A Look Back at Blacks in America: 400 Years Plus

Community Engagement; Diversity; Faculty

The year 2019 marks 400 years since the first documented arrival of Africans in the United States—an important, tragic milestone in our nation’s shared history.

In alignment with a national agenda to recognize the significance of this anniversary, Washington University in St. Louis hosted The 400 Years Plus trilogy, a three-part series that explored the various aspects of the Black experience from historical and current perspectives through speakers, performers, and special guests. The events were held in conjunction with the University Libraries’ Mary Curtis Horowtiz Lecture for Civic Engagement and Social Policy.

“The purpose of the series was to acknowledge the incredible history of struggle, resiliency, and contributions of Blacks, and to reflect on Black identity and progress in the next century,” said Mary McKay, Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean of the Brown School.

“The university and the Brown School wanted to honor this anniversary by reflecting on the past and promoting continued momentum for social justice and racial equity,” she said. 

This trilogy was made possible with the visionary leadership of Jack Kirkland, associate professor at the Brown School and co-founder of Black Studies at Washington University. Kirkland is an internationally known scholar who studies and lectures on the African American family and social and economic development. 

The events were held in culturally significant months: February (Black History Month), June (Juneteenth, the anniversary of the announcement of the abolition of slavery) and November (the month of national elections). Each event featured hundreds of guests coming together in community at Graham Chapel and a significant keynote speaker, as well as additional commentary from university and community representatives. Performances included the Missouri AME Conference Choir and Better Family Life’s Kuumba Youth Performance Ensemble dance troupe. 

Said Kirkland: “For me, this series of events is a personal reflection, a recall of the many committed and dedicated Black comrades who a half century ago were advocates for change and progress. … I reflect upon many events of personal courage that have taken place on this campus. Many who today tread these halls are completely unaware that their very presence here at Washington University was that of a heroic uplift upon the mighty shoulders of the ‘pioneers.’ It was they who boldly put their futures on the line so that any future gathering here would one day be of full ethnic diversity.”

For further information about each of the events from the Trilogy, and Kirkland’s powerful statements at each, please see below.

February 10: Black Struggle, Resiliency and Hope for the Future, with featured speaker Wesley Bell, newly elected St. Louis County Prosecutor

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell

Read Jack Kirkland’s February Statement

Watch the full event 

June 2, 2019: Civil Rights: Past and Present , with Dr. Cornell Brooks, Former NAACP President 

Dr. Cornell Brooks

Read Jack Kirkland’s June Statement

Watch the full event

November 10, 2019: 400 Years Forward: Freedom in Our Time, with Karine Jean-Pierre, NBC and MSNBC political analyst

Karine Jean-Pierre

Read Jack Kirkland’s November Statement

Watch the full event

Statements from the chair, Jack A. Kirkland, on each event in the 400 years trilogy

Black Struggle, Resiliency, and Hope for the Future:  February 10, 2019

How could we not celebrate the year 2019, which marks 400 years of history recorded of Blacks in America since 1619? Not to do so would be to sustain that America evolved independent of the Black understructure in its expansion into the regions of agriculture, becoming the backbone of great wealth upon which this great country now stands. This expanded America into rice, tobacco, and cotton for exporting and importing. This great venture evolved slave labor, which gave America the great economic under footing that introduced this nation to the world as an equal, and later, as a leader. 

These 400 years have been a Black struggle for full citizenship, offered first by the Constitution as 3/5 a human – later, in the Civil Rights movement, 4/5 citizenship, and now with this current epic struggle Blacks are seeking 5/5 acceptability and full citizenship. Why the Plus after 400 years? Because American Public Schools have been very unkind in the search for the truth, allowing untruth to flourish that Blacks arrived in America as slaves. Not so, Blacks arrived in America as Indentured Servants, much as most Europeans did. It is because of the “Black Codes,” and because Blacks were easily identified physically that many were later bought, sold, and conscripted for free labor. The truth of the matter is that Blacks were explorers on the North American shores long before Columbus. Blacks traveled alongside many explorers with whom many readers are familiar, as sailors and officers. This is a historical fact, cleverly hidden in much of the history to which most Americans are still exposed. 

