Week of April 2 to April 8
1855—John Mercer Langston becomes the first African-American elected to public office when he wins the position of clerk of Brownhelm Township in Ohio. Though not well known today, Langston was one of the foremost Black leaders of the 1800s. With the aid of his two brothers, he organized anti-slavery societies throughout Ohio. The Oberlin College graduate also became a lawyer and statesman for Black rights. After the Civil War, he organized the law department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The town of Langston, Okla., is named in his honor. He died in 1897.
JOHN MERCER LANGSTON
1932—World famous Black cowboy William “Bill” Picket dies on this day in Ponca, Okla., after being kicked in the head by a horse. He was 70. But during his heyday Picket was perhaps the best known and most celebrated cowboy in the world traveling with various “wild west” shows including the Millers Brothers’ Fabulous 101 Ranch. He invented the rodeo sport of bulldogging. Picket was of Black and Indian descent.
1939—Marvin Gaye is born in Washington, D.C. He signs with Detroit’s Motown Records in 1962 and goes on to become one of the leading R&B male vocalists of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, with hits ranging from the socially conscious “What’s Going On” to the sexy “Let’s Get It On.” Gaye was shot to death by his father during an argument in 1984.
1930—Ras Tafari is proclaimed Emperor of Ethiopia—one of the only African nations to successfully resist European colonization. He is renamed Haile Selassie. Blacks in many parts of the world view him as a god-like figure. Indeed, Jamaicans form a religion in his honor. They call themselves Rastafarians. Selassie could trace his ancestry as far back as the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of the Christian Bible.
1950—Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month, dies at age 74 in Washington, D.C.
1961—Comedian-actor Eddie Murphy is born in Brooklyn, N.Y.
1968—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his powerful and prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tenn. Many felt he used the speech to predict his own death. He was assassinated the very next day—at 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968.
1915—Muddy Walters is born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Miss. Walters would go on to become one of the primary shapers of that genre of music known as the Blues. Indeed, he was easily one of the most influential musicians of the first half of the 20th century.
1928—Poet Maya Angelou is born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Mo. Angelou now ranks as one of the greatest poets in America. But her talents have also been expressed as a playwright, author, producer, historian and civil rights activist.
1967—Civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. formally announces his opposition to America’s war in Vietnam during a speech before the Overseas Press Club in New York City. The speech brought King even greater opposition from the federal government, especially then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. It also alienated some Black leaders who felt it was a mistake to mix domestic civil rights issues with foreign policy issues. But King charged that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
1968—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., as he had embarked on a campaign to focus the Civil Rights Movement on economic and financial betterment issues for Blacks. Riots or urban rebellions broke out in over 100 U.S. cities. At least 50 people are killed as over 20,000 federal troops and 34,000 National Guardsmen are mobilized to put down the disturbances. The official finding was that a lone White gunman, James Earl Ray, was responsible for the assassination. However, suspicions remain until this day that the FBI, led by arch-conservative J. Edgar Hoover, was somehow involved in the killing.
1856—Booker T. Washington is born a slave in Hale’s Ford, Va. He would become one of the three or four most influential leaders in all of African-American history. He was one of the nation’s greatest educators having founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. However, more progressive Black leaders became critical of him after he delivered the so-called “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895 in which he appeared to offer an acceptance and accommodation to American racism in exchange of greater vocational training of African-Americans.
1976—The infamous COINTELPRO documents are released. In response to an accidental discovery at a warehouse and a freedom of information lawsuit, the FBI is forced to release documents detailing an intensive and extensive campaign to disrupt and destroy civil rights and anti-war organizations and their leaders. Among the documents released was a letter dated August 25, 1967 which made clear that one of the campaign’s chief aims was “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalists …” But the FBI’s definition of “Black nationalist” was so broad that even moderate civil rights organizations and their leaders were targeted to be neutralized. For example, the letter characterized the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) as one of the organizations having “radical and violence prone leaders…” The leader of the SCLC was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1990—Jazz great Sarah Vaughn dies. Vaughn was born in Newark, N.J., in 1924 and went on to become what many considered “the world’s greatest singing talent.” She was known as the “incomparable Sarah Vaughn.”
1798—One of the nation’s most famous and accomplished early Black pioneers, James Beckwourth, is born. The product of a White slave owner and a Black slave mother, Beckwourth acquired his freedom and became a successful fur trader. He would later become a scout for the Rocky Mount Fur Company. However, in 1824, he joined the Crow Indian nation and married a Crow woman. He would later move west where he discovered an important passage way through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The passage was named “Beckwourth Pass” after him.
1846—Dred Scott and his wife Harriet first file suit claiming their freedom. The case would eventually lead to Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney’s infamous “Dred Scott Decision” in 1857. Scott had basically argued that by being taken from the slave state of Missouri and living in free states or territories for seven years he was in effect a free man. The case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7 to 2 decision written by 80-year-old Chief Justice Taney, himself a former slaver owner, Scott’s argument was rejected. In one of the most racist Supreme Court decisions ever issued, Justice Taney ruled that neither Blacks nor their descendants could be U.S. citizens and thus had no right to sue for their freedom in U.S. courts. Taney capped off the ruling by saying, “A Negro had no rights a White man was bound [required] to respect.”
1712—The New York City slave rebellion occurs. A group of 27 slaves began setting fires in the city and shooting Whites. At least a dozen Whites were killed before the state militia arrived to brutally put down the rebellion. Following the revolt, slave codes were toughened, 21 Blacks were executed and six committed suicide.
1872—William Monroe Trotter is born. Of all the Black leaders of the late 1800s and early 1900s, Trotter was the most militant. He used his Boston Guardian newspaper to pound away at racial injustice saying the newspaper was “propaganda against discrimination.” In 1905, he helped found the Niagara Movement but then refused to join the resulting NAACP charging that it was too moderate and too White controlled. On Nov. 12, 1914 he made national headlines when he confronted President Woodrow Wilson in the White House over his failure to do anything to stop the lynching of Blacks. The confrontation led to a 45-minute argument in which Wilson told Trotter he was offended by “the manner” in which he was talking to him. The New York Times denounced Trotter for showing “superabundant untactful belligerency.” But many Black leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, praised him. Trotter was born on April 7, 1872 and died on April 7, 1934.
1915—Billie Holiday is born. She would go on to become the greatest Blues and Jazz singer of her era with songs like “The Man I Love” and “God Bless the Child Whose Got His Own.” She was born to a 13-year-old mother and began her working career as a small girl helping to clean up a Baltimore, Md., whorehouse—a house in which she was also raped. Holiday made money from her performances despite the fact that she never received any royalties from any of the 200 songs she recorded. Drug use was a factor in her premature death at 44.
1974—Hammering Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves breaks the homerun record of the legendary Babe Ruth when he hit his 715th homer during a game at Atlanta Stadium.
1990—Scientist Percy Julian, who developed drugs to combat glaucoma and methods to mass produce cortisone, is admitted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. Get a free subscription to his weekly Black History Journal by writing him at Robert N. Taylor, P.O. Box 58097, Washington, D.C. 20037. Simply include $3.00 to cover postage.)