Since 1976, February has been designated as Black History Month, where we celebrate the contributions that Black Americans and African Americans have made to this country. I will discuss why it is is crucial to continue to commemorate Black America’s achievements. I will give you some historical information about how cannabis came to this country and spotlight some of the lesser known black heroes.
The Importance of Celebrating Black History Month
Black History Month founder, black historian Carter G. Woodson, understood full well that if a group of people is not valued by the rest of the citizenry, passing legislation will not be enough to make that group accepted and equal. He wrote, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.” For this reason, it is crucial to keep highlighting the history of black people and the impact that they have had on shaping this country.
How Cannabis Came to these United States
In 2014, University of Kansas professor Barney Warf, published his paper, High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis in the Geographical Review academic journal. His main focus was on how imperialism and war, the movement of specific populations and the shifting of borders affected the distribution of cannabis .
According to Warf, two different ethnic groups brought cannabis to the US. The first was Mexicans who were fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution and the second was Caribbean sailors and immigrants who entered the US through New Orleans. Once cannabis was introduced to Louisiana, the black community was all in and embraced cannabis usage. Unfortunately, this fueled racist fears and “Reefer Madness” by white legislators in the 1930s. This led directly to the passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act which made cannabis illegal.
Louis Armstrong and “the Gage”
I know you have all heard of trumpeter extraordinaire, Louis Armstrong. Did you know that his love of cannabis was responsible for his invention of jazz? To say that Louis smoked a lot of cannabis is a gross understatement. He is as much known for his cannabis consumption as he is for his musical accomplishments.
He referred to it as “the Gage” and he credited his cannabis usage with giving him the inspiration and creative juices to become a first class musician. He considered it part of his health regimen. He described how it made him feel as “mellow and mild.” He also described it as “a thousand times better than whiskey,” having seen the effects that alcohol had on many of his fellow musicians.
He was publicly outspoken about the unfairness of the severity of the punishment of cannabis laws for people of color. He wanted young people to know that it was dishonest to compare the effects of cannabis to that heroin and morphine.
He was arrested for cannabis possession for the first time in 1930 in the parking lot of the Los Angeles’ Cotton Club. In 1954, his wife, Lucille, who was carrying cannabis for her husband, was also arrested. Eventually, he stopped using it for fear of more severe punishment.
Armstrong and other New Orlean-based black musicians who traveled north to tour, were responsible for introducing it to cities like Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago and New York city, where its usage gained traction.
Little Known Contributions of Black Americans
1. There were black cowboys in the western states during the 1860s to the 1880s who worked in the cattle industry. Of the 35,000 cowboys, between 15-25% were black; 6,000 to 9,000. They were entitled to hold all positions except that of trail boss.
2. The first black astronaut, Robert Lawrence, was killed in a training accident in 1967, before he was able to go on his first mission into space. Another 17 years elapsed before another black astronaut, Guion Bluford, became the first to go into space.
3. Born a free man in New York City in 1791, Thomas L Jennings was the first African American to hold a US patent, awarded in 1821. He invented the process of dry-scouring which was the precursor to our modern day dry-cleaning. He had become a tailor in his early 20s and then opened up a dry cleaning business.
He was also an abolitionist who used the profits from his invention to free the rest of his family from slavery. He also funded abolitionist causes. He was the assistant secretary of the First Annual Convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in Philadelphia in 1831.
Let us remember that Woodson’s vision in creating Black History Month was his attempt to encourage his fellow citizens to recognize and respect the dignity, equality and humanity of Black Americans.
jerryjazzmusician.com, Louis Armstrong and Gage, March 25, 2014
history.com, Black History Month, updated Dec. 4, 2019 (original article Jan. 14, 2010)
time.com, America Is Losing the Real Meaning of Black History Month, Theodore R. Johnson, Feb. 20, 2018
portlandmercury.com, The Histories of Cannabis and Race Are Intertwined, Josh Jardine, April 18, 2018