By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
As the end of January approaches it is time to begin thinking about February when we recognize and celebrate African history. Whether we name our celebration/recognition “African Heritage Month,” “African Liberation Month” or “Black History Month,” it is our choice.
We learn about our heroes and sheroes. We learn about events in our history that makes us aware that we as a people have achieved much under very trying circumstances. We also learn or reiterate that our history did not begin with slavery. Yet those of us in the Diaspora know that the enslavement of our ancestors has an enormous effect on how we are treated today. We know that because of the enslavement of our ancestors and the stripping of our names, languages etc., many of us (even today) continue searching for an identity. We do not know who we are because many of the names that were forced on us have been accepted by many of us.
Viewing the scene from the 1977 miniseries “Roots”, where the enslaved African, Kunta Kinte, is beaten almost to death until he answers to the name “Toby”, gives some idea of how our African names were stolen and replaced by European names. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByhFz5e5Tno).
There was always African resistance to enslavement. From the moment they were captured on the African continent; while they were being transported to the “slave dungeons”, while they were being loaded onto filthy disease-ridden ships, as they stood on auction blocks, as they were forced to work from sunup to sundown, Africans resisted in various ways. Even those Africans born into the condition of slavery on the various plantations owned by members of the various White tribes, resisted. As they were sold from plantation to plantation, from country to country, they resisted. They resisted by burning crops, by destroying property, by malingering, by learning to read and write, by fleeing to freedom, by assisting other enslaved Africans to flee slavery.
Some of these heroes and sheroes are well known. Countless others are not as renowned. Some of these freedom fighters remain nameless. However, we have an obligation to “dig up the past” as Carter Godwin Woodson urged. In his 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson wrote: “Truth must be dug up from the past and presented to the circle of scholastics in scientific form and then through stories and dramatizations that will permeate our educational system.” Woodson established “Negro History Week” during the second week of February in 1926 and the week was later expanded to include the entire month.
February was first known as “Black History Month” but over many years and Africans expressing their Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), it has evolved into “African Heritage Month” and even “African Liberation Month”.
One of the many examples of Africans liberating themselves from slavery, gaining wealth through entrepreneurship and using that wealth to support the fight to liberate enslaved Africans was Barney Launcelot Ford.
Barney Launcelot Ford was born on January 22, 1822 to an enslaved African woman and a White plantation owner. He was given one name, “Barney”; his other names he chose later in life. The children of enslaved African women inherited their mother’s status so Ford became the property of his mother’s owner. His mother Phoebe wanted her child to escape slavery. She was determined that her child should learn to read and live as a free person. Phoebe was determined that her child would learn to read even at the risk of both their lives.
According to information from the Encyclopedia of African American Business, Volume 1, published in 2006, edited by African-American historian, Jessie Carney Smith: “Phoebe longed for her son to become free and live to do good for other people. She knew that young Barney must learn to read and write, and she wanted him to learn every word in the dictionary she borrowed. So in the evenings she took him to a fellow slave who taught him to read words from a ‘spelling book.’”
After the death of the plantation owner and the owner’s widow attempting to engage Barney as a “house slave”, his mother planned his escape. In attempting to find a way for her son to escape slavery, Phoebe was found frozen to death. Barney was sold soon after his mother’s death. Information from the Encyclopedia of African American Business, Volume 1 documents that: “Friends found Phoebe frozen in the river one night soon thereafter, having attempted to find a way for Ford to escape. The day after his mother’s funeral, Ford was sold.” Barney was hired out to work on a Mississippi River boat by his new owner. When he was 25 years old in 1847, Barney escaped slavery. Seizing the opportunity to walk off while the Mississippi River boat was docked at Quincy, Illinois, he made his way to Chicago with support from members of the Underground Railroad.
While living as a free man, Barney decided to claim a middle and last name. He took his middle and last name (Launcelot Ford) from a steam locomotive in Chicago. He worked as a barber while living in Chicago. He met his wife, Julia Lyoni, in Chicago and they were married in 1848. The Fords left the U.S. for Nicaragua and between 1850 and 1885. Ford used money that he earned as a prospector for gold in Colorado to build several successful businesses. While prospecting in Colorado the hill where he supposedly “struck it rich” was given the dubious honour of being named “Ni–er Hill”, a name it retained for approximately 100 years until 1964 when it was renamed “Barney Ford Hill”.
In the 2006 book, Hiking Colorado’s Summit County Area: A Guide to the Best Hikes in and Around Summit County, White American author, Maryann Gaug, describing the area where Ford worked as a prospector, writes: “Locals called the area ‘Ni–er Gulch’ and ‘Ni–er Hill.’ In 1964 the names were changed to ‘Ford Gulch’ and ‘Barney Ford Hill.’”
Ford and his wife used the money they earned from their barbershops, hotels and restaurants to support Africans fleeing slavery. Following the abolition of slavery in the U.S. Ford used his money to establish the first adult education classes (1871) for African-Americans in Colorado. He was a Civil Rights activist who lobbied for African-Americans to have the right to vote in Colorado. Today Ford is recognized in Colorado as an abolitionist and a Civil Rights activist.
During February it is important that we do more than share food, dance and provide entertainment. We must return to the true purpose for which Woodson established the one week recognition of our history. In The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson wrote: “Philosophers have long conceded, however, that every man has two educators: that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable. Indeed all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself. It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves.”
We need to make the month an opportunity to educate ourselves about our story. It will be a great start to the decade declared by the United Nations as the International Decade for People of African Descent.