Week of January 21- 27
1773—Poet Phyllis Wheatley, born in 1753, was freed on this day in 1773. Kidnapped in Africa and sold as a slave when she was only seven years old, Wheatley would become Black America’s first poet. She grew up in a prosperous Boston family, which allowed her to learn to read. She not only mastered English but also excelled in Greek and Latin. Her first book of poetry received rave reviews in the United States and Europe.
1941—Singer and political activist Richie Havens is born.
1942—“Big Band” leader Count Basie and his Orchestra recorded their famous “One O’Clock Jump” for Okeh Records in New York City.
1963—Former professional basketball great Hakeem Olajuwon is born in the West African nation of Nigeria.
1971—Twelve members of the Congressional Black Caucus boycotted President Richard Nixon’s State of the Union Address to protest his refusal to meet with them or address issues of concern to African-Americans.
1822—“From slavery to wealth” is the phrase which best describes the story of Barney L. Ford, who was born into slavery on this day in 1822 in Stafford Court, Va.,–the product of a Black woman and a plantation owner. He was raised on a plantation in South Carolina but with the aid of the “Underground Railroad,” he escaped and headed west through Chicago (where he met his wife) to the gold fields of California where he was denied the right to stake a claim because he was Black. After being cheated by a shady lawyer, he headed to the Denver, Colo., area and in time built a barbershop, a restaurant and then a fine hotel. He also built a hotel in the Central American nation of Nicaragua. Despite obstacles and setbacks such as racists bombing his hotel, Ford kept bouncing back and over time became one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Denver. After 1860, he used his influence to fight for Black rights in Colorado.
1931—Sam Cooke is born in Clarksdale, Miss. He is considered by many “The Father of Soul Music.” The son of a minister, Cooke began his career with a Gospel group known as the “Singing Children.” He then became a member of the famous “Soul Stirrers.” When he switched to secular music, he combined Gospel and the Blues to produce Soul. Among his best known hits were “You Send Me,” “Everybody Loves the Cha Cha Cha,” and “Twisting the Night Away.” He was shot and killed as a result of a misunderstanding involving a woman at a Los Angeles motel in 1964.
1948—Two time heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman is born on this day in Marshall, Texas.
2006—Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers scores 81 points in a 122 to 104 victory over the Toronto Raptors. The score was the second highest by a single player in the history of the National Basketball Association.
1821—Minister Lott Cary leaves the United States with a group of freed slaves to establish a colony on the West African coast. In doing so, the group lays the foundation for the establishment of the nation of Liberia. Cary became acting governor of the settlement in August 1828 but died accidentally in November 1828. Nevertheless the colony survived even though it had to fight off attacks from native Africans and slave traders. Liberia became an independent republic in 1847. In 2006, it elected its first female president.
1891—Pioneering Black surgeon, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, helps found Provident Hospital in Chicago, Ill. The hospital becomes one of the main teaching and training facilities for Black doctors and nurses who had frequently been denied entrance to White-owned medical facilities. It was also at Provident in 1893 that Dr. Williams achieved international fame by becoming the first American surgeon to perform open heart surgery.
1964—The 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified. It abolished the poll tax which had been used in many Southern states to prevent Blacks from voting. Interestingly, the Republican controlled legislature in Georgia in 2006 passed a voter identification law which many Blacks complained was no more than a poll tax in disguise.
1976—Paul Robeson, perhaps the greatest combination of actor, singer, athlete and political activist ever produced by Black America, died on this day in Philadelphia, Pa. During his life, Robeson not only achieved a brilliant career on stage and in early movies, but he was also an ardent fighter for Black rights and socialist causes. As a result he was the target of a massive government campaign of disruption and character assassination.
1977—The highly acclaimed television mini-series “Roots” begins airing on ABC. The series was based on a novel by Alex Haley, who also wrote the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
1874—Arthur Schomburg is born Arturo Alfonso Schomburg in Puerto Rico. After moving to New York City in April 1891, he, overtime, becomes known as the “Sherlock Holmes” of Black history because of his relentless digging for Black historical truths and accomplishments. Reportedly, his drive to discover Black history was sparked by a 5th grade teacher who told him, “Black people have no history, no heroes, no great moments.” He eventually collected over 10,000 volumes on Black history in America, the Caribbean and Latin America. His collection became part of the New York Public Library system.
1885—Martin R. Delaney (1812-1885) dies on this day in Xenia, Ohio. Delaney was perhaps the leading Black nationalist of the 1800s. After fighting in the Civil War to end slavery and becoming the first Black field officer in the U.S. Army, Delaney became disillusioned with America. He began to advocate Black separatism and/or a return to Africa. He was a journalist and a physician who wrote several books including one detailing how ancient Egypt and Ethiopia were the first great civilizations long before ancient Greece. Although relatively unknown today, Delaney was also brilliant. Abraham Lincoln once told his secretary of war Edwin Stanton about Delaney saying, “Do not fail to meet this most extraordinary and intelligent Black man.”
1993—The first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall dies on this day in 1993. Unlike current justice Clarence Thomas, Marshall was a true progressive and fighter for Black rights having spent years with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, waging ongoing battles with the legal establishment to protect and expand rights and opportunities for African-Americans.
1851—The first Black Women’s Rights Convention is held in Akron, Ohio. The keynote speaker was anti-slavery activist Sojourner Truth.
1966—Constance Baker Motley becomes the first African-American woman appointed to a federal judgeship. She takes the bench in the Southern District of New York. Motley was a major civil rights hero helping win several important cases during the 1950s and ‘60s. Among the cases was the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which desegregated the nation’s schools. She worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and helped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in several of his legal battles. Born in 1921 in New Haven, Conn., Motley died in 2006.
1980—Black Entertainment Television (BET), the first Black owned company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, begins broadcasting from its headquarters in Washington, D.C. While still Black programmed, BET is now owned by media conglomerate Viacom.
1893—“Queen Bess,” Bessie Coleman, the nation’s first Black female aviator, is born in the small town of Atlanta, Texas. Coleman was also the first African-American (male or female) to earn an international pilot’s license. Because of the racism and sexism in America, she had to travel to France to earn the license. She traveled the U.S. encouraging other Blacks to become pilots. Queen Bess died in a plane accident in 1926.
1944—Political activist Angela Davis is born in Birmingham, Ala. She was a brilliant scholar and philosopher who made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list because of her suspected involvement in the violent Aug. 7, 1970 courthouse attempt to free jailed Black revolutionary inmate George Jackson. She was also associated with the Black Panther Party. However, shortly after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. she joined the Communist Party. She later became a tenured professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, although then governor and later U.S. President Ronald Reagan had vowed to block her from teaching.
1958—Grammy award winning songstress Anita Baker is born on this day in Toledo, Ohio. Baker was raised in Detroit.
1953—One of Black America’s most gifted novelists, Ralph Ellison, wins the prestigious National Book Award with his powerful novel “The Invisible Man.” The novel helped him achieve international fame. The main character constantly escapes one disaster after another. The disasters are brought on by a combination of virulent racism and the character’s own naivete. Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Okla.
1961—Opera diva Leontyne Price makes her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
1972—Mahalia Jackson, generally considered the greatest gospel singer that ever lived, dies of heart failure on this day near Chicago (Evergreen Park), Illinois. She was born in New Orleans, La. After leaving there, she settled in Chicago where she briefly studied beauty culture under the nation’s first Black millionaire Madame C.J. Walker. Among her greatest and most frequently requested songs were “Did It Rain,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and additions at firstname.lastname@example.org or brief messages at 202-657-8872.)