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Black Indians: A Personal and Historic Journey

William Loren Katz has devoted his life to researching and writing African American history.  In the following account written to describe the reissue of one of his most successful books, Black Indians, he describes how he became an historian of African America and particularly the black West.

The personal sojourn that led to a book named Black Indians began in the 1930s with my father, Ben Katz, who fell in love with African American blues and jazz music. He first had a large 78-rpm record collection, and then a large collection of African American history books. I had to be one of the few white kids who went to bed listening to Bessie Smith, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong, and woke up surrounded by the writings of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and E. Franklin Frazier. At a very early age Dad took me to Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black History and Culture, which he considered sacred ground. He also organized jazz concert benefits for the United Negro and Allied Veterans of America, so I met Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, and a niece of Bessie Smith in our living room. Bunk Johnson sat at our table at the Stuyvesant Casino, and jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzerow introduced me to Louis Armstrong after his 1947 Carnegie Hall concert.

I also began to fall in love with jazz, blues, and this history. Dad helped found the Committee for the Negro in the Arts with Charles White, Frank Silvera, Ernie Critchlow, Walter Christmas, and others. Walter, Ernie and Dad became best friends, and I got to meet stimulating men and women of color. Before I joined the US Navy in 1945, my senior high-school thesis was a two-hundredpage history of jazz—best described as amateurish, emotional, and well illustrated.

My fourteen years as a New York public school teacher were spent “bootlegging” my new knowledge into my social studies classrooms–my effort to offset the appalling omissions and distortions of the state curriculum and its approved textbooks. By 1967 a small New York publisher agreed to issue my

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