Black Puerto Rican History

Kristin de Groot, Penn Today
photograph by Eric Sucar

Poring over historical records at the Archivo General de Puerto Rico in Old San Juan, Africana Studies and History Ph.D. candidate Daniel Morales-Armstrong made a discovery that would transform his research. 

Morales-Armstrong describes sitting at a table inside that pale yellow, 19th-century Spanish neoclassical building, where he says he happened across a labor contract from 1873 for a 17-year-old girl named María Josefa. The document, he says, noted that even though she was free, she was required to work from sunup to sundown every workable day for a period of three years, all for the man who previously enslaved her. Her pay included living at his house, eating at his house, and four pesos a month.

“At the time I didn’t know much about emancipation in Puerto Rico but this was a heartbreaking document for me to find. How was this freedom?” asks Morales-Armstrong. “Aside from a bit of pocket change, it sounded a lot like slavery to me.”

Finding that document led Morales-Armstrong on a journey to discover María Josefa’s story and, in turn, revealed a much larger story about how the freed people in her small town of Santa Isabel engaged in a collective labor strike, one that the Spanish colonial government tried to erase all evidence of. In fact, he says, freed people across other communities along the southern Puerto Rican coast also engaged in varied forms of resistance to the forced-labor mandate during this time.

“In trying to find María Josefa’s story I found that there was this larger story happening in terms of resisting the afterlives of slavery in Puerto Rico, and that research has just grown through my time at Penn,” he says. 

Throughout his research over the years, he says, he constantly bumped up against insufficient representation in the scholarship of Black Puerto Rican history and lived experiences.

“As I was doing my research, I was constantly wishing there was more. I wanted to know about my people’s histories—Black Puerto Rican history,” says Morales-Armstrong, whose family is from Ponce, in southern Puerto Rico, not far from María Josefa’s Santa Isabel.

Because of Puerto Rico’s colonial status with the United States, combined with its geographical position, this history often falls between the cracks, he says. 

“In Latin American studies, oftentimes folks say, ‘Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., so we don’t need to include it.’ And in U.S. history oftentimes folks say, ‘You’re part of Latin America, so, we don’t need to include you.’”

Before he came to Penn, Morales-Armstrong taught, among other subjects, Black Latin American history to high school students in the Washington Heights and Bronx sections of New York City.

“These experiences inform my approach to history: considering whose voices, histories, and narratives prevail, and whose are plagued by silences,” he says.

He ran up against those silences time and again in researching the resistance to the forced-labor mandate in Puerto Rico.

“The dominant narrative in the history books in Puerto Rico and the Atlantic world is that emancipation was a complete success and that there were no issues whatsoever, which would make Puerto Rico a very significant outlier,” he says. “Everywhere else in the hemisphere, with the end of slavery came conflict over labor control. Former slaveowners were trying to figure out how to continue to exploit the labor of these newly emancipated people.”

The land outside Ponce, Puerto Rico, that once was the Hacienda Florida, the sugar cane plantation behind where Maria Josefa lived. Image: Courtesy of Daniel Morales-Armstrong.

With the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico approaching on March 22, now is an important time to revisit the stories of emancipated Black Puerto Ricans, Morales-Armstrong says.

He expects to find more concentrated collections about the reaction to abolition in the archives of Puerto Rico and has been surprised at how the past five centuries of colonialism have impacted the mechanics of doing his research. 

“There are times when I get to an archive and the catalog says that what I’m looking for is in this box, and I get to that box and there will be a gap. The documents are taken out, and there’s no forwarding address. The archivist will tell you, ‘Oh, yes. These documents are probably in Spain.’ But it’s not clear where.”

He gives an example of searching a regional archive for records of the police who went to quell public disturbances and who would have likely been called in to address any resistance to labor contracting. 

“The Spanish administrators in Puerto Rico loved to write detailed documents patting themselves on the back; the public order police at the time wrote in depth weekly updates on their activities in the Ponce area,” he says. “In the Spanish archive to which the documents I was looking for were extracted, I found two years of weekly documents turned into a three-page summary saying, ‘We did a really great job during this time, and we had no issues.’ Something’s up there. It’s revisionist history at the colonial level,” Morales-Armstrong says.

As a result, he says, he’s been forced to be more creative in his research in order to work around these gaps in information.

“Emancipation in Puerto Rico is an important but understudied topic,” Morales-Armstrong says. “The stories of free people’s agency in that moment of emancipation were very clearly silenced by the Spanish empire and the British empire at the time, and those in official roles had an intentional hand in silencing the stories.”

Understanding, researching, and revisiting the story of emancipation in Puerto Rico is crucial because the current history leaves questions for Black Puerto Rican people interested in learning about the past, Morales-Armstrong says. He hopes other Black Puerto Rican people take up the study of the island’s history to help continue to fill in the gaps created by colonialism.

Morales-Armstrong’s advisor Grace Sanders Johnson, an assistant professor in Africana studies, says he is an exemplary emerging scholar. “Of course, his academic work is intellectually rigorous, but I most impressed with Daniel’s intentionality to build systems of learning and engagement for future communities and scholars,” she says. “His work, then, encompasses a particular kind of thoughtfulness that advances the historical understanding of Black Puerto Ricans and also functions as an invitation to create archives for future scholars.”

Another advisor, Roquinaldo Ferreira, agrees. “Daniel combines an incredible worth ethic with great intellectual creativity,” he says.

Morales-Armstrong says it is important to recognize that Black history is multifaceted and there is value in learning about Black history across the diaspora, be it in Puerto Rico, in the United States, in Mexico, or in Jamaica.

“Though iterations of Black History Month now exist throughout the hemisphere, the origin of the celebration as we know it is from the U.S., started by African-American historian Carter G. Woodson,” Morales-Armstrong says. “When we think about Black history, we need to look at African-American history here, Black history in the global African diaspora—like my work in Puerto Rico—and across the African continent. In this regard, it becomes clear that if we are to know and honor Black history, we are necessarily called to do this work well beyond the month we are in.”