The history of the United States of America has long been presented as the story of white male settlers who built the nation. This racist narrative has been discredited through the efforts of historical revision and diligent scholarship. Native American civilization is often ignored, even though they were the first to discover America. Besides that section of pivotal history of North America that was excluded from US history, Black history was virtually non-existent form academic texts in the US. Only when African American scholars such as W.E.B Dubois, Carter G. Woodson, John Hindrik Clarke, and Ivan Van Sertima did the legacy and exploits of Black people in America become thoroughly documented. The emergence of African American studies and Africana studies became common courses of study in various American universities in the 1960s. African Americans have contributed to the arts, sciences, military, and politics of the United States. Brought to the United States in bondage, they were able to gain their freedom from enslavement. The challenges after the American Civil War were segregation, racial discrimination, and violence. Racism continues to be a major attribute of American society , which African Americans have confronted since the colonial era. Black history reveals the contradictions and promises of American ideals in regards to constitutional government and liberty.
A common misconception about African American history is most of it starts with slavery. The story of the African American experience begins on the African continent. This is the source of what would be known as the African Diaspora. People of African descent either by choice or by force were moved across the globe on every continent to the Americas, Asia, and Europe. Africa had major empires and states that at one time rivaled Europe. Ghana, Mali, and Songhai were some of the most powerful empires of West Africa. The Moors were able to expand into the Iberian peninsula of Europe.
There other states out side the western section included the Mossi states, the Hausa states, Bornu-Kanem, and the Congo Empire. Benin and Oyo would later become powerful states after the decline of the large west African empires. Just like every civilization, these states and empires left a legacy of art and culture. African art has a tradition of carvings and sculptures that used wood, stone, and ivory. Benin also produced bronze and brass works. The Yoruba mostly produced terra-cotta pieces. Art even became an important part of commerce.Decorating various items increased value. Pottery either ornamented or glazed, carved knives, spoons, and woven mats show how artistic application was important to particular commodities.
Besides art, there was also a long oral tradition. Early African history was transmitted orally through griots. Kinship groups would record history from generation to generation. Oral literature also was a product of recording history. Proverbs, epic poems, love songs, and supernatural fables became an important part of African literature. The griots would be part of royal courts normally singing, storytelling, and documenting the monarch’s exploits. The griots acted as living encyclopedias also having extensive knowledge in law and cultural traditions. Africa was an active continent with enormous wealth. African civilization would go into gradual decline with the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. Spain, Portugal, France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands traded human cargo terrorizing millions.
The United States owed much of its early economic success to enslavement of African peoples. They produced cash crops and were forced to work in construction and later mining when settlers started heading west. The South and at one point New England engaged in the use of slave labor. The case of Virginia shows incite into the development of the institution. During the 17th century Virginia had indentured servants who were black. Census counts from 1623 and 1624 revealed there were more black indentured servants and free blacks. As the demand for labor increased, soon the movement to enslave the black population gained momentum. Virginia made black servants bond servants for life in 1640. Other colonies soon followed. Maryland recognized slavery by law in 1663 ( although it was in existence there in 1634). African Americans began to resist enslavement. Virginia between 1687 and 1694 controlling the enslaved became more difficult. To counter the resistance Virginia then enacted a draconian slave code.
The enslaved were no longer permitted to leave plantations without their owner’s consent and could be whipped for minor actions. The Carolinas and Georgia enacted similar laws to control movement and behavior of the enslaved. Even though these slave codes were harsh, they did not stop the desire for freedom. The stono rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina proved that the enslaved would never be docile. A growing abolitionist movement was developing and the enslaved could no longer wait. The thirteen colonies were also changing. They were developing a separate cultural identity from Britain. The Revolutionary War would erupt preaching ideals of the enlightenment. This resonated with the enslaved who wanted liberation.
African Americans have fought in the majority of America’s wars. The Revolutionary War that gave birth to the United States offered a unique opportunity. African Americans could join in the fight for independence and make a stronger case for the abolition of slavery. There were also many drawn to the call for liberty from the British Empire. Crispus Attucks was a runaway slave, seaman, and supporter of the patriot cause. He was the first to die in the Boston Massacre. The incident between the colonists and the British troops drew public opinion in favor of independence. Although he did not have the same rights, he was willing to sacrifice his life for the new national project. When hostilities broke out in 1775 African Americans began to fight against the British.
