"HISTORY SPEAKS" BLOG
“I was just trying to give my people a MYTH to live by” (Alex Haley, author of “Roots”).
On February 23, 1993 an investigative journalist broke a story that Haley’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning Roots: The Saga of An American Family was a “hoax.” Haley, this journalist claimed, had “invented 200 years of family history.”
Alex had no reply. He had, after all, died a year earlier.
And while few, at the time, liked this journalist’s verdict (or timing), the evidence was indisputable.
To this day no one questions the facts. Haley, by his admission, plagiarized a 1967 work (eventually settling out of court with the author for $650,000). In 1998 the esteemed black historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. confessed: “Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship.”
I was 13 years old when the “Roots” miniseries was televised.
With my family and 130 million other Americans, I watched every night for a week as prominent actors and actresses portrayed the lineage of Haley’s family. I learned about Kunta Kinte and Chicken George. There was even a sequel. Alex’s story was believable. It played like a “true story” biography. I was moved, saddened, angry, and interested in learning more about the black slave story.
But Haley proved to be no historian. Nor was he a trained journalist.
Alex converted to journalism in the Coast Guard. He was a natural, gifted writer. He later wrote for Playboy and was a senior editor for Reader’s Digest, but that’s where his writing credentials end. Perhaps that’s why his epic story ultimately became a novel work of historical “faction.” After the book’s 1976 release, to raving reviews and multi-million sales, the facts no longer mattered. Haley was honored, celebrated, rich and famous. He died basically unscathed by his fabricated work.
Consequently, the 1993 media panned, ignored, or excused this stunning revelation of a “hoax.”
The bigger story was Rodney King and how four L.A. police officers were acquitted (leading to riots that killed 63, injured 2,383 and caused over a billion dollars in property damage). That was the racial story of 1992 and 1993.
Let’s be honest, history education is a mess…and many Americans are ignorant of our own past.
The Chicago Tribune’s headline reaction to the Haley fabrications was revealing: “Facts Can Be Doubted, But Not [Haley’s] Truths.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if a prolific author got the facts wrong if the story is true. It’s hard to imagine Walter Cronkite or Edwin R. Murrow making that statement. However, since the 1970s, journalism had evolved, shifting from reporting the facts to spinning a story. The facts are secondary if the story is believable.
After the hard investigative journalism that produced Watergate, America was hungry for “feel good” news. Good Morning America human interest stories sold (and told) better than 60 Minutes. In the early 1980s network news got an anchor face lift. Tom Brokaw. Dan Rather. Peter Jennings. Throw in CNN cable news and, suddenly, a ratings war broke out. By the 1990s, it was all about being first to the air, even if the facts weren’t always clear.
The year 1993 was a notable year for fabricated stories.
After all, that’s the same year Michael Crichton published Jurassic Park, a tale about lab-designed dinosaurs that included a completely fictitious new species known as a “velociraptor.” Before Crichton’s science fiction novel, this line of dinosaurs did not exist in the fossil record. But it didn’t take long to start finding “raptor” dinosaurs in those same rocks after publication. Crichton’s story spun speculative dinosaur science into a new dinosaur species…then revised history (and the fossil record) to spin a new dino narrative.
And that’s the problem. History is messy because the facts don’t always fit. But facts are true by nature. Essentially, if the facts are wrong, they aren’t facts. And making up facts doesn’t equate to a truth. Truth emerges through conclusions within a body of known (true) facts. Similarly, falsehood (a lie) is the sum total of a body of errors. You can’t have truth with false facts.
In reality, Alex Haley’s fabricated family history produced unintended consequences for America’s racial divide.
It’s doubtful that Haley fully imagined these results, but here we are living them in contemporary America. “Roots” was pitched as a historical biography of one black American family, but ultimately it represented black America period. As Haley suggested, a new, believable “myth” was introduced. It’s a myth that even white people can swallow.
Haley’s epic book and movie “rooted” our current national racial conversations for decades. Alex planted the seed for Rodney King and O.J. Simpson (who starred in “Roots”). He nurtured “black rage” and anti-white attitudes now common in the black community. Haley set the stage for Michael “Hands Up” Brown and George “I Can’t Breathe” Floyd. Essentially, the low-hanging fruit of “Roots” is the Black Lives Matter movement.
After all, the historical nuances of black history (since 1975) are easily traced through the stories in Haley’s book. From the angry, captive Kunta Kinte to the violated, enslaved Kizzy to the flamboyant, caged Chicken George, we see their faces. We witness these caricatures in contemporary black reality television shows, films and rap/hip hop music. It’s heard in the heated rhetoric of black politicians, pro athletes and cable news commentators. We witness them in the Black suburbs, sports and schools.
