February 17 – The 1811 German Coast Uprising

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

When asked to name figures linked to famous slave rebellions, those who still remember their high school American history courses usually offer the same names: Nat Turner and John Brown. But if you were to ask who Deslondes, Kenner and Quamana were, you’d likely be met with blank stares.

Charles Deslondes was the son of an enslaved woman and a French planter; Harry Kenner was an unassuming 25-year-old carpenter; and Quamana was a warrior captured in the militant Asante kingdom and imported to Louisiana. What makes them special is that exactly two hundred years ago, these three men organized and led 500 slaves in the 1811 German Coast Uprising of New Orleans; the largest slave uprising in US History… and yet few have ever heard their tale.

To remedy that, I have invited another BHM friend, Dan Rasmussen, to guest author today’s Black History Wall post. Why Dan? Well, because he quite literally wrote the book on it! Thank you, Dan, for today’s entry…

On January 8, 1811 Deslondes, Kenner and Quamana, along with eight other slave leaders, rallied an army of nearly 500 slaves to fight and die for freedom. No slave revolt – not Nat Turner, not John Brown – has rivaled the great New Orleans slave revolt of 1811 either in terms of the number of participants or the number of slaves slaughtered in the aftermath.

The revolt was meticulously planned, politically sophisticated, and ethnically diverse – and a fundamental challenge to the system of plantation slavery. Dressed in military uniforms and chanting “On to New Orleans,” they rallied a rugged army of around 500 slaves to attempt to conquer the city, kill all its white inhabitants, and establish a black republic on the shores of the Mississippi.

In a dramatic battle in the cane fields, the slave army faced off against the twin forces of the American military and a hastily-assembled planter militia. “The blacks were not intimidated by this army and formed themselves in line and fired for as long as they had ammunition,” wrote one observer. But the slaves’ ammunition did not last long, and the battle was brief. Soon the planter militia broke the slave line and the slaughter began.

The planters, supported by the American military, captured Charles Deslondes, chopped off his hands, broke his thighs, and then roasted him on a pile of straw. Over the next few days, they executed and beheaded over 100 slaves, putting their heads on poles and dangling their dismembered corpses from the gates of New Orleans. “Their Heads, which decorate our Levee, all the way up the coast… look like crows sitting on long poles,” wrote one traveler. The rotting corpses were grim reminders of who owned whom – and just exactly where power resided.

The American officials and French planters then sought to cover up the true story of the revolt, to dismiss the bold actions of the slave army as irrelevant and trivial, and write this massive uprising out of the record books. They succeeded. And, in doing so, they laid the groundwork for one of the most remarkable moments of historical amnesia in our national memory

The revolutionaries of 1811 were heroes who deserve a place in our national memory. Their actions are a testament to the strength of the ideals of freedom and equality – and every man’s equal claim to those basic rights. Their acts are an inspiration to all people who strive for freedom. Now, on the 200th anniversary of the start of this great revolt, we must listen to their voices and study their stories, for only through understanding the passions and beliefs that resonated through the slave quarters can we begin to comprehend the true history of Louisiana, and with it, the nation.

Thanks for reading,

Daniel Rasmussen


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February 16 – Phillis Wheatley

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Yesterday I mentioned Sarah Roberts, a young, Black girl denied an education by Boston’s white elite. Today, I think it’s only fair to feature a young, Black woman who was given an exceptional education by an elite, white family in Boston… so exceptional, in fact, that this woman would become the first African American to publish a book, and the first to make a living from her writing. Do you know who she was?…

Phillis Wheatley was born free in 1753 somewhere near present-day Gambia or Senegal, but was kidnapped as a child by slave-traders. She arrived in Boston on July 11, 1761 on the slave ship The Phillis, and was sold to John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant and tailor. He and his wife, Susanna, decided to name the girl after the ship which brought her from her native Africa.

