Week of March 8-13
1977—Henry L. Marsh III is elected the first Black mayor of Richmond, Va. Before becoming mayor of the capital of the old confederacy, Marsh had made a name for himself confronting the city’s White power structure as a civil rights attorney. He also served in the state senate.
1993—Jazz great Billy Eckstine dies at 78 in Pittsburgh, Pa. Eckstine came to fame in the 1940s and 1950s as a singer and bandleader who worked with some of the greatest names of the era including Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne. He was one of the greatest influences upon modern Jazz and B-bop. Among his best known ballads were “Everything I Have Is Yours,” “Blue Moon,” “Caravan,” and “That Old Black Magic.”
1841—The U.S. Supreme Court rules that Joseph Cinque and his fellow mutineers are free men. Along with several of his Mendi tribesmen, Cinque, son of an African king, had been captured and sold into slavery. But in 1839, he led a revolt on the Spanish slave ship Amistad, killed the captain and seized control of the ship. However, a U.S. military ship seized the Amistad off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. The seizure led to protracted court battles in which Cinque and his men were charged with murder. But in an unusual ruling for its day, the high court held, in effect, that the men had a human right to try to escape bondage and allowed them to return to Africa.
1871—Noted Black politician Oscar De Priest is born in Florence, Ala. After moving to Chicago, he becomes a major political force in the city serving on the board of commissioners and then on the city council (1915-1917). However, De Priest became a national political figure when he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1928. Throughout his years of political service he was known as “a persuasive agent for the Black masses.” Oscar Stanton De Priest died in 1951.
1931—Walter F. White is named executive secretary of the NAACP. The Atlanta, Ga.-born White was arguably the most devoted and determined person ever to head the civil rights organization and was easily one of the top Black leaders of the first half of the 20th century. The light-complexioned and blue-eyed White also became a legend in 1919 when he “passed for White” in order to investigate a race riot in Elaine, Ark., which had left over 100 Blacks dead. He barely escaped with his life when news leaked out as to who he was. A train conductor, thinking he was White, is said to have joked with him saying, “You’re leaving too early. The fun is about to start. The boys are going to lynch a yellow Nigger passing for White.”
1997—Rap artist The Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) is shot to death in Los Angeles, Calif. as a result of an alleged east-coast-west-coast dispute in the Rap music industry. The killing has never been solved criminally. But a civil suit in Los Angeles federal court accused two rouge Los Angeles police officers of arranging the drive-by shooting that led to his death.
1913—The “greatest conductor of the Underground Railroad” Harriet Tubman dies on this day in Auburn, N.Y. Born in slavery in Dorchester County, Md., in 1819 or 1820, Harriet was raised in harsh conditions including being whipped as a small child. But even as a child she was a person of strong will and principle. For example, at age 12 she received a severe blow to the head from a White overseer when she refused to help tie up a slave who had tried to escape. Around age 30, fearing she was about to be sold into the Deep South, Tubman escaped to Canada. But she returned to Maryland on numerous occasions helping family members and over 300 other slaves escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. She frequently threatened to shoot any slave who became frightened and wanted to turn back.
1969—The man officially convicted of assassinating civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pleads guilty to the crime on this day. However, James Earl Ray, promptly tried to withdraw the plea suggesting that there had actually been a government (or FBI) conspiracy to assassinate King which involved the Mafia and members of the right-wing Cuban exile community in Florida. Ray admitted buying the rifle and renting the room in the Memphis, Tenn. flophouse from where the deadly shot was fired. But he maintained he gave the rifle to a mysterious man named Raoul. The House Select Committee on Assassinations would later conclude that Ray fired the shot but was probably part of a broader conspiracy.
1972—The first modern National Black Political Convention began on this day in Gary, Ind. It drew over 3,000 delegates and 500 observers as well as participation from just about every major Black political and civil rights organization in the nation. However, some moderate civil rights groups, like the NAACP, withdrew after the convention adopted resolutions critical of busing and Israeli racism against the Palestinians.
2010—Researchers at the University of New Hampshire declare 2010 the “tipping point” year when for the first time in history the number of babies born to minority women outnumbered the number born to White women. They project that the nation’s population will be majority Hispanic, Black and Asian in 40 years.
1874—Charles Sumner, one of the greatest White heroes of Black history, dies at age 63. Sumner was born to a prominent Boston family, graduated from Harvard and became a lawyer. However, he gradually became involved in politics as a powerful orator against slavery. For his efforts he was brutally beaten in the Capitol Building by a South Carolina Congressman in May 1856. But he was not deterred. He made it clear that his political career was dedicated to the “destruction of the Southern slave-owing aristocracy” and along with Congressman Thaddeus Stevens he was a leader of the “Radical Republicans” who led the political battles to end slavery and fought for Black rights after the Civil War. It was Sumner who introduced the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in America. He was also among those who proposed aiding the economic advancement of the former slaves by giving each Black “40 acres and a mule” through the use of government land and by seizing land from the former slave owners. Congress refused to pass that measure.
1959—Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” opens on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre with Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil in the starring roles. With 530 performances, the play became the longest running African-American written play in Broadway history. It was also the first Broadway hit written by an African-American woman. It became a movie in 1961. Hansberry’s promising career was cut short by cancer in 1965. She was only 34.
1773—This is the most probable date when Black explorer Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable begins building the settlement which would eventually become the city of Chicago, Ill. The Haitian-born de Sable would over time become a man of considerable wealth owning commercial buildings, docks, trading posts and a mansion. De Sable was the product or a French man and an African woman. He died Aug. 19, 1818.
1791—Pierre Charles L’Enfant is commissioned to design and layout the nation’s capital city—Washington, D.C. However, a dispute with President George Washington forces his departure the very next year. Thus, the final design and layout fell to Black inventor and mathematician Benjamin Banneker. Although two White men were nominally in charge of the project, historical records show that it was Banneker’s mathematical skills and his memory of L’Enfant’s plans that enabled the project to be completed.
1955—One of the chief founders of modern Jazz, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, dies on this day in New York City. Parker is widely considered “the greatest Jazz saxophonist of all time.” His death at 35 was reportedly a result of pneumonia worsened by drug and alcohol abuse.
1964—Legendary Black leader Malcolm X formally separates from the Elijah Muhammad-led Nation of Islam although his initial statement of resignation was given March 8. The separation was triggered by growing differences over Islam and the proper role of religion in the Black liberation struggle as well as by Malcolm’s objections to Elijah Muhammad’s infidelities. Less than a year later, Malcolm was assassinated by men allegedly connected with a Nation of Islam mosque in New Jersey.
1794—Eli Whitney patents the Cotton Gin—a device which made cotton production much more profitable by more efficiently separating the seed from the cotton. The invention had the effect of extending the life of slavery in the South. However, there remains a historical dispute as to whether Whitney actually invented the cotton gin as most history books claim. There is some evidence that Whitney’s entire idea was based on a device developed by slaves laboring on the Georgia plantation of Catherine Green. Whitney, a lawyer, worked briefly for Mrs. Green. And it was while working for her that he allegedly invented the Cotton Gin.
1868—The impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson began in the United States Senate. The ultimate failure to convict and oust Johnson from the presidency was a major setback for the recently freed slaves. Even though he was Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, Johnson actually favored the former slave owners and the continuation of White power in the South. He was also opposed to Blacks having the right to vote. Although the impeachment and trial weakened him, his continuation as president helped pave the way for the emerging power of the Ku Klux Klan and the denial of rights to Blacks.
1932—The first Black daily newspaper begins publication. The paper was the Atlanta Daily World and it was founded by William A. Scott III.
(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 to cover postage.)