Week of June 4-10
1922—Samuel L. Gravely is born. Gravely became the first African-American admiral in the United States Navy and the first African-American to command a U.S. warship. The Richmond, Va. native died in 2004 at the age of 82.
1972—College professor and Black activist Angela Davis is acquitted by a jury of charges that she assisted and conspired with the young men involved in a deadly 1970 shootout at the Marin County courthouse in California. The assault on the courthouse was an attempt to free imprisoned Black activist George Jackson. At least three people were killed during the escape attempt. Davis, a Birmingham, Ala. native who became a member of the Communist Party, spent 16 months in prison but on this day in 1972 she was found not guilty of all charges by an all-White San Jose jury.
1973—Arna Bontemps dies at the age of 72 in Nashville, Tenn. Born in Louisiana, Bontemps became one of the key figures in the Black artistic and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Bontemps was a prolific writer and poet.
1872—The Republican Party National Convention takes place in Philadelphia with substantial representation from former Black slaves. At least three Blacks addressed the national political gathering. At this point in history, the Republicans were the nation’s most progressive party and attracted the allegiance of African-Americans. Blacks would remain loyal to the Republicans until the 1930s. But by 1945 with the Republicans becoming increasingly conservative and Blacks attracted to the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the vast majority of Blacks had switched to the Democrats.
1894—Black inventor G.W. Murray patents a fertilizer distributor, cotton chopper and a seed planter all on this day in 1894.
1945—Track star John Carlos is born in Harlem, N.Y. Carlos and fellow sprinter Tommie Smith created an international sensation when they protested American racism by giving the “Black Power” clinched fist salute when accepting their medals at the 1968 Olympics.
1956—Although the actual decision may have been reached the previous day, a federal district court hands down a ruling declaring that Alabama laws requiring racial segregation in public transportation were unconstitutional. The decision, which was later confirmed by the United States Supreme Court, was the first major legal victory for the Civil Rights Movement. It grew out of the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked when Rosa Parks defied the law and custom by refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a White man. Although actually organized by the Rev. E.D. Nixon, the Boycott would result in Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. becoming the nation’s most prominent civil rights leader.
1790—Jean Baptist Pointe De Sable establishes a settlement which would eventually grow into the city of Chicago. The settlement would make the French-speaking, Santo Domingo-born Desable a wealthy man.
1958—Singer, musician and composer Prince was born on this day in Minneapolis, Minn. His full name is Prince Rogers Nelson.
1966—Although there is some debate as to who first coined and used the phrase, this is generally recognized as the day in 1966 that Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee President Stokely Carmichael began to popularize the term “Black Power” as a demand for greater African-American control over their political and economic destiny in America.
1987—Dr. Mae Jemison is selected by NASA as the first Black woman to begin training as a space shuttle astronaut. Jemison actually become the first African-American woman to travel in space on Sept. 12, 1992 aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
1868—This is generally recognized as the day Marie Laveau retired (or was forced out) as the most powerful Voo Doo priestess in the world. The New Orleans native had become powerful and wealthy catering to the superstitious beliefs of both Blacks and Whites throughout the South. The daughter of a slave and a French plantation owner, Laveau was raised as a Catholic but became intrigued by stories of the city’s first Voo Doo priestess Sanite De De and by 1830 had built her own Voo Doo religious empire. She was replaced by one of her daughters but she would live until 1881 dying at the age of 98.
1917—One of the greatest poets of the 20th century Gwendolyn Brooks is born in Topeka, Kan. Pushed by her mother and father, Brooks began writing poetry at a young age and was even introduced to some of the best known Black poets and writers of the Harlem Renaissance while still a child. She won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950 for a collection entitled Annie Allen. She died on Dec. 3, 2000.
1930—Under pressure from early civil rights activists, the New York Times begins using the word “Negro” as the official designation for African-Americans. It also agreed to capitalize the “N.” The decision by the Times gradually led to “Negro” becoming the official designation for Blacks nationwide and it would remain so until it was dethroned by “Black” in the 1960s. Positively, the rights advocates were attempting to build greater respect for African-Americans but negatively the selection of “Negro” also reflected a desire not to be referred to as “Blacks.”
1953—Educator and activist Mary Church Terrell wins a legal battle to end segregation in Washington, D.C. restaurants.
1886—Homer A. Plessy, a light-complexioned Black man, refuses to leave the “White” section of a New Orleans railroad car and move to the “colored” section. His Rosa Parks type refusal sets in motion a legal case which eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. In its May 1896 ruling, the Court decided against Plessy and thus confirmed the segregationist doctrine of “separate but equal.” The ruling also had the effect of treating anyone with any “Black blood” as Black. Although, the court never actually ruled on Plessy’s claim that he was 7/8 White and only 1/8 Black and thus should not be treated as “colored” under the laws of that day.
1968—James Earl Ray, the man convicted of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is captured at an airport in London using a false Canadian passport. Ray would spend the rest of his life trying to withdraw his guilty plea charging that his brother and a mysterious man he met in Montreal, Canada named Raoul were actually involved in the killing of King. He claimed he “did not personally shoot Dr. King” but suggested he knew before hand about the conspiracy to assassinate him. Ray died in prison in April 1998.
1982—One of the greatest athletes to ever play the game of baseball, Satchel Paige, dies in Kansas City, Mo. Paige had played in the old Negro Baseball Leagues and went unrecognized by Major League Baseball and the general public for decades. He was finally voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.
1948—Oliver W. Hill becomes the first African-American elected to the Richmond, Va. city council. He is best known for his work as a civil rights attorney helping bring
down the segregationist doctrine of “separate but equal.” Hill was born in 1907.
1989—One of the “founding fathers” of the Congressional Black Caucus, Michigan Rep. John Conyers issues the first call for a Congressional investigation into paying African-Americans reparations for the enslavement of their ancestors.
1760—Several sources list this at the birthday of Richard Allen—founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Other sources give his birth date as Feb. 14, 1760. Regardless, the AME church was the first African-American organized and incorporated church in America. Allen, Absalom Jones and a group of free Blacks in Philadelphia founded the church in 1794. Allen and his group were initially members of the city’s predominantly White St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. But when several Blacks were ejected from the church for attempting to pray along side Whites, Allen led a walkout which resulted in the forming of the AME church.
1898—Hattie McDaniel, first African-American to win an Oscar, is born on this day in Wichita, Kansas. She won her Academy Award in 1940 for Best Supporting Actress for the role of Mammy in the film classic Gone With The Wind. Once criticized for playing stereotypical and sometimes demeaning “Black roles,” she responded, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.” McDaniel died in 1952.
1941—The “Black Moses,” Marcus Garvey dies in London, England. Starting around 1916, Garvey built his United Negro Improvement Association into the largest mass organization of Blacks in history with the slogan “Up You Mighty Race.” The UNIA owned businesses ranging from bakeries to shipping companies. Garvey preached Black pride and self-reliance while steering away from the more integrationist thrust of most prominent Black leaders of his day. He was eventually jailed on what are now viewed as trumped up mail fraud charges. Presidential intervention got Garvey freed. But in exchange for early release from prison, the Jamaican native had to agree to leave the United States and not return. Separated from his U.S. base, Garvey was never able to rebuild the UNIA.
(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 next Black History Club meeting, please leave your name and number at 202-657-8872.)