This Week in History: February 27, 2006

African Burial Ground

African Burial Ground National Monument Established

The New York African Burial Ground—the oldest and largest cemetery for enslaved Africans in the United States—was unearthed in 1989 as construction workers prepared to install a 34-story federal office building in lower Manhattan. Following the discovery that the building site was situated above an 18th-century “Negroes Burying Ground,” a crew of archaeologists was employed to conduct an archaeological excavation. In 1991, the construction of the federal office building ensued alongside an extensive archaeological dig that uncovered the skeletons of more than 400 enslaved Africans buried at the cemetery during the early to late 18th century. The excavation and construction project was suspended in 1992 following a congressional mandate issued largely in response to a public demand. The African American New York community pressured the federal government to ensure that the skeletal remains of their African ancestors be appropriately studied and ultimately reinterred.

In 1992, a team of researchers from Howard University’s department of sociology and anthropology began studying the skeletal remains found at the African Burial Ground site. The New York African Burial Ground—formerly referred to as the Negroes Burying Ground—was established in 1712 and used until 1794 as the final resting place for “people of African descent, paupers (poor people), and British and American prisoners of war during the American Revolution” (Hansen and McGowan, 2). The enslaved populations interred at the burial site were believed to have originated from West Africa, West-Central Africa, and the Caribbean, exported to the North American mainland through the Atlantic slave trade.

By 1644 when the British acquired New Amsterdam, subsequently renaming the territory New York in reverence of the Duke of York, increasing numbers of enslaved Africans were channeled into the colony to labor for British colonists. As a consequence of the English acquisition of New Amsterdam, black New Yorkers—enslaved and free—were subject to more restrictive laws that suppressed New York Africans’ ability to participate in the social and religious institutions that existed in colonial New York. With the strict governance of the social, religious, and political welfare of enslaved New Yorkers came orders that regulated the activities of enslaved blacks during non-laboring hours. Due to the special edicts designed for persons of African descent residing in New York City during the colonial period, New York Africans were forced to bury their deceased outside of the New York City limits.

With the suppression of the social and human liberties of enslaved Africans in New York City, enslaved blacks fashioned the African Burial Ground as one of the initial social institutions established by enslaved Africans in the colony. The institution of slavery and its practitioners consistently challenged the humanity of the enslaved who were routinely forced to relinquish their identities through arbitrary “renaming” practices, separated from kin—blood born and fictive, prohibited from the exercise of religious expression, and defrauded the ability to communicate through the use of indigenous African languages. The assault on the African identity, culture, physical and social mobility, and overall humanity, coupled with the legal mandates that prohibited enslaved blacks from sharing burial space with whites, made necessary the African Burial Ground among other Negroes Burying Grounds interspersed throughout the African Diaspora.

West African culture remained a consistent influence on enslaved Africans in the Americas during the colonial and postcolonial periods. The effect of West African culture on enslaved blacks in New York was articulated through the retention of various West African traditions and beliefs, especially as it related to funerary customs. The use of burial shrouds, the ritual adornment of bodies and coffins, and even the physical orientation of the bodies demonstrate links to West African spiritual practices alive in colonial New York City. Researchers involved in the African Burial Ground Project recognized almost immediately the African continuities that existed, reflected in the various ornaments, engravings, jewelry, beads, coins, coffins, and other artifacts uncovered at the site.

LeFlouria, T. L. (2010). African Burial Ground, New York City. In L. M. Alexander & W. C. Rucker (Eds.), Encyclopedia of African American History (Vol. 1, pp. 10-12). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

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This Week in History: February 22, 1956

Montgomery AL

Montgomery Bus Boycott Arrests

90 Montgomery, Alabama Negro leaders, 24 of whom were Protestant ministers, were arrested February 22-24 on charges of violating a state anti-boycott law by leading a Negro boycott of Montgomery City Lines buses to protest segregated seating practices. All were released on $300 bond each. They were arraigned February 24, and all pleaded not guilty.  115 had been indicted, but several were out of the state. At least one was arrested on returning to Montgomery February 27.

The Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy, 29, pastor of the First Baptist Church and one of the 24 arrested ministers, announced February 22 that boycott leaders had proclaimed February 24 as Prayer-Pilgrimage Day, a day on which “not a single race-loving Negro” would ride. Most Montgomery Negroes complied and walked to work (or to court) February 24 despite a drizzle. Negro ministers exhorted Montgomery Negroes at a mass meeting February 23 to keep their movement one of “passive resistance” and to avoid violence.

The bus line was only one of several enterprises boycotted by one side or another for allegedly taking sides in the segregation issue. The pro-segregation White Sentinel, published in St. Louis, had accused Phillip Morris, Inc. of giving money to the NAACP–a report denied by both the company and the NAACP–and as a result Philip Morris cigarettes were boycotted by many whites in Alabama. The Negro Tuskegee Civic Association News told Negroes February 7 that any businessman “who is not sympathetic to your becoming a registered voter [does not deserve] your patronage.”

“Racial Problem: Alabama Bus Boycott Arrests; Other Developments.” Infobase Learning, February 28, 1956. Accessed January 24, 2018. http://wnd.infobaselearning.com/recordurl.aspx?wid=99071&nid=71307&umbtype=0. World News Digest.

