Argentina ‘Eliminated’ Africans From Its History And Conscience.

Statue of “The Slave”, by Francisco Cafferata in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tens of millions of black Africans were forcibly removed from their homelands from the 16th century to the 19th century to toil on the plantations and farms of the New World. This so-called “Middle Passage” accounted for one of the greatest forced migrations of people in human history, as well as one of the greatest tragedies the world has ever witnessed.

Millions of these helpless Africans washed ashore in Brazil — indeed, in the present-day, roughly one-half of the Brazilian population trace their lineage directly to Africa. African culture has imbued Brazil permanently and profoundly, in terms of music, dance, food and in many other tangible ways.

But what about Brazil’s neighbor, Argentina? Hundreds of thousands of Africans were brought there as well – yet, the black presence in Argentina has virtually vanished from the country’s records and consciousness.

According to historical accounts, Africans first arrived in Argentina in the late 16th century in the region now called the Rio de la Plata, which includes Buenos Aires, primarily to work in agriculture and as domestic servants. By the late 18th century and early 19th century, black Africans were numerous in parts of Argentina, accounting for up to half the population in some provinces, including Santiago del Estero, Catamarca, Salta and Córdoba.

In Buenos Aires, neighborhoods like Monserrat and San Telmo housed many black slaves, some of whom were engaged in craft-making for their masters. Indeed, blacks accounted for an estimated one-third of the city’s population, according to surveys taken in the early 1800s.

Slavery was officially abolished in 1813, but the practice remained in place until about 1853. Ironically, at about this time, the black population of Argentina began to plunge.

Historians generally attribute two major factors to this sudden “mass disappearance” of black Africans from the country – the deadly war against Paraguay from 1865-1870 (in which thousands of blacks fought on the frontlines for the Argentine military) as well as various other wars; and the onset of yellow fever in Buenos Aires in 1871.

The heavy casualties suffered by black Argentines in military combat created a huge gender gap among the African population – a circumstance that appears to have led black women to mate with whites, further diluting the black population. Many other black Argentines fled to neighboring Brazil and Uruguay, which were viewed as somewhat more hospitable to them.

Others claim something more nefarious at work.

It has been alleged that the president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, sought to wipe out blacks from the country in a policy of covert genocide through extremely repressive policies (including possibly the forced recruitment of Africans into the army and by forcing blacks to remain in neighborhoods where disease would decimate them in the absence of adequate health care).

Tellingly, Sarmiento wrote in his diary in 1848: “In the United States… 4 million are black, and within 20 years will be 8 [million]…. What is [to be] done with such blacks, hated by the white race? Slavery is a parasite that the vegetation of English colonization has left attached to leafy tree of freedom.”

By 1895, there were reportedly so few blacks left in Argentina that the government did not even bother registering African-descended people in the national census.



Claudette Colvin: The Other Rosa Parks

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

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.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin was riding home on a city bus after school when a bus driver told her to give up her seat to a white passenger.  She refused, saying, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady.  I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.”  Colvin felt compelled to stand her ground.  “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying,  ‘Sit down girl!’  I was glued to my seat,” she later told Newsweek.

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.

Colvin was arrested on several charges, including violating the city’s segregation laws.  For several hours, she sat in jail, completely terrified.  “I was really afraid, because you just didn’t know what white people might do at that time,” Colvin later said.  After her minister paid her bail, she went home where she and her family stayed up all night out of concern for possible retaliation.

In court, Colvin opposed the segregation law by declaring herself not guilty.  The court, however, ruled against her, and put her on probation.  Despite the light sentence, Colvin could not escape the court of public opinion.  The once-quiet student was branded a troublemaker by some, and she had to drop out of college.  Her reputation also made it impossible for her to find a job.

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.


Rosa Parks


During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, with an effective date of January 1, 1863. Although it declared that slaves were to be freed in the Confederate States of America in rebellion against the federal government, it had minimal actual effect. Even after the ending of military hostilities, as a part of the former Confederacy, Texas did not act to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation.

On June 18, 1865,  Union General Gordan Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived on the island of Galveston, Texas,  to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves.  On June 19, standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of General Order No. 3.

