Week of May 28-June 3
1831—Although little known today, one of the most effective “conductors” of the “underground railroad” Eliza Ann Gardner was born on this day in 1831. The “underground railroad” was a series of roads, paths and safe houses used to enable slaves in the South to escape to freedom in the Northern United Stated or into Canada. “Conductors” were those persons who either led the escaped slaves to freedom or operated the safe houses.
1936—Betty Shabazz, the widow of Black nationalist leader Malcolm X, was born on this day in Detroit, Mich. Shabazz was born Betty Jean Sanders and raised by foster parents. She attended Tuskegee Institute (now university) and became a registered nurse. In 1994, she created a national controversy when she linked Nation of Islam leader Min. Louis Farrakhan to the assassination of Malcolm X. However, she and Farrakhan reconciled in 1995 and she spoke at the historic Million Man March. She died June 23, 1997 as a result of injuries received in a house fire set by her grandson.
1854—Escaped slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth delivers her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron. Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) had been physically and sexually abused by various slave owners and their wives in New York. She sought refuge in religion. She finally escaped after her last slaver owner reneged on a promise to free her. She became the leading female abolitionist of the period giving power speeches. She traveled widely in her anti-slavery mission telling friends “The spirit calls me and I must go.”
1865—President Andrew Johnson announces his Reconstruction program after the Civil War. However, Johnson was one of the greatest betrayers of Blacks in American history. He went back on many of the promises made to the former slaves by the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, Johnson’s Reconstruction program was more favorable to the former slave owners and Confederate soldiers than it was to the ex-slaves. Johnson even opposed granting Blacks voting rights.
1973—Thomas Bradley is elected the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, Calif.
1822—What could have been the largest and most elaborate slave rebellion in American history is betrayed by a house slave seeking favors from his White master. The rebellion was organized by Denmark Vesey and involved thousands of Blacks in the Charleston, S.C., area. Vesey was actually a free man who had purchased his freedom. He was doing a thriving business as owner of a carpentry shop. But he has secretly vowed “not to rest until all slaves are free.” The betrayal of the Vesey plot by a house slave resulted in dozens of people, including four Whites, being arrested and many of them were eventually hanged. Vesey was put to death on June 23, 1822.
1903—One of the most outstanding poets in the history of Black America, Countee Cullen, is born in Louisville, Ky., or Baltimore, Md. The exact city of his birth is still debated. However, he was raised in New York City and rose to fame in the early 1920s and became a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen married but there were persistent rumors that he was a closet homosexual resulting from his troubled childhood including being abandoned by his mother. He died in 1946 of high blood pressure and what was then called uremic poisoning or acute kidney failure.
1870—Congress passes the first Enforcement Act providing stiff punishment for both private citizens and public officials who conspired to deprive the recently freed slaves of either their civil rights or their right to vote. The Act was in response to the old plantation aristocracy and the defeated rebel soldiers who were taking control of Southern governments and enacting “Black Codes” aimed at the suppression of Black freedoms and voting rights. The Act was also in response to the growing power of White terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
1881—Educator Booker T. Washington was formally recommended to head the newly planned Tuskegee Institute (now university) in Tuskegee, Ala. Washington would use his post to become the top Black educator and one of the most influential Black leaders in America. However, he would later come in for criticism from more militant Black leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois for being “too accommodating” to Whites. Washington basically became an advocate of Blacks sacrificing their push for social equality in favor of acquiring labor skills and building businesses.
1909—The National Negro Committee (the forerunner of the NAACP) convenes its first conference at the United Charities Building in New York City. Over 300 Blacks and their White supporters attended the gathering. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) would go on to become the nation’s leading civil rights organization.
1921—The infamous and bloody Tulsa (Oklahoma) Riots begin. Whites go on a violent rampage lasting several days. When the rioting was over, an estimated 21 Whites and 60 Blacks were dead. In addition, as many as 15,000 Blacks were left homeless as hundreds of homes and businesses were burned to the ground. The area bearing the brunt of the destruction was known as the “Black Wall Street” because of its large number of African-American owned businesses. As recently as 2007, Detroit Congressman John Conyers was working on legislation designed to give the few remaining Black survivors of the rioting additional time to sue in order to recover some of their loses. The rioting was reportedly sparked by a false claim from a White female elevator operator of being assaulted by a Black man. But White jealousy of Black success in the Tulsa area may have also played a major role.
1835—The Fifth National Negro Convention convenes in Philadelphia, Pa. One major focus of the convention was to urge Blacks to stop referring to themselves as “Africans,” “Blacks” or “Coloreds” and instead adopt the word “Negro” as the official racial designation. Gradually, the designation became popular even though all Blacks did not agree with it. Researcher Richard Benjamin Moore writes that at the time some Blacks felt word “Negro” was “a symptom of the degrading sickness of opportunism and the increasing acceptance of inferior social and political status.”
1864—Solomon George Washington Dill is murdered by angry Whites. Dill was one of those rarities in Southern society—a poor White man who supported an end to slavery and Black demands for social justice. Dill’s “crime” was giving what some Whites considered “an incendiary speech” to a group of South Carolina Blacks.
1973—Detroit’s WGPR becomes the nation’s first Black-owned television station. It was granted a license to operate on this day in 1973 but did not actually go on air until September 1975.
1863—Abolitionist and “Underground Railroad Conductor” Harriet Tubman leads a force of Union Army guerrilla soldiers into Maryland and frees over 700 slaves. Tubman was one of the most
noteworthy women in the anti-slavery struggle prior to the Civil War and became a leading voice in the call for the federal government to allow Blacks to fight in the war.
1951—Kenneth Chenault is born. He becomes one of the nation’s leading Black corporate executive heading the American Express Company in 2001. In 1995, Ebony magazine had already named him one of the “Top 50 Living Pioneers.”
1975—James A. Healy becomes the first Black Roman Catholic Bishop in the United States. He was consecrated at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Portland, Maine.
1904— Dr. Charles R. Drew is born. He grows up to conduct first of its kind research in blood transfusions and the creation of blood plasma. Drew also established Britain’s first blood bank and in the United States he fought against the segregation of blood based on race. He died on April 1, 1950 as a result of injuries received in an automobile accident while driving in North Carolina.
1906—Entertainer Josephine Baker is born in St. Louis, Mo. At 16, she starred in the hit and controversial musical “Shuffle Along.” However, she did not achieve fame until she left the United States and moved to Paris, France where her exotic dancing and singing made her an international sensation. Baker was mixed race of African-American and Native American parentage. She returned to the U.S. several times including 1963 to speak at the March on Washington.
1942—Singer Curtis Mayfield is born in Chicago, Ill. His musical style combined the Blues, Gospel and Soul music popular in the area at the time.
1949—Wesley A. Brown becomes the first African-American graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
1968—The Poor Peoples March on Washington begins. The idea of a march and tent city to unite poor people of all races was original conceived by civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But King was assassinated in April 1968 and the campaign to dramatize the sufferings and needs of America’s poor was carried out by his assistant Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and questions at SirajT12@yahoo.com. In order to register for the May 29th Black History Club meeting, please leave your name and number at 202-657-8872.)