Black History, Part 1: Did You Know?

In recognition of Black History Month, I am submitting a series of black-related articles. I hope, as usual, that you find them to be educational, thought-provoking and entertaining.

I consider the modern annual celebration of Black History Month to be a positive educational gesture. From the special TV programming, I learn something new every year. But why February as the designated month? I cynically thought it was picked because it is the shortest month. You know, why draw it out any longer than they have to? But the reason is that it was black scholar/historian Carter G. Woodson who initiated Black History Week in 1926 as the second week in February, to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. As part of the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, it was expanded and became established as Black History Month and is now celebrated all over North America.

I don’t think that Black History need to be a separate subject, however. If so-called black history were just a normal facet of common, everyday education, there would be no need for a special, yearly designation, which makes it a racist gesture and another aspect of segregation by its mere inception. There is no White History Month, for example, because we get that all the time, all the year around! Realize that history is just that—“his story.” But whose story? Who is “he”? There are as many versions of history as there are people. It becomes a racial issue when we are told only one biased side of the story or only one representative of all the different people in the world.

Schoolchildren of Mexican descent, for example, who live in the border states of Texas, New Mexico and the rest, are also denied learning about their own heritage. Mexico has its national heroes just as we do. They hear about Washington and Davy Crockett, but they are not told about Benito Juarez, Miguel Hidalgo, Pancho Villa and others. All history is intertwined, happening concurrently, black and white and every other color and ethnicity. Just include it along with their White History/Herstory.

It was the white historians of the past who wrote and put out the textbooks from which we were subjected to learn, and I suspected even back then that my high school history courses seemed to be greatly lacking in pertinent content. My classmates of color and I were all creative and enterprising in our own way. I never believed that my generation was the first to have an original or innovative idea. There had to have been others before us. For years I wasn’t aware that any black people had done anything, let alone invented anything. But that’s because those white historians of the past didn’t want us to know. In school, they were quick to let us know all the things that white folks have done for this country, though! What I do know now I had to find out for myself.

What is so remarkable about a white man attaining success in his life? He has all the advantages and privileges to do so, as his peers are running the show and encouraging and helping him to succeed. Let us know about the nonwhites and women and other underdogs who overcame the odds and restrictions of their stations in life to achieve recognition for making major contributions to the world at large. They are the real heroes.

In general, white people have always resented the successes and achievements of black people. I am merely stating a fact. Otherwise, why have they not been properly acknowledged? Do you know what the following items all have in common: air-conditioner, automatic cutoff switch, automatic elevator doors, automatic gear shift, automatic traffic signal, bicycle frame, bicycle parcel carrier, boiler furnace, bread-crumbling machine, canopy bed, cap for bottles and jars, child’s carriage, churn, cigarette roller, clothes dryer, comb, corn harvester and silker, cotton gin, curtain rod support, dust pan, eggbeater, electric lamp, eye protector glasses, fire extinguisher, folding bed, folding chair, fountain pen, gas mask, golf tee, guitar, hand stamp, horseshoe, ironing board, kneading machine, lantern, lawnmower, lawn sprinkler, lemon squeezer, letter box, luggage carrier, magnetic computer tape reel, mop, overshoe, peach pitter, peanut butter, pencil sharpener, player piano, portable weighing scale, postmarking machine, potato chips, printing press, reaper, refrigerator, riding saddle, shoe lasting machine, steam table, street sweeper, swinging chair, typewriter, train car coupling device, vacuum pan evaporator, water closet, and window cleaner?

Believe it or not, all these things were invented and patented by Afro-Americans! Now, why didn’t you or I know that before now? Because we weren’t told by our white educators, even if any of them knew themselves. You see, unfortunately, most of these little-known inventors received no money or only a piddling amount for what their inventions were actually worth. And because of the lack of financial support from the white banking institutions, most black inventors were forced to allow whites to demonstrate their products for them, and therefore taking the credit and receiving the remuneration for them as well.

The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and attended by 27 million people (by some estimates), did not feature a single innovation or contribution by a black person. It was as if we had not ever done anything for this country or the world. Despite the obstacles and limitations afforded them, a black person somewhere has managed to accomplish all the very same things that white people have, in every occupation and scientific endeavor (one even achieved the U.S. Presidency!), some even before a white person did them, as I am about to demonstrate.

