The word “holocaust” is defined as “destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially that caused by fire.”1 A holocaust is usually a series of atrocities organized by one social group against another.
In the last hundred years, the world has witnessed many such atrocities: for example, the Armenian Holocaust, the Cambodian Killing Fields, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Genocide in Darfur.
Usually, in America, when we say “The Holocaust,” we mean the systematic mass murder of European Jews by the Nazis from 1941 to 1945.
Similarities Between the Jewish and the Black Holocausts
The four hundred-year history of captured Africans and their descendants has many similarities with the Holocaust experiences of European Jews – and other victims of mass atrocities.
- Forced marches and migrations
- Stolen property
- Slave labor
- Mass incarceration
- Medical experimentation
- Race riots (pogroms)
- Mass murder
- Long-lasting psychological effects (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) on survivors and descendants.
Dr. James Cameron founded this museum after he visited Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. He saw the many similarities between the experiences of the Jewish people and African Americans.
When he named this museum, it was because of those similarities. He also admired how Jewish people value their history and educate themselves and others about it. Dr. Cameron saw how this gave the Jewish people strength and wanted the same for his people.
Cameron wanted visitors to understand this: The Black Holocaust began hundreds of years ago, but its effects – and even some of its practices – continue today.2
There at the Start
The Black Holocaust in America began in the 1600s in the first settlements in Virginia. That colony passed laws making black people – and only black people – slaves for life.
Slavery and segregation have since become illegal, but the Black Holocaust has had far-reaching effects on our entire society and on generations of our citizens – black and nonblack.
Some Facts about the Black Holocaust:
- From 10 to 12 million African men, women and children were kidnapped from their homes.3 They were forced to march as much as 1000 miles to the sea. There they were held in underground dungeons for up to a year.
- The kidnapped people were packed below decks as cargo on 54,000 slave ship voyages to the Americas. They were usually shackled and unable to move. They lay in each other’s feces, urine and vomit during the 60 to 120 day trip. These trips, called “The Middle Passage,” made up one of the largest forced migrations in world history.4
- When they arrived in America, men, women, and children – even infants – were put on the auction block at slave markets. They were handled by the buyers as if they were cattle. The buyers poked and prodded and pulled the Africans’ mouths open. Some buyers forced the captives to remove all their clothes in public, so they could be examined for defects. Children were often sold away from their parents, and husbands from their wives.5
- Our original colonies passed slave codes.6 These laws reserved slavery for people of African descent only. There were also fugitive slave laws7 that made it easier for slave owners to capture runaways – and even force free blacks into slavery.
- By the time of our country’s Civil War in 1861, eight generations of black children were born, grew up, toiled, and died as the property of white adults and children. Slaves worked at hard labor, from sun up to sun down, for no pay, six or seven days a week. They were frequently whipped or suffered other cruel punishments at the owner’s whim. They were not allowed to learn reading, writing or arithmetic. They were poorly fed, housed and clothed. Many of their daughters, sisters, and wives were raped. Many saw their children, spouses, parents, siblings, and friends sold away. And there was no hope of an end to their suffering.
- The 13th Amendment to our Constitution outlawed slavery. But many of the four million former slaves were forced back into unpaid labor. They became sharecroppers on their old plantations. If a white man said a black man was “shiftless,” that black man could be arrested and forced to work without pay in a mine, factory, or farm. This was slavery by another name.8
- After emancipation came the “separate and unequal” system of Jim Crow in the South. This made it legal to have racially segregated public schools, buses, restaurants, movie theaters, and occupations. Under Jim Crow, black lives were cheap. Over five thousand African Americans were strung up, shot, tortured, mutilated, and burned to death during those one hundred years. Most lynchings occurred in the South, but many took place in the North and West as well.9
- The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s challenged Jim Crow. The Jim Crow era “officially” ended when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, white Americans found ways around many of the gains African Americans made. In “white flight,” white parents moved to the suburbs or put their children in private schools. White neighbors signed “covenants” not to sell their homes to black families. White unions made it difficult for black workers to become members and advance themselves in the skilled trades. Many African Americans became trapped in poverty.10
- The effects of slavery and Jim Crow continue today. The net worth of white families is 22 times the net worth of black families.11 Since the 1970s, the unemployment rate for African Americans has been double the national average. Most white Americans live to be over 78 years old; most Black Americans die shortly after their 73rd birthday. Three times more black babies die at birth than white babies. Half of the people we send to prison are black, even though African Americans are only 13 percent of our country’s population. And the list goes on….
Holocaust Memorials and Museums
Today there are many museums that help people understand and cope with various holocausts around the world. America’s Black Holocaust Museum is one of these.
2See Breaking News
3See Estimates from Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
4Africans in America, Part I. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1narr4.html