The Fight to Preserve—and Teach—African-American History
Hampton, Va—Toward the end of August in 1619, a ship carrying “20 and odd” Africans arrived at Point Comfort in Virginia, the first permanent English colony in North America, and were sold to the settlement’s leaders.
Last month, historians, officials and the public gathered at that same strip of land to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the occasion. With speeches, music and drumming, they mourned the long history of American slavery and racism that began on Virginia’s shores, but also celebrated the myriad cultural contributions African Americans have made to the nation.
“It is an emotional time because it is the culmination, at least for me, of many years of trying to bring attention to this through the realm of scholarship, [and] encouraging scholars to start having conversations,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor and dean of the college of liberal arts at Norfolk State University in Virginia. While getting the facts and focus of this commemoration right has been a priority, it’s part of a much longer struggle to get academics and the public to take seriously and accurately the study of black history and culture.
EdSurge sat down with Newby-Alexander and Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to talk about one group leading the charge to preserve history and educate us all: the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. We met in the library at Hampton University, a historically black college just a few miles from where the first Africans landed four centuries ago. Hampton is where the association chose to host its commemoration symposium, titled “400 Years of Perseverance.”
Listen to the story on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: “Four hundred years of perseverance” is a phrase I coined a couple of years ago because I was tired of this sense of the enslavement and oppression of African Americans being the complete story when it is not. We would not be in this room, I would not be able to speak with you today, if there wasn’t perseverance, courage, creativity, intellectual development—all of these things that people of African descent have been and continue to be in this country, and the power of the spirit of African Americans is being celebrated today.
Because that spirit itself pushed through with everything, the law—and my area is legal history—the law, the culture, the society itself all said that Africans were nothing, beneath contempt, could be murdered, their babies sold, all of this. And yet, these Africans kept alive a spirit of humanity that defied everything. That is what this 400-year anniversary is to me and that is what 400 years of perseverance is all about.
EdSurge: One of the best-known researchers to make this case was a man named Dr. Carter G. Woodson, whom members of the association cite as a pioneer in the field of African American history.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: Dr. Carter G. Woodson graduated from Harvard, but he was not a person born to money at all. He was very poor. But he had an intellect of genius. About 50 years out of slavery or so, he’s seeing this country look at African Americans as having no history and no contributions. And he knew it wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t true without even knowing that Dr. Woodson existed. But the rest of the world didn’t know it and our community didn’t know it as well as it should.
And so Dr. Woodson decided that he would make as a structured institution the historical scholarly discovery and research of African American history, and publish it. So he started the journal because it was thought in these white journals of scholarly research that there was nothing that African Americans had done that was worth publishing. And so we had to develop our own journals and we had to develop our own conferences in which we exchanged information with one another. And so this is how ASALH began and this is what we continue to do.
Woodson’s goal was getting scholars to recognize African American history, and he also wanted to get broader recognition of this scholarly work.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: He began with Negro History Week that is now African American History Month. So you can see how pivotal his existence was in the work that he did back then to what we’re doing today, when we are commemorating 400 years of African American history. He got the world to see that this was a history worthy of research and there are so many PhDs, masters, so many people, so many books written about our history and so many books yet to write.
So it sounds like there wasn’t much respect given though to black writers and scholars and the work they were doing to preserve black history.
Cassandra Newby-Alexander: There are white scholars today writing about African Americans and they never look in any of the black newspapers. So their viewpoint is skewed because it’s only from the perspective of how whites have viewed blacks, as opposed to how blacks view themselves in their own communities and what’s actually happening in that community. Because if your lens is only focused on your perception of black people, then you’re going to ignore all the different threads of that community. And so black scholars had been focusing on these things from the beginning.
With white institutions, journals and scholars ignoring their work, black academics relied on their own institutions, especially black schools and colleges like Hampton, which traces its roots to efforts to educate enslaved people who escaped during the Civil War. Hampton later educated important figures like Booker T. Washington. These HBCUs didn’t just preserve scholarship around black life. They taught it to black students. And in passing along that knowledge, those colleges passed on cultural pride. And black history museums have served a role in this as well.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: The National African American Museum [in Washington, D.C.] and prior to that, the Charles Wright Museum in Detroit, were places where African Americans and others could go to see themselves in fine institutions. As was pointed out prior to that, it was HBCUs and maybe some institutes, maybe smaller ones, very small, that were created by personal funding in different cities across the country.
But as we began to build institutions, there was this whole sense that we are a people worthy of study, and that’s what Carter G. Woodson, who was also a graduate of Harvard, what he was thinking. A people without a history cannot be respected.