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Black History

When Paying Homage to Our History, Remember Our Ancestors’ Stories that the Bones Will Tell

NEW ORLEANS DATA NEWS WEEKLY — In September, 1997, Dr. Michael Blakey, former Howard University archaeology professor visited New Orleans.

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By Leon A. Waters, Chairperson of the Louisiana Museum of African American History; Manager of Hidden History Tours, @ www.HiddenHistory.us

In September, 1997, Dr. Michael Blakey, former Howard University archaeology professor, and former director of the African Burial Project from New York City, visited New Orleans. Dr. Blakey was brought to New Orleans to introduce New Orleans public high school teachers and students to the world of archaeology and anthropology by examining the former slave skeletal remains buried in two former slave cemeteries on the site of the Bonnet Carre’ Spillway.

This educational venture was part of the Authentic Voices Project, an African Studies program, chaired by its director, Dr. Clyde Robertson and sponsored by the New Orleans Public School System. This effort was conducted jointly with Malcolm Suber, spokesperson for the African American History Alliance of Louisiana, (now the Louisiana Museum of African American History), the Army Corps of Engineers, and the University of New Orleans.

Teachers and students from Booker T. Washington, Benjamin Franklin, McDonogh #35 and McMain High Schools visited the former cemetery sites of the Kugler and Kenner plantations. Dr. Blakey demonstrated how excavation is conducted, engaged the students in the process, and conducted a public examination of some of the skeletal remains obtained negligently by the Corps of the Engineers. Dr. Blakey would make the comment: “Much of the written record of the former enslaved has been neglected. Archaeology is what is used to uncover this record. The living people are not here, but the remains are.”

What did the bones reveal?

The bones of several African peoples (Kongo, Angola, Mandingo, Senegal, etc.) were examined and explained. Dr. Blakey was able to trace the impact of ‘slave labor’ on the human body. His examination of the deceased bones would reveal damage to the upper and lower body parts traced back to repetitive motion, or mechanical stress in the bones or both. He would explain how the muscle and ligament attachments of the arms and legs illustrated how the enslaved was engaged in lifting and pulling. He pointed out the many examples of muscle tear in the arms and the legs consistent with overwork.

He furthered examined the dental remains. He was able to highlight the kinds of foods the enslaved consumed noting that the enslaved had a very unhealthy and poor diet. This was very evident by his examination that included chemical testing. The enslaved diet consisted of a large reliance of starchy foods, including flour, corn, peas, yams, potatoes, sugar, rum and salted fish. In addition, his examination revealed the presence of scurvy, dental loss, and abscessing which was consistent with a diet in sugars and starches.

Dr. Blakey was able to show how the enslaved from the two cemeteries were worked to death and how malnourished they were. His examination would reveal the depth of the oppression our ancestors suffered. The scholarly work that he introduced to those teachers and students is no longer being shared or taught in our public schools today. Today, Dr. Blakey is the Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at William and Mary College in Virginia.

We, who are citizens in New Orleans, have to find a way to restore such invaluable instruction to today’s schools.

This article originally appeared in the New Orleans Data News Weekly.

Black History

Alexandre Dumas: The French Author of ‘The Three Musketeers’

Alexandre Dumas wrote plays, both comedies and dramas. Scholars describe his writing as having a “heavy emphasis on plot; his primary skill as a writer consisted of his capacity to imagine and execute tales of breathtaking adventures that cause the reader to experience feelings of excitement.”

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Alexandre Dumas.Wikipedia.org image.
Alexandre Dumas.Wikipedia.org image.

By Tamara Shiloh

Best known for having penned the historical adventure novels “The Three Musketeers” (1844) and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” (1846) Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870) established himself as one of the most popular and prolific authors in France.

He wrote essays, short stories, volumes of romantic novels, plays, and travelogues, many having been translated into more than 100 languages and adapted for numerous films. But Dumas’ own story begins with his father, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie.

Thomas-Alexandre adopted the Dumas name from his Haitian grandmother. He did so just prior to enlisting in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. He rose to the rank of general, the highest rank of any Black man in a European army. He would separate from the military after clashing with Bonaparte over his Egyptian Campaign.

