Ronald Angelo Johnson
Season 4 - Episode 408
Black History Month provides a meaningful time to study and consider the history and contributions of African Americans. In this Baylor Connections, Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson, the Ralph and Bessie Mae Lynn Chair of History at Baylor, examines ways we can intentionally expand our study of, and appreciation for, the impact and history of African Americans, further enriching our understanding of what it means to be an American.
Derek Smith:Welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in-depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson. Dr. Johnson serves as the Ralph and Bessie Mae Lynn Chair of History at Baylor. He specializes in early US and African-American history with a particular focus on diplomacy and religion. Dr. Johnson is the author of the book, Diplomacy in Black and White: John Adams, Toussaint Louverture and Their Atlantic World Alliance, and is currently at work on the forthcoming book, In Search of Liberty: African American Internationalism During the Nineteenth-Century. He joined the Baylor faculty in 2020. In his first year here at Baylor in the midst of the pandemic had already done a lot of exciting things here and we're glad to have you on the program today. Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson, thanks so much for joining us on Baylor Connections.
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Thank you, Derek. Thank you so much for having me.
Derek Smith:Well, it's great to have you here and to get to know you a little bit as a new faculty member and learn more about your work and talk more about approaching African American history and expanding the way we look at that. And as we dive into that, I want to just ask you first, what drew you to join the Baylor faculty and what have your first few months been like, certainly in the middle of this strange time in the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Yeah. As a lifelong Texan and a lifelong Baptist, I've always known about Baylor, but there were two primary things that drew me to the Baylor family. And the one was the Baylor mission. This mission that we set ourselves on to become a Christian research university, I really wanted to be a part of that. President Livingstone often says that the world needs a Baylor. And I agree with that whole heartedly. I believe that our world is made better when people of faith excel in our chosen professions, while also exhibiting the love of God and the grace of Christ to every person that we meet. And we here at Baylor have the privilege of instructing the present and next generation of leaders to do just that. I walk into every classroom and I try to write every book based on my belief in the biblical verse, Colossians 3:23. It says, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord." And Baylor seems to be the place and it's working out that way. That is a place that I can be explicit about that and that my work can do that. The second reason I came and it speaks directly to what you talked about, about coming within the pandemic. It was the people. When you apply for a faculty position, you meet people very briefly and you make an investment in them, but they also make an investment in you. And the Baylor family has proven to be a great place to be in the middle of a strange time. My history colleagues are fantastic. They check on me all the time. They make sure that I'm feeling comfortable. My students are great. The parents of my students are great. I even get emails from Baylor alumni whom I never met to welcome me to the Baylor family. If I could just share one quick anecdote. Last week, I was at a student event outside of Moody Library. And there were about 100 different students there to support each other from all walks of life. Several of my students from last semester came up to speak to me. Now, we've known each other only in masks because we've been in COVID protocols, but they recognized me, they came up to talk to me. And then President Livingstone walks up to me and starts to talk to me is if we're old friends. We had never met before in-person. And yet on our first meeting she greeted me as if I've been here my entire life. And that has been my first impressions of the Baylor community.
Derek Smith:That's great. Part of the Baylor family and deep right away. That's great. That's great as we visit with Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson. And Dr. Johnson, you talked about the work you do and doing it as unto the Lord, and it's certainly an important topic that you focus on. We described it very briefly at the top of the show, but can you take us a little further inside your scholarly focus and what that looks like?
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Yeah, so I research ways in which religion and diplomacy have brought the people in the United States and the people of Haiti together in these unexpected ways over the course of our histories. Most of the time when we mention Haiti, most people, most Americans have an image of Haiti and it is not all that flattering to Haiti. And I find that when we focus a lens on early Haiti, at its beginnings, when it achieved its independence and its strove to become a democracy in the world, I'm able to use that moment to more clearly illuminate the challenges and the achievements of our own country. In my first book that you mentioned earlier, Diplomacy in Black and White, I discussed how President John Adams helped to permanently eradicate slavery in Haiti while the issue of slavery remained very problematic within the United States. Haiti eradicated its slavery and emancipated itself in 1804. It's 60 years before the United States is able to do that, to eradicate slavery in our own country. But I'm encouraged by that history when I discovered that writing about ways in which early Americans encountered Haiti opened opportunities for our founding generation to make positive strides in terms of race and slavery. And that speaks to my overall understanding of American history. It is even though the founders were grappling Haiti, grappling with slavery, pardon me, they were able to help Haiti deal with slavery in itself. It reminds me of the human condition. Though we are striving to improve ourselves, we continue to struggle as people. So if we continue to struggle, it seems only to reason that our nation, which is full of people, will continue to struggle as it also advances.
