We’re all very familiar with the many titles and terms referring to the month of August. Familiar phrases like “snow in August,” “hot August night” or even William Faulkner’s landmark novel “Light in August” are often common parlance within daily conversation.
African slaves arrive in America
The month of August is also a remarkable reference point in Black history, most notably that exactly 400 years ago this month the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Va. The slave trade in the New World, of course, did not begin on America’s east coast. As far back as 1570, Africans began to arrive in Brazil and, in short order, in the Caribbean and in parts of Central America. Between 1570 and 1850, it is estimated that somewhere between four to five million slaves had arrived in Brazil alone to work on plantations, toil in various mines, and to be sold as indentured servants.
History estimates that just over 20 African slaves originally stepped onto the Virginia shoreline. These men and women were probably treated as servants and set free after working for a set number of years. By the early 1700s, however, the Virginia Assembly had passed a set of Black Codes—or slave laws—which institutionalized chattel slavery and stipulated that offspring of a female inherited their enslaved status from their mother.
Prior to arrival, most of the Africans had lived in tribal villages in West Africa (e.g. Ghana) before they wee captured in wars or kidnapped by other Africans who traded slaves. They were then sold to White slave merchants who packed them into large slave ships traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. The “Middle Passage” lasted for roughly four to six weeks and as many as one out of five Africans died from hunger, thirst, disease and mistreatment. Those who did survive the ordeal arrived in Jamestown tired, weak, sick and terrified.
Once they arrived at port in Virginia—probably at Yorktown—slaves were brought up on deck and sold. Tobacco planters poked and prodded each slave to see if he or she was healthy and strong enough to do the decades-long hard work expected of them. Most African slaves had been separated from their families when captured or when sold at the slave market. Once they were sold, both men and women were put to work immediately in the unforgiving Virginia sun.
During their first few months in Virginia, new slaves went through “seasoning” which meant letting their bodies acclimate to the new climate…and the many new diseases found in the New World. Many of these early slaves died during their first year in captivity.
Across the Atlantic, the British Empire officially ended its participation in slavery in August 1833. At that point, it is estimated that at least 12 million Africans were taken to the Americas as slaves between 1532 and 1832. At least one-third of these persons were transported on British ships. The vast majority of the slaves under British authority would be transported to the West Indies.
The unexpected August odyssey jumps forward 120 years to Mississippi in August of 1955. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was visiting relatives in the little town of Money when when he was accused of whistling at a White woman named Carolyn Bryant. In those days, African-Americans had to adhere to an unwritten—but well familiar—rule to never initiate a conversation with a White person unless spoken to first.
Four days later, Till, a Chicago native, was found brutally beaten and dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Till’s mother, Mamie Till, famously requested an open-casket funeral to “let the world see what has happened.” More than six decades later in 2017, Bryant would admit that she had lied about the incident and that Till had not made any inappropriate advances toward her.
The March on Washington
The month of August within African-American history took on worldwide significance in 1963 at the March on Washington. The event is most famous for the “I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
More than 250,000 people gathered from across the nation—and millions more on television—to hear Black people address the inconsistency of legalized segregation in the face of the promises and guarantees of the United States Constitution specific to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The March on Washington had great impetus and created momentum for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The crowd was there to present a list of demands, among them a $2-an-hour federal minimum wage, desegregation of all school districts, and an enforcement of the 14th Amendment that reduces “congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised.” The principal demand of the marchers was “comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation” which came about within a year.
The Watts Riots
Two years later in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles, any sense of Black social improvement and a concurrent push toward racial harmony was severely tested in August. The Watts Riots would become one of the most deadly and destructive urban uprisings in the nation’s history. After six days, 34 persons were dead, more than 1,000 persons injured, and property damage was in excess of $40 million.
There had always been racial tension between the city’s Black population and law enforcement. This came to a head on Aug. 11 at the intersection of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street when a crowd of spectators watched the arrest of a Black man named Marquette Frye by a White California Highway Patrol officer. A riot began about six hours later and eventually engulfed more than a 50-square-mile portion of South Los Angeles. White-owned businesses were looted and torched all under the slogan “Burn Baby Burn” that was loosely based on the catchphrase of a popular radio disc jockey the Magnificent Montague.
The Watts Riots would foreshadow many more urban uprisings in the coming years in cities like Detroit, Mich. and in Newark, NJ.
In the first decade of the 21st Century, Hurricane Katrina stuck the United States Gulf Coast in August 2005. The hurricane and its aftermath claimed more than 1,800 lives, primarily in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, La.
While an estimated 1.2 million people were able to flee the city before the storm hit in full strength on Aug. 23, tens of thousands of mostly Black residents could not get out in time and either remained in their homes or sought shelter at various locations throughout the city. As the already strained levee system continued to give way, the remaining residents of New Orleans were faced with a city that by Aug. 30 was 80 percent underwater. Many local and state agencies found themselves unable to respond, while the federal response was soundly criticized for being inadequate and unorganized.
With no relief in sight and in the absence of any organized effort to restore order, some neighborhoods experienced substantial amounts of looting and helicopters were deployed to rescue Black citizens from their rooftops in the flooded Ninth Ward.
The survey of improbable August events within Black history culminates in 2008 with the presidential nomination acceptance speech of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention.
The junior senator accepted the presidential nomination with “profound gratitude and great humility.” Obama said the United States was at a defining moment “when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once more.”
Obama, the son of a White Kansan mother and a Black Kenyan father, would deliver his speech on the 45th anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.