Tag Archives: African American History

This Day in History 3/9: The Supreme Court frees the Amistad Africans

I’m preparing a response to a statement by Sean Penn in yesterday’s Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, in which he stated that certain reported should be jailed for criticizing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

In the meantime, today we celebrate a moment in American history where people sacrificed for the very freedom that Penn exploits with his anti-democratic venom.

In 1839, a group of enslaved Africans rebelled against the crew of the schooner Amistad, which had left the port of Havana.  They were later captured near Long Island by a naval officer that immediately sent the prisoners to Connecticut.  His intentions were as bold as they were barbaric: Connecticut had not yet officially abolished slavery, and the captain hoped to make a profit from the rebellious Africans.

The ensuing case of the Amistad Africans caused a sensation.  It energized the abolitionist movement in America, and reinforced opposition to the slave trade in other countries.  The main argument was that the initial passage of the Africans across the Atlantic (which did not involve the Amistad) had been illegal, because the international slave trade had been abolished, first in the British Empire in 1807, then in the US in 1808, and internationally in 1840.  Therefore, they were obtained illegally, thus never legally enslaved to begin with. Furthermore, given they were illegally confined, the Africans were entitled to take what legal measures necessary to secure their freedom, including the use of force.

The case eventually came before the Supreme Court, and it rendered its ruling on March 9, 1841.  The Court, in a 7-1 decision, upheld the lower court’s findings that the Africans were captured illegally and were entitled to fight for their freedom, since they could not be enslaved.  The Amistad Africans returned to their place of origin, the Mende region in present-day Sierra Leone, in 1842.

The Amistad rebellion was one of only two successful slave ship uprisings in American history, and one of only three successful slave rebellions in North America–the others being the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1804 and the rebellion abord the slaver Creole in 1841. 

Attached are clips from the 1997 film Amistad, directed by Stephen Spielberg.  It has its problems with historical accuracy, but it shows the time period and the spirit of the events very well.  The first clip is tough to watch, as it depicts the “Middle Passage” of the Africans from their kidnapping in Africa to their voyage onboard the slave ship Tecora towards Cuba.  The second is John Quincy Adams’ speech before the Supreme Court.  It isn’t the exact speech given by Adams, but Anthony Hopkins does a great job conveying the spirit and ethos of the case.

Anything to say about that, Sean?

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Unknown African-American Heroes: The Healy Family of Georgia

February is Black History Month, and the Neighborhood will be highlighting some African-Americans that may not readily come to mind for students. 

First off is a family from Georgia that achieved many notable firsts as African-Americans, even though many Blacks still belittle their accomplishments, due to their mixed lineage and religion.  In 1818, Michael Morris Healy emigrated from Ireland and settled in the “bottom” country of Jones County, Georgia, near the town of Macon.  He would become a successful cotton planter, with 1,500 acres and 49 enslaved Africans.  Among them was a 16 year old girl named Mary Eliza, who Healy took as his common-law wife in 1829.  Even though their “marriage” was illegal, they lived as husband and wife, rearing 10 children.

It is these children, these “bastard” children of an illegal union that are the heart of this story.  Under Georgia law, children of slaves and masters were considered enslaved, and thus prohibited from receiving an education.  The Healys were thus educated in northern schools and abroad, always in strict adherence to their father’s Roman Catholic faith.  Among the nine children were:

James Augustine Healy (1830-1900)

 

 

 

 

 

1. James Augustine Healy (1830-1900) -Though not as documented as his brothers, James did found the Healy legacy of achievement.  He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1849.  In 1875, Healy became the first African-American Roman Catholic bishop, as he was installed as Bishop of Portland, Maine.   James oversaw the establishment of 60 new churches, 68 missions, 18 convents and 18 schools.

Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910)

 

2. Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910) – Patrick Healy is a personal favorite of mine, as he is connected to my alma mater.  Patrick graduated Holy Cross in 1850, and then entered the Jesuit order.  The Jesuits, fearing that his race would be an issue in the states, sent Patrick to the University of Louvain, in Belgium.  He became the first African-American to earn a PhD–NOT W.E.B. Du Bois as commonly believed.  In 1866 Healy became dean of Georgetown University.  In 1874, Patrick became president of Georgetown, the first African-American of a major, white-majority university in the United States.  As president, Healy modernized the curriculum by requiring courses in the sciences, particularly chemistry and physics. He even expanded and upgraded the schools of law and medicine.  Patrick’s influence was so far-reaching that he is hailed as Georgetown’s “second founder”, after founder John Carroll.

 

Michael Augustine Healy (1839-1904)

3. Michael Augustine Healy (1839-1904) -Michael, who ditched Holy Cross for a life at sea, did not follow his older brothers’ path to the priesthood.  Michael joined a British ship as a cabin boy in 1854.  In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed Michael’s commission as a Third Lieutenant in the Revenue Cutter Service, which would later become the United States Coast Guard.  Healy patrolled the 20,000 miles of Alaskan coastline for more than 20 years, earning great respect of the natives and seafarers alike. After commercial fishing had depleted the whale and seal populations, his assistance with introduction of Siberian reindeer helped prevent starvation among the native Alaskans.  He became the first African-American to attain the rank of captain of the Coast Guard in 1880.  In 1882, he became the first African-American to captain a US government ship.  His life inspired Jack London’s novel the Sea-Wolf, as well as James Michener’s Alaska.

All of these men achieved “firsts” for African-Americans, yet few scholars and even fewer African-Americans acknowledge their accomplishments.  The reasons are simple: they often did not openly recognize their African roots, and they were Catholic. 

The Healys were light-skinned: they “passed” for white as long as their lineage was not questioned.  Yet none of them openly denied their mother’s heritage.  Patrick Healy, in fact, was unashamed to acknowledge his African blood if questioned, even though he was president of a college with a large Southern white population. 

The Catholic aspect was part of a general bias against Catholics in America through most of the 19th Century.  In fact, it could be said that the Healys were equally, if not more, held back by their religion as they were by their race. 

Yet regardless of their race or their religion, it was a shame that their achievements have lacked recognition.  This February, let’s hope the Healys attain their deserved place among the pantheon of African-American heroes.

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The Complexities of the “Dream” — Quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When a person becomes famous, or important, he/she often ceases to have any humanity.

 That person becomes marble, a statue, a painting, an inanimate idol to be worshipped and adored like a vacant pagan god.

Yet it is in their complexity that people truly arise as great.  Such is the case with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Much too often, classrooms distill Dr. King’s legacy into a neat little narrative: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, the Nobel Peace Prize (and the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, if that teacher’s adventurous) and his assassination.  For must students, King is frozen in time at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, giving his now-ubiquitous “I Have a Dream” Speech.

Yet the King from 1964 to 1968 is even more fascinating.  The civil rights movement shifted towards more militancy, with Black Power and the Black Panthers.  The Vietnam War moved the focus of many young people towards more radical peace initiatives.  Even Dr. King’s rhetoric had shifted, from one primarily of fighting for civil rights for Blacks to one of social justice and anti-war advocacy.

What follows are a collection of quotes by Dr. King from 1964 to about 1968.  Many of the 1967 quotes come from his “Where Do We Go From Here?” address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wherein the group is re-assessing their mission in the wake of the tumultuous decade.  Notice how Dr. King addresses subjects such as poverty, war, science, black nationalism, and global affairs. 

To our ears, these words may seem disconcerting, even radical.  Yet they are important in understanding the path King was to take if he had not met his end by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. … Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”   – 1967

“Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten. A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present. America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness — justice.” – 1967

“I endorse it (banning prayer in public schools). I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in god. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right.” – 1965

“If a city has a 30% Negro population, then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30% of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas.” – 1968

“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary.” – 1963

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” – 1967

“As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian emancipation proclamation or Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. And, with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abegnation and say to himself and to the world, ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history.’” – 1967

“Don’t let anybody make you think God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world.” – 1967

“The problem (of poverty) indicates that our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.” – 1967

“Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.” – 1967

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.” – 1968

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