- Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America 1619-1966 Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., rev. ed.1966.
- The Negro Mood. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1964
- What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1964.
- Confrontation: Black and White. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co.,1965.
- The Human Side of Reconstruction 1867-1877. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1967.
- Pioneers in Protest. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1968.
- The Challenge of Blackness
- Great Moments in Black History (Wade in the Water) 2000
- Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream 2000
- Ebony Pictorial History of Black America, Vol. 2: Reconstruction to Supreme Court Decision 1954 (with Ebony)
- Ebony Pictorial History of Black America (Volume III: Civil Rights Movement to Black Revolution) with Ebony
- Black Power USA The Human Side of Reconstruction 1867-1877
by Kawain Miller (SHS)
Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony, is one of Mississippi’s most successful black writers of the twentieth century. Lerone Bennett, Jr., was born October 17, 1928, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He is the son of the late Lerone and Alma (Reed) Bennett. When Bennett was young, he and his family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where he received his education in public schools. After high school, he went to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 (Abbot
689). That same year Lerone Bennett attended Atlanta University for graduate study. Bennett married Gloria Sylvester in 1956, and they had four children. After further study at Atlanta University, Bennett became a journalist and worked for the Atlanta Daily World, from 1949-53 (Abbot 689), he also worked as city editor for JET magazine from 1952-53. In 1953 he became associate editor for Ebony magazine. He is presently the executive editor of Ebony.
Bennett’s writing career includes many books such as Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America 1619-1966, The Negro Mood, What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King Jr., Confrontation: Black and White, Black Power U.S.A., The Human Side of Reconstruction 1867-1877, Pioneers in Protest, The Challenge of Blackness (Gale 47) and his most recent book, the revised edition Great Moments in Black History.
According to Debbie Allen on BET Tonight, Lerone Bennett also helped research the movie Amistad.
A Review of Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America
by Kawain Miller (SHS)
The book Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, written by Lerone Bennett Jr. took fourteen months to complete. The book tells the reader how “powerful” Negroes were in the ancient world. In the Preface Bennett says, “This book grew out of a series of articles which were published originally in Ebony magazine [of which Lerone Bennett is the executive editor] (Bennett, Preface vii). He also says “The book, like the series, deals with the trials and triumphs of a group of Americans whose roots in the American soil are deeper than those of the Puritans who arrived on the celebrated Mayflower a year after a Dutch man of war deposited twenty Negroes at Jamestown” (Bennett, Preface vii)
This book tells about the Negro Americans’ history or as Bennett states, “This is a history of ‘other Americans’ and how they came to North America and what happened to them when they got here”(Bennett, Preface vii). In this book Bennett says, “The story begins in Africa with the great empires of the Sudan and Nile Valley and ends with the second Reconstruction which Martin Luther King, Jr., and the ‘sit-in’ generation fashioned in the North and South” (Bennett, Preface vii). Bennett says, “Readers who would like to follow the story in greater detail are urged to read each chapter in connection with the outline of Negro history in the appendix” (Bennett, Preface vii-viii).
In the beginning of the book, Bennett tells the reader how powerful Negroes were in the ancient world. I personally don’t know if he stretched the truth or not about the ancient world history ( that all or even most Egyptians and Ethiopians were Negroes) because I do not know much about the ancient world. No one could have said anything about this book better than A.K. Randall as he pointed out in a Library Journal review that one need not agree with Bennett to appreciate the book’s “readable synthesis of historical research” and “lively narrative” (Contemporary Authors 32).
This is a good book, but I’ll only suggest you read it if you really like history. The book takes you from a Paradise of powerful Negroes to the hell holes of slavery and then onto the freedom of the post-Civil Rights era. In the first chapter “The African Past, Bennett tells the reader that black people were known and honored throughout the ancient world (5). Most scholars deny that the Egyptians were Negroes, despite the testimony of an eyewitness. Herodotus, the Greek historian, visited the country some 500 years before Bethlehem. The Egyptians, he said, were “black and curly-haired.” (7). It’s clear that a large proportion or at least one-third of the ancient Egyptians were undoubtedly Negroes. Many, perhaps most, of the soldiers were Negroes. Black peoples toiled on the pyramids, offered prayers to the sun-god, and served with distinction in the state bureaucracy. ‘Ancient Egypt knew him [the Negro],’ (sic) Alexander Chamberlain said, ‘both bond and free, and his blood flowed in the veins of not a few of the mighty Pharaohs’ (7).”