During the ’50s and ’60s, when I was in school, we were never taught about Frederick Jones, Joseph Lee, Jan E. Matzeliger, Elijah McCoy, Garrett A. Morgan, Norbert Rillieux or Granville T. Woods, inventors of some of the previously-cited products. But we sure learned about Thomas Edison and Eli Whitney, who owned the slave who actually invented the cotton gin, by the way. Who would know more about the inner-workings and problems of the cotton industry than the people who were doing the actual work? What would Whitney know about it, probably never having picked any cotton in his life? Of course, it was Whitney who had to sell the idea to the manufacturers and therefore received the credit and financial rewards. It resulted in increased production and sales profits, but the lowly, anonymous slave who invented it has gone unacknowledged and ignored. Blacks were the property of their masters and were not allowed to own anything of value themselves anyway.

Elijah McCoy [c. 1844-1929] invented a device which made it possible to lubricate heavy machinery while it was in motion. His invention gave rise to the expression “the real McCoy.” Lewis Howard Latimer, an Afro-American electrical engineer and draftsman, played critical roles in the development of the telephone and the incandescent light bulb, but we never found any mention of his contributions in relation to Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. We were led to believe that they did all that work all by themselves. We weren’t told about black doctor Daniel Hale Williams [1856-1931], who in 1893 became the first surgeon successfully to perform open-heart surgery, but they told us about the later-in-time Dr. Christiaan Barnard.

One of our most brilliant scholars and civil rights activists was W.E.B. Du Bois [1868-1963], who was the first Afro-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895. The next year his doctoral thesis was the first book to be published by the university’s press. Du Bois went on to author 17 more books. His name neither was ever mentioned in any of my high school U.S. history courses.

Ever heard of Onesimus? Me, neither. He was a freed African slave who introduced a method of inoculation as a preventive against smallpox during an epidemic in 1721, 68 years (!) before Dr. Edward Jenner took all the credit for the very same method. We were told that Admiral Robert Peary discovered the North Pole in 1909, but I learned that it was black explorer Matthew A. Henson [1866-1955], a member of Peary’s party (who is a distant relative of mine, by the way), who actually got there first.

You probably know who Sally Ride is, but do you know who Mae Jemison is? She is the first black woman astronaut, who was in training the same time as Sally. But you can guess which one got the mission first. We have just learned from the movie Hidden Figures (2016) that it was three black, female mathematicians who pioneered NASA’s space program in the ’60s. Why are we just now finding out about these women’s existence? In fact, it seems that much of the history involving non-whites we learn from movies and TV documentaries. That’s where I get a lot of my knowledge, as indicated in many of my blog articles, including this one.

Alan Turing has been credited with inventing the first digital computer. But the modern PC technology that is used today by practically everybody was invented and developed by Dr. Mark Dean, a Ph.D. genius from Stanford University, who is a black man. He was a pioneer for the later successes of Bill Gates and Michael Dell and created the internal architecture that allows multiple units such as modems, printers and other peripherals to be attached to home computers. Dr. Dean also led the design team responsible for creating the first 1-gigahertz processor chip. So why isn’t he the wealthiest man in the world, I wonder?

(# Play that funky music, white boy!… #)
All of the truly American music idioms—spirituals, gospel, jazz, the blues (including some aspects of country music), rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop—were invented by blacks with their origins in the cotton fields and chain gangs, and they were all criticized and disparaged until enterprising whites adopted these same musical innovations as their own creation and gave them universal respectability. When we introduced jazz in the 1920s, it was called “Devil’s music” and “nigger music” and was not to be taken seriously. Then a group of white musicians, who called themselves “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band,” recorded “Livery Stable Blues,” and it sold more than a million copies. They were even billed on the record as “The Creators of Jazz.” Another purloiner was the appropriately-named bandleader Paul Whiteman who, as “The King of Jazz,” brought the previously-unsanctioned music genre into the concert hall and helped pioneer the Big Band era.