The elder Dumas left Egypt in 1799 traveling on what was known to be an unsound vessel. The ship’s troubles forced it to put aground in Naples, a city in southern Italy. There Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was arrested, thrown into a dungeon, and held for two years.

After his release, he returned to France. The following year, Alexandre was born. Thomas-Alexandre died when his son was four.

Dumas’ mother, Marie Louise Labouret, took on several jobs to ensure that her son was educated. He attended Abbé Grégoire’s school, but later quit to take a job assisting a local notary.

He held such a great interest in reading and books that he relocated to Paris at age 20 to immerse himself in literature. There he met the duc d’Orléans (later named King Louis Philippe) and began working for him as a scribe. It was then that Dumas dreamed of publishing his own works.

He wrote plays, both comedies and dramas. Scholars describe his writing as having a “heavy emphasis on plot; his primary skill as a writer consisted of his capacity to imagine and execute tales of breathtaking adventures that cause the reader to experience feelings of excitement.”

Dumas’ style is often compared to that of his contemporary and rival Victor Hugo.

It is estimated that all his published writings, if placed in one document, would span about 100,000 pages.

Dumas did well financially, but his spending rivaled his earnings. He spent much of his life in debt because of his extravagant lifestyle. He built a home in the country himself (now a museum), but after two years of lavish living, financial difficulties forced him to sell it. Another downfall was that he kept several mistresses.

Dumas married actress Ida Ferrier (1840) yet continued to have relationships with other women. According to scholar Claude Schopp, Dumas entertained about 40 women and fathered at least four children outside of the marriage.

To escape creditors, Dumas fled to Belgium, then to Russia. Still, he published his work, including travel books on Russia. He continued to take on mistresses, including much younger women in his old age. He remained married to Ferrier until his death in 1870.

Suggested reading: “Alexandre Dumas: Genius of Life,” by Claude Schopp.

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Black History

Fort Mose: The First Free Black Settlement

Fort Mose was the first free Black settlement in what is now the United States, and the only one known to have been sponsored by a European colonial government. Two Fort Mose sites eventually existed: one occupied by the Spanish (1737–1740) and the other by Blacks (1752–1763). Although living there was peaceful, the settlement was not immune to violent opposition.

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Fort Mose as it may have appeared in the 1700s. PBChistoryonline.org photo.
Fort Mose as it may have appeared in the 1700s. PBChistoryonline.org photo.Fort Mose as it may have appeared in the 1700s. PBChistoryonline.org photo.

By Tamara Shiloh

During the 18th century, Florida had become a haven for colonial South Carolina’s fugitive slaves. This was a result of the competition between Spain and Britain. Spain held a flexible attitude toward slaves and Black freedmen and thus encouraged British-owned slaves to escape to Florida. Such a move would inevitably destabilize British colonization in the north.

Runaway slaves crossed swamps and forestlands on foot. Help provided by Native Americans along the way created the first Underground Railroad. Parts of the journey were treacherous, and many did not survive. Those who reached St. Augustine, Fla., were granted asylum by the Spanish government: freedom in exchange for converting to Catholicism. Male slaves served a term of military service.

The first group seeking these freedoms arrived in 1687: eight men, two women, and a three-year-old child. By 1738, the numbers increased to more than 100. That’s when the fortified town of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (Fort Mose) was constructed on St. Augustine’s northernmost border. (A fortified town is one with strong defenses, usually a massive wall structure and inner citadels or strongholds.)

Fort Mose was the first free Black settlement in what is now the United States, and the only one known to have been sponsored by a European colonial government. Two Fort Mose sites eventually existed: one occupied by the Spanish (1737–1740) and the other by Blacks (1752–1763). Although living there was peaceful, the settlement was not immune to violent opposition.

A war broke out between England and Spain (The War of Jenkins’ Ear: 1740–1750). Citizens of St. Augustine and Fort Mose had suddenly found themselves involved in a conflict spanning three continents. This action of war was The Battle of Fort Mose (then dubbed Bloody Mose or Bloody Moosa).

