Category Archives: History

Packing the Court: Amid national crises, Lincoln and his Republicans remade the Supreme Court to fit their agenda

by Calvin Schermerhorn, Arizona State University

As a political battle over the Supreme Court’s direction rages in Washington with President Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, history shows that political contests over the ideological slant of the Court are nothing new.

In the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln worked with fellow Republicans to shape the Court to carry out his party’s anti-slavery and pro-Union agenda. It was an age in which the court was unabashedly a “partisan creature,” in historian Rachel Shelden’s words.

Justice John Catron had advised Democrat James K. Polk’s 1844 presidential campaign, and Justice John McLean was a serial presidential contender in a black robe. And in the 1860s, Republican leaders would change the number of justices and the political balance of the Court to ensure their party’s dominance of its direction.

Overhauling the Court

When Lincoln became president in 1861, seven Southern states had already seceded from the Union, yet half of the Supreme Court justices were Southerners, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of Maryland. One other Southern member had died in 1860, without replacement. All were Democratic appointees.

The Court was “the last stronghold of Southern power,” according to one Northern editor. Five sitting justices were among the court’s 7-2 majority in the racist 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling, in which Taney wrote that Black people were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Some Republicans declared it “the duty of the Republican Party to reorganize the Federal Court and reverse that decision, which … disgraces the judicial department of the Federal Government.”

After Lincoln called in April, 1861 for 75,000 volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion, four more states seceded. So did Justice John Archibald Campbell of Georgia, who resigned on April 30.

Chief Justice Taney helped the Confederacy when he tried to restrain the president’s power. In May 1861, he issued a writ of habeas corpus in Ex Parte Merryman declaring that the president couldn’t arbitrarily detain citizens suspected of aiding the Confederacy. Lincoln ignored the ruling.

Chief Justice Roger Taney.
Chief Justice Roger Taney tried to limit Lincoln’s powers in the Civil War. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Remaking the Court

To counter the court’s southern bloc, Republican leaders used judicial appointments to protect the president’s power to fight the Civil War. The Lincoln administration was also looking ahead to Reconstruction and a governing Republican majority.

Nine months into his term, Lincoln declared that “the country generally has outgrown our present judicial system,” which since 1837 had comprised nine federal court jurisdictions, or “circuits.” Supreme Court justices rode the circuit, presiding over those federal courts.

Republicans passed the Judiciary Act of 1862, overhauling the federal court system by collapsing federal circuits in the South from five to three while expanding circuits in the North from four to six. The old ninth circuit, for example, included just Arkansas and Mississippi. The new ninth included Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota instead. Arkansas became part of the sixth, and Mississippi, the fifth.

In 1862, after Campbell’s resignation and McLean’s death, Lincoln filled three open Supreme Court seats with loyal Republicans Noah H. Swayne of Ohio, Samuel Freeman Miller of Iowa and David Davis of Illinois. The high court now had three Republicans and three Southerners.

The 1863 Prize cases tested whether Republicans had managed to secure a friendly court. At issue was whether the Union could seize American ships sailing into blockaded Confederate ports. In a 5-4 ruling, the high court – including all three Lincoln appointees – said yes.

Congressional Republicans spied a way to expand the court while solving what amounted to a geopolitical judicial problem. In 1863, Congress created a new tenth circuit by adding Oregon, which had become a state in 1859, to California’s circuit. The Tenth Circuit Act also added a tenth Supreme Court justice. Lincoln elevated pro-Union Democrat Stephen Field to that seat.

And after Chief Justice Taney died in 1864, Lincoln selected his political rival, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, an architect of national monetary policy, to replace him. With Chase, Lincoln succeeded in creating a pro-administration high court.

Unpacking the Court

After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who succeeded him, soon began undoing Lincoln’s achievements. He was a Unionist Democrat given the vice presidency as an olive branch to the South. He rewarded that gesture in part by pardoning rank and file Confederates. Johnson also opposed civil rights for newly-freed African Americans.

He also threatened to appoint like-minded judges. But the Republican-dominated Congress blocked Johnson from elevating unreconstructed Rebels to the high court. The Judicial Circuits Act of 1866 shrank the number of federal circuits to seven and held that no Supreme Court vacancies would be filled until just seven justices remained.

The Philadelphia Evening Telegraph’s Democratic editor sighed that at least Republicans “cannot pack the Supreme Court at this moment.”

Noah H. Swayne.
Lincoln appointed three Republicans to the Court in 1862, including then-Judge Noah H. Swayne. Library of Congress Brady-Handy Collection

Courting paper money

Republicans refused to consider nominating Johnson in 1868, picking General Ulysses S. Grant instead. He won, and after President Grant’s inauguration, Congress passed the Circuit Judges Act of 1869, raising back to nine the number of Supreme Court justices.

Shortly after, Republicans faced a financial problem of their own making.

Beginning in 1862, Congress had passed three Legal Tender Acts – initially to help finance the war, authorizing debt payments using paper money not backed by gold or silver. Then-Treasury Secretary and current Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had crafted the legislation.

But in an 1870 case, Hepburn v. Griswold, Chase reversed himself in a 4-3 decision, ruling the Legal Tender Acts unconstitutional. That threatened national monetary policy and Republicans’ cozy relationship with industries reliant on government sponsorship.

President Grant, preparing for Chase’s ruling, was already working on a political solution. On the day of the Hepburn decision, he appointed two pro-paper-money Supreme Court nominees, William Strong of Pennsylvania and Joseph P. Bradley of New York. Comparing the Republican administration to “a brokerage office,” a Democratic newspaper howled that “the attempt to pack the supreme court to secure a desired judicial decision … (has) brought shame and humiliation to an entire people.”

It also brought a Republican majority to the high court for the first time.

Chief Justice Chase opposed revisiting the paper money issue. But the Supreme Court about-faced, ruling 5-4 in the 1871 cases Knox v. Lee and Parker v. Davis that the government could indeed print paper money to pay debts. Chase died in 1873, and his successor Morrison Waite championed the Republican pro-business agenda.

Careful what you wish for

Republican transformation of the federal judiciary in the 1860s and 1870s served the party well in the Civil War and constructed a legal framework for a modernizing industrial economy.

But in the end Lincoln and Grant’s high court appointments ended up being disastrous for civil rights. Justices Bradley, Miller, Strong and Waite tended to constrain civil rights protections like the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of laws. Their rulings in United States v. Cruikshank in 1876 and Civil Rights Cases in 1883 both sounded the retreat on Black civil rights.

In remaking the court in Republicans’ image, the party got what it wanted – but not what was needed to fulfill the promise of “a new birth of freedom.”The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

In ‘The Good Lord Bird,’ a new version of John Brown rides in at a crucial moment in US history

by William Nash, Middlebury

Was abolitionist John Brown a psychopath, a sinner or a saint?

The answer depends on whom you ask, and when.

Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird,” based on James McBride’s novel of the same name, comes at a time when evolving popular perceptions of Brown have once again gotten people thinking and talking about him.

Since he cemented his place in history by leading a failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, the flinty-eyed militant’s cultural significance has waxed and waned. To some, he’s a revolutionary, a freedom fighter and a hero. To others, he’s an anarchist, a murderer and a terrorist.

My research tracks how scholars, activists and artists have used Brown and other abolitionists to comment on contemporary racial issues.

With the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the president’s push for “patriotic education,” Brown is perhaps more relevant now than at any other time since the dawn of the Civil War.

So which version appears in “The Good Lord Bird”? And what does it say about Americans’ willingness to confront racial oppression?

From farmer to zealot

Born in 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, John Brown was living a relatively undistinguished life as a farmer, sheep drover and wool merchant until the 1837 murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. An outraged Brown publicly announced his dedication to the eradication of slavery. Between 1837 and 1850 – the year of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act – Brown served as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, first in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then in the Adirondacks, near the Canadian border.

Gifted a farm by wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith, Brown settled in North Elba, New York, where he continued helping escaped slaves and assisting the residents of Timbuctoo, a nearby community of fugitive slaves, with their subsistence farming.

In 1855, Brown took his anti-slavery fight to Kansas, where five of his sons had begun homesteading the previous year. For the Browns, the move to “Bleeding Kansas” – a territory riven by violence between pro- and anti-slavery settlers – was an opportunity to live their convictions. In 1856, pro-slavery forces sacked and burned the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. Outraged, Brown and his sons captured five settlers from three different pro-slavery families living along Pottawatomie Creek and slaughtered them with broadswords.

These brutal murders thrust Brown onto the national abolitionist stage.

John Brown, arms splayed out, triumphantly screams as troops battle behind him.
‘Tragic Prelude,’ a mural painted by John Steuart Curry, depicts John Brown’s role in ‘Bleeding Kansas,’ with the bloodshed, fire and tornado hinting at the coming Civil War.
Wikimedia Commons

For the next two years, Brown led raids in Kansas and went east to raise funds to support his fights. Unbeknownst to all but a few co-conspirators, he was also planning the operation that he believed would deal slavery a death blow.

In October 1859, Brown and 21 followers raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Brown had hoped that both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman would join him, but neither did; perhaps their absences help explain why Brown’s expected uprising of enslaved Virginians never materialized. In addition to dooming the initial raid, the absence of a slave army torpedoed Brown’s grand plan to establish mountain bases from which to stage raids on plantations throughout the South, which he referred to as taking “the war to Africa.”

In the end, Harpers Ferry was a debacle: Ten of his band died that day, five escaped, and the remaining seven – Brown included – were tried, imprisoned and executed.

