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Bringing overlooked history to light

Lesser-known facts about American minorities are getting more attention. There are hundreds of efforts — big and small — under way to tell the untold stories of America's racial and ethnic diversity.
Gravesite dig
Archaeologists dig at the 200-year-old gravesite of freed slave Venture Smith and his family in East Haddam, Conn., on July 26. The gravesite exploration is one of hundreds of efforts — big and small — under way to tell the untold stories of American racial and ethnic diversity.Bob Child / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

American students often get the impression from history classes that the British got here first, settling Jamestown, Va., in 1607. They hear about how white Northerners freed the black slaves, how Asians came in the mid-1800s to build Western railroads.

The lessons have left out a lot.

Forty-two years before Jamestown, Spaniards and American Indians lived in St. Augustine, Fla. At least several thousand Latinos and nearly 200,000 black soldiers fought in the Civil War. And Asian-Americans had been living in California and Louisiana since the 1700s.

Now, more of these and other lesser-known facts about American minorities are getting more attention. The main reason is the nation’s growing diversity.

More than one in four Americans is not white, and many minority groups are gaining strength — in numbers, political clout and resources — to bring their often-overlooked histories to light.

Minority communities “are yelling for inclusion in the national consciousness,” said Gary Okihiro, a historian at Columbia University. “One needs to understand what’s true about the past to be able to make sound judgments about our present.”

There are hundreds of efforts — big and small — under way to tell the untold stories.

Although Hispanics are the nation’s largest minority group — 14.5 percent of the population according to Census Bureau figures released last week — there is no national museum dedicated to their history.

Lamenting ‘an incomplete picture’
Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra of California is pushing a bill to study building one on the National Mall in Washington. “When you walk the Mall in the capital of the United States, there is no better place to try to understand what Americans are and where we have been,” Becerra said. “But it’s still an incomplete picture.”

The Mall has dozens of sites highlighting American culture and history, including the National Museum of the American Indian that opened in 2004, 20 years after it was authorized. Organizers in June settled on the future site of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but its opening date is still years away. A Latino museum would be even further off.

Other federal agencies are shifting their work to incorporate more minorities’ stories. Six years ago, National Park Service historians met to reevaluate how park sites tell the story of the Civil War, said Donald W. Murphy, deputy director of the parks. Old battlefield exhibits mainly discussed who fought and how many died. Now they include personal diaries, including those kept by slaves.

Once considered marginal to American history, those stories are “really important because oftentimes the margins really are the holders of American democracy,” said Okihiro, an expert in Asian-American history. “They are those who have fought against their own racial profiling and fought for the freedoms that the majority seem to take for granted.”

Asians targeted for decades
Asian-Americans are the only immigrants in U.S. history to have faced laws explicitly written to bar their entry — laws that were not overturned until immigration reform in the 1960s, said Dmae Roberts, whose eight-hour public radio program on Asian immigration, “Crossing East,” airs on hundreds of stations.

“People know very little of this outside of California,” she said.

Some tales have gone untold because, in the less-diverse America of the past, minorities didn’t make the decisions on textbooks and other means of passing along history. And in many cases, minorities who had faced blatant discrimination wanted to discard evidence of past horrors.

But some who came of age during the civil rights movement are determined to pass the stories on. “It is so important that children of color are not made to feel that they’re asking for anything — they’re claiming what’s rightfully theirs just like any other child,” said Cynthia Morris Lowery, executive director of the African American Experience Fund. “I tell my grandchildren ’Grandpa has earned that spot for you.”’

CSI, History Division
Sometimes, history is recalled through criminal investigations.

Prosecutors in Jackson, Miss., last year exhumed the remains of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Medical examiners performed a new autopsy, and investigators are poring over thousands of documents.

Florida’s attorney general ended an investigation last week into a 1951 house bombing that killed two civil rights activists. The probe found extensive circumstantial evidence pointing to four Ku Klux Klan members, all of whom are dead, Attorney General Charlie Crist said Wednesday.

Leaps in technology
Technological advances also have fueled new interest in history. In Connecticut last month, archaeologists excavated the grave of an 18th-century slave named Venture Smith in hopes that DNA evidence could verify tales of amazing physical strength and a childhood in Guinea, West Africa. No DNA traces were found, but the graves of his wife and children also will be examined.

Paul Beaty of Dallas turned to DNA testing when, after a decade of genealogical research, he could not trace his roots earlier than the 1830s due to incomplete slavery records. The tests linked him to the Ewondo tribe in Cameroon, West Africa, and when his son was born last month, he was named Evan Ewondo.

“We make the connections in America and make the connections in Africa and now we understand our lives,” he said. “Now we can build bigger relationships. We are truly creating history.”

The quest to get the stories told is hardly over. Though there are more than 12 million Asian-Americans, Roberts said it’s tough to persuade stations to air her program, which is being broadcast through next May.

“There are stations that haven’t quite decided — they say ‘We don’t have any Asians here,”’ Roberts said. “I tell them ‘This isn’t for Asians. This is for everyone else.”’