Week of May 9-15
1952—The boxer-turned-actor Canada Lee dies in New York City at the age of 45. Second only to the legendary Paul Robeson, Lee was the leading serious (non-comedic) Black actor of the 1940s. He gave impressive performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Lifeboat” (1944), the boxing classic “Body and Soul” (1947) and “Cry, The Beloved Country” (1951). However, like Robeson, Lee’s film career came to an end during the McCarthy Era when a host of Black and White stars, who were also social activists, were labeled communists and denied jobs.
1837—P.B.S. Pinchback is born in Macon, Ga., to a White plantation owner and a free Black woman. He becomes one of the leading Black politicians of the Reconstruction era, especially in Louisiana. After the Civil War, he became lieutenant governor of Louisiana and actually served as governor for 43 days. He was later elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He would also play a significant role in the establishment of Southern University and a major Black newspaper known as the Louisianan.
1994—After being released from 27 years of imprisonment for his battles against the racist system of apartheid, Nelson Mandela is elected the first Black president of South Africa.
1933—Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is born Eugene Walcott on this day in the Bronx, N.Y. He was raised by his St. Kitts-born mother in Roxbury, Mass. Prior to joining the Nation of Islam in 1955, Walcott had achieved celebrity status in the Boston area as a Calypso singer, dancer and violinist known as “The Charmer.”
1968—Nine caravans of protesters arrive in Washington, D.C., for the first phase of the Poor Peoples Campaign—an anti-poverty effort conceived by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The campaign aimed to unite Black, White and Hispanic poor people in an effort to pressure the government to do more to eliminate poverty in America. King had been assassinated the previous April, so the campaign was led by his lieutenant Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The campaign erected a Resurrection City near the Lincoln Monument and held daily demonstrations in Washington from May 14-June 24.
1862—In a bold and heroic endeavor Robert Smalls leads 12 other slaves in the stealing of a Confederate war ship and turning it over to Union forces. The White captain of the steamer Planter and other officers had gone ashore for a party in Charleston, S.C. Smalls, a wheelman, quickly organized the Black crew and steered the ship out of Charleston harbor right pass the unsuspecting Confederate forces. For his daring deed, Smalls was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. After the Civil War, Smalls was elected congressman from South Carolina.
1940—Jazz singer Al Jarreau was born on this day in Milwaukee, Wis.
1865—The last battle of the Civil war ends. Ironically, it appears the Confederate troops won the battle at Palmetto Ranch, Texas. However, it was the actions and bravery of the 62nd Regiment of United States Colored Troops which prevented the defeat from turning into a rout. The Confederates had actually underestimated the fighting prowess of the Blacks assuming they would run in fear when the fighting started. Instead, what occurred was the rapid defeat of two White regiments, but the Black soldiers of the 62nd held firm. The Confederates would later surrender.
1950—Singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder is born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in Saginaw, Mich. Blind since shortly after birth, Wonder signed with Motown Records’ Tamla label at the age of 11, and continues to perform and record for Motown to this day. Wonder has recorded 30 Top Ten hits and has won 24 Grammy awards—a record for any living artist.
1885—Erskine Henderson, an African-American jockey, wins the Kentucky Derby on “Joe Cotton”—a horse trained by Alex Perry—an African-American trainer. Henderson was the sixth Black jockey to win the coveted race. Indeed, Black jockeys and trainers dominated the Kentucky Derby from 1875 to 1902. However, while some of the reasons are not entirely clear, it appears that as the race became more and more prosperous, Black jockeys and trainers were forced out.
1970—A student protest on the campus of Mississippi’s Jackson State University leads to a massive confrontation with local police authorities. When the smoke cleared, two students had been shot and killed and another 12 injured or wounded. Reasons given for the protests ranged from opposition to the War in Vietnam, racial tensions and anger over the National Guard killings of White students on the campus of Kent State University earlier in the month. The university memorialized the disturbance by naming the area where it took place “Gibbs-Green Plaza” after the two students who were killed—Phillip Lafayette Gibbs (21) and James Earl Green (17).
1985—In a confrontation with the Black Nationalist back-to-nature group MOVE, Philadelphia police drop an incendiary device on the group’s home and headquarters. The decision to bomb had been apparently approved by Black Mayor Wilson Goode. Eleven MOVE members, including five children, were killed. The only adult survivor was Ramona Africa. Over 60 homes in the surrounding area were burned to the ground. It was never fully clear why the decision to drop the bomb was made.
1911—Kappa Alpha Psi, one of the nation’s leading Black fraternities, is founded on this day on the campus of Indiana University by 10 young men led by Elder W. Diggs and Byron K. Armstrong.
1942—The 93rd Infantry is activated and assigned to combat in the Pacific. It thus became the first African-American division formed during World War II.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. Get a free subscription to his bi-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.)