Both free and enslaved fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. There were some cases in which the enslaved were manumitted to serve in the army. Gradually, African American soldiers were distinguishing themselves in battle. Other notable African Americans served in the Revolutionary War. Prince Hall considered to be a prominent leader of the free black community in Boston fought with the Continental Army. After the war he went on to form the the African Grand Lodge a free mason organization. Prince Hall also continued to be active in abolitionist causes and fighting for equal rights for the free black community in Boston.
Even though African Americans were fighting and dying in battle, whites were fearful and hateful of their presence and service. George Washington wanted to keep African Americans out of the army and prevent their enlistment. The ban did not really effect African Americans already on active duty. The only reason Washington reversed this order was due to Lord Dumore’s proclamation. At the time he was governor of Virginia and a supporter of the British Empire declaring any enslaved or free African American would be emancipated if they took up arms against the colonial rebels. This occurred in December 1775, when the patriots were struggling. The Continental Congress acted and by January 16, 1776 approved a new policy which enabled free African Americans to serve in the army . Fearful that the British would tempt the enslaved to revolt or fight for them, states began enlisting not only free blacks, but the enslaved. Around 1778 Massachusetts and Rhode Island began forming separate black regiments. However, not all states were following the policy.Georgia and South Carolina were recalcitrant in their stance to not enlist African American soldiers. This explains why the majority of the black soldiers were from the North. The South was more concerned about runaway slaves, rather than the objective of independence. It was estimated that 5,000 African Americans fought for the Revolutionary War. Although there were hopes for a better life, these would be dashed by the avarice of the slave owning planter aristocracy. The new republic would become more politically fictionalized with the conquest of new territories, the question of slavery, and the role of the federal government.
The United States would once again find itself in conflict with the British Empire. The War of 1812 also saw African American participation. When the British violated neutral rights and were engaging in the impressment of American sailors, relations deteriorated. The United States would again go to war with the British Empire. New York passed an act in 1814 calling to create two regiments of African American troops for the war effort. African Americans served in the navy. Many times when they enrolled, there was no reference to race. African American sailors served in combat during the Battle of Lake Erie. The Battle of New Orleans saw the biggest African American contribution to the war. Andrew Jackson a prominent general , requested that free blacks come and serve under his command. Louisiana could not be lost if the war was to be won and the free black population was the key to increasing the strength of Andrew Jackson’s forces.
The British were advancing rapidly and defeat looked imminent. General Edward Pakenham wanted a victory for the British. Instead the British were not only defeated, but Pakenham lost his life in the process. Andrew Jackson claimed that the British general was shot by a free man of color. All the prowess in battle and bravery did little to change the mind of slave owners. The enslaved who fought in the war hoping to gain freedom were betrayed. Andrew Jackson as president never challenged slavery or kept the promise of equal pay for African American troops. While the War of 1812 eliminated the national security threat of the British Empire it opened the door to expansion and its political complications. Manifest destiny preached that it was America’s God given right to expand west. This was another opportunity for slave owners to enrich themselves and spread the institution. After the Mexican War America had vast new territories and political factionalism was reaching crisis levels. It was only a matter of time before the nation would be at war with itself.
The American Civil War saw the north and south fight for control of the United States. When the southern states no longer wanted to be part of the union, they took up arms. The American Civil War was another opportunity for the enslaved to gain freedom from bondage. The main objective of the war was to end Southern rebellion and restore America to one country. The abolition of slavery was not the primary objective. However, African Americans made it part of the agenda. Fredrick Douglass made a case to Abraham Lincoln that emancipation was necessary to ending the war and maintaining a stable nation. Lincoln to his own admission said that keeping the United States whole was his major concern, not slavery. Eventually, the Union army began to enlist African Americans.
