Black History Month: A Time to Recognize Little-Known Contributions
If journalism is the first draft of history, then it only makes sense that our story is constantly being re-drafted as new elements are discovered and new viewpoints need to be reflected. This year, as we embark on the first year of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, one of the points being emphasized by organizers is that the African American experience is going to be told more completely than before.
Some of the spade work for telling that history was begun several years ago by Journey Through Hallowed Ground (JTHG), a non-profit organization dedicated to raising national awareness of the unparalleled history that took place in a swath of land stretching from Gettysburg through Maryland to Monticello. Incorporated in 2005, JTHG undertook as one its first missions the gathering of untold stories. They invited 75 African American historians from the four-state region to begin to identify these stories and perhaps unidentified sites that would help tell a more complete American story.
The result of their work is evident to anyone who travels the Journey byways, but they also have published >Honoring Their Paths: African American Contributions along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground> by Deborah A. Lee, Ph.D. The book holds a wealth of information. There are so many stories to choose from, so I will share with you some of the anecdotes from the book at locations I have thus far visited.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
During the 1830s African Americans frequently worked as watermen on the oceans and nation’s waterways, but as tensions over slavery became fiercer, the Virginia legislature passed laws that boats maintain a white supervisor so that no black boatmen would assist fugitive slaves. In Maryland (where the C&O Canal is located) there were no such laws, but the board of directors of the C&O Canal wanted to placate white residents so they banned African Americans from captaining vessels. This ban seemed to hold for many years after the Civil War. Until 1878, there are no records of black barge captains. (For more information on the Canal, read an earlier post.)
Aldie Mill in Aldie (near Middleburg, Virginia)
Aldie Mill was owned and operated by congressman Charles Fenton Mercer who owned slaves but condemned the institution of slavery. In 1816, he and others founded the American Colonization Society on the west coast of Africa, with the hope that it would provide a place for free blacks and newly emancipated slaves to reside. After the Civil War, several former slaves worked at Aldie Mill and a successful black entrepreneur by the name of Wavin Corum hauled goods and cut cordwood for area mill owners. Because there was work in the area, several African American communities, Bowmantown, Stewartown, Dover, and Back-in-the-Hollow all grew up nearby, and the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, which is still an important building in Aldie, was built in 1875.
Gordonsville–The “Chicken-Leg Centre of the Universe”
At Gordonsville, Virginia two rail lines intersected, so the town became a major transportation center. During the latter part of the 19th century, the town became known for its enterprising food vendors, former salve women who sold fried chicken, biscuits, sandwiches, boiled eggs, cakes, strawberries, and oranges, as well as tea and coffee.
A depiction of the scene at the Gordonsville train station in 1871 was provided after a group of editors from the North were invited by editors from the South to come for a visit. A reciprocal South-to-North visit was planned, and the intent was to smooth post-Civil War relations between the two sections of the country. The Northern editors stopped in Gordonsville, and in an article on their trip, the writer noted that their “special train was surrounded with a swarm of old and young negroes of both sexes, carrying large servers upon their heads…”
Some of the women who prepared and sold the food worked from huts built near the tracks; others prepared the food at home and brought the goods in to town to sell. The fact that women primarily ran these operations led to a new level of economic independence for African American women in Gordonsville. In Honoring Their Past, a second-generation food vendor who was still running a cooking business in the late 1960s is quoted as saying, “My mother paid for this place with chicken legs.”
Notable People in All Areas
The book also highlights stories of heroes we likely have never heard of. One who is featured is Leonard A. Grimes (1815-1874), a free black man who ran a carriage service in Washington D.C. in the 1830s. Grimes became active with the Underground Railroad, and in 1839 he was arrested for helping a woman and her six children flee from slavery in Loudon County. His trial was held in 1840 in Leesburg. Many of his prominent white customers came from Washington to testify on his behalf, but he was still found guilty. In deference to those who had testified for him, he was given the lightest sentence possible–two years in prison.
After his release, Grimes became a minister and moved to Massachusetts where he was pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston. He continued to help people flee slavery, and his church became known as the “Fugitive’s Church.” When the Civil War began, Grimes lobbied for African Americans to be permitted to fight for the Union, and when he succeeded in that effort, he went on to recruit for the Army.
At a daylong memorial for Abraham Lincoln in Boston, it was Grimes who delivered the closing benediction.
These stories are a very small sampling of those from Honoring Their Past. To learn more, order the book and visit some of the places along the Journey where these stories happened.
The Museum of the City of New York is another institution that has brought to life more information about the contributions of African Americans. On Thursday, I’ll tell you about their new exhibit on the Apollo Theater and the panel discussion I attended about it.