The Founder of Chicago: A Black Man?

Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable was born in St.Marc, Haiti (or St. Domingue as Haiti was known then) around 1745 of a French father and a Black African Slave mother. There is a paucity of information in the historical record as pertains to DuSable’s life in Haiti prior to his migration to New Orleans around 1765. Many scholars suggest that DuSable may have had French Canadian origins. However most biographers generally agree that the majority of evidence regarding his origins leads to the conclusion that he was a mulatto from present day Haiti. 

Once in New Orleans, DuSable made the epic journey up the Mississippi River where in the mid to late 1770’s he built a home and cultivated approximately 30 acres of land in Peoria, Illinois. He maintained excellent relations with Native Americans and lived among indigenous tribes where he married Catherine, the daughter of Potawatomie Chief Pokagon in a tribal ceremony. This common law marriage was solemnized in a Catholic church in Cahokia, Illinois in 1778. Jean-Baptiste and Catherine had two children, Jean-Baptiste Jr. and Suzanne. In 1793 or 1794 Suzanne married Jean-Baptiste Peltier. Suzanne bore a daughter Eulalie in Chicago in October of 1796. Historical evidence suggests that DuSable must have settled in Chicago prior to 1779. 

Located on the north bank of the Chicago River at its junction with Lake Michigan, DuSable’s estate consisted of a modest sized home, a horse mill, a bake house, a dairy, a smokehouse, a poultry house, a workshop, a stable, and a barn. The location of this settlement was at a natural crossroad for both Native Americans and Europeans seeking access to the Mississippi River. Many explorers and pioneers had come in passing prior to this settlement however none had stayed. DuSable established the first permanent settlement in present day Chicago and lived at that site for at least twenty years. He set up a trading post which flourished supplying customers with flour, pork, and bread in exchange for cash and durable goods. DuSable had established a good reputation with trading relations as far as Detroit, Green Bay, Mackinac and St. Joseph. 

During the period of the American Revolutionary War, DuSable sided with the Americans. Historical evidence suggests that DuSable had ties to Colonel George Rogers Clark of Virginia, who was sent to Illinois and Indiana to win the territories for the Americans. To avoid attack by Captain Charles de Langlade, DuSable fled with his family and settled on the River du Chemin (near modern-day Michigan City, Indiana). In 1779, he was subsequently arrested by a British lieutenant, Thomas Bennet and sent to Mackinac.

DuSable remained in detention for the remainder of the American Revolution. However because of his good character DuSable was sent to the Pinery a trading outpost located on the St. Clair River, south of modern-day Port Huron.  The Pinery had been established by the British Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair. Upon receiving news that the present manager had been mistreating the indigenous people of the area, Governor Sinclair appointed DuSable as manager where he worked for a period of three years. 

In 1784 DuSable returned to Chicago to reclaim his abandoned property and to reestablish his trading post. His business thrived and he lived in peace among Native Americans and white traders traveling through the area.  Historical accounts of white traders, British Governors and Lieutenants describe DuSable as a wealthy man of good character, sound business acumen, and with many friends.

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Mentoring young minds for success

It irritated Brian Freeland when the teen boy walked into the breakfast room, headphones blaring, reciting the expletive-filled lyrics about robbery.

“How are we going to start off the day like that?” Freeland thought.

He’s teacher and manager of a program that’s not your typical summer camp. At this mentorship program for black teen boys, the idea is to get the 40 hand-picked participants thinking about leadership and attending college.

It’s the second summer of the Emerging Leaders Mentorship Program for Black Males – which also goes by the attention-getting name of Save Our Black Boys. The program is at Barber-Scotia College in Concord this summer and kicked off this week.

Freeland used the teen with the headphones as a teachable moment – which lasted nearly two hours in the college library. He and assistant manager Brian Bulluck wove in the example of the explicit lyrics with the prepared history lesson covering slavery, international conflicts, and the black legacy of valuing education.

And he challenged the teen listening to the music to stand up, repeat the offensive lines, and then explain if he knew what the words really meant. (He didn’t).

“Music gets into your spirit. Just be careful what you let into your system,” Bulluck said.

“For those who don’t know,” Freeland told the teens, “I’m building leaders here.”

The idea behind the nonprofit program, started by volunteers, is fueled by stark statistics showing black male teens trailing their counterparts in graduating high school, passing standardized tests, avoiding crime and jail, and pursuing college. The program enrolls 14- through 17-year-olds from Cabarrus, Gaston, Mecklenburg and York counties, said program founder Susan Woods, who works in technical training at Wells Fargo.

Word has spread in the past year. Donors to the program include local philanthropists Ron and Katherine Harper; national radio host Michael Baisden, as part of his One Million Mentors national campaign; and Gang of One, which is part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. That group gave a $6,280 grant this year so that 25 teens from the Clanton Park community can join the program starting July 5..

The goal is to keep the teens involved until they graduate high school. Twenty-five teens from last year’s inaugural group remain in the program, with some working as peer counselors with the group this year. Others are expected to work in paid or unpaid internships this summer as program leaders find places for them.