Black-oriented rhythm ‘n’ blues became the offshoot of jazz, and by the early ‘50s white artists such as Pat Boone and Elvis Presley, among others, started stealing the music of Little Richard and other black artists and recording cover versions of their songs. The white versions became big hits, leaving the original artists without much compensation or even recognition. For instance, did you know that Elvis’ hugely-successful “Hound Dog” was originally written (by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) for and done by blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton a few years before Presley’s version? Sister Rosetta Tharp also was a big influence on his musical style. Other big Presley hits, like “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up” were written by black songwriter Otis Blackwell, but many people still regard them to be Elvis’ songs. “Fever” is more associated with Peggy Lee than the composer of the song, Little Willie John, who recorded it before she did.

I always thought that the Diamonds’ biggest hit “Little Darlin’” was theirs alone, until I learned that it was written and recorded by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs before the other group did it. Jerry Lee Lewis got his “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” from hearing it at the dance club run and frequented by blacks where he used to hang out in his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana. It is generally regarded that Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” and although he may have adapted the lyrics, he got the tune from the Carter Family, who in turn got it from Lesley Riddle, a black blues guitarist from the ’30s. There are other country artists (Johnny Cash, for one) who admit being influenced or mentored by older blacks.

But what happened as a result of those white artists appropriating our music, just like with the jazz thing, it eventually caused people to take notice. They found that they liked the songs and were curious enough to check out the original versions, which they discovered that they also liked. So, Boone, Presley and the rest actually did us a favor by giving the previously-overlooked or ignored black music of the time recognition and appreciation. It even improved race relations somewhat within the music and record business.

Besides Elvis, and by their own admission, Little Richard influenced and helped launch the performing careers of The Beatles, James Brown and Otis Redding. According to the film, Cadillac Records (2008), the Rolling Stones purportedly took their name from a hit title song made famous by blues singer Muddy Waters, whom the group members idolized. Now, I’m not knocking Elvis—I am a fan, too—but it’s erroneous and unfair to declare him the “King of Rock & Roll” when, until recently, Little Richard was still alive and active. One can’t be a reigning king if he’s dead. Although Chuck Berry, also who we only recently lost, was known as “The Father of Rock & Roll,” apparently a white “king” has more prestige than a black “father,” even if he is dead. Little Richard might have been called the “‘Queen’ of Rock & Roll.” Berry, incidentally, once accused The Beach Boys of plagiarism, saying that their hit song “Surfin’ USA” is, except for the lyrics, identical to his own “Sweet Little Sixteen.” True, there are some similarities, but they are not the same song at all–no more than George Harrison‘s “My Sweet Lord,“ when it was accused of being a ripoff of The Chiffons‘ “He‘s So Fine.”

Although I don’t think that she ever claimed to have invented it, in 2013 Miley Cyrus is accredited with popularizing the “twerk” dance. But the origins of those dance movements have roots in Africa, where disparate tribes were twerking centuries ago. So Whitey stole that from us, too! The Ghana and Togo version of the dance is called borborbor.

(# …I’ll rock ’em, roll ’em all night long, I’m a sixty-minute man. #)
The attempt to gain more worldwide appeal prompted famous white disk jockey Alan Freed to coin the term “rock ‘n’ roll” to distinguish the more mainstream blues-influenced music from that which was exclusively performed by black artists. But even that claim is subject to some conjecture, because as early as 1951, Billy Ward and the Dominoes came out with a song, “Sixty Minute Man,” which employed the above lyric. Even so, the words rock and/or roll had been used lyrically in many earlier rhythm ‘n’ blues songs and were euphemisms for the sex act, which is one reason why parents objected so strongly to their children’s listening and dancing to the music that developed out of that genre.

(# …Come on, baby, rock me all night long… #)
(# …Roll with me, Henry… #).
Whether they were referring to dancing, partying or having sex, they seemed to have a lot of stamina, too. (# …We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight… #) Then the subsequent slogan, “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” suggests synonymous interrelation. So then Freed’s accredited coinage was not all that original but was inspired by black songwriters and recording artists. You see, they (Whitey) even tried to take credit for that! The term seems still to be used with the same connotation when Michael Jackson sang, # …I want to rock with you all night… #. I’m sure that he doesn’t mean sleeping with somebody in side-by-side rocking chairs!

