Why We Need Black History Month

February 22, 1994|By MARGIE ASHE

Slavery is still an emotional subject for most Americans. Other than in academic settings, most people avoid mentioning it, especially in racially mixed company.

Not so for radio talk show host Les Kinsolving. His repeated references to slavery caught my ear recently. ''Three thousand black people owned slaves,'' he asserted, then followed the claim with the statement that, ''Black soldiers served in the Confederate army.''

When I called the station to challenge these statements and at least add some historical context, Mr. Kinsolving questioned my sources and motives.

Although I am white and a member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, he suggested that I was using unreliable ''Afrocentric'' sources and accused me of ''trying to put white people on a guilt trip.'' Then he hung up.

A few days later, on that same radio station, a different talk show host stated that, ''Many blacks on both sides of the Atlantic profited form the slave trade.''

Not being accustomed to the brusque manners of some talk show hosts, and still smarting from the response to my first call, I decided not to call again and risk the same treatment. But such publicly aired distortions of historical fact deserve a public response.

As a history buff who deplores out-of-context ''facts'' that distort the historical record, I got out my ''Oxford History of The American People,'' Kenneth Stampp's ''The Peculiar Institution'' and Lerone Bennett Jr.'s ''Before the Mayflower.'' From these widely accepted sources I unearthed the following:

* Regarding the alleged ''3,000 black slave owners,'' there was no reference to them in my sources. I did, however, find that in 1860 a total of 385,000 slave owners were counted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Statistically, 3,000 would be less than 1 percent of the total number of slave owners.

Even granting that some accounts other than my sources may have recorded that figure, reputable historians apparently consider it insignificant, especially in view of the well-documented fact that it was common practice among free black people to save for years in order to purchase the freedom of relatives and loved ones.

Because the laws of most Southern states made it difficult or impossible for masters to legally manumit their slaves, many of the so-called ''slaves'' of black masters were chattel in name only. In fact they were family members and their treatment and status in no way resembled the exploitative master-slave relationship characteristic of the ''peculiar institution.''

* As for black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy, it just didn't happen.

In 1862 the Southern states did authorize the impressment of slaves as war workers -- cooks, body servants, teamsters and labor troops. Blacks were employed in similar capacities by the federal government in Washington.

But it was not until March of 1865, a month before the war ended, that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis urging the enlistment of slaves as soldiers.

Lee stipulated that all such slaves were to be accompanied by their owners.

Yet except for two companies recruited in Richmond in the final month of the war, the South did not allow black men to bear arms.

Black soldiers did, however, serve in the Union armies. Almost from the war's beginning, thousands of slaves fled toward the Union lines, hoping to win their freedom. At first, they were returned to their owners or interned in camps.

As federal forces occupied portions of the Confederacy and the number of refugees increased, however, the policy shifted. Slaves were declared ''contraband of war'' and put to work as laborers, porters, cooks and stevedores.

After the Emancipation Proclamation became law in 1863, President Lincoln authorized the recruitment of black soldiers into the federal armies.

By the end of the war more more than 180,000 black soldiers had served in the federal armies and black men made up one fourth of the navy. Indeed, some military historians even consider the contribution of black manpower to have provided North its margin of victory over the Confederate forces.

* The claim that black Americans profited from the slave trade was not at all substantiated by my research. I did, however, find that white slave traders were often referred to as ''Negro traders'' -- that is, traders in Negroes -- a careless rendering that may account for the confusion.

The point is, such inaccurate, out-of-context statements as those heard on the local talk shows that prompted my research calls into question the motives of those who make them. It's clear that their agenda has little to do with historical accuracy, and much to do with justifying present-day bigotry.

My experiences are also are a reminder to all Americans that historical records remain one of the most important battlegrounds in the struggle against racism.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ''For too long the disease of racism in American life has been underestimated. As a beginning, it is important to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease.''

Black History Month reminds us that history is never a closed book, although it can be used to open closed minds.

But the study of African American history has other rewards beyond the fight against racism. It is also a positive and pleasurable pursuit in its own right, with its own reward of discovering new heroes and being inspired by their example.

Black History Month should provide the impetus for all Americans to read and celebrate the saga of a people who have never given up their struggle for freedom and equality. It is above all a truly American story of a truly American people.

Margie Ashe is a Baltimore writer.

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