The enthusiasm was high.Enrollment reached 186,000 by the end of the war, which included an additional 40,000 ( from the border slave states), 93,000 (seceded states) and 53,000 ( free states). African American soldiers were involved in regiments of cavalry, infantry, engineers, light and heavy artillery. Collectively African Americans formed the United States Colored Troops. They were fighting to gain liberation from an oppressive institution and to be recognized as citizens of the United States. Failure was not an option. A Confederate victory would have meant even more oppression or worse the reestablishment of slavery in the north. African Americans were serving in various combat capacities in the Union army. Raiding parties were responsible for destroying Confederate fortifications. They also engaged in espionage. African American soldiers would disguise themselves as slaves and bring back information form enemy lines. Harriet Tubman who was active on the Underground Railroad served as a scout and spy during the American Civil War. She was mostly active on the eastern seaboard providing essential intelligence.
The Battle of Port Hudson was notable, because it saw eight African American infantry regiments. They fought will valor and bravery, but this still did not get them respect among their white counterparts. It has been estimated that 38,000 African Americans gave their lives for the preservation of the United States. When the Confederacy was defeated, this was the dawn of a new era. Slavery was abolished and African Americans could now be recognized as citizens. There were many hopes for a better life for African Americans. These were dashed by repression through terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws. After the end of Reconstruction the US turned its attention to imperial ventures. The Spanish American War made the US a world power and was slowly drawing it out of isolation from wider international affairs.
The 20th century would see some of the worst conflicts in human history. World War I and World War II pulled the United States out of isolation and into the complexities of international affairs. African Americans would again serve in the US military in various roles. They fought hard to prove their loyalty and patriotism only to come home to worse treatment. Through resilience and a new sense of self worth, African Americans continued to push for equal justice. This became even more forceful after World War II. The United States would get involved in World War I in 1917. African Americans would see combat in Europe against the Central Powers. During World War I the the 369th Infantry Regiment and 371st Infantry Regiment fought in 1918. African American soldiers in these regiments were awarded Croix de Guerre for their service. These regiments fought in France and were fighting against the advancement of the German Empire.
While France was willing to recognize African American contribution to the war effort, the US was not. The Medal of Honor was not given to African American soldiers who risked their lives in perilous situations. It has been estimated that 1.5 million African Americans who served in both World War I and World War II did not receive medals for duty or recognition. After World War I African Americans came back to a country even more hostile. The red scare of 1919 put the country into another xenophobic and racist upsurge of violence. The US again withdrew into isolation attempting to avoid European entanglements. The rise of fascism would change that during the Interwar period. Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany pushed the world into war more violent than the first conflict. Allied with Japan and Italy the Axis powers wanted to alter the international order. The United States was plunged into the war with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. African Americans were also fighting against fascism, but also intolerance on the home-front. During World War II African Americans would serve in every branch of the armed forces. African American women served as Army nurses, WACs, WAVEs, and SPARS. A total of 7,000 African Americans would serve as officers. They would serve in both the European and Asia-Pacific theater of war. The Tuskegee Airmen would become widely known for their exploits and combat in the European theater.
African Americans also served in aviation construction battalions. This was important for the Pacific theater, especially for landing strips for air craft. The 93rd Division had African American soldiers fight in Bougainville, Treasury Islands, and the Philippines. Island hoping became a successful military strategy and Japan was being pushed back. Nazi Germany was being defeated by a two front war. It was only a matter of time before the Axis would fall. The end of World War II allowed for decolonization and a change in global race relations. No longer would the European nations control the African and Asian lands. African Americans returned home with even more determination to have equal rights in US society.
African Americans have had a long tradition of contributing to American science and invention. The United States has produced scientists of creativity and skill. This contributed to America’s growth as a major industrial power. Norbert Rillieux, Jan Matzeliger, Granville T. Woods, and Garrett A. Morgan were just a few scientists and inventors that the United States produced. Norbert Rillieux was an inventor who developed a process which efficiently took sugar cane juice and formed it into sugar. His creation of the multiple effect evaporator cut production cost in making sugar. Born a slave, he was able to gain his freedom and study abroad in France. Rillieux also had interest in steam engine technology which he wrote several papers while teaching at L’Ecole Centrale. Other 19th century African American inventors would follow in his footsteps.
