Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Second Annual Amherst Black History Month Celebration, New Select Board Proclamation

For the second year in a row, the Town of Amherst, responding to the initiative of residents, has celebrated Black History Month with a ceremony in front of Town Hall.

Black History Month word cloud logo on Town website, 
designed by our skilled GIS guy and all-'round IT expert Mike Olkin (@MikeOlkin)

Over three dozen participants--an impressive figure given that the thermometer stood at a bitter 8 degrees Fahrenheit (-13 C) with a wind chill of around -1--braved the cold to signal their commitment to Black history and human rights.

Community activist and former Select Board member Judy Brooks in both years played a crucial role in making this event happen. My fellow Select Board member Alisa Brewer (@avbrewer) took the initiative in coordinating the Town involvement and working out the details of our 2015 ceremony.

This year, likewise in response to requests from the community, the Town for the first time issued an official proclamation marking the occasion and calling upon all residents to join in celebration. It made perfect sense: after all, we annually issue a proclamation for Puerto Rican Day and Tibet Day, and just two weeks ago, we marked the first Irish Day. It was but logical that we formally acknowledge an event that has been celebrated around the country for decades.

From Negro History Week to Black History Month

Many of us are familiar in general terms with "Black History Month," but not with its origins. In 1926, historian and journalist Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week as a means of calling attention to the struggles and success of African Americans. He chose the second week of February because it included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass fell. Within a few years, most states acknowledged the event. In 1969, in the context of the political upheavals of the Civil Rights and peace movements, members of the Black United Students at Kent State University urged the expansion of the celebration to a full month, which took place the following year, (only months before the University gained notoriety as the site of the notorious killing of antiwar protesters). In 1976, President Gerald Ford lent the authority of the federal government to the new month-long celebration, which entered into public law with the Congressional Resolution of February 11, 1986. Since 1978, the United States Postal Service has issued commemorative stamps for Black History Month. Although referred to as "National African American History Month" in more recent US proclamations, "Black History Month" remains the more common popular term.

Amherst Black History Month Proclamation, 2015

Whereas, since the Bicentennial year of 1976, Americans of all walks of life have come together during the month of February “to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,”

Whereas these accomplishments are the more remarkable for having been won at the cost of great struggle and sacrifice by men and women who came to these shores in chains, and by their descendants,

Whereas the authors of these accomplishments in Massachusetts history include:
  • Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poetry in America; 
  • Crispus Attucks, the first causality of the American Revolution; 
  • Edward Jones of Amherst College, the second African American to earn a college degree; 
  • Edmonia Lewis, the first professional African American sculptor, who learned her craft in Boston; 
  • the members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first and most famous unit of African American Union soldiers raised in the Civil War 
  • Jan Matzeliger, inventor who revolutionized the shoe manufacturing industry; 
  • W. E. B Du Bois, pioneering scholar and civil rights activist; 
  • Edward Brooke, the first African American senator elected by popular vote; 
  • Deval Patrick, the second elected African American governor in the nation 
Whereas captive Africans and free people of color were already part of the Amherst story in the Colonial era,

Whereas the African American residents of Amherst have fought for our collective defense and freedom from the Revolution and Civil War to the present,

Whereas the African American community—some of whose distinguished figures are depicted on the History Mural in West Cemetery—continues to contribute to the rich diversity and general welfare of both the Town of Amherst and the Commonwealth,

Whereas, to its shame, Massachusetts participated in the slave trade since 1638, but to its honor, in 1783 became the first state in the new nation to abolish slavery as “inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution," thereby demonstrating our determination to live up to our historical ideals as we strive to build a better common future,

Whereas, as President Barack Obama has proclaimed, “Every American can draw strength from the story of hard-won progress, which not only defines the African-American experience, but also lies at the heart of our Nation as a whole,”

Now, therefore, we the Select Board of the Town of Amherst, do hereby proclaim February 2015 as Black History Month, and urge all residents to mark this occasion, and to participate fittingly in its observance, beginning with a flag-raising ceremony to be held in front of Town Hall on February 14.

Voted this 10th day of February, 2015

Amherst Select Board

Aaron Hayden, Chair
Andy Steinberg
James Wald
Alisa Brewer
Constance Kruger 

Let our rejoicing rise / High as the listening skies

In 2015 as in 2014, a central feature was the raising of the African American flag, and the singing of "Life Every Voice and Sing," often referred to as the "Black National Anthem."

A member of the Massachusetts 54th reeenactors from the Springfield area
salutes the flag. What further commentary could be needed?

We were sorry that the press did not show up to cover the event, but all the more grateful that reporter Scott Merzbach (@scottmerzbach) managed to rush out an advance story on Black History Month in the Gazette, which probably did a great deal to boost turnout. We hope that next year the Human Resources/Human Rights Department in Town Hall will take charge of the event to emphasize its status as a Town-sponsored and regular observance.