  Ashton Villa, from whose front balcony General Order #3 was read on June 19, 1865.

General Order No. 3

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The  freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets. Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas the following year.  Across many parts of Texas, freed people pooled their funds to purchase land specifically for their communities and increasingly large Juneteenth gatherings — including   Houston’s Emancipation Park, Mexia’s Booker T. Washington Park, and Emancipation Park in Austin.

Economic and cultural forces led to a decline in Juneteenth celebrations in the early 20th century. The Depression forced many blacks off farms and into the cities to find work. In these urban environments, employers were less eager to grant leaves to celebrate this date, and a rise in patriotism among African-American people steered more toward July 4 as Independence Day.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s focused the attention of African-American youths instead on the struggle for racial equality, but many also linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors.




Alex Haley

Alex Haley visits the village of Juffure in The Gambia, West Africa. The people pictured are family of the village griot (in the white robe), whose story helped Haley to establish kinship.

In 1921 Haley was born in Ithaca, New York. He grew up in Henning, Tennessee, and even after his family moved, he spent his summers there. Haley’s mother, Bertha, died when he was only twelve years old.  Haley’s father, Simon, was a respected professor of agriculture who died just before Roots was completed.

Haley was an indifferent student and eventually joined the Coast Guard.  He found he had a talent for writing, and began to submit pieces to magazines.  When he left the service at age thirty-seven, he had become the chief journalist for the Coast Guard, a position that had been created for him.

After struggling to make ends meet in his new civilian life, Haley received an assignment from Playboy to interview Miles Davis, the first of what were to become infamous as “the Playboy interviews.”  Soon afterwards, he began to collaborate with Malcolm X on his autobiography, which after Malcolm X’s death in 1965 became a bestseller.

After finishing his book on Malcolm X, Haley began researching his own family history.  He traced the names of  Tom and Irene Murray, his great-grandparents, and found a griot in Africa with knowledge of the Kinte family.

After twelve years of research, he wrote Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which became an immediate best-seller.  It was adapted into the wildly popular television miniseries of the same name.  The miniseries was followed by another, Roots: The Next Generation, and the television movies Roots: The Gift, Queen, a drama about Haley’s paternal grandmother, and Mama Flora’s Family, centering on the life of his maternal great-grandmother.

After the publication of Roots, Haley spent much time lecturing around the country. On a lecture trip to Seattle in 1992, Haley suffered a heart attack and died at age seventy-one.





Roots: The Saga of an American Family

“Roots: The Saga of an American Family” (1977) became a sensation immediately after its publication in 1976. It was adapted into a popular miniseries, and became one of the most-watched television programs in American history. Two sequels, “Roots: The Next Generations” (1979) and “Roots: The Gift” (1988), quickly followed, as well as another film based on the family history of the Haley clan, “Queen” (1993).

This award-winning six-part historical epic was one of the first examples of the miniseries format and one of the highest-rated television programs in broadcasting history. Based on the best-selling novel by author Alex Haley, Roots chronicles the progress of Haley’s own family across many generations, from the kidnapping of an African warrior by American slave traders to eventual post-Civil War freedom. Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) is a young tribesman of coastal Africa who has passed the rituals marking his transition into manhood. Searching for wood to build a drum, he is set upon by slavers who sell him in the United States after a nightmarish Atlantic crossing. Defiant, Kunta refuses to consider himself a slave, despite some sage advice from his mentor, the more mature Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.). As the years pass, the aging Kunta (John Amos) is hobbled for his repeated escape attempts. Realizing he’ll never return to Africa, Kunta settles down, becoming husband to Bell (Madge Sinclair) and father to Kizzy (Leslie Uggams), a girl infused with her father’s independent spirit. Sold and then raped by her new master, Kizzy has a son, Chicken George (Ben Vereen), a happy go lucky cockfighting expert who uses his skills to buy his freedom. George paves the way for his children, the great-grandchildren of Kunta Kinte, who finally become free in the aftermath of the Civil War.

