Week of Dec. 10-16
1846—Norbert Rillieux invents the “multiple effect pan evaporator” which revolutionizes the sugar industry and makes the work much less hazardous for the workers. Rillieux was born “quadroon libre” in New Orleans, La. His father was a wealthy French plantation owner and his mother a former slave. He was sent to Paris, France, to be educated in engineering. He also researched Egyptian hieroglyphics. There is no record that he ever returned to the U.S. after the 1850s. He died in Paris in 1894.
1854—Edwin C. Berry is born in Oberlin, Ohio. In Athens, Ohio, he co-founds the City Restaurant and builds the Hotel Berry which was to become one of the most elegant hotels in the entire state. By the time he retired in 1921, he was one of the most successful Black businessmen in America. He dies in 1931.
1950—Ralph Bunch becomes the first African-American awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Bunch was born in Detroit, Mich. But his family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then Los Angeles, Calif., where he showed academic genius and won a scholarship to Harvard. His fame came when he worked out a temporary settlement between the Palestinians and the Jews after the state of Israel was established in 1948 on Palestinian lands. It was that work which won him the Nobel Peace Prize.
1964—Martin Luther King Jr. is awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement.
1967—R&B legend Otis Redding dies when the twin-engine plane he was piloting crashed into a lake as it was headed for a concert in Wisconsin.
1917—Thirteen Black soldiers were hanged for their participation in the so-called Houston riot. The “riot” had occurred in August of 1917 when Whites objected to the presence of Black soldiers in the city. Racist insults and mistreatment began. Then a Black soldier intervenes in the arrest of a Black woman. A Black corporal inquires with the police about the arrest of the soldier. A fight breaks out between the corporal and the police. A rumor spreads that a White mob was marching on the Black camp. Roughly 100 Black soldiers grabbed rifles and marched onto downtown Houston. Within two hours they had killed 15 Whites including four police officers. They returned to camp but military officials pressured seven soldiers to snitch on the others. Their snitching resulted in the convictions and hangings of 13 Black soldiers.
1917—The Great Jazz Migration begins when noted musician Joe “King” Oliver leaves New Orleans, La., and settles in Chicago, Ill. He is soon joined by other early Jazz greats. Their presence in Chicago laid the foundation for the Southern Black music genre (with heavy sexual overtones) to become a national obsession. Actually, the “migration” may not have been quite so romantic. Instead of being forced by the closing of the New Orleans Storyville district, Jazz greats probably left New Orleans for Chicago for the same reason other Blacks left the South–failing crops forced the disappearance of jobs while Northern factories recruited Blacks for work to produce arms and other goods for World War I. Nevertheless, many historians view Oliver’s relocation to Chicago as the start of New Orleans Jazz migrating to the rest of the nation.
1926—Blues legend Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton is born in Montgomery, Ala. She started signing in the Baptist Church but at 14 ran away from home to pursue a secular music career. She became the “big mama” of the Blues. A powerful voice, a fiery stage presence and her 6 foot, 350 pound frame enabled her to become famous. She recorded “Hound Dog” in 1956 with the Johnny Otis band and the soon-to-be Rock and Roll king Elvis Presley copied it making himself famous. She never got the full fame and money her talent deserved but she performed up until her death in Los Angeles in 1984.
1911—Josh Gibson, legend of the Negro Baseball League, is born in Buena Vista, Ga. Standing 6’2” and weighing between 205 and 215, Gibson was a near perfect physical specimen who became the league’s home run king. He is credited with up to 932 home runs and a lifetime batting average of over .350. The only Negro League baseball player better known than Gibson was the great pitcher Satchel Paige. The tremendous talent of the Negro League players was summed up by Washington Post sports writer Shirley Povich in a 1941 column, “The only thing keeping them out of the big leagues is the pigmentation of their skin.”
1941—Three time Grammy winning singer Dionne Warwick is born on this day. She is a woman of many accomplishments including leading Hollywood’s anti-AIDS campaign and having her own skin care line. Her career was tainted a bit by her latter day association with the so-called Psychic Friends Network.
