Week of March 4-10
1877—Inventor and scientist Garrett A. Morgan is born in Paris, Ky. Among his major inventions were the gas mask and the automatic traffic signal. He made history on July 25, 1916 when he used his gas mask to rescue 32 men trapped in a mine explosion beneath Lake Erie. The U.S. Army also used the gas mask to save lives during World War I. Morgan died in 1963.
1922—Comedic great Bert Williams dies of pneumonia in New York City at the age of 46. What Jackie Robinson did for Blacks by breaking the color barrier in major league baseball, Williams did on the American stage. He was a comic, singer, writer and producer who spent 10 of his 25 years in show business performing with the famous Ziegfield Follies. W.C. Fields once referred to him as “the funniest man I ever saw.” Williams was born Egbert Austin Williams in the Bahamas.
1770—Crispus Attucks is shot and killed by British soldiers becoming the first American to die in the struggle for American Independence from England. Attucks was an escaped slave who became a sailor and rope maker. It is unclear exactly how he became involved in the protest of that day. But a crowd had gathered and began to taunt British troops. Attucks, who was of Black and Indian parentage, was inspired to give a speech in which he spoke of the importance of freedom. Suddenly a volley of shots was fired into the crowd. Four people died that day in an event which became known as the Boston Massacre.
1845—Texas is admitted to the union as a slave state. President John Tyler on this day in 1845 signed the joint Congressional resolution.
1857—Perhaps the most thoroughly racist decision ever rendered by a U.S. Supreme Court is released on this day in 1857—the Dred Scott decision. Scott and his wife, Harriet, had sued in St. Louis Circuit Court claiming they were free because their slave master had taken them from a slave state to the free territory of Missouri. However, in a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney the court ruled: 1) Blacks, be they slave or free, were not and could not be U.S. citizens and thus were not entitled to file suit in U.S. courts, 2) Denied Congress the power to restrict slavery by declaring the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, 3) Declared that where the Constitution said, “All men are created equal,” the phrase did not include Blacks, and 4) Told African-Americans that they “had no rights the White man was bound to respect.” However, reflecting the law of unintended consequences, the Dred Scott decision was so harsh and so angered anti-slavery forces that it helped pave the way for the Civil War which ended all slavery in America.
1957—The West African nation of Ghana becomes independent from White colonial rule becoming the first British controlled colony to gain independence. The nation took its name from the ancient empire of Ghana. Its first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was elected on July 1, 1960. Nkrumah would go on to become a major force for African independence and Black rights worldwide. The Lincoln University graduate became a major advocate of international Black unity known as Pan-Africanism.
1539—This is probably the day Estevanico—the first Black conquistador—was killed. Estevanico, a Black Moor from Morocco, was sold as a servant when he was only 10 but became friends with his owner Andres de Dorantes and joined a 1527 expedition of 300 men from Spain looking for riches in what would later become the U.S. state of Florida. All but four members of the expedition were wiped out by the Indians they tried to conquer. Estevanico was among those who survived. He was held captive for five years but became a “medicine man” and learned the languages of various tribes. He eventually escaped and in February of 1539 led an expedition to Culiacan, Mexico looking for the fabled lost city of gold—El Dorado. It was doing this expedition that he was killed.
1965—On this day in Black history, the first leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery March is completed as thousands joined Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in protesting racial injustice in Alabama. An earlier attempt to complete the march had been disrupted by a police attack. The Alabama National Guard was federalized and U.S. Army troops were called in to protect the marchers. It was shortly after this march that a White female supporter of the civil rights struggle, Viola Liuzzo, was shot and killed by Ku Klan Klan–style terrorists opposed to civil rights for Blacks.
1997—Former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley dies. Manley is perhaps best known for his brand of democratic socialism and attempting to organize Caribbean and African nations into a bloc to press for better prices for their raw materials.
1977—Henry L. Marsh III is elected the first Black mayor of Richmond, Va. Before becoming mayor of the capital of the old confederacy, Marsh had made a name for himself confronting the city’s White power structure as a civil rights attorney. He also served in the state senate.
1993—Jazz great Billy Eckstine dies at 78 in Pittsburgh, Pa. Eckstine came to fame in the 1940s and 1950s as a singer and bandleader who worked with some of the greatest names of the era including Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne. He was one of the greatest influences upon modern jazz and B-bop. Among his best known ballads were “Everything I Have Is Yours,” “Blue Moon,” “Caravan” and “That Old Black Magic.”
1841—The U.S. Supreme Court rules that Joseph Cinque and his fellow mutineers are free men. Along with several of his Mendi tribesmen, Cinque, son of an African king, had been captured and sold into slavery. But in 1839, he led a revolt on the Spanish slave ship Amistad, killed the captain and seized control of the ship. However, a U.S. military ship seized the Amistad off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. The seizure led to protracted court battles in which Cinque and his men were charged with murder. But in an unusual ruling for its day, the high court held, in effect, that the men had a human right to try to escape bondage and allowed them to return to Africa.
1871—Noted Black politician Oscar De Priest is born in Florence, Ala. After moving to Chicago, he becomes a major political force in the city serving on the board of commissioners and then on the city council (1915-1917). However, De Priest became a national political figure when he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1928. Throughout his years of political service he was known as “a persuasive agent for the Black masses.” Oscar Stanton De Priest died in 1951.
1931—Walter F. White is named executive secretary of the NAACP. The Atlanta, Ga.-born White was arguably the most devoted and determined person ever to head the civil rights organization and was easily one of the top Black leaders of the first half of the 20th century. The light-complexioned and blue-eyed White also became a legend in 1919 when he “passed for White” in order to investigate a race riot in Elaine, Ark., which had left over 100 Blacks dead. He barely escaped with his life when news leaked out as to who he was. A train conductor, thinking he was White, is said to have joked with him saying, “You’re leaving too early. The fun is about to start. The boys are going to lynch a yellow Nigger passing for White.”
1997—Rap artist The Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) is shot to death in Los Angeles, Calif., as a result of an alleged east-coast-west-coast dispute in the Rap music industry. The killing has never been solved criminally. But a civil suit in Los Angeles federal court accused two rouge Los Angeles police officers of arranging the drive-by shooting that led to his death.
1913—The “greatest conductor of the Underground Railroad” Harriet Tubman dies on this day in Auburn, N.Y. Born in slavery in Dorchester County, Md., in 1819 or 1820, Harriet was raised in harsh conditions including being whipped as a small child. But even as a child she was a person of strong wild and principle. For example, at age 12 she received a severe blow to the head from a White overseer when she refused to help tie up a slave who had tried to escape. Around age 30, fearing she was about to be sold into the Deep South, Tubman escaped to Canada. But she returned to Maryland on numerous occasions helping family members and over 300 other slaves escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. She frequently threatened to shoot any slave who became frightened and wanted to turn back.
1969—The man officially convicted of assassinating civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pleads guilty to the crime on this day. However, James Earl Ray, promptly tried to withdraw the plea suggesting that there had actually been a government (or FBI) conspiracy to assassinate King which involved the Mafia and members of the right-wing Cuban exile community in Florida. Ray admitted buying the rifle and renting the room in the Memphis, Tenn., flophouse from where the deadly shot was fired. But he maintained he gave the rifle to a mysterious man named Raoul. The House Select Committee on Assassinations would later conclude that Ray fired the shot but was probably part of a broader conspiracy.