Hands Free : The Story of the Free State of Congo (1885 – 1908)

Welcome readers,

Thirty-Two Towns Were Destroyed While Mapping The Congo:

King Leopold II hired a British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, so he could get help with the establishment of the Congo Free State. Stanley was already acquainted with the region having explored it and mapped out most of the Congo River. In addition, he made contact with and had experiences with the Congolese. Stanley wasn’t evil and there was no malice in his intentions to explore the Congo. However, there was tension between his men and the Congolese. Their different cultures clashed and misunderstandings occurred since both groups couldn’t understand each other. Moreover, those misunderstandings led to fears of brutal violence. For instance, seven aggravated Congolese tribes convened and confronted Stanley about writing in his journal which they considered to be witchcraft, and when they demanded he stop or he and his men would be killed, Stanley responded with disregard and began shooting the Congolese. At the end of the expedition, he burned down 32 of their towns. His men retaliated more viciously. They would kidnap and rape African women and beat the men to death using whips for the smallest infractions. As a result, this marked the beginning of the Congo Free State. Leopold II hired and demanded that the area be turned into a workhouse, and they did that by enslaving the Congolese. Their cruelty set the tone for the future of Congo and the darkness would soon envelop the Congo with no way for resistance. 

The Entire Population Was Enslaved: Once King Leopold took control of the Congo, he started bleeding the country dry for profits. Stanley came upon and reported that there were temples of ivory, and rubber was available to be retrieved. Therefore, Leopold’s determination led to him turning two-thirds of the country into his private land. That private land needed workers and the Congolese were forced to work for him. At first, the slaves were given a penny per pound of rubber, but Leopold soon ceased any compensation, and instead, he called harvesting rubber, a tax that every Congolese who lived on the land was required to pay. Equally important, the Congolese were oblivious that their land was sold, and now were forced into labor so they could remain living on it. Slaves had a huge daily quota to fulfill. For one, the average Congolese slave had to work 20 days per month just to meet the rubber quota and all that was done was with no compensation. In their spare time, they were allowed to work to feed their families. 

Workers Who Didn’t Meet Their Quotas Were Dismembered And Killed: 

The most infamous act of savagery that was done under King Leopold II’s reign of power over the Congo was the dismemberment of the Congolese. For better context, what led to this needs to be explained. So, rubber profits began booming in the 1890s in the Congo and Leopold was heavily profiting from it. Leopold was selling more rubber than he could harvest. Leopold demanded that the rubber be harvested expeditiously and if quotas failed to be met, then punishment in ways of beatings and death was awaiting. In addition, African soldiers were enlisted to enforce rules, but this put the Belgians in a precarious situation and at risk. These soldiers would sometimes spare insubordinate slaves and waste ammunition on non-human targets. Consequently, the Belgians set up a law: Every time a worker was killed, the African soldiers were to chop off one of their hands and deliver it. The soldiers followed these orders because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t. Quotas were met by filling a basket with the severed hands, sometimes even collected from their mothers. An old man was once killed in front of a missionary by an African soldier and he explained why he did it, saying, “Don’t take this to heart so much,” “They kill us if we don’t bring the rubber. The commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service. I have brought in plenty of hands already, and I expect my time of service will soon be finished.”

Gathering Rubber Was Deadly – Fear of death only made the Congolese work that much harder, but that fear wasn’t the only motivating factor. For one, they were motivated to meet quotas by any means but gathering the rubber was a challenge because it was hanging high up in the trees. The drudgery was made easier with ones at a lower level but everything had to be collected for harvest so climbing higher and higher to get everything was mandatory. This was dangerous and many would slip and fall to their deaths. Additionally, the slaves who survived the daunting task would chop up the vines to squeeze out a little extra sap. It worked, but it removed its benefits and eliminated those vines as a resource. If the slaves were caught beatings and death were inevitable. One commissioner wrote a note after catching a worker chopping a vine saying “We must fight them until their absolute submission has been obtained,” he wrote, “or their complete extermination”. 

