Category Archives: African American History

NY Black History Fail: The Amistad Commission


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Black History FailureIn 2005, during Governor George Pataki’s administration, the New York State Legislature created the Amistad Commission to review the state’s curriculum about the slave trade.

“All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and consider the vestiges of slavery in this country,” the Amistad Commission website says. “It is vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.”

Unfortunately, the Amistad Commission’s effort to update the state’s slavery curriculum has been a failure. Continue reading

Harlem: Life in Pictures


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Malcolm X- Rally for Birmingham, 1963. by Larry Fink. All images courtesy of Ilon Art Gallery

Malcolm X- Rally for Birmingham, 1963. by Larry Fink. Images Courtesy of Ilon Art Gallery

“If new thought can enter the mind, even for a moment, then change has a chance,” writes JT Liss. His photographs search for those figures and visions that allow us to see new ways and think new thoughts.

Ilon Gallery’s show Harlem: Life in Pictures on view in a classic 1890s brownstone, demonstrates how historic images of figures that have become iconic can acquire new resonance when displayed along fresh takes on a neighborhood that has been a cradle of creativity for well over 100 years. Continue reading

Lincoln Weekend Celebrates Great Emancipator


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Abe-Lincoln WeekendIn commemoration of the end of the Civil War, the death of Lincoln, and the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum (NAHOF) has suspended its 2015 induction ceremonies to address the matter of President Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator.” Several programs will provide opportunity for the public to study Lincoln as an abolitionist.

The Thirteenth Amendment (“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,… shall exist with within the United States..”) was proposed by the U.S. Senate on April 8, 1864. The movie Lincoln features the historical drama of securing the votes needed in the House of Representative to pass the resolution. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865 and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865. Continue reading

Chenango County African American Civil War Veterans


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Hannibal Molson“Thursday was a gala day for the colored people of [Norwich] and surrounding towns,” the Chenango Semi-Weekly Telegram reported on September 27, 1879. “The occasion being the reunion of the colored soldiers of the late war, under the auspices of the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company of this village.”

The African American fire company had been organized earlier that year and elected Civil War veteran Hannibal C. Molson its Foreman. The day’s program called for a dinner, a parade, and speeches in recognition of their honoree’s service followed in the evening by a meal at the Spaulding House, musical selections, and a ball at Concert Hall. Continue reading

The Birth of ‘The Nation’: A New York Story


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Nation Founding ProspectusJust across Union Square from The Nation’s headquarters on Irving Place there stands a hole-in-the-wall falafel joint that some of the magazine’s employees— including, rumor has it, the author of this blog post — are known to frequent. Habitually. Like, every day. Sometimes twice. Like salmon swimming home.

Until recently, this behavior had long puzzled scholars — defying, it seems, all we think we know about the instinct to self-preservation. But actually it makes eminent good sense: the falafel joint’s address — 26 East 17th Street — once belonged to the first headquarters of the Union League Club, and it was there, one fateful night in the early summer of 1863, just days before the Battle of Gettysburg, at a clap of divine lightning, at the end of an eternal drum-roll, for good or for ill, depending on whom you ask, the magazine now known the world over as America’s oldest weekly was summoned from the ether and was born. Continue reading

Voodoo Opera from Harlem Renaissance


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Barry Robinson as Fojo, the voodoo priest and Janinah Burnett as Lolo, a thwarted lover who resorts to voodoo rites.Magic rites in the jungle seal the fate of a love triangle in the long-forgotten opera of H. Lawrence Freeman restaged on Friday and Saturday at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Voodoo was composed in 1914 and had its last performance in 1928. The music and libretto come from a composer who was a friend of Scott Joplin. author of more than 20 operas, and founder of the Harlem Renaissance’s Negro Grand Opera Company. The revival features Gregory Hopkins of Harlem Opera Theatre conducting in a production that drew on collaboration with the Harlem Chamber Players and the Morningside Opera. Continue reading

Spectacle: The Life of Ota Benga


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Ota BengaIn Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (Amistad / Harper Collins, 2015) the award-winning journalist reveals a little-known and shameful episode in American history, when an African man was used as a zoo exhibit — a shocking story of racial prejudice, science, and tragedy in the early years of the twentieth century.

Ota Benga, a young Congolese man, was featured as an exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, in 1906, the Bronx Zoo displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, four-foot eleven-inch man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe. Continue reading