Since its highly publicized, successful, and controversial opening in 1915, the twelve-reel, feature-length D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation has presented enduring questions of how to deal with a filmic work of art that is so bad because it is so good, so dangerous because it is so convincing. Seemingly able to inform and sway audiences on its historic topic—the South in the Civil War of 1861–1865 and the period of Reconstruction that followed—The Birth of a Nation has reached millions of people with a particular slant on race relations and American history, a bias difficult to access and more difficult still to eradicate.
Michael J. Ristich
journalist, musician, and politician, was born James Henri Burch in New Haven, Connecticut, to Charles Burch, a wealthy black minister, and his wife. Burch was the sole black student at Oswego Academy in New York, where he was trained in journalism and music. He lived in Buffalo, New York, before the Civil War, where he became involved in the antislavery movement and taught music. Burch became an active member in the Garnet League, which championed the rights of former slaves. Upon moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Burch quickly worked his way in the political circles of Louisiana, serving in the Louisiana House of Representatives and the Louisiana Senate.
At age thirty two with his father s encouragement Burch left the North for Louisiana to aid and educate free blacks during Reconstruction Soon thereafter Burch began directing the local school for blacks and began his rise through the Louisiana state ...
educator and journalist, was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, the son of William Corbin and Susan, both Virginia-born former slaves. Corbin's parents eventually settled in Cincinnati to raise their family of twelve children. Corbin attended school sporadically because of economic circumstances (one of his classmates was John Mercer Langston), though his family emphasized education. In the late 1840s Corbin and his older sister Elizabeth moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where their father had family. Both lived with the Reverend Henry Adams, the pastor of the black First Baptist Church. Though the 1850 census takers listed him as a cook, Corbin taught at least some of the time in a school supported by Adams.
Thirsty for further education, Corbin traveled north to Ohio University, where he earned a BA in 1853 and an MA in 1856 He settled in Cincinnati worked as a bank messenger and steward gained prominence ...
businessman, landowner, farmer, and lynching victim, was born into slavery in Abbeville, South Carolina, the youngest son of Thomas and Louisa, slaves on the plantation of Ben Crawford in Abbeville, South Carolina. After Emancipation and Ben Crawford's death, his widow Rebecca may have bequeathed land to her former slave, Thomas, Anthony's father. Thomas continued to acquire land, and in 1873 he purchased 181 acres of fertile land from Samuel McGowan, a former Confederate general and South Carolina Supreme Court Justice. Thomas Crawford's “homeplace” was located in an alluvial valley, approximately seven miles west of the town of Abbeville. The rich land was flanked on the east by Little River and on the west by Penny Creek.
While Crawford's brothers worked the family farm Anthony was sent to school walking seven miles to and from school each day Seventeen year old Anthony was ...
Benjamin R. Justesen
editor and public official, was born in Tarboro, North Carolina, the younger son and third child of John C. Dancy and Eliza Dancy, slaves owned by John S. Dancy, a local planter. After the Civil War, John C. Dancy became a prosperous carpenter and contractor, and was later elected as an Edgecombe County commissioner. John Campbell Dancy was educated in the common schools in Tarboro, where he worked briefly as a newspaper typesetter before entering the normal department at Howard University in Washington, DC.
After his father's death, John Dancy interrupted his studies to return to Tarboro, where he became a schoolteacher and principal of the public school for African American children. U.S. Congressman John Adams Hyman (R-NC) secured an appointment for Dancy at the U.S. Treasury Department in 1876, and Dancy briefly returned to Washington. By 1880 he was again teaching in Tarboro where ...
author, advocate for the civil rights of African Americans in Louisiana, an organizer of the Citizen's Committee that launched the Plessy v. Ferguson legal challenge to racial segregation in public transportation, was the son of Jeremie Desdunes and Henriette Gaillard Desdunes.