During February 2022, the Smithsonian Channel aired a documentary series on “A Thousand Years of Slavery.” It’s another beautifully filmed docu-series that’s superficially salted with “myth-information” for how rich White Europeans are uniquely to blame (and shame) for slavery. Every episode spun a story that propagated a “black versus white” historical racist narrative. In one episode a conflicted and angry black actor confronted the white relative who’s distant relative enslaved his distant black great, great, great grandfather. The white man professed sadness in the matter, but felt no shame. How could he be held responsible for something his relative did over 200 years ago? Naturally that didn’t appease this black actor.
But is this racial narrative accurate? Was racism the reason Blacks were enslaved by White Europeans?
First, slavery has been around since the dawn of time. Over 40 million people are currently enslaved globally, including Africa, India and the Philippines. One of the earliest accounts of slavery is located in the Bible. It’s the story of Moses, when Black Egyptians enslaved Israelites. Nearly every nation, at one time, has employed slavery. So why does Black history focus only upon the last 500 years? To be fair, it shouldn’t.
Second, slavery wasn’t just a white institution in America. Most Americans never owned slaves. Even at its highest point in 1790, three out of four American families did not own a single slave. By 1860, this number dropped dramatically to ten percent. American Indians also had slaves. Cherokees. Seminoles. Chicasaws. Choctaws. Creeks. The Shoshone Sacagawea, of Lewis and Clark fame, was captured and enslaved by the Hidatsa tribe. Many early slaves to America–particularly Virginia–weren’t African nor black…they were European white . In the early 1600s, the British viewed American soil as a “slavery” dumping ground for orphans, vagabonds, miscreants and criminals. Many slaves were initially indentured servants who accepted bondage for passage to America, and then freed after their agreed service was completed.
Third, it’s been mostly rich, White Europeans who’ve eradicated global slavery. In America, it was white Northern Christians (Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists) who fought for decades to abolish the evil of slavery. Nearly all of the greatest abolitionists were white men and several were women (i.e., John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe). Why does black history overlook, even ignore, these white personalities? To be equitable, it shouldn’t.
Finally, many American (South) slave owners and traders were black. Ever hear of William Ellison or Antoine Dubuclet, Jr.? Two of the South’s richest black plantation owners (and Ellison arguably among the meanest). In 1924, Carter G. Woodson penned a most inconvenient book titled Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830. It documented hundreds of black slave owners. Woodson was himself black and the editor of The Journal of Negro History. It’s inconvenient history that runs counter to the narrative. How come we don’t study black slave owners owning slaves? To be fair, we should. Furthermore, will black heirs of black slave owners also be responsible for reparations? They should be.
Americans are often asked to reflect on black history.
As Americans, we should gratefully accept that invitation to learn. There are dozens of early historical documents (pre-1930) that give an accurate picture of slavery, abolition and Reconstruction, including slave narratives, abolitionist writings and influential black biographies. We should know and appreciate the early black influencers like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington.
And yet, for those who study true black History, the popular narrative will continue to prove troubling.
Yes, the contemporary “story” is compelling and interesting, but the historical facts don’t support it. It’s a MYTH. And it’s Alex Haley’s old “myth” that still percolates. Just like he fabricated his historical story (to inspire “his people”), many black historians, authors, professors, musicians, activists, news commentators, and film makers (all of whom are black) now peddle their own narrative of “white shame and blame.” Slavery is evil. White people owned slaves. White people are evil. White people need to feel shame. White people owe us. And yet, when facts run counter to this narrative, these contradictory stories are buried and history is revised.
The real facts no longer seem to matter. Too many Americans see what they want to see, and most are ignorant of the truth. The larger, inconvenient story is dismissed. But that still doesn’t change the facts…or the truth. Facts do matter. Truth is truth. A myth–no matter how appealing–remains a falsehood. It’s why America is so terribly divided down color “fault” lines. We will never experience racial reconciliation as long as we live in separate historical echo chambers with pointing fingers.
We must do better.
There are always more than one side to a story…and the TRUTH is out there.
Beware of the sound of one hand clapping.
- “Alex Haley” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Haley
- “Alex Haley’s Hoax” by Philip Nobile, The Village Voice, 2/23/1993.
- “Alex Haley’s Facts Can Be Doubted, But Not His Truths” by Clarence Page, The Chicago Tribune, 3/9/1993: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1993-03-10-9303190620-story.html
- “One Thousand Years of Slavery” (Smithsonian Channel): https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/shows/one-thousand-years-of-slavery
- “Blacks Owning Blacks: the William Ellison Story”: https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/6699
- “Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830” by Carter G. Woodson (Washington D.C., 1924). Available as a Google Book download.