Workers Were Brutally Beaten – Different commissioners handled disciplinary actions differently. Some were satisfied with removing the workers’ hands, but other commissioners wanted to amplify their sadistic intentions. For example, the slaves were given number discs around their necks so their quotas could be tracked. If the slaves fell short of the target amount, they would receive 25 lashes with a whip. It sometimes went to 100 lashes if efficiency was poor. The whip used was made of hippopotamus hide that would break the skin quickly and excessive beatings led to death. Furthermore, when other Europeans started traveling to the Congo they were astounded and unimpressed with the environment. One European officer reported that he complained to Mr. Goffin, the secretary of the Railway Company in the Congo, who said that he had witnessed men being kicked, whipped, and chained by their necks. Mr. Goffin was business as usual and was cavalier in his response, shrugging his shoulders to be exact. 

Millions Died Of Disease – Disease was rampant in the Congo Free State. The Belgians didn’t care for the livelihood of their slaves and fed them poorly, only giving them enough to survive. Frequently, slaves were given rotten meat which made the men sick. As a result, work conditions became more horrid as the men were forced to work in areas infested with tsetse flies that spread diseases. Illness swept across the Congo and from there other parts of Africa. To make matters worse, the worst disease contracted was the “sleeping sickness”, a disease that was often fatal. It had a widespread impact throughout affecting the harvesters to the villagers. In some places, a third of the population was infected and perished. It’s estimated that the disease killed 500,000 people in the Congo.

Villages Were Burned To The Ground – Nothing was safe. When an entire village failed to meet its quota or refused to pay a rubber tax, they were reprimanded by soldiers. Specifically, an army of men marched into the town, commenced slaughtering people, and burned villages to the ground. Not to mention, some villages were destroyed for almost no reason at all. For instance, one village was decimated by soldiers. 50 men were killed and 28 were made prisoners. The women were chained neck to neck and dragged out of town. Even if they met the required quota, their recorded infractions one of them being that “the rubber brought by the villagers to the State was not of the best quality.

”Women And Children Were Tortured The petrifying events that happened in the Congo Free State had a purpose, they were meant to scare the people into work. Fear was their weapon and used it to the fullest. The Belgians intended to enforce slavery, physically and psychologically were ways to motivate the Congolese, and since they were seen as subhuman, the Belgians were “free” to do whatever they wanted with their “property”. Women were often kidnapped from their villages that didn’t deliver enough rubber. They would be held ransom until the chief met the required quota. There was no limit to how nefarious the Belgians were to the Congolese. For example, after being sent to raid a town for not meeting its quota, one African soldier noted that his European commander had ordered him to make an example of the town. “He ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members,” the soldier said, “and to hang the women and children on the palisade in the form of a cross.

”Overseers Cannibalized Their Workers 

If this historical time wasn’t morbid enough, cannibalism was used in some places to instill fear and keep the slaves in line. It’s difficult to determine how often this happened, but one man reported that when someone was declared as “shot” in his area, it also meant that the victim had been eaten. Regarding this, the word for this was the Zappos Zaps, they were a particularly vicious tribe whom the Belgians recruited as soldiers. Documents have reported, “Some of the victims were eaten by cannibals. [ . . . ] The bodies of all who were slain were mutilated, their heads having been cut off. From three bodies, the flesh has been carved and eaten.”

All This Was Done By A Humanitarian Organization 

 Initially, Leopold II didn’t enter the Congo as an invading army, he went there with philanthropic intentions. He founded a group that was originally called the International African Association. They were a humanitarian organization that promised to improve life in Africa and donations came from around the world. Begging for donation, Leopold gave a compelling speech, “To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress. All in all, it was a facade to cover up his diabolical intentions, the organization that people thought was funding to better the lives of African people was exploiting them and getting rich. In private, Leopold told an ambassador, “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake”. And with that, Leopold cut his slices which were backed by the donations of concerned citizens. 

Blood Diamond : The Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002)

Welcome readers,

In this entry for Black History 365, I will present the story of Sierra Leone’s Civil War which was the inspiration for the film “Blood Diamond”. Leave a like if you’ve enjoyed what you read and learned something new, and hit the follow button so you can stay up to date with my future posts. 

