Five Myths About Black HistoryRoundup
tags: African American history, Black History Month
Keisha N. Blain, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, is a co-editor of Made by History, The Washington Post’s daily section for historical analysis. She is a co-editor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019.
Each February since 1976, Americans have celebrated Black History Month. Established by historian Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week in 1926, the commemoration developed over 50 years until it became Black History Month to mark the contributions of Black people. Despite the significance of Black history, far too many Americans don’t grasp its centrality to U.S. history. This lack of knowledge helps spread myths about the Black past.
Myth No. 1
Slavery was a Southern phenomenon.
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that this idea continues to shape how students think about slavery in the United States. Fewer than half of American adults knew that slavery existed in all 13 colonies before the revolution, a 2019 Washington Post-SSRS poll found.
In reality, Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage set in motion 400 years of slavery in the Americas. An estimated 650,000 African captives were transported to what would become the United States between 1619 and the eve of the Civil War. It’s true that most of these men, women and children were brought to the South, which relied heavily on enslaved labor to build its economy. But other people were taken to Northern states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. New York City had the second-largest population density of enslaved Africans (after Charleston, S.C.) in 1740. At various moments during the 18th century, New York’s population of enslaved people exceeded that of some Southern states. It was not until 1827 that New York state legally abolished slavery. Abolition in other Northern states followed a similar pattern of gradual emancipation. Ultimately, slavery as an institution shaped the entire nation.
Myth No. 2
Abraham Lincoln ended slavery and freed enslaved people.
Americans tend to credit Lincoln alone for abolition, mostly because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. “Yes, Republicans freed the slaves,” a CNN analysis last summer reported. “They were not these Republicans.” Similarly, the rapper Kanye West told a crowd in 2019, “Abraham Lincoln was the Whig Party — that’s the Republican Party that freed the slaves.”
But the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery or even free a large number of enslaved people. It recognized Black soldiers by opening up a chance for them to enlist in the Union army. But on the matter of slavery, it applied only to enslaved people in rebel states — territory over which Lincoln then had no control. It didn’t affect the more than 800,000 African Americans enslaved in the border states: Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri and Maryland.
In truth, courageous enslaved people helped bring about their own freedom. At the start of the Civil War, an estimated 4 million Black people were enslaved in the South. The war gave them a chance to seize their freedom — and they did, quickly volunteering to fight in the Union army (where they eventually constituted 10 percent of the troops), confiscating land and declaring themselves free. They did not wait passively for others to come to their rescue.
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