All too often when it comes to Black history, we hear about Rosa Parks not moving to the back of the bus, Martin Luther King Jr. being arrested for demanding his rights, black students being escorted into the University of Alabama or in the case of Muhammad Ali, exposing America’s intolerance to religious freedom. It would appear that black history begins in the ’50s and ’60s, but in reality, it began the moment Africans set foot on American soil. What separated the ’50s and ’60s from the previous 200 plus years are television, film, and video because no longer were acts of racism, prejudice, and intolerance happening to someone somewhere else. Thanks to these technologies these acts were now being played out in living rooms across America and the world. What these technologies did was give the civil rights movement a new birth.
Black history in America probably starts with Pedro Alonzo Nino, who was part of the crew on the Santa Maria. The same Santa Maria used by Columbus to cross the Atlantic. There were black sailors and explorers as part of the crews that crossed the Atlantic on Spanish ships. However, as in many other cases, history books have, to a great extent, ignored or set aside the black contribution to American history.
How history is written is determined by who’s doing the writing. In England in 1776, the news media probably referred to George Washington and his Army in the same way that Osama Bin Ladin and Al Qaeda are referred to in America’s media today. However, in America, George Washington, and his army were considered heroes because by winning the Revolutionary War the colonies gave birth to America.
How many of us were taught that an African, who took the name James Armistead Lafayette, played a major role in the Revolutionary War’s victory? Although he was born a slave he put his life on the line by going behind enemy lines to collect information that he would pass on to the Continental Army. He once gave information to a French Commander that was so valuable it enabled him to monitor the troop movements of British General Cornwallis. George Washington also used this same information in his victory at Yorktown. For his service, he was given his freedom, a $40 a year pension and a grant of $100…Speaking of President George Washington on May 23, 1796, he offered a $10 reward for the return of Oney Judge, an enslaved black woman who fled after learning that Mrs. Washington planned to give her away as a wedding gift.
It was in a law book, not a history book that I read about a slave named Sam. In 1831, Sam’s owner died and an Army Surgeon named John Emerson bought him. Sam and his new owner moved to Illinois, which was a slave-free state. Subsequently, Sam’s new owners moved back to a slave state. With the help of two attorneys, Sam sued for his freedom in County Court and lost. However, this verdict was set-aside in 1847 when Sam won a second trial on the grounds that his slave status had been nullified when he lived in the free state of Illinois. Sam received financial backing and new legal representation from Mrs. Emerson’s brother and second husband because they saw Sam’s case as an important challenge to slavery.
In 1848, Sam changed his name to Dred Scott and in 1857 the U.S Supreme Court ruled against him stating that slaves were not legal citizens of the United States and had no legal standing in the courts. After this ruling Mrs. Emerson gave Dred Scott his freedom.
In school, I also didn’t hear anything about black cowboys. I didn’t even see a black cowboy in a movie or on television. However, I now know that in the years following the end of the Civil War, black men began to move into the western states and when they did, they took the skills they had learned as stable boys, horse trainers, and jockeys during slavery. Not only were 15 of the first 28 jockeys to win the Kentucky Derby black, but so too were hundreds of cowboys who led cattle from Texas to Abilene, Kansas.
One of those cowboys was Jesse Stahl who once competed in a rodeo in the state of Oregon. When the judges, at the rodeo, discriminated against him by not rewarding him for his superior performance, he successfully rode his next bronco facing backward in protest. Another cowboy was Ned Huddleston (also known as Isom Dart) was born into slavery in Arkansas in 1849. His reputation as a rider, roper, and bronco-buster earned him the nicknames of the “Black Fox” and the “Calico Cowboy.” He was also a notorious Wyoming Territory outlaw. For a time he and a young Mexican bandit named Terresa survived as rustlers stealing horses in Mexico and selling them in Texas. After a tumultuous love affair with a Shoshone Indian woman in 1875, Huddleston joined the infamous Tip Gault Gang, a cattle and horse rustling outfit of southeastern Wyoming. After narrowly escaping death he went further west and started a new life as a hard-working man. He changed his name to Isom Dart and made a living as a bronco buster. Isom Dart later returned to Brown’s Hole around 1890 and established his own ranch, but local cattlemen suspected he had built up his ranch herd from cattle he’d rustled from their ranches. The ranchers hired the notorious range detective, Tom Horn, to punish DartHorn ambushed and killed Isom Dart on October 3, 1900, near Brown’s Hole. Public opinion was (and continues to be) divided about Dart’s guilt. Some of Brown’s Hole residents mourned his death, claiming Dart was killed by cattlemen who wanted his land and cattle. They saw Dart as a good-hearted, talented horseman and a top bronco stomper.
While in school I did read about the Lewis and Clark expedition and how they were ordered by President Thomas Jefferson to explore what is now known as the Northwest. What I didn’t read about was a black man named York, who played a role in Lewis and Clark’s journey. I now know that York and his family were the property of Clark’s family and when his father died, Clark inherited that property. This included York’s parents and siblings. Clark kept a daily journal of the expedition and throughout his journal he spoke of how York made a great impression on the Native Americans. Many had never seen a black man before. Clark would write that most of the Native Americans who met York would wet their fingers and try to rub the blackness from his skin. When it became obvious that this was York’s true skin color, they began to consider him great medicine. I can only imagine what must have gone through York’s mind when he realized that the same thing that made him a slave in one man’s eyes; made him great medicine in another man’s eyes.
When I was in school, the images portrayed in books and films like the remake of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, “Huckleberry Finn” and “Gone With The Wind” suggested that slaves accepted their status. However, today’s books tell me about a long list of rebellions and communities of escaped slaves. Most American history books should be thicker than they are. But when you exclude the black historical contribution, those history books become exactly the size the author wanted them to be.