Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Black History Month: Separating Myth From Fact

As we prepare to observe another "Black History Month", it's a natural opportunity to reflect upon the origin and the utility of this ritual. Part of the aim of Black History Month is to expose the harms of racial prejudice and to cultivate black self-esteem following centuries of exploitation. Another purpose is to recognize significant contributions to society made by people with African heritage, and to detect and correct underrepresentation of black achievements in historical records without deconstructing or demonizing the accounts of achievements by other races, particularly whites. Black History Month is also celebrated during February in Canada. In the United Kingdom, Black History Month is celebrated in the month of October. The official guide to Black History Month in the UK is published by Sugar Media, Ltd., who produce 100,000 copies nationwide.

Despite the fact that there are only a minuscule number of blacks in Utah comprising less than one percent of the population, they have played a visible role in the state's evolution. According to Reverend France Davis, who wrote a book entitled Light In The Midst Of Zion", there was at least one black among the fur trappers who worked this part of the West as early as the middle 1820s. James P. Beckworth trapped in Utah territory for 20 years before the early Mormon settlers declared that "This is the Place."

And when those wagons and carts arrived, among them were three blacks: Hark Lay, Green Flake and Oscar Crosby. Afterward, other blacks came, including those who did menial tasks in hotels, those steel drivers on the railroad, and what the Indians called "Buffalo Solders." One troop was stationed at Fort Duchesne and another at Fort Douglas.

By the 1890s, the number of blacks in Utah has grown enough to warrant more participation in the community. Unfortunately, like the rest of the country, blacks were excluded from many of the public institutions and had to establish their own. Two of the first institutions were the Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, started in 1890, followed by the Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, started in 1892.

Of course, one of the most significant events in the history of black people worldwide took place in Salt Lake City in 1978 when then-President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Spencer W. Kimball announced the revelation authorizing the Church to extend Priesthood membership to black men for the first time. As a result, black husbands could now take their wives to the temple and marry them for eternity as well as for time, and black fathers could now baptize and confirm their own kids, and minister unto their own families when sick.

KUED aired a special presentation on Utah's African-American voices. A number of Utah blacks were interviewed and related their experiences after their arrival here. You can view the transcript of one of those programs HERE. Another excellent, if all too brief overview of black history in Utah, can be found HERE.

So how did the concept of a "black history month" get started? Unlike affirmative action, which was mainly a bone Richard Nixon threw to militant blacks to prevent them from burning down the whole country during the turbulent first 10 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the concept of a memorialization of black history actually long predated that landmark legislation. According to Wikipedia, Carter G. Woodson, director of what was then known the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), pioneered the concept back in 1926 when he established Negro History Week. The timing was intentional; February embraces the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. However, Woodson may have also been influenced by the separate efforts of Mary Church Terrell and the African American collegiate fraternity Omega Phi Psi. Terrell had begun the practice of honoring Frederick Douglass on February 14th, the date he (Douglass) used to mark his birth, while the Omegas fraternity first established a "Negro Achievement Week" in 1924. Woodson was friends with Mary Church Terrell and worked with her and the National Council of Colored Women to preserve Douglass' home and personal papers. Woodson was also a member of Omega Psi Phi.

While Terrell's celebration of Douglass was a local event and the Omega Achievement Week was part of their community outreach, Woodson broadened the scope of the celebration in three significant ways. First, he conceived of the event as a national celebration, sending out a circular to groups across the United States. Secondly, he sought to appeal to both whites and blacks and to improve race relations. For this reason, he chose President Lincoln's birthday as well as Douglass'. Finally, Woodson viewed Negro History Week as an extension of ASNLH's effort to demonstrate to the world that Africans and peoples of African descent had contributed to the advance of history. Each year, ASNLH would select a national theme and provide scholarly and popular materials to focus the nation's "study" of Negro history. As such, Negro History Week was conceived as a means of undermining the foundation of the idea of black inferiority through popular information grounded in scholarship. Of course, the operative word here is "scholarship"; Woodson's intent was to subject any new historical information about black achievement to proper verification and peer reviews to avoid some of the hysterical inaccuracies that would later surface and which are documented in part later in this post.

The Negro History Week Movement took hold immediately. At first it was celebrated almost exclusively by blacks, taking place outside of the view of the wider society. However, mayors and governors, especially in the North, began increasingly endorsing Negro History Week and promoting interracial harmony. By the time of his death in 1950, Negro History Week had become a well-established cultural institution. Indeed, it was so established that Woodson had begun to criticize groups for shallow and often inaccurate presentations that did not advance the public's knowledge of Negro life and history. Little did Woodson realize just how inaccurate these presentations would eventually become.

With the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, many in the black community began to complain about the inadequacy of a week-long celebration. In 1976, the ASNLH, having changed its name to the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH), responded to the popular call, citing the 50th annual celebration and America's bicentennial. For more on the association visit, At that time, the current "Black History Month" was created, keeping the February motif in deference to Woodson's original intent to make it relevant to both blacks and whites.

History books had barely started covering black history when the tradition of Black History Month was started. At that point, most representation of blacks in history books was only in reference to the low social position they held, with the exception of George Washington Carver. Black History Month is also referred to as African-American History Month, or African Heritage Month. One of the few U.S. History works at that time told from an African American perspective was W.E.B. DuBois' 1935 work "Black Reconstruction." However, Woodson had hoped that as knowledge about black history was uncovered and published, the annual ritual could be eliminated, with black history becoming fully integrated with overall American history.

