The Grandfather of Black History

In his 1925 essay, The Negro Digs Up His Past, Arthur Schomburg highlights three major points about the increasingly systematic study of our history and culture…

Gradually as the study of the Negro’s past has come out of the vagaries of rhetoric and propaganda and become systematic and scientific, three outstanding conclusions have been established:

  1. First, that the Negro has been throughout the centuries of controversy an active collaborator, and often a pioneer, in the struggle for his own freedom and advancement. This is true to a degree which makes it the more surprising that it has not been recognized earlier.

  2. Second, that by virtue of their being regarded as something “exceptional,” even by friends and well-wishers, Negroes of attainment and genius have been unfairly disassociated from the group, and group credit lost accordingly.

  3. Third, that the remote racial origins of the Negro, far from being what the race and the world have been given to understand, offer a record of creditable group achievement when scientifically viewed, and more important still, that they are of vital general interest because of their bearing upon the beginnings and early development of culture.

In this critically important essay, Schomburg carefully chronicles the early and evolving effort among our ancestors to document and share information about our history as African people, dispersed throughout the world though we may be.

In closing, Schomburg acknowledges the hard work remaining, and the work for which there will continue to be great resistance, the placement of African people, history and culture into its/our proper context – at the center of world history and civilization…

Of course, a racial motive remains – legitimately compatible with scientific method and aim. The work our race students now regard as important, they undertake very naturally to overcome in part certain handicaps of disparagement and omission too well-known to particularize. But they do so not merely that we may not wrongfully be deprived of the spiritual nourishment of our cultural past, but also that the full story of human collaboration and interdependence may be told and realized.

Especially is this likely to be the effect of the latest and most fascinating of all of the attempts to open up the closed Negro past, namely the important study of African cultural origins and sources. The bigotry of civilization which is the taproot of intellectual prejudice begins far back and must be corrected at its source. Fundamentally it has come about from that depreciation of Africa which has sprung up from ignorance of her true role and position in human history and the early development of culture.

The Negro has been a man without a history because he has been considered a man without a worthy culture. But a new notion of the cultural attainment and potentialities of the African stocks has recently come about, partly through the corrective influence of the more scientific study of African institutions and early cultural history. partly through growing appreciation of the skill and beauty and in many cases the historical priority of the African native crafts, and finally through the signal recognition which first in France and Germany, but now very generally the astonishing art of the African sculptures has received. Into these fascinating new vistas, with limited horizons lifting in all directions, the mind of the Negro has leapt forward faster than the slow clearings of scholarship will yet safely permit.

But there is no doubt that here is a field full of the most intriguing and inspiring possibilities.

Already the Negro sees himself against a reclaimed background, in a perspective that will give pride and self-respect ample scope, and make history yield for him the same values that the treasured past of any people affords.

May Schomburg’s example continue to remind us that there is no substitute for deliberate and thoughtful study.

Our Ancestors deserve nothing less.

Our future generations are depending on it.

Read the actual essay here:

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This date marks the birth of Marcus Garvey in 1887.

He was an African American Black Nationalist leader, who was a proponent of the "Back to Africa" movement in the United States.

Garvey was the youngest of 11 children from Saint Ann's Bay, Jamaica. He left school at the age of 14 to serve as a printer's apprentice. A few years later, he took a job at a printing company in Kingston, where in 1907 he led a printers' strike for higher wages. Garvey then traveled to South America and Central America.

In 1912, he went to England, where he became interested in African history and culture. He returned to Jamaica in 1914 and shortly thereafter founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the African Communities League. In 1916 he moved to the United States and settled in New York City. There he incorporated the UNIA and started a weekly newspaper, the Negro World.

A persuasive orator and author, Garvey urged American Blacks to be proud of their race and preached their return to their ancestral homeland, Africa. To this end, he founded the Black Star Line in 1919 to provide steamship transportation, and the Negro Factories Corporation to encourage black economic independence. Marcus Garvey attracted thousands of supporters and claimed two million members for the UNIA. He suffered a series of economic disasters, however, and in 1922 he was arrested for mail fraud. Garvey served as his own defense attorney at his trial, was convicted, and went to prison in 1925.

His sentence was commuted two years later, but he was immediately deported to Jamaica. Unable to resurrect the UNIA or regain his influence, Marcus Garvey moved to London, where he died in relative obscurity in 1940.

Reference: The African American Atlas Black History & Culture an Illustrated Reference by Molefi K. Asanta and Mark T. Mattson Macmillam USA, Simon & Schuster, New York ISBN 0-02-864984-2

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Cudjo Lewis (the last African slave in America) born

The birth of Cudjo Lewis, c 1840 is celebrated on this date. He was an African laborer in America, Historian and the last known survivor of the Middle Passage, the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States.

He was born Oluale Kossola in the present-day West African country of Benin to Oluale and his second wife Fondlolu. He was the second of four children and had 12 stepsiblings. He was a member of the Yoruba people, the Isha (a Yoruba sub-group), whose traditional home is in the Banté region of eastern Benin. Though born into a modest family, his grandfather was an officer of the town's king. Kossola and his siblings had a happy and active childhood. At 14, he began training as a soldier and learned how to track, hunt, camp, use a bow & arrow, spear, and defend his village, which was surrounded by four tall walls. The teenager was also inducted into oro, a secret Yoruba male society whose role is to police and control society. At age 19, Kossola fell in love with a young girl and at his father's urging underwent initiation that enabled young men and women to get married.