“Roots” appealed to readers of every background: for African American readers, the story inspired pride and a greater understanding of the past; and for readers of other ethnicities, it was a powerful look at an American family’s immigrant past.  Moreover, Haley’s work is widely credited with starting the American genealogy craze.

The continuing controversy over Haley’s writing and research methods and the facts of his narrative has not dimmed his achievement.Roots” is viewed as a mythic saga of African American history, portraying the ways in which enslaved Africans endured suffering and fought for their place in American society.  It has earned a place among the popular classics of American literature and remains a profoundly influential and well-loved books.

Still of Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou in Roots (1977)Still of LeVar Burton in Roots (1977)Still of John Amos and Madge Sinclair in Roots (1977)Still of Leslie Uggams in Roots (1977)




The Tuskegee Study

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The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male, was an infamous clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, by the U.S. Public Health Services to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in which 399 (plus 201 control group without syphilis)  rural African American men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government.

This study became notorious because it was conducted without due care to its subjects, and led to major changes in how patients are protected in clinical studies. Individuals enrolled in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study did not give informed consent and were not informed of their diagnosis; instead they were told they had “bad blood” and could receive free medical treatment, rides to the clinic, meals and burial insurance in case of death in return for participating. In 1932, when the study started, standard treatments for syphilis were toxic, dangerous, and of questionable effectiveness. Part of the original goal of the study was to determine if patients were better off not being treated with these toxic remedies. For many participants, treatment was intentionally denied. Many patients were lied to and given placebo treatments—in order to observe the fatal progression of the disease.

By the end of the study, only 74 of the test subjects were still alive. Twenty-eight of the men had died directly of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis.

The “special free treatment” was, in fact, nothing of the sort. The researchers conducted various examinations, including spinal taps, not to treat syphilis but just to see what its effects were. In fact, by the 1950s it was well established that a shot of penicillin would fully cure early-stage syphilis. Not only were the men not offered this life-saving treatment, the researchers conspired to be sure they didn’t find out about it, getting local doctors to agree that if any of the study subjects came in they wouldn’t tell them they had syphilis or that a cure was available.

Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson was an African-American explorer who discovered the North Pole with Robert E. Peary.

Henson was born on a farm in Nanjemoy, Maryland on August 8, 1866.  He was still a child when his parents died.  He was sent to live with his uncle, who paid for his education until he died.  After his uncle’s death, Henson got a job as a dishwasher at “Janey’s Home-Cooked Meals Cafe”.  At the age of twelve he went to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship called Katie Hines.  The captain, Captain Childs, took him under his wing and thought of him as his son.  Childs and Henson were close for a long time.  Henson sailed around the world for the next several years.  He visited places such as China, Japan, the Philippines, France, Africa, and southern Russia, educating himself and becoming a skilled navigator.

Henson met Commander Robert E. Peary in November 1887 and joined him on an expedition to Nicaragua, with 4 other people that Peary chose. Impressed with Henson’s seamanship, Peary recruited him as a colleague.  For years they made many trips together, including Arctic voyages in which Henson traded with the Inuit and mastered their language, built sleds, and trained dog teams.  In 1909, Peary mounted his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole, selecting Henson to be one of the team of six who would make the final run to the Pole.  Before the goal was reached, Peary could no longer continue on foot and rode in a dog sled. Various accounts say he was ill, exhausted, or had frozen toes.  In any case, he sent Henson on ahead as a scout.  

In a newspaper interview Henson said: “I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles.  We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”  Henson then proceeded to plant the American flag. Although Admiral Peary received many honors, Henson was largely ignored and spent most of the next thirty years working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York. But in 1944 Congress awarded him a duplicate of the silver medal given to Peary.  Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored him before he died in 1955.

In 1912 Matthew Henson wrote the book,  “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole”, about his arctic exploration.  Later, in 1947 he collaborated with Bradley Robinson on his biography, “Dark Companion”. Henson died in the Bronx on March 9, 1955, at the age of 88, and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery; after her death in 1968, his wife Lucy was buried with him. In 1988, the Hensons’ remains were both exhumed and reburied at Arlington National Cemetery, near the grave of Admiral Peary and his wife. In1961 an honorary plaque was installed to mark his Maryland birthplace.