Derek Smith:Well, that's a good tie into something. Actually, I became more aware of your work through a BaylorProud post that you worked on sharing resources for Black History Month, that I would encourage people to look up. If you just Google BaylorProud Ronald Angelo Johnson, it would be the first thing that pops up. And a lot of great resources to learn more about black history, but you had a good quote talking about black history and what it teaches us about American history. And certainly this month itself provides us an important opportunity to consider the history of black Americans. I know you actually teach a course here at Baylor called that, The History of Black Americans, but sometimes maybe a lot of us can limit our understanding of black history, or at least a focus on it, I should say, to a certain time. Or almost as a sidebar. Could you talk a little bit about just what you would like more people to really think about what it is and the ways we may be compartmentalized black history or just how integral it is to that broad American story?
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Yes. Black History Month, I think is a wonderful reminder of the importance of black people in American history. When the early 20th century, African American thinker, Carnegie Watson, when he proposed this idea of Black History Month, which he called at the time Negro Week, which became Black History Month, he could see that as a way to start conversations about black history. And I think that 100 years on after his proposal we're beginning to see black history as just that, the ability to start conversations and then continue with them across the year. One of the ways in which we compartmentalize black history, actually is tied to the way we can see of American history as a whole. At some level, American history is conceived, the founding story, our creation story if you will, of American history, the revolution, the constitution. It can sometimes be considered as white because many of the actors that we talk about and we illuminate during that period are all white. And then when we add on these other actors, African Americans, Mexican Americans, female Americans, then they become a kind of auxiliary or something to only talk about when we have some extra time. And I think by writing and teaching about African Americans at the time of our creation, at the time of the revolution, at the time of the constitution, it reinforces the value and the indispensability of African Americans to the American story, so that if we begin to see African Americans at the beginning, then they become a part of the story all the way through.
Derek Smith:You mentioned Dr. Johnson, that there is that struggle, that constant struggle as we as human struggle to live up to our own values. What are some of the ways that as we intertwine the history of Black Americans with American history that seem that maybe most illuminates who we are and who we strive to be?
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Yeah. One of the things I really try to do is talk about the ways in which African Americans and White Americans side by side, from the very beginning have built this country. And one of the ways in which that has occurred is in one of the books that I'm writing right now, it's called Shades of Color. In addition to the two that we mentioned at the top of the show, Shades of Color is a book I'm working on and in that very first chapter, I introduce my readers to some 500 men of color who volunteer to come from Haiti to Savannah, Georgia at the sea, and to fight alongside American soldiers, American rebels in the American Revolution, at the siege of man against the British. And this fighting together, this military camaraderie demonstrates that White Americans were concerned about freedom. People of color were concerned about freedom and the very birth of freedom within this nation was a collaboration between white people, black people from different places. And on that note, I find that to be one of the reasons that John Adams later on is going to intervene in the Haitian Revolution. And one of those actors, one of those black soldiers at the siege of Savannah becomes Haiti's second president after its own founding. And so that's just at the very beginning, we see these ways in which African Americans and White Americans have been linked arm and arm across the history. And I think when we conceive of it in that way, we begin to see that African American history and American history are one and the same.
Derek Smith:That's great as we visit with Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson, chair of history at Baylor. And you just told a story that I did not know that's fascinating. And there are lots of stories like that. Most of us in school here, the big names and certainly important, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, but there are hundreds, thousands of fascinating stories like that important stories that we don't know. Are there aspects that stand out to you of black history as being under told or areas that any of us who have an interest in history might want to start diving into more?
Ronald Angelo Johnson:I gave you a lot of great credit, right? You've hit on what I called the big three, right? King, Tubman, Douglas. These are the ones that we all kind of gravitate to and they get trotted out, particularly during Black History Month. And that is a great beginning, but I think if we only allow ourselves to think about those three, we really miss out on the ones that you mentioned. One area that I think is getting a lot more visibility these days is about the idea of African Americans escaping slavery for freedom. And the reason I think that's important is because it speaks to this very American virtue of a desire for freedom. And I'll give one example. There was a woman by the name of Ona Judge. She was a black woman enslaved by George and Martha Washington at the presidential mansion during his first and second terms. It is during George Washington's second term that Ona Judge escapes from slavery and the presidential mansion, goes to New Hampshire and become a free woman. And while she is there, George Washington actually uses his office as the president to get the Secretary of Treasury to hunt her down and bring her back. Erica Armstrong Dunbar at Rutgers University, she's a scholar that wrote this book and it is a fascinating book. It's called Never Caught. And it is very accessible. Anyone can pick it up without having any knowledge of early American history, African American history, and really be able to read this book. And one of the things she does in this book is she demonstrates the importance of slavery to the nation at its founding. There was not some add on it; slavery was an integral part. And it was also an integral part of George and Martha Washington's identity in the world. Who they were. Their wealth was at some level based upon the over 300 people that were enslaved at Mount Vernon.
