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Editorial

I WAS JUST THINKING… : Who was Yanga? African prince on exhibit and why he’s important to African-Americas and Latinos (Part II)

By Norma Adams-Wade

Yanga exhibit curator Jorge Baldor
Yanga exhibit curator Jorge Baldor / Credit: The Dallas Morning News special contributor Jeffrey McWhorter

Continuing after last week’s introduction of Gaspar Yanga, why he’s important to Latinos and African-Americans, and the two cultures’ distinct celebrations of Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth. Each culture has a slightly different take on the Maroon prince and liberator who was captured by Spaniards from French-speaking Gabon, West Africa between the 1560s and 1570, enslaved, and brought directly to Spanish-ruled Veracruz, Mexico, then known as New Spain.

It’s interesting to note that Yanga was never enslaved in the U. S. Yet Clarence E. Glover Jr., also known as “Professor Freedom” and one of three scholars we quote in this Part II – points out that the African liberator’s descendants in Mexico played a significant though little-known role in the Union Army’s Civil War victory. But read on.

Clash of cultures? Male egos? Misunderstood words?

Historian Clarence Glover Jr.
Historian Clarence Glover Jr. at the exhibit, talking with friends about a commissioned art piece simulating the Yanga liberator in Mexico / Credit: Clarence Glover Jr.

But first, there’s an unfortunate elephant in the room. A bit of tension has developed among three strong-willed, noted Dallas scholars, each respected in their areas of study. They are so passionate about illuminating the ties between Yanga, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, and the civil War that they disagree about how best to present this 16th Century warrior who liberated himself and some followers in Veracruz, Mexico, then known as New Spain. The area now is renamed Yanga Veracruz.

Yanga’s story still is basically unknown and distinct from the Southern Underground Railroad to Mexico story that has gained more attention in recent years.

The three historians are:
Jorge Baldor, pronounced (whore-Hay Bal-Door), exhibit curator. Baldor founded the Latino Arts Project that is the exhibit’s prime sponsor, collaborating with the African American Museum at Fair Park. He also is founder/owner of Mercado 369 Museum and Art Gallery at 369 W. Jefferson Blvd. in Dallas, and an award-winning entrepreneur and community advocate. (Part I detailed more about his background.)
Clarence E. Glover Jr., an intensely fervent purveyor of African and African-American history is a former adjunct professor and diversity administrator at Southern Methodist University, Dallas school district multicultural education executive, president and founder of Sankofa Education Services, and veteran civil rights advocate.

Statue of machete
Statue of machete-griping liberator Gaspar Yanga in Mexico. / Credit Wikipedia

Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney, associate history professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Arlington, national president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (that icon Carter G. Woodson founded), and the African American Museum’s former chief operating officer.

Glover’s objections
Glover applauds the exhibit of a powerful figure he calls his “personal hero…the first African freedom fighter in the Americas – North, South and Central.” Yet, he expresses some differing views about how the exhibit of an African luminary in Mexico is presented at the African American Museum by the Latino Arts Project. And he laments what he says was an overlooked opportunity to have more African-American input and Black community participation in publicly highlighting this long-hidden Black hero at a museum that promotes the life and culture of African descendants. During a walk through with friends recently, Glover gave a detailed review of each section of the exhibit, pointing out what he says were “gaps” of information and misinterpretations of parts of Yanga’s background that he has researched over time.
Still, though, Glover is pleased that Baldor has uncovered an African luminary too long unknown outside Mexico. Glover said ironically, he was seeking to schedule a lecture at the museum about the ties between Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth and his long-time, little-known Yanga hero when he stumbled upon the Yanga exhibit already in place there.
“Historians generally do not include the African presence (Yanga descendants) in what became known as Cinco de Mayo,” Glover said.
Glover said he met Baldor and they spoke briefly. But the two scholars clashed when Glover expressed some of his opinions about Black community input and participation.
Glover said he will continue his own quest to publicly lecture about his Yanga hero from a Black perspective. He already has begun public talks about how Yanga’s descendants – almost 300 years later in the late-1800s and from a distance in the same area that Yanga settled in Mexico – may have helped advance the Union’s Civil War victory. Researchers say recorded history mainly ignores that Yanga’s descendants helped during the May 5, 1862 Battle of Puebla that became known as Cinco de Mayo. Researchers explain how the battle created a Union advantage by aborting an important Confederate cotton and gun exchange deal with French Emperor Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, who sought to make Mexico a French colony while the Civil War was waging.

Baldor, Dulaney’s responses
Baldor and Dr. Dulaney challenge Glover’s different interpretation of certain parts of the Yanga exhibit and Glover’s assertion that there was little African-America input in bringing the exhibit to the museum. Dr. Dulaney said Glover is uninformed about much of the behind-the-scenes planning – six months before the exhibit opened April 9, 2022 — between Baldor, Dr. Dulaney as the museum’s then-chief operating officer, and African American Museum founder and President Dr. Harry Robinson Jr.
“I was intimately involved in the planning and assembly to put this exhibit together,” Dr. Dulaney said. “We don’t just let anyone bring their exhibits to the museum without some control from us. I’m a historian myself for 42 years, and I’m saying there are no gaps in the Yanga exhibit.”
Baldor said his interest in Gaspar Yanga began when he first visited some remote areas of Mexico and saw various commemorative markers and heard talks about the African liberator. As a historian and arts and culture enthusiast, Baldor said he already was interested in projects to bring diverse cultures together, and Yanga’s heroic story was a perfect venue.
“It is amazing that Yanga is so unknown. … Keeping him secret would mean robbing us of a hero we should be celebrating,” said Baldor who was born in Cuba, brought to Dallas with his family at age six, and grew up in Dallas’s Oak Cliff community.
Baldor said he took offense to Glover’s initial questions to him implying an alleged lack of African-American input.
“I don’t like someone coming in…telling me everything I’m doing wrong,” Baldor said. “It he has some constructive criticism, I’m open to it.”
Despite the obvious tensions among three worthy scholars, the public should go and see the exhibit. It’s an education we owe to Yanga and his legacy.

Exhibit details

The FREE exhibit, “Yanga: Path to Freedom in the Americas,” opened April 9, 2022 and will continue through October 21, 2022 at the African American Museum, 3536 Grand Ave inside Fair Park in Dallas. Enter the fairground through Gate 5. Baldor founded the Latino Arts Project in 2019 as a “pop-up” museum to be displayed in various innovative spaces. Baldor curates the exhibit in collaboration with the African American Museum where Dr. Harry Robinson Jr. is founder, president, and CEO. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. During the Yanga exhibit, the museum – that traditionally is closed on Sunday and Monday — will be open now on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. To inquire, email jorge@visityanga.com or info@aamdallas.org or call 214-565-9026. Also, visit www.visityanga.com or www.aamdallas.org.

Norma Adams-Wade, is a proud Dallas native, University of Texas at Austin journalism graduate and retired Dallas Morning News senior staff writer. She is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and was its first southwest regional director. She became The News’ first Black full-time reporter in 1974. norma_adams_wade@yahoo.com

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