For me, this series of events is a personal reflection, a recall of the many committed and dedicated Black Comrades who a half century ago were advocates for change and progress. These men and women I stood on the shoulders of who first started the chant on this campus for change, shouting “We demand Black Studies!” These were among the early groups that reflected, “Black is Beautiful.” They have successfully pursued varied careers and are now in different places but are still vigilant in their demands for social justice. They defy injustice and are staunch defenders of equality. 

I reflect upon many events of personal courage that have taken place on this campus. Many who today tread these halls are completely unaware that their very presence here at Washington University was that of a heroic uplift upon the mighty shoulders of the “pioneers.” It was those who boldly put their futures on the line so that any future gathering here would one day be of full ethnic diversity. As evidence of their own scholastic prowess, they solemnly declared that academic honors would hang in halls of every arena of scholastic endeavor undertaken on behalf of African American scholars. 

I salute and give thanks to Dr. Robert L. Williams who in 1970 became Director of the Black Studies Program at Washington University and add my appreciation for inviting me to be his Associate Director and Co-founder in this endeavor. A special thanks to Cynthia Cosby who served the administrative role that kept us focused in the midst of this great transformation, in making this great University relevant and ever forward in its commitment to social justice. Almost 50 years ago, after the result of protests and demands made for the Black Studies Program, there have been many similar protests, all building upon the foundation that the history, culture, and heritage of Blacks anywhere are equal to that of other ethnicities everywhere. 

To God be the Glory … Stamina and Perseverance.

Civil Rights: Past and Present: June 2, 2019  

Welcome fellow Civil Rights advocates: If you are a veteran of sit-ins and demonstrations against open and/or subtle racism or you stood up against social injustice in any way – big or small – you are a Civil Rights advocate and welcome here. 

In the second episode of our Trilogy, the emphasis is Civil Rights. We will regroup, pause to take a deep breath, and take a strategic view of where we are and how long it will take us to get to where we must go. Looking back, we have covered much ground. This reflection is one way to reassess the journey. But for progress the forward march is forever uphill; the coveted view is always from the top, and the goal is to surge to the horizon. Progress is not evaluated by overcoming the bumps, stumbles and obstacles along the way. It is how smooth you make the way, how straight you make the path, how well you mark the course, and how indelibly you blaze the trail for generations to follow. What were the hopes of yesterday that we had as a people, and what are our realities of today? Where are we now in accomplishments? Is there a need to retake ground that we have already fought for and won? Is there a need for retrenchment just to hold on to caveats of freedom? Is there sacred red soaked ground that we have won and will never give up? For the “NOW GENERATION,” what are the assurances that what was won will never be surrendered, no – not one centimeter? What are those activities so costly undergone that we solemnly declare that the smallest of victories are not for barter, sale or compromise at any price? In the most historic combat undertaken in the history of this country, what is the sacred ground relentlessly secured, now held in the shadow of generations of blood stains? This was the great battle to enlist all Americans, fighting for the release of the fiercely held American dogma, “slave mentality.” The Civil Rights Movement was launched to release the nation of its racial illness, to allow it to ascend to its highest capacity, and to restore human sanity. We now are all embarking from being 4/5 of a human, to becoming fully 5/5 human beings: Americans all. Those enlisted in the fight for civil rights range from the rank and file to generals and field commanders; to little Black girls in Alabama, united in seeking the best strategy of how to stand against the torrents and thrust from water cannons all in service to march and declare in the face of social injustice, “We will not be moved.” 

We are far from victory today and miles from where we are determined to arrive. Our destination is stated by our most highly proclaimed sovereign national documents – that all people in America have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We demand that our names be boldly written in as free and equal in every jot and title, citing equal protection. It must be written not only in prose, but in every verse as fact and truth. It must have actual meaning for all Americans with no exceptions. 

Some are here because we are victims, and some are here because you know that you are complicit in what has and never should have happened. You may not have been visible contributors to this great tragedy that has gone on far too long in America – but you know that you have lived the nightmares of this injustice, and have, yourself, become victims of the tragedy. 

