With national debates raging across America on race relations, patriotism and confederate memorials, I often turn back to history to have a better understanding of the present and future. In fact, the understanding of historical events, places and people can provide not only a pathway to understanding present times, but also a means to a pathway towards positive change for the future. From our family collections I uploaded a nearly 50 year old magazine featuring a set of articles entitled, “Our Black Heritage” from the October 12, 1969 edition of the long obsolete Rhode Island Magazine. Continue reading
“The Colored, as well as the white laborers of the United States, are not satisfied as to the estimate that is placed on their labor, as to their opportunities, as to the remuneration of their labor, the call for this convention, and the very general and highly intelligent response which I gaze on in you, my fellow delegates, attest. No other class of men would be satisfied under the circumstances; why should we? We desire Union with the white laborer for a common interest.”
– Address of George T. Downing to the Colored National Labor Convention, 1869
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, white laborers would come together and form in 1866 the National Labor Union. The effort would unite skilled and unskilled laborers along with farmers to advocate for an eight-hour work day and better treatment of working men. But racial equal opportunity was not universal nor were all workers regarded as equal in America. As was the custom of the day, African heritage working men were excluded from participation in the National Labor Union.
On the sixth of December in 1869, over two hundred African heritage laborers, mechanics, artisans, tradesmen, farmers and trades-women assembled in Washington, DC to organize the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU). Over several days, working men and women of color would elect Baltimore ship-caulker Isaac Myers president and adopt a broad platform covering relations between labor, education and economic prosperity. Most extraordinary for the day, the CNLU was egalitarian, accepting men and women, skilled and unskilled workers as active members. And unlike the National Labor Union, the CHLU welcomed all workers regardless of race. Fortunately, by the mid 1880’s, the Knights of Labor Union organized under the motto, “An injury to one is a concern for all” and became an integrated organization representing the labor rights of all American workers. Continue reading
On this day August 1, 1834 the United Kingdom abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, nearly 30 years before the American Emancipation Proclamation. While British plantation owners received substantial financial compensation for the loss of their slave property, former enslaved African heritage people received nothing. Freedom without reparations. Regrettably, newly freed Africans across the Americas replaced the old chains of slavery with the new restraints of discrimination and segregation. This socio-economic burden would follow far too many persons of African descent even to this very day.
Possibly the most important effort towards slavery reparations , unmatched then and hardly recognized today, took place in 1795 when a group of twenty-eight recently emancipated Africans from Jamaica arrived in Philadelphia under a creative and organized plan to provide a form of reparations – for the personal suffering placed upon enslaved Africans by the owner class of Europe and the Americas.
Quaker David Barclay of Great Britain, recognized today as the founder of Barclay’s Bank, acquired through a settlement of a debt a plantation in Jamaica called Unity Valley Pen.
As a stanch Quaker and Abolitionist, Barclay was driven to not only free the slaves he inherited in faraway Jamaica, he underwrote an international reparations plan connecting Great Britain and Jamaica with Philadelphia, which that at the time had the largest free Black community in the Americas. Barclay had long family ties with Philadelphia and its Quaker community becoming an early member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society under friend Benjamin Franklin’s leadership.
At the direction of Barclay his agents in Jamaica transported the emancipates to Philadelphia arriving on July 22, 1795. The newly freed were placed in the care of the Quaker Abolition Society who had adopted a formal reparations plan entitled, “A Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks.” The group was initially clothed and cared for through Rev. Richard Allen and the Mother Bethel AME Church and Rev. Absalom Jones of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. St. Thomas is the first African Episcopal Church in America founded in 1792. Mother Bethel is the first African American AME Church in America founded in 1794. Each of them were set up with access to education and in a trade skill, many as indentured servants with members of the Quaker community.
One of the youngest members of the newly arrived Jamaicans was a boy of eight named October, my great, great grandfather. Upon his arrival to Philadelphia he was renamed Robert Barclay and indentured for thirteen years as a “Windsor Chair Maker.” Robert Barclay would become a successful businessman and active member in black masonic and civic organizations including the Underground Rail Road that was active in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Today, I am blessed to have many heirlooms from the Barclay family household of Philadelphia including an original 1872 printing of the “Underground Railroad” by William Still. I also have been able to follow subsequent generations of Barclay family members into the 19th and early 20th century America as they continued their journey of freedom and prosperity. A journey made possible through an organized effort to provide my ancestor the access to education, training and opportunity that was denied so many other African heritage people.
