Week of Jan. 15-21

January 15

1908—Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black Greek letter sorority, is founded on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., by Ethel Hedgeman Lyle of St. Louis, Mo. The sorority gradually branched out to other campuses and became one of the leading organizational vehicles for college-trained Black women to make their mark on American society.


1929—Martin Luther King Jr., the man who was to become America’s greatest civil rights hero, was born on this day in 1929. Actually, his original given name was “Michael” but it was later changed to Martin. He first rose to national prominence as the country’s premier civil rights leader when he successfully led the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott by Blacks angered by the arrest of Rosa Parks for her refusal to give up her seat on a city bus to a White man.


In 1957, King was elected to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which became the leading organization of the civil rights era. Between 1957 and 1968, he traveled over six million miles, gave over 2,500 speeches, was arrested over 20 times, and physically assaulted at least four times—all on behalf of civil rights for American Blacks. Perhaps his most famous speech was the “I Have A Dream” speech given before a crowd of 250,000 during the March on Washington Aug. 28, 1963. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and the nation now celebrates his birth as a national holiday on the third Monday of each January. But during his life, King also became the target of a massive FBI operation that some feel indirectly paved the way for his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. During his “I Have A Dream” speech, King summarized the purpose of the march and the Civil Rights Movement:

“But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

1961—One of the original super groups—The Supremes—signed with Black record company Motown on this day in 1961. The name was later changed to Diana Ross and the Supremes and the R&B singers rocketed to international fame.

January 16

1901—Hiram R. Revels, the first African-American elected to the United States Senate, died on this day in Aberdeen, Miss. Revels, a politician, minister and educator was of Black and Cherokee descent.

1920—Zeta Phi Beta sorority was founded on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. by five socially conscious Black women. It became one of the nation’s leading Black sororities. It was founded as a sister organization to Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

1950—Dancer-producer Debbie Allen is born on this day in Houston, Texas.

January 17

1759—Paul Cuffee is born near Dartmouth, Mass. He was one of the most prominent Blacks of the 1700s. Born of a Black father and an Indian mother, Cuffee grew wealthy as a whaling captain, ship builder and merchant. He was an ardent fighter for Black rights and built the first integrated school in the state. But in his later years he became frustrated with the slow progress for Black freedom and began to support a program calling for free Blacks to return to Africa and build a nation of their own. He actually financed and helped a small group of Blacks establish a base in the West African nation of Sierra Leone in 1815. His program ended with his death in 1818.

1874—Armed and racist Whites violently seize control of the Texas state government, bringing an end to Reconstruction and to post-Civil War Black rights and gains in the state. Actually, when it became clear that President Andrew Johnson was a friend of the old South and had no intention of enforcing rights for Blacks, Texas-style armed revolts took place in several Southern states in which integrated governments were violently and illegally driven from office.


1927—Multi-lingual singer, dancer and actress Eartha Kitt is born in a small plantation town called North, S.C. But when abandoned by her mother because her second husband did not want to raise a mixed-race child, she was raised by an aunt in New York City. Kitt became a star of stage and screen, including playing the role of Cat Woman in the Batman television series. But the U.S. entertainment industry would not touch her for nearly 10 years after a 1968 White House luncheon during which she angered President Lyndon Johnson’s wife by criticizing the war in Vietnam. Kitt died in December 2008 at the age of 81.

1931—Stage and screen actor James Earl Jones is born on this day in Tate County, Miss. Ironically, you cannot tell from his deep baritone voice today that he had a stuttering problem as a child.

1942—Boxing legend Muhammad Ali is born on this day in Louisville, Ky.

January 18

1856—Daniel Hale Williams  is born in Hollidaysburg, Pa. He became a pioneering surgeon and is generally credited with performing the first open heart surgery. He was a strong advocate of the emerging antiseptic and sterilization procedures of his day. He believed that many patients died or became ill in the hospital because of a lack of cleanliness. Williams’ open heart surgery operation occurred July 10, 1893 when he repaired a knife wound to the chest of James Cornish. The operation was a success and Cornish lived another 20 years.

January 19

1918—The founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, John H. Johnson, is born on this day in rural Arkansas City, Ark. Shortly after the death of his father, Johnson’s mother moved the family to Chicago where Johnson attended high school during the day and read self-help books at night, laying the intellectual and motivational foundation for the eventual building of his publishing empire. Interestingly, among Johnson’s classmates at Chicago’s DuSable High School were Nate King Cole, Redd Foxx and future businessman, William Abernathy. Johnson died last year. His wife Eunice Johnson died last week.

January 20

1900—Black North Carolina Congressman George H. White introduced legislation to make lynching any American a federal crime. But opponents allowed the bill to die in committee and it never came up for a vote. It is estimated that 105 Blacks were lynched that year.

1947—Josh Gibson, perhaps the most famous and outstanding athlete to play in the old Negro Baseball, League dies on this day in 1947.

1986—The first national holiday in honor of civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated.

January 21

1773—Poet Phyllis Wheatley, born in 1753, was freed on this day in 1773. Kidnapped in Africa and sold as a slave when she was only seven years old, Wheatley would become Black America’s first poet. She grew up in a prosperous Boston family that allowed her to learn to read. She not only mastered English but also excelled in Greek and Latin. Her first book of poetry received rave reviews in the United States and Europe.

1906—Pioneer Black aviator William Brown Chappell is born.

1941—Singer and political activist Richie Havens is born.

1942—“Big Band” leader Count Basie and his Orchestra recorded their famous “One O’clock Jump” for Okeh Records in New York City.

1950—R&B performer Billy Ocean is born.

1963—Former professional basketball great Hakeem Olajuwon is born in the West African nation of Nigeria.

1971—Twelve members of the Congressional Black Caucus boycotted President Richard Nixon’s State of the Union Address to protest his refusal to meet with them or address issues of concern to African-Americans.

(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and additions at SirajT12@yahoo.com or brief messages at 202-657-8872. Also, Taylor will soon be organizing a Black History Club in this area. Contact him at either the e-mail address or the telephone number if you are interested in joining.)

Also On New Pittsburgh Courier:
comments – Add Yours