From Africa to Pennsylvania

By Myra Saturen
February 24, 2012

Kamu Kenyatta"The story of African Americans in Pennsylvania is the struggle for human rights, identity and freedom," said Kamu Kenyatta, professor of African World Studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. 

On February 23, Kenyatta spoke passionately about that history, as a part of NCC's celebration of Black History Month, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King.   

Like most Americans, Kenyatta knew little about the African roots of African Americans throughout elementary school, high school, college, and graduate school.  History classes skirted the African continent.  Consequently, his mental image of Africa consisted of war, devastation, famine, and exotic animals.  This situation began to change, however, when Kenyatta roomed with first a Nigerian and then a Kenyan student in college.  Their pictures of large cities, hotels and urban life stunned him.  

He realized then that there existed two African histories:  invented and hidden.  "The role of African people has been ignored, misrepresented, overlooked and suppressed," he said.  Beginning in the eighteenth century, the racist thinking of philosophers such as David Hume and George Hegel dominated literature.  Well into the 20th century-the mid-1960s and beyond-prominent academics claimed that Africans had no history. 

In actuality, Africans had a fascinating history and flourishing civilizations, which Kenyatta described.  Focusing on the medieval western Sudanese Empire, encompassing Ghana, Mali and Songhai, Kenyatta introduced the audience to Sundiata, who made Mali the breadbasket of the region and Sakura, another king of Mali, whose people set sail in an 800-ship fleet to explore the lands beyond the Atlantic.  African art, pottery and clothing evidence the presence of Africans in Central America before the Spaniards arrived.  Under Kankan Musa, 60,000 pilgrims made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324.  In Songhai, an Arab traveler reported on his brother's cataract surgery.  Universities blossomed in the centuries before the slave trade.   

Throughout the nation's and Pennsylvania's history, African Americans played important roles.  Kenyatta spoke about the American Revolution, in which black Americans fought at Brandywine and Valley Forge and accompanied General George Washington as he crossed the Delaware.  Some African Americans also fought on the British side, aiming to achieve their freedom.  When slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania in 1780, freed slaves joined an established community of free African Americans to create fraternal organizations and religious and social welfare institutions.   In 1821, Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. 

Kenyatta highlighted African American history in Pennsylvania during the Civil War.  The first blood to be shed was that of Nicholas Biddle, a 65-year-old African American volunteer from Pottsville.  "He was a forgotten hero of the Civil War," Kenyatta said.  Biddle was one of half a million African Americans who fought in the war.  "African Americans participated in 449 Civil War battles," Kenyatta said.  "These facts have not been included in textbooks for five generations." 

Kenyatta concluded his talk by showing slides of famous Pennsylvanians of African descent:  Marian Anderson, Billy Eckstine, Chubby Checker, Ethel Waters, August Wilson, Ed Bradley, Philly Joe Jones, Wilt Chamberlain, and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the world's first open heart surgery.  

The Black History Month program also included the announcement of the winners of the Martin Luther King, Jr.  Prose and Poetry Contest:  Trohkan Druweay, from the Bethlehem Campus, and Eric Caulfield from the Monroe Campus.  The students read their winning pieces. 

The event tied into Northampton's year-long exploration of  "The Meaning of Freedom: The Civil War 1865-Today," funded by a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.



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