Six historians weigh in on the biggest misconceptions about Black history, including the Tuskegee experiment and enslaved people’s finances.
Last summer, the New York Times’s 1619 Project burst open a long-overdue conversation about how stories of Black Americans need to be told through the lens of Black Americans themselves. In this tradition, and in celebration of Black History Month, Vox has asked six Black scholars and historians about myths that perpetuate about Black history. Ultimately, understanding Black history is more than learning about the brutality and oppression Black people have endured — it’s about the ways they have fought to survive and thrive in America.
Myth 1: That enslaved people didn’t have money
Enslaved people were money. Their bodies and labor were the capital that fueled the country’s founding and wealth.
But many also had money. Enslaved people actively participated in the informal and formal market economy. They saved money earned from overwork, from hiring themselves out, and through independent economic activities with banks, local merchants, and their enslavers. Elizabeth Keckley, a skilled seamstress whose dresses for Abraham Lincoln’s wife are displayed in Smithsonian museums, supported her enslaver’s entire family and still earned enough to pay for her freedom.
Free and enslaved market women dominated local marketplaces, including in Savannah and Charleston, controlling networks that crisscrossed the countryside. They ensured fresh supplies of fruits, vegetables, and eggs for the markets, as well as a steady flow of cash to enslaved people. Whites described these women as “loose” and “disorderly” to criticize their actions as unacceptable behavior for women, but white people of all classes depended on them for survival.
In fact, enslaved people also created financial institutions, especially mutual aid societies. Eliza Allen helped form at least three secret societies for women on her own and nearby plantations in Petersburg, Virginia. One of her societies, Sisters of Usefulness, could have had as many as two to three dozen members. Cities like Baltimore even passed laws against these societies — a sure sign of their popularity. Other cities reluctantly tolerated them, requiring that a white person be present at meetings. Enslaved people, however, found creative ways to conduct their societies under white people’s noses. Often, the treasurer’s ledger listed members by numbers so that, in case of discovery, members’ identities remained protected.
During the tumult of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Black people sought refuge behind Union lines. Most were impoverished, but a few managed to bring with them wealth they had stashed under beds, in private chests, and in other hiding places. After the war, Black people fought through the Southern Claims Commission for the return of the wealth Union and Confederate soldiers impounded or outright stole.
Given the resurgence of attention on reparations for slavery and the racial wealth gap, it is important to recall the long history of black people’s engagement with the US economy — not just as property, but as savers, spenders, and small businesspeople.
Shennette Garrett-Scott is an associate professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi and the author of Banking on Freedom: Black Women in US Finance Before the New Deal.
Myth 2: That Black revolutionary soldiers were patriots
Much is made about how colonial Black Americans — some free, some enslaved — fought during the American Revolution. Black revolutionary soldiers are usually called Black Patriots. But the term Patriot is reserved within revolutionary discourse to refer to the men of the 13 colonies who believed in the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence: that America should be an independent country, free from Britain. These persons were willing to fight for this cause, join the Continental Army, and, for their sacrifice, are forever considered Patriots. That’s why the term Black Patriot is a myth — it infers that Black and white revolutionary soldiers fought for the same reasons.
First off, Black revolutionary soldiers did not fight out of love for a country that enslaved and oppressed them. Black revolutionary soldiers were fighting for freedom — not for America, but for themselves and the race as a whole. In fact, the American Revolution is a case study of interest convergence. Interest convergence denotes that within racial states such as the 13 colonies, any progress made for Black people can only be made if that progress also benefits the dominant culture — in this case the liberation of the white colonists of America. In other words, colonists’ enlistment of Black people was not out of some moral mandate, but based on manpower needs to win the war.
In 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia who wanted to quickly end the war, issued a proclamation to free enslaved Black people if they defected from the colonies and fought for the British army. In response, George Washington revised the policy that restricted Black persons (free or enslaved) from joining his Continental Army. His reversal was based in a convergence of his interests: competing with a growing British military, securing the slave economy, and increasing labor needs for the Continental Army. When enslaved persons left the plantation, this caused serious social and economic unrest in the colonies. These defections were encouragement for many white plantation owners to join the Patriotic cause even if they previously held reservations.
Washington also saw other benefits in Black enlistment: White revolutionary soldiers only fought in three- to four-month increments and returned to their farms or plantation, but many Black soldiers could serve longer terms. The need for the Black soldier was essential for the war effort, and the need to win the war became greater than racial or racist ideology.
Interests converged with those of Black revolutionary soldiers as well. Once the American colonies promised freedom, about a quarter of the Continental Army became Black; before that, more Black people defected to the British military for a chance to be free. Black revolutionary soldiers understood the stakes of the war and realized that they could also benefit and leave bondage. As historian Gary Nash has said, the Black revolutionary soldier “can best be understood by realizing that his major loyalty was not to a place, not to a people, but to a principle.”
Black people played a dual role — service with the American forces and fleeing to the British — both for freedom. The notion of the Black Patriot is a misused term. In many ways, while the majority of the whites were fighting in the American Revolution, Black revolutionary soldiers were fighting the “African Americans’ Revolution.”
LaGarrett King is an education professor at the University of Missouri Columbia and the founding director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education.
Myth 3: That Black men were injected with syphilis in the Tuskegee experiment
A dangerous myth that continues to haunt Black Americans is the belief that the government infected 600 Black men in Macon County, Alabama, with syphilis. This myth has created generations of African Americans with a healthy distrust of the American medical profession. While these men weren’t injected with syphilis, their story does illuminate an important truth: America’s medical past is steeped in racialized terror and the exploitation of Black bodies.
The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male emerged from a study group formed in 1932 connected with the venereal disease section of the US Public Health Service. The purpose of the experiment was to test the impact of syphilis untreated and was conducted at what is now Tuskegee University, a historically Black university in Macon County, Alabama.
