TONY BEST: Bajans’ hand in America success
JUST LAST WEEK, Americans and people from around the world paused to reflect on the changed face of the United States of America.
And when they did, two great figures came quickly to mind – President Barack Obama and Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., not necessarily in that order.
The reflections were triggered by the final State of the Union address of America’s black President and by the annual national holiday that marked King’s birthday.
King, who was assassinated in 1968, no doubt helped to pave the way for Obama’s presidency, which now has 12 months to go before it becomes history.
Any assessment of King’s legacy must include his influence on the lives of people. We can also trace the activities of those who came before him and were the standard-bearers of the principles of equality, peace and non-violence he later championed.
When the list is narrowed to Barbadians in the US who helped to set the country on its course that made it the world’s wealthiest country, it becomes clear that the Bajan contribution was significant.
One such great historical figure is Prince Hall, the 18th century abolitionist in Massachusetts and the founder of free masonry there. Although historians are divided over his exact place of birth, many records and letters found in Barbados indicate he was born there. Other documents pinpointed Massachusetts as his birthplace. However, a preponderance of the historical evidence supports the assertion he was a Barbadian.
Undoubtedly, though, he was a champion of education for black slaves in the 1700. He petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to establish a school to educate black children and pushed for Blacks to be allowed to fight in the American Revolutionary War in exchange for their freedom from slavery.
Then there is the case of Dr Marcus Wheatland, perhaps the first black radiology specialist in North America. Wheatland was born in Barbados in 1868, according to the records of St Paul’s Anglican Church just outside of Bridgetown, At of his death in 1934, he was not only recognised as an elite member of the US medical profession but he was a voice for the education of the poor, especially Blacks. For years he served on the board of trustees of Howard University and was the 11th president of the National Medical Association.
More than half-century after Wheatland’s death, Dr Vilma Scantlebury, a Barbadian, made history as the first woman of colour in any country in the world to perform an organ transplant.
No list of people who have made a fundamental difference in American life and who were influenced by King would be complete without citing the accomplishments of Shirley Chisholm. She was the first black woman elected to the US Congress and was the first Black to seek the presidential nomination of a major US political party. An outspoken public figure who in 1969, said “I am a historical person at this point and I am aware of it,” spent part of her early years growing up in Barbados and she routinely credited that Bajan experience as a life-changing event that helped to mold the person she became.
Eric Holder Jr., the first black US Attorney-General, a close friend and confidante of President Obama, is another Bajan born in the US who has a national stature as an immensely successful public figure. And like Chisholm, he has often credited his Bajan parents with guiding him to be the best person he could be. He stepped down from the Justice Department position last year secure in the accolade that he was one of the country’s must effective Attorneys General.
Tony Best is the NATION’s North American correspondent. Email [email protected]