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State of New York State History

Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams

The story of middle passage blacks in New York now moves to the 20th century. So far various posts have covered

* the diminishment of the story of middle passage blacks during the two centuries time of slavery until 1827 and some of the efforts to recover and tell the story (see Forgetting July 4, 1827 and  Undoing the Whitewashing of Black History in New York)

* the time of free black history in New York after 1827 which also tends to be ignored unless it is related to the Underground Railroad (see Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?)

* the shortcomings of the efforts by New York State related to the Underground Railroad especially in contrast to the recent initiative by former Confederate States to promote civil rights sites from the 20th century (see The Underground Railroad in New York State: Black Lives Still Don’t Matter and The Confederacy Trumps New York on Civil Rights Tourism)

* the shortcomings of the efforts by New York State through its Amistad Commission intended to be about slavery in the United States (meaning the South) while ignoring or minimizing the New York State story (see The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?)

At this point there are many people, often volunteer researchers and archaeologists, laboring to recover and tell this history.

In the 20th century, the situation changes drastically due to the Great Migration. With this movement of people from the South to various northern states including New York, the local middle passage blacks were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of new arrivals involved. Instead of the small-scale Seneca Village, there was Harlem. Instead of Weeksville there was Bed-Stuy. Instead of the Hills in Harrison, there was Mount Vernon. While the newcomers may have had ancestors dating back to colonial times, they were newcomers in New York, they had no roots to the centuries of middle passage black history in the state prior to the Harlem Renaissance.

These people from the South weren’t the only newcomers in large numbers to New York, especially New York City. Roughly at the same time, newcomers not just to New York but to the United States were arriving via Ellis Island. These Italians, Jews, and ethnics from eastern and southern Europe first saw the United States through the Statue of Liberty and a poem about the tired and the poor. They were here to live the American Dream. So were the people of the Great Migration who now had their first real opportunity to live that dream outside the agricultural southern economy .

These worlds operated somewhat separated and somewhat together. At this time, middle passage blacks were called Negroes. The word was simply the name of one demographic group with no value associated with it. It was a word everyone used including the Negroes themselves (see The Negro Name Game: My First Step Trying to Make Sense and Have Hope in a Racially Tumultuous Country).  When I was growing up in New Rochelle, the four leading demographic groups were the Jews, Irish, Italians, and Negroes. Intermarriage was between Irish and Italian (Cuomo-Kennedy). The first three of those groups are still called by those names.

With Negroes, a change would occur, the subject of a future post. For the moment, consider this recent announcement about an upcoming lecture:

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many whites believed that African Americans were inherently ill and doomed to extinction. To challenge this stereotype and demonstrate the race’s health, Booker T. Washington launched a public health campaign in 1915: National Negro Health Week. This talk examines the changes in, and challenges to, medical authority and public health in African American communities that the Week caused. The goal is to show how African American definitions of health differed from those of the medical establishment and the implications such differences created for the social control over, and empowerment of, African Americans.

Or this description of Negro published by the Encyclopedia of African-American Education:

The Journal of Negro Education (JNE), a scholarly refereed journal, was founded at Howard University in 1932. It is one of the oldest continuously published periodicals by and about Black people. At the time of its inception, however, there was no publication that systematically or comprehensively addressed the enormous problems that characterized the education of Blacks in the United States and elsewhere. The mainstream educational journals only occasionally published articles or studies pertaining to Black education, but no publication focused specifically on this area.

These name combinations anticipate the change which would occur in the Negro quest to live the American Dream when they stopped calling themselves Negroes.

In many ways, Negroes created an alternate reality from the dominant white world but one still imbued with traditional American values. In 1931, The Star-Spangled Banner became the official anthem of the United States. In an editorial (11/21/17, NYT) about “Colin Kaepernick and the Legacy of the Negro National Anthem,” Brent Staples wrote:

Well before then, however, black communities across the Jim Crow South were instead embracing the soaring, aspirational lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — otherwise known as the Negro National Anthem — which was sung in churches, at civic events and even in schools, where substituting the song for “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a quiet act of rebellion against the racist status quo….

James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900 to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at a time when the government seemed to have abandoned altogether the promise of Reconstruction. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, had validated the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

So while white America took a song that had been around since the War of 1812, black America created a song to celebrate Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. How many monuments to America’s greatest president do you think there are in the former Confederacy today?

During this time, Negroes began to tell there own story. In 1934, journalist and historian Joel Augustus Rogers’ columns were consolidated into the book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof: A Short Cut to The World History of The Negro. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. produced his own version under the same title in 2017. The exhibition, The Negro Artist Comes of Age was shown in 1945 at the Albany Institute of History & Art. Just this month, a lecture was presented at the same institution on the exhibit. When the exhibition first opened it was reviewed in The Journal of Negro History but the comments aren’t what you might expect:

The aim is to lift the Negro artist from the patronizing sphere of a group set off by itself and regarded as Negro artists rather than as artists who happened to be Negroes. The very exhibit itself left upon one of the artists invited to participate this very undesirable impression and for that reason he refused to exhibit.

