Black Cowboys, Igbo Mass Suicide, and Honouring Black History

Image credit: Donovan Nelson

If you believe that Abraham Lincoln was an anti-racist or that all cowboys were white, you’ve probably just learned a white-washed version of American history.

The truth is: there is so much more to American history than old, white (and inherently racist) historians would like you to believe. So, what’s being omitted? Black History. And what’s to be done? Some re-learning.

Remember to share what you’ve learned with your fellow white folx – when we know better, we can do better.

Since February is Black History Month (BHM) in the United States, there is no better time than right now for us to do that re-learning (no matter where we are in the world).

Image credit: @3tokenbrowngirls

By learning about Black history, we are not only honouring, commemorating, and celebrating the contributions of People of Colour (PoC), but we are also better equipping ourselves to understand our society, its structures, and how they work to oppress PoC and favour white/white-passing people. It’s through this integral learning that we can come to understand what we can do as individuals to dismantle institutionalised racism.

So, white people, may I remind you that Google is a fantastic tool to use when you’re looking to educate yourselves about Black history, and that BHM (nor any other time of the year) is NOT an opportunity for us to expect PoC to educate us for free. It’s our responsibility to do the work ourselves. And don’t forget to share what you’ve learned with your fellow white folx – when we know better, we can do better.

Here are just three parts of Black history I’ve learned about so far:

Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project

Between 1500 and 1866, nearly 12.5 million enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas. Almost two million of them died on the Middle Passage. Two million is a lot. It’s way more than all the people you love, plus all the people you’ve ever met, plus all the people you probably ever will, plus many, many more. That’s two million children, women, and men who died in the most inhumane conditions imaginable, in the middle of the ocean far away from everything they’d ever loved and known.

It won’t be until 2111 that Black people have been free in America, longer than they have been enslaved.

It’s important that those lost lives are honoured, that we bring ourselves to true terms with the impact slavery has had on an entire race of people and the world at large. It’s equally important to acknowledge that the United States as we know it today was largely built by the ten million+ enslaved Africans that survived the transatlantic slave trade.

With this very sentiment in mind, it was in 2011 that the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP) was established. The MPCPMP is a non-profit organisation that encourages communities to hold remembrance ceremonies and install historic markers to honour the lives of the estimated two million who perished, as well as the ten million+ who went on to live a life of slavery in America.

And, white folx, if you ever hear someone saying “BuT slaVeRy waS ageS aGo”, make sure to remind them that it won’t be until 2111 that Black people have been free in America, longer than they have been enslaved. (1)

Learn more about the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project here.

The Igbo Landing

Image credit: Donovan Nelson via face2africa.com

The story of the Igbo Landing is one of valiance and sorrow. Where Dunbar Creek meets the marshy shores of St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia is the historical site of one of the largest mass suicides of enslaved people ever recorded.

Back in 1803, a ship holding around 75 Igbo captives from Nigeria, each purchased for about R1500, arrived in Savannah, Georgia. From there the Igbo captives were transferred to another ship that intended to take them to St. Simons where they were to be resold and meet their fate of a lifetime of slavery. However, the Igbos had other plans.

At the direction of their chief the fierce group of Igbos rose up to rebel against and then drown their captors, bringing the ship to ground at Dunbar Creek. The freed Igbos clambered overboard and marched ashore. And then, having decided that they would rather die than be stripped of their dignity, the entire group made a purposeful walk into the marshy waters, singing until submergence, never to be seen again.

In September of 2012, the site was designated as a holy ground by the St. Simons African-American community and today holds great symbolic importance in local African-American folklore as the “first freedom march in the history of the United States”.

The Compensated Emancipation Act

Image credit: “Celebration of the Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia” by F. Dielman (1866)

Many people are of the belief that President Abraham Lincoln was an anti-racist, that he believed People of Colour to be of equal right to white folx, that he fought for the abolition of slavery simply because he knew it to be unjust. This, however, is not the case.

While President Lincoln may have at some point known the enslavement of human beings to be inhumane, he was – like most other white Americans at the time – adverse to the notion of a totally free Black people residing in the United States. 

But what about the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862?

Yes, President Lincoln did sign into law the Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, officially abolishing slavery in Washington, D.C. – but let’s take a look at what the Act, and its subsequent amendment, outlined and who its stipulations favoured:

“The law ending slavery in the nation’s capital provided compensation for the owners of the roughly 3,185 slaves it freed. A three-person commission heard petitions of the former slave owners and made determinations on how much money they should receive for the loss of their human property. In the end, the total compensation amounted to nearly one million dollars.

A second Compensation Act, which Lincoln signed into law on July 12, 1862, allowed former slaves to petition for reimbursement for their own value, so long as their former masters had not already been compensated. It also allowed former slaves who had purchased the freedom of family members to claim remuneration for the money they had spent to free loved ones.

This corrected a flaw in the original Act. Under the original law, Black claims were automatically discounted if challenged by a white petitioner. The revision required claims to be weighted equally, regardless of the petitioner’s race.”

The Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, bunkhistory.org

While the Acts were an important step toward the abolishment of slavery, it’s easy to see that they were in no way declarations of emancipation that sought to offer PoC the same liberties their previous owners enjoyed. The appeasement of white people remained a priority, while now-free people continued to live in a viciously racist society that hated them even more simply because they were no longer allowed to enslave them.

You can read a WHOLE lot more about it here.

Black Cowboys

Image credit: Nat Love’s privately published autobiography (Corbis)

It’s no doubt that stories of the wild, wild West are beloved by more than just red-necked Americans. Yes, even I have been a sucker for the romanticised tales of horseback-riding, cow-herding, trailblazing, sharpshooting cowboys.

The only problem is the way the history books, American folklore, and Hollywood movies have portrayed these cowboys: they’re all white. The truth is: there were loads of Black cowboys – many of which were famed throughout Texas (Nat Love to name just one). According to some historians, one in four post-Civil War cowboys were Black.

So, why does this matter? Well, because you can’t go around recounting history wrong, leaving out the key players that made that piece of history so consumption-worthy. It’s called racism. Alright, let’s backtrack: it all started in Texas (duh) which had been cattle country since the 1500s, when it was colonised by Spain. Though gaining popularity, it wasn’t until the 1800s that cattle farming started becoming the economic gold mine it is today.

During the first half of the 19th century, hoards of white Americans looking to score cheap land started moving over to the Spanish (and later Mexican) territory of Texas, bringing with them enslaved people to work on their newly-acquired cattle ranches and cotton farms.

Black cowboys became highly-skilled in the tough business of minding the wild, wild West.

By around 1825, enslaved people made up a whopping 25% of the Texan settler population. By 1860 that percentage would rise to 30%. And since there were so many enslaved people living in Texas, it only made sense for Texas to join the Confederacy in 1861 (the group of pro-slavery states fighting against the Union – President Lincoln’s side).

And so, many a white Texan set off to join arms with their Confederacy brethren to fight against the Union in the East. And while they were away, they depended heavily on their enslaved people to look after their land and cattle.

The result: Black cowboys became highly-skilled in the tough business of minding the wild, wild West. And upon the Emancipation Proclamation, desperate white ranchers – who returned from the war to find their herds totally out of control – were forced to hire Black cowboys for help.

You can learn more about black cowboys here.

I’ve been following @rachel.cargle’s BHM prompts via her Instagram and have learned so much already – she releases a new prompt for people to Google everyday of BHM and I strongly suggest you get involved.

Also, please feel free to get in touch with me and share what you’ve learned this BHM. Let’s re-learn together!

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