Week of May 2-8
1844—Master inventor Elijah McCoy is born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada. He would become the holder of over 50 patents—most were mechanical devices, which greatly improved engines, locomotives and steamships. The superiority of his inventions led to the phrase “the real McCoy” coming to mean the mark of excellent and authenticity. McCoy was born to slaves who escaped America for a free life in Canada.
His parents became successful and sent him to study engineering in Scotland when he was only 16. After the end of U.S. slavery, he settled in Ypsilanti, Mich., and began his remarkable career.
1870—One of the most unsung religious leaders in American history, William Seymour, was born on this day in Centerville, La. Seymour became pastor of the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles and the catalyst for the worldwide Pentecostal movement. He not only rejected racial barriers in the church in favor of “Unity in Christ,” but he is also credited with eliminating many of the restrictions placed on women in the church. He died of a heart attack in 1922.
1845—Macon B. Allen passes the Massachusetts bar thus becoming the first African-American lawyer to pass a state bar and the first Black person permitted to practice law in the United States. Allen was born in Indiana but after the Civil War he moved to South Carolina where he was elected a judge in 1873.
1891—Dr. Daniel Hale Williams founds the Provident Hospital and Training Center in Chicago, Ill. It becomes a major training center for Black doctors and nurses. Williams is best known, however, for performing the nation’s first open heart surgery on July 9, 1893. He operated on a man injured in a knife fight. The man would live for another 20 years after the surgery.
1961—Thirteen Freedom Riders began bus trips through the South to test Southern compliance with a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in interstate transportation facilities. They were soon joined by hundreds of other “Freedom Riders” of all ages and races. Despite the Court decision, dozens of Freedom Riders were arrested as the South attempted to hang onto its segregationist ways.
1905—Robert Sengstacke Abbot founds the Chicago Defender newspaper calling it “the world’s greatest weekly.” Indeed, he would build the Defender into the largest circulation and most influential Black newspaper of its day. The Defender, which became the most widely circulated Black newspaper in the country, came to be known as “America’s Black Newspaper” and made Abbott one of the first self-made millionaires of African-American descent. In 1919, Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden appointed Abbott to the Race Relations Commission. Abbott died of Bright’s disease in 1940 in Chicago, Ill.
1787—Prince Hall organizes the nation’s first Black Masonic lodge in Boston, Mass.—African Lodge #459. Hall would go on to become the father of Black Masons in America and a major Black leader in the Northeast.
1812—Martin R. Delany, a pioneering Black nationalist, is born on this day in Charles Town, Va. Abraham Lincoln once described him as one of the most brilliant men he had ever met. Delany would fight in the Civil War to end slavery and become one of the nation’s first Black military officers. After the war he became a doctor. But over the years he became frustrated with American racism and began to advocate a return of Blacks to Africa.
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.
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.
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 Douglass. 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.
(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.)