′′Just as we were called colored but were not, and then Negro but were not, to be called black is just as baseless,′′ Jackson said after meeting with a group of Black leaders on December 19, 1988. ′′To be called African-Americans has cultural significance. It places us in our historical context. Every ethnic group in this country has a connection to some kind of land base or historical cultural foundation. “African Americans have reached that point of cultural maturity,” he said.
Though some objected to the name change and continue to do so, the term has remained in use for more than three decades. In fact, many people became aware of the term when Jackson popularized it in the 1980s. However, according to a Yale article by Fred R. Shapiro, the term “African-American” existed long before the 1980s.
Shapiro said he was surprised to find the phrase in a 1782 sermon while conducting a routine search for it in America’s Historical Newspapers in April 2015. The sermon, titled “A Sermon on the Capture of Lord Cornwallis,” was published in Philadelphia, and it was written by an African American.
The sermon does not reveal the preacher’s background, but based on his findings, Shapiro concluded that it was written by a Black person from South Carolina who did not have the benefit of a liberal education. However, Richard Newman, an African American history scholar, told Shapiro that he does not believe the author was Black or a person of color because the tone and style of the sermon differ from Black writing at the time.
According to Edward Rugemer, an associate professor of African American studies and history at Yale, the author was Black because the sermon was published in Philadelphia, where many former slaves from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware moved after being freed by their owners.
The author addresses “my own complexion, Ye who are my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh; ye descendants of Africa” in the sermon. In the midst of the debate over whether the author was Black or not, Shapiro wants to emphasize that the term “African-American” was used before Jackson popularized it, even during the American republic.