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What I Learned, But Did Not Know

By Tech. Sgt. Phillip E. Copeland, USAF
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2001 – I've learned as an adult that there is so much more African-American history than was taught to me as a child.

I learned as a child that the first African Americans were shipped to America as slaves in 1619. Most slaves were taken from the West African countries of Dahomey, Ghana and Nigeria. African Americans remained in the chains of slavery until the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery that December.

I was taught about African Americans such as Frederick Douglass. Born a slave, he escaped and became a leader of African Americans in the 19th century. He used his powerful voice as a lecturer and newspaper editor to help free the slaves. Douglass ultimately became Abraham Lincolns adviser and the consul general to Haiti.

I remember school lessons about how Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery, and by way of her Underground Railroad led other slaves north to freedom. Like the biblical Moses, she led her people out of bondage, often using the North Star to guide her.

I recall the ingenious accomplishments of George Washington Carver. He was the famous scientist and agricultural researcher who developed hundreds of products from the peanut and sweet potato, many of which we still use.

Booker T. Washington is always remembered in textbooks as the champion of education who founded Tuskegee Institute for African Americans in 1881 and who became the first president of that Alabama college.

I am sure most of us knew Thurgood Marshall as the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, who used his brilliant legal mind to strike down laws that prevented African Americans from receiving equal treatment.

Civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King laid down their lives to pave a path to fair and equal treatment among all our citizens during a pivotal time in American history.

Oh, and you cannot forget the entertainment industry! Louis Satchmo Armstrong was a trumpeter and bandleader who became the first jazz soloist to gain fame worldwide. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, just to name a few, awakened the soul of America with their very own styles of jazz.

In the world of sports, the legendary Jackie Robinson may not have been the best African American baseball player of his time, but he had the strength of character and other intangible qualities needed to build the bridge to cross over into professional sports.

These are all great people in history, but there are so many more not mentioned. There is so much African-American history I did not learn as a child.

Sure, I learned about Alexander Graham Bell, but not Lewis Latimer, who lived from 1848 to 1928. Born in Boston to an escaped slave, Latimer served in the Union Navy during the Civil War and later became an inventor. Hired as an office boy for a Boston patent law firm, he became its chief patent draftsman and executed the patent drawings for many of Bell's telephones.

Latimer began working with developing electrical technology in 1880. In 1881, he and a coworker patented an improved method for bonding carbon filaments for light bulbs. In 1882, he patented a new, much more cost-efficient method for producing carbon filaments.

The textbooks taught about Benjamin Franklin, but I do not recall mention of Benjamin Banneker, an African-American mathematician, astronomer and inventor. Appointed to the District of Columbia Commission by President George Washington in 1790, he worked with Pierre L'Enfant, Andrew Ellicott and others to plan the new capital of Washington, D.C. After L'Enfant was dismissed from the project and took his detailed maps away with him, Banneker reproduced the plans by drawing from his remarkable memory.

I talked about African Americans in the entertainment industry, but I did not know, as a child, that W.C. Handy was the Father of the Blues. He was a famous composer and bandleader who popularized the blues" as we know them today.

I'm sure most Americans are totally unaware that Thomas L. Jennings, 1791-1859, was the first African American known to have patented an invention -- a dry-cleaning process in 1821. Jan Ernst Matzeliger, 1852-1889, born in Suriname, came to the United States in about 1872, settled in Lynn, Mass., and patented a shoe-shaping machine in 1883 that revolutionized the shoemaking industry.

Explorer Matthew Henson became the first African American to reach the North Pole while on an expedition with Adm. Robert Peary in 1909. As the leader, Peary got the credit, but contemporary accounts claim Henson actually reached the pole first.

As a child, I did not learn what NAACP means, much less the history of the organization. W.E.B. Dubois, a civil rights leader, editor and scholar, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Today the organization remains a powerful guard against racism.

I was not taught about Madame C.J. Walker. She was a successful businesswoman who made millions of dollars by manufacturing hair products and cosmetics for women of color. Her products, still in use today, reached across the global economy.

Did you know Mary McLeod Bethune founded Bethune-Cookman College for African Americans in Florida? I didn't. She helped to educate thousands of African Americans and served as an adviser to the president of the United States.

Past history books did not teach of Charles Spaulding, president of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. His company offered life and health insurance coverage for African Americans when other companies refused to insure them. Its still the worlds largest black-owned business.

In 1916, inventor Garrett Morgan rescued workmen trapped by a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie. He entered the gas- filled tunnel wearing a safety hood he had patented two years earlier. That hood was a forerunner of the modern gas mask. Every day you see this man's influence in another way -- Morgan patented the automatic traffic signal in 1923 and sold it to the General Electric Co. for $40,000.

I never heard of Langston Hughes, a poet who captured the dreams and frustrations of his people in poems, short stories and comic essays. He used his pen to celebrate the mannerisms, speech, dances and thoughts of the African- American people.

I did not learn about Dr. Charles Drew, who developed a process for preserving blood as plasma and started the first blood bank. He taught at the Howard University Medical School in Washington and made major contributions to surgical medicine.

On April 1, 1950, Drew tragically died after an automobile accident in rural North Carolina while en route to a medical conference. Much controversy surrounds his untimely death. Within hours, rumors spread about how the man who helped create the first American Red Cross blood bank had bled to death because a whites-only hospital refused to treat him.

Drew was, in fact -- or to some people, in propaganda -- treated in the emergency room of the small, segregated Alamance General Hospital. Some sources claim two white surgeons worked hard to save him, but he died after about an hour.

Charles Wyner's biography of Drew quotes the other doctors who were in the accident with Drew and a former student who happened to be at the hospital, all of whom were black, confirmed the story that Drew received perfectly adequate care from the two white surgeons.

The rumors of his death, however, epitomized a more general truth about American society during this period. In a generic sense, Drew's death represented the realities of African Americans who were turned away by segregated hospitals.

I was not taught how the Union would not have won the Civil War without African American soldiers. In 1863, white Union forces were depleted, and President Lincoln had no choice but to allow more blacks to enlist. He admitted that without them, abandonment of the war was likely in three weeks.

Approximately 179,000 black soldiers served in 166 all- black regiments in the Union Army. One out of every four Union sailors was black. African Americans did not receive the same pay or equipment as their white counterparts, but they put resentment aside and fought bravely.

I did not learn about African Americans fighting for the United States in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and World War I in 1917. Segregationists kept trying to bar all nonwhites from military service, but black leaders urged their followers to join up nevertheless. This was perhaps the best way for African Americans to prove their right to equal citizenship.

During World War II, black soldiers fought for the first time in combat units in the Navy, Marines and Army Air Corps. A special flying school was set up at Tuskegee Institute. The 99th Fighter Squadron, consisting of pilots trained at Tuskegee, performed so well in European combat that they helped bring about the eventual integration of the Air Corps. In 1948, President Truman ordered the racial integration of all the armed forces.

Before I joined the Air Force, I did not know most of what I just discussed. My family did not teach me. Neither did my schools. It was my fellow airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines, members of the greatest military in the world, who've taught me an entire culture of people will not be deprived of its place in history.

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