In April 1860, in the midst of Kossola's training, Ghezo, the King of Dahomey, and his army attacked the town, killed the king and many of the people, and took the rest of the townspeople prisoner. Kossola and his companions were marched to Abomey, Dahomey's capital, then on to Ouidah on the coast, where they were held for weeks in a slave pen known as a barracoon (a prison where captives were held before being sent across the Atlantic). Then he and 109 others from various regions of Benin and Nigeria boarded the slave ship Clotilda, captained by Mobile, Alabama ship builder William Foster and embarked on the Middle Passage. During his 45 days on the ship, a naked Kossola suffered from thirst and the humiliation.

In Alabama, he was enslaved by James Meaher, a wealthy ship captain and brother of Timothy Meaher, who had organized the slave transaction. During his enslavement, he and many of the other Clotilda captives were located at an area north of Mobile known as Magazine Point, the Plateau, or "Meaher's hammock," where the Meahers owned a mill and a shipyard. Although only three miles from the town of Mobile, it was isolated, separated from the city by a swamp and a forest, and easily accessible only by water. James Meaher was unable to pronounce his name, so Kossola told his new owner to call him Cudjo, a name given by the Fon and Ewe peoples of West Africa to boys who are born on Monday. During his five years of enslavement, Cudjo worked on a steamship and lived with other slaves under Meaher's house, which was built high above the ground.

After the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, the Clotilda captives tried to raise money to return to their homeland. The men worked in lumber mills and the women raised and sold produce, but these occupations did not allow them to raise enough money. After realizing that they would not be able to return to Africa, the group deputized Lewis to ask Timothy Meaher for a grant of land. When he refused, the members of the community continued to raise money and began to purchase land around Magazine Point. On September 30, 1872, Lewis bought about two acres of land in the Plateau area for $100.00 and named it Africatown.

Africatown developed as a self-contained community. The citizens appointed leaders to enforce communal norms derived from their shared African background, and developed institutions including a church, a school, and a cemetery. Sylviane A. Diouf, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture contributed to this article and she explains that Africatown was unique because it was both a "black town," inhabited exclusively by people of African ancestry, and an enclave of people born in another country. She writes, "Black towns were safe havens from racism, but African Town was a refuge from Americans." Writing in 1914, Emma Langdon Roche noted that the surviving founders of Africatown preferred to speak in their own language among themselves. She described the English of adults as "very broken and not always intelligible even to those who have lived among them for many years." However, the residents also adopted some American customs, including Christianity. Lewis converted in 1869, joining a Baptist church.

Regarding emancipation, American born former slaves became citizens upon the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in July 1868, this change in status did not apply to the members of the Clotilda group, who were foreign-born. Cudjo Kazoola Lewis became a naturalized American citizen on October 24, 1868. Lewis utilized the American legal system in 1902 after his injury in the buggy-train collision. After the Louisville and Nashville Railroad refused to pay damages, he hired an attorney, sued the railroad, and won a significant settlement of $650.00. The award was overturned on appeal.

After Reconstruction in the first quarter of the 20th century, Lewis began to serve as an resource for scholars and other writers, sharing the history of the Clotilda Africans and traditional stories and tales. Emma Langdon Roche, a Mobile-based writer and artist, interviewed Lewis and the other survivors for her 1914 book Historic Sketches of the South. She described their capture in Africa, enslavement, and lives in Africatown. They requested that she use their African names in her work, in the hope that it might reach their homeland "where some might remember them." By 1925, Lewis was the last African survivor of the Clotilda; he was interviewed by educator and folklorist Arthur Huff Fauset of Philadelphia. In 1927 Fauset published two of Lewis' animal tales, "T'appin's magic dipper and whip" and "T'appin fooled by Billy Goat's eyes," and "Lion Hunt," his autobiographical account about hunting in Africa, in the Journal of American Folklore.

In 1927, Lewis was interviewed by the archeologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. The next year she published an article, "Cudjoe's Own Story of the Last African Slaver" (1928). According to her biographer Robert E. Hemenway, this piece largely plagiarized Emma Roche's work, although Hurston added information about daily life in Lewis' home village of Banté. In 1928 Hurston returned with additional resources; she conducted more interviews, took photographs, and recorded what is the only known film footage of an African who had been trafficked to the United States through the slave trade. Based on this material, she wrote a manuscript, Barracoon, which Hemenway described as "a highly dramatic, semi fictionalized narrative intended for the popular reader."After this round of interviews, Hurston's literary patron, philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason, learned of Lewis and began to send him money for his support.Lewis was also interviewed by journalists for local and national publications. Hurston's book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo was published on May 8, 2018.

Cudjo Lewis died July 17, 1935 and is buried at the Plateau Cemetery in Africatown. Since his death, his significance as the last survivor of the Clotilda and the written record created by his interviewers have made him a public figure of American history and of the community.

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