Week of March 14-20
1821—The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is officially formed in New York City. However, the church had been actually operating since 1796. A decision to officially separate from the White-controlled Methodist Church was reached in 1820. The dispute centered in part on the refusal of the Whites to allow Black ministers to preach. Among the founders were James Varnick, Abraham Thompson and June Scott. Today the denomination has an estimated 1.2 million members and operates Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C.
1933—Legendary music composer and producer Quincy Jones is born on this day in Chicago, Ill.
1977—One of the unsung heroines of the Civil Rights Movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, dies on this day in 1977. Hamer, the youngest of 20 children born in Ruleville, Miss., became active in voter registration and later became Mississippi field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as well as head of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She also coined the phrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
1897—The 55th Congress convenes with one Black member remaining in the legislative body—George White of North Carolina. All the Black political progress made during Reconstruction had been snatched away after the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1887. By 1890 states throughout the South had effectively taken away the right of Blacks to vote with schemes ranging from literacy tests to poll taxes to Whites-only primaries. As a result Blacks were forced from elected office. When White’s term expired in 1901, there would not be another African-American elected to Congress for 27 years and he would come from the North—Oscar DePriest of the Southside of Chicago (1st Congressional District of Illinois).
1827—The first Black-owned and operated newspaper in America begins publishing. It was Freedom’s Journal. It published weekly in New York City from 1827 to 1829. Editors John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish declared as their mission: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”
1806—Norbert Rillieux, one of the earliest Black chemical engineers in America or Europe, was born on this day in 1806. The product of a wealthy French plantation owner in New Orleans and his Black mistress, Rillieux was given his freedom and sent to Paris, France, to be educated. He is best known for his invention of the “multiple evaporation process” which revolutionized the sugar and paper industries. It also saved the lives of many who had previously labored in extremely dangerous conditions. Rillieux returned to the U.S., but as conditions for free Blacks deteriorated prior to the Civil War, he went back to Paris and died there in 1894.
1999—Maurice Ashley, a Jamaican immigrant living in Brooklyn, becomes the first Black grandmaster in modern chess history.
1933—The first Black woman elected mayor of a Mississippi town, Unita Blackwell, was born on this day in Lula, Miss. The former field worker with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee became mayor of Mayersville, Miss., in 1977.
1963—Singer-actress and the first Black woman to win the Miss America Pageant, Vanessa Williams, was born on this day in Millwood, N.Y.
1970—Actress and rapper Queen Latifah was born on this day in 1970.
1620—The first Black child born in America, William Tucker, was probably born on this date in Jamestown, Va. However, some controversy surrounds the exact date. What we know for sure is that he was the son of two of the first Africans brought to America as indentured servants in August 1619—Anthony (Antonio) and Isabella. We also know he was baptized on Jan. 3, 1624. Further, there is debate as to whether his last name was actually “Tucker.” It seems that many historians simply assumed that the child was given the last name of the man on whose plantation his parents worked. While this would later become the practice on many plantations, there is no documentation that Anthony and Isabella actually gave their son the last name of Tucker.
1919—Singer Nat King Cole is born in Montgomery, Ala. In addition to his considerable talents as a singer, Cole—the father of Natalie Cole—was the first Black American performer with his own syndicated radio program and later a network television variety show. The TV started at 15 minutes, expanded to half-an-hour but was then dropped due to lack of White advertiser support.
1852—The leading Black nationalist of the 1800s Martin R. Delany publishes his manifesto entitled “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States.” Delany, who fought in the Civil War to end slavery, became frustrated with American racism and argued that Blacks were “a nation within a nation” who should consider returning to their Africa homeland. Delany, who became a doctor, would later advance an argument for reparations saying, “They [Whites] had been our oppressors and injurers. They obstructed our progress to the high positions of civilization. And now it is their bounden duty to make full amends for the injuries thus inflicted upon an unoffending people.” Delany died in Wilberforce, Ohio in 1885.
1852—“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is published in Boston and becomes a national bestseller. The novel was based in part on a real life Maryland slave named Josiah Henson. Many considered Henson the arch type “Uncle Tom” who was over accommodating to Whites and accepting of his condition as a slave. Revisionist historians have treated Henson more kindly suggesting he was simply being pragmatic and actually helped other slaves.
1883—Jan Matzeliger receives a patent for the “shoe lasting” machine, which would revolutionize the shoe industry, significantly reduce the cost of shoes and make Lynn, Mass., the shoe-making capital of the world. Matzeliger was born in Dutch Guiana (today’s Surinam) and arrived in America at 18 or 19 speaking very little English. His invention would eventually enable an entire shoe to be produced in 60 seconds by one machine. The patent was purchased by the United Shoe Company. Unfortunately, Matzeliger died at 37 before he was able to realize any of the enormous profits produced by his invention.
1957—Filmmaker Spike Lee is born in Brooklyn, N.Y.
1955—Walter White dies. As head of the NAACP, White was perhaps the most prominent and powerful civil rights leader of the first half of the 20th century. The light complexioned, blue eyed White became somewhat of a legend in 1919 when he “passed for White” in order to investigate the notorious Elaine, Ark., race riot when marauding bands of Whites killed over 200 Blacks. He barely escaped with his life when news of his true identity leaked out.
1960—The Sharpsville Massacre occurs in then White-ruled South Africa when police fired on Blacks protesting the country’s “pass laws” which greatly restricted the movement of the majority African population. At least 67 demonstrators were killed and 186 injured or wounded.
1965—The historic Selma to Montgomery March calling for full voting rights for African-Americans begins under federal protection. The original march had actually started on March 7. But the more than 600 demonstrators were attacked with clubs and tear gas by state and local police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Organizers, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then went to court to get confirmation of their Constitutional right to demonstrate. The court battle was won and the march resumed under federal protection on March 21. Five months later President Lyndon Johnson signed the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act.
2010—The U.S. House of Representatives passes President Obama’s signature legislation—Health Care Reform by a 219 to 212 vote. No Republican voted for the measure. However, since passage, Health Care Reform has been under political and legal attack from conservatives. Its future remains in doubt.
(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.)