Portraying black history

Feb. 03, 2014 @ 05:31 PM

Born in coastal West Africa, Shibodee Turrey Wurry was about 16 when he was captured by slave traders in 1757 and sold in Rhode Island to a Capt. John Gilmore, who gave his new slave the name Toby Gilmore.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, young Gilmore enlisted -- probably to gain his freedom, according to the winter 2011 newsletter of the Raleigh chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.

“War records indicate that Gilmore fought three separate tours of duty and participated in the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga and the Continental Army's bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge.”

A generation or so ago, his accomplishments probably would have been unknown to many Americans, certainly to most white Americans.  He is one of many African Americans who played a key role in the Revolutionary era and who were portrayed in an exhibit of Michelle Nichole’s oil paintings this past weekend at the main branch of the Durham County Library.

Nichole talked about her exhibit, “In Hopes of Freedom: A Tribute to African American Heroes of the American Revolution,” Sunday as a kick-off of Black History Month.  Many of those heroes, she said, she discovered “by accident,” and she wanted others to know of their contributions. 

We would like to think that by the 14th year of the 21st century, more than 150 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and nearly 50 years after the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, that the history of African Americans in America is no longer an under-studied topic.

But even today, as evidenced by Michelle Nichole’s mission, we have much to do to ensure that we fully understand how black history is intertwined with and too often has been overshadowed by the broader historical narrative for so long largely written and defined by a white majority.

This month’s observance dates to 1925, when, according to the africanamericanhistorymonth.gov website, “historian Carter G. Woodson and the organization he founded, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), conceived and announced Negro History Week. The event was first celebrated during a week in February 1926 that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.”

The week was observed annually for five decades. Then, in 1976, the nation’s bicentennial year, it was expanded to Black History Month.  

“By this time, the entire nation had come to recognize the importance of Black history in the drama of the American story,” the website notes. It has been observed throughout February since.

We have no shortage of scholars and academics who continue to expand and convey our understanding of that drama. (In just 11 short months, we’ll celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest of those scholars, John Hope Franklin.)

We’re grateful, too, for self-taught, passionate, individuals like Michelle Nichole who envision it in unique and creative ways.