- D’Souza, Dinesh. The End of Racism. (New York: Free Press, 1993): 69-79.
Did you know the Kamala Harris wasn’t the first U.S. Vice President of color? It’s true.
That honor goes to Charles Curtis who served as Herbert Hoover’s Vice President between 1929 and 1933.
Today this decorated politician is virtually unknown to Americans but Curtis’ legacy is rich and inspiring. He proved the perfect political pick. A Republican attorney from Kansas, Curtis represented his state in the House of Representatives (1893-1907) and U.S. Senate (1907-1913, 1915-1929). Prior to his stint as VP, Charles was the Majority Leader of the Senate.
Charles Curtis was widely lauded for his ability to work across the aisle.
That was no easy task with the volatile Democratic Party–which, at the time, was steeped in Jim Crow racism, segregation and lynching (of Blacks and Republicans). Idaho Senator William Borah praised Curtis as “a great reconciler, a walking political encyclopedia and one of the best political poker players in America.”
Curtis became the first colored Vice President in U.S. history.
Along with Hoover, he was elected in a 1929 landslide victory. He was the highest ranking Indian–a member of the Kaw Nation–to serve in D.C. He grew up on a Kansas Indian reservation. Ironically, Curtis worked in Congress two decades before Indians finally won their full citizenship and right to vote (in 1924 Indian Citizenship Act).
But do you know who else spent time on an Indian reservation? Curtis’ boss and 31st U.S. President, Herbert Hoover. As a young boy, Hoover lived with his Indian agent uncle for several months on the Osage Nation reservation in Oklahoma (the only U.S. president to do so). On the reservation, Hoover attended Indian Sunday School and developed a lifelong appreciation for the Indian way of life.
It’s no wonder that as president and vice president, Hoover and Curtis fought for greater Indian rights in America.
Under their administration, funding increased for better reservation schools and hospitals. They helped pass the Leavitt Act to cancel Indian debt. They also encouraged Indian assimilation rather than segregation.
CHARLES CURTIS (1860-1936). The Kaw Indian who went from a Kansas reservation to the U.S. Capitol. Curtis was even featured TWICE on the cover of Time magazine. He remains the most successful and influential Indian politician in U.S. history.
And he’s virtually unknown to Americans today.
- “Charles Curtis” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Curtis
- “Herbert Hoover: Only US President to Have Lived on Indian Reservation” by Alysa Landry, Indian Country Today website, 9/13/2018: https://indiancountrytoday.com/…/herbert-hoover-only-us….
He’s on a very short list of highly influential Black Americans. He was a prolific author, outstanding orator, influential educator and inspiring leader. He was among the last Black American generation born into slavery.
His name was Booker T. Washington (1856-1915).
Booker was born into slavery in Virginia, sometime in 1856. After Lincoln emancipated the slaves, his family moved to the free state of West Virginia. His name was only “Booker” for years. However, for school registration he needed a last name and he chose “Washington” (after his stepfather). He later added the middle name of “Taliaferro” (his original last name through his mother).
He was now Booker T. Washington.
His first name fit him well. Booker loved books.
He also enjoyed school. He’d eventually study at the Hampton Institute and Wayland Seminary. At 25 years of age, he was named principal of a brand-new Black school that would eventually be known as Tuskegee University. His students built the first campus facilities, under his direction. They made and laid the bricks, constructed and painted the buildings, grew the crops and raised livestock (for their meals).
Washington led the Tuskegee Institute for 34 years.
It was his only job. By 1915, the school employed 200 faculty, teaching 38 disciplines, to over 1500 students in 100 buildings. President McKinley was so impressed he brought his entire cabinet to experience the school. Booker routinely preached the best way for Blacks to gain equal rights was through their “industry, thrift, intelligence and property.”
Washington believed Blacks could (and should) work equally with Whites.
However, to do so they needed business, farming, trade and social skills. Consequently, he helped start other Black schools, including the West Virginia Colored Institute (now known as West Virginia State University). He developed relationships with deep-pocketed philanthropists (Rockefeller, Carnegie) and industry leaders (Standard Oil, Sears and Roebuck, Eastman Kodak). Booker also developed a national network of Black businessmen, clergy, editors and educators.
In 1901, President Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker (a fellow Republican) to dine with him in the White House. It was the first time such an intimate dinner was held inside the President’s quarters…and it caused outrage and controversy. In many places, segregation was the law and the optics of a Black man enjoying a meal with a White man wasn’t good.
Booker’s speaking and writing career changed the world.
He penned 14 books, including his autobiography “Up From Slavery” (1901). It’s a work that remains a literary classic. Booker spoke at large venues, including Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall. His oratorical skills inspired both Black and White audiences, and Booker’s fame spread across America. He was particularly popular among Southern Blacks.
