Muhammad Toure was born in the mid-1400s in Senegal and was said to be in the bloodline of the Soniki people within the Songhai Empire. Little is known about Toure’s life before he gained military fame, but he gained his fame through a number of legendary victories on the battlefield. There are scholarly debates over Muhammad Toure being a part of the ruling family of Songhai or not. What we do know is during the time of Toure’s rise to fame Sonni Ali Ber was the Emperor and Founder of the Songhai Empire. Toure served as the Chief Minister to Sonni Ali until Ali’s death in 1492. Ali was succeeded by his son Abu Bakr Da’u aka Sonni Baru. Sonni Baru would only rule Songhai for one year or less because of a coup d’état led by Muhammad Toure, which was followed by Toure naming himself the Emperor of Songhai. Muhammad Toure had plans to expand the Songhai Empire, but he first had to start by reorganizing his empire, equipping it to thrive during its expansion. Toure created new positions for his ruling counsel and appointed family members and the people he trusted the most to the positions. In a strategic move to solidify his empire, he married his daughters and nieces to the prominent men and officials of the kingdoms of the Songhai Empire. Songhai expanded so rapidly that it is known as the largest empire in the history of the continent of Africa, covering 1.4 million square kilometers.
Toure wanted his empire to reflect two main things, being an Islamic empire and being an educated empire. Scholars say that other religious and spiritual paths were practiced in Songhai but Islam was declared the official religion. Timbuktu was one of Songhai’s universities and its reputation as one of the world’s leading educational centers grew under the rule of Muhammad Toure. Songhai not only housed one of the world’s leading academic centers, but they were also opening up trade agreements with Asian and European nations, which helped to increase their wealth and expand their empire even more. Toure’s rule of Songhai is known as the “Golden Age” of Muslim Scholarship at Timbuktu, scholars from around the world descended upon Timbuktu to learn. Toure’s rule was also a time when Islamic laws and ways of living began replacing the traditional African laws and ways of living. Toure is known as a well-organized leader, Timbuktu, Jenne, Masina, and Taghaza were the four areas Toure split Songhai into, each area was overseen by a governor who reported directly to Toure.
In 1496, Toure took a pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca carrying with him the equivalent of 2.5 billion dollars worth of gold, horseman, and infantrymen. Muhammad Toure became know as Askia The Great after a victory between the years 1493 and 1496. Stories are told that he took the title Askia to mock the daughters of the men he defeated because they declared that Muhammad Toure would never be great. The Askia Dynasty was one of the Songhai Empire’s greatest and most successful dynasties, but like all things, an end must come. As Toure grew older his influence on his people grew weaker. A number of the people grew bitter because of his strict Islamic views, but his greatest threat came from within his own household. A number of Toure’s trusted advisors were killed and his life was in danger. As an old man who was losing his sight and could no longer properly defend himself, he relied heavily on his advisors. His oldest son Musa was responsible for the killings of his advisors. Musa wanted Toure’s throne and nothing would stop him. Musa was eventually able to kill Muhammad Toure and take over as the Emperor of Songhai, but the memory of Muhammad Toure would even outlive the Songhai empire. To Muhammad Toure aka Askia The Great, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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Juan de Sessa was born around 1518, his place of birth is debated by historians, but it is believed that he was either born in Spain or Ethiopia. We do know he was born from enslaved Africans of the house of Don Luiz Fernandez, the Count of Cabra, the second Duke consort of Sessa. Juan was the personal assistant to the third Duke of Sessa, Don Gonzalo, the son of Don Luiz Fernandez. Juan and Don Gonzalo were said to have been around the same age range. In 1520, Don Luiz Fernandez died, forcing his wife Dona Elvira to move her family to Granada. At the age of twelve, Juan moved to Granada with Don Gonzalo and Dona Elvira, around this time Don Gonzalo began attending school, and because Juan was his personal assistant he accompanied Gonzalo as he attended school. Pedro de Mota was an instructor at the Cathedral of Granada who taught Don Gonzalo, because Juan was constantly in attendance and also paying attention, he also gained an education, becoming proficient in Greek and Latin languages. It is said that because he mastered the Latin language that his classmates named him Juan Latino and the name stuck. Under normal circumstances of the times, Juan would have only just accompanied Don Gonzalo and not have learned much because school was presented as unattainable for enslaved people, but because Juan was eager to learn he began picking up on the lessons and even outperforming Don Gonzalo. Juan was so proficient that he was allowed to continue to study because the instructors could see how much of an asset he was to the household.
