As we near the end of 2018, I cannot help but think about the 2019 calendar. As a historian, I always find myself thinking about what milestones and anniversaries will be commemorated—as well as those that should be commemorated but are left out of the public eye. Today I will talk about a few of them, those that relate to African American history. I certainly encourage you to add more in the comments.
Without question, the biggest one is the four-hundredth anniversary of the beginnings of slavery in British North America. The year 1619 saw the arrival of twenty captured Africans to Jamestown colony in present-day Virginia. This also often becomes the traditional starting point for including people of African descent in an American history survey. But as Michael Guasco points out at Black Perspectives, this might be a mistake. The presence of Africans in the Americas—even British-controlled portions of the Americas—began before 1619. I am sure historians will do more of the hard work required to both remember 1619 and to put it in greater, and more accurate, context.
The upcoming year also offers the chance to reflect seriously on the Reconstruction period. Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency began in March 1869 and was marked by national turmoil over the questions of race and citizenship opened by the Reconstruction era. Commemoration of Reconstruction has not had the same national impact as some of the events held to mark the various sesquicentennial events of the Civil War. Nonetheless, historians and other scholars should to their best to inform the American people of how the events of the Reconstruction era deeply shape the nation in which we live today.
Finally, the centennial of the tumultuous year of 1919 will likely garner a great deal of public attention. The debate over American entry into the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles conference will consume considerable national attention, especially as debates about American isolationism and intervention abroad stay in modern news headlines. But we should also take time to talk about the “Red Summer” of 1919, the nationwide convulsion of “riots” and pogroms targeting African Americans. These latter two eras, 1869 and 1919, have played an incredible role in both African American and America intellectual history. Perhaps 2019 can offer an opportunity for Americans to think deeper about the kind of nation they live in, profoundly shaped as it was by these various events in the past.
Anniversaries offer a chance to both reflect on the past and take stock of the here and now. It is virtually impossible to imagine the modern United States without the presence of African people during its history. The anniversaries mentioned above are a golden opportunity to think about what this presence has meant—and will continue to mean—for Americans.