Here’s a new way to think about Black History

 

Every February, the contributions of black Americans are recognized during Black History Month. Since I’m black and work for the Bureau of Land Management, a mostly white federal agency, I appreciate that. But I also have a complaint: Why has its observance become so predictable?

By now, I am sure that everybody knows that black Americans were enslaved and some were lynched; that Rosa Parks helped spark and Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement that changed America. We usually hear tell of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the black musicians that created America’s great new music – the blues and jazz. All were heroes by any measure.

But by singling out the same black heroes – again and again -- we ignore another reality: Blacks have been a silent part of American history from the beginning. There has been no glory and no shame that was not shared by both whites and blacks.

Nowhere is this truer than in the West, where black Americans fought in all of the Indian wars, drove cattle from Texas to Kansas and beyond, led wagon trains over mountain passes, trapped beaver, formed cavalry units, founded entire towns, parachuted into raging wildfires, been among the most notorious of outlaws and, conversely, some of the bravest U.S marshals, and even owned slaves and profited from slavery. Like every other American throughout our brief history, blacks have been among the good, the bad and the ugly. Some examples:

*When Bass Reeves, a legendary deputy U.S marshal, died in 1910, the Oklahoma Muskogee Phoenix eulogized him in surprising and revealing words: “Bass Reeves was absolutely fearless and knowing no master but duty... Reeves faced death a hundred times. Many desperate characters sought his life, yet the old man even on the brink of the grave went along the path of duty…Black-skinned, illiterate, offspring of slaves whose ancestors were savages, this simple old man’s life stands white and pure alongside some of our present-day officials… it is lamentable that we as white people must go to this poor, simple old negro to learn a lesson in courage, honesty and faithfulness to official duty.” Reeves has been called one of the bravest men this country has ever known; he was honored posthumously with the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s “Great Westerner” award.

*The Seminole-Negro Indian scouts were descendants of escaped slaves who had settled among the Seminole Indians of Florida. In the late 1830s, they were relocated to the Indian Territories, and when slave hunters continued to persecute them there, a band fled to Mexico. Drawing on survival skills learned in Florida and adapted to the barren terrain of the Mexico borderlands, they became known for their skills, toughness and courage. During the 1870s, the U.S Army recruited some of these men into the cavalry to form a highly mobile strike force during the Indian wars. The Seminole-Negroes never numbered more than 50 at a time, yet they distinguished themselves to such an extent that they received four Congressional Medals of Honor while never losing a single scout. Though the scouts were promised their own land in return for their service, the country never made good on that promise.

*Not many know it, but the first armed “rangers” of any national park were black -- the 24th Mounted Infantry, who rode from the Presidio in San Francisco to Yosemite National Park in 1899. Their service was discovered not long ago by Shelton Johnson, a ranger at Yosemite, who happened upon an old photograph in the park’s archives. Now, old diaries have also come to light that confirm their pioneering work.

*The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was formed of black men in 1943, who trained as combat paratroopers but who never made it overseas. Instead, the men were sent to the Northwest to combat blazes that might be started by incendiary balloons sent by the Japanese. The balloon threat fizzled, but the men fought forest fires and were among the nation’s first “smoke jumpers.”

*Isaiah Dorman, the only black man to fight and die at the Battle of Little Big Horn, was also the only soldier whose dying words have been preserved. Dorman spoke the Sioux language perfectly, and while mortally wounded, tried unsuccessfully to talk the Indians out of maiming his already bloody body. The first known account of Dorman was as a courier for the Army in the Dakota Territory. In 1871, the Army hired him to guide the Northern Pacific Railroad survey team, then later that same year as a Sioux interpreter. In 1876, Custer ordered him to accompany the Little Big Horn expedition. Dorman refused, having had a family by this time, so Custer sweetened the pot by raising his pay from $50 to $75 a month. Dorman never lived to collect his increased pay. To this day, he or his heirs are still owed $102.50 back pay, plus more than a 130 years’ interest.

Black history, American history -- aren’t they the same thing? Somewhere along the way, the notion that we have different values and different cultures has been fostered and believed. But in spite of the ugliness and distance that we maintain to this day, our histories have always been intertwined. Let us celebrate black heroes this month, but someday, I hope, we can become one community of non-hyphenated Americans, solving all the problems that we all share.

 

Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works for the Bureau of Land Management in western Colorado.
Anonymous
Feb 05, 2008 12:57 PM

I love this article!  When I worked for a federal agency in Maine, I called an elementary school to offer some information on Black History Month.  I remember the teacher saying, "But we don't have any black children here."  I told her that black history is not for just for black people, it is American History, and therefore for all people. She reluctantly agreed for me to bring the information, but that encounter has stayed with me.  I realized that I had very little education when I was in school regarding black, women's, Asian, etc. history and I should have had this.  It is MY history. The richness of America is made up of all the people who has contributed to our society: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Wayne's article hits home and is eloquently written.

Anonymous
Feb 05, 2008 01:34 PM

History is awesome regardless of race.  Thank you for your diligence in promoting history as history, and for digging into the lesser known individuals that contributed to this nation.  Many an unknown person has contributed greatly to the taming of this wonderful country.

Anonymous
Feb 06, 2008 11:00 AM

Do we complain about reading that same old lie about Washington tossing a coin across the Delaware or how P. Revere rode to warn about the "British are coming".

The whole purpose of the month is to acknowledge the contributions Black men and women made to the growth of these United States and how the sacrifices made by them allow us to enjoy the fruits of that sacrifice. Yes there are many who are not mentioned but to do that will require more than a month. It is upon all of us, who know, to speak out and not allow a few to teach a history that does not include contributions of people of color.

Too long We have allowed others to be in charge of the truth. It is time to stand up and teach, and demand that the truth, no matter how ugly be told.

What are you doing?

SocraticGadfly
SocraticGadfly
Feb 15, 2008 07:39 PM

Excellent; you could have mentioned even more about the Buffalo Soldiers, who had valiant service here in Texas.

Anonymous
Feb 18, 2008 12:59 PM

    Kudos to Wayne Hare for his article....I read it in The Denver Post today..2/17/2008

  How refreshing to hear about some other,( not so famous), black heroes, of whom there are many, I'm sure....as well as asian, hispanic, etc......as Hare mentions, the history of this country is an intertwining of multiple races and should be taught and remembered as such.

  Hopefully someday we can celebrate the tapestry of the USA & recognize all the elements that forged its' completion. (no hyphens necessary!)

         Thanks, Wayne

Anonymous
Feb 18, 2008 01:13 PM

This kind of perspective is much more valuable to the discussion concerning the black race than what is heard from people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.  The blacks mentioned in the article didn't allow themselves to become victims.  They became heroic because they "did" things instead of letting things be "done" to them.  Wayne Hare, Bob and Audrey Griffin, the black family that welcomed this white boy into their home, and the blacks talked about in this article have one thing in common; people make this country great, regardless of race or hyphenation.

Anonymous
Feb 25, 2008 05:42 PM

Great article, thank you for reminding of our rich history.