Enslaved Blacks Invented Blue Jeans | Michael Coard

A few weeks ago, February 14 to be exact, I tweeted the following:

ENJOYED BLACKS INVENTED BLUE JEANS. They did it in South Carolina and other southern states in the mid-1700s knowing how to skillfully transform the indigo plant that had been skillfully cultivated by their ancestors 6,000 years ago! (It wasn’t Levi Strauss in 1873.)”

This tweet went viral with 50,000 likes, over 14,300 retweets and around 760 quote tweets with all those massive numbers increasing hourly. And my Instagram post got 2,000 views.

Based on this widespread response from national and international social media, I decided to elaborate on this “enslaved black people invented blue jeans” topic by writing more extensively about it now in my “Black Dollars Matter” column. this month.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

The indigo plant (c. Peru) and Asia (especially India) – can be used to dye fabric an amazingly beautiful blue color.

As Catherine McKinley, an academic and author in the field of African and African-American textile traditions and historical fashion, pointed out during a segment of a powerfully illuminating PBS American Experience documentary titled “Riveted: The History of Jeans”,

“In many cultures, indigo cloth has spiritual significance. In Africa, the fabric is considered the layer closest to the skin. It contains a person’s soul, his spirit. Africans have a long history of indigo working and knew the special process involved in making the dye and dyeing fabrics.

In a scholarly essay titled “Blue Gold,” art history writer Rosie Lesso of The Art Story Foundation in the UK writes: “Like India, West Africa…has a long history of indigo production. Steeped in tradition, the ancient craft of creating indigo fabrics had been passed down from generation to generation, from cultivation and harvesting to fermentation and dyeing…. [I]indigo fabrics and clothes… [are] deeply rooted in spiritual symbolism, a philosophy that still persists in many West African cultures.

As colonialism spread across Africa, the highly profitable skills of West Africans in indigo craftsmanship were exploited by the American and European slave trades. Colonial indigo plantations were established in the West Indies and the Americas, where West African “slaves” were forced to produce dyes for the wealthy European and American markets. In fact, such was the competition, brutality and rivalry in the production of indigo from the 16th century to the 19th century, it is sometimes called “the devil’s dye”.

Seth Rockman, professor of history at Brown University and author in the field of slave economics, noted in the PBS documentary that: “Many African captives who became slaves in the New World brought with them knowledge of how to extract blue from the plant and how to fix the blue onto fabrics.Indigo is one of the ways slavery became linked to the economic fortunes of the colonial experience in the Americas .

And McKinley went on to say, “In the mid-1700s there was this labor force that had been taken out of Africa. And indigo presents itself as this thing with economic possibility. And then when you add to that the movement of the dye from one end of the world to the other, it only increased in value.

Now that we know how fabrics were able to be transformed into this mesmerizing and spiritual blue color, how did this relate to jeans in particular? Here is the answer.

In a PBS presentation titled “Many Rivers to Cross,” moderated by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., it was revealed that “in the 1790s, America’s earliest cultures , like tobacco, were depleting farmland and losing value. At the same time, the textile industry in Britain was booming, creating huge international demand for cotton clothing. Eli Whitney’s gin simply provided the engine of a global economic machine, and slavery was its fuel.

Additionally, historian, author, and educational consultant Greg Timmons, in an article on history.com, noted, “Between 1801 and 1835 alone, American cotton exports grew from 100,000 bales to over a million, jeopardizing half of all US exports…. As cotton became the backbone of the Southern economy, slavery generated impressive profits.

And a lot of those “slave cotton” profits came from making blue jeans, which isn’t surprising since it took up to two pounds of cotton to make a single pair of jeans.

It’s worth mentioning that enslaved blacks not only transformed and dyed cotton denim into blue jeans, but they also wore them because they were the only fabric strong and durable enough to be worn while constantly engaging. in brutal “slave” labor.

In fact, enslaved black people wore blue jeans so often that this item of clothing was actually called “negro cloth.” And – as documented in the “Freedom on the Move” database – black people who attempted to escape slavery were consistently portrayed in “runaway slave advertisements” as having carried at the time of their escape “blue denim pants”, “denim pants”, “dark denim clothes”, etc.

Unfortunately, American history books will tell students that Levi Strauss in 1873 or Eliza Lucas Pinckney in 1739 invented blue jeans. But the devil is a liar.

Strauss was nothing more than a San Francisco supply merchant who, following a meeting with Reno, Nevada, tailor Jacob Davis added six copper rivets to reinforce each pair of blue jeans. That’s all he did.

And Lucas Pinckney, the daughter of a colonial governor, was nothing more than a spoiled 17-year-old botany student who plagiarized her indigo research from enslaved black people in South Carolina who were on the cutting edge. of the qualified treatment of indigo after having received this knowledge. descendant from generation to generation of their agronomist ancestors in Africa. These enslaved black workers were the reason indigo became the second largest cash crop behind rice in South Carolina. It was they, not Lucas Pinckney, who innately understood the indigo plant and did the skilled and backbreaking work of transforming it.

Daina Ramey Berry, chair of the history department at the University of Texas, adds: “We know the names of all the slaves who belonged to the Lucas and Pinckney families. These are the generations of families. We are not just talking about husband and wife or mother and father. We see grandparents on it [actual ‘slave’ property] listing [shown in the PBS documentary] …. They were the ones who had the knowledge of indigo and created generations of wealth for these “slave” white families.

This is precisely why McKinley made it clear that “Indigo really encapsulates this problem of how do we begin to tell the story of captive people and how we document their contributions to America and to denim history in particular.”

Oh, by the way, three more things:

One – Because Levi Strauss was a racist who hated blacks and Chinese, both of whom made up a large portion of San Francisco’s population at that time, he refused to hire them and had the following printed in advertisements for the sale of his jeans, “The only type made by white labor.” He actually did that.

Two – Thank your ancestors the next time you put on designer blue jeans or relaxing blue jeans or any blue jeans. Seriously, take a few seconds of meditation to thank them.

Three – Spread the word to every black person about the real origin of blue jeans!

Michael Coard, Esq. can be followed on Twitter, Instagram and his YouTube channel as well as on AvengingTheAncestors.com. His show “Radio Courtroom” can be heard on WURD 96.1 FM or 900 AM. And his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCAM/Verizon Fios/Comcast. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Philadelphia Tribune.