History has a way of being like play-dough, taking the desired form of the sculptor. Often, records of antiquity are written by the conqueror, and as a result, historical facts are skewed or completely lost. Here are five relatively unknown histories you were never taught before about the contributions of Africans in America.
In 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he brought with him on this epic adventure, men of various cultural backgrounds. Columbus wasn’t sure which oriental language he would encounter, and so he prepared his ship with men who were familiar with the orient and their languages. The crew roster included Spaniards, Italians, and Africans. One of these men was Pedro Alonzo Niño who piloted Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria. According to the record, Pedro was the first man of African descent to set foot on the newly discovered Americas. He was of Moorish descent, born in Spain, free, and an accomplished sailor. Most histories discount or ignore his position in history, focusing instead of the English settlement of Jamestown wherein 1619, 20 African slaves were imported. However, as the first African descendant to involve himself in the New World, Pedro went on to man many more explorations with Columbus and obtained great wealth and notoriety.
Another not so well-known fact is how slavery became legal in the English colonies. In 1654, John Casor became the first African man to become a slave. His affirmed owner had also experienced pioneer status: Anthony Johnson, was the first African American man to own land and become the lifetime owner of the first official slave.
John came to Anthony as an indentured servant. But John testified in court that he had satisfied his servitude to Anthony and wanted to move on. Anthony and John fought over the issue in court. Anthony won and the ruling set a disastrous and centuries-long precedent. Just a few short years later, a law was upheld, allowing all non-free Africans to be owned and held as slaves for life.
Thanks to a slave named Onesimus, thousands of lives were saved. In 1706, Onesimus was gifted as a slave to Minister Cotton Mather by his congregation. At some point, he shared an African custom with Mather, who, in turn, alerted Dr. Zabdiel Boylston of the potential of the practice. In the ancient tradition of his African village, the skin of healthy individuals was purposely scratched and then deliberately introduced to disease. Smallpox at this time in history was at plague status and the people were desperate for a remedy. Boylston began implementing the method in his practice and found that the success rate was notable, with only 2% of those newly infected individuals dying as opposed to the 15% of those who were not inoculated from smallpox.
The Lone Ranger
It is believed that the Lone Ranger was based on the genuine life of Bass Reeves, an African American man, who was born in slavery in 1838, in Arkansas. In 1846, Bass was ordered to accompany his owner's son, George Reeves, to help fight in the Civil War. During this assignment, Bass escaped into the Indian Territory, where he lived for a few years. Here he learned their language and their ways, both of which would help him become the legend we know today.
Soon after the 13th Amendment passed in 1865, Bass returned to Arkansas, where he married and had 11 children. By 1880, Bass became a deputy marshal. At 6 ft 2 in tall, Bass was a formidable and recognizable opponent for any outlaw. He arrested more than 3000 people and killed 14. In all his 32 years of service, Bass was never shot. In 1907, at the age of 67, his career ended due to the new anti-black rules of Oklahoma.
Baby Ester Lee Jones
Origin of the "Boop"
Baby Esther Lee Jones, a young African American girl, began singing and dancing professionally as a child. Jones is dubbed the original scat singer who coined "boo-boo-boo" and "doo-doo-doo." Impressed by her performance, Helen Kane, a rising star in the flapper world, added scat singing to her act, changing Jones’ signature scat call to "Boop-oop-a-doop." Not long after, Max Fleischer created the iconic Betty Boop using these women as a source of inspiration for the iconic sex figure. Kane was incensed and claimed that Fleisher had stolen her stage identity. Her legal battle demanded compensation for his deliberate caricature of her. The proceedings raged on for over two years. The judgment went in Fleisher’s favor after it was proven that her appearance was not unique. In addition to Kane, other stars by this time had also begun emulating the original scat singer, Baby Esther Lee Jones.
Contributed by A. Mecham