From Crispus Attucks to Commander in Chief

The quest to observe the contributions of African-Americans in American society has not been limited to Carter G. Woodson’s creation of Negro History Week in 1926, which became Black History Month in 1976.
There were extensive “colored” pavilions in the world’s fairs and expositions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and a silver dollar commemorating George Washington Carver was struck in the 1940s.
California’s legislature saw fit in the 1970s to strike a blow for freedom by acknowledging the centrality of the black experience to American life. It created Black American Day each March 5 in California schools to recognize that Crispus Attucks was on that date in 1770 the first American to die for this nascent country. Following is the section of the state’s Education Code which applies:
“37221. Unless closed by the governing board pursuant to paragraph (13) of subdivision (a) of Section 37220, the public schools shall remain open on, but shall celebrate with appropriate commemorative exercises, the following holidays:
(d) March 5, the anniversary of the death of Crispus Attucks, the first black American martyr of the Boston Massacre, known as “Black American Day” on which day schools shall include exercises and instruction on the development of black people in the United States.”
At least 5,000 other African-Americans fought in the American Revolution, in addition to the critical role of Haitian soldiers serving under the French flag at Yorktown.
It took another century for people like Attucks to vote in the new nation, but that right was won in part by the service of more than 200,000 members of the U.S. Colored Troops, whose names are emblazoned on the Black Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Four regiments of these new citizens served in the West and the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century and Capt. Michael Healy, a ship captain in the predecessor to the Coast Guard, served as military governor of the new territory of Alaska.
In the 20th century, more than one million African-Americans have served in America’s armed forces through two world wars and the Cold War.
Their blood and sweat has justified the infusion of African-American heritage within the daily classroom experience, not only because it is essential to the saga of American history, but also because it is an important way to overcome stereotypes which can infect both teachers and students.
It is likely that every African-American student has multiple veterans within their families. That means their relatives have been part of the history they study. Assignments which draw on genealogy and oral history can serve as powerful motivational and learning tools.
Our anthology series Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vols. 1-4, has many accounts of the service of African-American veterans, particularly during World War II. One of the reasons that Jack Roosevelt Robinson got to integrate major league baseball was that he had served as an officer in World War II.
It also includes the role of black commanders and officers in the Mexican Army defending California against American attack. A state park in San Diego County commemorates the victory of Andres Pico, third in command of the Mexican forces, over U.S. marines and soldiers during the Mexican war. His brother, Pio, and Andres Pico were the last two Mexican governors of Alta California.
Except for the rare movie like Glory or Buffalo Soldier, these images have been left out of the common culture. That means schools have a special responsibility to fill in that gap. Young black men in particular are in need of heroic figures who take command in difficult circumstances. There is no shortage of heroes among the millions of African-Americans who have served in this country’s military, often with little personal benefit.
The appeal of the Allensworth State HIstoric Park in Tulare County or National Park Rangers Spencer Johnson in Yosemite and Frederik Penn at the Presidio or the Tuskegee Airmen exhibition in the California African-American Museum is evidence of how transformative these images can be.
Military service has also been a route to future success. On Saturday, March 6, the first cadet to complete U.S. Air Force ROTC will have a memorial service, the late Dr. Frank Greene. He took his electronics training to Silicon Valley by the 1960s to become a semiconductor designer, supercomputer pioneer and led the first black technology company to gain an initial public offering. We feature Greene in the documentary Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge and in the Black Students Internet Guide. His fellow Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame member Roy L. Clay Sr. began his programming career in the 1950s with aircraft maker McDonnell Aircraft and at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory , one of many black scientists who have contributed to the national defense.
The first African-American diplomat, William Alexander Leidesdorff, also served in California during the Mexican War in a supportive role to the war effort by financing U.S. troops by taking out loans on his extensive property. In short, he paid for California to become part of the United States. The first African-American Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, had earlier become national security advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Today, the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is retired Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and fighter pilot who is among the 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology.
And of course, the commander in chief is now the first African-American president, a milestone which only could have occurred through the service of the aforementioned.
Telling the story of African-Americans merely through slavery and discrimination often has a demotivating impact on students. However, all cultures venerate their fighting men. If we want to transfer the energy of our young people to peaceful pursuits of scholarship, it will often be the study of these warriors which will give them the sense of belonging and justification to follow in their footsteps of success.
If your child is in a California school, ask why the school does not observe Black American Day. More broadly, ask why the central role of African-Americans in American history is not told every day. It is the best way to close the achievement gap.

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2 thoughts on “From Crispus Attucks to Commander in Chief

  1. What an amazing piece! Thank you very much. I’ve had lots of AA studies but learned lots I didn’t know – especially about March 5th. I’ve tried to share it with everyone I know.

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