Booker’s 1895 “Atlanta Address” or “Atlanta Compromise”—as critics renamed it—became a national story.
Former supporter W.E.B. Dubois, founder of the N.A.A.C.P., criticized Booker for “compromising” to “white political rule.” Essentially, Booker desired to create bridges whereas Dubois preferred tearing down walls. Booker embraced a slower approach to full civil rights for Blacks, whereas Dubois argued for those rights immediately (through political activism). Dubois viewed Washington as “The Great Accommodator,” but Booker continued to reason that confrontational racial politics would only agitate, frustrate and backfire. The irony? Despite Washington’s accommodations, he still contributed “secretly and substantially” to activist Blacks attempting to end segregation politically.
Washington’s success was only clouded by his private despair.
Booker married three times. First to Fannie (1882), then to Olivia (1885) and, finally, to Margaret (1893). His first two wives bore him a daughter and two sons. And both of them died within 2-4 years of their wedding day to Booker.
Booker T. Washington died November 14, 1915 in Tuskegee. His exhausting personal schedule, speaking and travel proved a contributing factor to the rapid decline of health. He was only 59 years old. His funeral was held at the Tuskegee Institute with nearly 8,000 in attendance. At his death the Institute’s endowment fund was $2 million ($55.6 million today). He not only built a great school…he gave it a solid financial future.
Washington has been memorialized on stamps, coins, airplanes, ships, state parks and several schools. Harvard and Dartmouth awarded him honorary degrees. In the center of Tuskegee University a monument was built to commemorate Booker with the inscription: He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.
Booker T. Washington. Educator. Author. Orator.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “Booker T. Washington” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booker_T._Washington
- Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1901).
- My Larger Education: Being Chapters From My Experience (New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1911).
“When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”
These weren’t just words to George Washington Carver (1864-1943). They were his legacy. Few Americans lived bigger and better lives. Carver was born a slave, but eventually became a botanist, educator, conservationist, and artist. He was also a devout Christian who fought for racial harmony and graciously served everyone he met.
Carver’s story is what made America great…and still “commands the attention of the world.”
Carver was born a slave in Missouri, sometime around 1864. His parents were slaves. When George was a newborn baby, he and his mother and sister were kidnapped. The slave raiders transported his family to Arkansas and sold them in Kentucky. However, Carver’s Missouri owner was a kind and caring Christian. He searched the country for the Carver family, but only found George. From that day forward, he raised George as one of his sons. As a result, Carver was encouraged to read, write, and draw. His favorite subject was botany, but what he really loved was art.
At age 11, Carver moved to Neosho, MO to enroll in a school for Black children.
That’s when he met Mariah Watkins, a Black woman and devout Christian. She boarded the boy, taught him Christianity and encouraged his schooling in order to “give…learning back to [his] people.” And that’s exactly what Carver did. He had a relentless drive to learn as much as possible. Despite experiencing hardship, prejudice and poverty, Carver continued to learn, no matter where it led him. He moved to Kansas (where he graduated high school) and to Iowa ( to study art and painting at Simpson College). That’s where his art teacher discovered George’s love for botany…and encouraged him to change degrees…and schools.
In 1890, Carver transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) to study agriculture.
He was Iowa State’s first Black student. He earned a bachelor’s (1894) and then a master’s (1896). Carver’s high intelligence, positive attitude and impressive agricultural skills soon landed him a faculty job at Iowa State (their first Black professor).
But George Washington Carver would receive a higher call.
Booker T. Washington, the principal of the esteemed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama wanted Carver desperately on his faculty. He knew an agricultural school would distinguish Tuskegee and George was the only Black with a masters in the discipline. Booker offered a higher-than-average salary to George and then gave the bachelor Carver his own two-room campus apartment (one just for his plants).
This favored accommodation, however, sparked jealousy with single Tuskegee instructors (who shared rooms and enjoyed more meager salaries), as well as other faculty members. The relocation from “free” Iowa to the Jim Crow South also proved a difficult transition for George. The Ku Klux Klan. Lynching. Black vote suppression. Segregation. It was something he never got used to.
For the next 47 years, George was a fixture at Tuskegee.
Carver developed the Agriculture Department, taught a full load of classes, managed the school’s farms, mentored and counseled students, handled janitorial duties, served on multiple committees and worked with area farmers.
Carver was an introvert. He preferred working his plants more than teaching his students (despite being a beloved professor). His work load, along with faculty resentment, Booker’s expectations and Southern living often discouraged Carver, but he never showed it. George optimistically dedicated himself to teaching, friendships and supporting the Tuskegee’s mission to educate the Black race.