The myth of John Brown

From Pottawatomie to the present, Brown has been something of a floating signifier – a shape-shifting historical figure molded to fit the political goals of those who invoke his name.

That said, there are certain instances in which opinions coalesce.

In late October 1859, for instance, he was roundly vilified and decried as a violent madman. The outrage was so strong that five of the Secret Six – his most ardent supporters and active financial backers – denied association with Brown and condemned the raid.

John Brown kisses a Black baby on the way to his execution.
In his circa 1884 painting ‘The Last Moments of John Brown,’ Thomas Hovenden depicts Brown as a martyr.
profzucker/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

But by that December, the cultural tide shifted in Brown’s favor. His jailhouse interviews and abolitionist missives, published in papers ranging from The Richmond Dispatch to the New-York Daily Tribune, galvanized admiration for Brown and amplified Northern horror over the evils of slavery. Historian David S. Reynolds deems those documents Brown’s most important contribution to the destruction of American chattel slavery.

Praised and defended by Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared the freedom fighter would “make the gallows glorious like the cross,” Brown was later described as a martyr to the anti-slavery cause. During the Civil War, Union troops sang a tribute to him as they went into battle. For many, he was the patron saint of abolitionism.

Artists, meanwhile, conjured and deployed versions of Brown in service of their work. In the 1940s, painter Jacob Lawrence created a wild-eyed firebrand Brown while Horace Pippin depicted a contemplative, sedentary Brown to showcase their divergent perspectives on Black history.

A young John Brown, freshly shaven, sits at a table in front of an open Bible.
Horace Pippin’s ‘John Brown Reading His Bible’ (1942).
Wikiart

However, during the Jim Crow era, most white Americans – even opponents of segregation – either ignored Brown or condemned him as an anarchist and a murderer, perhaps because the delicate politics of the civil rights struggle made him too dangerous to discuss. For followers of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s philosophy of nonviolence, Brown was a figure to be feared, not admired.

In contrast, Black Americans from W.E.B. DuBois to Floyd McKissick and Malcolm X, faced with waves of seemingly endless white hostility, celebrated him for his willingness to fight and die for Black freedom.

The past three decades brought renewed interest in Brown, with no fewer than 15 books on Brown appearing, including children’s books, biographies, critical histories of Harpers Ferry, an assessment of Brown’s jailhouse months and the novels “Cloudsplitter” and “Raising Holy Hell.”

At the same time, right-wing extremists have invoked his legacy. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for instance, expressed the hope that he would “be remembered as a freedom fighter akin” to Brown.

Yet Brown’s contemporary admirers also include left-wing Second Amendment advocates like the John Brown Gun Club and its offshoot, Redneck Revolt. These groups gather at events like Charlottesville’s 2017 Unite the Right March to protect liberal counterprotesters.

John Brown the … clown?

Which brings us to McBride’s novel, the inspiration for Showtime’s miniseries.

Among the most distinctive features of McBride’s novel is its bizarre humor. Americans have seen a devout John Brown, a vengeful John Brown and an inspirational John Brown. But before “The Good Lord Bird,” Americans had never seen a clownish John Brown.

McBride’s Brown is a tattered, scatterbrained and deeply religious monomaniac. In his ragged clothes, with his toes bursting out of his boots, Brown intones lengthy, discursive prayers and offers obtuse interpretations of Scripture that leave his men befuddled.

We learn all of this from Onion, the narrator, a former slave whom Brown “rescues” from one of the families living on Pottawatomie Creek. At first, all Onion wants is to get back home to his owner – a detail that speaks volumes about the novel’s twisted humor. Eventually, Onion embraces his new role as Brown’s mascot, although he continues to mock Brown’s ridiculously erratic behavior all the way to Harpers Ferry.

Like many reviewers – and apparently Ethan Hawke, who plays Brown in the Showtime series – I laughed loud and hard when I read “The Good Lord Bird.”

That said, the laughter was a bit unsettling. How and why would someone make this story funny?

At the Atlantic Festival, McBride noted that humor could open the way for “hard conversations” about America’s racial history. And Hawke’s hilarious portrayal of Brown, along with his commentary about the joys of playing this character, suggests he shares McBride’s belief that humor is a useful mechanism for fostering discussions about both slavery and contemporary race relations.

While one might reasonably say that the history of American race relations is so horrific that laughter is an inappropriate response, I think Hawke and McBride may be on to something.

One of humor’s key functions is to change people’s way of seeing, to open the possibility for a different understanding of the subject of the joke.

“The Good Lord Bird” gives readers and viewers a mechanism for seeing past the historical Brown’s violence, which is the defining feature of most iterations of him and the basis for most judgments of his character. For all of Brown’s madness, for all of his commitment to ending slavery, his care and affection for Onion show that he is fundamentally kind – an attribute that invests him with an appealing humanity more powerful than any physical blow he strikes.

Given all of the cultural baggage that John Brown has carried since Pottawatomie, giving audiences a means of empathizing with him is no mean feat.

Perhaps it will help Americans move the needle in the ongoing struggle for racial understanding – an outcome that’s as necessary now as it was in 1859. The Conversation

The trailer for Showtime’s ‘The Good Lord Bird.’

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Trump rally in Tulsa, a day after Juneteenth, awakens memories of 1921 racist massacre

Editorial note by Randall Hill, Court.rchp.com

The opening scene of HBO's "Watchmen" begins with a powerful depiction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Last year, when "Watchmen" aired, many people were shocked to learn for the first time this atrocity actually happened.

In honor of Juneteenth, HBO has made all nine episodes of "Watchmen" available to stream for free through Sunday on HBO.com and Free On Demand.


by Russell Cobb, University of Alberta

For only the second time in a century, the world’s attention is focused on Tulsa, Okla. You would be forgiven for thinking Tulsa is a sleepy town “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,” in the words of the musical Oklahoma!.

But Tulsa was the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history, and a long, arduous process of reconciliation over the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was jarred by President Donald Trump’s decision to hold his first campaign rally there since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The city is on edge. Emotions are raw. There’s anxiety about a spike in coronavirus cases, but lurking even deeper in the collective psyche is a fear that history could repeat itself. Tens of thousands of Trump supporters will gather close to a neighbourhood still reckoning with a white invasion that claimed hundreds of Black lives.

In this June 15, 2020, photo, people walk past a Black Wall Street mural in the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Okla. Dozens of blocks of Black-owned businesses were destroyed by a white mob in deadly race riots nearly a century ago. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

A Trump rally near a site of a race massacre during a global pandemic already sounded like a recipe for a dangerous social experiment. But then there was the matter of timing. The rally was to be held on Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday commemorating the day slaves in the western portion of the Confederacy finally gained their freedom.

Normally, Juneteenth in Tulsa is one big party, the rare event that brings white and Black Oklahomans together. But fears about spreading COVID-19 led organizers to cancel the event. Then came the protests over the murder of George Floyd. During those demonstrations in Tulsa, a truck ran through a blockade of traffic, causing one demonstrator to fall from a bridge. He is paralyzed from the waist down.

COVID-19 cases surging

To make a bad situation even worse, the city is witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases. Local health officials have acknowledged that the increase in new cases, mixed with close to 20,000 people packed into an arena, is “a perfect storm” that could fuel a super-spreader event.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum speaks during a news conference at police headquarters. (Matt Barnard/Tulsa World via AP)

Some of Mayor G.T. Bynum’s biggest supporters began pleading with him to cancel the event. Bynum is of that rarest of species, a Republican who has staked part of his political legacy on combating racism. It was Bynum who shocked the white establishment by ordering an investigation into potential mass grave sites from the 1921 massacre, even as many Republicans accused him of opening old wounds.

Faced with the prospect of provoking a fight with Trump, however, Bynum equivocated. Bynum found himself under attack from former friends and allies who urged him to do something. Then, on June 13, the Trump campaign announced that it would change the date of the rally to June 20 “out of respect” for Juneteenth. It was a small victory for protesters, but some were further enraged by Bynum’s moral equivalence between the protests over Floyd’s murder and a Trump campaign rally.

Reminiscent of another mayor

The mayor’s impotence has also brought back memories of 1921. The mayor then, T.D. Evans, found himself unable — or unwilling — to stand between an angry white mob ginned up over fears of a “Black uprising” and a Black community demanding racial equality.

Evans saw the rising influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma politics and quietly voiced his displeasure. As the Tulsa Tribune cultivated white paranoia about a Black invasion of white Tulsa, Evans, and many like him, did little. “Despite warnings from Blacks and whites that trouble was brewing,” Tulsa Word reporter Randy Krehbiel wrote in a book about the massacre, “(Evans) remained mostly silent.”

In this 1921 file image provided by the Greenwood Cultural Center, Mt. Zion Baptist Church burns after being torched by white mobs during the 1921 Tulsa massacre. (Greenwood Cultural Center via Tulsa World via AP)

One historical parallel with 1921 stands out above the rest: the power and influence of “fake news” to mobilize alienated voters.

While much has been made of a revolution of social media and YouTube to undercut the gatekeepers of traditional media, a false news article was the most proximate cause of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

The Tulsa Tribune published an article on May 30, 1921, with an unproven allegation that a Black man, Dick Rowland, had tried to rape a white woman in a downtown elevator. The dog-whistle came through loud and clear. No evidence was presented and charges were later dropped. But the news was enough to set off calls for a lynching of Rowland.