Rodolphe Desdunes's grandson, Theodore Frere, recalled in 1971 that Jeremie Desdunes was Haitian and Henriette from Cuba; the couple reported in the 1880 census that both were born in Louisiana, Jeremie's mother was born in Cuba, and Henriette's father in France. All the Desdunes' sons consistently reported that their parents were both born in Louisiana (Census 1880, 1900, 1920). The Desdunes family was part of New Orleans's large community of gens de couleur libre—free people of color, primarily French-speaking. The 1840 census lists a Jeremie Des Dunes in the Third District of New Orleans whose household included five free colored males and ...
activist and educator, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Nothing is known of his parentage or youth. He was probably the James Gilliard listed in the 1860 Federal Census of Stockton, California; if this is the case, he was a barber, his wife was named Charlotte (c. 1835– ?), and had a step-daughter, Mary E. Jones (c. 1848– ?). In the late 1860s Gilliard worked as a teacher and sometime-minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and spent time in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. He wrote several short pieces for the San Francisco Elevator—sometimes under his full name and sometimes using simply “J. E. M.”—and was noted by the editor Philip Bell as one of the weekly's best contributors (along with Thomas Detter and Jennie Carter). Gilliard was even occasionally noted as the paper's “associate editor.”
Gilliard lectured throughout California in 1870 ...
The gospel-quartet style developed during Reconstruction when the musical traditions of jubilee singing, shape-note singing, and blackface Minstrelsy conflated. Late-nineteenth-century gospel quartets were primarily a casual, amateur phenomenon, frequently characterized by family groups performing at special events such as picnics, celebrations, and church services. Though repertoires often centered on Spirituals and hymns, secular selections were not uncommon. Early quartets usually performed a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment) and often created original approaches to harmony and counterpoint.
By the turn of the century the form was popular and well established. Soon, hubs of expertise began to develop in the South, particularly around Norfolk, Virginia, and Birmingham, Alabama The best groups gained regional renown and in the 1920s and 1930s quartet singing assumed a commercial side when groups such as the Famous Blue Jay Singers and the Golden Gate Quartet went professional The former sang in the animated style of Pentecostal congregations ...
Sheila Gregory Thomas
educator, civil rights activist, and author, was throughout his life a brilliant and forceful figure in the push for equal rights and the higher education of African Americans. He was born in Lexington, Virginia, the elder of two sons of William Lewis and Maria A. Gladman, both free persons. After the death of her first husband, his mother later married Henry L. Gregory, a minister, who supported the family as a laborer. Maria was one of eight offspring of Claiborne Gladman and Anna Pollard. The Gladmans were prominent members of Lynchburg, Virginia's community of free African Americans (Delaney and Rhodes, 2).
In 1859 eager to be free of the repressive Virginia environment Henry Maria and their young sons set out from Lynchburg for the Midwest primarily in order to assure a good education for their boys Residing temporarily in Indiana Illinois and Michigan ...
music teacher and conductor, bass singer, Civil War veteran, and active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, author of the first African Methodist Episcopal Church hymnal (working with Bishop James C. Embry), was born in Eulesstown, New Jersey. The 1860 census lists several free families of African descent named Layton, but none have been definitively identified as his. Charles and Harriet Layton, of Warrenville, may have been his parents, but the ages of their children (often the subject of error by census takers) are not a definitive match.
Layton enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 25 August 1864 at Jersey City, giving his occupation as laborer/farmer. Assigned the rating of Landsman, he served on the vessels Larkspur and O.M. Pettit Both were tugboats assigned to the South Atlantic Blocking Squadron towing and repairing ships of the squadron while gathering intelligence on shore and ...