Carver’s greatest contributions involved his work with poor Alabama sharecroppers.
George taught them how to rotate crops, fertilize with “swamp muck,” and feed their livestock better. He encouraged farmers to stop growing cotton and plant different crops (like peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans) to infuse the soil with nitrogen. Crop rotation allowed the soil to rest and rejuvenate. It was a new technique that the Midwest would learn too late (during the Dust Bowl years). Consequently, one of the South’s highest yielding crops soon became peanuts.
And that forced Carver to experiment and explore new uses for the legume. George W. Carver literally became “The Peanut Man.” In his labs, he developed over 300 food, commercial and industrial “peanut” products (including milk, sauces, oils and soaps). He also invented cosmetics, paper and medications using peanuts.
By 1910, Carver was famous for his agricultural science, not just in America but around the world.
The introverted Carver parlayed his rising celebrity platform to promote peanuts, Tuskegee and racial harmony. Carver was a prolific writer. He contributed to magazines, newspapers and journals. George wrote tens of thousands of personal letters. He became friends with U.S. Presidents (Teddy Roosevelt) and captains of industry (Henry Ford). After his death, his life savings funded a Tuskegee foundation and museum. Carver also displayed more of his personal art in his elder years. He was multi-talented.
Carver was also a devout Christian.
In fact, many biographers credit his humility, gentleness, compassion and joy to his deep Christian faith. Although he never married, George kept many close friendships with his church. He believed only Christianity could eradicate racism and social disharmony. He was also a Bible scholar and popular Sunday School teacher.
George W. Carver died January 5, 1943. He was buried next to Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee campus. His gravestone reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.” It’s a humble sentiment.
And yet Carver has been “famously” memorialized as one of Black America’s greatest persons. His likeness adorns stamps, coins and medals. Carver’s name appears on schools, bridges and streets. He has state parks and botanical gardens named for him. George’s Missouri birthplace is a National Monument. Since 1943, January 5 has been George Washington Carver Day. He’s been elected to multiple “halls of fame” and awarded several honorary degrees.
From slavery to peanuts to presidents. Carver packed a lot of life into his 79 years.
George Washington Carver.
Scientist. Educator. Conservationist. Inventor. Artist. Christian.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “George Washington Carver” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_Carver
- “George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life” Documentary (Iowa Public Broadcasting): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3CVmluYFtI
- “George Washington Carver” (History.com): A&E Television Networks. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/george-washington-carver Accessed February 17, 2022
“Biddy” spent nearly forty years as a slave for a Mississippi slave master. She never learned to read or write. And yet she saved her midwife salary to become a wealthy Black real estate magnate…and revered philanthropist.
It’s quite the story. It’s also an inspiring tale that proves it’s not how you start life that matters as much as how you finish it.
Her name was “Biddy.”
But her real name was Bridget Mason. She was born into slavery in August 1818 and had several masters. She was eventually sold to Robert and Rebecca Smith in Mississippi. Biddy proved highly useful for her knowledge of childcare, livestock and medicine.
In 1847, the entire Smith family converted to Mormonism and pulled up stakes to move West with Brigham Young. Biddy traveled with her slave owners from Mississippi to eastern Illinois, on to Colorado, and eventually Salt Lake City, Utah. She was among 34 slaves in the wagon train and she walked the entire 1700 miles, arriving in 1848.
Three years later, Brigham Young commissioned some Mormons to emigrate to California to birth a new Mormon outpost. The Smith family, along with Biddy, were part of that 1851 wagon train, but there was a problem.
California was a free state.
Once Biddy crossed into the Golden State, she was no longer a slave. But that fact didn’t matter to her master. He ignored the California law. Besides, Biddy was illiterate so the Smiths could easily keep her unaware…and so she remained enslaved.
In 1856, Smith decided to move again…this time to Texas (a slave state). That’s when Biddy spoke up. The move would mean separation from her children. She confessed these fears to two free Black men who informed her of California law. That’s when Biddy sued Robert Smith for emancipation.
During the court hearings, her master proved ruthless. He gave false testimony and claimed Biddy wanted to relocate to Texas. He bribed her lawyer to miss court dates. Biddy was also unable to personally testify due to a California law that prohibited Blacks from speaking in court against Whites.
But justice for Biddy (and her family) still came. The judge liberated her from Smith after 38 years of slavery.
Biddy was still in the prime of life. A free Black woman with three daughters. She immediately found work as a nurse and midwife. She lived lean and saved every penny she earned. With her savings she bought some land.
Biddy was one of the first Black women to own real estate in Los Angeles.