Hundreds killed

A mob formed around the Tulsa courthouse. The Tribune had been stoking fears of a “Black uprising” for months, running stories of race mixing, jazz and interracial dancing at Black road houses.

A few Blacks armed themselves and tried to stop the lynching. The sight of armed Blacks made the white mob direct its fury at a bigger target — the Black section of town, Greenwood.

By the dawn of June 1, 1921, Greenwood lay in ruins, with hundreds dead and thousands interned in camps. The devastation did not come as a surprise to those who had watched the rise of xenophobia during the First World War and the second coming of the KKK, an organization that received a boost after the screening of the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915 at the White House.

Trump reaches into his suit jacket to read remarks following the events in Charlottesville, Va. He defended white supremacists following a Unite the Right rally that turned violent. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Tulsa, and the nation, had been primed for racial violence by a white supremacist media and presidential administration. Many well-intentioned people stood idly by, hoping the trouble would soon blow over. It did not.

Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. During the spring of 1921, Tulsa got the tragedy. With Trump rallying tens of thousands of his supporters near Greenwood amid a deadly pandemic, the best we can hope for this time around is farce.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Birthed by HBCU students, this organization offers important lessons for today’s student activists

by Jelani Favors, Clayton State University

April 15, 2020 marks 60 years since the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, perhaps better known as SNCC, and usually pronounced as “snick.” SNCC became one of the most important organizations to engage in grassroots organizing during the modern civil rights movement and radically transformed youth culture during the decade. Jelani Favors, an associate professor of history and author of a book on how historically black colleges and universities ushered in a new era of activism and leadership, discusses SNCC’s legacy and what lessons it can offer today’s activists.

What role did SNCC play in the civil rights movement?

The founding of SNCC in April 1960 represented an important paradigm shift within the modern civil rights movement. SNCC encouraged black youth to defiantly enter spaces that they had been told to avoid all of their lives. The founding in 1960 resulted in a wave of SNCC activists being sent into the most hostile environments to register voters and mobilize African Americans for change. In doing so, SNCC ushered in the direct action phase of the movement.

Previous generations of activists had embraced lawsuits, such as the 1944 Smith v. Allwright against racial discrimination in voting, and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case against racial segregation in public schools. Previous generations also embraced non-direct protest tactics, such as boycotts, to bring slow change. But the sit-ins – popularized by black college students who would later form SNCC – placed black bodies on the line in ways that other tactics had not. They clogged “five and dime” stores across the South, effectively shutting them down, dramatizing the movement for black liberation as the entire world looked on through television and media coverage.

Black youth courageously courted the danger that often accompanied breaking the color line in the racially segregated South. Their actions resulted in violent clashes that fully displayed the immorality of white segregationists and simultaneously captured the nobility and courage of black youth. Perhaps most importantly, SNCC radically transformed youth culture in America. The organization took a generation of youth that Time magazine had previously labeled in 1951 as the “silent generation,” and ushered in a decade – the 1960s – that would be widely characterized and defined by the militancy and dissent of young Americans.

How did historically black colleges and universities help form SNCC and its agenda?

Black colleges served as the incubators for this militancy. For generations, historically black colleges and universities – also known as HBCUs – exposed students to a “second curriculum” that was defined by race consciousness, idealism and cultural nationalism. These concepts not only blunted the toxic effects of white supremacy, but they also empowered youth and deliberately fitted them with a mission to serve as change agents within their respective communities and professional fields. It was not happenstance that the origins of SNCC were rooted within the crucial intellectual and social spaces that were carved out within HBCUs.

The overwhelming majority of students who convened in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 15, 1960 were from southern black colleges where the sit-ins had unfolded. And it was also no mistake that they met at Shaw University, an HBCU located in Raleigh. After all, the woman who had the vision to bring those students together – Ella Baker – was a 1927 graduate of Shaw.

For generations, black college alumni like Baker worked within religious institutions, civil rights organizations, labor unions and special interests groups. Their work within these spaces was largely informed by the “second curriculum” they had been exposed to as HBCU students. SNCC was therefore part of a long tradition of radicalism that was cultivated and produced within black colleges. This exposure equipped them with the necessary intellectual and political tools they would use to take on white supremacy and Jim Crow – the system of legalized segregation in the South.

What is SNCC’s legacy?

SNCC had a relatively short lifespan compared to other civil rights organizations. By the end of the decade their operations were defunct. Much of this was due to both external and internal pressures. Nevertheless, SNCC distinguished itself as “the most powerful energy machine” for the freedom struggle. I argue that SNCC was the most important and effective civil rights organization of the 1960s.

Unlike most other organizations, SNCC eschewed “top-down” operations that fostered elitism and “helicopter” tactics in which organizers would swoop in to inspire local folks and then leave them to manage local struggles on their own. SNCC’s objectives were completely opposite. They entered into the most dangerous, racially hostile and violent regions of the country, such as Albany, Georgia, the Delta region of Mississippi, and Lowndes County, Alabama. Once there, they set up operations that listened to and empowered local people, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, Unita Blackwell and countless others.

The relationship between SNCC and local people was reciprocal. SNCC activists learned and lived among the black proletariat – sharecroppers, farmers and day laborers. These people’s wisdom, shrewdness and practical knowledge of how to survive and navigate the worst of the Jim Crow South proved invaluable as SNCC took the fight for black liberation into the rural communities and remote areas of the South. Their blueprint became the template for local organizing for the Black Power Movement and beyond. Perhaps most importantly, their actions played a crucial role in expanding the ballot to millions of Americans who had been marginalized by racist policies and violence.

What lessons can today’s student activists learn from SNCC?

Both SNCC’s victories and defeats are very informative on the history of black social movements. Internal debates are both necessary and healthy for activist organizations. However, by 1964 SNCC’s ability to function as a cohesive unit was under serious threat. Disagreements concerning the infusion of young white activists in the organization and field operations, arguments concerning the use of non-violence as a tactic, and debate over other competing ideological tenets, such as Marxism and Black Nationalism, greatly impaired the organization’s ability to keep a unified front.

Perhaps most challenging were the external threats to SNCC’s existence. The potency of SNCC drew the attention of federal and state agencies that wanted to curb its influence and power. SNCC activists were constantly under surveillance. They lived their lives under the looming shadow of intimidation from law enforcement and the threat of being infiltrated. Today’s student activists can and should be wary of arguments that are unproductive and those who seek to derail their organizations with their own toxic agendas.

In spite of these challenges, SNCC presented a model that empowered local communities and radically transformed American democracy. By listening to and learning from aggrieved populations and empowering local folks to carry out their own agendas, today’s student activists can extend the radical tradition established by SNCC.

We'll Never Turn Back (1963) | SNCC Film feat. Fannie Lou Hamer


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

7 lessons from ‘Hidden Figures’ NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson’s life and career

Della Dumbaugh, University of Richmond

Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician who made critical contributions to the space program at NASA, died Feb. 24 at the age of 101.

Katherine Johnson spoke at the Oscars about her work depicted in the 2016 film ‘Hidden Figures.’

Johnson became a household name thanks to the celebrated book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped Win the Space Race,” which later became a movie. Her legacy provides lessons for supporting women and other underrepresented groups in mathematics and science.

As a historian of mathematics, I have studied women in that field and use the book “Hidden Figures” in my classroom. I can point to some contemporary ideas we can all benefit from when examining Johnson’s life.

1. Mentors make a difference

Early in her life, Johnson’s parents fostered her intellectual prowess.

Because there was no high school for African-American children in their hometown of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the family relocated to Institute, West Virginia, during the school year. Johnson entered West Virginia State College High School as a preteen and enrolled at the age of 14.

While at West Virginia State, Johnson took classes with Angie Turner King. King taught at the laboratory high school while she worked to become one of the first African-American women to earn masters degrees in math and chemistry. She would go on to earn a Ph.D. in math education in 1955.

King taught Johnson geometry and encouraged her mathematical pursuits. Thirteen years older than Johnson, she modeled a life of possibility.

Johnson graduated from West Virginia State College at the age of 18. While there, she had the good fortune to learn from W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in America. Claytor encouraged Katherine to become a research mathematician. In the 1930s, a little over 100 American women counted themselves as professional mathematicians.

Barack Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. 

2. High school mathematics adds up

Once Johnson completed the standard mathematics curriculum at West Virginia State College, Claytor created advanced classes just for her, including a course on analytic geometry.

Mathematics concepts build on one another and the mathematics she learned in this class helped her in her work at NASA many years later. She used these analytical skills to verify the computer calculations for John Glenn’s orbit around the earth and to help determine the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, among others.

3. Grit matters

Long before psychologist Angela Duckworth called attention to the power of passion and perseverance in the form of grit, Katherine Johnson modeled this stalwart characteristic.

In 1940, she agreed to serve as one of three carefully selected students to desegregate West Virginia University’s graduate program. She also had to be “assertive and aggressive” about receiving credit for her contributions to research at NASA.

In 1960, her efforts helped her become the first African-American and the first woman to have her name on a NASA research report. Currently, the NASA archives contain more than 25 scientific reports on space flight history authored or co-authored by Johnson, the largest number by any African-American or woman.

4. The power of advocating for yourself

Katherine Johnson worked at NASA in 1966. NASA

When NASA was formed in 1958, women were still not allowed to attend the Test Flight briefings.

Initially, Johnson would ask questions about the briefings and “listen and listen.” Eventually, she asked if she could attend. Apparently, the men grew tired of her questions and finally allowed her to attend the briefings.