The Sierra Leone Civil War was an armed conflict in the West African nation of Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. Let that sink in, the war lasted eleven years. The war began on March 23rd, 1991, when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was under the orders of Foday Sankoh, with the support of Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor and his group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NFPL). Their mission was to overthrow the government of Sierra Leonean President Joseph Momah. Moreover, The Sierra Leone Civil War was one of the bloodiest in Africa resulting in the death of more than fifty thousand people and half a million displaced in a nation of four million. The violent conflict was long because both the RUF and the Sierra government were funded by coveted “blood diamonds” which were minded with slave labor. 

During the first year of the war, the RUF seized control of the diamond-rich territory in eastern and southern Sierra Leone. On April 29, 1992, President Joseph Momah was ousted in a military coup led by Captain Valentine Strasser who created the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). As a result, Strasser said the corrupt Momah could revive the economy, provide for the people of Sierra Leone, and stave off rebel invaders.

A year later in March 1993, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) sent a group of Nigerian troops to Freetown, the capital city, and assisted the Sierra Leone Army in recapturing the diamond districts and forcing the RUF to the diamond districts and the Sierra Leone-Liberia border. By the end of 1993, many thought the war was nearing its end because the RUF ceased most of its military operations. However, what had begun as a civil war now had international implications as the Sierra Leone government was supported by ECOMOG, Great Britain, Guinea, and the United States, while the RUG was supported by Liberia ( under the control of Charles Taylor), Libya, Burkina Faso. 

Fast forward two years later in March 1995, the Sierra Leone government hired Executive Outcomes (EO) a South African-based mercenary group sent to finally defeat the RUF. A year later, Sierra Leone implemented an elected civilian government in March 1996, and the retreating RUF signed the Abidjan Peace Accord which brought an end to the fighting. Furthermore, in May 1997, conflict was still present when a group of Sierra Leone Army officers staged a coup and established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) as the new government of the country. Feeling that the RUF were lacking strength, they invited them to join and create an alliance where the two factions would rule Freetown with little resistance.

With the new government in effect, Johnny Paul Koroma declared the war to be over. However, looting, rape, and murder mostly by RUF forces quickly followed and it demonstrated the government’s weakness. ECOMOG forces returned and retook Freetown on behalf of the Koroma government, but they could not mollify outlying regions. Subsequently, the RUF continued the civil war.

In January 1999, the country was in disarray and world leaders intervened to promote negotiations between the RUF and the government. The Lome Peace Accord was signed on July 7, 1999. Under those circumstances, the agreement gave Foday Sankoh, the commander of the RUF, the vice presidency and control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines in return he would have to thwart all fighting and the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to monitor the disarmament process. RUF compliance with the disarmament process was inconsistent and stagnant, and by May 2000, the rebels were advancing once again towards Freetown. Despite their manpower, help from United Nation forces, British troops, and Guinean air support, the Sierra Leone Army vanquished the RUF before they could take control of Freetown. On January 18, 2002, newly elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah declared the Sierra Leone Civil war had finally ended.

BCM: The Story of Steve Biko (Black History 365)

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  • Leave a like if you’ve enjoyed what you read, and hit the follow button so you can stay up to date with my future posts. 

Nelson Mandela was a significant figure in South African history, especially during the apartheid era in the country which cost him his freedom for 27 years. However, as much of a prominent figure Mandela was, Steve Biko brought forth a philosophy of black consciousness to South Africa that was much needed. In this entry of Black History 365, I’ll be presenting the story of South African civil rights activist Steve Biko. 

Born December 18, 1946, Steve Biko was a South African activist who pioneered the philosophy of Black Consciousness in the late 1960s. The founder of the South African Students Organization (SASO) in 1968, Biko put a lot of his efforts into representing the interests of Black students at the then University of Natal (later KwaZulu-Natal). Moreover, SASO was a direct response to the stagnation and inaction of the National Union of South Africans in representing the needs of Black students. 