The University of Granada was founded in 1531, it is also the place where Juan and Don Gonzalo would continue their education after advancing past the Cathedral of Granada. Juan earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1546 and his Master’s degree in 1556, all while starting a family and navigating a world where slavery is still legal and racism is being defined. Juan was an educated man of African descent living in Spain less than fifty years after the Moors were expelled from Spain, and the European nations have begun building wealth from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. To say Juan Latino was an exceptional person would be an understatement. Juan was known for his intellectual prowess and ability to teach others. He was hired to tutor Ana, the daughter of the Licenciado Carlobal, the owners of the estates of the Duke of Sessa. He was tutoring Ana in music; Ana had a reputation for her beauty and Juan had a reputation for being a lady’s man. After tutoring Ana, the two eventually married and the union was a disruption of the social classes of Spain. A man who is the son of a slave of the Duke of Sessa has married the daughter of the overseers of the Duke of Sessa. Ana and Juan produced 4 children from their union, two boys and two girls. Around 1566, Juan competed with Licenciado Villanueva for the position of Cathedral Professor of Grammar, he eventually earned the position and it was incentivized by giving him extra university privileges.
Juan Latino was breaking barriers as an African in Spain in the 1500s. He was excelling as a Professor of Grammar and gaining a reputation as a great poet, he was even able to translate the poems of Virgil into Spanish. He was creating quite a reputation of excellence for himself, he was also beginning to be seen and respected within the social circles of Granada, but no amount of success could have shielded him from the presence of racism. Black skin was still seen as inferior to his fellow white counterparts, he was often targeted and ridiculed for his skin color and social class by birth. Juan is credited with contributing to the “Golden Age” of Spanish writing because a number of the writers who pushed Spanish literature into their “Golden Age” were students of Juan Latino. His influence and views of the world helped to prepare some of the most skilled and thought-provoking writers in Spanish history. Juan was very successful in his life, he gained a lot, but he also lost a lot as well. As he aged he began to lose a number of the people who were closest to him. A number of friends and colleagues passed away, but the loss of his dear wife Ana was a devastating blow to him. Juan Latino died in 1608 at the age of 90 due to his health failing and blindness setting in. Before his death, Juan was able to defy the odds of the times. He became a prominent member of his community, and his country, even though he was the son of an enslaved African within a society that saw African people as less than human. Mr. Juan de Sessa, aka, Juan Latino, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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Wirth, N. (2007, December 09). Juan Latino (ca. 1518-ca. 1594). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/latino-juan-c-1518-c-1594/
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In 1833, Marcos Maceo moved to the island of Cuba, after a number of his fellow soldiers were exiled from Venezuela. Marcos Maceo was a Venezuelan soldier fighting for the Spanish in the Venezuelan War of Independence. While living in Cuba Marcos met and married a woman named Mariana Grajales y Cuello, the couple produced a son named Antonio. Antonio Maceo Grajales was born on June 14th, 1845, in the town of San Luis, Cuba. His family lived on the Jobabo farm, which was Antonio’s place of birth. His parents were very instrumental in his upbringing. His father not only was a soldier, but he was also a successful farmer who owned several farms. His mother was an iconic Afro-Cuban woman who fought for women’s rights and Cuban independence. It is said that his father taught him how to be strong, crafty, and resourceful, but his mother taught him, discipline and critical thinking. Bring the eldest of nine siblings he needed to help his family bring in money. At the age of sixteen, he began working for his father as a delivery boy for his father’s farms. During his teens is when Antonio became interested in politics; he joined a Masonic Lodge in the year 1864. As a member of the lodge, Antonio was influenced by Cuban freedom fighters who were fighting against Spain to gain their independence.