In the fourth chapter ““Behind the Cotton Curtain” Bennett tells the reader that for some 200 years Negroes were held in bondage in America. “Behind the Cotton Curtains, four million human beings were systematically deprived of every right of personality. Vice, immorality and brutality were institutionalized (70).” The slaves worked on the plantations which varied in size from large to small. Men, women, and children all worked on the plantation all day. Children didn’t go to the fields until the age of six or seven. Young workers were broken in as water boys or in the “trash gang.” The men and women who were healthy and quick worked in the field picking cotton, watermelons, sweet potatoes, sugar canes, corn, tobacco leaves or rice. Women mostly dug ditches, cut down trees and plowed fields. The old and weak, despite their condition, still had to work. Since they weren’t quick enough to keep up in the fields, they fed the live stock, cleaned the yard, and took care of the sick.
The basic division of slaves was between “field Negroes” and “house Negroes,” but there were artisans, nurses, and drivers. Drivers were slaves appointed to assist the overseers in the fields and were in charge of keeping order in the quarters. The drivers were an integral part of the plantation command hierarchy. When put in the chain of command, as in the military, the (overseer) was equal to a lieutenant and the ( master) was equal to a captain. When there was more than one driver, one was picked to be the “head driver”. The head driver was the most important Negro on the plantation and was not required to work like the other hands.” The head driver was to be treated with more respect by both master and overseer. He (the head driver) was required to maintain proper discipline at all times and see that no slave was idle or did bad work in the field. If a slave was idle or did poor work, he was punished on the spot.
Slaves who overslept were often punished. The usual punishment was thirty-nine lashes with a cow skin whip (75). It wasn’t unusual for a slave to receive up to one-hundred lashes in one day. According to Bennett, “Not all Negroes were slaves (there was a substantial free population, even in the South); nor did all slaves work on plantations (72).” Some half-million Negroes worked in cities as domestics, skilled artisans and factory hands. However, on the plantation, the driver and the overseer, armed with whips, pistol, and maybe a bowie knife did most of the punishment. They divided the field Negroes into hoe gangs and plow gangs. “Solomon Northup, a free Negro who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, said hands worked steadily except for the ten or fifteen minutes given to them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon’.(90)” Slaves were not permitted a moment of idleness until it was too dark to see. In fact, if there was a full moon, they often labored until the middle of the night.
After working in the field all day, Bennett says that the slaves finally made it to the quarters, sleepy and overcome with the long day’s toil just to do more work. After they reached the quarters, a fire had to be kindled in the cabin, the corn ground in small hand-mills, and food was made for that night and for the next day. By the time they sat down to eat, it was usually midnight. The same fear of punishment possessed the slaves when they tried to rest. Oversleeping in the morning would get the slave twenty lashes.
Slaves were issued clothes twice a year– one set in the spring and one set in the fall. Bennett quotes the plantation manual of a South Carolina planter, who describes the typical allowance in this way: “In the fall each man usually received two shirts of cotton drilling, a pair of woolen pants and a woolen jacket. Each woman in the fall usually received 6 yds. of woolen cloth, 6 yds. of cotton drilling and a needle, skein of thread and 1/2 dozen buttons. In the spring each man usually received 2 shirts of cotton shirting and 2 pair of cotton pants, and each woman received in the spring 6 yds. of cotton shirting and 6 yds. of cotton cloth similar to that for men’s pants, needle, thread, and buttons. Each worker received a pair of shoes in the fall. Children didn’t receive any shoes until they started working in the fields, and every three years the slaves received a heavy blanket.
