This Week in Black History

Week of September 17-23

September 17

1787—The United States Constitution is approved but it includes three clauses allowing for the continuation of slavery even though it was supposed to be a document of freedom.

1861—Hampton Institute  (now a university) is founded. It has become one of the nation’s leading predominately Black educational institutions.

1973—Illinois becomes the first state to honor Civil Rights Movement icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a state holiday.

September 18

1850—Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise was essentially a vain attempt to reconcile differences between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North as to whether Midwest states would be slave or free. The law basically required free states to help slave states capture escaped slaves.


1895—Booker T. Washington delivered his famous (or infamous) “Atlanta Compromise” speech in which he promotes Black economic betterment at the expense of civil and political rights. The speech endeared him to Whites opposed to the social integration of Blacks but it angered progressive Blacks, including scholar W.E.B. DuBois, who began to portray Washington as an “Uncle Tom.”

1980—Cuban cosmonaut Arnold Tamayo becomes the first Black to fly on a space mission. He flew on a space craft from the then-Soviet Union.

September 19

1865—Atlanta University is founded in Atlanta, Ga. It was one of many educational institutions established during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War to educate former slaves.

1981—An estimated 400,000 people from various labor and civil rights organizations rally in Washington, D.C. to protest the domestic policies of President Ronald Reagan. His policies were viewed by the demonstrating groups as anti-Black and opposed to the best interests of working class people.

September 20

1664—Maryland enacts the nation’s first “Anti-Amalgamation Law.” It specifically outlawed marriages between Black men and White women. Soon, several other colonies followed the Maryland example. It would not be until the 1960s that U.S. Supreme Court in the famous Loving v. Virginia case declared all such laws unconstitutional. And even though it was not being enforced, it was not until 2000 that Alabama officially became the last state to strike from the books its law banning inter-racial marriages.

1830—The first National Negro Convention of Free Men meets in Philadelphia, Pa. Among a wide range of items on the agenda was a resolution encouraging free Blacks to boycott the purchase of items produced by slave labor. AME Church founder Richard Allen was elected president of the convention. Despite the fact that Allen had founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the name of the convention also reflected an attempt by free Blacks to reduce identification with Africa. At the time, most slaves and many free Blacks tended to refer to themselves as “Africans.”

1958—A deranged woman stabs then rapidly emerging civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. during a book signing ceremony at a Harlem, N.Y., department store. Rumors circulated that the stabbing was part of a government conspiracy against King but no evidence was ever produced to support the theory.


1984—“The Cosby Show” starring comedian and activist Bill Cosby debuts on NBC television. It became one of the nation’s highest-rated television series and was widely praised by civil rights activists because of its generally positive portrayal of a Black middle-class family.

September 21

1872—John Henry Conyers becomes the first Black student at the U.S. Naval Academy. However, racism and often violent harassment forced him to leave the academy before he was able to graduate.

1905—The Atlanta Life Insurance Co. is established in Atlanta, Ga., and becomes one of the largest insurance companies in America serving a predominantly African-American clientele.

1984—Gen. Colin PowelL becomes the first African-American named as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As the nation’s top military leader, Powell was praised by some Blacks as a role model while he was criticized for supporting what critics considered the government’s war-mongering policies. His generally positive reputation was damaged by his speaking before the United Nations and providing misinformation in 2003 in support of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.

September 22

1863—Mary Church Terrell is born on this day in 1863. She became one of the nation’s leading activists advocating greater education for Blacks and women. She was the first Black person to sit on the Washington, D.C., school board and played a major role in desegregating that city’s restaurants.

1961—The Interstate Commerce Commission officially prohibits segregation in buses traveling in interstate commerce. It also banned segregated terminal facilities even though the ruling was largely ignored in many Southern states. But during the mid-1960s, civil rights activists would frequently cite the ruling as they integrated facilities throughout the South.

September 23

1926—Legendary jazz great John Coltrane is born on this day in Hamlet, N.C. He is generally credited with reshaping modern jazz and setting a pattern that would be followed by generations of jazz saxophonists.

1930—Singer-performer Ray Charles is born on this day in Albany, Ga.

September 24

1894—Author and scholar E. Franklin Frazier is born. He became one of the leading Black intellectual figures in America. He is perhaps best known for his 1939 book “The Negro Family in America.” It is generally credited with being the first major sociological on African-Americans researched and written by a Black person. The book analyzed the cultural and historical forces that had shaped and often undermined the Black family in America.

1957—President Dwight Eisenhower orders federal troops into Little Rock, Ark., to prevent angry Whites from interfering with the integration of the city’s Central High School by nine Black students. The confrontation was one of the most dramatic during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Governor Orval Faubus had vowed to go to jail to block the court ordered desegregation of the school claiming that Whites would be destroyed if they integrated with Blacks. But the confrontation settled the issue of whether states had to obey orders issued by federal courts.

1965—President Lyndon Johnson issues what is generally considered the nation’s first affirmative action order—Executive Order #11246. It required companies receiving federal construction contracts to ensure equality in the hiring of minorities. Despite a disastrous war in Viet Nam which would eventually force his resignation, the Southern-born Johnson generally supported a host of legislative and executive efforts beneficial to Blacks.

1986—Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone caused an international controversy by alleging that American intelligence levels were generally lower than those in Japan “because of Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Hispanics.”

(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and additions. You can also have a free edition of his popular “Black History Journal” e-mailed to you by contacting him at or by leaving your e-mail address at 202-657-8872.)


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