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We Are Still Here: Negroes and Indians

Negro and Indian are not slur words … unless you want them to be. Negro and Indian are not derogatory words … unless you want them to be. Negro and Indian are not terms of insult … unless you want them to be. We determine not only what words mean but their subjective value. Terminology matters Perhaps the most famous divergence is between the Civil War and the War of Northern Aggression.

The appearance of “Negro” and “Indian” can prove problematic for history organizations, historians, teachers, students, and talk show hosts and newscasters. They may not be able to say the word even when it appears on screen or in a powerpoint. But erasing these words distorts the historical record and undermines understanding why they were replaced. These words have not disappeared from the historical record and continue to be used today.

In other blogs, I have examined the use of the word Indian today. Now I shift to the word Negro.

In this blog, I am continuing my investigation into the demise of the Negro era in American history due to decisions made by white people in the 1930s-1960s and the birth of the African American era. In my previous blog on this subject (The Destruction of Negro Communities and the Birth of the African American (February 28, 2023), I presented two similar but different migrations: the Great Migration of Negroes from the South and the Ellis Island migrations from southern and eastern Europe. Back then around a century ago, Negroes, Italians, and Jews all were considered to be not white.

At first all three peoples were succeeding in living the American Dream. James Weldon Johnson, head of the NAACP in New York wrote in 1925:

In the make-up of New York, Harlem is not merely a Negro colony or community, it is a city within a city, the greatest Negro city in the world. It is not a slum or a fringe, it is located in the heart of Manhattan and occupies one of the most beautiful and healthful sections of the city. It is not a ‘quarter’ of dilapidated tenements, but is made up of new-law apartments and handsome dwellings, with well-paved and well-lighted streets. It has its own churches, social and civic centers, shops, theaters and other places of amusement. And it contains more Negroes to the square mile than any other spot on earth. A stranger who rides up magnificent Seventh Avenue on a bus or in an automobile must be struck with surprise at the transformation which takes place after he crosses One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street. Beginning there, the population suddenly darkens and he rides through twenty-five solid blocks where the passers- by, the shoppers, those sitting in restaurants, coming out of theaters, standing in doorways and looking out of windows are practically all Negroes; and then he emerges where the population as suddenly becomes white again. There is nothing just like it in any other city in the country, for there is no preparation for it; no change in the character of the houses and streets; no change, indeed, in the appearance of the people, except their color. (“Harlem, the Culture Capital,” in The New Negro: An Interpretation, Alain Locke, ed. 1925; see also “The Seligmans, Philip Payton & Harlem’s Black-Jewish Alliance” by James Kaplan in New York Almanack 4/10/23).

I used the metaphor of baseball to represent that success. Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers and Sandy Koufax of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers were Jews. Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers was Negro. Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees and Carl Furillo of the Brooklyn Dodgers were Italian. Roy Campanella, Negro mother and Italian father, was biracial with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The one obvious difference was that Robinson and Campanella had to play the Negro Leagues before reaching the major leagues.

As it turns out, Negroes did not simply disappear from history with the switch to African American in the late 1960s. Since that earlier blog, I have come across numerous examples of the continued presence of Negroes as demonstrated in the examples below. These examples do not derive from any research I did. I conducted no search on the web. They simply are examples of the ongoing presence of the Negro in American history evident from the newspapers, magazines, and journals I receive (hard copy) and the notifications and announcements I received to my email. I was surprised at the frequency of the mentions.

In roughly chronological order:


2026 and Black Americans: A Conversation about Benjamin Quarles author of The Negro in the American Revolution (Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture 6/28/23 online)

Four scholars gathered to discuss the long-term impact of Benjamin Quarles’s scholarship: Adam X. McNeil (Rutgers University), Rebecca Brannon (James Madison University), Derrick Spires (Cornell University), and Michael Dickinson (Virginia Commonwealth University). They shared stories about their first encounters with The Negro in the American Revolution, its role in shaping their own research and teaching, and the ways in which they see Quarles’s influence on the scholarship of the American Revolution overall.

The Philipsburg Proclamation (Philipse Manor Hall, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation 6/30/23 online)

On this day, June 30, 1779, General Sir Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation at Philipse Manor. It would go on to have a huge impact on the American Revolution.

By His Excellency Sir Henry Clinton, K. B. General and Commander in Chief of all this Majesty’s Forces, within the Colonies laying on the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia to West-Florida, inclusive, &c., &c., &c.
Whereas the Enemy have adopted a practice of enrolling Negroes among their Troops; I do hereby give Notice, That all Negroes taken in Arms, or upon any military Duty, shall be purchased for a stated Price; the Money to be paid to the Captors.
But I do most strictly forbid any Person to sell or claim Right over any Negroe, the Property of a Rebel, who may take Refuge with any Part of this Army; and I do promise to every Negroe Who shall desert the Rebel Standard, full Security to follow within these Lines; any Occupation which he shall think proper.
Given under my Hand at Head-Quarters, Philipsburgh, the 30th Day of June, 1779. H. Clinton.
By his Excellency’s Command, John Smith, Secretary.

Carleton refused to break the promise of the Philipsburg Proclamation and those that came before it. He oversaw the evacuation of thousands of Black Loyalists, and it is through his efforts that the Book of Negroes was compiled and survives as one of the best primary sources on Black Loyalists in the period.

The Birch Trials (exhibition, Fraunces Tavern Museum, 6/26/23 in person)

I attended the preview of the opening of this exhibit. Obviously the Book of Negroes figures prominently in it.


“How a Grad Student Uncovered the Largest Known Slave Auction in the U.S.” (ProPublica 6/16/23 online)

Lauren Davila made a stunning discovery as a graduate student at the College of Charleston: an ad for a slave auction larger than any historian had yet identified. The find yields a new understanding of the enormous harm of such a transaction.

On page 3, fifth column over, 10th advertisement down, she read:

“This day, the 24th instant, and the day following, at the North Side of the Custom-House, at 11 o’clock, will be sold, a very valuable GANG OF NEGROES, accustomed to the culture of rice; consisting of SIX HUNDRED.”
She stared at the number: 600.
A sale of 600 people would mark a grim new record — by far.

The article goes on to recount the effort to locate the owner of this gang of Negroes. In so doing it shed light on a part of the history of Charlestown previously unknown.

“Improper and Almost Rebellious Conduct”: Enslaved People’s Legal Politics and Abolition in the British Empire” (American Historical Review June 2023)

The current issue of the journal of the American Historical Association contains an article about events in Great Britain and its Caribbean colonies mainly in the 1820s and 1830s on the abolition of slavery. The article does mention Negroes multiple times in reference to texts from that time period.

Frederick Douglass

“I want a home here not only for the Negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. The outspread wings of the American Eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come” (NYT 7/2/23 print).

In this op-ed piece Jamelle Bouie quotes Frederick Douglas in Boston from 1867 as the 14th Amendment and birthright citizenship was being debated. It would seem that Douglass’s vision of a “composite nationality” as a beacon for all peoples resonates with the author today.

W. E. B. Du Bois

As part of the American Historical Association amends for racist practices, the history organization is conducting book reviews of books previously ignored. The December 2022 issue has a review of Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy, 1860-1880 (1935).

According to the reviewer,

Du Bois battled with editor J. Franklin Jameson over the punctuation of “Negro.” When Du Bois returned the initial proof, he asked that “Negro” be capitalized “as a matter of courtesy.”