So let it be resolved that there are no retirees in the Civil Right Movement. We have all been recruited into the human rights struggle. The battle has been enlarged. We Blacks know what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew, that in our endeavor to save ourselves and America from institutionalized racism we must save our oppressors, or we all are lost. 

We will never be discharged from duty. We have only changed our uniforms and added to those in our collective army. We still identify the same enemy – social injustice. We do not pause to refer to those bad days as though we have progressed beyond their existence. Not having equal and fair education, not being afforded equal access to the voting franchise, and being blocked by other institutionalized racist endeavors is sending us backwards. As the wealth gap widens between Black and White America, and the degrading ramifications that ensue as a consequence of exclusion, our battle is continuous and ever upward. And, without the full input of the ability, capability, energy and imagination of a disengaged, marginalized Black America, the economic engine called free enterprise slows down for all Americans, and crawls and inches along, until the great many of us will have to all get off and walk. If not this generation then the next.

Four Hundred Years Forward: Freedom in Our Time: November 10, 2019

The Right to Vote – to be “guaranteed and protected” to do so – is the signet evidence of full citizenship. Solomon might have said, ‘Voting’ “is the principal thing – but with all thy getting get understanding.” 

If you have children, you have probably heard this familiar monotonous chant, uttered in full exasperation, from back seats of your vehicles while traveling excitedly and anticipating arrival at a desired destination – a park or Grandma’s house –“Are We There Yet?” 

“No, not yet,” is the usual reply, most frequently and emphatically stated by the driver.  This same question takes on a more somber tone when asked, also with some measure of exasperation, by “Blacks in America,” for over one-and-a-half centuries, about our rights as humans and full citizens of the United States of America. The question is particularly salient when asked in voting booths and polling places, where our rights are not only challenged, and our power threatened, but we are made to feel like foreigners in our own land. 

We have been traveling for a long time in a similar vehicle of promise, on a long and circuitous journey to “Freedom and Equal Justice.” The promise of arrival at such a destination is just over the horizon. Yet, time and time again, our experiences, our outcomes, our lives demonstrate that we have many more miles to go. 

How much further until we gain equal access and opportunity? How much further until we arrive at a country, a region, marked by racial equity? How much further until all institutions open their doors wide to us, regardless of race, ethnicity or pigmentation? Are we still making detours, swerving between de facto and de jure segregation? Where is the sign which reads, this turn “free of gerrymandering,” and the question of citizenship, identifiable by all reasonable accord and evidence, one is still denied the right of the franchise. To block, hinder, or deny the vote to a fellow countryperson, who otherwise qualifies by every echelon of criteria, does not just reduce the meaningful citizenship for that single person – no, it threatens and demeans the value to the entire institution of citizenship. 

After centuries of nation building, race remains a justification by which our rights and rewards are defined, by which we continue to measure the value of human life, and negate the contributions of hundreds of thousands of lives. There is a deep stain on America, from the blood and sweat equity stolen from our ancestors, stolen from us still, and utilized in the building of this nation. From domestic wars to foreign wars – we have fought to sell a dream, a dream that Blacks in America have been denied. We have pillaged and bartered the world’s great resources – in exchange for the ideal that equality of opportunity is available to any American. At what great cost have we sold the world a dream that this country has yet to realize? 

As we are all aware, this great dream is defined by the right to participate in the democratic process and what is more democratic than the right to vote? What is more salient to our citizenship than enshrining this right in law and policy? This small yet very powerful way in which we give voice and representation to our humanity, to our personal and political interests, to our communities. And yet, it remains under threat and challenge. Why does, qualified voting, without complications, make the arrival at the destination so complex? 

How many times throughout history have Blacks been offered this unblemished promise – the right to vote? Freedom to participate in a hard won democratic process, without complications, only to see it fade in the sun, another empty promise, withering away under the shadow of our hope for liberation. 

Freedom to vote is, explicitly, the freedom to “be free and feel free,” indeed, and does not make any distinctions of any artificial or imaginary differences. And, with all of the bona fide, diverse ethnics within this Republic, on board of this vehicle of “representative democracy,” and yet on this journey to a more perfect union for 230 years plus, I say – let’s all on board be excited by the arrival – and no, America – “we are not there yet.”