Over time, her real estate investments grew, and Biddy became rich. She used her great wealth to shelter and feed the impoverished and imprisoned. Mason funded a “traveler’s aid center,” day cares and schools for children. She also helped found (and build) the first African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. Biddy once paid the grocery bill for an entire community made homeless by a flood. Every day people lined up at her home, seeking her financial assistance…and she helped as she could.
Biddy often confessed, “If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.” That’s how she lived every day of her life.
Biddy’s generous charity made her a rich woman.
In her final years of life, Mason’s financial holdings exceeded $300,000 (around $9.2 million today).
Biddy died January 15, 1891. She passed as a revered citizen of Los Angeles and was awarded several distinctions, including memorial parks, murals, and even a day (November 16) named in her honor.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Former Slave. Real Estate Entrepreneur. Christian Philanthropist.
And now you know the rest of HERstory.
- “Biddy Mason” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biddy_Mason
- Beasely, Delilah L. The Negro Trail Blazers of California (Los Angeles: 1919): 90, 109, 110, 117. Available for download at Google books.
- Martineau Wagner, T. (2007, July 12). Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/mason-bridget-biddy-1818-1891/
“I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live my life in slavery.”
Those were the passionate words of a young Black Jamaican slave preacher.
His story changed the world…and that makes this tale worth telling.
His name is Samuel “Daddy” Sharpe and he was born on a plantation owned by Samuel and Jane Sharpe sometime in 1801. His mother’s name was Juda, and Samuel had two older siblings named Joe and Eliza. We know very little else about his youth, except that his master allowed Sharpe to be educated. And that proved an important advantage in his life.
Samuel also grew up Baptist.
It was a church that not only welcomed Black slaves as members but also ordained the qualified as preachers. Sharpe was one of those qualified congregants. He served as a deacon for the Burchell Baptist Church in Montego Bay. Eventually, Sharpe started preaching on his own and quickly found favor and fame on the island. For Samuel, Christianity provided the slave with true spiritual freedom.
In the early 1800s, the British Parliament discussed abolishing slavery.
One day Sharpe, the young fiery Baptist preacher, misunderstood (perhaps misread) a report that Great Britain had ended slavery. It wasn’t true. Nevertheless, Samuel Sharpe felt change was needed and it was the time for revolution. He organized a peaceful slave strike among several Jamaican plantations. He chose Christmas time and sugar harvest as the time to protest and communicate their grievances.
On December 27, 1831, an estimated 60,000 Jamaican slaves protested their working conditions.
It became known as “The Christmas Rebellion” or “Baptist War.” The Black slaves started to burn their master’s crops, quickly turning a “peaceful protest” into a slave rebellion (who found a way to arm themselves). For nearly two weeks the war raged. The Jamaica government marshaled their military to squelch the revolt. In the end, fourteen Whites were killed and over 200 Black slaves were killed.
Following the “war,” the Jamaican government went after the ringleaders of the rebellion.
In 1832 they arrested, tried, convicted, and executed as many as 500 slaves, some for unrelated crimes like livestock theft.
One of those hung was the Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe on May 23, 1832. He was 30 years old. Initially his body was buried in the sands of Montego Bay but parishioners at Burchell Baptist Church recovered his remains and interned them inside their church…under the pulpit.
The Christmas Rebellion caught the attention of British Parliament.
The political winds were blowing favorable for abolition. The next year British Parliament passed the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and emancipated every British slave.
Thirty-two years later, after our own bloody Civil War, America would also abolish slavery.
Many historians now point to Samuel Sharpe–a fiery young Baptist preacher who misunderstood a British rumor–for sparking the abolition of slavery.
Jamaica honored Sharpe as a national hero in 1975. A Montego Bay teacher’s college was founded and named in his honor. A public square in Montego Bay also carries his name with statues and monuments. Samuel’s image can still be found on every Jamaican $50 bill.
Samuel Sharpe. Jamaican Slave. Baptist Preacher. Abolitionist.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “Samuel Sharpe” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Sharpe
- Bleby, Henry. Death Struggles of Slavery: Being a Narrative of Facts and Incidents Which Occurred in a British Colony, During the Two Years Immediately Preceding Negro Emancipation (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1853): 113-120. Available for download at Google Books.
- “Samuel Sharpe” (Black Past): https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/people-global-african-history/sharpe-samuel-ca-1780-1832/
Robert James Harlan (1816-1897) may have been born a slave but he lived most of his life free as a bird. And this Ohio bird could sing…and travel…and succeed.
Born in Virginia on December 12, 1816. Harlan’s mother was mulatto, and his father was white. Consequently, Robert’s light-skinned complexion often helped him. As a young boy Robert was sold to James Harlan in Kentucky. Harlan raised Robert like one of his sons (and some biographers argue he was Jame’s son). Nevertheless, that fate proved fortuitous.
