It’s easy to mischaracterize history as fact. We often learn history as a coherent string of events, all leading up to the present moment in perfect bundles. But the people who write history have worldviews, bias, and motives. When the victors write history, what—and who—are they leaving out of the story? Learn about the hidden history you might have missed with these three people who rose in the past.
1. Claudette Colvin
In March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks defied segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white person, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the exact same thing. Yet, most people do not know her story.
At the time, Colvin was learning about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth in school. When the bus driver told Colvin to give up her seat, she told him that she had paid her fare and had a constitutional right to stay seated where she was.
“Whenever people ask me: ‘Why didn’t you get up when the bus driver asked you?’ I say it felt as though Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women because my teacher taught us about them in so much detail.” – Claudette Colvin
The police handcuffed Colvin and sent her to an adult jail. She says, “I waited for about three hours until my mother arrived with my pastor to bail me out. My mother knew I was disappointed with the system and all the injustice we were receiving and she said to me: ‘Well, Claudette, you finally did it.'”
Why Rosa and Not Claudette?
Claudette Colvin was the first Black person in U.S. history to refuse to give up their seat to a white person on a bus—and she was a teenager. How did this become hidden history?
What is not often covered in history class is the lasting control of oppressive norms, even when shaping activism. Claudette Colvin, it became clear to the leading activists of the movement, was not the right face for the cause.
“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa. Her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’” – Claudette Colvin
Rosa Parks was a lighter-skinned, married, and middle-class activist; Claudette Colvin, in contrast, was a poor, dark-skinned teenager who had a child out of wedlock the following year.
The case of Claudette Colvin is a perfect example of hidden history and the ways that the truth, even in social movements, gets reshaped to appease the powers that be. Colvin did not become the famous activist that Parks was, but deserves credit for being the first person to rise by not rising from her bus seat.
To learn more about Claudette Colvin, read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.
2. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
When you think of rock ‘n’ roll, what comes to mind? Perhaps Elvis Presley, known as the “King of Rock and Roll” or the famous white male bands of the 1970s: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, etc. Do you think of Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
According to music historians, while many artists influenced rock ‘n’ roll, only one person created the classic rock ‘n’ roll sound: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Born twenty years before Elvis and a decade before Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a self-taught guitarist who transitioned from gospel music to rock ‘n’ roll as early as the 1930s and ’40s. Listen to her guitar solo during the 1944 performance of her song, “Down By the Riverside” at [1:28].
Gayde Wald, professor of English at George Washington University, told Fusion, “She had a major impact on artists like Elvis Presley. When you see Elvis Presley singing songs early in his career, I think you [should] imagine, he is channeling Rosetta Tharpe. It’s not an image that I think we’re used to thinking of in rock and roll history. We don’t think about the black woman behind the young white man.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Hidden History
Unfortunately, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is just one example of influential Black musicians who were rewritten in history. In 1973, Margo Jefferson lamented the death of Jimi Hendrix and what it meant for the future whitewashing of rock ‘n’ roll in his piece “Ripping Off Black Music.”
He wrote, “The night Jimi died I dreamed this was the latest step in a plot being designed to eliminate blacks from rock music so that it may be recorded in history as a creation of whites. Future generations, my dream ran, will be taught that while rock may have had its beginnings among blacks, it had its true flowering among whites. The best black artists will thus be studied as remarkable primitives who unconsciously foreshadowed future developments.”
Jack Hamilton in his piece, “How Rock and Roll Became White” states that unfortunately, at the time that Jefferson wrote down his dream—or rather, nightmare—it had already come true. As early as the late 1960s, people saw the fact that Hendrix was a Black man as exceptional in the genre of rock ‘n’ roll. Hamilton points out that when Hendrix died, an obituary called him “a black man in the alien world of rock.”
To learn more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, read Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
3. Ramona Africa
In 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on the home of MOVE activists. Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the bombing, is rarely known today.
MOVE was founded in 1972 by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) and centered around a combination of black revolutionary ideas and environmental and animal rights. They protested against capitalism, technology, and government. Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode classified MOVE as a terrorist organization in the 1980s.
On May 13, 1985, Goode gave an order to evict MOVE members from their communal living townhome in Philadelphia. Officers surrounded the area, and when MOVE members refused to leave their home, Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor ordered that the police bomb the compound. And it was.
The Day the PPD Bombed Its Citizens
The Philadelphia Police Department dropped a satchel bomb (a demolition device usually saved for combat) on the MOVE home headquarters. When fires ignited the MOVE home and the houses surrounding it, the fire department did not extinguish the flames.
“We immediately tried to get our children, our animals, ourselves out of the burning building. We were hollering, “We’re coming out!” [The cops] immediately started shooting, trying to prevent anybody from coming out of that house. We were forced back in at least twice.” – Ramona Africa
The fires that ignited due to the bombing killed eleven MOVE members, including five children. The fires spread to over sixty neighboring homes, leaving over 250 people homeless.
Ramona Africa, 29 at the time, was one of two survivors (the second was 13-year-old Michael Moses Ward). Immediately following the bombing, she served seven years in prison on rioting and conspiracy charges.
Have you heard Ramona Africa’s name before today? To learn more about Ramona Africa’s experience overcoming state-sanctioned terrorism, watch her speak. Today, Ramona Africa is a University lecturer. In March 2015, she spoke about human rights in Geneva at the U.N. To learn more about the MOVE bombing, watch Jason Osder’s documentary, Let the Fire Burn.
Uncovering Hidden History
These stories of remarkable Black women who rose in the past (but were often not given the recognition they earned) are just scraping the surface of hidden history. How can we make history more balanced in schools?
Currently, there are no national social studies standards that shape what historical figures or topics students must learn about. As a result, state standards are incredibly varied in curriculums. Seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state mandates, and only two states mention white supremacy directly. In contrast, 16 states list “states rights” as a cause of the Civil War. Is this because 79 percent of public school teachers in the U.S. are white?
Watch TEDxMileHigh speaker Veronica Crespin-Palmer discuss how families can transform our broken school system.
As adults, we have the choice to further our education. This starts with reading books by historians retelling history from the People’s perspective, such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It means reading resources by activists such as Rachel Ricketts’ Racial Justice Resources. It means learning about how TEDxMileHigh speaker R. Alan Brooks uses art to subvert history and the stories we tell around white supremacy and police brutality. Uncovering hidden history takes time, effort, perseverance, dedication, passion, and sacrifice—but it is a mandatory part of being on the right side of history.