Derek Smith:Yeah. So Dr. Johnson, as you talk about George Washington and Ona Judge, I think it's an uncomfortable reality for a lot of people that someone who could do things that were on one hand very heroic could also be a part of an institution that was clearly wrong and evil and perpetuate that. As you work with your students and kind of help them navigate that challenge, what does that look like and what are some ways you work with your students through that?
Ronald Angelo Johnson:That is an excellent question and I really believe that my Christian belief comes to play in the way that I introduce and discuss these topics with my students. Because in the situation that you mentioned about Washington, we are talking about a human being, a very revered human being within American history. But like each of us, each human being has his and her flaws. And so I try to help my students understand that because George Washington enslaved people, because he and Ona Judge had the relationship that they had, that does not in any way diminish the value, the achievements that he made to the founding and the preservation of this nation. And when we talk about the history of race and the history of slavery, those conversations are uncomfortable in the classroom and outside the classroom. And I think what helps those conversations go along much better, even though they're going to be uncomfortable and there's little we can do about that, when we come to those conversations with an eye toward grace, an eye towards redemption, an eye towards collegiality after the discussion, I think we're able to put the historical subjects on the plane of humanity and evaluate humanity for both its achievements and its flaws all at the same time.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson. And you mentioned a woman there, Ona Judge, and that's an interesting thought because I've seen you talk about the fact that maybe sometimes many African American women's stories haven't been as importantly told yet. Obviously, the role they've played has been huge. What are some things we should think about that maybe we haven't thought about that as often?
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Yeah. I think that the more we learn about the role of African American women in US history, I think the better we are to understand just how amazing we are as a country. For instance, I just mentioned Ona Judge and the struggles that she had to go through in order to gain her freedom. We talk about Harriet Tubman, right? And she is a woman that helped us gain an understanding of freedom. All throughout American history we see black women who have really been relegated to the back seat of our history. Being there, the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote in this country was really helped out in large part because of the importance of African-American women in that fight, yet the 19th Amendment did not give most African-American women the right to vote. That doesn't come until 1965. And so as we've just seen in the recent inauguration, the first woman of color rise to the Office of Vice President of the United States largely on the backs of African American women, African American female voters, African American female supporters. And as we gain that level of understanding, we see a group of people who have loved freedom, who have contributed to this country while after white American males, after African American males, after White American females, then they African American females finally are able to gain full access to the rights and privileges that other groups that they have helped have had for so much longer.
Derek Smith:Yeah, that's good. As we visit with Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson here on Baylor Connections. And I'm curious as we think about taking a broader view of the history of Black Americans as the title of your class says. What are some ways that you help your students do that? And maybe some ways that anyone who loves history or has children of their own, whatever age they are, can maybe take some things away from that that they could incorporate into their own work.
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Yeah. So first of all, let me talk about this class, History of black Americans here at Baylor. I love this class and I love this class because of the curiosity and the energy that my students bring to it. I said earlier, the people of Baylor have helped me during this strange time. My students are a great part of that. They show up having read the readings, engaged the readings, and then they engage each other on topics that many of them were unfamiliar with prior to entering the class. And that encourages me, that inspires me because this class of African American students, White American students, Latino American students, Asian American students, all come together to try to learn more and to be better together as a classroom community. And that I take, I think any of us can take with us as we think about larger areas of history, teaching our kids, being taught by our kids, that in teaching with children and in learning history...Now I have to say for our audience, I understand that not everybody likes history. Okay. I am a history nerd. I love history and not everybody does, but I think when we learn history in the context of things that we already enjoy, it makes it a lot more pleasurable. For example, if we love art, whether it's dance, whether it's a concert, whether it's symphony, a way to expand our understanding of Black American history is to seek out black ballet dancers, symphonies by black composers, operas written by black composers and engaging those. While even though we may be unfamiliar with that particular composer, that particular piece of work, we come to it with an appreciation for art. On my leisure time, I love novels and I have to thank my ninth grade and 11th grade English teachers for really imbuing me the value of reading. And one of the ways on my leisure time that I encounter African American history is through novels and in novels that appropriate African American life in it. We not only get Black American history, Black American life, but a great writer takes us on these journeys through literature. And I'll just throw out a couple of examples here. Jennifer Chiaverini, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, American Spy by a new author, Lauren Wilkinson, The Given Day by Dennis Lehane, John Grisham's Sycamore Row, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. All of these novels are wonderful pieces of writing that along the way we just happen to be learning more than we knew before about African American history. And the great thing about reading in 2021 is yes, we can sit down with a cup of coffee and read it as a book, but if our time doesn't allow, we can use these apps on our phones. One of them given out by the Waco-McLennan County Public Library, it's an app where you can access audio books. And we can have those going whether we're in the car, whether we're walking through Cameron Park. These are the types of ways when we're doing things that we enjoy that incorporate black life. It introduces us to black history without being confrontational, without requiring a debate and at a very low cost to us because we do something that we enjoy and we learn all at the same time.
