The controversy over white men appearing in blackface underscores a lack of knowledge about African-American history in this country, but a Charlottesville author hopes to change that situation. She’s written a book that details the contributions of black soldiers, scientists and spies – doctors, inventors -- even cowboys.
If you took American history in high school and college, Christina Proenza-Coles says you probably got a very limited lesson about the contributions of African-Americans.
“People of African descent arrived as plantation slaves in the 19th century. They walked on to the stage of politics in the 1950’s – the civil rights movement,” she says in describing many U.S. history classes.
In fact, she notes, people with dark skin were among the earliest arrivals in what Europeans called the New World, and before 1820 they outnumbered whites four to one.
“People of African descent accompanied virtually every exploratory and military mission beginning in the 1500’s. They were among the conquistadors and the first settlers, and by 1820 2.6 million Europeans had arrived in the Americas compared to 8.8 million Africans.”
Governor Ralph Northam was mocked for calling some early arrivals indentured servants, but Proenza-Coles says he was actually correct.
“When the first Africans arrived in 1619, there wasn’t a legal system in place, so they were in many cases treated as indentured servants which had a finite period of time for service -- granted liberty after usually 5-7 years."
But once a system of slavery evolved, she explains, African-Americans fought it.
“An enslaved man named James Somerset was purchased by a slavemaster in Norfolk, Virginia, and they ultimately moved to London in the 1770’s. and James Somerset took leave of his master, and his master had him recovered through slave catchers and had him imprisoned on a ship, and James Somerset got a writ of habeas corpus and went in front of a London court. Slavery was illegal in England, therefore James Somerset was free.”
News of the case spread quickly, and ads for escaped slaves sometimes mentioned they were hoping to reach England and freedom. The author suggests these fugitives played a central role in sparking the Civil War.
“If you look at the declaration of succession from South Carolina, they were essentially complaining that the federal government and northerners are not doing enough to return individuals who are liberating themselves. They state, ‘We agreed on this in the constitution, and you’re regnegging on this promise to return our property.”
And once war is declared, African-Americans are anxious to do their part.
“As soon as the shots are fired in Ft. Sumter, you have letters from free black men in the North, asking if they can raise black troops to fight for the Union. And soon after you get hundreds of thousands of enslaved individuals in the South who are fleeing plantations getting to Union lines and volunteering: ‘What can we do to fight with the federals?’”
People of color had also fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, a few serving as spies, and some would move west bringing skills that trace back to Africa.
“The first known use of a lasso goes back to the mid 1600’s in Mexico. Afro-Mexican slaves actually travel to Madrid to demonstrate lassoing from horseback to these rapt Spanish audiences.”
Indeed, one of America’s best known cowboys may also have been black. His name was Bass Reeves. He was an enslaved man with award-winning cowboy skills. He could shoot equally well with his right and left hands, and his master – a Texas politician – loved to enter him in contests. Reeves eventually escaped to the west – to the so-called Indian territory.
“He earned a variety of native American languages, and after the Civil War he becomes a U.S. Federal Marshall in the 1870’s, had a native American side-kick if you will, and loved to use disguise, which has led some scholars to think that he is the original Lone Ranger.”
These and other stories are told and illustrated in Proenza-Coles book – American Founders.