1963—The east African nation of Kenya is proclaimed independent from colonial rule. The first president is the charismatic Jomo Kenyatta. Despite many of the same problems which beset most other African nations, Kenya has remained one of the most politically stable countries on the continent. This is despite its beginnings which saw the brutal British repression of the Mau Mau movement–a secret insurgency of Kikuyu tribesmen, which had risen up to, drive out the White settlers.
1903—Another one of the great unsung heroines of the Civil Rights Movement Ella Baker is born in Norfolk, Va. She directed the New York branch of the NAACP; became executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the turbulent 1960s; and played a key role in the founding of the “Black Power” oriented Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In addition, she was a mentor to Rosa Parks and helped to lead the Mississippi voter registration drive. She frequently found herself as the only woman in the usually all male leadership structure of civil rights organizations and often had to battle sexism. Even more than Rosa Parks, Ella Baker deserves to be called the “mother of the civil rights movement.” Baker, a teacher, mentor and organizer, died in 1986 on her 83rd birthday.
1913—Archie Moore is born Archibald Lee White in Benoit, Miss. He becomes light heavyweight champion in 1952.
1981—Old-style Black comedian Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham dies. His standup comedy routine was a major attraction at many Black-oriented events and shows during the 1950s and 1960s. He also achieved some national fame among Whites with his “here comes the judge” routine on the 1970s TV series “Laugh In.”
1799—The first President of the United States George Washington dies. In his will the “founding father” stipulated that his slaves shall be freed upon the death of his wife Martha. Washington was a wealthy Virginian who supported slavery but did not want to see it expanded. In this regard, he signed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 but also signed legislation barring the expansion of slavery into the Northwest Territories. Upon her death, Martha Washington also freed the slaves she owned. One Washington slave is known to have escaped and was never recaptured. His name was Ona Judge Staines.
1915—Jack Johnson, perhaps the most controversial Black boxer in American history, wins the heavy weight championship. He fought at least 114 matches winning most of them. One biographer described Johnson as a man who “lived life his way.” But his outspokenness and affairs with White women ran him afoul of the racist authorities of the day. He was jailed for nearly a year in 1913 on trumped up charges. He fought his last match in 1928. After boxing he became a sensation on Broadway in the play “Great White Hope.” Born in Galveston, Texas, Johnson (full name Arthur John Johnson) died in Raleigh, N.C. as a result of an automobile accident. For reasons which remain unclear, President Obama has delayed granting Johnson a pardon on his 1913 conviction even though the measure has little opposition.
1864—One of the most decisive battles of the Civil War begins on this day with Black troops helping to crush one of the South’s finest armies at the Battle of Nashville. In a bid to stop the advances of the Union Army under Maj. General William T. Sherman, rebel General John Bell Hood led the powerful Army of Tennessee to Nashville to cut off Sherman’s supply lines. After two weeks of positioning and waiting for a break in the cold weather, the Union side finally decided to hurl the 13th United States Colored Troops at the Army of Tennessee. Although suffering massive casualties, the Black troops broke through the Confederate lines in a matter of hours. The victory helped to seal the South’s fate and bring an end to the Civil War the very next year.
1934—Maggie Lena Walker dies on this day at age 69. She had become perhaps the most powerful Black female businesswoman and social activist in America. Born to former slaves who themselves became activists for Black betterment, Walker at the tender age of 14 joined the Independent Grand United Order of St. Luke in Richmond, Va. She would help transform the Order and led it to become a premier Black self-help group. At its height, the Order had 50,000 members, 1500 local chapters, and a multi-purpose financial complex. Under Walker, the Order started a newspaper–the St. Luke Herald and a bank—the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Indeed, the bank was the only Black Richmond bank to survive the Great Depression bringing other banks under its wing and becoming the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Walker was a strong proponent of Blacks pooling their resources.