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges [1745-1799] was born in Guadaloupe, the son of a wealthy planter and his African slave. When he was still a young child, the family moved to Paris where Joseph became a champion swordsman, virtuoso violinist, conductor and prolific composer. He wrote 6 operas, 9 symphonies, 14 violin concertos, 10 sonatas and 18 string quartets. Unfortunately, most of his music is lost. He has been referred to as “the black Mozart,” whom he actually knew when they shared living quarters for a time. Just as Antonio Salieri was jealous of Mozart, it’s rumored that Mozart was jealous of Saint-Georges. He was beloved by the court of Louis XVI and a friend and confidante of Marie Antoinette. Why he constantly has been left out of the annals of classical composers, and a contemporary of Mozart even, I don’t understand.

Florence B. Smith Price [1887-1953] was a composer, pianist and organist who was the first Afro-American to have a classical music work performed by a major orchestra, when the Chicago Symphony premiered her first symphony during the World’s Fair of 1933. The official state song of Virginia, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was commonly accepted as the work of Stephen Foster, but it was actually written by James A. Bland, black composer of 600 songs.

Did you know that writers Aesop of fable fame, Alexandre Dumas Sr., who wrote The Three Musketeers, Dumas Jr., who wrote “Camille” (which is the basis for Verdi’s La Traviata), Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin), and Frank G. Yerby, who wrote The Foxes of Harrow and Golden Hawk, were Negroes?

There are so many other black innovators and achievers whose black identities are unknown by most or have gone unrecognized. The city of Chicago was founded by businessman/farmer/fur trader Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, who was the son of a French mariner and an African-born slave mother. It was a black man, Dr. Charles Richard Drew, who founded the American Red Cross Blood Bank. Artist and ornithologist John James Audubon was a Haitian with a black mother. There is a persistent rumor that Alexander Hamilton’s mother also was a Negro. But how about our good, ol’ boy FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, who, in addition to being a closeted homosexual and transvestite, we now learn that he was, in fact, a mulatto who knowingly passed for white! And just as he exercised his homophobia whenever feasible, he didn’t do much to help the plight of Afro-Americans either, when he had the power to do so. Along with Thomas Jefferson, Hoover may be one of the most powerful hypocrites who ever lived.

The land on which Madison Square Garden in NYC now rests once belonged to a black woman. Chief Oshkosh, a black man of Indian descent, has a town in Wisconsin named in his honor. Cosmetician Madam C.J. Walker [1875-1919] was the first self-made Negro female millionaire. I suspect that the reason she was able to achieve such a distinction on her own at that time in history was because the white Powers-That-Be were not aware of what she was doing, until it was too late. Do you think that if they had known, they would have allowed it? I don’t think so. “What, that dinge is making more money than I am?! We can’t have that! Close that wench down! Burn her out, if you have to!”

It was a similar situation, although there is the perceived-to-be criminal element, with true-life Frank Lucas (portrayed by Denzel Washington in the 2007 film, American Gangster), who claimed to have made as much as two million dollars in a single day, selling heroin in the late sixties. He was his own boss and operated on the down-low, never calling attention to himself, which is probably why he was the most successful independent drug dealer who ever was, and had been in business for 14 years before the Feds even knew his name! He was a billionaire by the time he was caught and brought to justice. The fact that Lucas did commit murder in the course of his business dealings would make him a real criminal, but that’s not what they busted him for.

You know, it’s sort of ironic and a little hypocritical besides, that although Lucas obviously was a brilliant businessman, the product he was selling is considered an illegal substance, and is what made him a criminal in Society’s eyes. Apparently, it was something that was in great demand or all those people would not have been buying it. If he had been peddling alcohol or cigarettes or doctor-prescribed pain relievers, he wouldn’t have been doing anything wrong, because they are all “legal.” There are many consumed substances, like the aforementioned, that are physically harmful in varying degrees, which have little or nothing to do with their legality, apparently. It’s all arbitrary. But then one can’t make as much money on a legal commodity as they can with an illegal one. (Check out my blog, Drug Legalization, Use and Abuse.)

