History as a colonizing and de-colonizing tool : alternative history of Black Americans

Posted: January 6, 2009 in ESSAYS /RANDOM COMMENTS

History ceased to be something for historians alone. Instead, it is become both a public issue and an instrument of politics. Written histories rely on a willing complicity between author and audience. Being subject to the narrative and descriptive strategies of language, which unfold sequentially, they require the active collaboration of the reader in construing the story not only in its linear and chronological but also in its spatial and geographical dimensions.

In describing cultures, for example, histories may seek to evoke the aura of place and of the social environment as well as to articulate a certain sequence or density of “significant” events. They may attempt not only to document external actions, but also to reconstruct the experiential realities of the people whose lives they study. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole discourse of cultural difference is rooted in precisely such an awareness of mind-sets and attitudes, rather than in technical or factual criteria, indispensable as these are to the historical project. One of the many difficulties of cultural interpretation is to do equal justice to the demands of facts and events, on the one hand, and of perceived values and “felt life,” on the other. Ideally, a written history needs to be structured by its author, and construed by its reader, around a flexible model that can accommodate a diversity of information and facilitate its inspection in terms of both fac- tual status and epistemological perspective. The model exists to promote rather than to confine observation: meanings and insights are not predetermined by its frame of reference, but flow from it.

Colonial structures of governance often ignored the alternative realms- ties of locality and kinship often articulated in religious terms – which, emerged, opposed and even were antagonistic to the idea of a national identity.

Creation of history then became an important tool in the hands of the colonizers. One of the main streams of Post-colonial studies is the concept of power. Power does not rule by physical subjugation. It uses consensus as its weapon. It colonizes the mind. History then becomes the most important way to create such a consensus. The creation of a false history is ordered to hide the real one.

History is written by the victorious. Those who wield the sword wield the pen. The powerful paint the pictures in their colours. What is left then is a plethora of images combined together to form a collage that depicts a tale

that the powerful wants to portray. History is not narrated but re-created.

Alain Locke writes in “The New Negro” that the Blacks were treated as a ‘formala’ rather than a human being. Blacks were something to be “argued about, condemned or defended, to be ‘kept down’, or ‘in his place’, or ‘helped up’, to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden”. The Black had become more of a myth than a man. Arthur A. Schomburg in his essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past” argues for the necessity of having and preserving a sense of one’s history, especially when one belongs to a group whose history and humanity were routinely denied under slavery and segregation. What was missing from the history was an “accurate observations of things as they exist” (to quote David Walker).

This paper is the alternate history, one that shows how Blacks were not objects. This paper is a chronicle of few great Black personalities who rose and showed their worth in the world as against what the white history wanted to portray and believe.

James Durham was born in 1762. He was the first recognized Black physician in the United States.

Born a slave in Philadelphia, his early masters taught him the fundamentals of reading and writing. Durham was owned by a number of doctors, ending up in New Orleans with a Scottish physician, who hired him in 1783 to perform medical services. When he was 21, he bought his freedom and went to New Orleans where he set up his own medical practice. He was a popular and distinguished doctor in New Orleans, at least in part for his knowledge of English, French, and Spanish.

He was invited to Philadelphia in 1788 to meet Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Rush was so impressed with Dunham’s success in treating diphtheria patients, that he read Durham’s paper on the subject before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

In 1789, Durham returned to New Orleans, where he saved more yellow fever victims than any other physician in colonial Philadelphia. During an epidemic that killed thousands, he lost only 11 of 64 patients. He moved back to New Orleans and was lauded by prominent local doctors.

Despite his skill, his ability to save so many lives, and his flourishing practice, his practice was restricted in 1801 by new city regulations because he did not have a formal medical degree.

He disappeared after 1802. The idea that Black people were incapable of understanding medicine remained widespread for decades.

Charles P. Adams, Sr. was born in 1873. He was an African-American educator and administrator.

He was born in Brusly, Louisiana, and worked his way through Tuskegee Institute. During this time he became a committed student of Booker T. Washington. In 1901, the North Louisiana Farmers’ Relief Association (NLFRA) asked the now- graduated Adams to return to Louisiana. The group had asked Tuskegee’s Booker T. Washington to find a man capable of setting up an agricultural and industrial school in North Louisiana. Adams was that man and that school eventually became Grambling University.