Jan Ernst Matzeliger was responsible for the invention of the lasting machine . This revolutionized the shoe industry in the United States of America. The problem with shoe production in the 19th century was that only a 50 pairs could be produced in a day. The last was an object used to make shoes from a structural cast. Doing this by hand would take longer. Rudimentary shoe making machines were created, but none were effective. Matzeliger developed the idea of creating a lasting machine, which could solve the problem of slow shoe production. He proved the lasting process could be done by machines. Matzeliger worked in shoe factories in both Boston and Lynn Massachusetts. Through observation he was able to devise the lasting machine. Around 1883 he got a patent to his lasting machine. As a result, Lynn Massachusetts became a major shoe producer in the world.
Granville T. Woods had a prodigious output of inventions. His patents included the incubator, steam broiler furnace, and the automatic air brake. His most noteworthy invention was the synchronous multiplex telegraph. This system of communication from and to other trains prevented railway collisions. Woods also started his own company in Cincinnati. The Woods Railway Telegraph Company provided technology to American Bell Telephone Company and the General Electric Company. Granville T. Woods mechanical and electrical engineering skill brought him much fame and notoriety during his lifetime. The knowledge he acquired came from a machine shop and working on railroads in Missouri. Woods obtained employment as an engineer on a British steamer ship and later worked as a locomotive operator on the D& S Railroad. Seeing as advancement in these fields was limited, because of his race that was when he decided to enter into business for himself.
As the 19th century drew to a close, a new generation of African American scientists and inventors would emerge. Around this period America was rapidly industrializing and going through a process of urbanization. New technology and discoveries would emerge and change society.
African American scientists in the 20th century would contribute to medicine, chemistry, and other inventions.Scientists and inventors such as Percy Julian, Charles Drew, George Washington Carver, and Garrett A. Morgan would demonstrate skill and talent of American ingenuity.Garrett A. Morgan continued the tradition of new inventions, like Granville T. Woods before him. He created the gas mask and the traffic signal. These inventions are so essential to many activities. Morgan’s traffic signal stopped more fatal car accidents and allowed for a easier control of automobiles on the road. The gas mask was a great invention for firefighters and soldiers. The gas mask protected US soldiers from gas attacks during World War I. Besides those inventions Morgan also produced hair care products.
Other scientists and inventors distinguished themselves in various fields. George Washington Carver was responsible for reviving American agriculture in the South. From the peanut he was able to developed extracts for meal, instant dry and coffee, bleach, tan remover, metal polish, ink, shaving cream, rubbing oil, linoleum, synthetic rubber, and plastics. Carver also explored the uses of the soy bean. He was able to obtain from the soybean flour, extracts for breakfast food and milk. George Washington Carver’s skill in botany and agriculture saw plants be used for various products. Legumes he advocated as a replacement for mineral soils. This would revitalized land that was effected by excessive cotton growing. Always an innovator his study of the sweet potato allowed for extracts that were used in hundreds of products. From his laboratory at the Tuskegee Institute he would teach and make new discoveries. So great was his knowledge, fellow scientists from Russia, India, Africa, and Australia.
Percy Julian a chemist also explored uses of the soy bean. It had uses in chemical engineering, which Dr. Julian was able to extract. The extracts from the soy bean Percy Julian extracted resulted in the development of cortisone. His research contributed to a treatment for arthritis. The extracts from a simple soy bean could be manipulated chemically to produce medicine to reduced the pain of inflammatory arthritis. Besides developing cortisone for commercial use, he developed physostigmine. This is used to treat glacoma and orthostatic hypotension. Treatment for these diseases at the time were limited and Percy Julian’s chemical engineering provide practical solutions. He provided his talents to the Glidden Company being head of the research department. Percy Julian would later form his own company, which mostly focused on the chemical engineering of sterol.
Dr. Charles Drew also made a major contribution to biomedical science. His contribution was blood plasma preservation. Before this process there was not a method of storing blood readily available for transfusions. His efforts gave rise to the modern blood bank. Dr. Charles Drew became a predominant authority on blood plasma research. He was contacted by the British blood plasma programs. The US did so also in 1942, when it was at war. Dr. Drew’s blood banks saved thousands of lives of soldiers fighting in the war. Storing and preserving large quantities of blood was essential for survival of soldiers injured on the battlefield.
