Week of Nov. 28 to Dec. 4
1753—Revolutionary War soldier James Robinson is born in Maryland. Historically, like “40 acres and a mule,” Robinson epitomizes the White man’s false promises to the Black man. Robinson, a slave, was promised his freedom for fighting in America’s War of Independence from Britain. He fought so well that he won a medal for bravery at the Battle of Yorktown. However, after the war he was sold back into slavery. But he did live to see the end of slavery. He died in Detroit, Mich., in 1868.
1929—Barry Gordy is born in Detroit, Mich. He founded Motown Records in 1957 and built it into the greatest Black-owned record company in U.S. history. It was later sold to a major White-owned corporation and is now based in Los Angeles, Calif.
1960—Richard Wright, perhaps Black America’s greatest novelist, dies in Paris, France. He was only 52. Wright’s best known works included “Native Son,” “Black Power” and “Black Boy.” Wright’s opposition to American racism led him to join the communist party. He later quit. But he refused to return to America in 1952 as the country was going through an anti-communist witch hunt.
1961—Ernie Davis becomes the first Black man to win college football’s prestigious Heisman Trophy.
1997—Coleman Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor, dies at 79. He presided over his adopted city for an unprecedented five terms.
1780—After initial racist opposition, especially in the South, Blacks are welcomed into the Continental Army to help fight for American independence from Britain. The move was also prompted by British actions. The Americans were losing to the British, the British had launched their Southern campaign and were promising Blacks freedom if they joined the British side. Overall, an estimated 5,000 Blacks fought in America’s war for independence. However, some Blacks did fight for the British.
1908—Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is born in New Haven, Conn. He would follow his father as head of Harlem, New York’s, powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church. He was also elected to Congress in 1945 and was a major force in the Civil Rights Movement. Powell died on April 4, 1972.
1919—Legendary dancer Pearl Primus is born in Trinidad, but she is raised in New York City. She blended African and Caribbean dance and music with Black American traditions of Blues, Jazz and the jitterbug to form a new vibrant dance form. She formed a dance troupe and she personally appeared in such early Broadway hits as “Showboat” and “Emperor Jones.” In 1991, the first President Bush awarded her the National Medal of Arts. She died Oct, 29, 1994.
1961—Freedom Riders are attacked by a White mob in McComb, Miss. This was just one of numerous such attacks throughout the South. The Freedom Rides were part of a campaign against segregation in interstate travel following a 1960 Supreme Court decision declaring all such segregation on buses and in waiting rooms illegal.
1912—Legendary filmmaker and photographer Gordon Parks is born in Fort Scott, Kan. In addition to his pioneering work in film and photography, Parks wrote 12 books and authored a ballet entitled “Martin” in honor of civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1924—Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm is born in Brooklyn, N.Y. Chisholm became the leading Black female politician in America. She served in the New York State Assembly, the United States Congress and ran for the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1972. Chisholm died on Jan. 1, 2005.
1641—U.S. (then British) colonies began legalizing slavery. On this day, Massachusetts became the first colony to do so. Other colonies followed suit. Ironically, Massachusetts was also the first state to outlaw slavery as a result of a 1783 State Supreme Court ruling.
1774—In another compromise measure that characterized the legal struggle against slavery in America, the Continental Congress approves a measure banning the further importation of slaves into the country. However, slavery itself remained legal. Plus, it was common for slave ships to violate the ban.
1877—Judge Jonathan Jasper Wright resigns. Wright had been the first Black state Supreme Court judge. However, he resigned on this day (out of possible fear for his life) as the Reconstruction era ended White racists were reasserting control over Southern politics and law. While on the South Carolina Supreme Court, Wright wrote 87 opinions which were noted for “clear thinking and a solid basis in common law.”
1878—Arthur Spingarn is born. He, along with his brother Joel, was one of the principal early organizers of the NAACP. At one point, he headed both the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. His contribution to the group was primarily in the areas of law and contacts to liberal, politically well connected Whites.
1859—John Brown, one of the leading White heroes of Black history, is hanged near Harpers Ferry, Va. He was a tireless crusader against slavery. His activities ranged from working in the secretive “Underground Railroad,” which helped Blacks escape slavery to attacking slave owners who wanted to expand slavery outside of the South. Brown’s frustration, with the slow pace of efforts to abolish slavery, led him to attempt to incite a violent slave revolt which began with a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. His group was eventually cornered and he was hanged on this day in 1859.
1884—Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) invents and on this day patents a major improvement to the telephone transmitter. Indeed, it can be reasonably argued that this highly productive African-American inventor actually invented the telephone because his device (called “telegraphony”) was superior to that invented by Alexander Graham Bell. It was so superior, in fact, that the Bell Company purchased it from Woods in part because his telephone was better and in part to prevent Woods from becoming a major competitor. Woods received nearly 50 patents for inventions in the areas of transportation, electricity and communications. He was called “the Black Edison” after Thomas Alva Edison who is generally considered the most productive U.S. inventor. However, Woods and Edison would cross paths when Edison sued him in a dispute over which one first invented the multiplex telegraph. Edison tried to buy Woods off by offering him a prominent position in his company but Woods declined.
1891—Historian Charles Wesley is born in Louisville, Ky. Wesley was one of Black America’s most productive historians and a strong advocate of the need for Blacks to know their history. His major works included “Neglected History,” “Collapse of the Confederacy” and “Negro Labor in the United States.” He had a long association with Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History in Washington, D.C.
1847—Frederick Douglas and Martin R. Delaney establish “The North Star” and it goes on to become a major anti-slavery newspaper.
1922—Ralph Gardner is born in Cleveland, Ohio. He was a pioneer chemist whose research into plastics led to the development of so-called hard plastics and aided product developments in the petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries.
1982—Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns defeats Wilfredo Benitez for the WBC Junior Middleweight boxing title. Hearns becomes the first person to win boxing titles in five different weight classes.
1783—General George Washington gives his famous farewell address to troops at Fraunces Tavern in New York City. The tavern was owned by a prominent Black businessman of French and West Indian descent named Samuel “Black Sam” Fraunces, who had aided the Americans in their bid to gain independence from England. After he became president, Washington hired Fraunces as his chief steward.
1807—Prince Hall dies. His was one of the most prominent Black names in colonial America. Hall was born (circa 1748) in Barbados in the West Indies and migrated to Boston. He became one of the leaders of the city’s Black community. He also became an abolitionist and a Mason. In fact, he is considered the “father of Black Masons.” He also fought in the American war for independence from England.
1906—Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. is founded on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. It thus becomes the first Black Greek letter organization in America. It was established by seven Black students seeking to build stronger brotherhood ties and it began to spread to campuses around the nation.
1915—The Great Migration is said to have begun on this day as an estimated two million Southern Blacks begin moving to the North in search of jobs. The impetus was World War I (1914) which blocked Europeans from migrating to the United States. Thus, Northern industries were forced to recruit Southern Blacks to fill jobs to produce products for the war. The migration was the first major movement of Blacks out of the South since the Civil War and it changed the racial character of the nation.
1969—Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark are killed during a police raid in Chicago. The raid was part of a national campaign against the Black Panthers. Initial reports said the two were killed during a shootout but as the years passed evidence mounted that they were, in effect, assassinated. It may have even been a Black police officer who fired the shot that killed Hampton.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and additions at email@example.com or brief messages at 202-549-6872.)