Black History: A Pathway for Change

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

Freedom Without Meaning

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.”

 

A Black History Lesson for the Democratic Party in 2016

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Mr. & Mrs. James Carr – Easton’s Beach c. 1917 Stokes Family Collection

Recently I posted an image on Facebook of my great aunt and uncle at Easton’s Beach in Newport, RI around 1917. I noted my aunt, Lillie Forrester Carr was an early African American graduate of Julliard and went on to become an accomplished music teacher in New York. Her husband, James Dickerson Carr would become the first African American graduate of Rutgers University and later earn a law degree at Columbia University. Continue reading

A Long Journey to Justice

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Arriving in Jamaica, met by Culture Minister Honorable Olivia Grange, June 2016

For me, my African heritage ancestor’s trials of enslavement is not a distant historical occurrence, but something that shaped my family life then and to this very day. I have studied the subject extensively, lectured in many historic cities and countries, and I have been fortunate to preserve many family heirlooms dating back to the early days of slavery. This past June I had the very emotional experience of walking the grounds of the Pen (Livestock Plantation) in Jamaica where my maternal African-Jamaican ancestor was born into slavery during the late 18th century. What made the experience even more significant was to have the descendant of our family’s enslaver join me to retrace the events of 221 years ago that led to one of the most notable mass slave emancipations in history. So here I am walking down a solitary dirt road in Unity Valley within St Ann’s Parish of rural Jamaica, an African heritage man from America walking with a European heritage man from England with the shared family name of Barclay, and historical connections to the founders of Barclays Bank. Continue reading

Black Lives Matter Today & Yesterday

Part One

Over the next few months, I’ll be embarking on a journey to the places of my ancestral history – first stop – Jamaica, West Indies. This trip will be highlighted with me, as the direct descendant of an enslaved Jamaican, meeting with the direct descendant of my ancestor’s European enslaver at the very plantation for the first time in 221 years.

As we have done with other branches of my family tree, we have traced the generations of my maternal grandfather, George Nicholas Barclay, back from his adult life in Newport, Rhode Island, his childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on through his father’s life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and found my great, great grandfather, Robert Barclay. In doing so, we have uncovered a story that reveals the journey from enslavement to freedom; a story so unique – yet so very American.

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More than Chattel Property

For better or worse, far too many historical interpretations of the European Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the enslavement of Africans in the Western Hemisphere have overshadowed the narratives of the Africans themselves, rendering their past lives and accomplishments nearly invisible to the present-day audience. Award-winning African heritage author, Ralph Ellison vividly depicted this dilemma in his epic novel, Invisible Man highlighting the profoundly ironic condition of African heritage people in America then and even to this day stating, “I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids, and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand me, simply because people refuse to see me.” Continue reading

Created Equal in America

The month of March marks Women’s History Month, and one of the most important milestones in the history of women in America is on August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the United States’ Constitution is ratified guaranteeing American women the right to vote.

Ironically, prior to the American Revolution, some free women in early America had property and voting rights within colonies such as New Jersey, but by the early 19th century, states had barred women from voting. The long, hard battle to fully enfranchise women in America had its historical roots in the Abolition of Slavery Movement before the Continue reading

Thin Line Between Slavery, Humanity & Chickens

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Image: Harper’s Weekly, July 4, 1863

The September 27, 1856 edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch ran what might have been for most readers at the time an amusing story concerning stolen chickens from the farm of one of the city’s prominent citizens. The news story describes a slave named Brittan belonging to a George Turner being under arrest and sentenced in the Mayor’s Court for the theft of a number of valuable hens from Richard Forrester’s farm. The article (extracted) entitled, “A Chicken Fancier” dripped with sarcasm and amusement as it described: Continue reading