Biko was an instrumental figure when it came to instilling a pro-black mindset that caused the South African government to see him and his followers as defiant and hostile. His experiences were filled with adversity at the height of Apartheid and the frustrations he felt living in those conditions drove his philosophy and political activism. For example, he had witnessed police raids during his childhood and had to endure living through the brutality and intimidation the Apartheid government was notorious for. In regard to this, the objective of Biko’s philosophy focused primarily on liberating the minds of Black people who had been relegated by an oppressive government that viewed them as inferior to white power structures. Furthermore, Biko saw the power struggle in South Africa as “a microcosm of the confrontation between the third world and the first world”. 

The philosophy of Black Consciousness 

The Black Consciousness Movement grounded itself on race as a determining factor in the oppression of Black people in South Africa, which was in response to racial oppression and dehumanization of Black people under Apartheid. Biko defined “Black” as not being limited to Africans but also including Asians and “coloured” (South Africans of the mixed race including African, European, and/or Asian origin). The movement’s goal was to incorporate Black Theology, indigenous values, and political organizations against the ruling system. 

Liberation of the mind was the primary weapon to bring forth a fight for freedom in South Africa, defining Black consciousness as an internal-looking process, where Black people coalesce and strive to regain the pride stripped away from them by the Apartheid system. Additionally, his philosophy presented an emphasis on the positive retelling of African history, which had been extremely distorted and denigrated by European imperialists in an attempt to form their colonies. Biko’s writings would state the mindset needed for the movement to be successful and how history is crucial in the development of black South Africans. He said the following… 

“At the heart of this thinking is the realization by blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” – Steve Biko 

According to Biko, there were necessary steps that needed to be taken toward restoring dignity to Black people which involves elevating the heroes of African History and promoting African heritage to deconstruct the misconception of Africa being a dark continent. In addition, Black consciousness seeks to extract the positive values within indigenous African cultures and make it a standard with which Black people evaluate themselves. This would be the first form of resistance toward imperialism and Apartheid. Biko believed that by galvanizing around the concept of black consciousness, black people can seek to produce an outcome where unity is the only option, and with that, they’ll stop seeing themselves as appendages to white society. 

In Apartheid South Africa, the mission for Black consciousness aimed to unite citizens under the main cause of their oppression. Biko’s philosophy implemented messages from Christianity into the concept of Black consciousness, but it needed to be taught from the perspective of the oppressed so it could align with the journey of Black people’s self-realization. According to Biko, Black theology must preach that it’s a sin to allow oneself to be oppressed. The fight for freedom is salvation. Not to mention, adapting Christianity to African values and belief systems is at the core of doing away with “spiritual poverty”. 

In 1972, Biko founded the Black People’s Convention as a subsidiary organization for the Black Consciousness Movement, which had begun gaining ground through universities across the nation. One year later, he and eight other leaders of the movement were banned by the South African government, which limited Biko to his home in King William’s town. He would defy the banning order by continuing to support the convention which led to several arrests in the following years. 

On August 21, 1977, Biko was detained by South African police and held in the eastern city of Port Elizabeth, where he was brutally tortured and interrogated. By September 11, he was found naked and chained to a prison cell door. Due to the excessive beatings he had taken, he died in a hospital cell the following day as a result of brain injuries sustained by the police. The details surrounding his torture remain unknown, but Biko’s death has been understood by many South Africans as an assassination. 

In closing, Black consciousness transcended a movement, it was a philosophy deeply rooted in African Humanism, for which Biko should be heralded not only as an activist but as a philosopher in his own right. His legacy remains deeply relevant today that emphasizes resistance and self-determination in the face of widespread oppression. 

Meroe in Sudan, Capital of the Great Kushite Empire: Black History 365

Welcome readers, 

It’s been a while since I did a Black History 365  post on the history of African civilizations but look no further because this post is all about one specifically the Kushite Kingdom in northern Sudan and lower Egypt. Leave a like if you’ve enjoyed what you read and hit that follow button so you can stay up to date with my future posts. As always, peace and keep it real. 