Phillis was originally purchased as Susanna’s personal servant, but the progressive family soon began treating her as a part of the family, raising her along with their own two children. The Wheatley’s decided to offer Phillis a first-rate education – something inaccessible to most women of any race of that time – and under the tutelage of John’s daughter, Mary, Phillis learned to read and write.

From a very young age, Phillis exhibited a gift for literature. By the age of 12, she was already reading Greek and Latin classics as well as works by Alexander Pope and John Milton. She began writing her own poetry when she was 13, and became a celebrity in Boston at age 17 for her poem honoring George Whitefield, a deceased evangelical preacher. Later, she also wrote a poem dedicated to George Washington, for which he invited her to his home to thank her. Much of her poetry revolved around Christianity, classical influences, and abstract themes. Very rarely did she write about slavery or her own condition, although it is clear from her poems that those experiences infused with her words anyway.

Boston Women’s Memorial: Phillis Wheatley. Commonwealth Avenue and Fairfield Street, Boston, MA

By 1773, the self-proclaimed “Negro Slave Poet of Boston” had made an international name for herself. She traveled to London and held an audience with the Lord Mayor of London and other important members of British society. While there, she also published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral featuring 39 of her poems. This was the first book published by a Black American, and it marked the birth of the African American literature genre.

Phillis Wheatley was legally freed in 1778 when John and Susanne died. Sadly, after a brief, unhappy marriage to another free Black and the death of her two infant children, she died poor and alone at the age of 30. Nevertheless, her legacy lives on in her published works and memoirs.

Thanks for reading,


On Virtue
O Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt
Thine height t’ explore, or fathom thy profound.
But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.
Fain would the heav’n-born soul with her converse,
Then seek, then court her for her promis’d bliss.
Auspicious queen, thine heav’nly pinions spread,
And lead celestial Chastity along;
Lo! now her sacred retinue descends,
Array’d in glory from the orbs above.
Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years!
O leave me not to the false joys of time!
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.
Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee,
To give me an higher appellation still,
Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay,
O thou, enthron’d with Cherubs in the realms of day.

– Phillis Wheatley

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February 15 – School Segregation in the Courts

February 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 was a landmark Supreme Court decision which declared the segregation of black and white students in public schools to be unconstitutional. Prior to this, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 had legally granted states the right to sponsor segregation. But legal battles over school segregation predate even Plessy v. Ferguson. The very first documented school-integration lawsuit was filed in 1848, and this story began 163 years ago today…

On February 15, 1848, in Boston, Massachusetts, a five-year-old Black girl named Sarah Roberts was barred from attending any of the nearby White schools. As a result, she had to walk clear across town to the Smith Grammar School, passing 5 other primary schools along the way. Her father, Benjamin Roberts, was unsatisfied with the condition and the quality of his daughter’s school, and tried on four separate occasions to enroll her in one of the closer schools. He was four times denied. Undeterred, he then proceeded to file suit on her behalf, enlisting the help of Robert Morris, a prominent Black lawyer in the Boston legal community.

A year later,Roberts v. The City of Boston came before Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who ruled in favor of the defense. According to Shaw, racial prejudice was “not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law,” and that ultimately, segregation of public schools was legally permitted by the US Constitution. Other Southern state supreme courts were quick to follow suit, and it was this legal precedent that led to the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

More than 100 years would pass before other children like Sarah Roberts were given the legal right to attend integrated schools.

thanks for reading,


Robert Morris(L) and co-counsel Charles Sumner (C), argued that separate schools could never be equal. Lemuel Shaw (R) disagreed.

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February 14 – Moneta J. Sleet, Jr.

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The first African-American journalist ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism was born on this day, February 14, 1926. Here is the photo that earned him this distinction. Do you know who journalist was? And do you know who is featured in this photograph?

Moneta J. Sleet, Jr. was born in Owensboro, Kentucky and was the editor of his local high school newspaper. At the age of 18, Sleet decided to enlist, and served in the US Army from 1944-1946. Afterwards, he earned his Bachelor of Arts at Kentucky State University and then his Masters in Journalism at New York University.