5. The power of a team

In 1940, Johnson found herself among the 2% of all African-American women who had earned a college degree. At that time, she was among the nearly 60% of those women who had become teachers.

Later, she joined the West Computing Group at Langley Research Center where women “found jobs and each other.” They checked each other’s work and made sure nothing left the office with an error. They worked together to advance each other individually and collectively as they performed calculations for space missions and aviation research.

Katherine Johnson was at the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, Va. in 2016. 

6. The power of women advocating for women

Although Johnson started as a human computer in the West Computing Group, after two weeks she moved to the Maneuver Load Branch of the Flight Research Division under the direction of Henry Pearson.

When it was time to make this position permanent after her six month probationary period, Dorothy Vaughan, then the West Computing department head and Johnson’s former boss, told Pearson to “either give her a raise or send her back to me.” Pearson subsequently offered Johnson the position and the raise.

7. The legacy of possibility

In March of 2014, Donna Gigliotti, producer of Shakespeare in Love and The Reader, received a 55-page nonfiction proposal about African-American women mathematicians at NASA in Hampton, Virginia.

I kind of couldn’t get over the fact that this was a true story and I didn’t know anything about it,” Gigliotti confessed. “I thought well, this is a movie.” Gigliotti’s hunch ultimately led to the movie “Hidden Figures” and an entire generation of young people learning about the possibilities of math and science.

The U.S. State Department showed Hidden Figures throughout the developing world to encourage girls and women to consider the possibilities of careers in math and science. Mattel created a Katherine Johnson Barbie in its “Inspiring Women” series to celebrate “the achievements of a pioneer who broke through the barriers of race and gender.”


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Dr. William “Bill” Key – From Slave to Celebrity Veterinarian Trainer of “Beautiful Jim Key”

Dr. William "Bill" Key, was born a slave in Murfreesboro, TN in 1833. While enslaved, Key became a successful veterinarian who decades after the Civil War trained the famous "Beautiful Jim Key", known as the smartest horse in the world. 

Bill was owned by Captain John Key. When Bill was five years old, the Captain's died and willed Bill to his cousin, John W. Key of Shelbyville, Tennessee. Bill demonstrated a special way with animals as early as six years of age. He also was a great help to the John W. Key family when it was observed that the disabled father of John W. Key was much calmer when Bill was around.

However, the place where Bill really shined was around horses, he demonstrated a remarkable talent for working with horses and mules. He was so effective with horses that he was soon being sent to the pasture alone to train the horses. Additionally, he was given special attention because of his work keeping his master's father company. John Key taught Bill reading, writing, mathematics, and science. As a child he Bill read veterinary texts and experimented with animal remedies until he became a successful veterinarian and horse dentist. Known as Dr. Key, he also practiced dentistry and other healing arts for slaves. 

Martha, John's wife, really appreciated the effect Bill had on John's father as it saved her from having to deal with the recalcitrant old man. She taught Bill such gentlemanly skills like presentation, elocution, and etiquette. These skills would all come to be most valuable to him later when he became an adult and found himself in need of them to succeed as a free man after the Civil War.

Civil War

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Key accompanied his master's two sons to Fort Donelson. There he constructed his own shelter, a log-covered dugout known as Fort Bill, in which he took refuge and offered protection to his masters during Union bombardment. When Fort Donelson surrendered, Key helped his masters escape to Confederate forces commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the battle of Stones River, the Sixth Indiana regiment captured Key as he tried to smuggle another black man through Union lines. He was sentenced to hang, but the execution was postponed when it was learned that he was a good cook and poker player. Playing poker with Union officers, Key purchased his release in exchange for their gambling debts. Captured and sentenced to hang on another occasion, Key purchased a delay of execution with one thousand dollars he had sewn between the soles of his shoe. Confederate raiders liberated him the next day.

The relationship between the John W. Key family and Bill continued to grow stronger and after the Civil War when the Key family lost everything, Bill, who by then had accumulated quite a sum of money, stepped in and helped send John W. Key’s two sons to Harvard.

After the war, Dr. Key and his former masters found the family estate in ruins. The elder Key had died, leaving the family lands heavily mortgaged. Key developed and marketed Keystone Liniment for various animal and human ailments. With proceeds from gambling winnings and Keystone Liniment sales, he quickly paid off the mortgage for his former masters and subsequently underwrote their education. When asked about his unusual generosity toward his master's family over the years, he is said to have responded, "I was one of those fortunate men who had a kind master."

William Key's Wives

Though he was eventually married to four notably beautiful, educated women, Dr. Key had no children of his own.

Dr. Key was first married to Lucy Davidson, the daughter of Arabella Davidson. Lucy was born in February of 1832 and died on August 17, 1885. She is buried in Willow Mount Cemetery in Shelbyville.

  – 1832–1885

Dr. Key took for his second wife, the sister of Lucy Davidson. She was Hattie Davidson, but Hattie did not live very long, she died about 1886.

Dr. Key took for his third wife, Lucinda Davis, the daughter of George and Harriett E. Davis. Lucinda was born on February 24, 1859, and died August 21, 1896, with her burial in Willow Mount Cemetery. Lucinda Davis Key, MD, received her medical degree at Howard University, one of the first black women doctors licensed to practice in the state of Tennessee.

  – 1859–1896

Dr. Key took for his fourth and last wife, Maggie Davis, a sister of Lucinda Davis. Maggie was born in 1865 and died in 1935 with her burial in Willow Mount Cemetery.

 – 1865–1935

Business

Dr. Key established a leading veterinary practice and horse hospital in downtown Shelbyville on a lot he purchased on North Main Street. While he had no formal training, his reputation of being able to do wonders for horses caused him to be considered a veterinarian by the townspeople. He also opened a racetrack, a restaurant, a hotel, a wagon shop and operated a successful pharmaceutical business. The liniment business became so profitable, he promoted it across the South. He organized a traveling minstrel and medicine show, at which his animals performed skits to demonstrate the apparent effectiveness of his medications.

Within five years, “Dr.” Key was one of the most prosperous men in Shelbyville. This gave him the resources to turn his attention to the sport of kings, horse racing, and his goal was to breed the world’s fastest racehorse.

Beautiful Jim Key


While in Tupelo, Mississippi, Key bought a badly abused Arabian bay, Lauretta, from a defunct circus. He nursed the mare back to health and bred her to Tennessee Volunteer, a Standardbred stallion. She produced a colt so sickly that Dr. Key considered having it destroyed. Instead, he named it Jim, after the town drunk, who had a similarly wobbly gait. After treating Jim with his own medicines, Dr. Key nursed Jim to good health, he watched as the misfit colt eventually transformed into a gorgeous mahogany bay.

In narrating Jim's unique education, Dr. Key notes that he was already fifty-six years old when the sickly Jim was foaled. When Jim's mother died, the orphaned colt refused to be separated from his owner and trainer, causing such a ruckus in the barn that Dr. Key was forced to take the colt into his home. For the first year of his life, Jim lived as a human, absorbing language and abstract concepts to a staggering degree. When he outgrew the house and moved back to the stables, Dr. Key noticed that the animal let itself out of gates, opened drawers to retrieve apples, and responded with affirmative and negative nods to questions. Dr. Key set up a cot out for himself in the stable to sleep with Jim. The two were inseparable companions and partners from then on.

Key put Jim on a rigorous training routine that lasted for seven years. When finally exhibited, Beautiful Jim Key could read, write on a blackboard, spell, do math, distinguish among coins and make change, identify playing cards, play a hand-organ, tell time, sort mail, cite biblical passages and respond to political inquiries, among other amazing feats.

Although Beautiful Jim Key was clearly gifted his opportunities were limited by Dr. Key’s race. No matter how eloquent he was, or how talented, because Dr. Key was a black man in the 1800s he was only allowed to participate in selected competitions. 

In 1897, Dr. Key was asked to serve on the “Negro Committee” at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville. "Beautiful Jim Key" made his stage debut in front of none other than President William McKinley. President McKinley offered high praise for both the horse and the training methods. Dr. Key often emphasized that he used only patience and kindness in teaching the horse, and never a whip.

Albert R. Rogers, a wealthy officer of the American Humane Association, witnessed the performance and was especially gratified that Key's training methods consisted entirely of positive rewards for performance. Rogers negotiated the right to exhibit the horse nationally, advanced Key a large sum of money, and promised that Jim would not be separated from Key as long as either lived. Key, Beautiful Jim, and grooms Sam and Stanley Davis of Shelbyville, traveled to the Rogers estate in New Jersey where, for several months, Key prepared Beautiful Jim for his New York City debut. In August 1897 Beautiful Jim amazed viewers and the New York City press and quickly became a celebrity.

Invitation to the St. Louis World's Fair opening performances of Beautiful Jim Key

This horse became one of the most famous celebrities, animal or human, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Dr. Key and Beautiful Jim Key became the toast of two World's Fairs and even had their own pavilion at the St. Louis fair in 1904. 

Jim Key exhibition hall and show ticket during 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

The Beautiful Jim Key exhibit was one of the first shows to open at the beginning of the St. Louis World's Fair and was a popular top moneymaker. William Key performed in front of then-President Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Alice. Jim Key spelled Alice's name- “Alice Roosevelt Longworth,” adding the surname of her escort. 
The Beautiful Jim Key exhibit building was called the Golden Horseshoe Building and cost $12,000; Carson-Hudson & Co were the architects. The price of Admission to see the Beautiful Jim Key exhibit was 15 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. The exhibit made a profit of $51,654.28 dollars; the equivalent of nearly $1.5 million in 2020 dollars.