Deemed uneducated and impoverished sharecroppers, these men were lured by free medical examinations, hot meals, free treatment for minor injuries, rides to and from the hospital, and guaranteed burial stipends (up to $50) to be paid to their survivors. The study also did not occur in total secret, and several African American health workers and educators associated with the Tuskegee Institute assisted in the study.
By the end of the study in the summer of 1972, after a whistleblower exposed the story in national headlines, only 74 of the test subjects were still alive. From the original 399 infected men, 28 had died of syphilis, 100 others from related complications. Forty of the men’s wives had been infected, and an estimated 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.
As a result of the case, the US Department of Health and Human Services established the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) in 1974 to oversee clinical trials. The case also solidified the idea of African Americans being cast and used as medical guinea pigs.
An unfortunate side effect of both the truth of medical racism and the myth of syphilis injection, however, is it tangibly reinforces the inability to place trust in the medical system for some African Americans who may not choose to seek out assistance, and as a result put themselves in danger.
Sowande Mustakeem is an associate professor of History and African & African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
Myth 4: That Black people in early Jim Crow America didn’t fight back
It is well-known that African Americans faced the constant threat of ritualistic public executions by white mobs, unpunished attacks by individuals, and police brutality in Jim Crow America. But how they responded to this is a myth that persists. In an effort to find lawful ways to address such events, some Black people made legalistic appeals to convince police and civic leaders their rights and lives should be protected. Yet the crushing weight of a hostile criminal justice system and the rigidity of the color line often muted those petitions, leaving Black people vulnerable to more mistreatment and murder.
In the face of this violence, some African Americans prepared themselves physically and psychologically for the abuse they expected — and they fought back. Distressed by public racial violence and unwilling to accept it, many adhered to emerging ideologies of outright rebellion, particularly after the turn of the 20th century and the emergence of the “New Negro.” Urban, more educated than their parents, and often trained militarily, a generation coming of age following World War I sought to secure themselves in the only ways left. Many believed, as Marcus Garvey once told a Harlem audience, that Black folks would never gain freedom “by praying for it.”
For New Negroes, the comparatively tame efforts of groups like the NAACP were not urgent enough. Most notably, they defended themselves fiercely nationwide during the bloodshed of the Red Summer of 1919 when whites attacked African Americans in multiple cities across the country. Whites may have initiated most race riots in the early Jim Crow era, but some also happened as Black people rejected the limitations placed on their life, leisure, and labor, and when they refused to fold under the weight of white supremacy. The magnitude of racial and state violence often came down upon Black people who defended themselves from police and citizens, but that did not stop some from sparking personal and collective insurrections.
Myth 5: That crack in the “ghetto” was the largest drug crisis of the 1980s
The bodies of people of color have a pernicious history of total exploitation and criminalization in the US. Like total war, total exploitation enlists and mobilizes the resources of mainstream society to obliterate the resources and infrastructure of the vulnerable. This has been done to Black people through a robust prison industrial complex that feeds on their vilification, incarceration, disenfranchisement, and erasure. And the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and ’90s is a clear example of this cycle.
Even though more white people reported using crack more than Black people in a 1991 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey, Black people were sentenced for crack offenses eight times more than whites. Meanwhile, there was a corresponding cocaine epidemic in white suburbs and college campuses that compelled the US to install harsher penalties for crack than for cocaine. For example, in 1986, before the enactment of federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher.
Even through the ’90s and beyond, the media and supposed liberal allies, like Hillary Clinton, designated Black children and teens as drug-dealing “superpredators” to mostly white audiences. The criminalization of people of color during the crack epidemic made mainstream white Americans comfortable knowing that this was a contained black-on-black problem.
It also left white America unprepared to deal with the approach of the opioid epidemic, which is often a white-on-white crime whose dealers will evade prison (see: the Sacklers, the billionaire family behind Oxycontin who has served no jail time; and Johnson & Johnson, which got a $107 million break in fines when it was found liable for marketing practices that led to thousands of overdose deaths). Unlike Black Americans who are sent to prison, these white dealers retain their right to vote, lobby, and hold on to their wealth.
Jason Allen is a public historian and facilitator at xCHANGEs, a cultural diversity and inclusion training consultancy.
Myth 6: That all Black people were enslaved until emancipation
One of the biggest myths about the history of Black people in America is that all were enslaved until the Emancipation Proclamation, or Juneteenth Day.
In reality, free Black and Black-white biracial communities existed in states such as Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia, and Ohio well before abolition. For example, Anthony Johnson, named Antonio the Negro on the 1625 census, was listed on this document as a servant. By 1640, he and his wife owned and managed a large plot of land in Virginia.
Some enslaved Africans were able to sell their labor or craftsmanship to others, thereby earning enough money to purchase their freedom. Such was the case for Richard Allen, who paid for his freedom in 1786 and co-founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church less than a decade later. After the American Revolutionary War, Robert Carter III committed the largest manumission — or freeing of slaves — before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing his 100 enslaved Africans.
Not all emancipations were large. Individuals or families were sometimes freed upon the death of their enslaver and his family. And many escaped and lived free in the North or in Canada. Finally, there were generations of children born in free Black and biracial communities, many who never knew slavery.
Eventually, slave states established expulsion laws making residency there for free Black people illegal. Some filed petitions to remain near enslaved family members, while others moved West or North. And in the Northeast, many free Blacks formed benevolent organizations such as the Free African Union Society for support and in some cases repatriation.
The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 — and the announcement of emancipation in Texas two years later — allowed millions of enslaved people to join the ranks of already free Black Americans.
Dale Allender is an associate professor at California State University Sacramento.