Derek Smith:Well, you took me back a little bit because I'm a big baseball fan. And honestly, my introduction to learning about Jim Crow was doing a fifth grade history report on Henry Aaron. They let us pick someone we wanted to do and I picked him and read books. And that's where I began to learn about that while I was reading about his home runs and [crosstalk 00:23:04] with the Braves. Absolutely. Visiting with Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson. And Dr. Johnson, you mentioned a few novels there, are there other resources that you might recommend people take a look at if what they're hearing has intrigued them or you may be inspired them to want to dig a little deeper?
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Yes. You mentioned earlier the BaylorProud post, which you can get by just going to BaylorProud Roland Johnson on Google, and what I do there, one of the things we looked at there because people learn in different ways and people approach enjoyment in different ways. And so I invite our listeners to one, books. On that list there's a list of books. There's also databases. And the great thing about where we are with technology and one of the databases is about slave voyages. I'll just point that one out. You can click on that. When you go to slavevoyages.org, and this is an interactive platform that allows you to see a slave ship, it's configurations. You can see the seas. And at certain times you can see the waves. You can see where it was going. It gives you numbers of what place in Africa from where they were taken to where they will be going. You can hear voices that actors have put on to really give you an interactive understanding of what life was like on the ship. And they do the same thing with other platforms. And there are so many different ways in 2021 for our listeners to get involved in... There are centers out there that are looking toward advancing our society toward understanding more clearly the tensions between us and diminishing those tensions. And so that's a way for people who want to get involved are able to do that. One thing I'd like to invite our listeners to do, when they come to Waco, when you come in to support the Bears at the football stadium, our basketball team and our other sports teams and our student artists, when you're coming to experience Magnolia here in Waco, there is a wonderful app. It's called Waco History, put forth by my colleague, Steven Sloan and his other colleagues in the Institute of Oral History. And what Waco History does in addition to so many other things about Waco History, when people come to Waco, the app will guide them to parts of Waco that have significant history and heritage about black life here in the city. For instance, it'll take them to the doors of Miller Monument. It'll take them to the black financial district over in north Waco. It was take to the former Paul Quinn Campus, which was a historically black college here in town. There are so many resources that when people come to support Baylor, when people come to enjoy Magnolia, they can expand their experience by engaging with black history that is all around us right here in Waco, Texas
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson. As we head into the final couple of moments. Again, we hope people will take a look at that, the Waco History app. And I'll mention again, the resources that you said on the BaylorProud post. They can find pretty easily, just Google Ronald Angelo Johnson, BaylorProud. And I just double checked, it's the third link that comes up. And if you see BaylorProud, you'll see that and that's an easy way to find it. And on that, you give a lot of resources that people can learn more. And I want to ask, as we wind down here, ask you again, just to sort of re summarize what it means to you to teach the history of Black Americans in the context of the American story. And just remind us again, as we think about our nation's past, present and future, how intertwined those two strands of our history are.
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Early on as a child in sixth grade, I can recall vividly learning about the Declaration of Independence, the phrase, all men are created equal. And then later on that same year, learning about the constitution and that in order to form a more perfect union. And those words to me were as vivid and meaningful as biblical scripture. And I have tried to live my life in a way that helps us understand how to make this country better. And I see the history of this nation as being bequeathed to future generations, including the one we're in, to make it a more perfect union. And when I teach, I really come at it realizing that American history can be controversial, it can be uncomfortable, but in that discomfort, when we're able to see each other not because of our differences, but through the history of this country, the shared history of this country, we see those similarities. I believe that my students and I, I believe my readers and I, I believe my listeners and I, all walk away from our encounters, at least I like to hope, more determined to be better Americans by engaging each other as colleagues, as countrymen and women, as brothers and sisters in this challenge to make this nation live up to the creeds and belief of that founding generation. And I believe when we enter conversations and we enter our learning experiences with that ideal, I think we will not only be better people, better Americans, better residents, but we will also teach those and leave a platform for those that come after us a better place in which to live.
Derek Smith:That's wonderful. And I thank you for sharing that and for sharing these resources and for taking the time today, I hope that as people listen here during Black History Month, they'll take the time to think about that a little bit more. And maybe look up some of these resources, not just now, but throughout the year as well. So thank you so much for taking the time today to share with us.
Ronald Angelo Johnson:Derek, I thank you so much for the invitation. This was so much fun. Thank you very, very much.
Derek Smith:Well, thank you, Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson, Ralph and Bessie Mae Lynn Chair of History at Baylor, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.