Jim became the number one box office star in the nation and energized the worldwide animal welfare movement, making the phrase "be kind to animals" a household ideal.

Known as the "Marvel of the Twentieth Century" and "The Greatest Crowd Drawer in America," the two were seen by an estimated ten million Americans and written about in every major newspaper. Fans collected his promotional pamphlets, souvenir buttons, postcards, and photos, bought Beautiful Jim Key pennies, danced the "Beautiful Jim Key" two-step, wore Jim Key gold pinbacks in their collars, and competed in Beautiful Jim Key essay contests, while millions signed up to join and support humane groups around the country. Two million children joined the Jim Key Band of Mercy and signed his pledge, "I promise always to be kind to animals."

When Dr. Key traveled along with Beautiful Jim, the horse traveled in private train cars, drank purified water and ate hay that was fit for a star of his caliber. He also had quite an entourage. He traveled with Dr. Key, two grooms, a veterinarian and Monk, a former stray dog that served as the horse’s companion and bodyguard. Monk, the dog liked to stand on the horse’s back.

For nine years, Key, Rogers, and Beautiful Jim toured major cities east of the Rocky Mountains and performed at large venues from Atlantic City to Chicago. 

Universally praised for Service to Humanity, Beautiful Jim Key and Dr. William Key retired after their record-breaking 1906 season when Jim's rheumatism caused the two to return to Shelbyville with the plan to resume after a year's rest. Three years later, Bill passed away at age 76, causing a stir even in death by the large numbers of mourners – black and white – who attended his memorial.

Dr. William Key's family grave site

In 1912, Beautiful Jim Key died on a cool autumn day, "passing out with all ease," as Dr. Key's brother-in-law, Dr. Stanley Davis, wrote to Albert Rogers.

For a century, this astonishing, true story of an American hero who rose to international fame a century ago, spurring a significant shift in human consciousness, has been buried in history.


Citations:

Tennessee Encyclopedia – https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/william-key/
BlackThen – https://blackthen.com/dr-william-bill-key-slave-renowned-veterinarian/
FindGrave – https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/41646960/william-key
Horse Spirit – https://horsespirit.site/2020/01/28/behind-the-incredible-story-of-jim-key-the-worlds-smartest-horse/

100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, a look back at what was lost

by Rob Ruck, University of Pittsburgh

During the half century that baseball was divided by a color line, black America created a sporting world of its own.

Josh Gibson slides into home during the 1944 Negro Leagues All-Star Game. 

Black teams played on city sandlots and country fields, with the best barnstorming their way across the country and throughout the Caribbean.

A century ago, on Feb. 13, 1920, teams from eight cities formally created the Negro National League. Three decades of stellar play followed, as the league affirmed black competence and grace on the field, while forging a collective identity that brought together Northern-born blacks and their Southern brethren. And though Major League Baseball was segregated from the 1890s until 1947, these teams played countless interracial games in communities across the nation.

After World War II, Jackie Robinson hurdled baseball’s racial divide. But while integration – baseball’s great experiment – was a resounding success on the field, at the gates and in changing racial attitudes, Negro League teams soon lost all of their stars and struggled to retain fans. The teams hung on for a bit, before eventually folding.

Years ago, when I worked on a documentary about the Negro Leagues, I was struck by how many of the interviewees looked back longingly on the leagues’ heyday. While there was the understanding that integration needed to happen, there was also the recognition that something special was forever lost.

A league of their own

Given the injustices of the 1890s – sharecropping, lynchings, disenfranchisement and the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson – exclusion from Major League Baseball was hardly the most grievous injury African Americans suffered. But it mattered. Their absence denied them the chance to participate in a very visible arena that helped European immigrants integrate into American culture.

While the sons of white immigrants – John McGraw, Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio – became major leaguers lionized by their nationalities, blacks didn’t have that opportunity. Most whites assumed that was because they weren’t good enough. Their absence reinforced prevailing beliefs that African Americans were inherently inferior – athletically and intellectually – with weak abdominal muscles, little endurance and prone to cracking under pressure.

The Negro Leagues gave black ballplayers their own platform to prove otherwise. On Feb. 13, 1920, Chicago American Giants owner Rube Foster convened a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City to organize the Negro National League. A Texas-born pitcher, Foster envisioned a black alternative to the major leagues.

Members of the Chicago American Giants pose for a team portrait in 1914. Rube Foster is seated in the center of the first row wearing a suit.

Northern black communities were exploding in size, and Foster saw the league’s potential. Teams like the American Giants and the Kansas City Monarch regularly competed against white teams, drew large crowds and turned profits. Players enjoyed higher salaries than most black workers, while black newspapers trumpeted their exploits, as did some white papers.

Other leagues cropped up; the Negro National League was soon joined by the Negro American League and the Negro Southern League. Some years, the Negro National and Negro American Leagues played a Negro League World Series. The leagues also sent their best players to the East-West All-Star Classic, an annual exhibition game in Chicago.

But the Negro National League’s ascent was stunted after Foster was exposed to a gas leak, nearly died and suffered permanent brain damage. Absent his leadership and hammered by the Great Depression, the league disbanded in 1931.

Life in the Negro Leagues

A proving ground

Gus Greenlee, who ran the popular lottery known as the numbers game, revived the league in Pittsburgh in 1933 after a sandlot club called the Crawfords, which included the young slugger Josh Gibson, approached him for support. He agreed to pay them salaries and reinforced their roster with the addition of flamethrower Satchel Paige.

Satchel Paige. 

Greenlee went on to build the finest black-owned ballpark in the country, Greenlee Field, while headquartering the Negro National League on the floor above the Crawford Grill, his renowned jazz club in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Pittsburgh soon became the mecca of black baseball. Sitting along America’s East-West rail lines, the city was a requisite stop for black entertainers, leaders and ball clubs, which traveled from cities as far away as Kansas City. Its two teams, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, won a dozen titles. Seven of the first 11 Negro Leaguers eventually inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame – stars like Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige – played for one or both squads.

The sport, meanwhile, became a major source of black pride.

“The very best,” Pittsburgh-born author John Wideman noted, “not only competed among themselves and put on a good show, but [also] would go out and compete against their white contemporaries and beat the stuffing out of them.”

Satchel Paige and the Crawfords famously defeated St. Louis Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean in an exhibition game in Cleveland – just two weeks after the Cardinals had won the 1934 World Series. Overall, Negro League teams won far more games against white squads than they lost.

“There was so much [negativity] living over [us] which we had no control [over],” Mal Goode, the first black national network correspondent, recalled. “So anything you could hold on to from the standpoint of pride, it was there and it showed.”

Sacrificed on integration’s altar

For Major League Baseball, no moment was more transformative than the arrival of Jackie Robinson, who, in 1947, paved the way for African Americans and darker-skinned Latinos to reshape the game.

But integration destroyed the Negro Leagues, plucking its young stars – Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks – who brought their fans with them. The big leagues never considered folding in some of the best black teams, and its owners rejected the Negro National League owners’ proposal to become a high minor league.

Like many black papers, colleges and businesses, the Negro National League paid a price for integration: extinction. The league ceased play after the 1948 season. Black owners, general managers and managers soon disappeared, and it would be decades before a black manager would get a chance to steer a major league ballclub.

Major League Baseball benefited from talent cultivated in the Negro Leagues and on the sandlots that sustained the sport, especially in inner cities. But when those leagues crumbled, prospective black pros were relegated to minor league teams, often in inhospitable, southern cities. Many Negro League regulars simply hung up their cleats or played in the Caribbean.

The playwright August Wilson set his play, “Fences,” which tells the story of an ex-Negro Leaguer who becomes a garbageman in Pittsburgh.

“Baseball gave you a sense of belonging,” Wilson said in a 1991 interview. At those Negro League games, he added, “The umpire ain’t white. It’s a black umpire. The owner ain’t white. Nobody’s white. This is our thing … and we have our everything – until integration, and then we don’t have our nothing.”

The story of African Americans in baseball has long been portrayed as a tale of their shameful segregation and redemptive integration. Segregation was certainly shameful, especially for a sport invested in its own rhetoric of democracy.

But for African Americans, integration was also painful. Although long overdue and an important catalyst for social change, it cost them control over their sporting lives.

It changed the meaning of the sport – what it symbolized and what it meant for their communities – and not necessarily for the better.

Soul of the Game is a 1996 made-for-television movie about Negro league baseball.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

The Black African Saint Valentine

by Aphra Behn

Who was Saint Valentine? Well, Saint Valentine was a priest. Or maybe, a bishop. Or possibly, a martyr… an African martyr. Ahhh, listen to the wingnut heads explode as we consider the possibility that good old St. Valentine might not have been a blue-eyed blonde-haired European, but a Berber, a Semite, an Ethiopian. Maybe, in fact, a recognizable black man.

Little is known personally about Saint Valentine the martyr of Africa. But he would have lived in the multi-ethnic, multi-colored world of later Imperial Rome, where Africans played key roles in the development of "Western" Civilization. Whether it’s founding monasticism, writing literature, developing theology, or sitting on the imperial throne of Rome itself, Africans were everywhere in this world. Join me for a joint Valentine's Day-Black History Month special, as we try to re-imagine the world of Saint Valentine…in all its colors.

The World of St. Valentine

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. Of the three men known as "Saint Valentine," the African martyr is the least well known; no romantic associations are attached to his legend, and beyond his martyrdom in what is now North Africa around the year 270, little is recorded of his life. In that year, Roman rule encompassed many provinces across the northern band of the continent, stretching from Egypt to modern-day Morocco.

