Category Archives: History

Germantown, Pennsylvania and Slavery – 1688

William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682 and because of what he had observed and personally experienced back in Europe, he declared it to be a place where citizens would elect their representatives, where fair trials would exist, and where there would be a separation of church and state.

Among the first to settle in Pennsylvania were Mennonites and Quakers from a region of Germany.  Both groups had experienced persecution for their faiths and were attracted by Penn’s promise of religious freedom. Upon arrival, they bought farmland and established the community of Germantown, near Philadelphia.

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America’s Black Second Lady

We all know that Michelle Obama was America’s first African American First Lady. What we probably don’t know is that long before Obama the nation had a Black Second Lady, Julia Chinn of Kentucky.

Julia Chinn was born into slavery and was the property of the Johnson family of what is today known as Louisville. In the early 1800s, Richard Mentor Johnson inherited Julia upon his father’s passing. Over time Johnson fathered two daughters with Chinn and openly referred to her as his “common-law wife.” They lived as a wedded couple and in his absence, Julia was placed in control of running the large estates. Following Julia’s death from cholera in the 1830s, Johnson never remarried but he did seek a career in national politics.

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Bios of Black History

I don’t have a story about a particular person or event for today. Instead, I’m simply posting a few brief biographies of people that have played a roll in the African American story, beginning with LaVar Burton.

  • LeVar Burton is an American German Born Actor, Director, Producer and Author. Burton is most famous for his roles in “Star Trek, The Next Generation”, and “Roots”, in which he played the main character, “Kunta Kinte”. Burton was also famous as the main host for PBS’s main children’s series, “Reading Rainbow”. Burton was born on this day in 1957.

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Cyrus McCormick & Jo Anderson

When I was a kid we spent a lot of class time learning about the great American inventors whose ideas created huge industries and brought revolutionary change to entire segments of the world’s peoples. With few exceptions, these inventors were white men with little mention given to blacks, women, and other minorities.

One reason for this was the federal patent acts of 1793 and 1836. The laws prevented enslaved blacks from claiming ownership of any patents for things they may have invented or assisted with. Slaves were property and were owned. Simply put, property cannot own property.

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It Was a Black Woman That Invented Rock n’ Roll

Delbarjo & America’s History of Racism

Editor’s Note: It’s February 2020 and I’m reprising this from 2015 to mark this year’s Black History Month.
hobo 63 delbarjoMy French friend, Delbarjo, has a new toy and a new video. An American cigar box guitar builder who builds under the name Hobo 63 made a 3-string custom box for Delbarjo and apparently it just arrived on French soil. While it’s a couple of days late for Black History Month the theme certainly brings to mind a sad part of our nation’s history. To tell the truth, my old ears can’t pick out the words but the pictures tell it all. Whatever the lyrics the instruments sound and its playing are of the highest quality. Keep it sleazy bluesman!

Today in 1793

On February 12, 1793, the US Congress passed into law what is known as the Fugitive Slave Act. The US Constitution already gave slave owners the right to recover their escaped property. This new law provided owners with a means by which they could do so.

This new law benefitted slave owners in several ways:

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Rosenwald, Sears & Roebuck, and Booker T. Washington

Chances are that you’ve all heard of the Sears  Roebuck Company and Booker T. Washington. But, there’s a greater chance you’ve never heard of Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago businessman born to German-Jewish immigrants.

Rosenwald was a businessman with a concern for the education of Black children in America, especially those in the segregated South. He was both the president of Sears and a member of the Board of Trustees of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. In 1912 Booker T. Washington approached him with the idea of building schools in which to educate Black children.

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La Amistad – July 1839

In July of 1839, a ship known as La Amistad left Africa with a load of black slaves, bound for Cuba. Somewhere near the coast of America the slaves rebelled, gained control of the ship, killed the captain, and ordered the surviving crew to return them to Africa.

Instead, the ship’s navigator charted a course north skirting the coastline of America. Off Long Island, they were intercepted and taken by an American warship and ordered to port at New Haven, Connecticut. The fifty-three slaves, known as the Mende, were interned awaiting a decision as to their ownership.

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Field Hollers & Work Chants

When I was a kid and visiting South Carolina relatives in the 1950s it was a common thing to see chain gangs working along the roads. These gangs were mostly made up of African Americans who were often arrested for no other reason than the local road commissioner needed cheap labor to cut weeds or dig ditches.

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Strange Fruit – Reprised

NOTE: This is a reprisal of a piece I published in 2012 and while it remains informative and accurate it astounds me how positive I sounded eight years ago and how pessimistic I feel today. Eight years ago we had the hope that arrived with our first African American president. Today we have a president who wouldn’t hesitate to fertilize the seeds of strange fruit if he thought it would advance his fortune and fame.

I’ve been a student of American History for most of my life. The thing that draws me to history is the constant challenge it presents to one’s perception of reality. We all live in a comfort zone and make assumptions that everyone is experiencing what we are and that things have always been as they are. Studying history never stops pulling the rug out from under one’s feet. Just when I thought I couldn’t be shocked, bam!, I’m laying on the floor!

Yesterday I began watching a new DVD on the history of Chicago’s Maxwell Street. In the middle of explaining the black exodus from the South during WWI the front page of a Louisiana newspaper, the New Orleans States, popped up and shocked me. Continue reading Strange Fruit – Reprised

Jessye Mae Norman

Jessye Norman was a force in the world of opera. My knowledge of her is limited and came from watching a PBS special about the history of the song, Amazing Grace. She helped tell the story of John Newton, an English slave trader who sought redemption by, in part, authoring what may be Christianity’s most popular and well-known hymn. During the program, Norman and others performed various renditions of the song.

I later watched a PBS recital of operatic music performed by Norman and was enthralled.

Jessye Mae Norman died in September of 2019 at the age of 74.

America’s Black Cowboys

I’ve known that there were many blacks who lived and worked in the American West during the 1800s. What I didn’t know until very recently was the huge percentage. I was surprised to learn that estimates of twenty-five to thirty-three percent of all western cowboys were black.

Last month, NBC Nightly News ran a piece about a modern-day black rodeo circuit. An organization founded in the ’80s and named after the black cowboy, Bill Pickett, who is credited with inventing the cowboy technique called, bulldogging.

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Africans, Jazz, & Congo Park Square

While I can’t claim to be a great devotee of jazz I have been aware of it since being a teen in the 1950s. I remember people like Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and that’s probably where my limited knowledge of jazz began. I also need to mention Mad Magazine since they often featured cool characterizations of players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charley Parker. I mean, if jazz was good enough for Mad, it must be something I needed to be aware of.

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Alice Allison Dunnigan

Blacks, and especially black women, have been and remain a rare commodity in the White House Press Corps. April Ryan, who was awarded the 2019 Freedom of the Press Award, is one of the few and maybe the only black woman to currently hold a seat in the White House briefing room.

One often hears people explain their success by saying they stand on the shoulders of those who went before. Well, in the case of black journalists in the White House one of those sets of shoulders today’s black journalist stand on belonged to Alice Allison Dunnigan from Russelville, Kentucky.

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