In the exchange of letters with the editor, Du Bois wrote:

…”the word Negro is almost universally capitalized” in European countries and had been capitalized in the United States until about 1840, “when ‘Negroes became definitively cattle for all time.”    

According to the reviewer,

… to capitalize “Negro” in the pages of AHR (American Historical Review) and to take seriously his larger interpretation, required an acceptance of the radical idea of Black personhood. [Du Bois wrote] “I am going to tell this story as Negroes were ordinary human beings…”

The reviewer continues to quote passages from the book where Du Bois used the term “Negro.” Can you imagine this debate taking place today?

The reviewer comments that “Perhaps better than any other work before or since, Black Reconstruction captures the tragedy of U.S. history.”

Du Bois appears in a second book review, this book not by him but about him: The Wounded World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War (NYT 6/4/23 print). The reviewer cites this passage from the book spoken by Du Bois:

“I did not believe in war, but I thought that in a fight with America against militarism and for democracy we would be fighting for the emancipation of the Negro race.”

Such sentiment did not blind Du Bois to the reality “that American white officers fought more valiantly against Negroes within our ranks than they did against the Germans.”


“Return of the Monarchy… i.e., The Kansas City Monarchs: Fort Niagara and Satchel Paige (Fortress Niagara newsletter June 2023 print)

The story of a visit by the Kansas City Monarchs, Negro American League Champion in 1939, 1940, 1941, and 1942, on August 28 and September 15, 1942 to Offerman Stadium in Buffalo to play the Fort Niagara military team stationed at the fort. The Monarchs won the first game and Fort Niagara won the second game with Paige pitching three scoreless innings in the second.

“Negro Leagues Baseball Museum announces plan to build new $25 million museum campus” (KSHB 5/2/23 online)

… the spirit of the Negro Leagues still is strong through the iconic Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Now, the museum is about to get bigger, as the NLBM and president Bob Kendrick announced plans Tuesday to build a new $25-million campus for the museum Tuesday, the 103rd anniversary of the first Negro League game.

“The Double Life of Ernest Withers: A new documentary probes the achievements — and betrayals—of an iconic civil rights photojournalist” (The Pennsylvania Gazette May/June 2023 print). The article references his photographs of the celebrated Memphis Negro League baseball team.

“Reviving a Negro Leagues Monument: Saved from demolition with a $100 million makeover, Hincliffe Stadium reopens as a minor league park and museum” (NYT 5/18/23 print).

This banner headline tells the story of one of the last of the Negro leagues ballparks still standing. Though abandoned, this Patterson, New Jersey Field of Dreams has been brought back to life.

“Remembering when Baseball Was His Calling: The Rev. William H. Greason, 98, aided Willie Mays and was in the last Negro World Series” (NYT 6/5/23/print)

This huge three-page article about the oldest living Negro leagues player obviously abounds in the use of the term “Negro.” It also refers to the Southern Negro League Museum in Birmingham, Alabama.

“In Homage to Mays and the Negro Leagues, M.L.B. Heads to Birmingham” (NYT 6/21/23 print)

Rickwood Field, believed to be the oldest professional baseball stadium in the United States, will host a Major League game on June 20, 2024. This action is part of the celebration by the M.L.B. of Negro League baseball. One hopes that Willie Mays, age 92 and born five miles away, and William Greason, age 98 (above) will witness this stadium where they once played.

“Schenectady Baseball History: The Mohawk Giants” (6/29/23, New York Almanack, online)

Harry Buckner, member of the 1913 Mohawk Giants
A history of the Mohawk Colored Giants who played in Schenectady. The team was disbanded in 1915 but Independent Negro teams came back to the Schenectady area in 1924 later renamed the Mohawk Giants. The author writes:
When discussing the topic of Negro teams, obviously the topic of racial issues cannot be overlooked.  Race relations were most likely not any better or worse in Schenectady compared to other areas throughout the country.… The Giants were in a unique situation in Schenectady, unlike teams from larger urban areas, the Giants relied on a white fan base to support them.  For the most part they were treated as Schenectady’s own and respected, but there was always an invisible color line in the city.

One highlight was in 1939:

During this season the team was also invited to partake in Baseball’s Centennial Program in Cooperstown where Negro baseball was given recognition.  The Giants would play the New York Cubans of the Negro National League and lose 6-0.

“The Negro Leagues are major leagues — but merging their stats has been anything but seamless” ( 5/11/23 online)

The article recounts the difficulty Major League Baseball is having integrating the statistics from the multiple Negro baseball leagues into the records of the major leagues. Acquiring the data in a standardized format is part of the problem.
Now there is a documentary The League about the Negro Leagues released July 7. The movie has received press coverage as well including interviews with the film director Sam Pollard.


In a major op-ed piece about the machinations in the Democratic presidential convention of 1948, Samuel Freedman quotes (NYT 7/19/23 print) A. Phillip Randolph, a labor and civil rights leader, informing Harry Truman in the White House:
“The Negroes are in the mood not to bear arms for the country unless Jim Crow in the armed forces is abolished.”


In an op-ed piece also following the recent Supreme Court
decision on affirmative action (NYT 6/30/23 print), Jerome Karabel quotes Thurgood Marshall:

“It is more than a little ironic that after several hundred years of class-based discrimination against Negroes, the court is unwilling to hold that a class-based remedy for that discrimination is permissible.”

On the same topic a few weeks later, Richard D. Kahlenberg wrote an op-ed piece “Focus on Class, Not Race: Affirmative action still exists — for the rich (NYT 7/9/23 print) He references first Whitney Young of the Urban League who had called for  “a decade of discrimination in favor of Negro youth.” He then quotes Martin Luther King:

“It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years”

The death of Jim Brown in May led to numerous tributes and length obituaries about the Hall of Fame football player. He is still cited as a person who left on top of his career instead of fading into retirement as a much lesser player. When playing for the Cleveland Brown, he founded the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. He is quoted as having said in 1968 about his film career:

“I don’t want to play Negro parts. Just cool, tough modern men who are also Negroes. And not good guys all the time” (NYT 5/20/23 print).

The death of C.R. Roberts, 87, Unstoppable Rusher in Breakthrough Against Segregation (NYT 7/19/23 print) reported on a less well-known figure. “…[O]ne local newspaper in 1954 extolled him as the “all-American Negro flash.” Two years later he ran for 251 yards against an all-white Texas team. The obituary includes mention of the famed games of Texas Western against Kentucky for the NCAA basketball championship in 1966 and USC against Alabama in 1970. The latter two games were eye-openers for famed white coaches Adolph Rupp and Bear Bryant.


In an article “Uruguay Has a Beef, and It’s Not With China” (NYT 7/20/23 print), there is a reference to sturgeon being raised in the “River Negro.” Apparently Uruguay is not Texas where place names with the word “Negro” are being removed. There is no indication about whether or not Uruguay got the memo.


In a review of a new book on Martin Luther King, Jr., the reviewer quotes one contributor saying about Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, where King was born, it was “the richest Negro street in the world” (NYT 5/28/23 print). Notice, he did not change the name as often happens with Negro Wall Street in Tulsa or the Negro Green Book.

[In the review of Requiem for the Massacre: A Black History on the Conflict, Hope and Fallout of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by RJ Young (NYT 1/1/23 print), the reviewer cites Young’s search for the phrase “Black Wall Street” falsely attributed to Booker T. Washington. The reviewer cites Young’s disdain for the ubiquitous use now of the historically inaccurate term even as part of the history center’s official name.]

The review of the King book concludes with:

Here was man building a reform movement on the most American of pillars: the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the American dream.  

