February has been officially designated, recognized by many and even celebrated by some as Black History Month or National African-American History Month. While it is acknowledged in some other countries (most notably Canada and the U.K.), it is primarily devoted to the achievements of African-Americans in the U.S. It will, henceforth, include the historical fact that Barack Hussein Obama became the first African-American president of the United States.
However, early American history also reveals another dramatic first involving a black American.
In truth, it should be considered a joint celebration. We are, in actuality, acknowledging the achievements of both blacks and America. Since we are celebrating the achievements of both, it may be appropriate to begin at the beginning.
Black History remembrance began as Negro History Week in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a son of former slaves. The second week of February was chosen in honor of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (both born in that week), and in 1976 the entire month was declared Black History Month.
Now to the beginning. It is well known that the first colonials arrived on these shores following the settlement of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607. Perhaps what is not so well known is the fact that following the Thirty Years’ War, the European economy was extremely depressed. Consequently, many skilled and unskilled laborers there were without work, and the New World offered hope and a chance for a new future.
According to some reports, one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants, and this included some Africans, who arrived in Jamestown in 1619. This distinction is critical; indentured servants were not slaves.
The first blacks to arrive in America were not slaves but indentured servants.
In 1619, all indentured servants (white or black) had specified periods of servitude ranging from four to seven years and received precisely the same treatment and rewards. At the conclusion of their respective periods of servitude, each was entitled to freedom, citizenship and a land grant of 25 to 50 acres. Throughout the early colonial period when all land was held in trust for the king, the basis of land disposition were grants, dispensed by the local government in accordance with the king’s wishes.
Land grants in Virginia were issued in accordance with a particular system. Under this system, every person who paid his own way to Virginia would be entitled to 50 acres of land, known as a “headright.” There was no stigma attached, and all families, black or white, subsequently enjoyed all the rights and privileges of other citizens in the community. A father could indenture a family of four, and since each family member was entitled to 50 acres at the conclusion of the period of servitude, they were given their freedom and the family would qualify for a parcel of 200 acres.
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