Black history is our history

Ed Diaz flanked by granddaughter Hannah Diaz and Dr. Antonio Cuyler, Purchase College of SUNY. Credit: Peggy Sturdivant

By chance, I met independent historian Ed Diaz as he finalized details for the 2011 Black History Conference in Seattle on Feb. 5. He has been working on the event for the better part of year, issuing a Call for Papers and coordinating all logistics involving 40-plus presenters from his Ballard apartment. After attending all 10 hours of presentations I can sum up the experience with words repeated over and over by the participants, “How could I not know about this before?”

That applies to the conference, the content, the organization, and the extremely humble Ed Diaz.

Black history in the Pacific Northwest has rarely been as visible as in other parts of the country, but the Association for African American Historical Research and Preservation’s conference held at the Northwest African American Museum proved over and over that black history is American history. Saturday’s conference theme was, “Black History at Home and Abroad: Uncovering the Past.” There was plenty to uncover.

For example, why haven’t more Seattlites heard of Horace Roscoe Cayton? Born into slavery in Mississippi, he published The Seattle Republican from 1894-1917; it was second in circulation only to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His wife Susie Revels Cayton was the daughter of the first African-American U.S. senator, Hiram Revels, elected in 1869; Barack Obama was the fifth — 135 years later. The digitized archives of the Republican make for spicy reading.

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett was Honorary Chair of the conference. How many of his constituents realize he was one of the founders of the Black Student Union at the University of Washington?

Keynote speaker Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland happens to be the city’s first Korean-African American mayor. Noting that she was not a historian, she acknowledged, “Every day we all have an opportunity to make history.” She shared that, during her campaign, even close supporters questioned whether she and another African-American woman should run at the same time: “Is Tacoma really ready for two African-American women at the same time?” (They both won). It’s not uncommon for her to receive an email after a report of violence committed by an African-American asking, “Can’t you even control your own people?”

These and other questions, some academic, all deeply personal, are what pulled participants from all over the country (and other countries) to travel to Seattle for 20-minute opportunities to share their papers. It’s what also drew teachers and professors, high school students, and storytellers to register and attend a daylong conference with enough programming to fill three days instead of one very long day.

One of AAAHRP’s stated goals for the conference was to narrow the gap between university-based scholars, community historians, historic preservations and the public.  The depth of research varied, but there was barely room between tables, much less a gap, with regard to a sense of shared mission between presenters. The presenters often took their listeners from, “How could I not know this?” to “What do I do, now that I know?”

In his essay on different perspectives on black strikebreakers in Roslyn printed in More Voices, New Stories, Diaz writes, “It is hoped that anyone with unanswered questions will be thirsty enough for additional information to conduct further research on this topic.” That happened to him when he read an inaccurate account about Horace Cayton. Diaz began to conduct personal research and was soon moved to fill a Northwest gap by creating the first Black History Conference in 2004. Conceived “to give local people more information about local African Americans,” the AAAHRP’s Call for Papers now draws responses from across the globe.  According to Diaz, the conference is now “a train of its own.”

The participants first gathered in the Legacy Gallery of the Northwest African American Museum surrounded by even more questions mounted next to photographs of the intersection that was considered the absolute center of the black community in early Seattle, asking “What needs to happen on 23rd and Union?”

Dr. Raymond A. Hall of Central Washington University presented his research on a chapter in Northwest history that had me trying to remember my daughter’s requisite unit on state history. In 1888 the towns of Roslyn and Franklin were coal mining towns, with land and mines owned by Northern Pacific Company. The Roslyn cemetery is divided by countries of origin: a miniature map of Europe, from Finland to Italy. In response to a strike for better wages and living conditions the company acted quickly to bring in new labor.

They sent a black man named James Shepperson to recruit black males in the midwest and the south. Responding to the promise of job and home, 400 black workers arrived on a train accompanied by armed guards, and were then armed by the company to be sent in as strikebreakers. By 1889 the population of Roslyn was over 50 percent black. But their dead were buried separately. So when eighth graders visit Roslyn cemetery as part of the their Washington state chapter, there’s rarely reference to the men recruited to be strikebreakers or this chapter in the history of Black Americans in the Pacific Northwest. How would they know about black labor in Washington before Boeing or World War II?

Eleven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, a young mother named Irene Morgan defied segregation laws in 1946 Virginia in a similar manner. Her case went all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, where a young Thurgood Marshall ultimately won her case on the grounds of the potential impediment to interstate commerce. Dr. Pamela M. Harris, a Western Carolina University communications professor, read about the trial in 2000 and became consumed with trying to answer the question, “How did I not know about Irene Morgan?” And then, “Why?”

Department heads and a professor who teaches 400-level courses on Hip Hop Culture, a retired U.S. marshal, high school teachers and school administrators, historians and non-historians … throughout the day everyone traversed the museum exhibits on their way to learn about Buffalo Soldiers, African Diaspora, racist textbooks in Mexico, America and a ‘Post-Racial’ Society, Black Nationalism. Every presentation, no matter the specifics, focused on exposing invisible parts of history. Robert Moore, author and former U.S. marshal, was emphatic, “I’m challenging all of you to take those blind spots off. I travel the country now to educate — and to celebrate these legacies.”

In between sessions, 150-some attendees learned about one another. Eva Abram, at the time a massage therapist, woke up in the middle of night inspired to become a storyteller, because, “Kids don’t know enough of their history.” At the conference, she was taking notes on all the uncovered heroes of black history. A nametag at the registration table led me to San Francisco State University Dr. Johnetta Richards. In 1982 she was the only black female professor at my New England College. She had traveled to the conference at her own expense in order to hear research that could help her engage in students in Africana studies.

Moni Law, AAAHRP committee member since its inception, summed up the attitude that applied to every presenter, attendee and volunteer, “You inspire me and make me want to learn more.”

The following day all the presenters would begin their journey home, or to the apartment in Ballard, to get back to their research.

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