Pan Africanism : Florida needs black historians of all kinds

Discussion in 'African American History Culture' started by dustyelbow, Feb 8, 2006.

  1. dustyelbow

    dustyelbow Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Oct 25, 2005
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    Historic shortfall

    Black historians needed to paint full picture


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    On a quest. Juanita Barton, below, director of the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Center in Mims, is trying to develop programs designed to evoke critical feedback from students learning about the life and times of Brevard County's most famous civil-rights workers. Kathleen Hinkel, FLORIDA TODAY

    After being attacked in 1821 by federal troops and mercenaries at a Southwest Florida village called Angola, the former slaves who had assimilated with American Indians decided they'd had enough. Slipping out of Florida's waters aboard small boats, the survivors forged the Gulfstream and vanished into new lives.

    That same year, a daring band of African-American exiles emerged on Andros Island and established a permanent settlement called Red Bays. In her book "Black Seminoles in The Bahamas," University of Central Florida anthropology professor Rosalyn Howard argues the current residents of Red Bays are descendents of the Angola refugees. Archaeological digs soon may reinforce the anecdotal and documentary evidence.

    "Florida's African-American history is rich, and it is unexpected, because so much is unknown," says Dr. Canter Brown, a history professor at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. "A meaningful exposure to it can ignite the interest of potential scholars."

    But as the nation's school kids explore Black History Month, much will remain unknown so long as African-American perspectives are missing from that scholarship. At the Florida Historical Society in Cocoa, executive director Nick Wynne says the paucity of minority historians prevents Floridians from getting a fuller portrait of the forces that shaped this state.

    "In the 1860 Census, 140,000 people lived in Florida, anywhere from 60,000 to 65,000 of whom were black," Wynne says. "That means nearly 50 percent of the residents of antebellum Florida were black. In this library, I'd say, rough guess, we've got 6,000 books on Florida history. Maybe 10 were written by African-Americans. You can see the problem."

    But it's not just a Florida shortfall. Lee Formwalt, executive director of the Organization of American Historians in Bloomington, Ind., calls the number of blacks getting college degrees in history "dismal."

    The OAH, formed to promote better scholarship and teaching presentation of history, counts 9,531 members. Of the 4,267 who listed their ethnicity, 147 indicated they were black.

    In Washington, D.C., the American Historical Association cites Department of Education figures from 2002-03 indicating just 5.7 percent of new recipients of history degrees were black. By contrast, 84.2 percent were non-Hispanic whites.

    However, Linda Kerber, chair of the University of Iowa's history department and president of the AHA, says "the participation among African-Americans (in writing history) is a weak link that will heal." The data, she says, are abundant, continually cataloged, and await the inevitable arrival of inquiring minds.

    At the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex in Mims, for instance, director Juanita Barton is trying to develop programs designed to evoke critical feedback from students learning about the life and times of Brevard County's most famous civil-rights workers. That's in addition to an ongoing oral history project -- conducted by Barton and Roz Foster -- recording witness accounts of the Jim Crow culture that destroyed the Moores in 1951.

    "Yes, we have this oral history project, but the problem is having enough time to do everything we want to do with it," Barton says. "The tapes have got to be transcribed, they've got to be edited, and it takes time getting to these people. At least 75 percent of those we've interviewed are no longer with us."

    What might it take to engage students in such a project?

    Although Florida A&M history professor Titus Brown barely remembers the civil-rights movement as a youngster in Albany, Ga., he says the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave him nightmares that "I struggled with for years."

    That, plus dim memories of student unrest at nearby Albany State, sparked a lifelong journey for deeper contexts that now finds Brown "spending hours down in the basements of courthouses, searching organizational records, looking at old news papers and census data."

    Brown says the challenge of teaching history to kids with no personal connection to the sweep of events is competing with the bells and whistles of "malls, TV and video games." But he says the remedy goes beyond presenting the material with big visuals. Especially if the subjects are limited to significant but predictable characters such as 18th-century African-American poet Phyllis Wheatley, or Crispus Attucks, who died in 1770 during the Boston Massacre at the hands of British redcoats.

    Brown says it might be more compelling to recall the battle of Bunker Hill through the eyes of black Patriots such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, who were among the three dozen African-American rebels making a stand against the British in 1775. Salem already was a veteran of the battle of Concord when he took out Maj. John Pitcairn, an iconic Scottish war hero, with a single shot. Poor's heroics -- celebrated but unspecified by the 14 Patriot officers who signed the report -- were described as those of "an experienced officer."

    That might work well as a broad stroke for Black History Month, but what about Florida history? If perception is reality, here's a glimpse of the divide.

    Fact: Florida's schools emphasize state history in the fifth grade. Beyond that, Brevard Public Schools spokeswoman Sara Stern says, Sunshine State standards encourage "strands," or working state history themes into curricula as disparate as art and music, at all grade levels.

    But ask Brevard Community College assistant communications professor Maria Parnell about her high school son's exposure to Florida history, and you get this: "I guess they leave that up to the parents." Re: black history: "I think students probably have to have their own curiosity or personal motivation."

    And this, from BCC's College Reach-Out Program coordinator Ruby Bell: "The emphasis in our schools is placed on math, science and technology.

    "Limited African-American representation in the curricula results in limited relevance to
    African-American students and little interest in history in general. They say it's boring."

    For students who do make it to the next level, the predominately black FAMU has a program called Master of Applied Social Sciences designed specifically to generate more scholarship in history. During the past five years, 17 students have earned masters or doctorates. One of the newest MASS students is 24-year-old, Nigeria-born Esther Spencer.

    "When you're taught about how black history in this country begins not in Africa, but with slave shipping, that definitely affects your pride and your perspective," she says. "And a lot of the problems we face today can be traced to the fact that we don't know our history. I would like to help change that."

    UCF anthropologist Howard, who says her African-Indian heritage motivated her to investigate black Seminoles, claims Black History Month is an outdated conceit. "It's high time we stopped that, and began incorporating black history into mainstream American history."

    More broadly, the Ohio, Pa., native says she's fascinated by the depth of Florida's complex history, but "dumbfounded" by its second-class citizenship.

    She cites Gov. Jeb Bush's 2003 attempt to save Florida $5 million a year by closing the State Library and transferring its historic documents and artifacts to a private university. The bid was derailed by the Legislature.

    "What does it say about your priorities about history," Howard says, "when you don't want to take care of your own archives?"