On acreage two miles west of the school’s present site, Adams established what was known as the Colored Industrial and Agricultural School. The first student body of this little school totaled 105 students, most of them from the immediate community. Room and board was five dollars a month, most often paid with home-cured meat, chickens, syrup, meal, flour, and potatoes. In 1904, he married Martha N. Adams.

He lectured in nearby communities, and through his connection with Washington, he secured some financial assistance from the northern states and from Canada to keep the struggling institution alive. The school’s first faculty consisted of three people: Adams, as principal and teacher, his wife, Martha, co-founder as well as domestic science teacher, and A. C. Welcher, a farm instructor.

In 1905, Adams left Grambling because its NLFRA Baptist membership wanted a church-centered school and the Tuskegee-trained Adams wanted a school devoted to training people for making a good living on their farms, improving health conditions, and living more efficiently in groups. Soon after, seven Negro men in the Grambling community, Adams among them, pledged $25 dollars each for a new school site and a 200-acre plot five miles west of Ruston, LA, was purchased for $800. For 35 years, Adams headed the school, now officially known as Grambling State University of Louisiana. Most of those years were very difficult ones, but Adams and Grambling perservered.

Charles Phillip Adams Sr., one of the last of the chain of pioneer educators, died on June 27, 1961.

Alexander Thomas Augusta was born in 1825. He was a black physician and educator.

From Norfolk, Virginia, as a young man he first made his way to Baltimore, Maryland, where he worked as a barber. He began his study of medicine with private tutors and next applied for admission to the University of Pennsylvania. Though access was denied, a Professor William Gibson was impressed with Augusta and brought him under his guidance.

In 1856, Augusta was accepted to the College of the University of Toronto. His Bachelors of Medicine degree was awarded by Trinity Medical College. After establishing a successful private practice in Canada, in 1862 Dr. Augusta returned to an America on the verge of Civil War. Pressed into service in 1863, Augusta became the first Black surgeon in the U.S. Army. He was commissioned a major in the Seventh U.S. Colored Troops as the (then) highest ranking Black officer. Soon two white assistant surgeons complained to President Lincoln about having to report to a Black officer. Lincoln then forced Augusta to transfer to Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Augusta petitioned Senator Henry Wilson for payroll assistance. He successfully argued that as a medical examiner he deserved more than the $7.00 per month normally given to a Black enlisted man. Senator Wilson agreed and pressured the Army paymaster in Baltimore to apply the appropriate pay rate for his rank. In March of 1865, Augusta received the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the first Black ever to gain this stature.

After discharge in 1866, Augusta continued private practice in Washington, D.C., and taught in the newly founded Howard University Medical Department. He retired from Howard University in 1877 and continued to practice medicine until his death. Lieutenant Colonel Augusta received full military honors with burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The life of Alexander Thomas Augusta can be summed in a single word, determination. He died in 1890.

J.P. Ball was born in 1825. He was an African-American Abolitionist, free Black man, photographer and businessman.

From Virginia, in 1845 James Presley Ball opened a one-room studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. One year later Ball returned to Richmond, Virginia and had a more successful business in a rented studio located near the State Capital building. Ball returned to Ohio in 1847, as a traveling daguerrotypist, (a special field of photography) and settled in Cincinnati. There he hired his brother (Thomas) as a studio operator. In 1852 his brother-in-law (Alexander Thomas) became a partner in the studio; and the Ball and Thomas Gallery opened for business

In 1855, he published a pamphlet addressing the misery of slavery from capture in Africa, through the Middle Passage, and then to bondage. He also held photo exhibitions on the experience of slavery. During the 1850’s displays of Ball’s daguerreotypes were shown at the Ohio State Fair and at the Ohio Mechanics Annual Exhibition. In May of 1860, the Ball and Thomas Photographic Art Gallery was destroyed by tornado; however it was rebuilt with help from the community.

During the 1870s Ball dissolved his partnership with Thomas and moved to Minneapolis, opening another studio. In 1887, he was the official photographer of the 25th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation held in Minneapolis. During October of that year, Presley relocated to Helena, Montana where between 1887-1894, he produced hundreds of photographs of the White, Black and Chinese community. In 1900, he moved to Seattle and opened another studio under the firm name of Globe Photo Studio. James Presley Ball died in 1904.