One observes here in the post-WWII era, a desire not to separated but to be included – why should there be separate art exhibits based on race?

Yet separation was the way of the world. In 1936, the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book appeared. Annual editions would be printed until 1967. It drew on the Jewish experience of the need to identify where it was safe to be what you as you traveled throughout the United States.

So during these decades, Negroes had their own history, art, and hotels. If they had their own anthem, they also had their own sports events as well. These decades were the highpoint of the Negro Baseball League. All these differences came to a point in Brooklyn with Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers. The Dodgers already were the most integrated team in baseball. Part of their mystique in Brooklyn was that they were everywhere. They were in every school, neighborhood, and ethnicity in the borough of immigrants. In some way adding Negroes to the mix was a logical next step given all the other ethnicities on the team and in the stands. It brought to the forefront the issues of the national anthem, travel, and separate but equal. In some ways, the Dodgers signified that yes, Negroes could live the American Dream and play in America’s pastime with everyone else.

In a previous post (Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?), I wrote about the movie Brooklyn. It tells the story of an individual Irish immigrant to Brooklyn in the 1950s during the glory era of the Dodgers. Through education, marriage to an Italian, and the promise of a home in the new Long Island suburbs, she came to live the American Dream. My question in that post was where is the movie about the Negro who lives the American Dream…not a movie about slavery and the white savior or the Underground Railroad, but a movie about individual blacks who live the American Dream just as so many other people did.

Then I saw Hidden Figures with Kevin Costner of Field of Dreams and Whitney Houston fame. He appeared in a movie where he was not the star but delivered one of the most memorable lines of the movie: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” It reminded me of the line in To Sir with Love when Sidney Poitier is cut and bleeding red blood. One of his English students says “Did you expect him to bleed ink?” (or words to that effect, it’s been a while). The bathroom scenes in Hidden Figures really do a superb job of illustrating class, race, and sex divides without being heavy-handed about them.

The movie is set in Virginia in the early 1960s when the space race heats up. The time and location are about the same as the movie Loving about an interracial marriage and just before the 1971 integration of a Virginia high school and football team in 1971 depicted in Remember the Titans. Hidden Figures itself is about three colored (not people of color) women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, NASA scientists, and how they live the American Dream. Like the movie Brooklyn and the traditional stories of white Americans living the American Dream, it is a story of family, home, church, education, service to country, and hard work where black and white together shared the fears and pride in the American quest to go to the moon.

The movie seems to herald a better day for Negroes. The proclamation “I have a dream” meant that the arc of history was bending towards a time when blacks and whites both would be able to live the American Dream together. That didn’t happen. Fifty Years an African-American will be the subject of the next post on what happened instead.

