May 16, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS

Accounting for the Disremembered: A Tiny Sampling from a History of Hidden Heroes

by Wilson Adam Schooley

To borrow vocabulary from the mighty Toni Morrison, it is past time to recall the disremembered and account for the unaccounted. Her novel Beloved coaxed us to face slavery’s atrocities and enduring effects. We can also, though, extrapolate from her concept of the disremembered a call to witness the glory of African American achievement. Our country has denied not only the extent of our four-century legacy of oppression, but also how profoundly we’ve profited—in every way, intellectually, financially, culturally, artistically, scientifically—from the people oppressed. 

A countervailing tide arose in reaction to slavery: The utterly diverse population enslaved, sharing little more than a continent and skin color, managed to bridge the language and culture differences between them, come together emotionally and spiritually, forge deep bonds of interdependence, fight against overwhelming terrorism, and build a common culture and community so strong—in order to endure slavery and oppression—it in turn profoundly shaped (even, I would argue, almost swallowed whole) the culture of their oppressors. Wakanda’s Vibranium is right here in America, in the form of black Americans’ overwhelming contribution to what actually makes us great. 

Every time America studies, reads, discovers, calculates, sings, or listens to its music, it is face to face with a story we haven’t wanted to hear for 400 years, and a vast panoply of African American heroes without whom we would not be America. 

Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, at Fort Keogh, Montana (1890)

Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, at Fort Keogh, Montana (1890)

Who are they? Their number is countless and found in every field of endeavor. Yet many of their names are largely unknown. Here is just a tiny, scattershot sampling: 

  • Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first female African American physician, whose Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts from 1883 was one of the first medical texts by an African American author.
  • Billy Graham, a comic book artist, the only African American working on the first African American superhero comic book, and the only one with Marvel Comics. 
  • Fred Jones invented a portable air-conditioning unit for trucks in 1938, which not only preserved perishable food but was invaluable in World War II to transport blood and medicine. 
  • Sir William Arthur Lewis won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1979 for his pioneering research on developing nations, the first black person to win a Nobel aside from the peace prize.
  • Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, a psychiatrist instrumental in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Grandson of a slave, Fuller studied with Alois Alzheimer and in 1907 showed that Alzheimer’s was not due to senility, but rather an actual disease, a turning point in the disorder. 
  • Nella Larsen, an author celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance but forgotten by midcentury. She was in a circle of intellectuals including W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. After years of writing under a pseudonym, her first novel Quicksand was widely and positively reviewed.
  • Rosetta Tharpe, before Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, played rock-and-roll guitar better than anyone, before anyone. A musical prodigy, she was one of the first gospel artists to perform in both churches and secular clubs, and she had a major impact on Presley and others. 
  • Ida B. Wells pioneered reporting techniques that remain central tenets of journalism. Her anti-lynching campaign questioned the stereotype that black men were rapists, showing that in two-thirds of mob murders, rape was not an accusation, and often found evidence of consensual relationships. A former slave, she took on structural racism over half a century before her strategies were used in the civil rights movement. 
  • David Walker wrote a powerfully influential 1829 pamphlet, the Colored Citizens of the World, that urged African Americans to fight for freedom and equality, which changed the abolition movement. 
  • Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, and Bill Willis integrated professional football a year before Jackie Robinson did so in Major League Baseball.
  • Marsha P. Johnson, an activist, prostitute, drag performer, and central figure in a gay liberation movement energized by the 1969 raid on the Stonewall Inn, though she battled mental illness, was usually destitute, and often effectively homeless. (“I may be crazy, but that don’t make me wrong.”)
  • Ryan Speedo Green grew up in low-income housing and was sent to juvenile detention after threatening to stab his mother. Inspired by a teacher at whom he threw his desk on his first day, who taught him the “I Have a Dream” speech and the mantra that he would be judged by the content of his character, in 2011 won the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions, and sings with the Vienna State Opera. 
  • Matthew Henson, an explorer who accompanied Robert Peary on his expeditions to the Artic, including the 1909 expedition that discovered the North Pole, when Henson planted the American flag.
  • Martin Delany was an early civil rights activist, referred to as the “grandfather of black nationalism.” One of the first black students admitted to Harvard Medical School in the 1850s, he was asked to leave after a petition by white students, but helped treat patients during cholera epidemics after other doctors fled. He returned to journalism and started a newspaper to spread abolitionism.
  • Buffalo Soldiers. An 1866 Act of Congress created six regiments of exclusively black soldiers, who, despite racist maltreatment, fought from then through two world wars, becoming renowned for their bravery and helping the United States become a vast nation and world power.

Wilson Adam Schooley is a reformed trial lawyer, current certified appellate specialist, actor, author, and law professor in San Diego. He is also chair of the ABA’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice as well as a delegate to the ABA House of Delegates, special advisor to the Book Publishing Board of the General Practice Division, and a member of the ABA Journal’s Board of Editors.