Friday, February 8, 2013

February is African American History Month

African American History Month, also known as Black History Month, was created by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Born in 1875 to parents who were former slaves, Dr. Woodson was disturbed to find that history books largely ignored the black American population—and when blacks did figure into the picture, it was generally in ways that reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time.

In 1926, Woodson launched "Negro History Week" as an initiative to bring national attention to the contributions of black people throughout American history. Woodson chose the second week of February for "Negro History Week" because it marks the birthdays of two men who greatly impacted the American black population, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. For these and many other efforts, Woodson has been acknowledged as the "father of black history."

Here in Tennessee, Gov. Frank Goad Clement signed a proclamation designating February 13-20 as "Negro History Week," and by 1976, the federal government expanded the celebration to include the entire month of February. Today, communities across this country recognize African American History Month as a time to reflect on the important and historically significant contributions African American citizens have made to our nation. At the Tennessee State Library and Archives, we honor their achievements through the historical records that we keep, preserve, and share with the public.

One tale of bravery found within the collections at TSLA is that of Sgt. Dick Johnson of the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry (USCC). In his book, David Preston Sherfy: Kinsman and Cavalryman, George W. Holley recounts an incident that occurred on February 6, 1865, when Sgt. Johnson was assigned to care for David Preston Sherfy following an accident where Sherfy, also a Sergeant in the 3rd USCC, fell from his horse and broke his leg during an expedition to Southeast Arkansas and Northeast Louisiana.

This hand-colored carte de visite of African American Sgt. Dick Johnson,
3rd US Colored Cavalry (USCC), detailed to David Preston Sherfy
is part of the TSLA's "Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee" collection.
Digital image, Tennessee State Library & Archives.

During the raid into Confederate territory, swamps in the area were nearly impassible. Many of the horses mired down in the mud and had great difficulty getting through the swollen streams. As Sherfy's brigade waited for stragglers and the rest of the command to catch up, he fell from his horse while crossing a swollen stream.

After being rescued from the muddy banks, Sherfy was put on a horse and continued with his command. His leg was later set by a surgeon, but he refused to stay at a wayside house, fearing for his life if he were captured by Confederate forces. Sgt. Johnson was detailed to look after Sherfy. It was said of the men of the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry that they "ranked as one of the finest cavalry regiments in The Army of The Tennessee," and "displayed the highest degree of discipline, courage and aggressiveness in battle, while never violating the laws of honorable warfare."

Another story of inspiration can be found in the life lived by Sampson W. Keeble, who became the first African American legislator elected to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly. A barber, businessman, and civic leader, Sampson Keeble was elected to serve as Republican representative of Davidson County to the 38th Tennessee General Assembly, riding a political wave of popularity into office following President Ulysses S. Grant's victory in the Presidential Election of 1872.

This bust in the likeness of Sampson W. Keeble is located in a place of prominence within the Tennessee State Capitol Building in Nashville, Tennessee.
Digital image, Tennessee State Library & Archives.

During his term in the legislature, Keeble introduced bills to amend Nashville’s charter in order to allow blacks to operate businesses downtown, to provide protection for wage earners (several of the later black legislators followed his lead in this area, introducing related bills), and to appropriate state funds for the Tennessee Manual Labor University. Although none of Keeble's bills received enough votes to be considered by the General Assembly, his legacy and importance to Tennessee's history is not forgotten. A bust of Sampson W. Keeble is displayed prominently in the Tennessee State Capitol Building reminding us all of his life and achievements.

Sampson Keeble was among fourteen black men, most of them former slaves, who were elected to the Tennessee General Assembly following the passage of the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments, giving African American men their freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote. You can learn more about the achievements of these men on our online exhibit, "This Honorable Body: African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee," which includes biographies, timelines on African American History and Civil Rights, and a wealth of teaching resources for educators. An update to this site is in the works, so we encourage you to check back for updates to this important online resource.

As we pause to reflect on these and other important contributions by African Americans to our collective past, we also recognize that without the records and artifacts left behind by our ancestors, these stories may never be told or remembered. To learn more about the collections related to African American history held at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, we encourage you to visit the following links on our website, and make a trip to our facility to see these important records first hand.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

1 comment:

  1. They elected Keeble but didn't pass any of his bills? Interesting.