For the Week of September 2-8
1766—Post-Colonial era Black leader James Forten is born on this day in 1766. Little known today but during that period he was one of the most prominent Black men in America. Born free in Philadelphia, Pa., he became a fierce anti-slavery activist, an inventor and successful businessman. In fact, the sail-making company he found made him one of the wealthiest Black men in the nation. Forten and AME Church founder Richard Allen organized the First Convention of Color in 1817. He went back and forth on the issue of “re-Africanization” which called for the return of Blacks to Africa. He financially supported Paul Cuffee’s venture in the West African nation of Sierra Leone but he later turned against the American Colonization Society and its efforts to return free American Blacks to the West African nation of Liberia.
1945—As World War II comes to an end, official records show 1,154,720 Blacks were inducted into the military services including 3,902 women. The highest ranking African-American women during WWII were Majors Harriet M. West and Charity E. Adams.
1838—Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore using so-called “free papers” and disguising himself as a sailor. He would go on to become the most prominent anti-slavery activist and Black leader of his day. He is perhaps best remembered for his now famous 1857 quote: “If there is no struggle there is no progress…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Free papers were documents normally required to be in the possession of all free Blacks. But one freedom tactic employed during slavery was for a slave to somehow borrow the papers of a free Black who fit his or her general description and use the papers to escape from slavery.
1868—In an example of how briefly true freedom for Blacks lasted after slavery ended in 1865, the lower House of the Georgia legislature on this day in 1868 expelled 28 African-Americans, employing a twisted argument that because they were Black they were not eligible to serve in the legislature even if they had been duly elected. Ten days later the Georgia Senate followed suit and expelled three elected Blacks. But the U.S. Congress stepped in by refusing to seat the Georgia delegation if the Black representatives were not allowed to return to their seats.
1919—One of the nation’s first Black-owned movie companies—Lincoln Motion Pictures—released its first full length feature film: “A Man’s Duty.” The company was owned by Noble Johnson and Clarence Brooks.
1781—The city of Los Angeles is founded by 44 settlers of whom 26 were Black. This little known fact of history is found in H.H. Bancroft’s authoritative “History of California” which details the ages, races and genders of the city’s founding fathers and mothers.
1957—Nine Black students are banned from Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., by Gov. Orval Faubus. The move makes him a folk hero among White supremacists but sets in motion a major conflict with the federal governor. President Dwight Eisenhower is forced to call out 1,000 federal troops in order to force the eventual integration of the school.
1981—Popular recording star Beyonce Knowles is born on this day in Houston, Texas.
1859—The first novel written by a Black woman is published in the United States. The woman was Harriet Wilson and the novel was entitled “Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.” The novel was lost for years until reprinted with a critical essay by Black scholar Henry Louis Gates in 1982. The novel, which may have been a bit autobiographical, centers on the life of “Frada”—a Black indentured servant who was physically and emotionally abused by her owners.
1865—One of the great White heroes of Black history Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens first proposed an addition to the Freemen’s Bureau Act, which would have required the confiscation of land from former slave owners and the redistribution to former slaves in “40 acre lots.” Although Stevens was at the time the most power person in the U.S. Congress and a friend of Blacks, he was unable to get the measure passed. The so-called “40 acres and a mule” promise to aid Black economic development after slavery was defeated in Congress on Feb. 5, 1866 by a 136 to 36 vote. The lopsided nature of the vote reflected lingering pro-slave owner sympathies in the Congress and a general lack of support for the freed slaves.
1859—John Merrick, co-founder of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company was born on this day in 1859. He would help make the Durham, N.C.-based firm the largest Black-controlled insurance company in the nation. Merrick was born in Clinton, N.C. He died in 1919.
1957—Ghana becomes the first African country to break from White colonial rule and become an independent nation. The West African nation, once known as the Gold Coast, was led to independence by the dynamic Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah. He championed the slogan “Africa for the Africans” and encouraged the participation of Blacks throughout the world in building a strong and free Africa. However, the U.S.-educated Nkrumah would be overthrown in a military coup in 1966. He befriended American activists ranging from W.E.B DuBois to Martin Luther King Jr.
1925—On this day in 1925 a series of events are set in motion that would lead to one of America’s periodic trials of the century. In this case, prominent Black doctor Ossian Sweet moved into an all-White neighborhood in Detroit, Mich. The following day a crowd of nearly 1,000 angry Whites gathered around his home in a bid to force him out. Sweet had anticipated trouble and had 11 family members and friends in the house to help defend his property. A shot rang out from the Sweet home killing one member of the angry mob. All 11 persons in the Sweet home were charged with murder. The family was defended by Clarence Darrow—one of the nation’s best known and most progressive lawyers. Sweet’s brother admitted to firing the deadly shot but Darrow convinced an all-White jury he acted in self-defense and they found him not guilty. Charges were then dropped against all the others. Sweet would later write “I have to die a man or live a coward.”
1965—Dorothy Dandridge, perhaps the most prominent African-American actress of the 1940s and 1950s, committed suicide in Los Angeles, Calif. She suffered from a host of financial and emotional problems. In the early years of her career, she starred in a number of so-called “race films” targeted to Black audiences but Hollywood “discovered” her and expanded her roles while simultaneously subjecting her to various forms of discrimination. Nevertheless, she would become the first Black actress nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category. She was only 42 when she died.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and additions. You can also have a free edition of his popular “Black History Journal” e-mailed to you by contacting him at TaylorMediaPrime@yahoo.com or by leaving your e-mail address at 202-657-8872.)