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By: Mark Roseman, Board Member
For: Red Rock News
Date: February 5, 2010

February is Black History Month . . .

As part of my research for this column, I asked a 53-year-old black man what Black History Month meant to him.  He responded without hesitation: “It means the connecting of the historical dots . . . black people helped build this country and deserve recognition.”  Then he paused. . . “Our American heritage, you know, bears deep scars from institutionalized racial prejudice . . . in Arizona, I’m very much aware of being black.”  The history of Arizona’s blacks is good reason why Black History Month recognition is an important cultural magnifying glass of black peoples’ history, here, and everywhere. 

The roots of the nation’s recognition of blacks’ struggles, contributions, and collective genius go back to 1926.  Carter G. Woodsen, a noted African American historian, scholar, educator, and publisher, established “Negro History Week.”   In 1976, the celebration was extended to the month of February and renamed “Black History Month.”

Black History Month draws attention to “the dots”  . . . the black men and women, whose tenacious struggles and defining achievements, slowly wrestled and eased the vise-like social grip culturally stymieing what was once referred to as “a troublesome minority.”  That struggle continues, often mired in distorted history that perpetuates racial misunderstanding and contempt.  Historians’ avoidance of the dots is noted in “The First 100 Years of Arizona Blacks,” by Richard E. Harris (Dewey 971.1, Arizona Collection):  “Black History is that ‘American history’ which, until the ‘60s [1960s] was largely viewed with contempt and disdain or ignored altogether  . . . because blacks themselves were largely so viewed.”  Harris writes that “Chroniclers of Arizona history generally treated the native Negro as  . . . an invisible man. Thus, it would come as no great surprise if coming generations, perusing their history books, were tempted to perceive persons of Afro-American descent in the usual stereotype manner.”

On February 14, 1912, Arizona became the last of the 48 contiguous states admitted to the union.  The original Arizona constitution adopted total segregation within its boundaries.   “The First 100 Years of Arizona Blacks” is a poignant chronicle of Arizona’s first black pioneers, tracing the history of Arizona’s black people from 1870 to the early 1980s.  Many of the original black settlers were freemen . .  . most were former slaves or their offspring.  The author points out that there were only 155 Negroes in the Arizona Territory by 1880, and their population jumped to over 1,300 by 1890.  Harris’ book describes the turbulent history of race relations in Arizona, punctuated with segregated schools, impediments to voting, and Ku Klux Klan terrorism.

The Sedona Public Library (SPL) has a broad collection of books with different views of black peoples’ experiences in early Arizona.  “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love,” published in 1907, by Nat Love, (Biography, Love, N.) is the true story of one man’s three life-defining experiences—a slave boy, a cowboy, and a porter.  The author’s preface is straightforward: “I have tried to record events simply as they are, without attempting to varnish over the bad spots or draw upon my imagination to fill out a chapter at the cost of the truth.”  Home based in Arizona, Love’s book recounts his treks across the country as a cowboy.  The colorful Mr. Love earned an impressive reputation as a buffalo hunter, “Iron Horse” porter, gunfighter, gold hunter, and much more.

Another in depth view of early black settlers in Arizona is “This Land These Voices: A different view of Arizona history in the words of those who lived it,” edited by Abe Chanin (Dewey 979.1).  Chapter five is entitled “The Blacks Who Pioneered,” and highlights Curly Bill Neal, a black man, successful hotelier, and friend of Buffalo Bill Cody. The book details how many black families in Arizona are associated with grandfathers and fathers stationed in Fort Huachuca, in the southern part of the state.  It is from there that General John Pershing rode out the Tenth Calvary against Pancho Villa, with a unit made up of black men. 

The SPL collection contains an abundance of books and materials written by or about blacks in America.  A small sampling includes:  “Let The Trumpet Sound, A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Stephen B. Oates (Biography “King”), “They Had A Dream: The Civil Rights Struggle from Frederick Douglas to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King to Malcolm X,” (Dewey 920, Archer ,Young Adult Collection), and “King: Go beyond the dream to discover the man.” (DVD 323.092).

Blacks have had innumerable supporters of their legal and moral entitlements to America’s opportunities.   One such person was Howard Zinn, who died last week at the age of 87.  Howard Zinn was an author, teacher and political activist whose historical works challenge how American history is taught in schools.  Through the SPL, and its vast inter-library system, thirty-four (34) of Mr. Zinn’s books are available for thought provoking reading.  Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” (Dewey 973, Zinn, Young Adult Collection) is a million-selling alternative to standard, mainstream history textbooks.  This book highlights, in part, the dots that connect the struggles of blacks, and others, in America, from 1492 to the present.  You won’t necessarily find real history, without folklore, in standard high school or college history text books or course syllabi.  Mr. Zinn’s historically annotated writings read like startling treatises, unlike any other history books you may have read.

Racial prejudice is learned behavior.  The SPL is a place for higher education, with resources available to teach and learn about tolerance, for all.  Black History Month . . . think about it . . .

Mark Roseman
Mark Roseman, author of this week's article,
is a retired attorney and a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Sedona Public Library.

Library News appears each Friday in the Red Rock News
and is also presented on: Gateway to Sedona and Sedona Biz.