Week of April 9-15
1865—Black regiments lead an assault upon and eventually capture a key Southern fort helping bring the Civil War to an end. Nine regiments led by Gen. John Hawkins smashed through Confederate defenses at Forth Blakely, Ala. The 68th Division of USCT (United States Colored Troops) had some of the highest casualties of the Civil War.
PAUL ROBESON, JOSEPHINE BAKER
1898—Paul Bustill Robeson is born in Princeton, N.J. Robeson would go on to become the greatest combination of entertainer and social activist in American history. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Rutgers University while simultaneously being one of the school’s greatest football stars. After graduation he turned to entertainment—acting and singing on stage and in early movies. However, he was also an outspoken critic of American racism and imperialism while being a strong proponent of socialism. This made him the target of a government disruption and destruction campaign. The campaign did not truly produce results until the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. Concert halls were closed to Robeson, the media began to attack him unrelentingly, established Black leaders began to shun him and the government took his passport so he could not perform and earn money abroad. Nevertheless, he remained a symbol that would later inspire activist entertainers such as Ossie Davis and Harry Belafonte. Robeson died in Philadelphia Jan. 23, 1976.
1939—Operatic star Marian Anderson performed for an estimated 65,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. after the Daughters of the American Revolution make a racist decision denying her the right to perform at Constitution Hall.
1943—Tennis great Arthur Ashe is born in Richmond, Va. Ashe’s spectacular abilities on the tennis court enabled him to become the first Black member of the American Davis Cup team; the first Black to win the U.S. Open and the first Black to win the men’s single’s title at Wimbledon in England. Unfortunately Ashe would die of AIDS after receiving a contaminated blood transfusion.
1948—On this day Jackie Robinson signed the contract that would officially make him the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. Robinson became a symbol of pride for Blacks as well as a star player. However, admitting of Blacks into Major League Baseball helped bring about the demise of the Negro Baseball Leagues whose teams had become major economic institutions in cities throughout the nation.
1967—The voters of Harlem, N.Y. defy Congress and re-elect the outspoken and often flamboyant Adam Clayton Powell Jr. His opponents in Congress had recently expelled him. The decision of the Harlem voters was rendered legally sound when the United States Supreme Court later ruled that the congressional expulsion was unconstitutional. Powell was returned to Congress but without his seniority. He died April 4, 1972 in Miami, Fla.
1787—Famous Black clergymen Richard Allen and Absalom Jordan organize the Free Africa Society which is believed to be the first Black self-help organization or mutual aid society in America. The two, especially Allen, attempted to better life for Blacks through the organization of separate Black-controlled institutions. Allen is also the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
1861—The Confederates attack Fort Sumter in the Charleston, S.C. harbor setting off the Civil War. Thinking the recent election of Abraham Lincoln would lead to the ending of slavery, the Southerners struck first in a bid to form a separate, White-controlled, slave-owning nation.
1940—Contemporary jazz composer and musician Herbie Hancock is born in Chicago. Ill.
1975—Josephine Baker dies. She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Mo. in 1906. Baker left the United States for France in 1925 seeking a career as a dancer. She achieved fame throughout Europe, becoming a versatile and sensational performer with her often revealing dances. During World War II she even aided the French resistance in its battle against occupation by the forces of Nazi Germany.
1873—The Colfax Massacre took place in Grant Parish, La. Still smarting from the loss of the Civil War and enraged by the political powers being given Blacks during Reconstruction, a White paramilitary terrorist group known as the White League set out to restore White rule in Louisiana. The spark was a disputed election and a confrontation near the Colfax courthouse between a 60-member sparsely armed Black militia and nearly 300 heavily armed members of the White League. The Blacks took refuge in the courthouse and a gun battle raged for hours leaving three Whites dead. Then the Whites convinced an elderly Black man to sneak into the courthouse and set it afire. As the Blacks escaped the flames, they were either shot or arrested. But even those arrested were later killed. Before the day was over, somewhere between 60 and 100 Blacks were massacred.
1946—R&B great Al Green is born in Forest City, Ark. Many considered Green the greatest male R&B singer of the 1970s. Among his greatest hits were “Tired of Being Alone,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” and “Let’s Stay Together.”
1865—President Abraham Lincoln is shot and critically wounded at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. by John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln would linger for several hours but died at 7:22 a.m. April 15, the following day. A debate still rages among historians as to how broad-based was the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. Regardless, it is clear that Booth was a racist who supported slavery and the South during the Civil War. Originally, he was part of a plot to kidnap Lincoln and hold him in exchange for captured Confederate soldiers. But on April 9, 1865, Confederate troops under Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Later that day, Lincoln gave a speech suggesting that the ex-slaves be given the right to vote. The speech infuriated Booth and thus the plot to kidnap Lincoln was converted into a plot to assassinate him. Booth escaped capture for 12 days. But on April 26, 1865 he was cornered by federal forces and shot and killed during a gun battle. Four of his fellow conspirators, including one woman, were tried and hanged. The assassination of Lincoln changed the course of history for Blacks. While Lincoln was not as great a supporter of Black rights as he has often been portrayed, he was a much greater supporter than the man who replaced him in office—Vice President Andrew Johnson. Johnson actually sympathized with the Southern slave owning aristocracy and opposed most civil and virtually all voting rights for Blacks. The pro-Black legislation of the Reconstruction period was normally passed over his objection or veto. Nevertheless, Johnson is one of the primary reasons the Reconstruction period only lasted 12 years. He helped lay the foundation for the Jim Crow period beginning around 1880 during which time Black political and civil rights were systematically taken away. This probably would not have happened if Lincoln had not been assassinated.
1899—Asa Phillip Randolph, organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, is born in Crescent City, Fla. Randolph brought the power of unionism to Black America like no one before or after him. He also used his position as the nation’s number one Black union leader to become one of the major civil rights leaders of his era. More than anyone else, it was Randolph who organized the historic March on Washington during which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Ironically, as a young man Randolph left Florida and moved to New York to become an actor. Instead, he became involved with the Socialist Party and helped develop a magazine known as the Messenger. The editorial slant of the magazine also best describes Randolph—“midway between the cautious elitism of the NAACP and the utopian populism of Marcus Garvey.” Randolph died May 16, 1979.
1922—Harold Washington, the first Black and 42nd mayor of Chicago, is born in Chicago.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and questions at SirajT12@yahoo.com. If you would like to attend the next meeting of the Black History Club in Washington, DC, leave your name and telephone number at 202-657-8872.)