Week of May 14-20
1885—Erskine Henderson, an African-American jockey, won the Kentucky Derby on “Joe Cotton”—a horse trained by Alex Perry—an African-American trainer. Henderson was the sixth Black jockey to win the coveted race. Indeed, Black jockeys and trainers dominated the Kentucky Derby from 1875 to 1902. However, while some of the reasons are not entirely clear, it appears that as the race became more and more prosperous Black jockeys and trainers were forced out.
1970—A student protest on the campus of Mississippi’s Jackson State University led to a massive confrontation with local police authorities. When the smoke cleared, two students had been shot and killed and another 12 injured or wounded. Reasons given for the protests ranged from opposition to the war in Vietnam, racial tensions and anger over the National Guard killings of White students on the campus of Kent State University earlier in the month. The university memorialized the disturbance by naming the area where it took place “Gibbs-Green Plaza” after the two students who were killed—Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, and James Earl Green, 17.
1985—In a confrontation with the Black nationalist, back-to-nature group MOVE, Philadelphia police drop an incendiary device on the group’s home and headquarters. The decision to bomb had been apparently approved by Black Mayor Wilson Goode. Eleven MOVE members, including five children, were killed. The only adult survivor was Ramona Africa. Over 60 homes in the surrounding area were burned to the ground. It was never fully clear why the decision to drop the bomb was made.
1911—Kappa Alpha Psi, one of the nation’s leading Black fraternities, was founded on this day on the campus of Indiana University by 10 young men led by Elder W. Diggs and Byron K. Armstrong.
1942—The 93rd Infantry is activated and assigned to combat in the Pacific. It became the first African-American division formed during World War II.
1868—The United States Senate fails by one vote in securing the two-thirds vote needed to convict President Andrew Johnson of the Articles of Impeachment that had been brought against him. The failure was a major setback for Black rights in America because Johnson had become a leading opponent of voting rights and economic advancement for the recently freed slaves. While the impeachment trial did not center on Black rights, Blacks would have clearly benefited if Johnson had been expelled from office.
1929—Detroit Rep. John Conyers Jr., one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, was born on this day. He remains one of the most progressive members of the United States Congress.
1966—Janet Jackson, of the famous and talented Jackson family, is born on this day in Gary, Ind. Controversy remains as to whether Janet has a secret daughter.
1990—Sammy Davis Jr. dies in Beverly Hill, Calif., at age 64. Davis, born in Harlem, N.Y., was a world class entertainer who performed well as an actor, singer and dancer. He was also a member of Hollywood’s popular and notorious “Rat Pack” which included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.
1954—The United States Supreme Court renders its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas) declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The unanimous ruling was written by Chief Justice Earl B. Warren, who headed one of the most progressive Supreme Courts in U.S. history. The ruling read in part “Segregation of White and Negro children in the public schools of a state solely on the basis of race…denies Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.” The legal team that argued the case was led by later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal. The ruling also had the effect of undermining all “Jim Crow” or segregationist laws.
1956—Boxing sensation Sugar Ray Leonard is born. The versatile fighter was named “Fighter of the Decade” for the 1980s.
1988—Black ophthalmologist and inventor Dr. Patricia E. Bath of Los Angeles, Calif., patents an apparatus that efficiently removes cataracts by using laser technology.
1896—The United States Supreme Court issues its infamous ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. The decision declared the doctrine of “separate but equal” was constitutional. By doing so it, in effect, approved all Jim Crow or segregationist laws designed to degrade Blacks or keep them separate from Whites. The ruling would stand until the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.
1955—Legendary educator Mary McLeod Bethune dies at 79 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Born the 15th of 17 children in Mayesville, S.C., Bethune would rise to become one of the nation’s foremost Black educators and an early civil rights activist. She was a driving force behind the founding of Florida’s Bethune-Cookman College.
1925—Black revolutionary Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on this day in Omaha, Neb. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and a follower of the legendary Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. For his outspokenness Earl Little would be brutally killed in 1929 by a Ku Klux Klan-type group. A smart and focused student, Malcolm dreamed of becoming a lawyer. But that dream would be crushed by prejudice when one of his favorite teachers told him that was “no realistic goal for a nigger.” He would end up dropping out of school and moving with his mother to Boston, Mass. He would later travel to New York City where he began a criminal life of petty crimes but rapidly moved up to coordinating drug, prostitution and gambling rings. With the “heat” on, he moved back to Boston where he was arrested and sentenced to prison on a burglary charge in 1946. By the time he was paroled in 1952, he was a devote follower of Elijah Muhammad and a small Muslim sect known as the Nation of Islam and had dropped his “slave” last name in favor of being referred to as “Malcolm X.” From 1952 to 1963, he became the primary force behind the building of the Nation of Islam from a sect of fewer than 1,000 members to a national organization of more than 30,000 members. But his faith in Elijah Muhammad was crushed when he learned in 1963 that the married and outwardly puritanical Muhammad had had extramarital affairs with at least six young Nation of Islam women. A bitter separation resulted between Malcolm and the Nation. Malcolm then turned to a more orthodox version of Islam and began to seek closer relations with other Black nationalist and civil rights groups. Unfortunately, he was assassinated at Harlem, N.Y.’s Audubon Ballroom Feb. 21, 1965 by three men associated with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X was 39.
1930—Lorraine Hansberry is born in Chicago, Ill. During her short life she became one of Black America’s most prolific authors and playwrights. Her most famous play was “A Raisin in the Sun”—the first drama written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. After her death from cancer in 1965, another one of her plays—“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” became a major off-Broadway production.
1952—Eccentric model and singer Grace Jones is born in Spanish Town, Jamaica. In addition to her singing and modeling, her unusual style propelled
her into a status as one of the icons of the disco and new music scene of the 1970s.
1743—Toussaint L’Ouverture, the father of Haitian independence, is born. He converted the random burnings of plantations and killings of unlucky Whites into a full scale revolution against slavery on the island. Under his leadership, the slaves were organized into an effective fighting force that would go on to defeat the British army and France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, L’Ouverture’s fighting might was indirectly responsible for the growth of America. Desperate to raise money to fight the Haitians, Napoleon sold the massive Louisiana territory to America at an amazingly low price. L’Ouverture was tricked into attending a phony “peace conference” in France. Once there he was jailed. But the leadership void was immediately filled by one of his lieutenants—Jean Jacques Dessalines who would complete the revolution started by L’Ouverture. Haiti became independent in 1803.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and questions at SirajT12@yahoo.com or leave brief messages at 202-657-8872.)