Can there be a more appropriate time for the truth about Black history than this month? Isn’t it an apt time to bring to light the long-held omissions that have skewed not only genuine history by promoting half-truths but most, unfortunately, have harmed and skewed racial relationships?
Our history education, as it’s generally taught from elementary to secondary classrooms, basically presents the institution of slavery as one of black and white with Black being the oppressed and White the oppressor. However, that is not the total history or story of the tragic institution of slavery. Before Africans set foot on America’s shores, there was more than just Whites enslaving and oppressing Blacks. The slave trade was multi-racial.
More than a decade ago, Dr. Sheldon M. Stern, John F. Kennedy Library and Museum historian, wrote that “It’s time to Face the Whole Truth About the Atlantic Slave Trade.” In it, he states:
Incomplete depictions of the Atlantic slave trade are, in fact, quite common. My 49 state U.S. standards revealed that not one of these guides to classroom content even mentioned the key role of Africans in supplying the Atlantic slave trade.
He cites various African leaders from Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Senegal, and Burkina Faso, all acknowledging the African role in slavery. Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Awoonor, wrote, “We too are blameworthy in what was essentially one of the most heinous crimes in human history.”
Dr. Stern looks to and quotes from Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, a 1998 text by Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, and the WGBH Series Research team, for the tragic fact that,
Historians estimate that ten million of these abducted Africans “never even made it to the slave ships. Most died on the march to the sea”—still chained, yoked, and shackled by their African captors—before they ever laid eyes on a white slave trader.
Besides what Dr. Stern has revealed, other Black historians and scholars have also contributed revelations that would shock and surprise many when it comes to the institution of slavery in the United States. Chief among these revelations is the fact that there were thousands of Black slave owners in the South—some of whom became quite wealthy and owned many slaves. According to some records, in the city of New Orleans alone, there were over 3,000 black slave owners. Indeed, in Louisiana, the wealthiest slave owner with the most slaves was Black. Additionally, Blacks owned thousands of slaves in the Carolinas.
Other sources reveal that the “Five Civilized Tribes” from the southeast (i.e., the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—also owned Black slaves. Following the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, three refused to emancipate their slaves. It took signing a treaty with the U.S. obligating them to free their slaves.
One of my friends and colleagues, while living in France and Tunisia, was originally from Zanzibar. He was mostly Black African with some Arab hereditary features. Before he died, he informed his children that his Zanzibari family still owned slaves and were in the slave-trading business in the 20th Century!
Why are these historical facts important? They’re important because they bring accuracy, balance, impartial fairness, and truth to a history that continues to plague the nation. Should those values be important in our pursuit of history? Such facts do not in any way negate our nation’s guilt nor our government’s responsibility for harming or oppressing one race of people. However, they help diminish blame and fault totally directed at only one race—and worse, at the living generation of that race, people who had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery.
Several generations of children have been and are being taught that slavery is entirely black and white: Black victims and White oppressors. This one-dimensional and inaccurate narrative can only damage the relationships between Black and White children. And it is impossible to imagine that it does not affect those relationships through adulthood.
What if children of all races learned the truth at a very early age—that is, that America’s institution of slavery was created and maintained multi-racially? It’s probable that, if this history were taught more accurately and truthfully, there would be little reason for precious children to grow up with a sense of hurt or blame based on skin color because skin color wasn’t an issue when it came to the oppressors. The problem was one of values, with many races, not just the White race, complicit in a great evil.
Dr. Stern explains,
Failure to educate young Americans about the whole story of Atlantic slave trade threatens to divide our nation and undermine our civic unity and belief in the historical legitimacy of our democratic institutions. Education in a democracy cannot promote half-truths about history without undermining the ideal of e pluribus unum—one from many—and substituting a divisive emphasis on many from one.
Perhaps this issue is important to someone like me because, as a descendant of a man who was not only an avid abolitionist but also was Lincoln’s last law partner, I’ve always taken pleasure in an ancestor who was on the right side of both history and justice. He was also among the first Lincoln biographers with his book, Herndon’s Lincoln.
It’s time our history is corrected and updated to be on the right side of both history and justice. It might also be the very antidote needed today to stem the effort to divide us based on skin color. We can all pursue Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call that we give our children “a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Accurate and truthful history represents a firm foundation for accomplishing that lofty goal.