It took black journalist/activist Asa Philip Randolph twelve whole years (1925-1937) to form the first black labor union for Pullman porters and had to put up with opposition from all sides during the entire time. It was the Pullman company that was mostly against their workers organizing, as they would have to stop taking unfair advantage of them and to start paying them at least minimum wages. But Randolph also received non-support and resistance from the American Federation of Labor and from some of the porters themselves. They didn’t want to make waves and were afraid to go up against their white bosses. This story is chronicled in the film 10,000 Black Men Named George (2002), starring André Braugher as Randolph. The title, by the way, refers to the apathetic anonymity of the Pullman porters, whom instead of their individual real names, were all referred to as “George,” after George Pullman. It was merely a euphemistic alias for “Boy” or “Uncle.”

The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle caused a lot of hoopla when it was learned that Meghan is half-black. My goodness, will the Royal Family be able to accept and tolerate this racial infiltration? Well, apparently, those dissenters don’t know their family history, because it turns out that Meghan is not the first. Queen Charlotte [1744-1818] was England’s first black queen! She was the direct descendant of the African branch of a Portuguese royal line. She married George III in 1761 and had 15 children, 13 of which survived to adulthood. She is the grandmother of Queen Victoria and the great-great-great grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. So this was no great surprise to her, as I’m sure she is aware of Charlotte’s existence and lineage. I suppose the reason this is unknown information is because at the time, it was not such a big deal. Then, too, the King could marry anybody he wanted to. He’s the King! Queen Charlotte studied music with Johann Christian Bach and was a friend to his wife. Mozart dedicated one of his early pieces to her. I always contend that there is nothing new under the sun.

Just like Barack Obama is not the first black man (half-black, anyway) to run for President, I would bet that few have heard of George Edwin Taylor [1857-1925]. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Taylor was a journalist and political activist who ran against Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 on the National Negro Liberty Party ticket. Of course, there was major resistance to his campaigning. He got no newspaper endorsement, and most states would not even put his name on the election ballot. The 65,000 votes that he received were not reported. But at least he made the attempt, however futile.

Here is a bit of neglected world history. The year 2012 commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic. With all that has been written and depicted about the disaster (a number of movies and such), and with published documentation of the passengers and survivors, one interesting oversight is that there was a black family aboard the ship when it made its fateful voyage in April 1912. Surprised? So was I. Joseph Laroche was a Haitian-born, French-educated engineer (he worked on the building of one of the early Metro lines in Paris) who was traveling back to the U.S. with his pregnant wife, Juliette, and their two baby daughters. Mother and children made it into a lifeboat, were rescued and survived. Laroche, unfortunately, perished along with the other 166 second-class passengers. He was 26. Joseph Jr., who was born in France, when his mother returned there later that year, eventually re-married, had three children and only died himself in 1987. Not one of the movies that have been made about the event has included or even mentioned this Laroche family.

Here is another item of little-known black history. In 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks made her defiant gesture on that Alabama bus, a 15-year-old girl in Birmingham named Claudette Colvin (we have the same birthday!) also refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger and, of course, was subsequently arrested and jailed. But the reason given why this incident did not make the news at the time is because this girl was poor, not well-educated and became pregnant, and it was decided that she would not be a proper candidate for the burgeoning civil rights movement, you see. The fact of the matter is, Ms. Parks’ action that day was not exactly unplanned. It was a deliberate coup. The NAACP local affiliate that she worked for put her up to it. Rosa was older, more articulate, had some political clout and would be taken more seriously, whereas this Colvin teenager would have been looked down on as some delinquent who was just trying to make trouble. I always say that there are no accidents and everything happens for a reason.

American historians will know what Crispus Attucks’s claim-to-fame is. He is said to be the first man to die for the American Revolution. Is the fact that he was black only coincidental to his demise? I mean, he was leading the mob against the Redcoats during the Boston Massacre in 1770, but I can imagine what the guy who opened fire on him was thinking. “Look at that. Wouldn’t you know it, that there would be some uppity nigger over there stirring up trouble. Kill him!”

