This Week In Black History

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Week of May 7-13

May 7

1800—On this date the founder of the settlement which would grow to become the city of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, sold his property and left the settlement. The Haitian-born frontier trader and businessman had a history of building significant wealth, losing it and building it again. He would die 18 years later in St. Charles, Mo.

DuSable
JEAN BAPTISTE POINTE DUSABLE

1878—Black inventor, J.R. Winters, receives a patent for his designing of the fire escape ladder.

2010—A report on felony disenfranchisement laws begins to receive widespread publicity. The report was actually released on April 21 by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. It showed that 5.3 million Americans were being denied the right to vote because of past felony convictions. Disproportionately, those denied voting rights were African-American. In fact, the report revealed that 13 percent of Black males could not vote because of felony convictions. Historically, most voting disenfranchisement laws were enacted after the Civil War as a means to keep newly freed Blacks from voting.

May 8

1858—The first play by an African-American writer is published. The play was titled “The Escape” and the author was William Wells Brown. Brown was also a leading abolitionist speaking forcefully against slavery. However, Brown was often overshadowed by his better known contemporary Frederick Douglas. Indeed, he and Douglas often publicly feuded.

1925—The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is founded. The Brotherhood would become the leading Black-led trade union organization in America. In addition to introducing unionism to African-Americans, the ability to travel to cities throughout the country enabled the porters to become a major vehicle of communications for American Blacks. They distributed everything from letters to Black-oriented newspapers as they traveled the nation. The chief organizer was the legendary A. Phillip Randolph.

May 9

1952—The boxer-turned-actor Canada Lee dies in New York City at the age of 45. Second only to the legendary Paul Robeson, Lee was the leading serious (non-comedic) Black actor of the 1940s. He gave impressive performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Lifeboat” (1944), the boxing classic “Body and Soul” (1947) and “Cry, The Beloved Country” (1951). However, like Robeson, Lee’s film career came to an end during the McCarthy Era when a host of Black and White stars, who were also social activists, were labeled communists and denied jobs.

May 10

1837—P.B.S. Pinchback is born in Macon, Ga., to a White plantation owner and a free Black woman. He becomes one of the leading Black politicians of the Reconstruction era, especially in Louisiana. After the Civil War, he became lieutenant governor of Louisiana and actually served as governor for 43 days. He was later elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He would also play a significant role in the establishment of Southern University and a major Black newspaper known as the Louisianan.

1994—After being released from 27 years of imprisonment for his battles against the racist system of apartheid, Nelson Mandela is elected the first Black president of South Africa.

May 11

1933—Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is born Eugene Walcott on this day in the Bronx, N.Y. He was raised by his St. Kitts-born mother in Roxbury, Mass. Prior to joining the Nation of Islam in 1955, Walcott had achieved celebrity status in the Boston area as a Calypso singer, dancer and violinist known as “The Charmer.”

1968—Nine caravans of protesters arrive in Washington, D.C., for the first phase of the Poor Peoples Campaign—an anti-poverty effort conceived by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The campaign aimed to unite Black, White and Hispanic poor people in an effort to pressure the government to do more to eliminate poverty in America. King had been assassinated the previous April, so the campaign was led by his lieutenant Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The campaign erected a Resurrection City near the Lincoln Monument and held daily demonstrations in Washington from May 14-June 24.

May 12

1862—In a bold and heroic endeavor Robert Smalls leads 12 other slaves in the stealing of a Confederate war ship and turning it over to Union forces. The White captain of the steamer Planter and other officers had gone ashore for a party in Charleston, S.C. Smalls, a wheelman, quickly organized the Black crew and steered the ship out of Charleston harbor right pass the unsuspecting Confederate forces. For his daring deed, Smalls was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. After the Civil War, Smalls was elected congressman from South Carolina.

1940—Jazz singer Al Jarreau was born on this day in Milwaukee, Wis.

May 13

1865—The last battle of the Civil war ends. Ironically, it appears the Confederate troops won the battle at Palmetto Ranch, Texas. However, it was the actions and bravery of the 62nd Regiment of United States Colored Troops which prevented the defeat from turning into a rout. The Confederates had actually underestimated the fighting prowess of the Blacks assuming they would run in fear when the fighting started. Instead, what occurred was the rapid defeat of two White regiments but the Black soldiers of the 62nd held firm. The Confederates would later surrender.

1950—Singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder is born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in Saginaw, Mich. Blind since shortly after birth, Wonder signed with Motown Records’ Tamla label at the age of 11, and continues to perform and record for Motown to this day. Wonder has recorded 30 Top Ten hits and has won 24 Grammy awards—a record for any living artist.

(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. Get a free subscription to his bi-weekly Black History Journal by writing him at Robert N. Taylor, P.O. Box 58097, Washington, D.C., 20037. Simply include $3 to cover postage.)

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