Negro History Week is being more widely celebrated from year to year as a result of the increasing interest in the study of the Negro. In 1932, however, it received new stimulus from the protest of Negroes against the elimination of their achievements from those emphasized in the literature used in the celebration of the George Washington Bicentennial. In making an effort to focus attention on the large contribution of the Negro to the independence and development of the United States teachers and public spirited citizens did much to enlighten the public on this neglected aspect of our history.
What the George Washington Bicentennial Commission failed to do, then, was done by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History as far as its limited resources permitted. The systematic and well financed effort to eliminate the Negro from the scene, of course, could not be counteracted altogether by one struggling organization; but the staff was successful in arousing to action a sufficient number of persons of both races to protest against such a biased and unhistoric attitude of the politicians who directed the celebration; and they have had difficulty in explaining their position.
Going in the direction contrary to that of the celebration of Negro History Week, the directors of the George Washington Bicentennial Celebration undertook to restrict the Negroes’ participation to that of slaves; and unfortunately a number of thoughtless Negroes, not learned in history, were inclined to accept this role without much protest. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, however, kept before the public the fact that while the large majority of Negroes of Washington’s time were slaves there were others who had shown sufficient enterprise to become free and to take their places on a higher level in the social order; and if a celebration is to stimulate the public to nobler deeds, certainly we should hold up before Negroes the examples of those who have gone upward rather than those of the race who have remained down on the last rung of the social ladder.
The Director of the Association, therefore, pointed out certain neglected characters who during Washington’s time impressed their worth upon the public. Jupiter Hammon and Phyllis Wheatley in poetry; James Derham in medicine; Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Fuller in science and mathematics; and Richard Allen, Lemuel Hayes, George Liele, and Andrew Bryan in religion. These men by superior attainments had demonstrated to Washington and his contemporaries that they were capable of a mental development and social amelioration to qualify as functionaries in a higher sphere than that to which they had been assigned in a country settled by men seeking an asylum from the oppressive lords of Europe.
The Director invited attention especially to the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks who in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770 shed the first blood in behalf of American independence. On that memorable day, according to John Adams, the foundation of our liberty was laid in the blood of that man of African blood. The George Washington Bicentennial Commission passed over this altogether, and so far as they were concerned this generation would never know that such a thing happened. Crispus Attucks Day, however, was celebrated in New England as a holiday until it was superseded by the observance of the Fourth of July.
During the celebration of Negro History Week, then, attention was directed especially to this and other significant dates on which Negroes displayed unusual valor, when thousands of patriots of African blood followed George Washington from battle to battle and helped to make him the “Father of His Country.” On June 17, 1775 Peter Salem immortalized himself at Bunker Hill by striking down from a parapet the British Major Pitcairn. Salem Poor so distinguished himself in the same battle at Charlestown that he was commended to the Continental Congress for bravery by fourteen officers of the army. On July 9, 1777 a Negro under the command of Colonel Barton at Newport captured Major General Prescott of the British army at great peril which no other soldier dared to risk. On June 28, 1778 in the battle of Monmouth, which was all but lost by the treachery of Charles Lee, 700 Negroes rallied with George Washington to save the day for America. On August 29, 1778 Negroes bravely held their ground in one of the fiercest encounters of the Revolution, which, because of the unusual valor shown at a critical moment, has gone down in history as the great Battle of Rhode Island. On July 16, 1779 Pompey, a slave who had learned the countersign of the British, led the American soldiers under Mad Anthony Wayne to the capture of Stony Point. On May 14, 1781 in an unsuccessful encounter in which Colonel Greene of the American Army was killed at Points Bridge in New York, this commander could not be reached except over the dead bodies of his Negro soldiers who on that day died heroically for the fatherland. On October 19, 1781 at Yorktown, the final battle of war, Negroes stood both with the forces on land and on sea with the French who had come from the West Indies to make this contribution as a death blow to the power of the British on these shores.
To ignore those heroes who thus sacrificed their lives and dramatize the Negro merely as a servant or slave leading Washington’s horse is a distortion of history and a reflection upon the intelligence of our citizenry. To popularize the heroic record of the Negro, therefore, a large supply of literature was distributed, and speakers were sent to strategic points to give a liberal interpretation of our history. Fortunately, too, these speakers reached many intelligent citizens who had organized wide-awake committees to provide for the proper participation in the celebration. Speaking engagements sometimes developed, too, into conferences or round table discussions requiring several days.
Probably the most impressive of these demonstrations of interest was the meeting in the Caucus Room of the National Capitol, addressed by Congressman Oscar DePriest of Illinois, Congressman Luce of Massachusetts, and President Mordecai W. Johnson of Howard University. Pupils, teachers, federal employees, and business men listened with interest to inspiring and informing discourses on the history of the Negro and the status of the race in the modern world.
Other speakers were equally as successful elsewhere. Prof. Benjamin Brawley spoke with great success to audiences in Rochester and Washington. Dr. Charles H. Wesley did likewise in Philadelphia and at Hampton. Mr. Walter H. Mazyck, author of George Washington and the Negro, spoke at several places near home but reached groups as far South as Greensboro, Columbia, and Charleston.
The Director of the Association found time to speak to the students and faculty of the Maryland State Normal School and to go as far North as Buffalo. Speaking in connection with Dr. Nathaniel Cantor in that city, he convinced a large number of hearers of the importance of studying together the achievements of all races. Going across the continent from this point, he addressed other groups at St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, and Lincoln, and on returning still others in Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Cleveland. One of these engagements was at the University of Omaha and another at the University of Nebraska.
Schools in the parts were Negroes live in large numbers proceeded in a more systematic way. In recent years these institutions have accepted the celebration of Negro History Week as a part of their year’s program, and they work toward it as in the case of any other objective. They invite speakers to discuss various aspects of Negro history, but they do the more important thing of teaching the students to do this for themselves. Here and there throughout the country, then, were staged plays and pageants which together with other appropriate exercises took up the whole week in these institutions.