February 26-March 4
1920—Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) founds the first nationally organized celebration of Black American history then called Negro History Week which was first celebrated on this day in 1926. Woodson scheduled the week to coincide with the birthdays of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln and Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas. However, in 1976, Negro History Week was expanded into the current day Black History Month. For his efforts in promoting knowledge of Black historical achievements Woodson became known as the “Father of Black History.” In explaining the need for the celebration, Woodson once said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
1964—Heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay changes his name to Muhammad Ali after rejecting Christianity and joining the Elijah Muhammad-led Nation of Islam.
1748—This is the probable birth date of Prince Hall—the “Father of Black Masons.” Hall was a veteran of America’s war of independence from England, founder of the first African-American Masonic lodges, and one of the most prominent Black leaders of his era. The charter for the first Black Masonic lodge was granted on Sept. 29, 1784. It was known as African Lodge #459 of Boston.
1869—Congress adopts the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution making it illegal for the U.S. government or any state to “deny or abridge” the right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
1872—Charlotte E. Ray graduates from the Howard University Law School becoming the first Black female lawyer in the United States. It also appears that she was the third female lawyer of any race. She was admitted to the Washington, D.C., bar the same year she graduated. But racism and sexism prevented her from making a living as a lawyer in the nation’s capital so she moved to New York and got a job with the Brooklyn school system.
1708—One of the first recorded slave revolts in American history takes place on Newton, Long Island (N.Y.). Seven Whites are killed. In retaliation, two Black male slaves and one Indian male slave are hanged while one Black female slave was burned alive.
1879—A date considered by many to mark the beginning of the great “Exodus of 1879” when thousands of Blacks begin fleeing racism, violence and economic exploitation in the South for new lives in the Midwest, especially Kansas. One of the most prominent organizers of the exodus was former Tennessee slave Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. An estimated 20,000 Blacks take part in the exodus. They were driven in part by the Homestead Act which promised free land. But by 1880, efforts had already begun to curtail the movement of Blacks to the Midwest. In 1881, Pap Singleton was hauled before a Senate investigative committee looking into his role in the exodus.
1989—Philip Emeagwali is awarded the Golden Bell Prize for solving one of the 20 most difficult problems in computer science. The prize is widely considered the “Nobel Prize of Computing.” The feat of the Nigerian-born computer scientist involved, at the time, the world’s fastest computer computation—a staggering 3.1 billion calculations per second. He figured out how oil flows underground and thus better enabled companies to extract it.
1739—The British government is forced to sign a peace treaty with the Jamaican Maroons. The Maroons were escaped slaves or put another way Africans who refused to be slaves. When the Spanish lost Jamaica to the British in 1665, they freed many of their slaves and called them Maroons or “wild.” The Maroons set up villages, were frequently joined by other escaped slaves and eventually began to wage a highly successful guerrilla war against the British. Under the terms of the peace treaty, the Maroons were designated a free people and given 1,500 acres of land.
1780—Pennsylvania becomes perhaps the first state to abolish slavery. There is some confusion about the effective dates of the laws passed during this period, which called for the gradual elimination of slavery. The honor of being the first state to ban slavery may actually go to Vermont.
1875—Congress enacts the first Civil Rights Bill. It granted Blacks the right to equal treatment in inns, on public transportation and in theatres and places of amusement. However, with the end of the progressive Reconstruction period, Jim Crow laws were passed throughout the South, which largely ignored the civil rights bill. African-Americans did not regain most of the rights granted in 1875 until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
1927—Entertainer and political activist Harry Belafonte is born Harold George Belafonte on this day in Harlem, N.Y. to Jamaican immigrant parents. Belafonte developed an early flair for entertainment and in the post-World War II period, he became one of the most popular vocalists in America and made Calypso popular throughout the nation. In 1959, he became the first African-American to win an Emmy. However, from the 1960s forward he mixed his entertainment career with active participation in the Civil Rights Movement and other social causes. He has been a frequent critic of Republican conservatism and conservative Blacks. In 2002, he was accused of labeling Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice “house niggers” for their support of President Bush’s right wing domestic and foreign policies.
1967—On this day in Black history, the U.S. House of Representatives expelled flamboyant and outspoken Black New York Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from Congress for allegedly misappropriating funds. However, in June 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the expulsion unconstitutional and Powell returned to Congress but without his seniority. He lost his seat to current Representative Charles Rangel in 1970 and Powell died on April 4, 1972. During his most powerful years in Congress, Powell headed the House Labor and Education Committee and used his powers to help pass a wide range of civil rights and progressive social legislation.
1807—Congress passes legislation banning the slave trade. The law, which was to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1808, prohibited the importation of slaves into the U.S. or any of its territories. Despite the law, however, the illegal importation of slaves continued for years. The best available records suggest that the very last slave ship arrived in the U.S. in 1859 off the coast of Mobile, Ala. The ship was called the Clothilde.
1896—Ethiopia defeats Italy at the battle of Adowa (also called Adwa). It was one of the few successful military victories of Africans over Europeans as the latter attempted to colonize and economically exploit the African continent. The nominal head of the Ethiopian forces was Emperor Menelik II but the lead general was Ras Makonnen—father of the man who would become next Emperor Haile Selassie. The battle, which began on March 1, 1896, would leave 6,000 Italians and 10,000 Ethiopians dead. But the victory forced Europe to recognize Ethiopia as an independent and sovereign nation as well as give inspiration to Blacks worldwide who were fighting for freedom.
1962—While Kobe Bryant may have wowed the basketball world when he scored 81 points in a single game, on this day in 1962, 7’1’ Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game—a professional record which still stands. Chamberlain set the record while leading the Philadelphia Warriors in a 169 to 147 defeat of the New York Knicks.
1968—The infamous COINTELPRO memorandum is sent to FBI field offices around the country. COINTELPRO was a government counter intelligence program aimed at disrupting and destroying Black, peace and anti-war groups. The March 3 memorandum specifically called on FBI agents to infiltrate militant Black organizations and employ various tactics to prevent them from growing individually or uniting with one another. The agents were also told to do whatever was necessary to prevent the rise of a “Black Messiah” who could “electrify and unify” Black people. Approximately one month after the COINTELPRO memorandum was issued, Civil Rights Movement leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. When the COINTELPRO documents were discovered by a reporter in the 1970s, suspicion increased that the FBI and its long-time Director J. Edgar Hoover were in some way involved with the killing of King.
1877—Inventor and scientist Garrett A. Morgan is born in Paris, Ky. Among his major inventions were the gas mask and the automatic traffic signal. He made history on July 25, 1916 when he used his gas mask to rescue 32 men trapped in a mine explosion beneath Lake Erie. The U.S. Army also used the gas mask to save lives during World War I. Morgan died in 1963.
1922—Comedic great Bert Williams dies of pneumonia in New York City at the age of 46. What Jackie Robinson did for Blacks by breaking the color bar in major league baseball, Bert Williams did on the American stage. He was a comic, singer, writer and producer who spent 10 of his 25 years in show business performing with the famous Ziegfield Follies. W.C. Fields once referred to him as “the funniest man I ever saw.” Williams was born Egbert Austin Williams in the Bahamas.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and additions at SirajT12@yahoo.com or brief messages at 202-657-8872.)