I found this information fascinating. It’s a miracle how slaves survived during those times. Slaves were usually issued food once a week. Each adult was giving a peck of corn, three or four pounds of bacon or salt pork. Slaves themselves made a distinction between “taking” and “stealing.” It was right to “take” anything you wanted from white folks, but it was “stealing” to take from another slave.
Women were usually granted freedom if they had a certain number of babies. Ten was the usual figure, but when the market value rose five babies were acceptable. The part that struck me the most is Bennett’s mention of “the very remarkable.” He says that fatherhood under the system of permissive promiscuity was a monstrous joke. Fatherhood was virtually abolished for fathers. The Master sometimes made husbands subject to their wives. “The husband, for example, lived in ‘Dinah’s cabin,’ and he was often called ‘Dinah’s Tom.’ Despite these centrifugal forces, many slaves established stable houses (86).” Mothers strived hard to protect daughters, especially if they had personal beauty (ever a curse to a slave girl.)
Bennett also explains that slaves did not always accept their fate. According to him, “There were repeated insurrections, and there is solid evidence that the South lived in constant fear of the ‘docile’ slaves (91).” I don’t know exactly what the “docile” slaves are or who they were, but I figured them to be very dangerous. The “docile” slaves ran away . They fled to Florida and Louisiana, which at that time were still territories or they fled to Indians, where they joined them in the war against the white men (91).” Everybody ran– the young and the old, mulattoes ,and pure blacks, Uncle Toms and radicals. They all followed the North Star. Some made their way North and to Canada. Many traveled the famous “Underground Railway” and were aided by liberal whites. But, as always in any victorious occasion, there was a down side, because many were recapture or returned voluntarily because they thought the odds were to great against them. However a large proportion remained in the South living in swamps and raiding near by plantations.
The other section of the book I especially found interesting was chapter 12 “The Bitter Harvest.” In 1963 the Negro Revolution began one hundred years after the Negro emancipation. This year marked the fundamental point in the relationship between black and white Americans. Negroes surged through the streets in the black waves of indignation, faced ferocious police dogs and armored police tanks, were clubbed, bombed, slashed and murdered. In the North and South there were riots and near riots and small wars. Bennett says that there were more than ten thousand racial demonstrations (sit-ins, lie-ins, sleep-ins, pray-ins, and stall-ins) and more than five thousand American Negroes were arrested for political activities. Negro unemployment had dropped to a level of the 1930 “Great Depression.” In addition the Supreme Court agreed that schools were separate and unequal. As the year progressed federal troops were maintaining an uneasy vigil at the University of Mississippi. Police officers and black rebels of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) were fighting in southwest Georgia and central Mississippi. Through the destruction brave men stepped out from behind the curtain, both black and white, both famous and not, men such as Martin Luther King, Jr., President Kennedy, Dick Gregory, Medgar Evers, Watt Tee Walker (assistant to King) and many many more.
On February 28, Mississippi racists made an attempt to assassinate a young field worker of the SNCC. Workers converged on Greenwood, Mississippi, and organized a massive voter registration campaign. Black men and white men fought and struggled in the streets of the Mississippi Delta town. Hundreds of native Mississippians marched on the registrar’s office and were repulsed by armed officers and K9 police dogs. When Dick Gregory, the militant comedian, went to Mississippi to lead the mass marches, the campaign attracted national attention.A second and larger front opened in Birmingham. On Wednesday, April 3, Martin Luther King, Jr., as he stepped out from an airline announced that he would lead racial demonstrations in the streets of Birmingham until “Pharaoh lets God’s People go.” King led many marches and gave many freedom speeches in his attempts to have America become a country of unity. Bennett discusses this period of American history in detail.
Just as any other book , this book has its boring parts and its exciting parts. However, I still advise the reader who really likes history to read this particular book. While reading this book, I learned a lot about my ancestral history. Like the old saying says, “How can you know where you’re going if you never know where you’ve been?” Over all, I’ll give this book two thumbs up!
- Video Interview with Lerone Bennett about his book Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream
- Study Guide questions for Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s Before the Mayflower.
- Abbot, Dorothy. Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.