Week of April 25-May 1
1918—Jazz singing legend Ella Fitzgerald is born in Newport News, Va. Orphaned at an early age, Ella was literally living in the streets when she was discovered in Harlem, N.Y., by bandleader Chick Webb. Despite never having received formal vocal training, musical experts often compared her techniques and vocal range to that of a conservatory trained singer. One of the ultimate compliments to her abilities was given by the great song writer Ira Gershwin who said, “I didn’t realize our songs were so good until I heard Ella sing them.” Fitzgerald died at the age of 79 on June 15, 1997.
1943—Tuskegee Institute President Frederick Patterson writes his famous letter (published in the Pittsburgh Courier) urging the presidents of the nation’s predominantly Black colleges and universities to “pool their small resources and make an appeal to the national conscience” in order to produce more scholarship funds for the education of Black students. One year later the United Negro College Fund is incorporated with 27 member colleges.
1886—The “mother of the Blues” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Ga. She began her career touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. She was the first person to sing the Blues in minstrel shows. Rainey also coached, then young Blues singer Bessie Smith who would become more famous and celebrated than Rainer. Rainey died Dec. 22, 1939.
1994—The first all race elections take place in then White ruled South Africa. The elections would bring an end to 300 years of White minority rule, known as apartheid, in the African nation as well as bring about the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first Black and democratically elected president. Mandela had spent 27 years in prison because of his leadership of the African National Congress which had led the struggle against apartheid.
1903—W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Soul of Black Folks” is published. The book did much to outline and summarize progressive African-American thought and opposition to the accommodation policies of Booker T. Washington—then the nation’s foremost Black leader. DuBois argued that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” and labeled Washington’s program as one of “industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights.” A collection of DuBois’ papers are currently being placed online by the University of Massachusetts.
1903—Maggie Lena Walker becomes the first Black woman to head a bank in America. In fact, she was the first woman of any color to head a bank when she was named president of the St. Luke Bank and Trust Company in Richmond, Va. Walker was an outstanding businesswoman who took over Richmond’s Order of St. Luke when it was nearly broke and rapidly losing membership. Within a few years the Order owned a bank, a newspaper, a printing press and a three-story department store despite the active opposition of Richmond’s White business community. Walker also helped found the Lilly Black Party in part as a slap at the segregated “Lilly White” political parties of the day. One of her mottos was “Don’t get angry, get busy.” She died Dec. 15, 1934.
1967—The World Boxing Association and the New York State Athletic Commission withdraw recognition of Muhammad Ali as world heavyweight boxing champion because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam and his resulting refusal to serve in the U.S. military. One of his famous phrases during the controversial period was, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” In addition to being stripped of his title and license to box, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to be inducted into the military. However, four years later the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction and Ali was allowed to box again.
1992—This was the first day of the Los Angeles riots which were sparked when a nearly all White jury acquitted four White cops in the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King even though the beating had been caught on tape. Two of the cops were later convicted on federal civil rights charges. The riots left at least 50 people dead, nearly 1,000 injuries and an estimated $1 billion in property damage.
711 AD—Tarik the Moor invades Spain with force of 7,000 troops, routs the Visigoths and establishes Moor domination of Spain. While there remains some dispute over Tarik’s race, the weight of the evidence is strong that he was a Black man. He was described in accounts of the time as having “brown skin and wooly hair.” His full name was Tarik al Gibral. The famed Rock of Gibraltar is named in his honor.
1828—Shaka, the great Zulu king and military leader, is killed. His innovative military strategies kept European imperialism at bay for years as he established Zulu dominance in large parts of Southern Africa. The Zulu nation grew to at least 250,000 with an army of over 40,000. But Shaka became increasingly dictatorial. Opposition to his dictatorship combined with jealousy led his two half-brothers to assassinate him on this day in 1828.
1866—The two-day Memphis, Tenn., race riots, one of the most savage events immediately following the civil war, begins. When it was over, former Confederate soldiers, angered by the loss of the Civil War and the new status for Blacks, had killed 46 Blacks and two of their White supporters, as well as raped five Black women and torched over 90 homes, schools and churches. In support of the rebel soldiers, local police arrested hundreds of Blacks and not the Whites who were rioting. However, the savage nature of the rioting in Memphis (and a similar disturbance in New Orleans) prompted Congress to pass radical Reconstruction to aid Blacks, a Civil Rights bill, and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection to former slaves.
1950—Brilliant poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, is born on this day in Topeka, Kan.
1967—The “Long Hot Summer” begins. The period between May 1 and Oct. 1, 1967 witnessed the most dramatic and destructive series of Black urban disturbances in American history. Major riots took place in 40 American cities. There were also lesser disturbances in 100 smaller towns and cities. Many felt the riots were sparked by a collective sense of frustrated hopes and a new urban generation less willing to adopt peaceful means for change.
(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.)