His adopted dad was a wealthy businessman, lawyer and politician who served on the national stage as a U.S. Representative from Kentucky (1835-1839). One of Harlan’s sons would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Robert—unable to attend school because he was Black—received his education from Harlan’s sons, who taught him their daily lessons.
Unlike many slaves, Harlan allowed Robert to move freely (and widely). He eventually granted Robert his full emancipation in 1848. In the meantime, Robert became a barber in Louisville and a storekeeper in Harrodsburg, Lexington and Louisville. At age 19 he started racing horses…and gambling…with great success. Robert eventually married and had five daughters.
In 1849, Robert caught gold fever and moved to California to open a trading store.
Once again, Harlan proved highly successful, building a $50,000 fortune ($1.8 million today). He then moved back to the East, this time north of the Ohio River and the growing city of Cincinnati. Using his gold earnings, Harlan flipped real estate and bought a photography shop (featuring several top photographers of his day).
Despite Robert’s “freedom” and 1848 emancipation, he still believed he was James Harlan’s slave.
The irony? By 1851 Robert was far wealthier than his owner and adopted dad. To put the matter to rest, Robert paid James $500 for his freedom. Robert was now a rich man…and growing wealthier by the year.
Harlan eventually moved to England in 1859 to race horses for the next decade. As a result, he escaped the bloody Civil War in America.
After the War, Harlan returned to Cincinnati for a most productive season of life during the Reconstruction era.
Robert served on Cincinnati’s City Council and as a colonel for Cincinnati’s Black state militia. As a Republican, Harlan was picked as a national delegate. This post led to high level political interactions with prominent Republicans, including Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley. Harlan even served briefly in the Ohio State House of Representatives.
Robert Harlan was noted for his political opposition to segregated school and lynching.
He penned poetry and wrote newspaper articles. On September 21, 1897, Harlan died. Few Americans have lived a more colorful, active and diverse life than Robert Harlan. He started life as a slave, but finished as a political powerhouse in Ohio.
Robert James Harlan. Entrepreneur. Politician. Civil Rights Activist.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “Robert James Harlan” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_James_Harlan
- McNally, D. (2007, September 17). Robert James Harlan (1816-1897). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/harlan-col-robert-james-1816-1897/
- Simmons, William J., Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising (Cleveland: Geo. M. Rewell and Company, 1887): 613-616. Available as a Google Book download.
A man named Valentine of Terni lived in the 3rd century AD.
It was a period of deadly plagues and severe Christian persecution. The great Roman Empire was starting its long disintegration.
With a small pox plague raging, killing 5000 a day and decimating his army, Emperor Claudius needed committed citizens and soldiers. So he outlawed traditional marriage, especially for Roman soldiers (thinking they fought better as bachelors). He then forced all Roman citizens to worship Roman gods, including deified emperors. The Christians, rapidly growing as an underground church, naturally refused and were declared enemies of the state. Consequently, they were thrown to lions, beheaded, gutted, dismembered and set aflame.Political chaos. Economic upheaval. Assassinations. A war with the Goths.
History is sketchy on Valentine’s life, as church records were destroyed by Roman authorities.
Valentine was a priest in Rome (or a bishop nearby).
The next day Valentine was viciously clubbed and stoned, then beheaded outside Rome’s Flaminian Gate…on February 14, 269.
He was one of America’s wealthiest Black businessmen. As a Republican State Treasurer he saved debt-ridden Louisiana following the Civil War. But his story runs counter to many of the popular narratives in Black history today. Consequently, it’s a tale that worth telling.
His name is Antoine Dubuclet, Jr. (1810-1887).
He was a sugar planter from Louisiana…and a slave owner…the wealthiest Black slave owner in his day.
He became one of America’s most influential Southern Black leaders.
Dubuclet was born in 1810 near Baton Rouge, LA, the son of two free Blacks. He father co-owned a lucrative sugar plantation that Antoine inherited upon his father’s death. Along with the property he also inherited over 70 slaves.
Antoine married Claire Pollard in the mid-1830s—a wealthy free Black woman who owned her own plantation (with 44 slaves). Dubluclet managed both plantations, growing his wealth considerably. By 1860 he owned more than 100 slaves and was Louisiana’s wealthiest slave holder. In 1852, his wife died. They had nine children–all who were educated in France (two sons became medical doctors). He later remarried and had three more children.
The Civil War (1861-1865) devastated the sugar industry.
Dubuclet relied upon his first wife’s estate—which he had wisely divested and invested—to survive the deep financial losses that his sugar plantations incurred. Following the war, the entire South was destroyed and bankrupt.
Dubuclet was just the man to save Louisiana.