6 thoughts on “Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams

  1. Your “Hidden Figures” piece brought to mind another heroic black man who is unfamiliar to many Americans, be they white or black. His name is Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874–1938) and he is, arguably, “The Father of Black History although there are others black historians and writers before him who covered the subject.
    Anyway he was born in Santurce, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico and he was the child of a black woman, Maria Joseph who was originally from St. Croix, Danish Virgin Islands (now the U.S. Virgin Islands), and his father a long-time resident of Puerto Rico who immigrated from Germany, named Carlos Federico Schomburg. The story (perhaps apocryphal) is that as a young boy in Puerto Rico, Arturo was told that by his 5th grade teacher that black people lacked culture or history. This was a comment that he would never forget. It contributed to Schomburg’s decision to devote his life to sourcing and collecting black history. Schomburg immigrated to New York City, in 1891. He was a very active participant in the Cuban/Puerto Rican communities efforts to free their islands from Spanish rule and to become free and sovereign nations. He also founded a fraternal lodge comprised of African-Americans and of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants, known as the “Prince Hall Lodge” in honor of the first black freemason in the country.
    In 1896, Schomburg began his own business in NYC teaching Spanish and serving as a translator of documents. From 1901 to 1906 Schomburg was employed as messenger and clerk in the law firm of Pryor, Mellis and Harris, New York City. In 1906, he began working for the Bankers Trust Company. Later, he became a supervisor of the Caribbean and Latin American Mail Section, and held that position until he left in 1929. While supporting himself and his family, Schomburg also began his intellectual work of writing about Caribbean and African-American history.
    In 1911, Schomburg partnered with John Edward Bruce to found The Negro Society for Historical Research, to create an institute to support scholarly efforts. For the first time, it brought together African, West Indian, and Afro-American scholars. In 1914, Schomburg joined the exclusive American Negro Academy, becoming, from 1920-1928, the fifth and last President of the organization. Founded in Washington, DC in 1897, this first major African American learned society brought together scholars, editors, and activists to refute racist scholarship, promote black claims to individual, social, and political equality, and publish the history and sociology of African American life.
    Schomburg became involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement, which spread to other African-American communities in the U.S. The concentration of blacks in Harlem from across the US and Caribbean led to a flowering of arts, intellectual and political movements. He was the co-editor of the 1912 edition of Daniel Alexander Payne Murray’s Encyclopedia of the Colored Race. In 1916 Schomburg published what was the first notable bibliography of African-American poetry, A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry
    In 1925, Schomburg published an essay called, “The Negro Digs Up His Past” in an issue of Survey Graphic devoted to the intellectual life of Harlem. He starts off the essay by stating: “Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro.” He says that Black people have to dig deep into their own history in order to affirm themselves in the face of living, at best, in the margins of a white world and at worst, at the center of actual and systemic oppression. Basically he wants to sett the record straight and have black people reclaim their history that was omitted, erased and misinterpreted by white historians. In this regard also discusses several of the black abolishionists who have been left out of the struggle to free their people from bondage. Since they were often regarded as appendages of the more well-known white abolitionists of their day and he cites these figures to illustrate his point that the history of black Americans, if it was written at all, was written from a white perspective.
    Schomburg was an avid collector of materials on Africa and its Diaspora, and over his lifetime he amassed well over 10,000 Africana documents from his travels to spain, England and other parts of Europe. In 1926 his personal collection was added to the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints of the Harlem branch of The New York Public Library and he served as curator from 1932 until his death. Today, this library has morphed into the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library and it is one of the foremost research centers on Africa and the Diaspora, with more than 10 million items.

    1. I never knew source for the name of the NYPL center. In fact, my post goes to people there so I may forward this addition to them. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I don’t know if my experience even relates but here goes:

    I grew up in Claverack, a farming community just east of Hudson. We lived on one or another of our farms over the first 14 years of my life. I attended Claverack Union Free School. My mother and her brothers attended this same school. The school was Kindergarten thru 8th grade.

    There were no blacks in the school (or in the community). All the local blacks lived in Hudson. When my father and uncles needed seasonal farm labor, they had to use migrant labor from Jamaica. I believe they would have rather have hired local labor because we had to provide reasonable living quarters for the Jamaicans. I always wondered why we didn’t hire locally but I don’t recall ever asking that question.

    It wasn’t until I was fourteen when my family moved to Millbrook down in Dutchess County where I entered high school. There were a half dozen blacks in my class. Some went to my church. We were all good friends as far as I can remember.

    The concept of discrimination or separate but equal didn’t seem to exist to my naive mind.

    I went off to college (Rutgers) and my two freshman roommates were Jewish. I never knew a Jewish person before that. We got along very well but they seemed to prefer to hang out with their Jewish friends. This was really my first experience with a preferential separation of ethnic or religious groups.

    After my first year I joined a social live in fraternity on campus. We had Jewish, Italian, even Irish brothers but there were no blacks. I remember when the first black potential pledge showed up during “rush week”. Everyone really liked him and I thought he was a shoe in but then I over-heard some brothers saying that no matter what happened, they were planning to “black ball” this outstanding person. I was really mad that people would exclude him just based on the color of his skin….I had never experienced this type of feeling or action before. Did I quit the fraternity…no. I figured it was an individual choice not the policy of the fraternity. This was 1962.

    I don’t know how to say this but it seems to me, in my narrow view of life, that the whole reality of discrimination and separation seemed to break out like the plague after that. We entered the era of demonstration and even race riots, even in Rochester, NY where I ended up in 1968 after completing military service….which is another whole story about my view of race relations.

    It boggles my mind to figure out how we ended up in such a mess…I would have assumed that we, as a people, were above all of that. Clearly I am wrong and it hurts a great deal to bump into that reality.

    I have racked my brain trying to figure out how I can make a difference in this struggle…except to live my life in a different manner but is that sufficient?

    Peter Evans
    County Historian
    Wayne County Historian

  3. Peter: Suggest you not beat your self up over what others have done but perhaps as Wayne County Historian you can do more toward bringing the history of African Americans in your area to light. I think a historical account of the civil rights struggles in Rochester and other communities is worth exploring. Not sure but I believe that in mid July 1863 there was quite a bit of tension over the induction of whites and a call that blacks should be used as substitutes for them.

    1. Thanks but rest assure I am not beating myself up! Your suggestion is a good one and goes to the issue of what the municipal historians should be doing. Certainly there are many Civil War stories to tell and I recall when visiting Troy with the teachers there was a presentation on what happened in that city.

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