Although virtually unknown to most Americans, Amelia Boynton Robinson's life touched on so many aspects of the struggle for civil rights and justice, that she deserves to be remembered as a mother of freedom.
Echoes of Selma: Remembering civil rights pioneer Amelia Boynton Robinson - A 3-minute video tribute to Amelia Boynton Robinson.
Following is a slightly edited Twitter thread written by Michael Harriot in response to the death, on November 24th, of Amelia Boynton Robinson's son, Bruce Boynton. Harriot is an award-winning journalist, author, and senior writer at the Black news site, TheRoot.com. His Twitter thread traces the astonishing historical impact of the Boynton family.
For easier reading, I have edited the thread for clarity. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, a 'thread' is a collection of short related Tweets, usually on a theme. Because of the Tweet length limits on Twitter, the only way to make a longer 'essay' there is by sewing many Tweets together in a thread. I share this simply to explain the somewhat disjointed nature of the story below. I urge you to stay with the story, and forgive the informal nature of the writing. The author is pouring out his heart, not writing a formal essay. But he's telling an incredible story--history we should know. It's worth the read.
Bruce Boynton died today. A lot of people don't know his name but he is evidence of how recent slavery was. It's SUCH a crazy, mind-blowing story that's centered on a Black woman who I've argued might be the MOST important person in Civil Rights history. To understand how crazy this story is, it starts with an enslaved man and ENDS in 2018...WITH A SLAVE SHIP. Y'all, it's crazy. It started when the War for White Supremacy (U.S. Civil War) broke out in S(outh) C(arolina)...One of the enslaved men (Robert Small, aka Rob, in what follows) had gotten a job on a Confederate transport ship because knew more about SC ports than all those mediocre white men combined, so he started plotting. He got other enslaved people to work on the ship and the...white dudes actually let them! A year after the war started, there were 3 white officers on this ship and 8 crew members, all Black. Rob started telling them that he had an idea. There was just one problem: There was a snitch. So the 7 crewmen who were about that freedom life kept their plans on the low. One night, the white dudes left, and Rob was like: "Hey white dudes, can our families spend the night on the ship?" The officers were cool with it because they knew the snitch was on board. So all the families came to visit.
(Later) They woke up & told the snitch: "Oh, man, you must have slept late! Our folks have already left, you better escort your fam(ily) off the ship! I'll cover for you and get the officers uniforms ready. Where'd you put their clothes?" But (in reality) the other family members were hiding on the ship! As soon as the snitch walked his family off the Confederate ship, the other slaves slipped on (the officers') uniforms and peeled out. Rob had watched the white dudes for a year. He knew their signals, all the passwords & how to drive the ship... Man, Rob steered the Confederate ship past everybody, wearing those officers' uniforms, right into Union territory! He gave the traitors' ship to the Union and freed his family and all of his homey's family too. No one knows what happened to the ship. Rob was a hero! He was in all the papers. Lincoln thanked him personally. He was only 23 years old and he was given his own ship to fight for the Union. Now, he couldn't technically be a captain because you had to graduate from the naval academy (and be white) to get that rank. But he got captain's wages. When the war was over, by law, he was supposed to get a "prize" for the value of the ship he had given to the Union. But Rob was Black. Not only did he not get his prize, (but) when he applied for his pension, he found out that he wasn't even in the NAVY! But Rob...had been saving his money and used it to buy a building and opened a school for newly freed slaves and a store for freedmen. He went to the school every day for the first 9 months. It wasn't that he was a micromanager, he did it for another reason. Rob couldn't read! This dude taught himself to read, started a BLACK OWNED RAILROAD and in 1874, Robert Smalls got himself elected to Congress. During Reconstruction, Rob was a thorn in everyone's side. He fought hard against removing troops from the South but no one knew why. Rob told anyone who would listen that if the whites in the South were left to their own devices, they would disenfranchise Black people, but everyone thought he was crazy. I wonder how that turned out? Anyway, Rob also had a half brother. And Rob's brother had a daughter, Amelia, who was even smarter. She wrote a play about Robert and attended Tuskegee (Institute). She hung out with George Washington Carver and joked that she was gonna name a kid after him. Yeah, right. But Amelia had that blood in her. She married a guy in Alabama and she remembered what her uncle (Rob/Robert Small) said about disenfranchising Black people. Back then, it was damn near impossible for Black people to vote. While we call them "literacy tests," they weren't really that. Sometimes, in Alabama (for example), you might meet Black people who know the Constitution like the back of their hands. That's because these "literacy" tests required Black people to recite whole passages, take handwriting tests, do math etc. Basically most WHITE people couldn't pass the test (but they were allowed to register to vote anyway, but not Blacks). But again, Amelia was smart. In 1934, Amelia took the literacy test in spite of everyone telling her it was an impossible feat. Amelia Boynton passed (the test) on her first try. And guess what she did? She started traveling around Alabama teaching people how to pass the test! There was a problem, though. The KKK ran the town's only Black notary out of town, who was also the president of the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL), so Black people STILL couldn't register to vote (because a notary was required). So Amelia had