So what is the value of emancipation and freedom without some method of reparations so that the oppressed have equal access to the means to become self-sufficient? As we celebrate the history of emancipation across the Americas we should also be mindful that emancipation without repairing the hundreds of years and many generations of African heritage people who suffered greatly under that peculiar system is at best, an unfinished effort or at worst, freedom without meaning. Maybe famed African American abolitionist, Fredrick Douglas knew this when he stated in 1876:
“You say you have emancipated us…But when you turned us loose, you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and worst of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.”
As someone whose family members date back to the early formation of America, and not always looking like, worshipping like, living like and fitting neatly into what history books would commonly refer to as the early American experience, I have to depend upon my own ancestral accounts to help me understand what America was like for people representing minority racial, religious, and ethnic history. In my case, I am thankful to have many primary documents and heirlooms that recount my American story, and unfortunately, from a perspective that far too many history books have omitted.
Women have made significant contributions to the advancement of our early American culture, not as conquers of land and people, founders of governments and champions of industry, but in many cases the primary source of sustenance for family, home and community. These accomplishments are all the more important when recognizing that throughout most of history, women had fewer legal rights and livelihood choices than men.
From 1800 to 1860, Virginia had more slaves than any other state. African enslavement formed the very basis of Virginia’s successful plantation based economy of raising tobacco, and the more infamous cultivation and selling of slaves to states further south for use on rice and cotton plantations.
But during the late summer of 1831, Virginia’s notion of idyllic ante-bellum life came to a bloody halt with the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion. Nat Turner and his collaborators would start a slave uprising in Southampton, Virginia that contributed to more deaths than any other slave Continue reading
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina. Her single work, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, and edited by famed Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, was one of the first autobiographical narratives about the struggle for freedom by an African American woman. Today, her book is compared with the “Diary of Anne Frank” as being two of the most important autobiographies depicting the resiliency of young women during times of great struggle. During the years leading up to the Civil War, she became an abolitionist and national speaker to end slavery. Continue reading
What stands out with the enslavement of African heritage people as the labor force of choice during the settlement of the Western Hemisphere as compared to slavery throughout world history is the unique concept of confining slavery to a single race and that children of slave mothers were born into slavery to serve for the remainder of their lives. This brutal system of inheritable servitude would impact the lives of tens of millions of Africans for four centuries and dramatically shaped the settlement and formation of the Americas. It is important to note that while slavery also long existed in the Continue reading
For our county’s first 250 years, millions of enslaved Africans lived and worked within the original thirteen colonies and the ever-expanding United States of America. Rhode Island was one of the earliest and most active shipping sites in the American colonies, which between 1705 and 1805 launched nearly 1,000 slaving voyages, frequently from the port at Newport. Continue reading
This news article of 1918 comes from our family collection that includes items from my great uncle, Charles Henry Barclay who during WWI served as a 1st Lieutenant with the 372nd regiment in France. The article describes the concerns that African American (Negro) soldiers were being given more dangerous combat duties as compared to white soldiers. The American Expeditionary Forces during the war were commanded by General John “Black Jack” Pershing who responds directly to the reports as false and that the “Negroes were in high spirits and that their only complaint was that they were not given more active service.” Those comments coming from General Pershing are historically relevant due to his own interaction with African American troops that dated back to 1892 when he took command of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers.” During the Spanish American War, Pershing would lead the 10th Cavalry on the famous charge at San Juan Hill joining the famous Rough Riders of future President Theodore Roosevelt. Pershing’s command of African American troops leading up to the First World War would enthuse his fellow officers to give him the nickname, “Black Jack” largely as a sardonic description of his command. Continue reading
By 1918, as America entered the First World War, the political and military consensus was that African American soldiers would not fight alongside white soldiers in combat. Although American soldiers of color were ready to fight and die for their country, many who would serve under an American flag would be relegated to supporting roles and labor regiments. The French however, had no misgivings about utilizing black troops. Allied American and French commanders agreed that segregated black regiments would fight with the French Army under the command of French commanding officers. Continue reading