Historical documents collected by archaeological discoveries indicate that the ancient city of Meroe served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, which is located in present-day Sudan. The Kingdom of Kush was a northern African Kingdom that had a profound influence that spanned from approximately 1069 BCE to 350 CE. Even though the region around Kush, later known as Nubia had been inhabited since 8,000 BCE, the kingdom of Kush didn’t become established and gain prominence until years later. Additional findings indicate that Egyptians and the Kushites were in contact as early as 3150 BCE and 2613 BCE during Egypt’s Early Dynasty Period, the Kushite civilization most likely evolved from the early cultural contact and was heavily influenced by the Egyptians. 

The Kingdom of Kush was robust with rich resources such as gold which was the Egyptians’ main source of this precious commodity, and it is widely assumed that the later name was derived from the Egyptian word for gold “Nub”. Due to the Kushite kingdom’s exorbitant wealth, it quickly ruled over Egypt and dominated its politics, with its kings ruling over Egypt. Egypt’s weakness benefited Kush, and Kushite kings took advantage of it and reigned without regard for Egyptian monarchs or policies around 1069 BCE. Furthermore, as the kingdom expanded steadily, it reached a point where it could strongarm Egypt and take whatever it wanted without deferring to Egyptian kings. As a result, the kingdom rose to power in Egypt over time, not to conquer, but to preserve Egyptian culture and heritage. 

    The previous ruler of Meroe, The Great City was succeeded by a puppet king named Necho 1 after the 25th Dynasty ended with Tantamani. The 25th Dynasty was a line of Pharaohs who originated in the Kingdom of Kush. All the kings of these dynasties called the city Napata their spiritual homeland. Moreover, Necho’s son Psammetichus 1, aka Psamtik 1, (c. 665-610 BCE) ended Assyrian rule and paved the way for the establishment of Egypt’s 26th Dynasty. Under those circumstances, Psammetichus and his successor, Necho 11 ruled successfully. Nonetheless, Psammeticus 11, Necho 11’s successor led an expedition against the Kingdom of Kush, destroying towns, temples, monuments, steel, and finally the sacred capital city Napata before calling it quits and returning to Egypt because of boredom. After the desecration of Napata, the capital city of the Kushite Kingdom was moved for safety reasons. It was relocated further south to the town of Meroe around 590 BCE. Meroe’s rulers continued to imitate Egyptian customs, fashion policies, and religious rituals until the reign of King Arkamani.

Arkamani 1 had some basic education in Greek philosophy and resisted being controlled by priestly superstitions according to historian Dlodorus Sirculus (1st century BCE). Consequently, he led a band of men to the temple, slaughtered all the priests, and ended their reign over the monarchy. In addition, while in the temple, he implemented a new policy and practice that included removing Egyptian cultural practices in favor of Kushite practices. Furthermore, it didn’t stop there, Arkamani would go on to replace Egyptian hieroglyphic script with Meroitic, which has yet to be deciphered. He also changed the fashion style from Egyptian to Meroitic and Egyptian gods such as Aperdemak were assimilated into the Kushite ones. Alterations were done to burial customs, with royalty now buried in Meroe rather than Napata. 

Meroe, on the Nile’s banks, thus became the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. Its ironwork and trade brought a vast amount of wealth as an agricultural and industrial center. Agricultural products such as grains and cereals were exported in addition to iron weapons and tools, and with that, the city was overrun with livestock.Meore legendary status brought forth rivalries. Adversaries were on the horizon to take on the Kushite Kingdom. King Cambyses 11 of Persia (525 – 522 BCE) is said to have launched an unsuccessful expedition to plunder. Cambyses 11’s army suffered defeat by the treacherous and inhospitable terrain they crossed, as well as the weather. However, The Axumites forged a successful attack against Moroe around 330 CE. Even though the city survived for another 20 years, it was effectively destroyed due to the massive manpower of The Axumites. The Axumites would send the fatal blow to the Kingdom but Meroe was doomed even before the invasion and was on the verge of imploding. For one thing, the iron industry required a large amount of wood to produce charcoal and fuel the furnaces used in iron smelting. Due to this high demand, a large portion of the city was deforested. Moreover, due to the city’s large livestock population, the fields around the city were heavily overgrazed and overused for crop production resulting in a depletion of the soil. The once prosperous and wealthy Kingdom of Kush had effectively ended by the time the last of the people left the city around 350 CE. 