You know those little black-faced lawn jockeys that you sometimes see on white people’s front yards and that black people are supposed to be offended by (although I’ve never been told why)? Well, that’s more ignorance on their part. Considered by some to be the greatest jockey who ever lived (he died in 1896), Afro-American Isaac Murphy won three Kentucky Derbys, which were not exceeded for 57 years and was the very first jockey to be voted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. It has been said that Murphy made more money as a jockey at that time than the President. But Murphy wasn’t the only famous black jockey. There have been many. Nine others had won Kentucky Derbys by 1902.

So instead of being offended, I consider it a tribute and an honor when I see a black jockey on somebody’s lawn. Why should they always be Caucasian ones? That would be discrimination, too, wouldn’t it? Now if you want to object to the actual coloring of the statues’ faces, then that’s another matter. They don’t need to paint them black, exactly; they could use some shade of brown. But we know that the colors of things are not always specific or exact, only symbolic. “White” visual representation is hardly ever the color white either.

Blacks eventually excelled in other national sports when finally given the chance, especially baseball (Hank Aaron), basketball (Michael Jordan), boxing (Joe Louis), track (Jesse Owens, Flo Jo, Wilma Rudolph), tennis (Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, the Williams Sisters), soccer (Péle), hockey (Willie O’Ree), race car driving (Wendell Scott) and even golf (Tiger Woods). There are others as well in each category, of course.

But decades before any of the aforementioned tennis greats made a name for themselves, I recently got wind of Jean-René Lacoste [1904-1996], French tennis champion, actor, innovator and fashion businessman, who, in addition to winning 12 Grand Slam tennis tournaments in 1926-28, introduced the first tubular steel tennis racket and the Lacoste tennis shirt with the reptilian logo. Lacoste earned the nickname “The Crocodile” because of his tenacity on the tennis court. Then, too, the captain of the Davis Cup promised René a crocodile-skin handbag if he won (in 1927). The popular logo on his shirts subsequently became an alligator. What I have not yet been able to verify is the possibility that Lacoste was a black man, or at least half-black. He was very fair-skinned, so maybe he passed for white. I decided to include him in this treatise in the event that he does qualify.

Here’s another one for you. I suppose that everyone knows that Santa Claus is sometimes referred to as St. Nicholas, who was a real person. Before he became bishop of Myra in Turkey back in the 4th century, St. Nicholas was known as a generous benefactor to his people. Well, legend has it that when Nicholas made his neighborly rounds, he was accompanied by his squire (sidekick, if you will), a Spanish moor named Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, who carried a big bag filled with all sorts of goodies which he passed out to the good little boys and girls that they visited. So our modern practice of the gift-delivering aspect of the Santa Claus mystique was originally inspired by a black man! (A 1999 TV movie has been made about Santa and Pete.)

I even doubt if St. Nicholas himself was really white-skinned, being Turkish and all. But as with all revered figures, or those in a position of power and control, Santa Claus, too, has to be depicted as an old, white man. So these modern-day dissenters who won’t accept Father Christmas to be depicted as or portrayed by a black man (or woman), proclaiming that “Whoever heard of a black Santa Claus?” need to learn some history.

Those were only a few achievements by Afro-Americans and other persons-of-color. We’ve done a whole lot of good shit that the general public doesn’t know about. You see, white folks don’t want to give us credit for anything, unless it’s something bad. Then we get blamed. To let them tell it, everything good in the world only they are responsible for. They don’t ever consider the fact that, although it was not voluntary on our part, it was black people that built this country, not the whites. Think about that. For over 400 years it was the slaves who were doing all the work while the white folks just sat on their tushes all day, not doing a damned thing! Not anything constructive anyway. Oh, they always had big ideas, but when it came to the actual labor, they would get the blacks to do it for them. That is why I think that the aforementioned black “Santa Claus” should not surprise anyone. St. Nicholas probably mused, “I can’t be bothered with all that. Let the shwarzer do the heavy lifting thing.”