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This Week in History: February 18, 1931

Toni Morrison Born

Toni Morrison Nobel Prize

When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she became the first American woman to receive the award since Pearl Buck in 1938, and the first African American woman ever to be so honored. In describing her work, the Nobel Committee stated; “She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to free from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the luster of poetry.”

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 and earned a master’s degree in English at Cornell University in 1955. After a series of university teaching jobs, she became the Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University in 1988. Over her long career as a writer Morrison has used poetic language in an unflinching examination of gender conflicts, race relations, and other aspects of American society, winning a National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon in 1977 and a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988. As she explained it, “My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly radicalized world.” In the novels The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon, (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved(1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998) Morrison has demonstrated her mastery of literary technique. When asked for her reaction to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature she responded, “When I heard  I’d won you heard no “Aw, shucks’ from me. The prize didn’t change my inner assessment of what I’m capable of doing, but I welcomed it as a public, representational affirmation of my work. I was surprised at how patriotic I felt, being the first native-born American winner since John Steinbeck, I felt pride that a black and a woman had been recognized in such an international forum,” In her Nobel address in Stockholm, Morrison said, “The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience, it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.” Henry Louis Gates, chairman of the African American Studies Department at Harvard University, said: “I think she got the Nobel Prize for two books, essentially, Beloved and Jazz. He called  Jazz a “truly brilliant postmodern book” and said Morrison was “as great and as innovative as Faulkner and Garcia Marquez and Woolf. That’s why she deserved the Nobel Prize.”

Paradise, Morrison’s first book after winning the Nobel Prize, was conceived as the final installment of a trilogy that examines love in all its forms. In the first installment, Beloved, she told the troubling tale of an escaped slave whose love for her daughter was so strong that she would rather kill the child than see her returned to servitude. The second volume, Jazz, looks at “elicit” love, telling the story of a married man in Harlem during the 1920s who murders his young girlfriend after she jilts him for a younger man. That story is interwoven with the related story of a wealthy white and her mulatto son during the reconstruction era. Paul Gray described the form of love treated in Paradise as “a hunger for security, the desire to create perfection in an imperfect world.” In tracing the fates of former slaves who migrated west after the Civil War, Morrison was struck by the admonition that appeared in the ads for black settlers; “Come Prepared or Not at All.” Setting her novel in an all-black town in Oklahoma, she used this aphorism to construct a tale of rejection, isolation, anger, and collective memory. While she is known for her careful dissection of race relations, Morrison deliberately refused to concentrate on race in Paradise. As she told Gray, “I wanted the readers to wonder about the race of those girls [in the local convent] until those readers understood that their race didn’t matter. I want to dissuade people from reading literature in that way.” She added: “Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. It’s real information, but it tells you next to nothing.”

Morrison, Toni 1931-. (2001). In J. S. Baughman, V. Bondi, R. Layman, T. McConnell, & V. Tompkins (Eds.), American Decades (Vol. 10). Detroit: Gale. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3468303324/GVRL?u=lcpls&sid=GVRL&xid=13751797

 

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This Week in History: February 6, 1993

Arthur AsheTennis Great, Arthur Ashe, Dies of AIDS

On February 6, 1993, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, the only African-American man to win Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian Opens, dies of complications from AIDS, at age 49 in New York City. Ashe’s body later laid in state at the governor’s mansion in Richmond, Virginia, where thousands of people lined up to pay their respects to the ground-breaking athlete and social activist.

Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr., was born in Richmond on July 10, 1943. He first picked up a tennis racket as a young boy at a segregated playground near his home. Ashe attended U.C.L.A. on a full scholarship and in 1963 became the first African-American member of the U.S. Davis Cup Team. In 1965, he claimed the individual NCAA tennis championship and helped U.C.L.A. win the team championship. After graduating in 1966, Ashe served in the U.S. Army for two years. In 1968, while still an amateur player, he won the U.S. Open and became the first black man to win a Grand Slam event. Two years later, in 1970, Ashe won the Australian Open. In 1972, he was a co-founder of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the union for male players, and later served as its president. Three years later, he beat heavily favored Jimmy Connors to win the singles title at Wimbledon. Ashe also competed on the Davis Cup team for 10 years, winning three championships. His prize money and endorsements made him the first African-American millionaire in his sport. In 1980, though, heart problems forced Ashe to retire from tennis. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985.

Off the court, Ashe was known for his commitment to charitable causes and humanitarian work. He established tennis programs for inner-city children and campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. Following his retirement, Ashe was a TV sports commentator and columnist and wrote a 3-volume book, “A Hard Road to Glory,” about black athletes. In 1988, Ashe learned he had AIDS. It was believed he contracted the HIV virus from a tainted blood transfusion following a 1983 heart operation. Ashe kept his medical condition private until April 1992, when a newspaper informed him of its intention to run an article about his illness. Ashe decided to pre-empt the article and held a news conference to announce he had AIDS. He spent the remainder of his life working to raise awareness about the disease. In 1997, the U.S. Tennis Association announced it would name the new center court stadium at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, the Arthur Ashe Stadium.

History.com, “Tennis Great Arthur Ashe Dies of AIDS”, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/tennis-great-arthur-ashe-dies-of-aids

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