Like sugar, Antoine knew money and how to grow it. In 1868 he won the state’s treasurer position as a member of the Republican party. Dubuclet restored the fortunes of Louisiana and was re-elected in 1870 and 1874. However, his political success was not without opposition. He was the only office holder who survived the “Battle of Liberty Place” in September of 1874—an attempted insurrection by the Crescent White League. He also overcame impeachment in 1876. It’s no wonder that a year later Dubuclet retired from politics.
Antoine died on December 18, 1887 as one of the South’s richest men.
He’s remembered as “a true Southern gentleman: smart, well-dressed and debonair.” He was the former slave owner and Republican politician who saved Louisiana from bankruptcy. In 1990 Dubuclet was inducted into the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame.
It’s quite the story. A tale that, according to one historian, “will tear apart historical perception.”
Antoine Dubuclet. Sugar Planter. Wealthy Businessman. Republican Politician.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “Antoine Dubuclet” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoine_Dubuclet
- “10 Black Slaveowners That Will Tear Apart Historical Perception” by D.G. Hewitt (May 17, 2018): https://historycollection.com/10-black-slaveowners-that-will-tear-apart-historical-perception/8/
“I must never leave my work until I have done my best.”
That was the work ethic of Robert Gordon (1812-1884), a former slave and Cincinnati Black businessman who became a millionaire dealing coal.
Gordon was born into slavery sometime in 1812, near Richmond, VA. His master operated a coal yard and young Robert quickly excelled in the work. Eventually Robert ran the business and learned how to make an extra buck from the “slack”—leftover coal dust—that his master allowed him to collect. He saved those bonus earnings and in 1846, Gordon bought his freedom. He was 34 years old.
Robert had plenty of options as a free Black man.
At the time rumors were swirling about Cincinnati, a growing city where “colored people” were doing well. So Gordon set his sights to the West and arrived in the Queen City sometime in 1847. A year later he bought property along the Miami Canal as a place to live and work. He also married a 24-year-old freeborn Black named Eliza Jane Cressup. Together they’d have a daughter.
Gordon knew the coal business like nobody else.
So that’s what Robert did. By 1850 he had made a good living. In 1861 he moved his coal business to the riverfront, bought a barge and soon became one of Cincinnati’s elite businesses. At one point his competition tried to eliminate him through lower prices, but Gordon beat them at their own game. He hired mixed race mulattoes (who could pass for whites) to purchase all his competition’s coal. That winter when the Ohio River froze solid, his competition was unable to procure more coal. That’s when Gordon opened his reserves and kept Cincinnati citizens warm and happy. From that point forward, Gordon’s reputation and coal was secure.
Gordon was a loyal churchman.
He attended the Allen Temple-African Methodist Episcopal Church. Founded in 1824, it was the first house of worship west of the Alleghenies. Gordon’s wife Eliza served as president of the church’s Freedman’s Aid Society (which assisted Black families financially).
Gordon’s philanthropy in Cincinnati was equally notable. He donated coal to Cincinnati’s Military Hospital during the Civil War. Later his estate established a home for the aged Black women of Cincinnati and an asylum for “colored orphans.” He also established several Black schools and served on the Board of Education.
Gordon had come to Cincinnati because the city, more than other larger cities of his era, was favorable toward Blacks.
But that didn’t mean everything was perfect. Gordon and the Black community of Cincinnati still faced White power structures, prejudice and racial injustice. Nevertheless, Gordon built a good life on the banks of the Ohio river.
After the Civil War, the fifty-something Gordon retired comfortably to the plush upscale neighborhood of Walnut Hills. He invested in bonds and additional real estate. When he died in 1884, he was recognized as Ohio’s wealthiest Black man, leaving behind an estate worth $200,000 (nearly $5.7 million today).
Sadly, much of Gordon’s story has been lost to time.
He’s one of the few successful Blacks completely forgotten by biographers. He is, surprisingly, without a Wikipedia entry. Much of what we know about Robert Gordon comes from well-documented early Negro and local Cincinnati history. In fact, without Carter G. Woodson’s inclusion of Robert Gordon in his Journal of Negro History (1916), his memory would be extinct.
It’s why his story needs a reboot. It’s why I’m telling it now.
Robert Gordon. Former Slave. Coal Magnate. Wealthy Ohioan. Churchman.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “Robert Gordon” (Walnut Hills Historical Society): https://walnuthillsstories.org/stories/robert-gordon/
- “Robert Gordon a Successful Business Man”; The Negro History Bulletin, Volume 1, Number 2, November 1937. Available for access through JSTOR.
- Journal of Negro History: “The Negroes of Cincinnati Prior to the Civil War” by Carter G. Woodson, Volume 1, Number 1, January 1916, pp. 21-22. Available for download at Google Books.