And this is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Black History Month sparks an annual debate about the continued usefulness of a designated month dedicated to the history of one skin colour. Critical op-ed pieces have appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer [1] and USA Today [2]. African American radical/nationalist groups, including the Nation of Islam, have also criticized Black History Month out of concern that it has degenerated into a shallow ritual.[2]

And while we have seen black achievers and their accomplishments uncovered and increasingly incorporated into the greater historical record, we've also seen demagogues insert themselves into the process and make wild claims about black achievements which have since been rebutted. We now hear claims that man originated in Africa and the blacks were the first race (contrary to the Bible). As a matter of fact, a whole list on inventions falsely attributed to blacks has been compiled. The Brinkster website has documented 65 inventions wrongfully attributed to blacks, although in some cases, the black "inventor" may have simply chosen not to patent the invention for "philosophical" reasons. Here is a small sampling of "Black Invention Myths":


Perhaps you've heard the claims: Were it not for the genius and energy of African-American inventors, we might find ourselves in a world without traffic lights, peanut butter, blood banks, light bulb filaments, and a vast number of other things we now take for granted but could hardly imagine life without.

Such beliefs usually originate in books or articles about black history. Since many of the authors have little interest in the history of technology outside of advertising black contributions to it, their stories tend to be fraught with misunderstandings, wishful thinking, or fanciful embellishments with no historical basis. The lack of historical perspective leads to extravagant overestimations of originality and importance: sometimes a slightly modified version of a pre-existing piece of technology is mistaken for the first invention of its type; sometimes a patent or innovation with little or no lasting value is portrayed as a major advance, even if there's no real evidence it was ever used.

Unfortunately, some of the errors and exaggerations have acquired an illusion of credibility by repetition in mainstream outlets, especially during Black History Month (see examples for the
traffic light and ironing board). When myths go unchallenged for too long, they begin to eclipse the truth. Thus I decided to put some records straight. Although this page does not cover every dubious invention claim floating around out there, it should at least serve as a warning never to take any such claim for granted.

Each item below is listed with its supposed black originator beneath it along with the year it was supposedly invented, followed by something about the real origin of the invention or at least an earlier instance of it.

Invention: Traffic Signal
Myth: Invented by Garrett A. Morgan in 1923
Fact: The first known traffic signal appeared in London in 1868 near the Houses of Parliament. Designed by JP Knight, it featured two semaphore arms and two gas lamps. The earliest electric traffic lights include Lester Wire's two-color version set up in Salt Lake City circa 1912, James Hoge's system (US patent #1,251,666) installed in Cleveland by the American Traffic Signal Company in 1914, and William Potts' 4-way red-yellow-green lights introduced in Detroit beginning in 1920. New York City traffic towers began flashing three-color signals also in 1920. Garrett Morgan's cross-shaped, crank-operated semaphore was not among the first half-hundred patented traffic signals, nor was it "automatic" as is sometimes claimed, nor did it play any part in the evolution of the modern traffic light. For details see
Inventing History: Garrett Morgan and the Traffic Signal.

Invention: Gas Mask
Myth: Invented Garrett Morgan in 1914
Fact: The invention of the gas mask predates Morgan's breathing device by several decades. Early versions were constructed by the Scottish chemist John Stenhouse in 1854 and the physicist John Tyndall in the 1870s, among many other inventors prior to World War I. See
The Invention of the Gas Mask.

Invention: Peanut Butter
Myth: Invented By George Washington Carver (who began his peanut research in 1903).
Fact: Peanuts, which are native to the New World tropics, were mashed into paste by Aztecs hundreds of years ago. Evidence of modern peanut butter comes from US patent #306727 issued to Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Montreal, Quebec in 1884, for a process of milling roasted peanuts between heated surfaces until the peanuts reached "a fluid or semi-fluid state." As the product cooled, it set into what Edson described as "a consistency like that of butter, lard, or ointment." In 1890, George A. Bayle Jr., owner of a food business in St. Louis, manufactured peanut butter and sold it out of barrels. J.H. Kellogg, of cereal fame, secured US patent #580787 in 1897 for his "Process of Preparing Nutmeal," which produced a "pasty adhesive substance" that Kellogg called "nut-butter."

Invention: Filament for Light Bulb
Myth: Lewis Latimer invented the carbon filament in 1881 or 1882.
Fact: English chemist/physicist Joseph Swan
experimented with a carbon-filament incandescent light all the way back in 1860, and by 1878 had developed a better design which he patented in Britain. On the other side of the Atlantic, Thomas Edison developed a successful carbon-filament bulb, receiving a patent for it (#223898) in January 1880, before Lewis Latimer did any work in electric lighting. From 1880 onward, countless patents were issued for innovations in filament design and manufacture (Edison had over 50 of them). Neither of Latimer's two filament-related patents in 1881 and 1882 were among the most important innovations, nor did they make the light bulb last longer, nor is there reason to believe they were adopted outside Hiram Maxim's company where Latimer worked at the time. (He was not hired by Edison's company until 1884, primarily as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigations). Latimer also did not come up with the first screw socket for the light bulb or the first book on electric lighting.

Invention: Air Brake / Automatic Air Brake
Myth: Granville Woods in 1904.
Fact: In 1869, a 22-year-old George Westinghouse received US patent #88929 for a brake device operated by compressed air, and in the same year organized the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Many of the 361 patents he accumulated during his career were for air brake variations and improvements, including his first "automatic" version in 1872 (US #124404).

These are just five of the invention myths; visit the Brinkster website to review the rest. The exaggeration of the Jewish Holocaust and its subsequent promotion into a full-blown cult enjoying statutory protection in Europe and Canada is an extreme example of what happens when creeping mythology isn't exposed and challenged.

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