Michelle Obama Not Our First Black First Lady? 10 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About Black History

5. Haiti’s battle for independence precipitated the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the United States.

Jean Jacques Dessalines
Monument dedicated to Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Haiti’s capital

Haiti was the second Western nation to gain its independence from Europe. Successful campaigns by freedom fighters Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, drove the vaunted general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to demand in 1803 that his ministers sell the Louisiana Territory to the U.S. for an original figure of $22,500,000. Napoleon sought not only to recover financially from the outlay involved in fighting the Haitian armies, he also realized the territory in question, under the circumstances, was indefensible by the French from the British.

The ministers Barbe-Marbois and Talleyrand, further frustrated, adjusted the sale during the months it took to reach President Thomas Jefferson to $15,000,000, or four cents an acre. The acquisition not only doubled the size of the country, it tripled the area of fertile land. Due to the heroism of a vastly outnumbered Haitian people, present-day Louisiana, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming were purchased by the U.S. The same year, Napoleon withdrew a majority of his forces from then-Saint Domnigue to prepare for a possible invasion of vulnerable France by England, Prussia and Spain. Though L’Ouverture was captured and imprisoned near Switzerland, where he was starved to death, Dessalines claimed official victory and independence on January 1, 1804, when he changed the nation’s colonial name, Saint-Domingue, to the indigenous Arawak name Haiti.

Haiti was the first independent Caribbean nation, the first post-colonial independent Black nation in the world, and the only country whose independence was brought on by a successful revolution. The repercussions for the North American slave trade were significant, as wealthy planters and the U.S. government grew concerned a similar rebellion could occur in the former 13 colonies. Slaveholders were banned from bringing Haitians into the States, for fear they would incite resistance. Suppressive laws were passed, aimed at thwarting insurrection. This atmosphere led to the little-known German Coast Uprising of 1811 in Louisiana, in which 200 to 500 escaped Louisiana slaves, in ever growing bands as they traveled from town to town, burned down five estates and several sugar houses, for which 44 of them were later hung or beheaded. Inspired by the Haitian independence, Charleston, South Carolina’s Denmark Vesey scheduled his unsuccessful slave rebellion on Bastile Day (July 14), 1822. Word of Vesey’s plot leaked, and his effort was put down. The Haitian Revolution was a turning point in European and Western geography, economics, military history, and regarding the control of American slaves.

6. Rosa Parks was not the first Black woman arrested in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Claudette Colvin Black History
Claudette Colvin

What most U.S. schoolteachers and media proclaim as the spark of the modern Civil Rights Movement was delayed by a teenage pregnancy. Rosa Parks was not originally intended to be the test case for integrated seating on the public buses of Montgomery, Alabama. That distinction was reserved for a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin. Why isn’t Colvin’s name emblazoned on the American memory? Montgomery activists downplayed Colvin’s refusal to give up her front seat on March 2, 1955 (nine months before Parks), and subsequent arrest, because Colvin soon became pregnant, and with a baby so fair-skinned, some wondered aloud if the father was White.

The Montgomery court hearing about Colvin’s seated stand for justice was named Browder vs. Gayle, in which she testified on May 11, 1956. By that time, the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association had drafted a more publicly suitable successor to Colvin, a transplanted Detroit activist named Rosa Parks who had been trained in nonviolent passive resistance at Tennessee’s noted Highlander Folk School. Despite Parks’ status as a sympathetic symbol, schoolchildren should be just as proud of Claudette Colvin. Montgomery was not even the site of the first organized boycott against racially segregated public transportation. Baton Rouge, Louisiana Blacks protested Jim Crow seating laws in 1953, but local leaders abandoned the cause before victory could be won.

7. Many prominent civil rights activists and scholars were of West Indian descent.

Marcus Garvey, the father of Black Nationalism, was born in Jamaica in 1887. By 1919, his Universal Negro Improvement Association had two million members, the vast majority in the U.S. It was the largest “back to Africa” movement in U.S. history. Following in Garvey’s philosophical footsteps, the two national spokespersons for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan, share Caribbean roots. Malcolm X’s mother was from Grenada, and Farrakhan was born to a Jamaican father, and a mother from Saint Kitts and Nevis. In addition, Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay (Jamaican), black history author J.A. Rogers (Jamaican), “Black Power” advocate Stokely Carmichael (Trinidadian), historian C.L.R. James (Trinidadian), Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Barbadian), and of course entertainer-activist Harry Belafonte (father from Martinique, mother Jamaican), are or were West Indian.

Longtime director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Roy Innis, hails from St. Croix. It is worth noting that in many Caribbean American households such as Malcolm X’s and Minister Farrakhan’s, there were followers of Marcus Garvey, who influenced their children with Garvey’s emphasis on race pride, economic autonomy and physical repatriation from the U.S.

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