Featured Essay - Africans Who Made Their Mark in America

In this update, the African American Studies Center adds 2126 essays from the Dictionary of African Biography (DAB), which were first published in print by OUP in 2011. That six volume series, edited by Emmanuel K. Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a companion piece to Gates's and Evelyn Higginbotham's African American National Biography (OUP, 2008), and will in 2014 be joined by a third collection documenting the lives of the African diaspora, the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography.

Prior to the late 19th century, the vast majority of Africans who lived and settled in the Western Hemisphere were, of course, brought in chains as part of the transatlantic slave trade. In total, more than eleven million Africans were brought to the Americas, although only 600,000 of those--five percent of the total--arrived in North America. The vast majority of African slaves were brought to Latin American and the Caribbean. This update contains the DAB entry on Esteban, the Moroccan-born sailor, who is recognized as the first African to set foot on the territory of what is now the United States, when he was one of only four survivors of a Spanish vessel shipwrecked near Galveston, Texas, in 1528.

The experiences of several African-born slaves in America highlight the different survival and coping strategies by which these involuntary immigrants navigated life on a new continent. In the early 18th century, Onesimus was the African born slave of Cotton Mather, a leading New England theologian. According to Mather's diary of 1706 Onesimus as a youth was an intelligent "Negro of a promising aspect of temper," but a decade later, as the slave chafed at the restrictions of slavery, Mather wrote that "Onesimus proves wicked, and grows useless, Froward [ungovernable] and Immorigerous [rebellious]." As a result Mather allowed his slave "conditional freedom," in 1716, the same year in which Onesimus advised Mather that in Africa inoculation was used as a means of preventing smallpox epidemics. In 1720 Mather proposed a public inoculation campaign in the face of a major smallpox outbreak. Unfortunately most Bostonians ignored Mather's warning. Those who were inoculated in the manner Onesimus had suggested were seven times more likely to survive. Our knowledge of Onesimus, like our knowledge of most Africans slaves in America was revealed only in the writings and actions of his owner. The values and world view of two other 18th century New England slaves, Phillis Wheatley and Belinda, can be discerned through their own words and deeds. Wheatley, born a Fulani in Gambia, is by far the better known, as a result of her poetry published during the American Revolution. Like Wheatley, Belinda was born in West Africa, and like Onesimus and Wheatley, she was owned by a prominent New Englander, Isaac Royall. When Royall, a Loyalist, left Massachusetts in 1775, Belinda became a property of the state and was manumitted 3 years later. Following the abolition of slavery in the state in 1783, Belinda decided to petition for a pension to be paid for her from the confiscated Royall family estate in recognition of her five decades of unpaid labor for the Royalls. The Massachusetts courts decided in her favor, in what was perhaps the earliest example of reparations for slavery.

African slaves brought to the American South had much less freedom of maneuver than in New England, although it should be noted that at least one major slave rebellion, the 1740 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, was initiated by recently arrived slaves from Angola. Jemmy, a leader of that rebellion had been born in the Christian Kingdom of Kongo, now part of Angola. The authorities ultimately thwarted an armed uprising by Jemmy and as many as 80 other slaves, but not before more than 20 whites were killed as the rebels marched, with Kongo drums and banners, in search of freedom in Spanish-controlled Florida. In the 19th century, a similar desire to return to Africa can be seen in the remarkable story of Ibrahima Abd al-Rahman, born into a Muslim family which came to prominence in the late 18th century in the region of Futa Jallon (now in Guinea), which was the spiritual homeland of 18th century West African jihadism. Two other natives of Futa Jallon, both Islamic scholars— Bilali, and Lamine Kebe—were also captured and brought to the US. Abd al-Rahman, was educated in Muslim schools, learned Arabic, and was captured fighting with Futa Jallon troops as they pushed towards the Atlantic coast. Ultimately brought to Natchez, Mississippi, Abd al-Rahman was noted among his fellow slaves for his Islamic piety and princely bearing, and desire to return to Africa. That he ultimately succeeded in returning to Africa was made possible by a chance meeting in 1807 in Natchez with an English medical doctor who was the only European to have visited Abd al-Rahman's hometown of Timbo, and who recognized him as a scion of one of Timbo's leading families. It would take another two decades of campaigning by al-Rahman, northern black allies like John Russwurm and David Walker, and sympathetic whites in the American Colonization Society, before he finally was able to gain his freedom and cross the Atlantic, landing in Liberia, along with his wife. He died, however, before completing the journey home to Futa Jallon.

Although the United States officially ended the international slave trade in 1807, a small number of Africans were brought illegally to the US, including Cudjo Lewis, a Benin native. He was aboard the vessel Clotilda, the last slave ship to bring slaves to the United States, when it discharged its cargo in Mobile. Freed in 1865, Lewis would become the leader of a community of Clotilda veterans in Mobile, known as Africantown, where he and other elders attempted to keep alive African traditions and knowledge of their recent African past, much as earlier generations of African slaves had tried. In the 1920s he was interviewed and filmed by Zora Neale Hurston, making Cudjo Lewis the only African born victim of the slave trade to be recorded in a moving image.

By the time Cudjo Lewis died in 1935, a very small number of Africans had begun to make their way as free men and women to the United States. Like other people of color from Asia and Latin America, most Africans were kept out by immigration laws which favored European immigrants, but a few sports figures like Senegalese-born Amadou M'barick Fall ("Battling Siki") the world light heavyweight boxing champion "did make their way to the US in the mid–1920s. Fall soon succumbed to a life of violence and drinking, and would be shot and killed by a policeman in New York City in 1925. Another boxer, the Nigerian, Dick "Tiger" Ihetu, a world champion middleweight, fared somewhat better in the 1960s, but it was only after the 1965 Immigration Act removed many of the racial restrictions of previous legislation, that the African presence in the United States began to grow and diversify. As of 2012 there are more than 1.5 million African born people in America, 75 percent of whom arrived after 1990. Again the most prominent figures came from the world of Sports, notably the basketball stars Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon. The number also includes several prominent scholars and intellectuals, including two of Africa's greatest living writers, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, and the Egyptian-born Nobel prize winning chemist Ahmed Zewail now based at Cal Tech. Zewail was not the first African-born scientist to win a Nobel Prize after moving to America. Max Theiler, a white South African moved to the US aged 30 and won the 1951 prize in physiology or medicine for his work on Yellow Fever, research that greatly reduced the prevalence of that disease in his home continent.

Finally, in addition to Soyinka, Zewail, and Theiler, two other African born Nobel laureates had a powerful connection to the United States. Both, indeed, participated in the same pioneering effort to bring talented African students to the United States, a program initiated by the Kenyan socialist and nationalist, Tom Mboya. One of these scholars was Wangaraii Matthai, a Kenyan who later would win the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental activism. The second, Barack Obama, Sr., was, like Mboya, a clever and ambitious Luo. The son of Onyango Hussein Obama, a servant for the British occupying forces, and an opponent of colonial rule, Barack Obama Sr. would live briefly in Hawaii to attend university as part of the Mboya program. There he would meet a white student from Kansas, Ann Dunham, with whom he would have a child, Barack Obama, Jr. who was born an American citizen in Honolulu, Hawaii, on 4th August, 1961, and who would be elected the 44th president of the United States in November 2008.

Steven Niven

Executive Editor

African American National Biography, Dictionary of African Biography, and Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography

W. E. B. Du Bois Institute

Harvard University