The story of David Ruggles : Black History 365

  • This entry for Black History 365 presents the story of David Ruggles. Leave a like if you’ve learned something new and give the page a follow so you can stay up to date with my future posts. As always, peace and keep it real.

David Ruggles was an abolitionist, businessman, journalist, hydrotherapist, and the first owner of a black bookstore in the United States. Ruggles was born in 1810 in Norwich, Connecticut, and attended the Sabbath school for the poor which began admitting people of color in 1815. Moreover, in 1827 he left Connecticut for New York City and pursued a steady job at a grocery store. He would work at that job for the next four years. Ruggles is widely accepted to be known as the first African American bookseller. While working at his bookstore, he extended many publications and prints that promoted the abolition of slavery in opposition to the efforts of the American Colonization Society which announced a black settlement in Liberia. This promotion was the catalyst for black settlement to leave the US (Mississippi to Africa) and make a significant impact on Liberia. Furthermore, Ruggles would later take on a printing job, letterpress work, picture framing, and bookbinding to augment his income. Unfortunately, in September 1835, a white anti-abolitionist mob burned down his store. 

In 1833 Ruggles began his travels across the Northeast promoting the Emancipator and Journal of Public Morals, an abolitionist weekly. Not only did Ruggles write articles and pamphlets, but he also gave lectures denouncing slavery and Liberian colonization. This gave him notoriety and made him a figure of rising prominence in abolitionist circles in the late 1830s. Equally important, when the Underground Railroad was in effect, Ruggles was active during it from 1835 to 1838. In 1835, when the New York Vigilance Committee was organized, Ruggles became the secretary of this rare interracial organization. His work with the committee led to his involvement in numerous court cases where he helped organize the legal defense against fugitive slaves who fled up North. In the first year of the organization’s existence, Ruggles intervened in over 300 fugitive slave cases. In September 1838, Ruggles took on the case of an escaped Maryland slave by the name of Frederick Washington Bailey. Later Bailey changed to what everyone knows him as today Frederick Douglas. 

    Fast forward to 1842 and David Ruggles is a shell of himself and in poor health. At this time virtually blind and his physician didn’t think he would live more than a few weeks. Lydia Maria Child, a prominent white abolitionist, learned about Ruggles’ health and brought him to Northampton, Massachusetts where the Northampton Association of Education and Industry was located. It was composed of fellow abolitionists, and they accepted him as a member. In addition, while he was recuperating, he learned about hydrotherapy. He was said to be able to diagnose ailments by his sense of touch, called “cutaneous electricity”. Ruggles’ first patients included wealthy members of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, which further enhanced his reputation as a healer. Not to mention, On January 1st, 1846, Ruggles purchased land and a building so he could conduct hydropathic treatments. He became famous in the field and modestly wealthy, offering a cure for ailments claimed by conventional medicine to be incurable. William Lloyd Garrison was one of his notable patients. Ruggles continued his profession as a hydropathist up until he began experiencing an inflamed optic nerve in his left eye in September 1849. From there he was placed in the care of his mother and sister. Three months later on December 26th, 1849, David Ruggles, died in Northampton, Massachusetts of a severe case of inflammation of the bowels.        

Bank it in (Black History 365: William W. Browne)

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Reverend William Washington Browne a former slave from Georgia established the first black-owned bank in America. It was named “True Reformers Savings Bank”. The name was inspired by the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers which was a black fraternity organization founded by Browne in 1849.  Finalized on March 2nd, 1888, the bank was part of a larger fraternal society in Richmond Virginia. They specialized in offering sick and burial insurance was one of the many services they provided and it became evident that it would be fruitful. Additionally, the bank provided services for individuals and funding for retail stores, hotels, and newspaper publications. All this provisioning for black communities made it the largest and most successful black-owned business in the United States at the time. 

