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Vol. LXIII, No. 5
March 4, 2011
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Fought for Freedom, Respect
Black History Event Honors African Americans’ Civil War Contributions

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Historian Royce Kinniebrew gives keynote address at Black History Month observance

Historian Royce Kinniebrew gives keynote address at Black History Month observance.

This year’s Black History Month observance focused on the role of African Americans in the Civil War. The country marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the conflict this year.

The event, sponsored by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management and the NIH Black Employment Program committee, provided “an opportunity to hear more about the contributions of African Americans to this nation,” said Dr. Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of NIH, in welcoming remarks.

He recalled several prominent black scientists who have guided NIH, including the late Dr. Geraldine Pittman Woods, who played a pivotal role in the development of several NIH minority programs; the late Dr. John Diggs, who served as NIH deputy director for extramural research; and, more recently, newly appointed Dr. William G. Coleman, Jr., of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the first African-American scientific director of an NIH institute.

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Tabak said that while these developments speak positively about the future path of NIH, it is critical not to gloss over our nation’s past. Quoting the late Dr. Carter G. Woodson, author, historian and the father of Black History Month, Tabak said: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

The guest speaker for this year’s observance, Royce Kinniebrew, a historian and educator, wasted no time in delving into that history, broadening the timeframe of his talk to include the events that led up to the Civil War and how attitudes towards blacks before and during the War Between the States were borne out by the struggles of the people.

Guest speaker Kinniebrew said, “To understand African Americans in the Civil War, you have to know what came before the Civil War.”.

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Guest speaker Kinniebrew said, “To understand African Americans in the Civil War, you have to know what came before the Civil War.”.

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Guests at the Black History Month observance also enjoyed a sampling of foods..

Guests at the Black History Month observance also enjoyed a sampling of foods.

“To understand African Americans in the Civil War, you have to know what came before the Civil War,” Kinniebrew said. He then took the audience through a historical horror show of myths, misconceptions, abuses and downright lies begun and propagated in such a way as to make everyone believe blacks were incapable of advanced thought, were better off enslaved, or worse, were not really even human.

Kinniebrew said these attitudes weren’t just held by plantation owners and the general population, but also by officials and even presidents. The 1847 Dred Scott case that ended up at the Supreme Court ended in Scott and other similarly escaped slaves being denied citizenship and still deemed property. The quashing of the Nat Turner rebellion didn’t just end when Turner was caught and killed. Kinniebrew noted that the slave leader was also skinned as a measure of furtherbrutality usually reserved for animals. Even Thomas Jefferson didn’t escape the trend of owning people and fathering children through one of his slaves.

“The people who were able to do this to black people believed these myths,” Kinniebrew said. “They thought, ‘We can do them like this. They have no rights.’”

These repellent practices and the revulsion of many people against them came to a head as Northern and Southern states considered the political ramifications, taxes and tariffs that were possible based on whether or not the new Western territories would be counted as free or slave states. While the young U.S. had until that time considered itself a complicated but functional union of states, it was clear the political status quo was not sustainable. Thus began the Civil War.

Kinniebrew spoke of how some figures of the day not only served in the roles they’re historically known for, but also in lesser-known roles, as in the case of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. “She recruited African-American spies and was a spy,” he said. In addition to reporting on enemy troop movements for the North, “spies would blow up bridges and obstruct roads and then disappear into the brush they knew so well.”

Tubman also served as a nurse to African Americans fighting in the war, as did Susie King Taylor, a literate black woman who not only worked in the medical field, but also was a teacher and later wrote memoirs of working during the conflict.

Tubman and Taylor were joined in their efforts to provide medical care to black soldiers by physicians such as Dr. Charles B. Purvis, who went on to become a member of the medical faculty of Howard University; Dr. John V. DeGrasse, the first African American to be admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society; and Dr. Alexander T. Augusta, who was forced to earn his medicaldegree in Canada, as schools in the States wouldn’t admit him.

NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak addressed the assembly at NIH’s annual Black History Month observance.

NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak addressed the assembly at NIH’s annual Black History Month observance.

Many times, white doctors refused to work with black doctors and so these medical pioneers worked most commonly in what were known as “contraband hospitals,” the contraband in question being escaped slaves who were considered merchandise.

Due to a lack of understanding about basic hygiene, most soldier deaths during the war were from disease and infection rather than actual fighting. Unfortunately for African-American soldiers, this rateof death off the battlefield was exponentially higher than their white counterparts because of malnutrition, inadequate shelter and clothing and inferior or absent medical attention. There just weren’t enough doctors who would treat black soldiers and treat them well enough to keep them from dying.

But African-American soldiers, who fought for the North, as well as more awkwardly for the South under the orders of their masters, did use the conflict to their advantage when possible. Slaves working in fields would hear Union soldiers coming and flee their plantations. Many used the chaos to escape and rescue family members. Kinniebrew also told the story of enslaved sailor Robert Smalls, who was placed in charge of his master’s ship while the white crew went ashore.

“He seized the opportunity to sail his master’s ship up the coast to freedom, picking up his relatives and friends along the way,” he said. “He went on to become a congressman from South Carolina.

”To end the lecture, Kinniebrew reached back to the tradition of spirituals that served as work songs in the fields, but which also could be used to speak in code right under foremen’s noses. Some songs spoke of following the constellations at night to escape. Others referred to getting in the river to mask your scent from hunting dogs. Kinniebrew said one song made him think of the struggles of blacks to care for each other in the medical community. In a baritone, he sang to the audience that song, Building Me a Home.NIHRecord Icon

 


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