Ed. Note: Black History Month concludes on Feb. 28
Virtually every “people Group” in America today can point to a period in their history when they struggled to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in this country. The memory of those struggles is embedded in our consciousness and keeps us moving forward.
When compared to the broad experience of other “people Groups,” African American history is unique. They were bought or stolen from African countries, packed like sardines in the belly of slave ships, and delivered for sale on American soil. But there is much more to Black History than this.
Up from Slavery
The bloody Civil War ran its course from 1861-65. Mid-year 1862, thousands of slaves fled plantations to join the invading Northern armies. In 1863, President Lincoln issued a “preliminary” Emancipation Proclamation which declared all slaves in Confederate states were free. By the end of the war, 179,000 black men served as soldiers in the Union Army. Another 19,000 blacks served in the Navy.
On January 31, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally ended the “legal” Institution of slavery. This occurred despite the objection of several states to freeing the slaves. Chief among these states was Mississippi, which did not officially ratify the 13th Amendment until February 7, 2013 – fully 148 years after the slaves were officially freed.
Most emancipated slaves walked away from plantations where they had been brutalized, ravaged, and killed. Sadly, they immediately became a destitute people without the resources necessary to build a new life. But there is much more to Black History than this.
Building the Life We Imagined
Every former slave faced the same crushing reality. We had to overcome the residual effects of slavery on our psychic. We also had to overcome the reality of working for abysmally low wages. As slaves, blacks were accustomed to working hard for long hours and not reaping the benefit of our labor. As Freedmen, we shape-shifted our Work Ethic to ensure a good return on our investment in ourselves. We also held on to two deeply ingrained beliefs:
(1) “We are our brother’s keeper.” As slaves, we had a history of sharing “without measure” whatever we had among ourselves to improve all our chances of survival. This mindset often reduced the enmity slave owners tried to create between House slaves and those who worked in the fields.
(2) “Each one teach one.” During our enslavement, it was against the law to teach us to read. Despite the law, we embraced every opportunity afforded us to learn. As we learned, we shared our knowledge with each other. As Freedmen, we held our teachers in high esteem.
When the war ended, black and white teachers from the North and South descended on the Freedmen. The Goal: Literacy! The zest to learn was all consuming. Many teachers reported that their classrooms were always filled to capacity with young and old. Learning to read and write became our obsession and the progress of many Freedmen was astounding!
Learning Leads to Leadership
The 14th Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868. It granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” This included former slaves! The amendment also prevented states from denying anyone “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” and “equal protection under the law.”
The 15th Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870. It granted non-white men and freed slaves the right to vote. Blacks took full advantage of the 15th Amendment and used their voting rights to make political strides.
In states like South Carolina, where white voters were outnumbered, black voters sent a number of African American representatives to the state assembly. These able legislators worked to rewrite state constitutions and passed laws ensuring aid to public education and civil rights for all.
Blanche Kelso Bruce, a Republican politician from Mississippi, was the first African American to be elected and serve a full term in the United States Senate.
Hiram Rhodes Revels was elected by the Mississippi State Senate to complete the term of one of the state’s two seats in the United States Senate.
There is much more to Black History than what you’ve read here. I believe this is true of African Americans and other “people Groups” who are in their own struggle. We must define ourselves, stay true to the values that have served us well, and stay in the Struggle until we lay hands on our Victory.
That’s how we make Our History!
Sheila LyonHall is an author and free-lance writer who resides in the City of San Fernando. Her website, “Parenting Your Teen for life.com,” is being revised but will be back up March 11, 2019.