In a Jan. 16, 1964, letter to TIME co-founder Henry Luce, King explained what that designation of Time’s Man of the Year meant to him—and to the movement:

Dear Mr. Luce:
I am deeply honored that your staff and editorial board saw fit to name me as your 37th Man of the Year.
In light of the unprecedented peaks of drama, history and tragedy that characterized the year 1963, I must say that it is with a deep sense of humility that I thank you for so naming me, realizing that there are so many others who justly and deservedly should be accorded such a tribute. I would like to think that this is indeed an honor not to be coveted by me personally, but rather one to be shared by the millions of courageous people who have been caught up in the gallant spirit of the entire freedom movement, even to offering their bodies as personal sacrifices to achieve the human dignity we all seek. This, then, I consider a high tribute to this disciplined legion of nonviolent participants who are working so untiringly to bring the American dream into reality.
Permit me also to congratulate TIME upon its inclusion in the article of many of the Negro professionals who have achieved success in numerous areas of the main stream of America that ordinarily might go unnoticed by TIME’s large audience of readers. This image of the Negro is certainly one that many of us like to see carried in the pages of our national periodicals, for it does much to help grind away the granite-like notions that have obtained for so long that the Negro is not able to take his place in all fields of endeavor and that he is lazy, shiftless and without ambition.
Again may I say thanks for the honor you have bestowed upon me and my constituents in the civil rights struggle. It will long be remembered in association with a year that has carved for itself a uniqueness in history.
Sincerely yours,
Martin Luther King, Jr. (published 2/28/23 print)

Look at what is missed by erasing the Negro from American history. Negroes wanted to and were living the American dream. In “Growing Injustice, Growing Dissent” (NYT 6/4/23 print), the author writes:

Being Armenian, my family was barred from living on the fancy side town for a half-century. No Negroes, Asians, Armenians or Mexicans, the deeds read.

Asians are still here.
Armenians are still here.
Mexicans are still here.
What happened to the Negroes?

The Destruction of Negro Communities and the Birth of the African American

America's Immigrant and Great Immigration team (

The destruction of Negro communities in the 20th century was not due to slavery. In some ways The New York Times 1619 Project has sucked the oxygen out of the room in its reframing of American history to address current issues. Quite the contrary, the origin of African American should be understood in its historical context which has more to do with racism than slavery.

The destruction of Negro communities was due to a series of racist decisions made in the 20th century. White people made these decisions mainly in the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s. They were in response to a slightly earlier event, the Great Migration, where millions of people migrated from the South to the North. That movement led to the North being faced with questions it had not had to address before, at least not to this magnitude. The response was series of decisions culminating in the 1960s with Negroes burning the very cities they had migrated to, followed by the birth of the African American.

In this blog, I would like to trace the trajectory of Negroes as immigrants to show what might have happened without racism. Then I will turn to what did happened with racism.


It is often said that America is an immigrant country. It is a place people migrate to in order to live the American Dream. In the 19th century, waves of German and Irish immigrants followed this trajectory. They often arrived in Castle Garden in lower Manhattan.

Subsequently another wave of immigrants from Europe arrived in the United States also through New York. These Ellis Island immigrants are associated with the Statue of Liberty both of which can be visited. The geographical origin of the European immigrants shifted to southern and eastern Europe. It included most prominently Italians, Jews, and Slavic peoples. It was at this time that the “melting pot” image really developed along with the role of schools in educating the immigrant children in English, civics, and American history.

The Great Migration of Negroes from the South should be understood within this context. By that I mean the path these immigrant Negroes from the South took should be compared to the path the Ellis Island immigrants from Europe took in living the American Dream to determine where they coincided and where they differed.

In some ways, the Great Migration provides an opportunity for the concept of contrafactual that one hears about in historical studies. It refers to “what if?” What if a different decision had been made? What if a different action had been taken? What if you had never been born? Here the question is what if the Negro immigrants to the North had followed the same path as the Ellis Island immigrants who arrived in roughly the same locations at roughly the same time? That will be the subject for the rest of this blog. Since we know that the paths differed and often put the two groups at odds with each other, the next blog will examine the parting of the ways. At the beginning of this path neither Italians nor Jews were considered to be white either. Eventually, they did become white although anti-Semitism continues to this very day.


When the Negroes migrated North such as to New York City, they seemed to be on the path to being accepted as Americans and living the American Dream. Earlier blogs touched on this subject.

Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams (March 11, 2018)

What Should You Call Middle Passage Descendants? (January 16, 2022)

Now, I wish to start with the article “The Privilege of Family History,” by Kendra T. Field, a self-identified descendant of African and Creek ancestors (American Historical Review 127 2022: 600-633). As part of her investigation, she notes in the 1800s that people who knew that their fathers had been born in Africa “often claimed their fathers quite loudly.” In an early version of Roots, Field cites Henry Highland Garnet’s family tracing its origin to a Mandingo chieftain and warrior. Knowledge of that African connection was something to be championed:

“Are there any survivors of the later importations from Africa, or are there any Negroes who can say today ‘My father or my mother was a native African?’” (Southern Workman, Hampton Folklore Society, 1893).

She contrasted these quests with people like Frederick Douglass who was the son of his white owner and similar people who were more reticent about their origin. Field uses that contrast to observe that white people were dismissive of the very idea of a family history anyway culminating in the book The Negro Family by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965 (just before the Negro would be replaced by African American).

Perhaps not as well-known, Field reports on the controversy post-Emancipation of the public shame in admitting that one even had slave ancestors. By the end of the 19th century, Field reports on the necessity to actively collect stories, practices, and folklore from their elders.

“The America Negroes are rising so rapidly … that the time seems not far distant when they shall have cast off their past entirely … If within the next few years care is not taken to collect and preserve all traditions and customs peculiar to the Negroes, there will be little to reward the search of the future historian” (Southern Workman, Hampton Folklore Society, 1893).

Field notes a concern expressed by students, alumni, and teachers that the next generation was growing ignorant of what their ancestors had experienced. As W.E.B. Du Bois proclaimed in speech at Howard University:

“there are facts of Negro history unknown to most of us and destined to remain so unless unearthed and published by historians of our own race.”    

Can you imagine the younger generation today asking parents and grandparents born before 1965, what is was like to be a Negro? That’s like asking to be fired as a professor.

But a century ago, Howard University had witnessed a growth in awareness of Negro culminating in a course on the Negro in American history. Soon there were a slew of bulletins, journals, and books about the Negro in American history.

In “America’s Second Sin: How an Overlooked era still shapes our world” by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Time April 15, 2019), he writes about the post-1895 development of The New Negro. It arose as a counter to the avalanche of racist images proliferating throughout Gilded Age America. Gates refers to them as superheroes fighting the good fight against these supremacist images. That period from 1895 to the Harlem Renaissance witnessed a series of individuals championing the Negro cause through a variety of media in the battle for respectability. It perhaps culminated with the artistic anthology “The New Negro: An Interpretation” by Alain Locke (1925). It was during this time that James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900) became the Negro National Anthem. But as with Negro Wall Street in Tulsa, it is no longer appropriate to use historically correct names when referring to anthem.

Negroes even had their own elites. For example, “Configuring Modernities: New Negro Womanhood in the Nation’s Capital, 1890,” by Treva Blaine Lindsey (2010). The dissertation subsequently was published as book Colored no more: reinventing black womanhood in Washington, D.C. (2017). As the titles suggests, the focus is fifty years in a single city, the nation’s capital.