In the previous centuries, northern Africa had seen waves of colonization by Semitic-speaking Phoenicians (Carthage), Greek-speaking Macedonian and Hellenes (in Libya and Egypt). These newcomers mixed with the native Afro-Asiatic inhabitants of the area, dubbed "Berbers" by the Greeks. It wasn't a compliment; the term is related to the term "barbarian" as a derogatory name for non-Greek speakers: people whose language was nonsense–"berberberberber," the approximate equivalent of "blablahblah." Their own name for themselves is "Amazigh" or "Imazighen," "free men."

19th century engraving of Amazigh cavalry on the column of Trajan
19th century engraving of the Column of Trajan showing Amazigh cavalry

By the time of St. Valentine, the entire northern part of Africa had come under Roman jurisdiction, in the form of the provinces of Mauritania, Numidia, “Africa” (which included Tunisia as well as parts of Algeria and Libya), Cyrenaica, and Egypt. Ethnic Latins and the other peoples of the Roman Empire mingled with all of the other peoples of the area. Throw in extensive trading links to Nubia (Kush) and Ethiopia, and we can imagine those provinces as an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse mix of peoples, languages, and goods. Kushite mercenaries mixed with Romanized Amazigh merchants, Egyptian priests of Isis, and Greek-speaking Latin administrators in the cities of Alexandria and other cities. From these provinces, Rome was well-supplied with grains, figs, grapes, beans, marble, pottery, olives, textiles, and papyrus. Many goods, many languages, and many colors of skin.

Philosophers and Emperors

Female mummy portrait from brooklyn Museum
Female mummy portrait from the Brooklyn Museum, Roman period of Egypt.

Ideas, religions, and philosophies flowed in and out along with the trade goods. Part of the wider Hellenistic (Greek) world, Alexandria in particular attracted many noted philosophers and produced its own. Alexandria would be come legendary for its library and its schools, for philosophers such as the great female mathematician Hypatia (of a much later period).

A few others included Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Alexandria around 40 CE, worked to reconcile Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy. The Athenian philosopher Antiochus of Askalon eventually settled in Alexandria, and taught a number of pupils, including Arius Didymus. Didymus, a Stoic thinker, was a friend of Emperor Octavian (Augustus); allegedly their friendship helped save Alexandria from destruction as he battled Mark Antony for control of Egypt and Rome.

Did I say friends of emperors? How about Africa as the source of emperors? In CE 193, Libyan native Lucius Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor by his troops. Although not born into the Senatorial class, he had been made a senator by Marcus Aurelius in 172, and had made a name for himself in the army. His rule was rent by wars and financial difficulty, but he also made significant military and legal reforms in the Empire:

Severus brought many changes to the Roman military. Soldiers' pay was increased by half, they were allowed to be married while in service, and greater opportunities were provided for promotion into officer ranks and the civil service. …. The emperor created a new, larger praetorian guard out of provincial soldiers from the legions. Increases were also made to the two other security forces based in Rome: the urban cohorts, who maintained order; and the night watch, who fought fires and dealt with overnight disturbances, break-ins and other petty crime…. The emperor's position as ultimate appeals judge had brought an ever-increasing legal workload to his office.

Bust of Septimius Severrus from Munich
Bust of Septimius Severus, Munich

During the second century, a career path for legal experts was established, and an emperor came to rely heavily upon his consilium, an advisory panel of experienced jurists, in rendering decisions. Severus brought these jurists to even greater prominence. A diligent administrator and conscientious judge, the emperor appreciated legal reasoning and nurtured its development. His reign ushered in the golden age of Roman jurisprudence, and his court employed the talents of the three greatest Roman lawyers: Papinian, Paul and Ulpian.—Michael L. Meckler Ohio State University

The First Black Emperor?

We've established that Severus was from Africa. Was he "black"? (This is a Black History Month diary, after all.) Frustratingly for modern North Americans, the ancient Romans did not share our view of race. Pre-Darwinian in their thinking, they certainly did not categorize inheritable characteristics as 19th century racist theorists did (and as their 21st century counterparts sadly still do.) They recorded physical characteristics sometimes, but not for the convenience of modern US racial categories. Their lines of "us and them" were drawn more firmly around notions of citizenship than race, "civility" (i.e., Hellenization) than ethnicity.

Linguistics suggest that Severus' family was Phoenician in background; the Severan Tondo, a rare surviving painting, suggests he may have been darker complected than his wife, who was of Latin descent.

The Severan Tondo,a protrait of Emperor Septimus and his family
The Severan Tondo, in the Staatliche Museum, Berlin.

He might not have been considered black today, but there’s a good chance he would not be considered white, either, in modern North America. And it is no exaggeration to say that many of the authors and figures we consider "Roman" were in fact not simply Latinate, but from a wide mix of peoples and "races": Germanic. Amazigh (Berber). Celtic. Egyptian. Macedonian. Germanic. And more…

An Amazigh Author

Take Lucius Apuleius of Madaurus, author of The Golden Ass and other "Roman" works. He was a follower of the Mystery religion of Isis, one of Egypt's great exports to the Hellenic World. The Golden Ass is a funny, often bawdy, yet deeply spiritual account of one initiate's travels through this religion of love, magic, and transformation. He was also the author of several philosophical treatises. Sometime between 150 and 160, he was accused of practicing malignant magic, entrapping a wealthy older widow into marrying him. His defense, so eloquent that it was preserved, explicitly claimed his own status as a "barbarian" (Berber), and contains this impassioned, unapologetic assertion of his African identity:

About my homeland, it is situated on the border of Numidia and Gaetulia. I am part Numidian and part Gaetulian. I don’t see why I should be ashamed of this…Why did I offer this information? So that from now on, Semelianus, you may be less offended by me, and so that you may extend your good-will and forgiveness, if by some negligence, I did not select your Attic Zarat as my birthplace.

I don't know about you, but when I studied Apuleius' works in school, he was presented to me as "Roman" author, rather than an African one. While not denying that he was part of a wider Latin-speaking community and living in a Roman polity, is it not also significant that this practitioner of an African mystery religion was also proud of his African roots? Again, it’s impossible to say if he would be seen as “black” today. Amazigh people have many different complexions. But he did not self-identify as simply Roman, and it seems only right to acknowledge that.

Saint Valentine and the African Martyrs

And what about poor St. Valentine? I haven't forgotten him. Frankly, we don't know how he might self-identify at all, nor do we have this information for most of the North African Christians who were later revered as saints. Three early Popes (or Bishops of Rome) hailed from Africa. Pope Saint Victor I, the first of these, was born while the writer Apuleius was still alive, and served as Pope from 186 CE until 197. We know frustratingly little of his life (or complexion), but it's interesting to compare the picture of him made by European Christians in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (at right) with those from modern Catholics who acknowledge at least the possibilities of his Blackness. (Images not reproduced here for copyright reasons.)

Portrait of St Victor
St. Victor from the portrait at St Paul’s Outside the Wall, Rome.

Certainly, as Christianity spread through the empire, it attracted many adherents in Africa–of all of its varied ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

Mosaic of St Perpetua in Croatia
St Perpetua, Croatian version.

One of the earliest texts written by a Christian woman is from African Carthage–the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, written in part by Perpetua herself, a 22 year-old-mother awaiting martyrdom along with her heavily pregnant servant, Felicitas.

Revered in Christian martyrologies for centuries hence, they were favourite subjects of medieval European martyrologies, often presented as, well, European, as in the image at left, from Croatia.

Dark skinned woman from north African mummy painting
Female mummy portrait.

But there’s a very good chance that Perpetua and Felicitas of Carthage, looked more like this woman on the right, whose portrait is recorded on a mummy portrait from around the time of their martyrdom.

The contrast reminds us that many of the roots of medieval European religion and culture came from Roman Africa, even if medieval Europeans used artistic conventions that made all the early saints appear "white."

Saint Anthony and the Monastic Model

But there are other African saints about whom we know more, much more. Take the Egyptian Saint Anthony, one of the fathers of monasticism. Where would medieval Christendom have been without its ubiquitous monks? Indeed, where would all of Europe have been without the texts those men (and their female counterparts) laboriously preserved and copied? Without the piety and fame of Anthony, who sought out the Egyptian desert, it seems unlikely that such communities would ever have flourished. But the man whose legacy played such a role in European history spoke Coptic, and African language, not a European one.

Around 270 CE (the era of Valentine's martyrdom), Anthony fled into the desert to establish a solitary, ascetic existence that would bring him closer to God. This was nothing new, but the community of men who sought him out and tried to emulate him was. In 305, Anthony re-emerged from his solitary existence to give these men a Rule of order, an attempt to establish guidelines for monastic living. This helped to establish the idea that hermits might live in a sort of community, bound by a common Rule; they were not simply individual holy men but part of a wider community. Significantly modified later by St. Benedict, this communal model for monasticism played a major role in shaping European and world history. But the fact that monasticism is an Egyptian legacy somehow got left out of my grade school books of saints.

Ethiopian Christians

Ethioptian triptych detail. Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland;
Jesus at the last judgement. Ethiopian triptych detail. Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland;

Africa is home to many other saints and notable from late Antiquity–many of them Ethiopian. The Ethiopian Church claims to be one of the oldest branches of Christianity, hearkening back to the Book of Acts 8:27:

Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip, Start out and go south to the road that leads down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he set out and was on his way when he caught sight of an Ethiopian. This man was a eunuch, a high official of the Kandake (Candace) Queen of Ethiopia in charge of all her treasure.

