's mother. She died prior to collection, but the Klan was bankrupt.
The past has followed us into the present: In spite of laws and some effort to defang race/ethnic, gender, etc. hate, 1998 and even the new year of 1999 prove we have not yet grown beyond people hatred!!!!!! There were horrible crimes against people based on hate. Jasper, TX featured the chaining and dragging death of Mr. James Byrd, Jr. that led to his decapitation by John William King and his two friends. Why? Because Mr. Byrd was Black. King, a self proclaimed White supremacist was convicted, and given the death penalty, February 1999. He was reported to have smirked and cursed Byrd's family while he was led from the court room to jail, inviting them to s___ his d___. His two cronies will be tried later.
Michael Shepard a White 20 year old college student in Wyoming was wantonly killed because he was gay. This small young person (103 lbs) was tied to a fence like a scarecrow. A 17 year old Black female was shot to death by police while she waited for family help sitting in her car. February 4, 1999 four New York City plain clothed police officers pumped 41 bullets into a 22 year old Black visitor from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, while he stood in his apartment building unarmed. How many bullets does it take to kill a person? Are Black people so potent that they have to be shot repeatedly to ensure their death, or does hatred for Blacks so warp Whites that they become just plain psychotic? In Trenton, NC (February 1999) the Mayor (81 years old) opposed annexation of Black areas. He was reported in the newspaper saying, incorporation would result in Blacks taking over the town, and Blacks steal.
This is the present that we must mutually assess if we are to go into the future. People of color have made many contributions to America and the world: Benjamin Banneker laid out Washington, DC from memory when the Frenchman hired (La Fonte) got mad and left the job incomplete. Banneker built a wooden clock that ran for years. It appears that he was a genius, and used his education by the Quakers to benefit everyone. The lasting of shoes by machine so that poor people can afford to buy them was the invention of Jan E. Matzeliger; George Washington Carver rejuvenated the South with crop rotation to save the land for farming, and created over 300 products from the peanut. Sugar refining via the invention of a multiple evaporation process was the contribution of Norbert Rillieux. Garrett A, Morgan invented the gas mask, and the red/green light to cross streets in safety was invented by this same Black man. Elijah McCoy invented a method of lubricating machinery without stopping it in 1872, and revolutionized manufacturing by lowering the cost, and increasing distribution. The expression "the real McCoy" came about because when people went to buy this product they would ask for "the real McCoy". Dr. Percy Julian (a chemist) developed a synthetic cortisone to treat arthritis. Julian, also, developed a weatherproof coating to retard rusting on battleships. These are a few of the inventions that have come from African- Americans, and have had considerable impact upon the world. Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. first African-American astronaut killed in a training flight, December 8, 1967.
This country was not created by one group, but by people of different races and genders. Each group contributed to the growth and development of America and her place in the world. Are you aware that Dr. Ralph J. Bunche won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his successful mediation of the Palestine conflict that established Israel. He was the first African-American to win a Nobel.
How open are we to learning and respecting others? As we move into the next century how much of the baggage of the past will go with us? If we in the helping professions are to serve people, and truly meet their needs how do we begin to address the blatant disrespect that is so easily exposed as we approach those who are different from us? A recent study by the American Medical Association discovered that Blacks are often not provided the same care as others. President Clinton apologized to the Black men who were ill treated by the United States Public Health Department for 40 years in Tuskegee. The men were not treated for syphilis when penicillin treatment was available.
America recently made corrections when the evidence forced the decision. Examples are in several areas, medicine as noted, the armed forces awarding Congressional Medals of Honor for World War II, and clearing the name of a West Point Cadet who had been forced out of West Point because of racism. President William Jefferson Clinton from Arkansas has been one of the three American Presidents, Southerners who have used their office to make a change in race relations . Clinton's Cabinet was the first to reflect the diversity of the American in terms of race and gender, from the first it looked like America.
Harry S. Truman, from Missouri, via Executive Order 9808 created the Committee on Civil Rights in 1946, it condemned race injustices in a report, "To Secure These Rights", and with Executive Order 9981 desegregated the armed forces in 1948. Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas, July 1964 signed the Civil Rights Bill that included fair employment and public accommodation sections; August 6, 1965 he signed the Voting Rights Bill, and nominated the first Black Cabinet Member Robert C. Weaver, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who was sworn in January 1966. Patricia R. Harris he named as ambassador to Luxembourg. A White House Conference on Civil Rights held June 1-2, 1966. Johnson named Thurgood Marshall, whom he had appointed United States Solicitor General in 1965, to be the first African-American Supreme Court Justice June 13, 1967 (confirmed by the Senate August 30, 1967).
The above historical information provides the foundation on where we have been, where we are today, and questions our direction for the future. BEW encourages you to dialogue with scholars and each other on vital issues related to race in America. This educational event will provide us the opportunity to exchange ideas with friends and scholars on some of the basic issues of race today. This can be pain-filled, unsettling, and difficult to openly face. Avoidance won't stop the flow of events already underway in shaping the course of interaction for now and into the millennium. We have a chance to influence this interaction if we take the challenge. Human service practitioners need to fortify themselves and confront the issues of lack of respect of our clients by self or others. As Faulkner the Nobel Laureate put it, "The past is never over, it isn't even past."
All people have color, some more noticeable than others. This has been the defining issue of race in America; the less melanin the better the acceptance. Even when this adage is proved incorrect, then it is an accident or a stroke of luck, never that the person has been capable of contributing through intelligence, but via accident. Regardless of color people have basic human needs of food, shelter, clothing, and respect, regardless of their amount of melanin. People of all ages and hues who are in need of health care, improved social conditions, or the basics of human needs now and in the future need the service of people who are not beguiled by color, but focus on the need of the individual or group. Need should have no color for service to be rendered!
Audreye E. Johnson, Ph. D., ACSW - "Black Experience Workshop" Creator and Director,
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Langston Hughes 1926
"We need to know more about the past in order to establish a culture of respect for human rights." - Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate, Chair, South Africa' Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Aptheker, Herbert, ed. (1971). A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, vol.1. New York: Carol Publishing Group.
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Bennett, Lerone, Jr. (1988). Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 6th ed. Chicago: Johnson Publishing.
_____. (1975). The Shaping of Black America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing.
Franklin, John Hope and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. (1988). From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Johnson, Audreye E. (1991). "The Sin Of Omission: African American Women in Social Work," Journal of Multicultural Social Work 1 (2): 7-15.
______. (1988. The National Association of Black Social Workers, Inc.: A History for the Future. New York: National Association of Black Social Workers.
______. (1977). "William Still--Black Social Worker: 1821-1902", Black Caucus Journal (Spring): 14-19.
_____. (1999) . "Social Work: A Cultural Perspective," in James L. Conyers, Jr. and Alva P. Barnett, eds., African American Sociology.
Lewis, David Levering (1993). W. E. B. DuBois: Biography of A Race, 1868-1919. New York: Henry Holt.
Still, William (1970). The Underground Railroad, orig. pub. 1872; reprint, Chicago: Johnson Publishing.