Tonight, October 22, 2013, PBS debuts African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross, a six-part series documentary on Black Americans and their impact on the United States. Created and hosted by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the series airs Tuesdays at 7:00PM Central Standard Time, from October 22, 2013 to November 26, 2013. Check local listings for the PBS station near you for times.

There is also a companion book to the series, published by Smiley Books.

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The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross by Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Yacovone, Donald(Oct 8, 2013)

The series documents the profound effect Black Americans have had on this nation starting in 1513, when the first African/Black to arrive on these shores was Juan Garrido (1487 – 1547), a free man, who was a conquistador with Ponce de Leon in search of the famous Fountain of Youth. He later helped Cortez take Mexico before moving on to California in search of gold. He wrote a memoir of his exploits, and in his later years, Garrido wrote a petition for a pension from the Spanish government.

Fort MoseJuan Garrido

Yep, that’s right.

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Twenty years later, a black explorer known as Esteban the Moor, aka Estevanico the Black or Estevanico the Moor, struggled to cross a Texas desert—he was just one of four survivors of a Spanish expedition that would end tragically. Although they reached Florida in 1528, many on the expedition died of illness, injuries and attacks. Many fled by boat, reaching the Texas coast, where they were enslaved. By 1534, only four of the group were alive. A guide and translator for his companions, Esteban and his group, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca,  Andres Dorantes, and Alonso del Castillo had walked 1,500 miles by 1536 and had seen more of the North American continent than any explorers then until Lewis and Clark, along with Sacagawea, came along.

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The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca by Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca, Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz(May 1, 2003) (9)

The four came into contact with another tribe and they were encouraged to become medicine men, with the tribe calling them “The Children of the Sun”, because they came from the east, traveling west. Gifted in languages, Esteban became scout and interpreter for the group. He carried an owl-feathered gourd as a medicine rattle that became his trademark. In July, 1536, the group arrived in Mexico City when they were asked to lead an expedition to Arizona and new Mexico. Only Esteban volunteered for the endeavor. Under the command of Fray Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan friar, the group set out. Esteban went ahead, agreeing to send back a runner with a small cross if he found a small discovery. Esteban sent back a cross as large as the body of a man, when he saw the Zuni, a people of present-day New Mexico.

Unfortunately for Esteban, the owl feathers he wore were a symbol of death to the Zuni, and the terrified Zuni killed Esteban.

Friar Marcos and the rest of the group returned to Mexico City.

For more on Esteban, visit The Estavanico Society.

I have known of such history for decades (especially Esteban—well, any Texas girl should know her history :), but how many other people do?

Black people’s time in this hemisphere did not start at 1619 with the landing of a cargo of “20 and odd negroes’ landing ashore at Point Comfort, in what is today’s Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. Many people make that mistake, laymen and college professors alike. But, before Plymouth Rock, before the sailing of the Mayflower, Black people were traveling the New World as free people, and some enslaved, before the coming of race-based slavery. Juan Garrido came to what is now the state of Florida, where another first occurred:  St. Augustine, Florida, the first city built by Europeans on the continent of North America, and settled by both Spaniards and Africans, making it this nation’s oldest city. It was founded by the Spanish in 1565, when on Sept. 8. 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore and named a stretch of land near the inlet in honor of Augustine, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on whose feast day – Aug. 28 – land was seen. St. Augustine was founded forty-two years before the English colonized Jamestown and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Also built at this site was Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, aka Fort Mose (pronounced “mo-say”), the first city established for Black American freed enslaves. Established in 1738 by Colonial Spanish Florida’s Governor Manuel Montiano, Fort Mose gave sanctuary to Africans challenging enslavement in the English Colony of
Carolina. Approximately 100 Africans lived at Fort Mose, forming more than 20 households. It was a melding of African, Spanish, Native Indigenous, and English culture. The settlement includes a four-sided fort, houses and fields. Fort Mose militia formed and Fort Mose became the northern defense post for St. Augustine.

You can read more about Fort Mose  here.

The first African child born in America was named William Tucker, son of Isabella and Antonio. The Tucker family and their descendants from this first child born in America still live in Hampton, Virginia. The remains of William Tucker are buried in Hampton, Virginia.  [SOURCE]

The series goes on to show many travails and triumphs of the Black American experience for the past 500 years, from 1513 to 2013 including one in particular:

-Priscilla, as a young girl, was purchased in 1756 at a slave auction in South Carolina by a rice planter, Elias Ball. She came as an orphan, alone, no parents—-no one, into a system that would be a way of life for unto death. Working on Ball’s rice plantation, she and her children would survive swamp ground covered with venomous snakes, malarial mosquitos, and early childhood deaths, where nearly two-thirds of all children were dead before they turned 16. If you have read the book, Slaves in the Family, you would recognize the Ball name. In this episode Prof. Gates meets the fifth great-grandson of Elias Ball, Edward Ball, who wrote about his family’s history of slave ownership in the book.  Professor Gates and Ball tour the old plantation, discussing Priscilla and early slavery in the United States.

The 500 year history of Black Americans encompasses exploration, invention, creativity, revolt, and survival. Out of this New World, a New People were created.

Tune in tonight to see that there is more to Black American’s history than just the knowledge of “20 and odd negroes”.

1 Comment

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  1. Luba Dumenco

    I saw the program and I am buying that book! Thanks

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