Although his life was cut short by a car accident, his impact on medicine cannot be underestimated. The research he conducted at Columbia University was a major breakthrough in biomedical science. Toward the end of his life he became chief surgeon at Freedman’s hospital. Dr. Charles Drew like the scientists before him overcame race prejudice and contributed the scientific community of the United States. African Americans have and continue to be part of the medical, chemistry, and engineering fields. The United States became more powerful due to its creative individuals. Harnessing the power of science allowed the US to become a superpower in the 20th century.
Arts and entertainment hold an important place in American life and culture. African Americans have been major contributors to America’s unique arts and entertainment culture. American music such as jazz, blues, R&B, and modern pop music owe much of their existence to African American musicians. American literature was given another element and dynamic with writers such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. Their writings criticized the racism of the United States and it failure to adhere to its own principles. Through literature they promoted activism and exposed African American culture to a wider audience. One of America’s highest cultural achievements was the Harlem Renaissance, a time when African American artists , writers, and entertains produced prodigious works. After World War I, American literature focused on social and economic issues. Not all of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance were activist against oppression, but merely wanted to create art as a way of expressing a unique cultural heritage. New York city was a major intellectual and economic center and it was only natural the Harlem Renaissance would start there. African Americans from the South migrated the North to escape Jim Crow and violence. Although not as oppressive, race hatred was still prevalent. Harlem became a prosperous African American community that would lead the way in the arts. The harbingers of this artistic movement were James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay. These writers produced a body of work that included poetry, fiction, autobiographies, and non-fiction. Johnson’s writings also documented the development of the Harlem Renaissance and its importance to African American life.
The New Negro Movement had began. African Americans began to perceive themselves in a different manner. A new sense of pride and confidence was being expressed. Sometimes social issues are the best subjects for artistic works. Langston Hughes attacked racism through his poetry, but also produced poems that encouraged pride in the African American community. His poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” became a classic. Hughes also published history monographs which included Famous American Negroes and Famous Negro Music Makers. Even when the Harlem Renaissance ended he still enjoyed considerable prestige and creative output. Zora Neale Hurston also produced many novels , short stories, and scholarly articles.
Her magnum opus Their Eyes were Watching God was considered her best work. She continued to publish a series of novels between 1931 and 1943. These novels included Moses, Man of the Mountain, Tell My Horse, Dust Tracks on a Road, Mules and Men,and Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Normally, historians mark the end of the Harlem Renaissance with the Great Depression. While it is true than many of the writers and artists left New York, the arts never stopped. They inspired a new generation of writers in the 20th century. Various novels, short stories, and poems would get exposure to an international audience. Richard Wright who was not part of the Harlem Renaissance, would later become an important figure in literature. His novel Native Son when it was published in 1940 became an instant success. It sold over 300,000 copies and was translated into six languages. The novel tells of Bigger Thomas, an African American man struggling under racism and poverty. Richard Wright’s novels explored racism, exploitation, and class conflict. These subjects revealed in novels challenged readers to think about the negative elements of society. Richard Wright later becoming an a citizen France, still produced works that were in the style of the American literary tradition.
James Baldwin owed much of his direction and style to Richard Wright. Baldwin was not afraid to be controversial in his writings or activism. He was not just a writer, but an active member of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin was a perspicacious social critic deconstructing the contradictions and prejudices of the United States. James Baldwin’s novels in the tradition of Richard Wright explored various distinctions in race and class relations. He also explored sexual orientation and sexuality, when these subjects were taboo. Baldwin’s novels Notes of a Native Son and Giovanni’s Room were his most notable works, which explored the issues of racism, class conflict, and homophobia. American literature became an eclectic mix of people and experiences. This made it enriching and allowed it to become part of the family of pivotal international literary works.
American music would not be what its today without black musicians. One of America’s treasured art forms continues to be music. Through a musical evolution starting with African American spirituals new genres emerged which included blues, ragtime, jazz, rock and roll, R&B, and rap music. The American music industry continues to be a power house of entertainment all around the world. Scott Joplin who in the early 20th century developed ragtime. Ferdinand Morton experimented more with the genre. The pianist, composer, and raconteur produced popular hits during the World War I period. Songs such as ” The New Orleans Blues” and “The Jelly Roll Blues” established Morton as a prominent jazz composer. Jazz became a popular music form by the 1920s. Numerous talented musicians would emerge and have careers that lasted decades. Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong amazed music lovers for decades.
