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Michelle Obama Is Not Our First Black First Lady? 10 Fascinating Things You Didn't Know About Black History

Though February has long been replete with special curriculum in schools, many elements of the past remain obscured.
 
 
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In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson pioneered the celebration of Negro History Week in February as a recognition to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Today, that commemoration has evolved into Black History Month. Though February has long been replete with special curriculum in schools, public events and tailored TV programming, many elements of the past remain obscured. Here are 10 examples worthy of Mr. Woodson.

1. Black Americans were once viewed as poor athletes.

Blacks have not always been viewed as athletically dominant in the major U.S. team sports, and certain Olympic events. Their impoverished living conditions, vitamin deficient diets, predisposition to illness, and the weak moral fiber of their communities served as rationale for their exclusion from top athletic competition. Many white authorities and educators also believed Negroes lacked the capacity to think fast and the intestinal fortitude that sports demanded. A prevailing stereotype of the day, depicted in radio and film, was the Negro with the "yellow streak." In vintage movies, black character actors such as Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland bugged their eyes and fled at the mere mention of a mummy or a ghost.

"Games demanding team play are played by the Anglo-Saxon peoples, and by these peoples alone,” said Luther Gulick, the director of the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA, who trained basketball's inventor Dr. Naismith. In 1906, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge told the Harvard class of 1906 "...the time given to athletic contests... (is) part of the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world-conquerors." The same year, a summer physical education doctoral candidate named Edwin B. Henderson learned to coach basketball and other sports at Harvard. Henderson resolved not only to debunk the notion that blacks were inferior athletes, he decided if enough black high school students proved their athletic mettle, they could also earn scholarships to integrated northern colleges such as Cornell and Amherst.

In this way, E.B. Henderson foresaw athletics as a springboard to professional achievement. Nonetheless, 40 years after Senator Lodge's statement and Henderson's summer epiphany, millions of white Americans, including major league owners, players and sportswriters, doubted Jackie Robinson would make the grade in professional baseball. Many believed he was either too musclebound, or that the national pastime was too cerebral for blacks. Today, it is difficult to imagine such prejudices, although similar thoughts kept blacks from playing quarterback professionally, or coaching pro and college football, until relatively recently.

2. Michelle Obama is not our first black First Lady; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was.

Jackie O, perhaps America's most emulated and admired First Lady, descended from a family known as the van Salee's, who were described as "mulatto" in the 17th century. This family traced its lineage in part to a Dutch mariner named Jan Jensen, who turned Turk (what some Europeans called "going native"), which was more popular than common history reveals.

It is widely believed Jensen fathered two children, Anthony and Abraham van Salee, by a Moorish concubine. Following a dispute with his white wife, Anthony van Salee was exiled to territory across the river, where he became Brooklyn's first settler. Until a few decades ago, this property adjoining Coney Island was called Turk's Island after Anthony van Salle -- the term "Turk," in his day being synonymous with Moor (North African). A descendant, John van Salee De Grasse, born in 1825, was the first black American formally educated as a doctor. When Jackie Kennedy was asked about her van Salee roots during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she called her ancestors "Jewish." Of course, her socialite father, born in 1891, was nicknamed "Black Jack" Bouvier for his swarthy complexion. In the 1960s, journalists described the First Lady's features as "French," earning her the cover page of countless magazines, including film and fan publications. Not only Kennedy Onassis, but well-borns Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Vanderbilt (and thus Anderson Cooper), are van Salee descendants.

3. African slave trade into the Caribbean was much bigger than that to North American colonies.

When we in the U.S. think of the Transatlantic slave trade, we think of British ships sailing into Virginia and the Carolinas, freedom fighters such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and an emancipating stroke of President Abraham Lincoln's pen. Yet Transatlantic slave ships were primarily destined for the Caribbean. One reason the black population in the U.S. has hovered around 12 percent for decades is that more than 90 percent of African slaves were imported into the Caribbean and South America. Only about six percent of imports went directly to British North America. About 500,000 Africans were imported into what is now the U.S. between 1619 and 1807-- which amounted to only six percent of all Africans forcibly imported into the Americas.

In the early 19th century, fewer than five percent of the total population of Jamaica, Grenada, Nevis, St. Vincent, and Tobago was white, and fewer than 10 percent of the population of Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and the Virgin Islands. An estimate of the slave population in the British Caribbean in Robin Blackburn's study, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848, puts the slave numbers at 428,000 out of a population of 500,000. The number of slaves vastly exceeded the number of white owners and overseers. The islands, while much smaller than the colonies that would become the U.S., had huge slave populations. In 1789, the slave population of modern day Haiti was 455,000, while the total of African slaves forced to the current day U.S., from 1619-1860, was 4 million.

4. Three of the first five Kentucky Derby winning jockeys were black.

Black jockeys dominated thoroughbred racing from the colonial era through the turn of the 20th century. Wealthy estate owners
prided themselves on their fine horses, and before emancipation, often paid talented slaves to ride them in heavily wagered races. The epicenter of such sport was Halifax County in Eastern North Carolina, not the bluegrass of Kentucky. Fifteen of the first 28 Kentucky Derbys were won by black jockeys, and five of those were trained by black men.