In the 1890s when an economic depression happened, specifically in 1893, banks began panicking. It was only Richmond that fully operated, honoring checks, paying out the full value of accounts, and paying school district salaries. Browne said quote, “It is said we had a dedicated Negro bank under the head of Freedman’s bank”, “We never had such a bank because all the owners and managers were white”.“The bank which we have is a black man’s bank, and all the officers are black”. “We started with love, Truth, Mercy, Wisdom, Brains, and Finance”. “These are our weapons”. The establishment flourished after William W. Browne’s death in 1897, expanding into newspaper publications, real estate, retirement homes, and loan association buildings. Moreover, new branches opened in Kansas by 1900 and it began operating in 24 states and owned property worth $223,500. By 1901 the bank hit its peak and amassed 1 million in deposits. All things considered, the prosperous doings of the bank didn’t have a long run. It met its demise due to mismanagement by new President William Lee Taylor. To be more specific, $50,000 was embezzled and the bank was unfortunately closed by the State Corporation Commission in 1910. Nevertheless, it’s still remembered as the first black-owned bank in the United States.

The motherland five: The cultures of Ancient Africa

Welcome readers, 

It’s been a while since I did a Black History 365 entry on stories that pertained to Africa. Still, I’m glad to present this post on the prosperous kingdoms that were prominent in Africa before colonization. Ancient African tribes are immersed in prosperous cultures, and with their own distinct traits that have remained intact to this day. In regards to this, a lot of Ancient African cultures that are known today have been passed down orally via storytelling. A rich storytelling history is told from the perspective of Griots (a historian) who helps maintain the integrity of the culture’s history. Moreover, in terms of Griots, these historians are specifically West Africans, and they tell stories that pertain to that region of the continent. However, that isn’t to say that the Eastern, Northern, or Southern parts of the continent didn’t have prolific orators that have passed down their rich history in ways of poems, speeches, and preservation of the culture in tangible artifacts that told stories. Below are five African kingdoms that were valorous at all times, affluent, formidable, and memorable. 

  1. The Kingdom of Kush: Along the Nile River, the Kingdom of Kush was located directly below Ancient Egpyt. The Kingdom was prominent roughly from 1070 B.C.E to 300 C.E. The Kush People were known for their use of bows and arrows, which helped them gain leverage over their foes in combat. The majority of the Kush Kingdom inhabitants were cotton, wheat, and barley growers. Moreover, the Kush society admired women and had a number of queen leaders that held power. 
  2. The Kingdom of Aksum: Aksum existed from 400 B.C.E until 940 C.E., making it one of Africa’s longest civilizations. The people of Aksum lived near the Red Sea coast and were important traders and merchants. Their city became an integral trading port for African and Egyptian merchants, as well as traders from Asia specifically India and Persia. This inclusive trading resulted in an array of civilizations traveling through the ports and becoming incredibly diverse. 
  1. The Kingdom of Ghana: On the western side of the continent in the savanna grassland, the Kingdom of Ghana was active from 300 to 1100 C.E. Ghanians were largely farmers, but they were known for their iron and gold, and there was a reverence for metalsmiths who were often regarded as strong “magicians” in their culture. These “magicians” would forge powerful weapons from iron and gold, making them powerful warriors. 
  1. The Kingdom of Zimbabwe: It wasn’t until around 1200 C.E. when The Kingdom of Zimbabwe rose to prominence, making it one of Africa’s later civilizations. Located in southern Africa, the people of Zimbabwe had a significant trading presence and captivating architectural talents. Furthermore, they built towers and gigantic stone walls that can still be visible today, despite the fact they only lasted around 200 years. 
  1. The Egyptian Kingdom: Located on the Nile River in the north of Africa, Ancient Egypt beats all other African civilizations in terms of longevity. It is also the most influential civilization. Ancient Egyptians had expertise in science, math, and writing, and they even practiced medicine. 

Moreover, Ancient Egypt was ruled by Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks (Alexander the Great) between 3150 and 30 B.C.E. but it had previously been ruled by these same people in the third and fourth centuries B.C.E. Ancient Egypt’s culture was advanced, with riveting clothing, art, and intricate and rigorous religious systems.    