Jazz did not just become popular in the United States, but around the globe. Louis Armstrong by 1933 performed abroad in Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Holland, and England. He continued to tour throughout Europe and returned to the US in 1936. His trumpet playing was legendary and he learned this from his mentor Joe “King” Oliver. Armstrong with no background in music became one of the most recognizable jazz musicians. Duke Ellington was a prodigy. At age 24 he was already performing with his band on Broadway. His songs became popular jazz classics such as “Sophisticated Lady,” ” Mood Indigo,” and “The A Train.”
Singers also came to a level of notoriety. Bessie Smith was not just a singer on stage, but did recordings. Some of her musical recordings sold 100,000 in one week. Her era was the 1920s to 1930s. Smith’s life was cut short by a car accident, but her body of work left an impact. Although she was a blues singer she can still be classified under Jazz Age vocalist. Ella Fitzgerald followed in a similar tradition of Smith, becoming a popular jazz singer. She performed on stage, radio, and in concert. This exposure opened the doors to many African American musical artists and popularized American music internationally.
African Americans have also served in US government. When African Americans attained public office, they were always advancing the cause of equal rights and justice for all US citizens. A pivotal moment came during Reconstruction, when a number of African Americans rose to public office to reform the Union. The country had to put itself back together after the devastation of the Civil War. African Americans were participating in state governments of the South and getting elected to Congress. Hiram Revels served as the first African American senator, taking the position that once belonged to Jefferson Davis. Other African American politicians would answer the call to rebuild the US. Robert B. Elliot, Jefferson Long, Joseph Rainey, Josiah Walls, Robert DeLarge, and Benjamin Turner worked to enfranchise freedmen and make education widely available. They were Republicans who seemed to favor the radical Republican ideology. This meant full enfranchisement, citizenship for African Americans, and civil protection as a political platform.
The South reacted violently to this development of black advancement. Terrorism and voter intimidation became common. After Reconstruction the South instituted literacy tests, poll taxes, and strict residency laws to prevent African Americans from voting. Although African Americans were being excluded by force from active politics. that did not stop them from running for public office. Oscar Depriest served as a congressman from 1929 to 1935. During this time he was the only African American in Congress. He was an advocate for civil rights and attempted to get anti-lynching legislation passed. His efforts were blocked by Democratic members of the Congress. Depriest was more than just a representative from Illinois, but gave a voice to black America in government.
Other representatives would emerge that were more forceful in their demands for change. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was not afraid to be a spokesman for civil rights and other social issues ignored by his colleagues. He would serve as Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. Adam Clayton Powell representing New York would become a prominent figure in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party by the 20th century was changing and gradually embracing New Left ideas. The more conservative Democrats and the more extreme southern Democrats began their transition to the Republican party. Adam Clayton Powell advocated fostering good relations with emerging nations in Africa and Asia, rather than seeing them through a Cold War binary paradigm. Instead the US embarked in wars in Korea and Vietnam, which damaged its prestige.Powell warned of the dangers of these long term military engagements. Today, more African Americans are serving in various levels of government. A milestone was made in 2008 with the election of American’s first black president. President Barack Obama would be elected twice serving from 2009 to 2017.
The story of the African Americans is essential to the foundation of US history. It is a a chronicle of struggle, progress, and repression. Forming a perfect union seems politically unrealistic, but for centuries the people of America have attempted to do so. The concept that a government protects and upholds the rights of citizens is a new concept in human history. Even when America produced the US Constitution, there were people in bondage. This contradiction would ultimately doom the democratic experiment. The American Civil War almost destroyed the country, but it endured. African Americans have played a pivotal role in the nation’s wars, culture, and its existence. To exclude African American history from US history, only reveals a small fraction of the development of America. The United States is a mix of different people, cultures, and religions. This combination may explain why the US has become a major predominant force in the world. Much of the success of the United States is due to the contributions of African Americans and the immigrants that sought refuge here. If the country wants to continue doing so, it depends on whether it will enforce equal justice, rule of law, and constitutional government.
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