Your Questions About African-American History, Answered

A special edition of Ask Smithsonian on the occasion of the opening of a new Smithsonian museum

The Williams Dreamland Theatre, Tulsa, OK, c. 1921 (Chioma Ebinama)
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To mark this month’s opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we interviewed folks visiting the National Mall about what they would like to ask the museum’s experts.

What were the best economic opportunities for African-American entrepreneurs during the segregation era?

Kamille Bostick, Charlotte, North Carolina

African-Americans developed business districts where they maintained hotels, banks and restaurants because they were barred from using such institutions in white neighborhoods, says John Franklin, the museum’s director of partnerships and international programs. The black business district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, fueled by the oil boom in the 1900s, became so prosperous it was called “Black Wall Street.” But it was destroyed in a race riot in 1921 that killed some 300 people.

Did any state allow African-Americans to vote before the ratification, in 1870, of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the franchise for African-American men?

Sarandon Elliott, Richmond, Virginia

In the first years after the Revolutionary War, says Bill Pretzer, the museum’s senior history curator, about half of the original 13 states did not legally bar African-American men from voting if they were free and they paid taxes. However, local custom and outright intimidation often prevented them from doing so. But by the mid-19th century, only five states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) out of more than 30 extended the franchise to black men. Iowa and Minnesota did so in 1868.

How early—or late—did African religious beliefs become Americanized or Westernized?

Rachel Fyffe, Portsmouth, Ohio

Although there is evidence that black people attended the Anglican Church as early as 1701, it was during the First Great Awakening, the sweeping religious revival of the 1730s, that large numbers of African-Americans began to embrace the revival of American Protestantism, says Rex Ellis, associate director of curatorial affairs. The more personalized, less hierarchical nature of traditional African beliefs aligned with the evangelical nature of the Great Awakening. In the late 1770s, George Lisle, an emancipated slave, became a Christian in his master’s church and later started the first African-American Baptist church in Georgia. He is also thought to be the first Baptist missionary to travel overseas.

During the Civil War, African-American soldiers fighting for the Union were initially paid less than their white counterparts. Did they receive lesser rations, too?

Matt and Christina Beaver, Kodiak, Alaska

The distribution of rations to African-American soldiers varied by region and command, says Krewasky A. Salter, guest associate curator for the military gallery, and some did receive lesser rations in particular military departments. But in June 1864, Congress equalized the troops’ pay (raising black soldiers’ net pay from $7 a month to $13), and rations, and supplies and medical care were also expected to be equalized at the same time.

It's your turn to Ask Smithsonian.

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