Steven J. Niven
educator, journalist, and feminist, was born Sarah E. C. Dudley in New Bern, North Carolina, one of the nine children of Edward Dudley, a politician, and Caroline Dudley, a teacher, whose maiden name is unknown. Both of Sarah's parents had been born in slavery, but both had learned to read and write and were determined that their daughter should learn to do so at the earliest opportunity. Alongside her mother-in-law—for whom Sarah had been named—Caroline Dudley began educating Sarah in her home, teaching the child how to read and write by the time she was six. As a Republican representative in the North Carolina state legislature from 1870 to 1874 Edward Dudley worked to make such opportunities available to all black children as well as his own daughter By the time Sarah was of school age the legislature had established a new graded public ...
physician, newspaper proprietor, and Republican Party activist, was born in St. James Parish, Louisiana, the son of Louis Roudanez, a wealthy French merchant, and Aimée Potens, a free woman of color. Roudanez was raised in New Orleans as a member of the city's free black elite, but in 1844 he left to pursue a professional education in France. In 1853 the faculty of medicine at the University of Paris awarded him a degree in medicine. He graduated with a second medical degree from Dartmouth College in 1857, and soon after he returned to New Orleans to open his own office. In the same year he married Louisa Celie Seulay; their union produced eight children.
Roudanez continued to build his medical practice during the Civil War and Reconstruction but like other free men of color in New Orleans upon federal occupation of south Louisiana ...
singer, pianist, arranger, teacher, writer, and assistant director of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, was born in Nashville, Tennessee, to slave parents Simon Sheppard, a liveryman, and Sarah Hannah Sheppard, a domestic servant.
On 22 December 1871, ten African American students from Fisk University in Nashville—all but two former slaves—stood before the large, wealthy white congregation of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn and forever transformed American music. On a mission to raise money for their destitute school—formed by the American Missionary Association in 1866 to train black teachers the Jubilee Singers had struggled across the eastern United States performing choral arrangements of slave spirituals to small and largely uncomprehending white audiences On the verge of defeat the group was invited to sing at Plymouth Church by its pastor Henry Ward Beecher the most influential religious figure in America Beecher and his congregation were ...
Sholomo B. Levy
minister and author, was born a slave in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, the son of Fanny and Nathan Snowden, slaves belonging to Nicolas Harden and Ely Dorsey, respectively. John's maternal grandmother, Sarah Minty Barrikee, was stolen from a coastal African village in Guinea in 1767 or 1768. There she had a husband and child whom she never saw again. The Hardens were Catholic and introduced her to Christianity through their Catholic faith. Sarah regaled her children and grandchildren with stories about Africa and the traditions of her people until her death in 1823 or 1824. Thomas Collier a white Englishman was John s maternal grandfather Family lore has it that only the anti miscegenation laws of the period prevented them from marrying Little is known of John s paternal lineage except that his paternal grandfather was a slave named John Snowden and ...
Traveling through the Carolinas and Georgia in late 1865, the Illinois-based reporter Sidney Andrews witnessed firsthand the devastation of the Civil War and the seemingly insurmountable social and political obstacles to rehabilitating the region. His reports were gathered into a book, The South Since the War, an exposé of the plight of African Americans. Over the next few years, excerpts of the book were published in a number of periodicals, including The Atlantic. Eventually, they were presented before congressional committees and, for a brief time, helped to spur more federal intervention that included robust social programs and military responses to racially motivated violence.
Thomas R. Wolejko
slave, sharecropper, and artist, was born in Benton, Alabama, on the plantation of George Hartwell Traylor, from whom Bill acquired his surname. His parents' names and occupations are not known, but they were likely slaves on the Traylor plantation. Although Traylor recalled 1854 as his date of birth (he could not read or write), the 1900 U.S. Census for Lowndes County recorded his actual birth date as two years later.
After the Civil War, nine-year-old Bill continued to live and work on the Traylor plantation, eventually becoming a sharecropper. George Hartwell Traylor died in 1881, leaving the plantation to his son, Marion. On 13 August 1891 Bill married a woman named Lorisa (some sources refer to her as Laura). At the time of the 1900 U.S. Census, Traylor had fathered nine children: Pauline (1884), George (1885), Sallie (1887 ...