Another publication drew on the author’s own experiences in Chicago, Negroland: A Memoir, an award-winning book by Margo Jefferson, formerly of The New York Times.

She writes:

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indulgence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Obviously, one cannot do full justice in a blog to the achievements during the Negro Century. Nor can one review all the differences in opinion held by historians about this era. The more important point is to recognize the American history did not simply jump from slavery and Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era and African America as if there was nothing in-between. There were great successes for Negroes during this period which placed them on the path to living the American Dream except for racism.

The name change in the 1920s is worthy of note. The New Negro built on the legacy, heritage, and history of the people as Negroes. By contrast, the term African American severed people from their own past something the Italians, Jews, and Slavs did not do just as it is unlikely Ukrainians will do. Now there are two gaps in the history of the Middle Passage people – their roots in Africa and their lives between slavery and Civil Rights. It’s as if their story begins in 1619 and resumes with Jim Crow.


In the time between the Great Migration and the Civil Rights era, Negroes made significant progress towards living the American without actually matching the success of white people. The following information comes from a full page article in the Sunday News of the Week Review in The New York Times on December 6, 2020. It is by Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Robert Putnam, authors of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. They also can be viewed online on multiple websites talking about the book.

Their contention is:

In terms of material well-being, Black Americans were moving toward parity with white America well before the victories of the civil rights era. What’s more, after the passage of civil rights legislation, those trends towards racial parity slowed, stopped and even reversed.

They identify multiple measures reflecting this development. They include:

Life expectancy
High School graduation
K-12 school integration
Voter registration.

They attribute a lot of the improvement to the Great Migration itself. Millions of people left the South, home of the Confederates and Jim Crow, for cities in the North. One may add that not only was it a geographical migration but also one from a rural agricultural-based economy and life to a urban and factory based one. As they write:

It was Black Americans’ undaunted faith in the promise of the American “we,” and their willingness to claim their place in it against all odds, that won them progress between the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the end of the civil rights movement in the 1970s. 

Why this progress plateaued or reverse just when Negroes became African Americans is not the subject of this blog. Instead it is to chart the grounds for optimism that migrant Negroes could match the success of immigrant Italians and Jews in living the American Dream.


By now, most Americans, at least of a certain age, are familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson leaving the Negro League to become the first Negro to play in the Major Leagues.

Prior to that, white and Negro baseball players played in parallel leagues, sometimes in the same ball parks but not, of course at the same time. Sometimes barnstorming Major League players, at a time when one could scarcely make a living playing baseball, would play teams from the various Negro Leagues. The crossover of Jackie Robinson quickly led to the demise of those leagues. On the other hand, what greater symbol could there be of Negro assimilation into America than playing for a Major League team? Soon, the cry of “Wait till next year” ended as 1955 became next year against the hated New York Yankees.

But the story does not end there. Brooklyn was an immigrant borough, a borough of ethnics. That carried over into the baseball team that represented them. Consider again the Italian and Jewish immigrants who arrived around the same time as the Great Migration. Already baseball had had its Irish players and managers like John McGraw. Then Germans Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were added to the baseball mix. Jewish Hank Greenberg of Detroit and, most famously, Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees extended the ethnic range. But it was the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson, Carl Furillo, and then Sandy Koufax who touched the most bases. So back then before the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn, the Dodgers were America’s team.

So to conclude this optimistic blog on the trajectory of Negroes in the Great Migration, the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s best symbolize the path taken to living the American Dream. The team shows what was possible. Unfortunately for every Branch Rickey who made the decision to include Negroes in the American Dream there were many other white people who made the decision to exclude them.

What Should You Call Middle Passage Descendants?

The Name Game by Shirley Ellis (


At first glance, the question of what name to use for Middle Passage descendants might seem like a strange one. After all, people have a name and for whatever reason that is, once they have a name, no matter what happens to them or how they are treated, that remains their name. That is the way it is for Armenians, Chinese, Irish, Italians, Jews, and all the 574 recognized Indian nations.

However, that is not the case with Middle Passage people. Their name has changed.

My father was born a Negro. Then he was black. Late in life, much to his discomfort, he became an African-American.

Everyone in this country who traces their ancestors back to Africa has experienced a panoply of racial identifiers over their lives, with some terms imposed and others embraced. In the course of a single day in 2020, I might be called black, African-American or a person of color. I’m also labeled, in a way that makes my brown skin crawl, as diverse, ethnic or a minority (Marc Lacey, the National editor of The New York Times, June 27, 2020 cited in my blog: John Lewis and “the Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro”: Erasing History (8/5/20).

Since Lacey’s message approximately 18 months ago, the name has changed again.

The constantly changing name for Middle Passage people poses a dilemma for historians and museums. What name do you use for such people? Do you use the historically accurate name from the time period of the people you are discussing – meaning the name they used themselves for self-identification – or do you use the name from the present and impose it on the past? Then what do you do if the name changes again in the present? Do you amend your article or book and change the exhibit labels to fit the current usage? Or do you keep the name you had even if it is now obsolete and a sign of backwardness?


Let me begin to answer these questions by turning to Tulsa in 1921 as an example. Previously I wrote about an article by Karlos K. Hill entitled “Community-Engaged History: A Reflection on the 100th Anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre” in The American Historical Review (Should Historians Leave the Ivory Tower and Become Social Advocates?: The Political Consequences). In that article, Hill quotes Booker T. Washington as dubbing the Greenwood District “the Negro Wall Street of America.” Holland Cotter in “A Monument of Past and Present” (NYT 6/5/21, print, 6/3/21 online) also refers to that designation by Washington. But in a multi-authored 5-page article in the same publication, “What Was Lost in the Tulsa Race Massacre” (5/30/21, print, 5/24/21 online), the authors refrain from using the Negro designation.

Turning back to the Hill article, Negro appears three other times. Washington is cited as being part of the National Negro Business League. White Tulsans are quoted as referring to the events there as a “negro rebellion.” Finally in a photograph showing the Greenwood District burning, someone wrote on the photograph itself, “Running the Negro out of Tulsa.” Clearly, the actual residents of the time called themselves “Negro.” But Hill never uses that designation himself to identify the people he is writing about. He uses the terminology of 2021, now 2022. In this case, the historian decided has he no obligation to use the name the people used themselves.

PS It should be noted that Hill, in the Department of African and African American Studies, never refers to the Middle Passage people in Tulsa as African Americans either. That term also is becoming obsolete: change your exhibit labels!


A similar scenario occurs in the article “The Rooms Where It Happened” by Sandra Garcia (NYT 10/17/21 print, 10/15/21 online) about the Harlem Y.M.C.A. in the early 20th century. In the article she refers to a painting titled “Evolution of Negro Dance.” She cites Langston Hughes calling the surrounding area “the Mecca of the New Negro” and quotes him a second time using that term. She even uses “Colored” here four times in reference to the Y.M.C.A. chapter. However, she never refers to the actual people themselves as Negroes.

PS She never calls them African Americans either. Say goodbye to that term. It has reached its expiry date. The demise of “Fifty Years an African American” will be the subject of a future blog.


In “What Thurgood Marshall Taught Me” by Stephen L. Carter, Yale School of Law (NYT 7/18/21 print, 7/14/21 online), he writes the following about Marshall:

When I went to work for him in the summer of 1980, the Judge was still using “Negro” to refer to the race. He hated the term “black” — back then spelled with a lowercase B — which had often been an opprobrious way of talking about the people to whose fight for equality he’d devoted his life. Whenever anyone raised the question (and for the most part nobody dared), he would answer that he’d spent his life fighting for the capital N in “Negro” and wasn’t going to let “a bunch of kids” (sometimes put more strongly) tell him what he should call himself.