Five years later, in 1955, he went to work for Ebony Magazine, and would for the next 41 years proceed to capture images of numerous significant and influential African Americans and events including a young Muhammad Ali, Stevie Wonder at a recording session without his sunglasses, a dejected, puffy-faced, needle-scarred Billie Holiday a year before she died, independence celebrations in African nations, civil-rights marches in America, the homes and work places of celebrities, death row, beauty contests and visits to such places as a West Virginia mining town and Miami after a riot. By all accounts, he was a “gentle man,” and it was no doubt this gentleness that granted him access to so many intimate, unguarded moments in his subjects’ lives.

In 1969, Sleet won the Pulitzer for his photograph of Coretta Scott King tearfully clasping her daughter Bernice at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s funeral. At a time of great shock in mourning in America, Sleet’s photo captured the deep sorrow and quiet strength felt by many who believed in the Civil Rights Movement.

Sleet’s Pulitzer was the first to a black man and the first and only one to anyone working for a black publication.

Thanks for reading,


ps. On a closely related note, and for those of you who are interested, Julie Nanney has a book recommendation for us! Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides “gives a very detailed account of MLK’s last days and James Earl Ray’s activities before and after the assassination. There was so much about the story I did not know…”


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February 11 – Three Fifths Human

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

One of my favorite musicians is Chicago’s very own Lonnie Rashied Lynn, Jr., better known in the industry as hip hop artist Common. In addition to his music and lyrics, I love the fact that he invites his father, Lonnie “Pops” Lynn, Sr., to close out each of his albums with spoken poetry.

Recently, I was listening to Common’s 2005 album Be; to the final track entitled It’s Your World, and enjoying Pops’ voice when one line of his poem jumped out at me:

Be amended 5/5ths, Be amended 5/5ths human,
Be the owner of more land than is set aside for wild life…

Do you know what this 5/5ths is referring to?

Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution states that “representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

In layman’s terms: Black slaves were counted as 3/5 of a Human Being.

This “Three-Fifths Compromise,” as it came to be known, was reached at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 to settle a dispute between the Northern and Southern states. The number of delegates in the US House of Representatives was to be determined by the size of a state’s population. Southern states wanted to include slaves in their overall headcount, thereby granting them more seats in the House. Northern states, seeking to balance the power, preferred to count only the free inhabitants of each state.

Benjamin Harrison of Virginia proposed a compromise of ½. A handful of New Englanders proposed ¾. In the end, they settled on 3/5. And in retrospect, it’s appalling and unsettling to imagine these founding fathers assigning arbitrary percentages to the humanity of other men.

It would be almost 100 years before the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution superseded the Three-Fifths Compromise, stating that “Representatives shall be apportioned …counting the whole number of persons in each State.”

And so, when Pops says on his son’s album, “be amended 5/5ths human,” he is referring to the fact that his ancestors were once considered less than human, while at the same time calling on current and future generations to reach their full potential as whole, full, complete human beings.

thanks for reading,


“I want to be a duck.”

–   one of “the kids” from It’s Your World

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February 10 – Barbara Jordan

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Back in my freshman year of college at the University of Texas (Hook ‘em!), the big news in town was that Robert Mueller Airport was being replaced by the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Kenny, my childhood friend / college roommate had a fascination with airports and was also taking a class taught by Larry Speck (the lead architect on the project), so of course we took a tour of the place before it opened. My initial impression of the place: Cool airport for a cool city… But who is Barbara Jordan, and why did they name a terminal after her??

My curiosity didn’t even survive the drive back to Dobie Dormitory, and embarrassingly, I didn’t know the answer to those questions until a few hours ago when I was researching topics for today’s BHM post… Better late than never, I suppose!

