Five Caribbean Giants Who Shaped Black History

Black History Month has come a long way since being founded by the black American historian Carter G. Woodson back in 1926, when it was known as “Negro History Week.” And though this is a time of celebration and acknowledgment of the accomplishments and contributions of peoples of African descent throughout the Diaspora, it has largely been perceived as an American invention. In OCEAN Splash!, we would like to honor Five Caribbean giants who were pioneers in the movement for racial equality and made lasting contributions to the history of peoples of African descent. In particular, they are distinguished for their push for political unity against oppression and the celebration of the history and identity of black people.

Anténor Firmin
October 18, 1850-September 19, 1911, Haiti

Joseph Auguste Anténor Firmin studied anthropology and became a seminal political figure in Haiti. He authored the book De l’égalité des races humaines (On the Equality of Human Races), which was a direct response and counter argument to Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of Human Races) by Count Arthur de Gobineau, which tried to assert Aryan superiority over peoples of color. Firmin was one of the other co-founders of the Pan African Conference along with Henry Sylvestre Williams (below) and Sylvain Benito, a fellow Haitian. The conference had been organized as a way to address racism, with a particular focus on the treatment of Africans during colonialization. Firmin was also the brainchild a Caribbean Confederation project which sought to create unity and common ground between Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

Henry Sylvester Williams
February 15, 1869-March 26, 1911, Trinidad

Born in Arouca, Trinidad, Williams rose to intellectual and political prominence in England; however, his road to London proved to be a scenic one. He settled in New York City for a bit in 1891, later moving to Nova Scotia in 1893 when he realized the only job he was “qualified” to do in NYC was to shine shoes. In Nova Scotia, he studied Law at Dalhousie University and co-founded the first Colored Hockey League. Williams relocated to London in 1895 and it was there he passed the bar and later became a central figure on the black intellectual scene which included a burgeoning Pan-African political ideology. In 1897, Williams formed the African (later Pan-African) Association, sparked in part by conversations with Mrs. A.V. Kinlock — a South African woman from the Aborigines’ Protection Society, who spoke at length about abuses against African peoples in her homeland. By 1900, he co-founded the first Pan-African Conference, which took place over three days in Westminster Town Hall and included a like-minded group of men and women of African descent from Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas (including N.A.A.C.P. co-founder W.E.B. Dubois) gathering for the purpose of independently discussing the problems and solutions to racism against black people in the Diaspora. In 1903, he became the first black to become a barrister in the Cape Colony, today known as South Africa. There he also opened a preparatory school for colored children staffed by West Indians, but his ambitions were seen as threatening to the white establishment who soon ostracized him as a rabble rouser. Undaunted, Williams returned to London with his sights on Parliament. He was not elected to Parliament, but did become one of the first black men to be elected to public office in Britain.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
January 24, 1874-June 8, 1938, Puerto Rico

Schomburg, a Puerto Rican born writer, historian and activist, had Cruzan and German roots through his mother and father respectively. He spent a good part of his life researching and documenting the contributions of African peoples after a teacher once stated that African peoples had no history. His activism proved integral to the Puerto Rican struggle for Independence and he claimed his African ancestry fiercely, proudly declaring himself “Afroboriqueño” which means Afro-Puerto Rican.  His extensive research on black history made him an important figure during the Harlem Renaissance as well, after immigrating to the US in 1891, and he co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911, and in 1916 he published A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry, considered the first notable compilation of African-American poetry. His essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past” had widespread influence, proving to be a source of inspiration, and later mentor, to historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke. In 1926, the New York Public Library purchased Schomburg’s collections of art, literature and other writings for its branch on 135th in Harlem and invited him to curate the collection. It was later renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in his honor.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr.
August 17, 1887-June 10, 1940, Jamaica

Jamaican native Garvey, known for his larger than life presence, tenacity,  and determination, focused much of his political agenda on economic empowerment for blacks. But his belief in the unification of peoples of African descent and repatriation of their ancestral homeland, which birthed the Pan-African movement in the US, is perhaps what he will be most remembered for. Garvey organized the UNIA – the Universal Negro Improvement Association – with several other activists. A journalist and publisher by profession, he was known for his acrimonious disputes with W.E.B. DuBois, another leading black intellectual activist. Garvey fought fervently against the abuses of blacks all over the world, becoming one of the most successful organizers of a mass political movement of people of color in history. Today, the UNIA red, black and green flag has become synonymous with black political activism. The national shipping line of Ghana is named the Black Star Line and its football (soccer) team is called the Black Stars, in honor of the shipping line which Garvey founded as a literal vehicle to mobilize black economic power in the U.S. and hoped would carry blacks in America back to Africa.

Aimé Césaire
June 26, 1913-April 17, 2008 (Martinique)

One of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th Century, Césaire was one of the progenitors of Négritude, an ideology which essentially is pan-African in nature, but originated by French speakers. Along with Léopold Sédar Senghor, who later became the first President of Senegal, he challenged colonialism and encouraged peoples of African descent to embrace a shared identity. Césaire and his wife Suzanne Roussi were stimulated by the French Intelligentsia, which arose during World War II. They co-founded Tropiques, a literary review which challenged the status quo on notions of Martinican identity and self-determination. In this period, they bonded with many of the French writers of his time who were captivated by Marxist ideals, although he later became disenchanted with communism. Césaire influenced writer Frantz Fanon, and a number of other political and academic ideologists, even in disagreement. Many people who wanted independence for Martinique were disappointed when he became one of the authors of the legislation responsible for making Martinique a département of France. Even still, he remained outspoken against colonialism until his final days, most notably in 2006 when he refused to greet Nicholas Sarkozy for his party’s vote on a bill that required French textbooks to view colonialism favorably (the law was later repealed by President Chiraq). Césaire lived a long life, dying in 2008 at age 94. He was honored with a State Funeral in Fort-de-France in his homeland.

– As seen in OceanSplash Ezine

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