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Dispatches from Baltimore: Black History is America’s History

February 26, 2019

Written by Karsonya Wise Whitehead, originally published in the Afro newspaper 2/16/19

Growing up in Washington, DC, in a small all-black community full of teachers and pastors and government workers, I learned early on that Black history is America’s history and it is American history. There were days when my father and his friends would interrupt our game of Freeze Tag or Simon Says to teach us about our history. We were told, more than once, that our history did not begin and end with slavery. Africans arrived in this country and worked as indentured servants, just like everyone else. We were taught that the Christopher Columbus “1492 Arrival Story” was a lie and that as black people, we were a part of the 1619 legacy. It was not until I was a college student, majoring in history, that I finally began to make the connections between 1619 and the beginning of the Black American history story.

It was in late August 1619, at Point Comfort, on the James River, that the first 20 Africans arrived on the shores of this country aboard the White Lion, an English ship. They were sold in exchange for food and later transported to Jamestown, where they were placed on indentured servant contracts. Given that Virginia’s General Assembly had not yet worked out the terms for what constituted enslavement in the colony, it is likely that they received the same rights, duties, privileges, responsibilities, and punishments as white indentured servants. Five years later, in 1624, two of the people from that ship, Anthony and Isabella, had a son, William Tucker, who was the first person of African ancestry born in the 13 British Colonies. Although very little is known about his life, records suggest that he was born at Fort Monroe, baptized in Jamestown, and named after Captain William Tucker, who held his parents’ indentured contracts.

When I first read through the research, I was reminded of what my father used to always tell us, Black History is American History. It has been 400 years since Black people arrived in this country and we are at a moment where we must pause to reflect on what it means to be the descendants of people who survived being born black in this country. We have survived four hundred years of constant brutal attacks on our blackness. We have endured four hundred years of degradation, humiliation, pain, death, and fear. And, yet, we are still here. They did not break us. They did not stop us. They did not erase us. They did not kill our joy, our faith, and our absolute belief in justice. We survived, and it is not because of magic; it is because we come from people who chose every single day to survive.

We are here at a moment that will define us, where we have to decide who we want to be, what do we want to be remembered for, and how do we want to contribute to this current movement for humanity. We are witnessing a moment, during a week of what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 24th birthday, that Black Lives Matter is actively being taught in the classroom while Virginia Governor Ralph Northam defends his use of wearing blackface. It is a week where Stacey Abrams became the first black woman to give a Democratic rebuttal to our nation’s first whitelash president. It is a moment where we are dealing with the reality that across the country unarmed black people are still being shot by the police while right here in Baltimore, our homicide numbers within the Black Butterfly neighbors are slowly inching up.

Frederick Douglass once said, that Black people watered the soil of America with their tears, nourished it with their blood, and tilled it with their hands. As a Black woman, it makes me proud to realize and understand that we helped to build this country and we are one of the reasons why it is so great. Ninety-three years ago, Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week, as a time to remember and teach about Black history. In 1976, it was expanded to a month and became an internationally recognized time of celebration. I grew up celebrating Black History Month in February and being taught Black history from March to January. As both a supporter and a critic of Black History Month, I hold fast to the hope that one day we will not need a designated month to remind people of who we are but that people will recognize that Black History is American History. And as such, it should be regularly taught in the schools, around the dinner tables, on long drives across the country, and in the middle of Fortnight games and Netflix challenges. This is how we rise, how we move forward, and how we honor those who made a decision to survive so that we could thrive.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.

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