February is Black History Month, an annual observance of the role that people of recent African origin have played in the national narrative. Though it has been criminally underplayed in the past, this role has been central to the country’s history since its inception.
The first Africans disembarked onto what is now the United States even before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Despite the racial prejudice that spawned their enslavement as chattel, created legislation against their education and civic participation, and allowed decades of terrorism on American soil to go or more or less unpunished, black Americans have left an indelible impact on every arena of American life. This history should be preserved and honored.
For many, Black History Month is mostly a time to acknowledge the contributions of America’s most famous African descendants: the Harriet Tubmans, the Sojourner Truths and the Martin Luther Kings. As a black American who dabbles in genealogy, February compels me to ponder the smaller personalities in history: the triumphs of the everyman and everywoman.
I think about my fifth-great-grandmother, Nancy Goins, a free woman of color who prospered while raising her mixed-race son alone. This is a feat even today, but Nancy did it in southwest Virginia in the early 19th-century — not precisely a time or location noted for its even-handed treatment of women or people of color. She was one of only a handful of women of color listed as the head of the household in Grayson County, Virginia, in the 1820 and 1830 censuses. After the Civil War, one of her grandchildren collaborated with the Freedmen’s Bureau to establish what was perhaps the first school for black children in southwest Virginia at Independence.
I also think about my fourth-great-grandfather, John James Jones, born into slavery in Suffolk, Virginia, in 1838. In January 1864, a few months after the Emancipation Proclamation allowed for the creation of the United States Colored Troops, he enlisted in the 1st United States Colored Infantry to fight the armed forces of the illegitimate Confederate States government. He served for over a year, helping build the Dutch Gap Canal during the Siege of Petersburg. He was also present for Johnston’s surrender in North Carolina. He moved to Norfolk County after the armistice, and lived there until his death in 1900.
I am proud to have a relative who served in an army that not only ended state-sanctioned slavery in America but also preserved the existence of the United States as we know it. Although they were only allowed to enlist for half of the war, black men like James ultimately made up a full 10 percent of the Union Army. They were initially paid less than their white counterparts and faced more precarious situations if captured. Black POWs were so often killed by Confederates that Lincoln was prompted to declare that for each USCT prisoner executed, a Confederate soldier would be killed in kind in retaliation.
Personally, I think we would do well to allot more public space to honor people like my fourth great-grandfather who had the gumption to rebel against the “peculiar institution” of slavery that formerly dominated every area of their existence and risked their lives to keep this country together. Perhaps we shouldn’t devote so much space to honor slaveholding, Santa Claus-looking aristocrats remembered mostly for leading an army that tried to kill United States soldiers on United States soil. But I am perhaps a tad biased.
My point is that all of black history matters. Knowing your history, however trivial it may appear to others, is truly valuable. The eminent historical figures might inspire me to write the next Great American Novel, work for NASA and become president. But learning about this “smaller” history can be similarly rousing.
I’ve begun to ask myself things like: “If my illiterate fourth great-grandfather can make the jump from enslaved farmhand to soldier and then work under the threat of Confederate potshots outside of Richmond, why shouldn’t I be able to survive finals week at the University of Richmond?”
Further, the sheer resilience of my ancestors assures me that (forgive the cliché) we truly will overcome. If Nancy and James, both on the lowest rungs of their society, can survive for years under Confederate president Jefferson Davis (who at least had the decency not to hide his white supremacy under a veneer of patriotism), any American can endure four years of almost any politician. And we will.
So, this Black History Month, I call for us all to pay attention to the smaller heroes: not only the ones who fought great battles or led exoduses, but those who built the road for us on which to stride toward success.
Contact Opinions editor Hunter Moyler at firstname.lastname@example.org.