One of the main drawbacks to the failure to teach Black history in schools across the country is the loss of the intersection of Black and Caribbean history in the United States. This has led to pure ignorance by many, especially in the African American community, that Caribbean immigrants just got here a few decades ago and are simply benefiting from the hard-fought battles for Civil Rights.
This could not be further from the truth as history tells us. Here are three major Caribbean immigrants in U.S. Black history you should know—who also made an impact in the fight for abolition and civil rights.
1: Denmark Vesey
Many would find it stunning that a Caribbean-born slave led the first major slave revolt in the U.S. But it is a fact. Denmark Vesey, also known as Telemaque, was born into slavery in 1767 in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I., then the Danish West Indies. He was bought at age 14 by Captain Joseph Vesey who renamed him Telemaque. After a time, Vesey sold the youth to a planter in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). But when the teen was found to suffer epileptic fits, Captain Vesey took him back and returned his purchase price to the former master. He was enslaved in Bermuda for some time before being brought to Charleston, South Carolina.
Vesey won a lottery and purchased his freedom around the age of 32. He had a good business and a family but was unable to buy his first wife Beck and their children out of slavery. He worked as a carpenter and became active in the Second Presbyterian Church. In 1818 he helped found an independent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation in the city, today known as Mother Emanuel. Vesey’s congregation began with the support of white clergy, and with over 1,848 members rapidly became the second-largest AME congregation in the nation.
In the summer of 1822, Vesey allegedly used his influential position as pastor to plan a major slave revolt. According to the accusations, Vesey and his followers planned to kill slaveholders in Charleston, liberate the slaves, and sail to the newly independent Black republic of Haiti for refuge.
By some contemporary accounts, the revolt would have involved thousands of slaves in the city as well as others who lived on nearby plantations. City officials sent a militia to arrest the plot’s leaders and many suspected followers before the rising could begin, and no white people were killed or injured. Vesey, 55, and five slaves were rapidly judged guilty by the secret proceedings of a city-appointed court and executed by hanging on July 2, 1822.
2: John Brown Russwurm
On March 16, 1827, the first Black newspaper was published in the U.S. It was founded by 27-year-old Caribbean immigrant John Brown Russwurm who was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica to an English father and enslaved mother. As a child he traveled to the United States with his father and received a formal education, becoming the first African American to graduate from Hebron Academy and Bowdoin College.
Russwurm, along with his co-editor Samuel Cornish, published the first edition of Freedom’s Journal, an abolitionist newspaper dedicated to opposition of slavery.
During his tenure as editor, Russwurm regularly included material about ancient and modern African history, providing readers on both sides of the Atlantic with a curated source of information about the continent.
The literary education Russwurm provided in the Freedom’s Journal also included canonical texts of English literary education. In the poetry column of this first issue, for example, he reprinted “Prediction of the Origin of Rome,” an excerpt from John Ring.
Russwurm became supportive of the American Colonization Society’s efforts to develop a colony for African Americans in Africa, and he moved in 1829 to what became Liberia.
3: Richard Benjamin Moore
The earliest advocacy for the term African American over “negro” is credited to a Caribbean immigrant from Barbados. Richard Benjamin Moore was born on August 9, 1893, in Barbados, West Indies, to Richard Henry Moore and Josephine Thorne Moore.
Moore migrated to the United States and arrived in New York City on July 4, 1909. However, Moore would not become a naturalized citizen until September 11, 1924. Although Blacks were free in the United States, they were far from being treated equal to European Americans. Moore was immediately faced with ethnic discrimination when it came to employment and educational opportunities. Although trained in Barbados to do clerical work, he was forced to turn to other jobs such as an elevator operator and work in a silk manufacturing firm.
The struggles that Moore encountered and observed made him become a strong advocate for the rights of African Americans. In 1919, he joined the African Blood Brotherhood, which was an organization formed to defend African Americans from race riots and lynching. Moore, along with other African American advocates, joined the Socialist Party in the early 1920s. Moore joined the Socialist Party partly because the Socialist Party was then transforming itself into a force to fight against segregation.
Moore was a frequent political candidate of the Communist Party. In 1928 he ran for the U.S. Congress in New York’s 21st congressional district.
In 1934, Moore ran on the Socialist ticket for Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals. In 1935, he became the organizer for the International Labor Defense in the New England Territory. He used his position in that organization to speak on behalf the Scottsboro Boys, a case in which nine young African American males were accused of raping two young European American women.
In 1942, Moore was expelled from the Communist Party because he was accused of being an African American nationalist and kept African American issues on the front burner.
He continued his efforts for equal rights in America. He also played a leading role in Caribbean advocacy groups. Moore, like his friend Hubert Harrison, was a bibliophile, collecting over 15,000 books and pamphlets on the African American experiences worldwide. That collection of books is currently housed in a library that Moore developed in Barbados. Moore also ran the Frederick Douglass Book Center in Harlem. Moore died in his homeland of Barbados in 1978, at the age of 85.
As you can see, the history of Caribbean Americans in the United States dates back to slavery making National Caribbean American Heritage Month a special time to also find out your own Caribbean history that may be lying dormant in your family tree. Happy National Caribbean American Heritage Month.
The writer is publisher of NewsAmericasNow.com – The Black Immigrant Daily News.