Barbara Jordan was born on Feb 21, 1936 in Houston, Texas to a minister and a domestic worker. As a young child, Jordan was a top student who excelled at debate and graduated in the upper 5% of her class. Post-high school, she had dreams of studying political science at UT Austin, but decided against it as the school was still segregated at the time. Instead, she attended Texas Southern University, studied Poli Sci and History, became a national champion debater, and graduated magna cum laude. Jordan then studied law at Boston University and graduated in 1959.

After a brief stint as a Poli Sci professor at Tuskegee, Jordan returned to Houston to start a law practice, and to pursue politics. She ran twice (in 1962 and 1964) for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, and twice she failed. Then, in 1966, she earned a seat in the Texas Senate, becoming the first Black woman ever to do so. Despite racial obstacles and pressures, Jordan managed to accomplish quite a bit in just six short years, becoming:

  • the first Black elected official to preside over the Senate
  • the first Black state senator to chair a major committee
  • the first freshman senator named to the Texas Legislative Council
  • the first Black female senator to be elected President Pro Tem of the Legislature.
  • And in 1972, she became the first Black woman ever elected to the US House of Representatives.

From 1966-1979, both as a State Senator and as a US Congresswoman, Jordan worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor, the disadvantaged, and minorities. In particular, she is remembered for increasing injured workers’ benefits through the Workman’s Compensation Act, and for expanding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to eliminate unfair registration practices such as literacy tests, thereby preventing minority votes (especially those of Mexicans in Texas and other Southwestern states) from being excluded.

Jordan was close friends with President Lyndon Johnson, made a very strong and public statement at Nixon’s impeachment hearing, and at one point in her career, was even tapped as a potential running mate for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. Unfortunately, in 1979, Jordan was forced to retire from politics due to complications with multiple sclerosis. With politics behind her, Jordan became a Professor of Public Affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

Barbara Jordan died in 1996 of pneumonia. Upon her death, Jordan lay in state at the LBJ Library, and was then buried in the Texas State Cemetery… the first Black woman ever so honored.

thanks for reading,


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February 9 – Ralph Waldo Ellison

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

58 years ago today, on February 9, 1953, the National Book Award was given to an African American author for the very first time. His novel, the only one he would ever publish in his lifetime, is considered the most significant American novel since World War II and has been called “the Moby Dick of the 20th Century.”

So who was this author, and for what novel did he win this prestigious literary award?

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father, who died when Ralph was only 3 years old, had named his son after Ralph Waldo Emerson in the hopes that he would someday become a great poet. But Ellison’s early interests lay in music and art, so in 1933 he began at the Tuskegee Institute on a music scholarship, and later moved to New York City to study sculpture and photography. While in New York, Ellison befriended author Richard Wright, and it was Wright who encouraged/persuaded Ellison to try writing as a career.

For the next decade, Ellison earned a living writing book reviews, short stories and magazine articles while his wife Fanny McConnell supplemented his income by working as a photographer. Those endeavors helped pay the bills and sustain their lifestyle, but all the while, Ellison was focused on his novel…

Finally published in 1952, Invisible Man wowed critics with its unique and skillful handling of complex themes including race, racism, identity, individuality and anonymity. The book’s protagonist, an anonymous African American man, narrates in the first person, telling the story of his life in retrospect. The story, filled with metaphors, imagery and allusions, follows this unnamed man’s journey from the South to the North, and introduces us to the varying forms of racism he encounters. Racism, in all its forms, alienates him and makes him “invisible” because people see him only as a stereotype… not for who he truly is. In that regard, this is everybody’s story.

After winning the National Book Award in 1953, Ellison continued to write essays and short stories, and later he would lecture and teach. He would also receive numerous distinctions throughout his life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of the Arts. But he would never again publish another novel. His second novel, Juneteenth, was edited and published posthumously by his literary executor. It was a 368 page condensed version of a 2000 page manuscript Ellison had worked on for years and left unfinished.

thanks for reading,


America is woven of many strands. I would recognise them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description.

– Ralph Waldo Ellison

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