(# They don’t give medals to yesterday’s heroes… #)
Not if they’re black, anyway. Having traveled all over the country taking lots of pictures of public art, I have noticed the virtual modicum of black memorials. Of all the famous, accomplished Afro-Americans and other People-of-Color, why are there so very few statues anywhere to honor them? Okay, there is a statue of Arthur Ashe in Richmond, Va., one of Mary McLeod Bethune in Washington, DC, a sculpture of Dorothy Dandridge in Los Angeles, a Mohandas Gandhi in Manhattan, Alex Haley in Knoxville, Tenn., W.C. Handy in Memphis, Joe Louis in Detroit, Willie Mays in San Francisco, James Meredith on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Jackson, Jesse Owens in Cleveland, Asa Philip Randolph in Boston, Jackie Robinson at Coney Island, and a combined statue of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (why waste all that extra material on two separate statues, since “they” all look alike anyway?).

Well, actually, I have since learned that there is a G. W. Carver National Monument at some out-of-the-way location in Diamond (?!), Missouri. Of course, that is on everyone’s vacation travel destinations, isn’t it? They just recently unveiled a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King in Washington, DC, at long last. Until then, I suppose that his hometown Atlanta had the only ones. They have named streets and schools after him, too, at least. I thought that the only Frederick Douglass statue is the one in a park in Rochester, NY, but I recently discovered a newly-erected one which stands at the north end of Central Park in Manhattan, appropriately, right where Frederick Douglass Avenue begins.

But where are the Harriet Tubmans, the Phillis Wheatleys, the Ida B. Wellses, the W.E.B. Du Boises? Do I need to go to these people’s home turf to find a memorial of them? I shouldn’t have to. Christopher Columbus was from Genoa, Italy, but there are statues of him all over the damned place! I’ve spotted them in St. Louis, San Francisco, White Plains (NY), Stamford (Conn.), Hazelton (Pa.), Bloomfield, Jersey City and Newark (NJ), Columbus (Ohio) [naturally], Cartagena (Colombia), Funchal (Madeira), as well as several throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. And he gets a national holiday in this country as well. Why all this honorable recognition for a known slave-trader and navigational idiot besides? He never even set foot in America, but made it only as far as the Caribbean West Indies, which was already heavily-inhabited when he arrived there. Columbus didn’t discover anything. He didn’t even know where he was. He thought he had reached India!

Dayton, Ohio does not have a statue or street for Paul Laurence Dunbar, though, the city’s most famous poet. The person who constructed the first clock in America as well as planned the city of Washington, DC was a brilliant, black man by the name of Benjamin Banneker. So, why not the Banneker Monument, then? Old George W., who was another slave owner, by the way, certainly has enough stuff named after him! Benjie B. does have a memorial fountain in town. That’s all he gets is a fountain?! Well, there is, too, the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, but it’s located somewhere outside of Baltimore (they couldn’t even put it in the city, but way outside it?).

There is a monument for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Baltimore, as well as a wax museum which commemorates great Afro-American achievers. I mean, in all my travels I have seen only a few of the aforementioned memorials, because they are not so prominently displayed. You actually have to search for them.

Escaped slave Harriet Tubman risked her life on many occasions as “conductor” of the Underground Railroad and managed to deliver over 3000 slaves to Northern freedom. Plenty of white folks have been honored for much less. Then why not sainthood for “Moses” Tubman, like they did Elizabeth Seton and Mother Teresa? How about at least a prominent memorial statue somewhere, or a legal tender coin? I guess that saving the lives of black people is not considered important enough humanitarianism. At least there was a commemorative stamp made for her at one time. In fact, there have been only 68 (at this writing) U.S. stamps made that honor black Americans, hardly a comparable number to the many thousands of white honorees.

I just learned, however, that three years ago the U.S. Treasury was considering replacing Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill with Harriet Tubman. I am in possession of $20 bills on a daily basis, and I have yet to see one with her on it. So apparently, talk is cheap. Verbal intent does not get the job done. I also heard that because of his adamant opposition to the idea, it was former President Trump who was holding up the process.

Surprisingly, there is a baseball stadium in Atlantic City, NJ, built in 1949 and named for Negro League great (and Baseball Hall of Famer) John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. Louis Armstrong Park, in the heart of New Orleans, is the city’s largest, and the airport there is named in his honor.

