Three Facts from African-American History You May Not Know—But Should

Faculty Insight

John Stauffer

Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of English and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University

Professor Stauffer—a leading authority on antislavery and the Civil War era—sheds light on three facts and figures from African-American history that had a powerful impact on the national landscape.

1. Frederick Douglass’s influence was powerful and expansive.

Frederick Douglass

Douglass was one of the greatest nonfiction writers in the English language. And in the nineteenth century, he was one of the most famous and respected authors of any race.

He was widely considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, orator of his age, and he commanded a higher speaking fee than anyone else. He became the first black man to meet with and advise a US president when he met with Lincoln three times in the White House. The next time a black man advised a president wouldn't come until 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. met with President Lyndon Johnson.

If you're interested in reading more about Douglass, I recommend his first and second autobiographies:

Professor John Stauffer discusses the close relationship between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln on WGBH Forum.

2. US history was deliberately whitewashed.

Around 1900 white northerners and southerners who wanted to reconcile their differences over the Civil War began to create a national narrative about US history. In this narrative they excluded or demonized both slaves and abolitionists.

Blacks were excluded from US history courses and a general understanding of America. Despite Douglass’ significance, his works went out of print for the first 50 years of the twentieth century and didn’t return until 1950, when the Communist Press began printing them.

In textbooks from 1900 or 1915 through 1980, most US history textbooks or books of literature present only authors who are white. Black History Month is important because there’s been such a significant effort to whitewash our history and our understanding of our past.

3. Sojourner Truth was an influential African-American woman.

Sojourner Truth

Another major African-American figure from the nineteenth century is Sojourner Truth. She was one of the most well-known public speakers of her day—at a time when women were generally not allowed to speak except in abolitionist circles.

Truth devoted her life not only to ending slavery and racism as Douglass did, but devoted her life to emphasizing the crucial role of blacks, and the presence of blacks, in the United States and its narrative.

To learn more about this important figure, a great text to start with is The Narrative of Sojourner Truth from Oxford University Press.

If this article piqued your interest, we offer a variety of courses in African and African-American studieshistory and sociology, as well as a graduate degree in the field of history

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Michael Watkins (not verified) replied:

Great "hook" for this topic of history. I will follow-up on the links and literature recommended in this article.

February 12, 201611:17am

LERATO MONYAI (not verified) replied:


February 13, 20179:14am

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