Around 305, the Lebanese-born Egyptian bishop St. Frumentius traveled to Ethiopia, where he successfully began (or re-founded) a Christian Church in that country. Ethiopian Christianity retained strong tied with the eastern Church until the 20th century, and remains a distinctive branch of the Christina family, with its own list of African saints and notables. Medieval Europeans were intrigued by Ethiopia, and conflated tales of its Christian kingdom with stories from travelers to China and India to invent the mythical kingdom of “Prester John," a powerful Christian monarch living somewhere in Africa or Asia.

Saint Moses, Patron of Non-Violence

One of the most famous Ethiopian saints lived in the Romanized world. "Moses the Ethiopian," lived in Egypt between 330 and 405 CE. Ex-slave, violent criminal and gang leader, his life was transform

Saint Moses
Saint Moses

ed by an encounter with an abbot whose monastery Moses originally intended tor ob. Treated with love and compassion by the man he intended to assault, Moses was overwhelmed with repentance and became a monk himself. He was eventually ordained a priest and founded his own monastic community of 75 men.

Around 405, his monastery was attacked by nomadic criminals; totally committed to peace, St. Moses refused to use any violence, even to defend himself. While most of his brothers fled, Moses and seven others greeted their attackers with open arms and were martyred. For his commitment to pacificism, he is sometimes cited as the patron saint of nonviolent protest. He is more often revered in Eastern Christianity than in the West.

Augustine, Father of the Church

Perhaps you're familiar with St. Augustine of Hippo, also known as Auerelius Augustine, author of The Confessions of St. Augustine and The City of God. He is credited with formulating the doctrine of original sin and asserting one of the earliest clear views of predestination (a position which has made him very important to Protestant theologians as well as Catholic ones). He was also African. Born around 354 in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria), he studied in Numidia and Carthage before traveling to Rome to better learn rhetoric.

Saint Monica and Augustine, 1846, painted by Ary Scheffer.
Saint Monica and Augustine, 1846, painted by Ary Scheffer.

His mother, Monica, was a devoutly Christian woman, but his abusive father was not. She is a saint in her own right, and traditionally for American Christians, is usually portrayed as a (very) white woman, as in the 19th century image, commonly used on prayer cards, at left. (I owned one of these growing up.) Although the ethnicity of his father Patricius is impossible to tell, Monica or Monnica had a traditional Amazigh name, and Tagaste was heavily Amazigh. Although Augustine studied Latin and Greek, and they apparently spoke Latin at home, he retained an 'African" accent for some time which he was at pains to lose later in life. Monica was an important figure in St. Augustine’s life, and played a key role in his eventual version.

blackwomanmummy.jpg
Female mummy portrait from Roman north Africa.

But why don’t we think of her like this portrait at right?

Or perhaps like this beautiful modern icon of St. Monica as a recognizably black woman?

Whatever she looked like, Monica’s early pleas that her son convert were little heeded. Augustine had little interest in Christianity, dismissing it as philosophically simplistic and uninteresting. He spent much of his youth learning and teaching rhetoric while enjoying the good life. At one point, he fathered a son. He eventually agreed to his mother's wish that he settle down and marry a respectable woman, but while waiting for his fiancee to reach the age of consent, he took up with another mistress. Around 387, he went through a conversion experience. Thanks to his mother and to St Ambrose of Milan, he became a Christian–and not just any kind of Christian. He put aside thoughts of marriage and resolved to live the celibate life of a monk back in Africa. (His conversion had been in part inspired by reading the life of the Egyptian Saint Anthony.) But his rhetorical and administrative talents were not those that could be easily hidden from the world, and by 390 he had been conscripted into the priesthood. In 396 he was appointed bishop of Hippo (Annaba, in Algeria).

The Intellect of Augustine

From this vantage in Africa, Augustine became famous for his sermons and for his spiritual learning. A paragraph is hardly sufficient to describe his accomplishments and roles. It is important to note that in all of his works, Augustine emphasized inward spirituality over outward conformity ( a key issue in his struggle with the Donatist heresy). It is his definition of a sacrament–"an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace"—that generations of catechism students have learned to dutifully recite. He struggled all his life with sexual temptation, and is responsible for a significant portion of the Church's teaching on sexual sin, as well as its thoughts on the free will of mankind. He made one of the first statements about "just war" in his City of God, saying that wars should be fought only to stop wrong-doing and for the end of peace, and :

Augustine of Hippo by Simone Martini, medieval Italian painter
Saint Augustine by medieval Italian painter Simon Martini

… it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man's wrong-doing… (Chapter 7) … It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war. (Chapter 12) .

The City of God offered important solace to the inhabitants of the Roman world; in 410,Vandals sacked Rome itself. As their world crumbled around them, Augustine counseled his flock to forgo what he called "City of Man" in favor of the "City of God"–the cultivation of spiritual rather than earthly values. This text proved highly influential in medieval Europe, offering a spiritual alternative to the fractured earthly politics which followed for centuries on the fall of Rome.

Augustine's writings do not all jibe comfortably with modern sensibilities. But he was certainly no fundamentalist in the modern sense, and perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the Western world was his insistence that Christians could and should use the gifts of the intellect—that knowledge gained by pagans was just a useful as knowledge gained by Christians. Without his statements, it is doubtful that the works of classical Greece and Rome could have been so extensively studied and preserved in the West. He did not favour a literal interpretation of Genesis, when it clearly contradicted human observation and reason. (Indeed, he found it embarrassing that Christians would do so.) Rather, he suggested that Genesis was a work concerned with spiritual truths rather than the literal "nature of the skies":

With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis[AD 408])

The Question of Color

Mummy Portrait from the Museum of Cleveland
Mummy portrait, Museum of Cleveland

Afrocentric scholars have sometimes been criticized for their rush to claim the "Black-ness" of the past. Yet there is much to be claimed. On the other had, there is no denying that the popular view of Roman history in North America remains deeply Eurocentric. Hollywood's Roman films tend to be quite pale and blue-eyed, and their views of Egypt in almost any period are the same. I love the film Agora, and Rachel Weisz was a terrific Hypatia, but a much darker skinned actress could have been a completely plausible choice. And even outside of popular culture, there’s a problem. "Roman" authors in school texts are routinely denied a discussion of their unique ethnic origins, even when (as in the case of Aupuleius) those origins were clearly of some import to the authors themselves.

Where the Romans were silent on the matter of physical appearance, medieval Europeans filled in with pictures of people who looked just like themselves. We can appreciate the beauty of that medieval art, while recognizing that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed portrait of St. Augustine is about as unrealistic as Sallman's 1941 portrait of redheaded Jesus that hangs in so many American homes.

Since I first wrote this essay in 2007, racism in the United States has only intensified. The election of President Obama has brought the ugliest expressions of white supremacy into mainstream political discourse. Membership in hate groups has risen. Hatred for Muslims, with its not-too-well disguised racist underpinnings, is being whipped up not only by racist groups but by major candidates for the office of President of the United States. It seems obligatory for Republican politicians to speak of non-white Latino peoples in the most dehumanizing and degrading terms, as animals to be fenced out of the country. So much hate in the name of preserving white supremacy. And so often voiced in terms of “our culture,” “Western civilization” or the like. But the whiteness of that culture is a dangerous, damnable fiction, one that erases how much of “Western” intellectual tradition, and how much of the modern American world, was shaped by people of color. Without St. Anthony’s monasticism, there might well be no “Western” culture. Without Augustine of Hippo, the intellectual contribution of non-Christian philosophers might have been shut out of the Christian intellectual tradition entirely. And so on, and so forth.

Mummy portrait from Fayum
How I think of St. Valentine. A Fayum mummy portrait.

Since I first wrote this essay, there have been amazing pushbacks against the distorted historical whiteness of our culture. One of my very favorite corners of the web Medieval POC, dedicated to rendering people of color in European art more visible to the public. (Its author, sadly, is subject to vicious harassment for her work.) We’ve seen film representations of amazing historical figures like Dido Elizabeth Belle and Solomon Northrup and Nat Turner to remind us that black history did not begin in the 20th century. Yet I’m looking at the Oscars, and it’s pretty darn clear we’ve got miles to go.

When I first wrote this essay, I asked, “Does the color of your (Saint) Valentine really matter?” It’s clear it still does. It matters that people of African descent can see themselves in this history, and it matters than people not of African descent can see that too. I hope that on this Valentine’s Day we can spare a bit of love and remembrance for all those whose contributions are too little remembered because of the color of their skin. And also? For those whose contributions are remembered while their identities have been erased. Happy Valentine’s Day, and I hope you have a great Black History Month.


Republished from DailyKos.

KKK Murder of Colonel Lemuel Penn

Lemuel Augustus Penn (September 19, 1915 – July 11, 1964) was the Assistant Superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools, a decorated veteran of World War II, the father of two daughters Linda, 13, Sharon, 11, one son Lemuel Jr., 5. and a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve, who was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, nine days after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Article about Lemuel Penn’s murder.

Lemuel Penn joined the Army Reserve from Howard University and served as an officer in World War II in New Guinea and the Philippines, earning a Bronze Star. Penn was driving home, together with two other black Reserve officers, Major Charles E. Brown and Lieutenant Colonel John D. Howard, had just completed reserve training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and were driving home to Washington, D.C. The veterans had been spotted in Athens by local Ku Klux Klan members who followed them to a nearby bridge and shot at the car, killing Penn at the age of 48.

