For the Week of July 23-29
1900—The first Pan African conference took place in London, England. Blacks from throughout the world gathered to plot strategies for bringing about rights for all people of African ancestry, independence from colonialism for African countries and international Black unity. This “conference” was the precursor of all the subsequent Pan African “Congresses.” Among the most prominent names present in 1900 were African-American activist and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois and West Indian lawyer H. Sylvester Williams.
1948—The Progressive Party Convention begins in Philadelphia. The convention nominates Henry Wallace for president and he makes the strongest showing of virtually any third party candidate in American history. More than 150 Blacks were at the convention and dozens ran for office on the Progressive Party ticket. They were attracted by the party’s call for an end to segregation, full voting rights for Blacks and universal government sponsored health insurance. The party was populated mainly by liberals and leftists. Wallace’s candidacy was even endorsed by the then relatively strong American Communist Party. The party came under vicious attack during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. But positions taken by the Progressive Party forced the Democratic Party to adopt meaningful changes in order to hold onto the Black vote.
1984—The first Black Miss America Vanessa Williams is forced to give up her crown as a result of the discovery of some sexually explicit photographs. She was replaced by the first runner-up (another African-American) Suzette Charles. Williams bounced back, however, and became a successful singer and actress.
1651—Anthony (or Antonio) Johnson, a free Black man who purchased freedom for himself and his wife, was awarded 250 acres of land in North Hampton, Va. Johnson was among the first group of 20 Black indentured servants brought to America in 1619. Indentured servitude was a form of slavery that allowed the person to either work for or purchase his freedom. After becoming free, Johnson became the first wealthy Black person in America. He probably picked up the name “Johnson” from his original owner but in official records from the period he is simply referred to as “Antonio the Negro.”
1802—Famed French writer Alexandre Dumas is born. He was the product of a French general and a light-complexioned Black Haitian woman. Dumas would go on to become one of the world’s greatest and most prolific writers. He is best known his classics such as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo. His Blackness caused him some problems in French society but by and large his fame and the money from his books enabled him to live an extravagant lifestyle.
1904—This is the day it is believed that actor Ira Aldridge was born in Africa. He would come to America, learn English and German and develop into one of the world’s most accomplished Shakespearean actors. He played the role of Othello many times.
1916—The Black inventor of America’s first gas mask, Garrett T. Morgan, made national headlines on this day when he and a team of volunteers used his invention to rescue 32 workers trapped in a gas-filled tunnel 250 feet under Lake Erie. Morgan called his device “the Morgan safety hood and smoke protector.” But it has become known simply as the gas mask. Morgan also invented America’s first traffic light. He was born in 1877, did most of his inventing in Cleveland, Ohio, and died in 1963.
1972—Faced with possible exposure by the media, the federal government (specifically the U.S. Public Health Service) finally acknowledges its involvement in the horrific and immoral Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. During the experiment, 399 Black men (mostly poor sharecroppers from Alabama) were led to believe they were being treated for syphilis while the doctors and nurses involved (some of them African-American) were actually fooling the men with fake medicines in order to discover the long-term effects of syphilis on the human body. The “experiment” lasted from 1932 to the time it was exposed in 1972. Finally, on May 16, 1997, President Clinton issued an official apology to the eight surviving members of the experiment saying, “The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong…and clearly racist.”
1847—President Joseph J. Roberts declares the West African nation of Liberia an independent republic. The nation was primarily founded by former U.S. slaves returning to Africa. Roberts, himself, was born in Virginia. Three factors were behind the founding of Liberia beginning around 1821: Free Blacks were coming under increasing discrimination in America; pro-slavery forces felt the presence of free Blacks would encourage rebellion within the slave population; and friendly Whites (like those in the American Colonization Society) felt Blacks would never be treated fairly in America and should return to Africa. The ACS helped over 13,000 Blacks return to Africa with most going to Liberia.
1926—The NAACP awards its prestigious Spingarn Medal to Carter G. Woodson for his work in Black history. Indeed, Woodson became known as the “Father of Black History.” The historian, author and journalist founded Negro History Week—the precursor to today’s Black History Month. Woodson felt knowing true Black history would be an inspiration to people of African ancestry. He once wrote: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
1919—The infamous Chicago Race Riot of 1919 begins. It would last for several days and require 6,000 National Guardsmen to put it down. The Chicago disturbance was the most bloody of 25 race riots that took place in cities throughout the country. In fact, the summer of 1919 became known as the “Red Summer” because of the widespread number of racial conflicts. In Chicago, the rioting was started by White gangs harassing the large number of Blacks who had moved to the city for war-time jobs created by World War I. In addition to harassing and beating Blacks, the White gangs invented “drive-by shooting” as they drove through Black neighborhoods firing rifles and pistols. Young Blacks formed mobs of their own and began retaliating. When it was all over 15 Whites and 23 Blacks were dead; more than 500 people had been injured and another 1,000 left homeless.
1868—The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified formally, making former Black slaves citizens of the United States. Many scholars consider this the most important amendment to the Constitution. In addition to making Blacks citizens, it contains both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause. These clauses have been used to guarantee a wide range of rights for all U.S. citizens. The 14th Amendment was passed, in part, to overturn the “Black Codes” being adopted in many Southern states after the Civil War. The Black Codes were an attempt to give Blacks official second class status in America by, among other things, limiting their rights to vote, sue a White person or testify in court.
1915—United States Marines begin the first American occupation of Haiti. The official justif
ication was that disturbances on the predominantly Black island might allow Germany’s Adolph Hitler to infiltrate troops into the Americas. But the U.S. invasion was driven in large measure by a desire to put down a popular rebellion that threatened the rule of Haiti’s dictator and American business interests. More than 2,000 Haitians were killed in the early weeks of the occupation which did not end until August of 1934.
1917—The NAACP organizes an 8,000-person strong “silent march” down New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest lynching and other brutalities against African-Americans. The marchers were particularly outraged by the July 2, 1917 massacre of Blacks in E. St. Louis, Ill. President Woodrow Wilson (considered by many Blacks to be a racist) had just taken America into World War I under the theme of “Making the World Safe for Democracy.” Thus, many of the marchers carried signs reading “Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?”
2009—Death of the flamboyant Rev. Ike is announced. At his height in the mid-1970s, Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter reached an estimated 2.5 million African-Americans with his New York-based spiritual and financial betterment radio program. However, critics often described him as a “hustler” and a “scoundrel” who exploited poor Blacks by selling “healings” and “prayer clothes.”
1870—Pioneering boxer George Dixon is born in Nova Scotia, Canada. Little known today Dixon had an amazing boxing career. He pioneered much of modern boxing including training techniques such the suspended punching bag and shadow boxing. He was the first Black person to win a world boxing title. Dixon was known as “Little Chocolate” because he stood only 5-3 and weighed around 90 pounds. Despite his diminutive size he won 78 fights—30 by knockout.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by R. James Taylor.)