Tag Archives: African Americans

How the Census Changed America

1 May

 

The inventor Herman Hollerith devised a punch-card system to record census information. His invention transformed data-processing technology. Photograph by American Stock Archive / Archive Photos / Getty

In April, the Supreme Court began to hear arguments about one of the central requirements of the Constitution. It’s right there, in Article I, Section 2, clause 3: For a government of the people to function, the people must be counted. The Founders wanted an “enumeration” to occur within three years of the first meeting of Congress, and then “within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” A census, in other words.

So begins Ted Widmer’s brief consideration of some of the history of the U.S. Census. While he rightly notes the partial exclusion of African Americans for much of this history, he fails to note the even longer exclusion of most American Indians. Indians were not declared U.S. citizens until an act of Congress in 1924.

You may read Widmer’s entire New Yorker article here.

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17 Dec

December is a month of holidays and festivities that bring families and friends together to celebrate their good fortune and look forward to the year ahead. For the enslaved couple William and Ellen Craft, the month of December 1848 promised more reason to celebrate than any they’d ever experienced. The potential was uncertain, however, and fraught with peril. After years of careful planning and preparation, this was the optimal time, they decided, to implement their plan to gain their freedom.

A search of all of the documents in the Library of Congress would be unlikely to yield a scheme for freedom more intriguing and daring than the Christmas escape strategy of the Crafts. Even though theirs is heralded as one of the most brilliant escapes from slavery in American history, it’s far less well known than the exploits of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass or Josiah Henson.

The Crafts’ ingenious plan is documented in their 1860 narrative, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery.” The Library holds four different reprints of the account.

So begins an intriguing Library of Congress post by Lavonda Kay Broadnax. You may read the entire post here.

One Hundred Years Ago, the Harlem Hellfighters Bravely Led the U.S. Into WWI

14 May

Members of the 369th [African American] Infantry

Private Henry Johnson of Albany, New York, held tight his French Lebel rifle and stared into the darkness of no-man’s-land, listening for German raiders. Beyond the parapet, he could make out shapes and shadows under the waning moon.

Johnson was a 25-year-old railroad baggage porter, the son of North Carolina tobacco farmers. Under French command, he manned the front line of the Great War about 115 miles east of Paris on the early morning of May 15, 1918.

He heard a sound and turned to his partner in their tiny observation post, Needham Roberts, who gestured toward the direction of the noise. They heard it again: the snip of barbed wire being cut.

So begins Erick Trickey’s concise story of the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. You may read the entire centennial post at Smithsonian.com here.

Rare Photo of Harriet Tubman Preserved for Future Generations

6 Mar

A remarkable photo album brought two major institutions together to restore and preserve an important piece of American history. Today, the album is available for the first time online.

The small, leather-bound album shows the signs of its age: broken in places, barely holding together in others, scuffed but somehow still elegant after a century and a half of use.

If time has taken a toll on the album, the photographs inside—placed there by a school teacher so long ago—are timeless and extraordinary.

Tucked into the album’s last page is a previously unknown photo of one of American history’s great figures: abolitionist Harriet Tubman, in what’s believed to be the earliest photo of her in existence.

Turning back a dozen pages reveals another treasure: the only known photo of John Willis Menard, the first African-American elected to Congress.

The album, and the one-of-a-kind photos it holds, were jointly acquired last year by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in a most-unusual collaboration between two public institutions. Together, they worked to conserve the album for future generations and make it accessible to the public.

So begins Mark Hartsell’s post at the Library of Congress. You may read the rest of the post, with its illustrations, here.

WHY FACILE HISTORIES OF CIVIL RIGHTS ARE SO DANGEROUS

27 Feb

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey after being arrested for boycotting public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama, in February of 1956.

She refused to give up her seat on a bus.

He whistled at a white woman.

I have a dream.

Nonviolence.

By any means necessary.

These tableaux and these rallying cries have become the narrative centerpieces of the history of civil rights in America. They often feature accidental champions (Rosa Parks) or characters seemingly plucked right from a morality play (Martin Luther King Jr. and his embrace of non-violence on the one hand, Malcolm X and his ballot-or-bullet activism on the other). Yet there’s something uniquely dangerous in the various ways we remember these near-mythical stories: a broad preference that this history be palatable. That it be facile. That it remain in the past: We have, at last, overcome.

So begins Brandon Tensley’s interview with Professor Jeanne Theoharis about her new book. You may read the entire interview at Pacific Standard here.

THE RADICAL COMPASSION OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS

14 Feb

Frederick Douglass portrait

This year’s Black History Month coincides with the 200th birthday of Douglass, and it’s an ideal occasion to rectify some unfortunate ways in which this influential writer has continued to be misrepresented and misunderstood—and not simply by the likes of Trump. Specifically, consider this famous quote that has been attributed to Douglass for decades: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

William Cheng offers a fine piece of historiography here about Douglass and a quote attributed to him. You may read his entire piece at the Pacific Standard here.

A disturbing new report on how poorly schools teach American slavery

5 Feb

Consider this from a disturbing new report on how U.S. schools teach — or, rather, don’t teach — students about the history of slavery in the United States:

  • Only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
  • 68 percent of the surveyed students did not know that slavery formally ended only with an amendment to the Constitution.
  • Only 22 percent of the students could correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.
  • Only 44 percent of the students answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.

These results are part of an unsettling new report titled “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” which was researched over the course of a year by the Teaching Tolerance project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. The report includes results of surveys of U.S. high school seniors as well as social studies teachers in all grades — nationally representative of those populations — as well as an analysis of 15 state content standards, and a review of 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. The best textbook achieved a score of 70 percent against a rubric of what should be included in the study of American slavery; the average score was 46 percent.

So begins a Washington Post report by Valerie Strauss on how well the history of slavery is taught in U.S. high schools. You may read the rest of Strauss’ report here.

 

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