This summer’s teens will spend six weeks hearing from more than 70 black male mentors in a variety of fields, from law to medicine to business to politics. They’ll also spend several hours every Friday morning beautifying the Barber-Scotia campus, which is hosting the program for free. The historically black college is working toward re-establishing accreditation after losing it in 2004.

Barber-Scotia President David Olah has seen the teens this week walking across campus, playing chess in the lunchroom, and presenting themselves in white shirts and ties during the induction ceremony at the college chapel.

“They’re trying to educate the total person,” Olah said.

The Emerging Leaders program has hit some bumps.

Out of last year’s group of 40 teens, 15 are out of the program, Woods said: Three couldn’t stay involved after a car accident totaled their only form of transportation. Two dropped out. Seven were expelled due to insubordination, from rude behavior to trying to recruit gang members from within the program. Three were expelled after they got arrested.

“I’m not proud they didn’t make it,” said Freeland, a history teacher at Garinger High School and Charlotte’s 2009 Teacher of the Year.

This prompted Freeland and Bulluck, a special education teacher at a Charlotte alternative school, to conduct face-to-face interviews of every boy before accepting anyone into the program this year.

The interview was a bit stressful, said Rico Kennedy, 14, a rising sophomore at Clover High School in York County. “They asked you a lot of tough questions. They asked what are problems facing black males in our community, how does President Obama influence us, what can you do to make your community better.”

But Kennedy said he sees how those questions prepared him for that day’s challenging dialogue in the library.

“We have so much strength in this room,” Freeland told the teens. “If we use it to help each other, there’s no one that can stop us.”

40 Black Men Take The “Kiyama” Pledge

Know that the world is not run by people who wear their pants at their knees. Know when to say please and thank you. Don’t let black women raise your children alone.  Refuse to be consumed by the myths of black inferiority or white superiority. Oh—and don’t litter.

Forty black men gathered Saturday to pledge to follow that creed.

The event took place at the student center auditorium of Southern Connecticut State University.

It was the first public taking of the Kiyama Pledge, created by local activist and criminal defense attorney Michael Jefferson.

Jefferson named his son (pictured) after the late black nationalist leader Malcolm X. Jefferson further honored Malcolm by creating Kiyama in 2005, the 80th anniversary of his birth. “Kiyama” means “resurrection” in Swahili.

The grassroots movement Jefferson hopes to start is non-sectarian and non-religious, although highly spiritual. “It’s set up to be universal,” Jefferson explained.

Jefferson took the pledge himself in front of his family in 2007. He said Saturday’s ceremony—which had the feel of half black history seminar, half secular revival— was not prompted by any particular event.

“It was just time to have a documented public pledge,” he said. Yet he said he sensed something growing in the African-American community, a conscious sense of African-Americans taking charge of their own fate.

Which can happen a lot more quickly, in the Internet age.

Kiyama is anchored in a comprehensive website created by the tech-savvy Jefferson (who also started this web business).

The site includes a Kiyama curriculum on black history and issues, compiled solely by Jefferson from his reading, replete with links to publications and sites.

“It’s fully researched,” said Jefferson.

It has info on everything from the Dred Scott decision to the fact that Rome at the time of the movie Gladiator had a senate that was one third black. Jefferson also said there were three early African popes.

People can go online, study, and take the pledge before their families or in public. That would include a “war on ignorance” within the black community including the prevalent showing of underpants in public, displayed by grown men as well as kids: “Not acting your age but your foot size” is how Jefferson put it.

“Kiyama is simple,” he said. “It’s about being better. Look at how Richard Pryor stopped using the N word.” He suggested that if rappers would pull their pants up, so would the huge audience of boys who follow them.

By Jefferson’s design, the pledge in public is always administered by a woman. That’s because, according to Jefferson, black women have sustained the black community over the generations; black men have to pick up their game as responsible parents and leaders to complement them.

On Saturday, Hill Alderwoman Jackie James-Evans did the honors. Among the many pledgees as well as well-wishers were Wooster Square Alderman Michael Smart, New Haven Family Alliance’s Barbara Tinney; Wilbur Cross Assistant Principal Larry Conaway, and Hamden High School Principal Gary Highsmith, who gave a stirring post-ceremony address.

Highsmith spoke of how he struggles to channel his anger to positive ends when for the umpteenth time a white visitor to his school enters and can’t believe he’s the principal rather than a custodian.

By the same token, Highsmith said, he was exasperated with the black father who emailed him to confirm some matter about his son in relation to child support. “That boy is a senior at Hamden High and I hadn’t heard a word from [the father] or seen him in all the four years of the boy’s attendance,” said Highsmith. In effect, that is no model for black fatherhood either.

Jerry Smart (left in photo) and Rick Goodjohn were among those taking the pledge Saturday.

The two have been involved in pledge-like work already. The are both single custodial dads, that is, taking care of their children alone. Smart is the PTO president at Conte/West Hills. Goodjohn works with youth programs at Community Action Agency.

They said they are in the process of forming an organization called Fathers Impact. Goodjohn said there are services for women raising kids alone in New Haven, but almost nothing for custodial black dads.

And, they assert, that population is growing.

What has all this to do with littering? “We need to confront some of our own self-destructive tendencies,” Jefferson said. “You can’t blame white men for littering if you litter.”