A hell-bent Headliner: The story of Gladys Bentley (Black History 365)

Welcome readers,

The Harlem Renaissance was a period in American History that was filled with exuberance and creativity. The people who created brilliant forms of art during that time did it with integrity and were very steadfast in bringing African American art to parts of America that were unfamiliar with it. However, even with all the praise artists received during that time for their captivating work, some artists had to experience an audience that was unreceptive to them and face condemnation for staying true to themselves. With that said, in this entry of Black History 365, I will present the story of Gladys Bentley, an unconventional artist that brought extraordinary talent and flamboyance that America during that time wasn’t accustomed to. 

Gladys Bentley unabashedly displayed her queer desires during the Harlem Renaissance. Even though a great entertainer, Bentley was constantly reviled due to her explicit songs, appearance, and queer lifestyle. She wore masculine attire over her full-figured physique, specifically a white tuxedo, tophat, and accessorized with a cane. Moreover, this kind of image was jarring to most, but once she began singing her appearance took a backseat. Regarding this, her musical prowess was respected and she made her mark as a formidable force in American music. 

Born in Philadelphia on August 12th, 1907, Bentley was the daughter of a Black American father and a mother from Trinidad and Tobago. When Bentley was young she knew she was not an ordinary child, saying that “it seems I was born different”. Her parents had a feeling something was awry when she began consistently wearing boy’s clothing. As a result, her parents went as far as to go to doctors in hopes of trying to “cure” her unorthodox interests. Nevertheless, Bentley felt comfortable and confident wearing men’s attire and would wear it from that day on. 

At the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, Bentley found her first break in entertainment on the Harlem Party circuit and then the nightclubs, such as the UBANGI Club. During that time “the pansy craze” was prominent and drag queens were referred to as “pansy performers”. They were popular entertainment throughout major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles., New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. The UBANGI Club appealed to queer audiences and it became a place where Bentley felt welcomed and thrived. Furthermore, as her popularity increased she began getting billed as a male impersonator, and with this kind of marketing, it was hard for an audience to ignore an impending spectacle. Bentley was against cultural norms and she challenged concepts of what women were like during that era. In addition, she did it as a black woman in America, and that should be noted because it was commonplace for black women to be depicted as jezebels and lascivious after the reconstruction era. During her performances, she kissed women on stage, and overtly expressed her queer sexuality on stage with sexually explicit songs. In regards to this, homosexuality and other “deviant” sexual orientations were seen as peculiar and this attitude lead to a moral panic known as “Lavender Scare”. Gay men and lesbians were said to be a national security risk and communist sympathizers. This paranoia resulted in the marginalization of gay performers and one way the U.S. protected itself from threats was to remove them from employment. Additionally, gay people were seen as susceptible to being manipulated by foreign threats and the U.S didn’t want that kind of exposure. When it came to Bentley, she was reproached for her constant ostentatious behavior which she used to compliment her singing and was then subsequently barred from performing at other New York City nightclubs due to her conduct. Nebulous phrasing such as “Disorderly Places” was used as a disclaimer for patrons entering nightclubs performed by gays.  

Even though Gladys Bentley was an eccentric performer that had success performing at nightclubs nationwide for two decades, she had to endure a lot of public pressure and it resulted in her changing her performance and image to placate their discontent. Equally important, Bentley went back into the closet and lived her life so it seemed as a heterosexual woman, marrying a man and cleaning up the content of her music. Nevertheless, she still found success even with her rebranding but not to the level of her days working the New York City nightclubs. 

Bentley brought to the Harlem Renaissance a flare and was emboldened to display it at any cost up until the later parts of her career. Her impact was palpable every time she went on stage, and she even was the inspiration for several characters in novels such as “Deep River, “Strange Brother”, and “Parties”. Some might say she’s an unsung figure from the Harlem Renaissance and that’s why her story should be told.

Works Cited 

Shah, Haleema. “The Great Blues Singer Gladys Bentley Broke All the Rules.” Pocket, 14 Mar. 2019, getpocket.com/explore/item/the-great-blues-singer-gladys-bentley-broke-all-the-rules?utm_source=pocket-newtab&fbclid=IwAR2p9WwnDdqfNEZ_BFV5M0Shvf2pe_QnX9EZw56fSywdczpzjRK3XwEzjQw.

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