Professor examines unexplored portion of African American history

As a part of their fourth annual distinguished lecture series, the Humanities Center at the University of Tennessee held a lecture, hosted by Juliet Walker, professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin, at the Lindsay Young Auditorium in the Hodges Library on Monday Nov. 9.

[title_box title=”Professor examines unexplored portion of African American history”]

As a part of their fourth annual distinguished lecture series, the Humanities Center at the University of Tennessee held a lecture, hosted by Juliet Walker, professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin, at the Lindsay Young Auditorium in the Hodges library on Monday Nov. 9.

The lecture series has 11 distinguished lecturers, which are suggested by the faculty at the university, to speak in front of the students on campus and anyone willing to attend.

All suggestions are considered as long as they meet the requirements that the Humanities Center has placed for the series. This includes that the lecturer has to have been experienced in his or her field, has published works and holds a reputation that is nationally or in some cases, internationally known.

Thomas Heffernan, director at the Humanities Center, explained how Walker not only fits the qualifications, but also how her lecture is filled with unique insight on the topic of African American history.

“She has the distinguished career of working in a subject that has not had much attention and that is the history of entrepreneurship in the African American antebellum community,” Heffernan said. “She’s looked to see if there is evidence of really dynamic people who can become entrepreneurs.”

Walker started off her lecture by explaining how she got involved with her research in African American business history after her doctoral dissertation on her great great grandfather who was born a slave.

Due to his work in mining, where he had discovered materials that could eventually be formed into and sold as gunpowder, he bought his wife’s freedom from slavery, then he did the same for himself and eventually, he went on to buy 15 family members from slavery for over a period of 40 years.

Walker pointed out that this portion of history, where a slave bought himself freedom through his own work, was important and yet it was never highlighted.

“The focus has always been on the political history of the blacks, the social history of blacks,” Walker said. “You have this whole history of blacks being nothing but slaves picking cotton, but that is not the historic reality.”

In addition, Walker debunked the common misconception that during the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century, people from Africa were taken from their homes and since they were uneducated, they were told to do agricultural work.

Walker argues that African Americans were participating in many diverse economic activities and many were carpenters, goldsmiths, blacksmiths and day laborers. However, when they were taken to the U.S. they were forced into doing a specific kind of agricultural work.

Contrary to popular belief, the African American mindset of believing in hard work and prosperity had still remained strong even after they were moved from their homes.

Nevertheless, this is not shown properly in the history of African Americans in the United States.

“When it comes to African survivalism it appears that within the context of history, what survived was only hairstyles, dancing and music.” Walker said. “This is not the case because from the very beginning they were involved in everything.”

However, while slaves who had bought their freedom were involved in economic activities, it was difficult for those wanting to start a business since they didn’t have the money and couldn’t find a place where they could a get a loan. Even inventors of products that were worth millions of dollars had to sell their inventions since they didn’t have the money needed for research and development.

Walker showed the audience that even though the country has progressed over time, the fact that the business side of the spectrum is unequal has not changed.

“After 400 years African Americans are still at the racial bottom,” Walker said.

For more information about the Humanities Center distinguished lecture series at UT, visit their site here.

Featured Image by Thomas Delgado

Edited by Jessica Carr