Week of January 29-February 4
1837—The great Russian literary genius Alexander Pushkin dies on this day as a result of a duel. He is generally considered Russia’s greatest poet. Unlike many famous Europeans of color, Pushkin was proud of his Black heritage, which is traced to his great grandfather on his mother’s side—Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal who was most probably an Ethiopian who became part of Russian royalty. Pushkin’s poetic style combined drama, romance and satire.
1908—Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity is incorporated. The Black Greek-letter organization was actually founded, however, on Dec. 4, 1906. The “brothers of the black and gold” have included as members a host of distinguished men ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1913—Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority is incorporated. It is the nation’s oldest Black Greek-letter sorority having been founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1908. The AKAs are currently headquartered in Chicago, Ill.
1954—Talk-show diva Oprah Winfrey was born on this day in Kosciusko, Miss. However, she was raised in Nashville, Tenn. Winfrey ended her popular “Oprah” show in 2011. She has already launched her own network, OWN.
1797—Sojourner Truth is born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, N.Y. She becomes the most influential and powerfully spoken Black female abolitionists of the 1800s. She worked with other fiery abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. She says, in 1843, a spiritual revelation compelled her to change her name and preach for the end of slavery. She was also deeply religious and a strong spokesperson for a woman’s right to vote.
1797—The first multi-state organization of Blacks in America is formed when Black Masons in Boston, Mass., led by Prince Hall, create African-American Masonic lodges in Philadelphia, Pa., and Providence, R.I. Overtime, the Prince Hall Masons would become a major force in Black communities around the nation.
1800—The Census Bureau reveals that the United States has a population of 5,300,000 of which 1,002,000 or 19 percent were Blacks. Today, African-Americans constitute roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population. However, the latest Census projections say the percentage of Blacks in America is not expected to grow over the next 40 years, while the Hispanic population is projected to skyrocket.
1926—The Harlem Globetrotters, a comedic but highly skilled basketball team, is organized by Abe Saperstein in Chicago, Ill. The group’s original name was the “Savoy Big Five” after Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom. However, in their early games they wore jerseys suggesting they were from New York. After World War II, they also achieved international fame playing in over 100 countries. Some of the greatest names to play with the Globetrotters were Geese Ausbie, Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes, Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon.
1956—The Montgomery, Ala., home of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is bombed by racists apparently angered by his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, which set the modern Civil Rights Movement into motion. This would be the first of several attempts on the civil rights legend’s life.
1865—Congress passes the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which upon ratification, abolished slavery in America. The vote was 121 to 24. Ratification was not completed until December 1865. The amendment read simply: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States nor any place subject to its jurisdiction.” The exception for crime led to the passage of a host of laws, especially in the South, specifically designed to criminalize certain behaviors and place Blacks back into involuntary servitude.
1919—Baseball great Jackie Robinson in born in Cairo, Ga. He became the first Black to play in the White major league of baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He played from 1947 to 1956. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. Prior to the Dodgers, Robinson played with the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Baseball League. He retired as perhaps the most admired man in baseball and died in 1972.
1963—James Baldwin’s influential collection of essays, “The Fire Next Time” is published. The essays warn White America that they can expect racial turmoil if they do not address issues of injustice in America. Baldwin expected Blacks to show Whites how to avoid conflict by adopting a redemptive spirit. Born in Harlem, N.Y., in 1924, Baldwin became a homosexual apparently as a result of being raised by a non-emotionally supportive and often cruel father.
2006—Coretta Scott King, widow of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died at the age of 78.
1902—Langston Hughes, one of Black America’s greatest poets, is born in Joplin, Miss. He came to fame during the 1920s period of African-American cultural expression known as the Harlem Renaissance. Before his death in 1967, he wrote 15 collections of poetry, two autobiographies and several children’s books. Hughes can best be described as “dignified, but militant.” He captured the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance writing in 1926, “We younger Negro artists now intend to express our dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If White people are pleased, we are glad. If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter.”
1926—The first “Negro History Week” is celebrated. Founded by Black historian Carter G. Woodson, the “week” became Black History Month in 1976. Woodson said he would welcome the day when a separate Black history celebration was no longer necessary because his ultimate goal was a true history “devoid of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice.”
1960—The “sit-in” movement as a protest method for civil rights is born on this day in Greensboro, N.C., when four North Carolina A&T students sit down at a “Whites only” lunch counter and refuse to move until served or arrested. Within two weeks the tactic had spread to 15 cities in five Southern states. The original four students were Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain and David Richmond.
1965—One of the largest mass arrests of the Civil Rights Movement occurs when more than 700 people are jailed as a result of a protest in Selma, Ala. Among those thrown in prison was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
2004—As a result of a so-called “wardrobe malfunction” singer Janet Jackson’s breast was briefly exposed while performing during the Super Bowl’s half-time show. The incident created a national controversy, including fines by the FCC.
1839—Black inventor Edmond Berger develops one of the first spark plugs made in America.
1908—Jack Johnson becomes the first Black heavyweight boxing champion by defeating Tommy Burns in Australia. Although he was not officially given the title until 1910 after he defeated the American Jim Jeffries in Las Vegas. Many Whites reacted violently to his defeat of Jeffries sparking riots in several cities. In Johnson’s home state of Texas, films of Johnson defeating White opponents were banned. Johnson reigned as heavyweight champion for 7 years. But he had two “faults”—he believed in speaking his mind and he liked White women. Those two tendencies landed him in jail in 1920 on trumped up charges of violating the Mann Act—a law that made it illegal to transport White women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Johnson, who is arguably the greatest boxer who ever lived, died in an automobile accident near Raleigh, N.C., on June 10, 1946.
1913—Civil rights heroine Rosa Parks is born on this day in Tuskegee, Ala. It was her refusal in December 1955 to give up her seat to a White man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus that sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement. For refusing to obey the laws of segregation, she was arrested and convicted. Montgomery Blacks responded with a boycott of city buses. A young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. was called upon to lead the boycott, which would last for nearly 13 months. The drama and accompanying legal challenge all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court captivated the nation and propelled Dr. King into the national international spotlight as the nation’s premier civil rights leader. Mrs. Parks died in 2005 at 92.