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born in 1818. She was a once illiterate African-American slave woman who worked as a nurse/midwife and then walked from Mississippi to California to become a successful entrepreneur and a generous contributor to social causes.

From Mississippi, she was born on a plantation owned by Robert Marion Smith and Rebbecca (Crosby) Smith. In 1847, Smith became a Mormon convert and decided to move to the Utah Territory with his household and slaves where Brigham Young was starting a Mormon community. In this strenuous two-thousand-mile cross-country trek, Mason was responsible for herding the cattle. She also prepared meals, acted as a midwife and took care of her children. In 1851, Smith moved his household again, this time to San Bernardino, California. Smith probably did not know that California had been admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state and that slavery was forbidden there.

At this time she had made friends in the L. A. black community and one of them (Charles Owens) helped Mason petition the court and in 1856 won freedom for herself and for her daughters. She moved to Los Angeles and found employment as a nurse and midwife. Hard work and her nursing skills allowed her to become economically independent. She became a domestic to Dr. John S. Griffin who served most of the Los Angeles area. Mason was also very frugal and only ten years after gaining her freedom, she bought a site on Spring Street for $250 becoming one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles.

This site is now in the center of the commercial district in the heart of the city. In 1884, she sold a parcel of the land for $1500 and built a commercial building with spaces for rental on the remaining land. She continued making wise decisions in her business and real estate transactions and her financial fortunes continued to increase until she accumulated a fortune of almost $300,000. Her grandson, Robert Curry Owens, a real estate developer and politician, was the richest African-American in Los Angeles at one time.

Mason was a founding member of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872. She also gave generously to various charities and provided food and shelter for the poor of all races and she never forgot the jail inmates whom she visited often. In 1872 she and her son-in-law, Charles Owens, founded and financed the Los Angeles branch of the First African Methodist Episcopal church, L. A.’s first black church. Biddy Mason died January 15, 1891 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Evergreen cemetery in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. Nearly a century later, on March 27, 1988 a tombstone was unveiled which marked her grave for the first time in a ceremony attended by Mayor Tom Bradley and about three thousand members of the First African Methodist Episcopal church.

Thursday, November 16, 1989 was declared Biddy Mason Day and a memorial of her achievements was unveiled at the Broadway Spring Center located between Spring Street and Broadway at Third Street in Los Angeles.


Ignatius Sancho, a Black writer was born in 1729. He was born on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the West African nation of Guinea. After the ship reached the Caribbean port of Cartagena, in what is now Colombia, his mother died and his father committed suicide.

He was baptized “Ignatius.” After several years, Sancho was taken to Greenwich, England, where he was given to three unmarried women. They gave him the surname “Sancho” because he reminded them of the squire in Don Quixote. He later ran away and became butler to the Duchess of Montagu. Sancho later ran a grocery shop in Westminster. Self educated, he composed music, appeared on the stage, and wrote numerous letters, published in 1782, after his death. Ignatius Sancho died in 1780.

Austin Stewart was born in 1793. He was a Black slave, businessman, administrator and biographer of his life as a slave in America.

Steward was born in Prince William County, Virginia where his master, William Helm, owned over a hundred slaves. When Steward was eight years old he became a house servant at Helm’s mansion. His master sold his plantation and slaves and moved to Bath in Steuben County. In financial difficulties, Helm also hired his slaves out to local farmers. Some of these men treated Stewart horrifically, which defined his reason to escape. Steward reached Canada in 1815 where he joined the Wilberforce Colony that had been established by the Society of Friends. It was there that he was chosen the settlements president.

In 1817, he created a successful business in Rochester. 9 years later he delivered an oration at the celebration of the New York emancipation act, and in 1830 he was elected vice-president of the National convention of Negroes in Philadelphia. While in Wilberforce, he used his own funds to carry on the affairs of the colony but in 1837, with no more land to be sold to the colonists by the Canada Company, Stewart returned to Rochester. He afterward opened a school in Canada, and after two years became an agent for the “Anti-Slavery Standard.”

As an elder he wrote of his experiences in his autobiography, Twenty-Two Years a Slave which appeared in 1857. As an American reference it is considered one of the best slave narratives published. Austin Steward died in 1860.

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