The English employed thousands of soldiers and dozens of ships to destroy St. Augustine. All runaway slaves were to be returned to their former owners. A blockade was set up and the city was bombarded for 27 consecutive days. Those protecting St. Augustine and Fort Mose were hopelessly outnumbered. But that did not stop a group of Blacks, whites, and Native Americans from pulling together and fighting back.

Capt. Francisco Menéndez, a formerly enslaved African, led Fort Mose’s free Black militia in protecting St. Augustine. They lost the fort briefly but were able to recapture it, holding back English forces. In 1763, Spain ceded all of La Florida to England (Treaty of Paris). The citizens of Fort Mose once again faced enslavement. To maintain their freedom, they abandoned the fort for safety in Havana, Cuba, then a colony of Spain.

Fort Mose was demolished by the British during the War of 1812. As the years passed, the land was swallowed by marsh; the important legacy of its community was forgotten.

But later in the 20th century, a team of archaeologists, historians, government leaders, and citizens restored Fort Mose to its rightful place of honor.

Today, the location of the fort occupied by Blacks is recognized as a significant local, national, and international historic landmark.

Image: http://www.fortwiki.com/Fort_Mose

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Activism

How the Black Press Told the World About Emmet Till

Reporter Simeon Booker and photographer David Jackson covered the story for Jet. Other Black news outlets, including the Defender, also later published the photos, though not a single mainstream white outlet did, according to the New York Times. The photos turned Till’s story into “the first great [national] media event of the civil rights movement,” according to historian David Halberstam, who chronicles the murder in his book “The Fifties.”

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Mamie Till speaks to the press after her son was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Wikipedia.org photo.
Mamie Till speaks to the press after her son was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Wikipedia.org photo.

By Brandon Patterson

The story of Emmet Till has made its way back into the news in recent weeks on the heels of a new TV miniseries and new developments at the federal level.

Earlier this month, the historical docuseries “Mothers of the Movement” premiered on ABC. And last week, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to posthumously award Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Emmett Till’s story remains with us to this day, but lesser known is the role of the Black press in bringing his story to light — and in so doing, helping to catalyze the modern Civil Rights Movement.

One of the earliest news outlets to cover the Till story was the Chicago Defender, at the time one of the most influential Black weekly newspapers in the country, with two-thirds of its readership located outside the city, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The account of reporter Mattie Smith Colin, who covered the arrival of Till’s body at a local train station, captured the anguish of his mother as she received her son. Then, Jet Magazine became the first news outlet to publish the gruesome photos of Till’s body at his funeral, which his mother insisted be open casket.

Reporter Simeon Booker and photographer David Jackson covered the story for Jet. Other Black news outlets, including the Defender, also later published the photos, though not a single mainstream white outlet did, according to the New York Times. The photos turned Till’s story into “the first great [national] media event of the civil rights movement,” according to historian David Halberstam, who chronicles the murder in his book “The Fifties.”

Later, Booker’s coverage of the Till murder trial for Jet helped bring the trial to a Black and national audience. Other significant Black newspapers that covered the Till story included the Amsterdam News in New York City, which, by the 1960s, was the largest weekly community newspaper in the nation, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Atlanta Constitution.

Coverage of Till’s story was notably different in Black news outlets compared to mainstream white papers. In the South, coverage was often sympathetic to Till’s murderers, notes researcher Michael Oby in a 2007 paper on the Till case.

Black papers, however, framed the story as an obvious and horrid injustice. At the same time, they began encouraging their Black readers to get involved in civil rights organizing, and to donate to the NAACP, which was central to the Till case.

Booker, who worked for Jet for nearly five decades, went on to receive an award from the National Press Club for his lifelong coverage of civil rights in America in the 1980s. At the award ceremony, according to the Chicago Tribune, he said of his work: “I wanted to fight segregation on the front lines. I wanted to dedicate my writing skills to the cause. Segregation was beating down my people. I volunteered for every assignment and suggested more. I stayed on the road, covering civil rights day and night. The names, the places and the events became history.”

Because of his work and other Black journalists and news outlets, we know the story of Emmet Till, and so many other critical stories.

This story was written using reporting from the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and academic research by Michael Oby at Georgia State University.

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