In 1868, Antonio married a woman named María Cabrales; 1868 is also the year he joined the Cuban Ten Years’ War along with his father and a few siblings. Mariana Grajales fully supported her sons and husband fighting against the Spanish for their independence. She is known as the “Mother of the Nation” because of how dedicated she was to the Cubans gaining their independence from Spain. The Ten Years’ War started after Cuban Revolutionary hero Carlos Manuel de Céspedes led a revolt known as “The Cry of Yara”. Céspedes freed the slaves he owned and they all joined together to fight Spain during “The Cry of Yara”. Antonio excelled as a soldier in the Cuban rebel army. Five months into his enlistment he was promoted to commander in the army, within the next few weeks he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and then colonel shortly after. Antonio was a military star in the making; over his next five years and five hundred battles, he became very popular because of his success over the Spanish. He was promoted to Brigadier General then eventually Major General. Many feel that his promotion to Major General was delayed because of his skin color and his family not being of the bougie class of Cubans.
Antonio gained a reputation for being almost invincible on the battlefield, he was known as the “Bronze Titan”, he suffered more than twenty-five injuries on the battlefield but never slowed down leading his men into battle. Antonio admired the military strategies of the Dominican Major General Máximo Gómez and even adopted the use of the machete over the Spanish sword. As the “Ten Years’ War” progressed it was also coming to an end and officially ended with the signing of the Pact of Zanjón, a document Antonio opposed any Cuban rebels signing. Antonio believed that the rebels needed tangible gains from the peace talks such as the abolition of slavery and Cuban independence, not just empty promises and moral victories. The Protest of Baraguá was Antonio and his men rejecting the limited and still oppressive terms of the proposed peace treaty. A comrade of Antonio planned to ambush the Spanish general who proposed the terms of the peace treaty, Antonio rejected the ambush because he wanted his victory to be with honor. Days after meeting with the Spanish general the battle resumed but it was paramount for Antonio to escape from his post in Cuba. He eventually found himself in New York planning a Cuban invasion with Major General Calixto García Íñiguez. The planned invasion became the second of three conflicts between Cuba and Spain known as the Little War. The Spanish did an effective job of promoting racist and divisive messages against the Cubans, which caused tension to arise between the white Cubans and Afro-Cubans.
The Spanish were determined to kill Antonio while he was visiting Haiti, Jamaica, and Costa Rica. While in Costa Rica he was aided by the president and assigned to join a Costa Rican military unit as a consultant. Cuban poet and professor José Martí contacted Antonio to convince him to initiate a war thought of as the “Necessary War” or the War of 1895. Antonio was not confident in his army’s chances of victory until Marti was able to convince him that their chances of winning were higher than Antonio may have calculated. He was able to escape the capture of Spanish soldiers by going into the mountains, while in the mountains he was able to form a small group of soldiers that quickly became a small army. Antonio, Marti, and Gomez held a meeting in which Antonio and Marti disagreed on military strategy, days after the meeting Marti was killed in battle, Gomez was named the General in Chief of the Cuban Liberation Army, and Antonio became the Lieutenant General or second in command of the army. Behind the leadership of Gomez and Antonio, the Cuban liberation army traveled one-thousand miles in ninety-six days and earned numerous victories against the Spanish. Gomez organized the liberation army so well that they were overwhelming the Spanish army who had a greater number of soldiers and resources; the guerrilla warfare took a toll on the Spanish army.
The cruel treatment of the Spanish towards the Cuban people encourage more able Cubans to join the Cuban Independence Army. A great number of Cubans were placed in concentration camps by the Spanish, which was the fuel needed to encourage more Cubans to fight against the Spanish. The Cuban Liberation Army was earning victories over the Spanish on both the East and West sides of the island. December 7th, 1896, Antonio and his personal escorts were moving in on Spanish territory and attempting to create an entrance for his army into Spanish territory when they were fired upon and Antonio was struck by two bullets that took his life. He was initially buried in a secret location but his remains were later moved to the Monumento El Cacahual in Havana, Cuba, and honored as a military hero. Antonio is remembered as one of Cuba’s greatest military heroes and fighters for the abolition of slavery and the independence of all Cubans, he even was aware enough to fight the underlying racism Afro-Cubans faced from white Cubans. He was the son of a military hero and Cuban independence icon, and he took the lessons from his parents to help lead his people closer to their true independence. To the legendary Antonio Maceo Grajales, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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