The Week of February 19-25:
1919—The “first” Pan African Congress is held bringing together prominent blacks from throughout the world to chart a program for Black unity and betterment. African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois was the chief organizer. The gathering was held in Paris, France and drew 57 distinguished delegates including 16 from the United States, 14 from Africa and others from the Caribbean, South America and Europe. (The 1919 Congress is considered by many the “first” but another such Congress had been organized in 1900.)
1940—Smokey Robinson is born William Robinson in Detroit, Mich. He formed “The Miracles” in 1955 while still in high school. With his voice and poetry of song, Robinson led The Miracles as the group became one of the all-time best record sellers for Barry Gordy’s Motown music empire.
1942—The Tuskegee Airmen are activated for service in World War II. The all-Black pursuit squadron, later designated 99th Fighter Squadron, was organized and trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The squadron served with honors in Europe. During the war, the nearly 1,000 pilots who had been trained flew 15,000 sorties, destroyed 1,000 German aircraft and earned more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
1895—The great Black leader Frederick Douglass dies at 78 in Washington, D.C. Douglass was the foremost Black abolitionist struggling to end slavery in the mid-1800s. He used his great oratory skills and his abilities as a newspaper publisher on behalf of freedom and justice for Blacks. Most of his early work emanated from the Rochester, N.Y., area. But after the Civil War he moved to Washington, D.C. Douglass was the nation’s foremost Black leader for nearly 40 years.
1927—Actor Sidney Poitier is born in Miami, Fla., and grows up on Cat Island in the Bahamas. However, by the early 1950s, he was establishing a career in movies. Indeed, it can be said that Poitier was the first Black actor to make it in mainstream movie roles without having to play stereotypical and often demeaning “Black roles.”
1963—Basketball great Charles Barkley is born on this day in Leeds, Ala.
1933—Song stylist and activist Nina Simone is born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C. She was a child prodigy who was playing the piano by age 4. She had numerous songs to her credit but one of the most memorable was “Mississippi Goddam” which was composed as a protest against the terrorist bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Ala., which resulted in the deaths of four little Black girls. Simone, often referred to as the High Priestess of Soul, died in France on April 21, 2003.
1965—The most prominent Black nationalist of the 20th century, Malcolm X, is assassinated on this day in Harlem, New York’s Audubon Ballroom while giving a speech which was to issue a call for Black unity. Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb., on May 19, 1925, he graduated at the top of his high school class but had his dream of becoming a lawyer crushed when a teacher told him that was “not realistic for a Nigger.” He gradually drifted into the underworlds of first Boston and then New York where he became a drug dealer and gangster known as “Detroit Red.” He was friends with comedian and upcoming star Redd Foxx who at the time was known as “Chicago Red.” Malcolm was arrested and jailed for robbery at age 20. While in prison he converted to the Nation of Islam and after his release in 1952, he became the leading force building the group into a major national organization. He was a brilliant orator and organizer as well as a fierce opponent of racism, imperialism and the non-violent approach to combating the nation’s evils. But disagreements with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad led to a split. He then formed the Organization for Afro-American Unity. However, 11 months after his split with the Nation of Islam he was assassinated. Many in the Black community felt the New York City police and the FBI played a role in his death. But three man associated with the Nation of Islam were tried and convicted of his murder.
1950—Basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving is born in Roosevelt, N.Y. He was the most dominant NBA player of his era. The former Philadelphia 76’er was 6’7”, 210 pounds.
1868—Dr. W.E.B. DuBois is born William Edward Burghardt DuBois in Great Barrington, Mass. DuBois can easily qualify as Black America’s leading scholar and intellectual of the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was also an educator and social activist fighting tirelessly against racial injustice and U.S. imperialism. He started the NAACP’s influential “Crisis” magazine. He organized what many consider the First Pan African Congress. (Actually, it was the second. The first took place in 1900.) However, in his later years DuBois became increasingly frustrated with American racism, injustice and hypocritical brand of democracy. He turned to socialism around 1927 and despaired of the NAACP’s legalistic approach to obtaining rights for Blacks. He nevertheless authored several influential books including “The Souls of Black Folks.” He coined the phrase ‘talented tenth” to describe what he believed would have to be a class of educated and skilled Blacks who would have to lead the race out of its oppression. DuBois finally went into self-imposed exile in the West African nation of Ghana saying, “In my own country for nearly a century I have been nothing but a Nigger.” He died in Ghana’s capital, Accra, on Aug. 27, 1963. He was 95.
1864—Rebecca Lee Crumbler becomes the first African-American woman to receive a medical degree. Born in 1833, she graduated from the New England Female Medical College. Prior to becoming a doctor, she had worked as a nurse in Massachusetts for over six years.
1868—The U.S. House of Representatives voted 126 to 47 to impeach President Andrew Johnson. Johnson had run afoul of a group of pro-Black legislators known as the Radical Republicans because of his opposition to full citizenship rights for former slaves. He survived being ousted as president by one vote in the U.S. Senate. As far as historical speculation goes, it would have been much better for Black rights and the course of Black history if Johnson had been ousted. His opposition to full rights, including voting rights, for Blacks helped lay the foundation for the un-doing of Reconstruction and the many gains Blacks had made during that period.
1966—Kwame Nkrumah is ousted in a military coup as president of the West African nation of Ghana. This was another event which changed the course of black history for the worse. Nkrumah, educated at the predominantly Black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, had been a major intellectual and pragmatic force for Pan-Africanism and worldwide Black unity. From the time he became the first president of Ghana in March 1957, he had worked tirelessly for international Black advance and world peace. His ouster left a void which after 40 years has not been filled by any other African leader. Nkrumah died in 1972.
(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 $3.00 to cover postage.)