Their Chevrolet Biscayne was spotted by three white members of the United Klans of America – James Lackey, Cecil Myers, and Howard Sims – who noted its D.C plates. Howard Sims – one of the killers – then said "That must be one of President Johnson's boys", evidently motivated by racial hatred. The Klansmen followed the car with their Chevy II with Sims saying "I'm going to kill me a nigger".

Penn was shot to death on a Broad River bridge on the Georgia State Route 172 in Madison County, Georgia, near Colbert, twenty-two miles north of the city of Athens. Just before the highway reaches the Broad River, the Klansmen's Chevy II pulled alongside the Biscayne. The Klansman, Cecil Myers, raised a shotgun and fired. From the back seat, Howard Sims, also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, did the same.

After authorities arrived at the scene, rural lawmen poking flashlights into the car and shined them on Penn’s body, lying on the floorboard. “What’s been goin’ on here?” one officer drawled suspiciously at Brown and Howard. Then came the long hours of questioning, by local officials first, then state officials, and finally federal officials. There seemed to be a tone in the questioning that somehow Penn, Brown, and Howard had caused trouble, and that this was their retribution.

President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged the full resources of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) toward solving the murder. Over the course of the next several weeks, FBI agents combed for clues in and around Athens, gathering ample evidence of criminal activity conducted by local Klan members. After weeks of investigation, state prosecutors brought first-degree murder charges against two local white men, Cecil Myers and Joseph Howard Sims. Despite considerable evidence indicating their guilt, an all-white jury in Madison County acquitted both men on September 4, 1964.

Georgia Penn, Lemuel Penn's Wife

Slightly more than a year later, Penn’s wife Georgia died at the age of forty-nine. Friends said it was from the grief after her husband’s death.

An army caisson, drawn by six grays, approached the Arlington National Cemetery gravesite to the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” played by the army band. The caisson was the same one that had carried President John E Kennedy’s body to his grave seven months earlier. The music changed to “Abide With Me ” as the casket was lifted over the grave. 

The grave marker of Lemuel Penn at Arlington National Cemetary.

Penn's murder was the basis of the Supreme Court case United States v. Guest, 383 US 745 (1966), in which the Court affirmed the ability of the government to apply criminal charges to private conspirators, who with assistance from a state official, deprive a person of rights secured by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Federal prosecutors eventually charged both for violating Penn's civil rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On June 27, 1966, criminal proceedings began against Sims, Myers, Lackey, and three other local Klansmen, Herbert Guest, Denver Phillips, and George Hampton Turner. Two weeks later, Sims and Myers were found guilty of conspiracy charges by a federal district court jury; their four co-defendants, however, were acquitted. Sims and Myers were sentenced to ten years each and served about six in federal prison. Howard Sims was killed with a shotgun in 1981 at age 58. James Lackey died at age 66 in 2002. Cecil Myers died in 2018 at the age of 79.

Marker in Georgia at the site of Lemuel Penn's murder.

The historical marker erected by the Georgia Historical Society, the Lemuel Penn Memorial Committee, and Colbert Grove Baptist Church at Georgia Highway 172 and Broad River Bridge on the Madison/Elbert County Border states:

On the night of July 11, 1964 three African-American World War II veterans returning home following training at Ft. Benning, Georgia were noticed in Athens by local members of the Ku Klux Klan. The officers were followed to the nearby Broad River Bridge where their pursuers fired into the vehicle, killing Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn. When a local jury failed to convict the suspects of murder, the federal government successfully prosecuted the men for violations under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just nine days before Penn's murder. The case was instrumental in the creation of a Justice Department task force whose work culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

 The Ballad of Lemuel Penn by Edward David Anderson

America’s Largest Slave Revolt -The 1811 German Coast Uprising

The 1811 German Coast uprising was a revolt of black slaves in parts of the Territory of Orleans. The revolt began on January 8, 1811, at the Andry plantation. After striking and badly wounding Manuel Andry, the slaves killed his son Gilbert. The uprising occurred on the east bank of the Mississippi River in what is now St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and Jefferson Parishes, Louisiana. 

The rebellion gained momentum quickly. The 15 or so slaves at Andry's plantation, about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans, joined another eight slaves from the next-door plantation of the widows of Jacques and Georges Deslondes. This was the home plantation of Charles Deslondes, a slave driver (overseer who was himself enslaved) later described by one of the captured slaves as the "principal chief of the brigands."

Between 64 and 125 enslaved men marched from sugar plantations in and near present-day LaPlace on the German Coast toward the city of New Orleans, LA. They collected more men along the way. Some accounts claimed a total of 200 to 500 slaves participated. During their two-day, twenty-mile march, the men burned five plantation houses (three completely), several sugarhouses, and crops. They were armed mostly with hand tools.

At the plantation of James Brown, Kook, one of the most active participants and key figures in the story of the uprising, joined the insurrection. At the next plantation down, Kook attacked and killed François Trépagnier with an axe. He was the second and last planter killed in the rebellion. After the band of slaves passed the LaBranche plantation, they stopped at the home of the local doctor. Finding the doctor gone, Kook set his house on fire.

Some planters testified at the trials in parish courts that they were warned by their slaves of the uprising. Others regularly stayed in New Orleans, where many had town houses, and trusted their plantations to overseers to run. Planters quickly crossed the Mississippi River to escape the insurrection and to raise a militia.

As the slave party moved downriver, they passed larger plantations, from which many slaves joined them. Numerous slaves joined the insurrection from the Meuillion plantation, the largest and wealthiest plantation on the German Coast. The rebels laid waste to Meuillion's house. They tried to set it on fire, but a slave named Bazile fought the fire and saved the house.

After nightfall the slaves reached Cannes-Brulées, about 15 miles northwest of New Orleans. The men had traveled between 14 and 22 miles, a march that probably took them seven to ten hours. By some accounts, they numbered "some 200 slaves," although other accounts estimated up to 500. As typical of revolts of most classes, free or slave, the insurgent slaves were mostly young men between the ages of 20 and 30. They represented primarily lower-skilled occupations on the sugar plantations, where slaves labored in difficult conditions with a low life expectancy.

Despite his axe-wound, Col. Andry crossed the river to contact other planters and round up a militia, which pursued the rebel slaves. By noon on January 9, people in New Orleans had heard about the German Coast insurrection. By sunset, General Wade Hampton I, Commodore John Shaw, and Governor William C.C. Claiborne sent two companies of volunteer militia, 30 regular troops, and a detachment of 40 seamen to fight the slaves. By about 4 a.m. on January 10, the New Orleans forces had reached Jacques Fortier's plantation, where Hampton thought the escaped slaves had encamped overnight.

However, the escaped slaves had started back upriver about two hours before, traveled about 15 miles back up the coast and neared Bernard Bernoudy's plantation. There, planter Charles Perret, under the command of the badly injured Andry and in cooperation with Judge St. Martin, had assembled a militia of about 80 men from the river's opposite side. At about 9 o'clock, this local militia discovered slaves moving toward high ground on Bernoudy's plantation. Perret ordered his militia to attack the rebel slaves, which he later wrote numbered about 200 men, about half on horseback. (Most accounts said only the leaders were mounted, and historians believe it unlikely the slaves could have gathered so many mounts.) Within a half-hour, 40 to 45 slaves had been killed; the remainder slipped away into the woods and swamps. Perret and Andry's militia tried to pursue them despite the difficult terrain.

On January 11, militia, assisted by Native American trackers as well as hunting dogs, captured Charles Deslondes, whom Andry considered "the principal leader of the bandits." A slave driver and son of a white man and a slave, Deslondes received no trial or interrogation. Samuel Hambleton described his execution as having his hands chopped off, "then shot in one thigh & then the other, until they were both broken – then shot in the Body and before he had expired was put into a bundle of straw and roasted!" His cries under the torture could intimidate other escaped slaves in the marshes. The following day Pierre Griffee and Hans Wimprenn, who were thought the murderers of M. Thomassin and M. François Trépagnier, were captured, killed, and their heads hacked off for delivery to the Andry estate. Major Milton and the dragoons from Baton Rouge arrived and provided support for the militia, since Governor Hampton believed them supported by the Spanish in West Florida.

Having suppressed the insurrection, the planters and government officials continued to search for slaves who had escaped. Those captured later were interrogated and jailed before trials. Officials convened three tribunals: one at Destrehan Plantation owned by Jean Noël Destréhan in (St. Charles Parish), one in St. John the Baptist Parish, and the third in New Orleans (Orleans Parish).

The Destrehan trials, overseen by Judge Pierre Bauchet St. Martin, resulted in the execution of 18 of 21 accused slaves by firing squad. Some slaves testified against others, but others refused to testify nor submit to the all-planter tribunal. The New Orleans trials resulted in the conviction and summary executions of 11 more slaves. Three were publicly hanged in the Place d'Armes, now Jackson Square. One of those spared was a thirteen-year-old boy, who was ordered to witness another slave's death and then received 30 lashes. Another slave was treated with leniency because his uncle turned him in and begged for mercy. The sentence of a third slave was commuted because of the valuable information he had given.

The heads of the executed were put on pikes, and the mutilated bodies of dead rebels displayed to intimidate other slaves. By the end of January, nearly 100 heads were displayed on the levee from the Place d'Armes in central New Orleans along the River Road to the plantation district and Andry's plantation.

While the slave insurgency was the largest in US history, the rebels killed only two white men. Confrontations with militia and executions after trial killed 95 black people.