an idea. She convinced her husband to open an insurance agency, which made him a notary. Then she began holding DCVL and NAACP meetings in the insurance office. When Amelia's husband died she took over, fought the (Ku Klux) Klan and taught her kids not to take NOTHING off no white man. In fact, her son Bruce Boynton wanted to become a lawyer and went to Howard Law School. One Christmas break, Bruce was on a Trailways bus when they stopped at a place with a "whites only" (lunch)counter. Bruce was hungry, so he posted up (ordered) at the counter and was arrested. Amelia called some of her NAACP friends and the lawyer promised to represent Bruce, even if they had to go to the Supreme Court. They (did have) to go to the Supreme Court. Luckily the NAACP lawyer was pretty good—some guy named Thurgood Marshall. (Note: Famous Black American civil rights lawyer, who, himself, later served on the U.S. Supreme Court.) This story is just beginning. Now, you may have heard of the Freedom Riders, the group who rode (busses) through the South to challenge segregation laws in '61. Or, maybe you've heard of one of the Freedom Riders, a guy named John Lewis. Well, the reason they were able to challenge those laws was because of a ruling - One Supreme Court case overturned segregation on interstate travel: Bruce George Washington Carver Boynton v. Virginia. Now, after the Freedom Rides, the DCVL (was very active) but they couldn't get any attention. Amelia had an idea. In 1964, she gave up leadership at the DCVL and ran for Congress, making her the first Black woman in the state of Alabama to run for office and the first woman of ANY race to run as a Democrat. After she lost, she said she had to bring more attention to these injustices. So she went back to Selma and started organizing a local march. The DCVL wanted to keep it low-key but Amelia & others wanted some big names like MLK (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and John Lewis. No one thought there was any way these big names would come but Amelia called them up. They came. Everyone has seen the pics of John Lewis getting his skull cracked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge but during the time, perhaps the most famous picture was not Lewis' pic. At the march, an Alabama State Trooper on horseback yelled "run," and a woman replied: "why should I run?"
The trooper beat her unconscious. She suffered throat burns from the tear gas. THAT was the pic that went around the world. THAT was one of the pics that inspired LBJ to pass the Voting Rights Act. THAT woman was Amelia Boynton. I've actually met Amelia Boynton. She lived until 2015. But here's a weird story that completes the circle. One of the reasons Amelia Boynton was able to register so many people to vote was because her day job was working for the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) educating people about nutrition. She basically knew ALL the rural people. Well, for years, Amelia had been telling people they had something wrong about Black history. She didn't scream it but she knew they were wrong. For years, everyone had been saying that the last living person to come to America (as a slave) was a man who lived outside of Mobile named Cudjo. In 1860, some white men made a bet that they could smuggle a ship filled with slaves into the US. This was a crazy bet because the importation of slaves had been outlawed for 50 years. They did it. They brought 115 Africans (slaves) into Mobile Bay (Alabama) and set the ship on fire. The Africans eventually established a settlement in the US called Africatown that still exists. (It was thought that) Cudjoe Lewis was the last living person who arrived on that ship. Zora Neale Hurston wrote a book about it. They (historians) just found (the sunken remains of) the ship last year. But Amelia said they were wrong. She told people that she had met one of the descendants during her travels with the USDA who was alive after Cudjoe died. Which is crazy to think I met someone who met a person who came to America on a slave ship. According to Amelia, when she met the lady in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, she had long talks about her voyage, what it was like in Africa, etc. Amelia said she even found someone to speak the woman's language, but of course, there was no proof. Amelia wrote about it in her book but no one really paid attention to it. Last year, I read a research paper by a British journalist who claimed to have found evidence that the last living person (from the 1860 slave ship) wasn't Cudjoe but a woman named Redoshi. I was like: "Wait...Nah, it couldn't be." It turned out that there was previously inaccessible footage of one of the most joyous moments in the woman's life...When a USDA worker named Amelia Boynton introduced her (Redoshi) to the only person who could speak her language and interviewed Redoshi on film.
So if you think the Civil Rights movement was something in our past or that slavery was SO LONG AGO, remember this:
The IMPORTANT son of one of THE MOST incredible women in history, Bruce Boynton...
Who died TODAY...Was in his mother's belly when she MET A SLAVE.
Note: You can review Michael Harriot's original thread on Twitter here. You don't need a Twitter account to see it.
The film, The Negro Farmer, although clearly a Jim Crow propaganda piece, nevertheless illustrates the kind of work the Amelia Boynton Robinson did as a USDA extension worker. It also includes the film clip, mentioned above, showing Redoshi, called Aunt Sally Smith in the film, at about 1:55.
Oral History: Amelia Boynton Robinson Tells About Her Life - A playlist of ten short videos in which Amelia Boynton Robinson talks about her amazing life. Her story is incredible and her beautiful nature shines through. Dive in and meet this amazing woman.
Remembering Bruce Boynton - A 3-minute video tribute to the original Freedom Rider.
For the details of what is known about Redoshi's story and Amelia Boynton's role in bringing the story to light, see this academic article by a British historian: Finding the Last Middle Passage Survivor, Sally ‘Redoshi’ Smith, on the Page and Screen.