Today we scarcely recall the titanic struggle over capitalizing “Negro.” The New York Times, for instance, didn’t make the change until 1930, when Marshall was already in his 20s. A number of newspapers waited until after Brown was decided.

A couple of years before his retirement, the Judge switched to “Afro-American,” but he never seemed comfortable with the term. Across the many hours we spent together during the final year of his life, “Negro” remained his descriptor of choice. He’s the reason I don’t consider the word an insult.

Thurgood Marshall reminds us that the words “Negro” and “slave” were not slurs or terms of insult and were freely used by Negroes and Middle Passage people until they were told otherwise. It should be noted that Afro-American referred to in the article also has been abandoned.


Consider three examples from Columbia University. The first is a repost of something I wrote over 3 years ago revised with examples from the American Historical Association (AHA). The second and third are from John McWhorter in a podcast this past October 14, 2021 and an op-ed column in the NYT on January 7, 2022.

History at Columbia University: Report from a Battle Front in the Culture Wars (4/10/18)

The first article [in the Columbia Daily Spectator] to catch my attention was the front page one entitled “When Professors Make Insensitive Comments, Who Speaks up?” The article recounted the experience of one of two nonwhite students in an American studies seminar last year (apparently the junior year of the student who spoke up). In that seminar the professor informed the class that when studying the 1960s, it was acceptable to use the word “Negroes” to refer to African Americans since that was the term even black people used then to refer themselves.

The student took offense to this usage and communicated it to the professor via email with associated links why the usage was offensive. There was no change in speaking by the professor according to the student and the student subsequently ceased paying attention in class. When contacted by the newspaper, the professor responded:

“It is in fact true, as a matter of historical record, that African Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s wanted to be called ‘Negroes.’ Denying that practice would be a falsification of history.”

So what? The needs of the present trump the requirement for historical accuracy.

One should note, of course, that since then even the use of “African American has become problematic. While it is still permissible to use it, it is not the term one should use as the examples above show. Similarly the lowercase spelling of “black” is now unacceptable.

Two examples from the current issue of Perspectives on History published by the AHA show how some other history professors avoid doing what the Columbia history professor did. The first example is James H. Sweet, the president of the organization. In his column, he refers to “’20 and odd’ Africans” in Jamestown in 1619. Notice what he did. The historically correct wording from the primary source document refers to “Negroes” and not “Africans.” Sweet knows this. He deliberately avoided using that term. This is an example of self-censorship. When else does he do it?

The very next article raises a similar question. The article by James Grossman, the Executive Director of AHA, and Waldo E. Martin is a tribute to historian Leon Litwack, died 2021 at age 91. They refer to his book North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, published in 1961, as pathbreaking study still assigned undergraduates today. Later they refer to Litwack talking about “Black Americans as agents of history, an agency that battled and ultimately transcended victimization.”  This concept of seeing Middle Passage people as people of agency is an important one. They devote the paragraph to the importance of choosing words carefully as part of the learning process. Yet Litwack was about 41 when he published his pathbreaking book about Negroes and undoubtedly it was the word he used for decades as Judge Marshall did. One wonders if teachers using his book with “Negro” in the title self-censor also. Suppose, for example, a teacher decided to replace the term “Civil War” in texts with “War of Northern Aggression”? What message are historians delivering when they replace the words used in history and/or by scholars with their own preferred terminology?

Woke Words With John McWhorter, a Times Virtual Event (10/14/21)

In this podcast, The New York Times columnist and Columbia University professor examined four words that had been submitted by the public for review. One of them was Negro. The questioner, whom McWhorter knew, asked if Negro had become the new N word which is not to be spoken out loud. The source was her college-student son [Marshall’s “bunch of kids”] who had informed her that it become taboo which surprised her.

McWhorter’s response was an emphatic (in a mild-manner way) decisive “NO.” He stated that the word “Negro” is not going to be reclassified as a slur. Yes, the word should not be used to refer to Middle Passage descendants today, that would be “tacky.” However, it is a historically-valid name that is not a slur. It is the word the Middle Passage descendants used themselves as a name for themselves and their organizations. He notes that if one is studying the history and literature of the Middle Passage people they are going to encounter the word citing Martin Luther King and some writers as examples. He objects to the idea that a professor should treat the word as a slur. He categorically asserts that there is “No way on my watch… shall we decide that the word Negro is a slur.”  He certainly is not going to tell his older relatives who grow up as Negroes that the very word these living people used for decades to refer to themselves is a slur.

I Can’t Brook the Idea of Banning ‘Negro’ by John McWhorter (1/7/22)

McWhorter returned to this topic over concern over recent developments that necessitated a reaffirmation of his position.

I wrote recently that William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” is “smashing,” one of the most stirring pieces of classical music I know. But I hear from an experienced conductor that several orchestras have turned down his requests to perform or record it with them, out of wariness of the word “Negro” in its title.

He objects to this cancelling of a work of art due to its containing the word “Negro” in the title.

McWhorter is well aware that people have now defined “Negro” to be a racial slur. He cites some examples of this behavior in his column and fights back. Even though people freely referred to themselves throughout most of the 20th century as Negroes, he recognizes:

The new idea seems to be that saying or writing “Negro” is not simply archaic, but a contemptuous insult in all contexts.

He goes on to note:

… its usage persists in hallowed names such as the United Negro College Fund and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The precursor organization to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (note the outdated “Colored” even there) was the National Negro Committee….“Negro” was, for example, a default expression in the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Must we place it out of bounds any time a non-Black person recites or refers to King’s words?

McWhorter wonders

What purpose does it serve to generate this new lexical grievance? I’m not saying we should revert to everyday use of “Negro” — it is indeed out of date. But does Black America [ed. He does not use the term “African American” either] need yet another word to take umbrage at and police the usage of? Do we, in Black America, need fellow travelers — sorry, allies — to join us in this new quest, eager to assist in the surveillance out of some misguided sense that this is “doing the work”?

One also wonders how many Black people, beyond a certain anointed cohort, really find the reading aloud of the word “Negro” from an old text offensive. In the Vermont controversy, for instance, the state librarian at the time, Jason Broughton, who is Black, pushed back on the contention that the word “Negro” in itself is racist.

McWhorter is fighting a valiant but losing battle. He reminds me of Joe Biden through most of his presidency so far thinking that it was possible for Republicans and Democrats to work together. Not in this reality. Of course, as adamant as McWhorter is, it is the college snowflakes and not his ancestors who are the wave of the future. McWhorter can bemoan the “certain anointed cohort” all he wants and it won’t do any good. He can bemoan the dismissal of the arts by Negroes all he wants and it won’t do any good.

This weekend, the nation pays homage to one of the greatest users of racial slurs in American history. Think of the all roads that now need to be renamed if we are to be purified. Think of the all the buildings that now need to be renamed if we are to be cleansed. Think of all the statues that now need to be toppled if we are to be corrected. We are required to censor ourselves. There was slavery and then there was the Civil Rights era. The time in between and the people alive then have no name.


Before turning to the next iteration for Middle Passage people, it is necessary to examine how white people destroyed Negro communities in the post-WW II era.

