The Week of Feb. 11-17
1644—Eleven Blacks confront the ruling Council of New Netherlands (later New York) with a petition demanding their freedom. This was probably the first legal protest action by Blacks in American history. The petition is granted and the Blacks are freed because they had worked off the terms of their indentured servant contracts which were usually for seven years. But these Blacks had worked for up to 18 years. Shortly after this victory, however, no more Blacks were allowed such contracts but were instead treated as slaves for life.
1990—Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is released from prison on Robben Island after 27 years. He had been jailed for his militant activities against the then White-ruled South African government and its system of rule known as Apartheid. Mandela would go on to become the first Black and first democratically elected president of South Africa (1994-1999). He enabled a peaceful transition to Black majority rule. Mandela is now one of the most respected and admired men in the world. In South Africa, where he was released from the hospital last week, he is known as “Madiba”—an honorary title given to elders in his tribe.
1793—Congress passes the first Fugitive Slave Law. The law made it easier for a slave owner to re-take control of a slave who had escaped to freedom. Blacks and their supporters were outraged because the 1793 law only required the “word” of a White man before a magistrate to declare any Black person a run away slave and have him or her arrested and placed in bondage. Under the law even Blacks who had earned their freedom or had never been slaves were placed in danger.
1900—Legendary poet James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) writes the lyrics to the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as part of a birthday tribute to Abraham Lincoln. In time, the song would become the Black National Anthem.
1909—The NAACP is formally founded by a group of 60 progressive Blacks and Whites in New York City. The organization, originally called the National Negro Committee, was the outgrowth of the Niagara Movement, which met in Niagara, N.Y., in 1905. The NAACP would go on to become, and remains, the nation’s largest civil rights organization.
1930—The infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is funded. Over 400 Black men from rural parts of Georgia and Alabama are lured into the program with the promise that they would be treated for syphilis. But the program was actually designed to study the effects of untreated syphilis on the body. Thus, the men were given fake anti-syphilis medicines as their diseases advanced. The unethical “experiment” went on for 40 years as most of the men gradually died. A reporter exposed the study in 1972. Several government agencies, including the U.S. Public Health Service and Center for Disease Control, were involved. On behalf of the nation, President Clinton apologized to Charlie Pollard and other surviving members of the racist experiment in 1997.
1635—The nation’s first public school is established in Boston, Mass. It was called the Boston Latin School. Blacks could not attend.
1907—Wendell P. Dabney establishes the groundbreaking Black newspaper known as The Union, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The paper’s motto was “For no people can become great without being united, for in union there is strength.”
1760—The great religious leader Richard Allen is born in slavery in Philadelphia, Pa. After being required to sit in the back of a White church, Allen would go on to help found and become the first active bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Today, the church, one of the largest predominantly Black denominations in America, has more than 1 million members in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean and Africa. Allen died in 1831.
1817—February 14, 1817 is the most likely birth date of abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. Douglass purchased his freedom in 1845 and went on to become the most influential Black leader of his day. He did most of his work while living in Rochester, N.Y. But after the Civil War, he moved to Washington, D.C.
1867—One of the nation’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning, Morehouse College, was founded on this day in Augusta, Ga., as the Augusta Institute. It moved to Atlanta in 1879 and became the Atlanta Baptist Seminary. It became “Morehouse” in 1913. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from Morehouse.
1936—The National Negro Congress is organized on this day at a meeting in Chicago, Ill., attended by over 800 delegates representing nearly 500 Black organizations. A. Phillip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, is elected president. One of the congress’ chief aims was to generate national support for the “New Deal” legislation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Chicago Defender described the congress as “the most ambitious effort for bringing together members of the Race on any single issue.” Up until this time, most Black voters were Republicans. But the National Negro Congress and Roosevelt’s social betterment programs led to a massive African-American switch to the Democratic Party.
1804—The New Jersey legislature passes a law leading to the gradual elimination of slavery in the state. However, the process was so gradual that there were still slaves in New Jersey right up to the start of the Civil War in 1860.
1851—In an extraordinary bold move for the times, a group of Black and White abolitionists invade a Boston courtroom and forcibly free a fugitive slave before he could be sent back to the South. Shadrach Minkins was hidden from slave catchers and he later fled to Canada.
1961—A group of U.S. Blacks and African nationalists disrupt a session of the United Nations to protest the slaying of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo. Lumumba was one of Africa’s bright and shining stars. But his nationalism and socialism frightened some Western nations. It is widely believed that Belgium intelligence and America’s CIA arranged the killing of Lumumba.
1965—Great singer and Jazz pianist Nat King Cole dies of lung cancer in Santa Monica, Calif. He was only 45. Cole was the first Black entertainer with his own radio program and later he became the first with a nationally televised TV variety show.
1923—The “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith makes her first recording—“Downhearted Blues”—which immediately sells over 800,000 copies for Columbia Records and over 2,000,000 copies by the end of the year. Those were astounding numbers for those days. The Chattanooga, Tenn., born Smith used her sweeping and powerful voice to sing songs of Black culture and real life such as “Nobody Knows You When You Are Down And Out,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Give Me A Pig Foot And A Bottle Of Beer” and the controversial “Give Me A Reefer And A Gang Of Gin.” She died in an automobile accident in 1937 in Clarksdale, Miss. Early reports that her death was caused by Mississippi medical personnel who refused to treat her because she was Black may not be true.
1951—The City Council in New York City passes what is believed to be the first law barring racial discrimination in public assisted housing.
1902—Opera legend Marian Anderson is born in Philadelphia, Pa. Her tremendous operatic talent was revealed at 17 when she was entered into a New York Philharmonic competition and placed first among 299 entrants. Despite her fame she suffered from racist rejection. On Easter Sunday 1939, she performed an open air recital at the Lincoln Memorial because the all White Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. (NOTE: Throughout her life Anderson gave her birth as Feb. 17, 1902. However, newly discovered evidence suggests she was actually born Feb. 27, 1897.) She died April 8, 1993.
1942—Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton is born. The Panthers were perhaps the most militant Black organization of the 1960s. At its height, it had thousands of members in several major cities. But it was also the target of massive operations by the FBI and local police departments. Dozens of Panthers would be killed, often under suspicious circumstances. A little known fact, however, is that throughout it all Newton, an illiterate high school dropout, taught himself to read and in 1980 earned a PhD in social philosophy from the University of California, Santa Cruz. His dissertation was entitled “War Against the Panthers—A Study of Repression in America.” Newton was found shot to death on an Oakland, Calif., street in 1989.
1963—Perhaps the greatest player to ever dribble a basketball, Michael Jordan, was born on this day in Brooklyn, N.Y. However, his family moved and he played high school basketball in Wilmington, N.C.
1982—The nation’s greatest Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk dies. Born in Rocky Mount, N.C., Monk moved with his family to New York City when he was four. His classic work was “Round Midnight.”
2006—African-American skater Shani Davis wins the men’s 1,000-meter speed-skating race in Turin, Italy. He thus became the first Black person to win an individual gold medal in the history of the Winter Olympics.
(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. Get a free subscription to his weekly Black History Journal by writing him at Robert N. Taylor, P.O. Box 58097, Washington, D.C., 20037. Simply include $3 to cover postage.)