My great-great-uncle Matthew Henson, at least, is getting some overdue recognition finally. In addition to his dedicatory plaque in the State Capitol in Annapolis, a Navy ship has been christened USN Henson and there is the Matthew A. Henson Middle School in Indian Head, Maryland. A statue has been erected in Henson’s birthplace, Charles County, Md., and there is a glacier in Greenland named after him. His character is portrayed in the musical Ragtime, and there is a 1998 biopic Glory & Honor, in which Henson is portrayed by Delroy Lindo. Uncle Matthew was the answer to a “Jeopardy!” clue once, in which they asked who was the co-discoverer of the North Pole and even displayed his picture, but none of the players (all white) that day knew who he was. With the clue they gave and if they had shown a picture of Robert Peary, they probably would have gotten it.

I’ve come across statues of dead white guys that hardly anybody has heard of. Who the hell, for example, are John Bullitt, Louis Heintz, Taras Shevchenko and Alexander Webb? Do you know? Well, they all have statues erected for them! In the middle of Times Square, right behind George M. Cohan, stands Father Duffy. What did he do that was so important? There is a statue of a white man in a insignificant park on Staten Island with the caption, “Frank D. Paulo, 1918-1987, A Public Man.” Whoop-dee-doo! I guess some people don’t have to do anything to merit a memorial sculpture. Just be a white man.

Out of curiosity, I decided to Google the aforementioned names. John Bullitt was a Philadelphia lawyer. Big deal! Father Duffy was a decorated military chaplain. So? Taras Shevchenko was a Russian poet, artist and activist. Who cares? Alexander Webb was a Civil War general. So what? I couldn’t even find an entry for Louis Heintz. Why such special recognition for these ordinary guys? When a black person is honored with a statue, we most likely know who it is already, because they are famous. They don’t do it for just anybody, if they are not white. Otherwise, I would have one. Frank D. Paulo was just that–a public man. It probably was his family who erected that statue in his honor. I am a public man. Where is my statue? I will bet that I am known by more people worldwide than Frank Paulo! Oh! But to get one, I guess I have to be dead first, don’t I?

My guess is that if these great Afro-Americans were honored on such a grand scale as memorials and statues and stuff, people would have to take notice of them and maybe even muster some degree of respect and appreciation for their achievements. So even if there is a modest number of black memorials, statues and museums here and there, they certainly aren’t as predominant as most of your white honorees. I shouldn’t have to venture all the way to some out-of-the-way locale in Maryland somewhere just to see a statue of my famous ancestor, for example. There should be one here in NYC somewhere.

I have also come to notice the cultural segregation in the field of visual art. I have visited many art museums during my travels and right here in NYC as well, and I hardly ever encounter any black representation, by artist or production. I’ve seen very few portraits or black settings, maybe two or three at the most, but rows and rows and rooms of white people! I know that there is plenty of black art that exists in the world, as there are certain museums and galleries that display these works. But why must they be relegated to their own separate venues all the time? I should be able to view this black art at the Metropolitan or Guggenheim or the Louvre or any other mainstream museum that I may visit.

There must be a fair amount of black art in Europe, as there is in other parts of the world. But where is it all? I hardly ever see any. I saw only one painting in all of Paris. One! Do I have to go to Africa to find African art or wait to view somebody’s private collection in their home? Who are the renowned black painters and sculptors? There must be some. Every world civilization is deemed by its art, so just like history, our depiction of art should be a full, all-inclusive representation by all its people for fair assessment, not just the Caucasian aspect all the time. I’d like to see Billy Dee Williams’ paintings right up there alongside Tony Curtis‘.

With the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC,–I have not been there yet, however–maybe the general public will be made aware of the many heretofore unknown contributions blacks have made and finally to receive the long-overdue recognition and respect that we deserve. It’s about time, anyway!

[Related articles: Black History, Part 2–Slavery and Its Aftermath; Black History, Part 3–Racism via Show Business; Black History, Part 4–Criminal Injustice; Black History, Part 5–Biased Concerns; Color Issues; Some Racial Observations; Stereotyping and Profiling, Racial and Otherwise; Walt Disney, a Racist? Who‘d‘ve Thunk It!?]

435 thoughts on “Black History, Part 1: Did You Know?”

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