National Award-Winning Play (2019) by Stacey Rose performed at the Barrington Stage Company


John Lewis and “the Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro”: Erasing History

National Award-Winning Play (2019) by Stacey Rose performed at the Barrington Stage Company

“The “America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of The American Negro” was a play performed at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, from June 14 to June 30, 2019. The Barrington Stage Company had sponsored a national new play contest. The winner received a reward of $25,000 and a World Premiere production at its theater. Stacey Rose was the winner for this play. I saw the final performance. Some of the shows had audience discussions afterwards with members of the cast or the playwright but not at the performance I saw. I did speak very briefly with the playwright but nothing of significance that I recall. I thought of this play about the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro with the death of John Lewis.


In a review of the play, Barbara Waldinger, Berkshire On Stage (June 23, 2019) wrote:

This play, a futuristic dystopia, is decidedly not typical summer fare.  In a play-within-a-play, a troupe of four African-American actors perform a revisionist history of the American Negro in four chronological parts, which essentially maintains that the “demise of the American Negro was brought about by his own hand” and “by his own actions,” despite the loving care and “noble efforts of the American government and American culture.”  Resurrecting the minstrel show style of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the playwright deploys outrageous caricatures ostensibly to demonstrate, using song and dance, how the Founding Fathers saved the African savages. Minstrelsy, a sad chapter in the history of the American theatre, has been put to ironic use in the recent past. 

In chilling voiceover announcements the presumably white audience is warned against documenting what is seen onstage, and, what is worse, advised when to disengage the safety locks on their firearms.

Speaking of firearms, as I recall the NRA figured prominently in the closing scenes.

That reviewer attended one of the post-performance discussions. She reports the playwright

Deplor(ed) the fact that history is taught in the U.S. through a white supremacist lens, asked the audience to share their memories of the first time they realized there was a split between how whites versus blacks experience America.  Acknowledging that it is uncomfortable to do the right thing, Rose clearly wants to encourage us to not only talk about this issue but hopefully step up and do something about it.  If this play helps to begin that conversation, it will have succeeded.

The play was performed roughly one year prior to George Floyd’s murder. Presumably it would be different if it had been written now.


Although, set in the near future, the play does raise the question about the demise and extinction of the American Negro. The issue need not be raised solely in a physical sense. It can be asked in a cultural sense related to the meaning of “Negro” in American history. For example, as a subscriber to The New York Times, I receive weekly emails about articles and events (in addition to the multiple daily notices). On June 27, 2020, the message from Marc Lacey, the National editor of The New York Times, was:

My father was born a Negro. Then he was black. Late in life, much to his discomfort, he became an African-American.

Everyone in this country who traces their ancestors back to Africa has experienced a panoply of racial identifiers over their lives, with some terms imposed and others embraced. In the course of a single day in 2020, I might be called black, African-American or a person of color. I’m also labeled, in a way that makes my brown skin crawl, as diverse, ethnic or a minority.

In an online presentation Historical Perspectives on Whiteness: An Intersectional Conversation with Nell Painter (July 8, 2020) by NYU, historian Nell Painter commented on this issue in passing. She said she had been raised with the word “Negro” as a respected term. She made this point after referring to Lift Every Voice and Sing as the “Negro National Anthem.” She then politically-corrected herself to say “Black National Anthem” and explained her “politically incorrect” language. These examples are part of the “sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro.”

Like Lacey’s father and Nell Painter, John Lewis, (1940-2020), was born a Negro. He was a Negro during the formative years of his life. His values derive from this period. Even if he did not use that term to refer to himself anymore, from a historical and cultural perspective, like Lacey’s father, being a Negro defined who he was in his own mind. What did that mean? How did it differ from the other terms used? Lacey doesn’t identify who imposed the racial identifiers on the Middle Passage people or how they were able to do so. They do not appear to have been white. He does not seem have been enamored of all the name changing which has occurred.

To help understand the use of and the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro, I propose that the time from 1865 to 1965 be considered the Negro Century. These are not hard and fast dates, just guidelines.


Two dates have figured prominently in recent national news. First in 2019, the year 1619 marked the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Middle Passage Africans to a British colony, Virginia, in what became the United States. Second in 2020, Juneteenth for the end of slavery in Texas and therefore in the country in 1865 became unexpectedly prominent.

By 1865, many states already had ended slavery. Therefore it would be incorrect to ignore that Africans in the United States could be free prior to then. For example, in New York where I live, the legal end to slavery was 1827. I have a copy of the manumission lists culled from the Town of Rye records where I live showing freed people from the 1790s to 1820s. Presumably, these actions were partially a result of the American Revolution. There also was a Negro Point in the 1800s. I do not know the basis of the name. I know approximate area along the Byram River separating New York and Connecticut where it was located. It is not great agricultural land. I wonder if the freed people lived near the docks where they worked. In 1868, the Village of Port Chester would be created within the Town of Rye. But the area had served as a port of Westchester before then. I mention all this to show there is fragmented information available in this one town and village but it is hard to know for sure what the history is. I suspect many other communities have a similar experience.

Several questions come to mind about this period of freed Africans.

Where did they live?
Where did they pray?
What did they do?
Where were they buried?
What if any was their connection to the Underground Railroad?
What if any was their involvement with the Civil War?

To determine if this information is extinct or not, one may also ask:

What history signs are there to mark these sites, people, and actions in American history?

What information is there in the municipal history organizations/libraries to document this pre-1865 freed African experience?

Recently, I have come across of three examples of historical research into the Negro Century. These examples are from email lists I belong to and did not require research on my part. They show that interest in this time period still exists.

1. Candacy Taylor, author of Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America

I saw her speak at the Schomburg Center in January for the book launch and then online through a program arranged on July 21, by the National Council of History Education (NCHE). The Green Book was more than an AAA guide. It listed many non-tourist business as well. Taylor travelled the country looking for these sites.

What history signs are there to mark these sites in American history?

What information is there in the municipal history organizations/libraries about the Green Book sites in their own communities?

2. Sarah Elizabeth Ray: The Rosa Parks of SS Columbia

The SS Columbia is a steamship being restored in Buffalo, NY. Before that it had operated in Detroit as part of the Boblo Excursion Company which ran an amusement park. People boarded the company’s boats in Detroit to travel on to the park. Sara Elizabeth Ray joined her white classmates for this graduation excursion in June 1945. She was denied passage ten years before the more famous Rosa Parks event. It became a successful lawsuit involving Thurgood Marshall. The people restoring the SS Columbia discovered this unexpected piece of history during their investigation into the history of the ship. They now have a story to tell and are working on how to do so. The video I just saw about her also shown July 21 is not yet ready for public showing.

3. Why Isn’t John Donaldson in the Hall of Fame? (NYT 8/1/20, print)

This op-ed piece describes the efforts to have this pitcher in the Negro Leagues be recognized for his achievements. If successful, Donaldson would join 35 other Negro League players in Cooperstown.

These examples to remember people, places, and events from the Negro Century illustrate efforts to resist the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro in American history and culture.


As to the values of the American Negro, consider this declaration:

We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at Ebenezer Baptist Chapel, Atlanta, Georgia, 4 July 1965

Critical to fulfilling that dream is the vote. John Lewis and voting will forever be paired together. His success in the 1960s contributed to the demise of the Green Book. The Negro Leagues already had ceased operations post Jackie Robinson. Lewis’s success also led to the Southern Strategy and voter suppression. The upcoming election may signal the death of those two actions as no longer being politically viable.

I conclude with two examples representing the efforts to recognize the Negro Century in the American experience and the challenge in preventing its sad demise and eventual extinction.

On a positive note there is the movie Hidden Figures (2016) which has been the subject of previous blogs (Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams, March 11, 2018). It represents a fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream noted above. It is a story of family, education, church, and service in helping Americans land on the moon.

