Was the Term “African American” Coined in Philadelphia?

New evidence that the city helped shape English for the modern world.

Screen Shot 2015-0ll4-22 at 1.09.00 PMTo be honest, we thought the term “African American” was a relatively recent coinage, one of a million hyphenates to spring up in the post-Civil Rights era as a means of displacing older terms that had come to sound like slurs on minority groups. We were wrong: “African American” is actually a pretty old term.

In fact, it’s older than anybody knew. The New York Times says new research has discovered that the first known use of the term “African American” happened in Philadelphia — a half-century earlier than anyone thought.

The Times says the discovery was made by Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro:

This time around, Mr. Shapiro had found something a bit more historically charged: a 1782 advertisement in a Philadelphia newspaper for two sermons written by an “African American.” That was a half-century before the earliest known written occurrence of the term, as listed in the Oxford English Dictionary.

“I was very surprised to find it 53 years before anyone had known,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Antedatings typically go back only a few years, particularly for a major term that historians have paid attention to.”

Shapiro even found a copy of one of the sermons, about the American victory over Gen. Cornwallis during the American Revolution, in the special collections library at Harvard.

A second Times story on the term expands on the history behind the sermon and the term:

The other sermon mentioned in the ad, Mr. Shapiro said, may be “A Sermon on the Present Situation of Affairs of America and Great-Britain,” which had been previously known to scholars. Both refer to “descendants of Africa,” he said, and have dedications invoking South Carolina, whose governor had been held in solitary confinement by the British for nearly a year.

But curiously, the title page of the other sermon attributes it to “a Black.”

“In other words, the bifurcation between the terms African-American and black, the two leading terms today, was present from the very beginning,” Mr. Shapiro said.

The staff at the Oxford English Dictionary — the definitive historians of the English language and its evolution — is now working to confirm Shapiro’s finding.

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