Note: because I was participating in the ceremony, I could not take as many photos as I wished, but Larry Kelley offers a selection on his blog. Unfortunately, his post generated some ugly comments. I am appalled at (by not surprised by) the venom and racism. It is a real shame: he tried to report objectively on a town event, and the talkbacks are dominated by hate speech (and rebuttals).

* * *

Amherst Proclamation on Black History Month: the names

I was tasked with crafting the document for the Town. One course of action that was suggested--and it would have been the easiest--would have been simply to duplicate either the current presidential or recent Massachusetts gubernatorial proclamations. However, the former dealt with both more general and more contemporary matters, and the latter seemed, frankly, rather perfunctory as regards Massachusetts history, as well as lacking the eloquence of the former.
Some topics or individuals appear virtually de rigueur, but at the same time, one hopes not simply to reinforce the commonplace. For example, it seemed obligatory to mention the soldiers of the famed Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry--but, although they are among my personal historical favorites, the single-minded focus on this one regiment (an emphasis reinforced by the popularity of the Hollywood portrayal in "Glory") can tend to shortchange the Black soldiers who fought in other units: Of the 21 Amherst African Americans who bore arms for the Union, only 7 served in the 54th. Only 5 of the 21 identified by name are buried in West Cemetery, and only one of those is from the 54th. Our text therefore notes that the 54th was the first and most famous of these heroic units.

The 2014 Massachusetts proclamation listed only male politicians and military men, so I made sure to include figures from other fields--and women.

For example, many believe that the first Black US college graduate was from Oberlin--presumably because of the school's association with abolitionism--but the earliest Black college graduates were in fact all from New England: the first from Middlebury, in 1823; and the second, Edward Jones, from Amherst (1826). It seemed important to call attention to our local history, and to remind the public that innovation and inclusiveness at Amherst College have a long tradition. The inclusion of Jan Matzeliger, the self-taught inventor who solved the last and most difficult problem in the mechanization of the shoe trade, calls attention both to Black immigrants (he was from Dutch Guiana) and to the neglected but important role of African Americans in technology and industry. As Mass Moments explains, his invention made it "possible for working people to afford decent shoes" and "Today, all shoes manufactured by machine — more than 99% of the shoes in the world — use machines built on Matzeliger's model."

In the case of women in African American history, we often think of the political activists, such as famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth, who lived in nearby Florence. I chose to focus on the contributions to high culture: the eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley is of course known to scholars of American history and literature but is not exactly a household name. Even less well known is Edmonia Lewis, the first professional African American sculptor. It was in Boston in the 1860s that she studied art and exhibited two sculptures of heroes of the Massachusetts 54th. Proceeds from sales of copies of her bust of Col. Shaw both supported Black soldiers and funded her relocation to Rome, where she won international acclaim.

Any short list is necessarily incomplete and subjective, but future proclamations can include further individuals and groups. One hopes that the proclamations and lists will provide an opportunity to educate our community about the African American contributions to our collective society and heritage. (See also the resources for further reading at the bottom of this page.)

A footnote:

After the ceremony, retired Amherst College physics professor and amateur historian Bob Romer buttonholed me to "quibble" with one aspect of the proclamation: The "abolition" of slavery, he said, hadn't actually eliminated the practice in Massachusetts. His research taught him that here, as elsewhere in New England, "slaves" continued to appear in lists of property and the like for some time afterward. That is true, but it's also irrelevant, and in two ways.

     First, although this fact may come as a revelation to some, it is not news to professional historians. As the Massachusetts Historical Society explains, "slavery did not disappear completely for some time. Slavery, often recast as indentured servitude . . . was not unheard of in Massachusetts through the end of the eighteenth century."

     Second, be that as it may, it in no wise diminishes the significance of the action, and to harp on it is therefore to misunderstand the nature of both historical action and contemporary commemoration.

The Massachusetts Constitution stated:
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
Two legal cases in the 1780s used this text to argue that slavery was illegal in the Commonwealth, and the Chief Justice agreed, writing, "there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational Creature ..." 

The Massachusetts Historical Society concludes, "Together with the Mumbet decision, the Quock Walker trials effectively ended slavery as a legal practice in Massachusetts." It therefore calls the 1783 decision a "monumental ruling."

One could make a comparable point about the Emancipation Proclamation, whose anniversary we recently celebrated. It applied only to the territories of the Confederacy not yet under the control of the Union. Secretary of State William Seward observed with bitter but exquisite irony: "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free." Nonetheless, as the National Archives says, "Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of African Americans, and fundamentally transformed the character of the war from a war for the Union into a war for freedom."

We can acknowledge the limitations of these two abolition measures and nonetheless hail them as landmarks.


Coming attractions:

Because I didn't manage to write at the time of last year's ceremony, I will now post some photos from that event.


The History of Black History Month

Historic Sites

Further reading on some of the figures and events mentioned in our proclamation:

Phillis Wheatley
Slavery and the Abolition of Slavery
Edward Jones
 54th Massachusetts Volunteers
Edmonia Lewis
 Jan Matzeliger
W. E. B. Du Bois
Edward Brooke

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