On a negative note there is an incident at Columbia University also the subject of a previous blog (History at Columbia University: Report from a Battle Front in the Culture Wars, April 10, 2018). An article in the Columbia Daily Spectator recounted a student taking exception to a professor using the word “Negro” in a class about the 1960s. The professor responded:

It is in fact true, as a matter of historical record, that African Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s wanted to be called ‘Negroes.’ Denying that practice would be a falsification of history.

Contrary to the play, the sad demise and eventual extinction of the American Negro in American history and culture won’t be due to white people.

The last words go John Lewis.

Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it. (Final words of John Lewis published posthumously July 30, 2020)

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.

The Negro Name Game: My First Step Trying to Make Sense and Have Hope in a Racially Tumultuous Country

Triangular Trade

New York has experienced demographic change. There is a difference between between being the descendants of people who left Ghana centuries ago against their will to become slaves in New York and elsewhere in what became the middle passage and those who left Ghana recently by jet plane of their own free will to live the American Dream.

The catalyst for my personal odyssey about this topic occurred in January, 2016, when Whitesboro, NY, briefly held national attention. The reason for the notoriety was the municipal seal. It appeared to show an interaction between Hugh White, the founder of the community, and an Oneida chief that was derogatory towards the latter. A cable comedy-news show sent someone to Whitesboro to gather material for the show. In the course of a conversation between that person and a local resident the issue of race came up. The local resident replied using various terms including “Negro” to identify the race of the media person. At that point the person looked taken aback as if another word had been used. Truth be told, all the reactions of the media personality were over-the-top physical exaggerations who clearly was playing to the camera so it was difficult to determine if the response was genuine or not.

Nonetheless, the reaction whether real or faux suggests that there is a story to be told about the use of the word “Negro” for middle-passage blacks that is part of American history. When I was growing up in a naturally occurring [meaning not court-ordered] integrated [I did not know that word then] elementary school there were students who looked different than me called Negroes. To the best of my recollection there was no discrimination [another word I did not know] against them in the classroom or on the playground, the world I knew as an 8 year-old. The visible segregation [another word I didn’t know] was the unofficial one on the playground where the boys played kickball and the girls jumped rope or played hop scotch. If I had been asked my identification I probably would have said Jewish meaning not Italian or Irish and not have responded “white.” So when I was growing up Negro simply was the name of one group of people in the community.

The incident in Whitesboro caused me to pursue the history of this terminology further. Certainly I am aware that the term is not the one used today to refer to black people but in and of itself that change in terminology did not necessarily make the word a pejorative. It wasn’t one when I was growing up.

The term means “black” and refers to the black-skinned people in Africa the Portuguese and/or Spanish encountered during their explorations to Africa in the 16th century. It was descriptive in nature of an obvious physical characteristic that clearly differentiated the two peoples. In that sense it was not a derogatory term in its origin. That stark difference in colors between the white and black-skinned peoples very much was part of the historical context in which slavery began in this country.

These Negroes in America were a factor in the American Revolution on both sides. The British successfully recruited some of them to join their side against the Americans. Consider this excerpt from a recent July 4th article The Secret Black History of the Revolution


John Murray, Earl of Dunmore by Charles Harris.

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

From 1772 on, Royal Governor Dunmore of Virginia had threatened rebellious Patriots. “It is my fixed purpose,” he said, “to arm my own Negroes and accept all others whom I shall declare free… and I shall not hesitate at reducing [Patriots’] houses to ashes and spreading destruction wherever I can reach.” By the time he issued his Proclamation on Nov. 7, 1775, thousands of blacks had flocked to the British side to join his Royal Ethiopian Regiment. Because of Dunmore and the High Court’s 1772 Somersett decision that bondage was outlawed on English soil, the Southern states seceded from Britain to preserve slavery. In his 1775 “Taxation not Tyranny,” Samuel Johnson, the great English essayist, rightly quipped: “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” [Bold added]

While the white authors today employ the term “black,” the British then used the term “negroes.” It is reasonable to conclude that the British did not attempt to recruit people to their cause by referring to them in what they thought was a derogatory manner. It was a term both peoples used and the usage is consistent with the way I had been brought up.

By coincidence, just recently a slavery story made the news right where I live. The reason was the discovery of a note in the archives of the Rye Historical Society for the sale of “my Negro girl named Pegg” by prominent Greenwich property owner, Daniel Lyon, on July 7, 1790 to another major Greenwich property owner, Nathaniel Merritt Jr., whose family gave its name to the Merritt Parkway. [On a personal note I live on land that once belonged to Lyon and indeed the community is named after him as is the nearby village park.] She was freed in 1800 and has descendants who live in Westchester County. Indeed the genealogical research by one descendant investigating the family name “Merritt” that led to the discovery.


Daniel Lyon Jr.’s bill of sale — dated July 7, 1790 — of “my Negro girl named Pegg”

to Nathaniel Merritt Jr. of Greenwich, Conn. (Photo: Rye Historical Society)

The discovery serves as a reminder that black New Yorkers can trace or have ancestors from prior to the Great Migration from the South, prior to Ellis Island immigration, and prior to Castle Clinton (Irish) immigration. Just as New York ignores July 4, 1827, in its history so it ignores or minimizes the history of the blacks once they became free in the antebellum period. There is more to black history in New York than the discovery of burial grounds from colonial times or the underground railroad. The recently refurbished, then vandalized, and then cleaned-up African Cemetery owned by the Town of Rye since 1860 where I have been numerous times is one example of the effort to remember that history of free blacks from that time period.


(Left) Dennis Richmond Jr., 21, of Yonkers, and his uncle,

John Sherman Merritt, 75, of the Bronx, in the Rye Historical Society’s Knapp House.

The discovery also provides a teaching and civic opportunity to use local history to address state and national issues.

This post on the use of  “Negro” is not intended to be comprehensive but there are additional illustrations which deserve to be revealed before concluding.

Professor Booker T.Washington, being politely interrogated … as to whether negroes ought to be called ‘negroes’ or ‘members of the colored race’ has replied that it has long been his own practice to write and speak of members of his race as negroes, and when using the term ‘negro’ as a race designation to employ the capital ‘N’ [“Harper’s Weekly,” June 2, 1906]

Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and again in 1925 urged the creation of a “Negro Industrial Commission” to promote a better policy of mutual understanding.” In 1929 in the waning months of his presidency, he signed legislation for a memorial celebrating “the Negro’s contribution to the achievements of America.”

JamesWeldon Johnson, the first black to head the NAACP, described a meeting he had with Coolidge brokered by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

I was expecting that he would make, at least, an inquiry or two about the state of mind and condition of the twelve million Negro citizens of the United States. I judged that curiosity, if not interest, would make for that much conversation. The pause was painful (for me at least) and I led off with some informational remarks; but it was clear that Mr. Coolidge knew absolutely nothing about colored people. I gathered that the only living Negro he had heard anything about was Major Moton (Booker T. Washington’s successor at Tuskegee). [Bold added]

Negro History Week was celebrated for the first time in 1926 during the second week in February. This month was chosen because Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln celebrated their birthdays during this month. Later it would be renamed and become a monthly dedication as it is now.

These examples attest the continued use of the term by both blacks and whites without any negative connotation into the opening decades of the 20th century. They are consistent with the usage from when I was growing up.

This era also was the time of the Negro Baseball League. For several decades it thrived as the major leagues for Negro baseball players. Its teams would barnstorm with players from the white Major League baseball teams. Some of those players have been installed at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There also is a separate Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.


Courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Wikipedia

Traveling was a problem so in 1937, The Negro Motorist Green-Book was created to aid people in finding places to eat and sleep. It lasted from 1937 to 1967.  The Smithsonian Magazine recently featured it with an article reporting that it is the subject of a documentary-in-progress by Ric Burns.

During World War II, the United States recruited middle-passage blacks to join the war effort by joining the military. This continued a pattern of their fighting on behalf of the United States in every war the country fought. One such recruiting effort was the Navy film in 1942, The Negro Sailor (available on YouTube).  Again, it seems unlikely as with the British during the American Revolution that recruiting efforts would have been aided through the use of a derogatory term to refer to the people being targeted. It continued to be a term both races uses without a negative meaning into the 1940s.

All the pieces came together after the war when Jackie Robinson, a war and Negro League veteran, became the first Negro to play for the Major Leagues and in 1962 was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Jackie Robinson MLK 09-19-62

Original caption: 9/19/1962-New York, NY: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (L) and baseball Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson chat together before a press conference in New York, September 19th. Dr. King, who arrived to open a drive for funds and a northern “non-violent army” of clergymen and followers to battle segregation, said the “real showdown” in the segregation fight was the struggle to get negro James Meredith into the University of Mississippi.(Original caption). September 19, 1962 New York, New York, USA [bold added]

Following Robinson and even more famous Negro garnered national attention. Martin Luther King was a frequent user of the term “Negro.” He dreamed of what Negroes in the United States should have the opportunity to achieve. His use of the term may present challenges in teaching and in exhibits particularly with young students who are not familiar with the historical context and then suddenly hear a word it in a speech that they are not used to hearing.

The current issue of Time includes an excerpt from James Baldwin written in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It is from a letter of a father to his son today:

…in every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world… [Bold added]

Here again is an example about the continuing presence of terms from the past. We are confronted here not with changing a name from New Amsterdam to New York reflecting a political change. Rather the values and associations produced by the same word have changed over time. What the word meant to the black man who was alive in 1964 and what the word means to his son today to whom his letter was addressed are not the same. Readers of the magazine separated by time in when they grew up therefore may respond differently to the article depending on how they react to the same word.

In 1968, a biracial person wrote a letter to the biracial (actually bi-species) Mr. Spock of the Starship Enterprise. She wrote that her mother was Negro and her father was white and appealed to the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock because of the suffering he had endured. The human Leonard Nimoy, son of Jewish immigrants who had settled in Boston, wrote her a long letter in response. Little did this teen girl know that when she grew up, this self-reference itself would be an abomination to be cleansed from the maps and vocabulary of civilized people.

This survey ends in the mid-1960s. At that time Negro began to be unacceptable and was replaced by a new term to refer to the same people. My experience with name change may be different from that of blacks.  As mentioned, I am Jewish. Part of my heritage are the memories of the ghettos, pogroms, and holocausts which have been perpetrated against Jews. If we were to change our name because of these actions, then I would consider that an act of surrender to anti-Semites. I oppose the bad and evil things which were done and to want them not to be repeated. I do not hold my name in contempt as a legacy of those bad and evil things. Being called a Jew is not a pejorative despite the harmful actions targeted against us. I bring my own traditions and experiences to my understanding of the name “Negro” both as a Jew and from when growing up. I remember how hard Kunta Kinte fought to keep his name.

Recently our government became involved in the issue. In May our president signed a bill which removed the word “Negro” from federal law and requires the use of African American instead. The rationale is that the older term causes people to cringe today as the performer in Whitesboro did. The law amending Section 211(f)(1) of the Department of Energy Organization Act (42 U.S.C. 7141(f)(1)) wasn’t in place then in January at the time of the Whitesboro interview. It only applies to laws not speech. Similarly there is an effort underway in Connecticut to change the name of the rock formation Negro Heads in Branford. According to State Senator Ted Kennedy, Jr., the name is anachronistic and offensive. In other words, a term used for centuries by both blacks and whites to refer to the same people now was officially designated as being offensive. Ironically the one individual American to have a federal holiday in his honor repeatedly used a word which the federal government now declares to be unacceptable as a matter of law.

As it tuns out, after this virtuous “whitewashing” of the word Negro, the banished term has refused to disappear. Despite the politically-correct effort to remove this stain from the American social fabric, it is not easily deleted. For example, the New York Comedy Festival in November, 2016, includes the show “The New Negroes.” The title derives from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance anthology book The New Negro by Alain Locke. In an interview on the show, rapper Open Mike Eagle said:

[The] provocative nature [of the title] challenges the notions of what is conjured when people think of that name. I felt like I was allowing the politics around the N-word to affect something that was important to us culturally. I want us to protect that [the word Negro] and not let it go just because people have taken it and associated it with these terrible behaviors and attitudes.” (“Illuminating What It Means to be Black in America, via Comedy,” NYT 11/2/16)

Another change accelerating after the 1960s when Negro fell out of favor, was the composition of black people in the United States. Immigration laws changed. Since then especially more recently, the demographics of blacks in New York has changed in the city as well as in refuge cities upstate. Politicians campaigning in the boroughs of New York City know that all the black people don’t have a shared nearly 400-year history of being in the United States or the colonies. These newcomers aren’t simply from the South as the earlier migration last century but from other countries. Their presence in the city generates the question of what they should be called.

In a recent op-ed piece, Yaa Gyasi wrote “I’m Ghanian-American. Am I Black?” The author raises an important issue. Although Ghana served as a depot from which human cargo was transported to America as slaves in what is called the middle passage, Ghanaian-Americans today, like those from Nigeria, Senegal, Angola and elsewhere, are likely to have arrived by jet. The Mayflower, middle passage, Ellis Island, and JFK Airport arrivals present different models for how people came to this country. Again there is a civic and education opportunity to examine the different forms of arrival and to discuss what it means in a country defined as “We the People.” Times have changed, new circumstances have arisen, new contexts have developed, so it is reasonable to wonder if vocabulary changes are needed as well as indicated by the title of the Ghanian-American’s op-ed piece.

For example, typically Irish and Italian Americans are identified by their country of ancestry just as this Ghanaian seeks to be. In general, immigrants do identify themselves by their country of origin or ancestry. Two recent presidential candidates were Cuban-Americans and not Latin Americans. That option obviously is not available with middle-passage blacks. The new science of DNA testing is being used to identify the geographical range of origin for blacks and has been the subject of several TV shows with black celebrities. In a world of global migration sometimes through multiple countries and where people of multiple colors live on the same continent, the old binary black-white classification system in America may be too limiting.

So why was the name which middle-passage blacks brought to America were called by themselves and by others changed in the 1960s after centuries of use? What terminology should be used to differentiate those people who have been in America for centuries and who fought in the American Revolution from those who recently arrived as immigrants of their own free will?

These questions touch on the larger questions of great importance to our future beyond the immediate scope of this post. What do the concepts of “We the People” and e pluribus unum mean when people of the same and different colors have such different experiences as Americans? When Lincoln said “Four-score and seven-years ago, our fathers,” he knew that many people in the audience and in the Union did not have ancestors in America 77 years earlier when we declared our independence. He certainly knew the importance of names. As a result of Lincoln the United States changed from being a plural term (they are a country) to a singular one (it is a country). For Lincoln, those who stood for America in the present were one with those who stood for America at its founding. Now we are twelve-score and zero years from that moment. Who will be our Lincoln today?

The Journey continues