This Week in Black History

December 4-10, 2009

December 4

1807—Prince Hall dies. His was one of the most prominent Black names in colonial America. Hall was born (circa 1748) in Barbados in the West Indies and migrated to Boston. He became one of the leaders of the city’s Black community. He also became an abolitionist and a Mason. In fact, he is considered the “father of Black Masons.” He also fought in the American War for Independence from England.


1906—Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. is founded on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. It became the first Black Greek letter organization in America. It was established by seven Black students seeking to build stronger brotherhood ties and it began to spread to campuses around the nation.

1915—The Great Migration is said to have begun on this day as an estimated 2 million Southern Blacks begin moving to the North in search of jobs. The migration was the first major movement of Blacks out of the South since the Civil War and it changed the racial character of the nation.

1969—Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark are killed during a police raid in Chicago. The raid was part of a national campaign against the Black Panthers. Initial reports said the two were killed during a shootout but as the years passed evidence mounted that they were, in effect, assassinated. It may have even been a Black police officer who fired the shot that killed Hampton.

December 5

1775—A memorial is dedicated to Salem Poor in Cambridge, Mass. Poor was a slave who had bought his freedom and became a hero fighting in the American Revolutionary War for independence from England. He so distinguished himself in battle, including at Bunker Hill, that he won the praise of 14 officers.

1784—The amazing poet Phyllis Wheatley dies in Boston, Mass. Wheatley was kidnapped in Africa at age 7 and sold to a prosperous Boston family that placed a high value on education. By age 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics. In the 1770s she became a sensation in the city because of her amazing ability to write poetry. A London company published her first book of poetry. Sadly, she died in poverty before she could find a publisher for her second book. That second volume has never been found although some letters she wrote during this period were recently discovered and sold at auction.

1870—Legendary Black cowboy William “Bill” Pickett is born in Travis County, Texas. Standing only 5-7 and weighing 145 pounds, he is considered one of the toughest men ever to be called a cowboy. He became famous in the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Shows where he performed daredevil feats and invented the rodeo sport of “bulldogging.” He died at age 70 in Ponca City, Okla.

1870—Alexandre Dumas dies in France. Dumas, one of the most famous French writers of the 1800s, was a Black man born to a French marquis and a slave woman on the island of St. Domingue (now Haiti). Dumas wrote such noted works as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count De Monte Cristo.”

1932—The “King of Gospel,” Rev. James Cleveland, is born in Chicago, Ill.

1932—Flamboyant singer-performer “Little Richard” is born and raised in Macon, Ga. He became one of the founding fathers of rock ’n roll. His dynamic stage performance and homosexuality often landed him in trouble but he remained a major force in the music field. He recently had a hip replacement operation.

1955—The historic bus boycott begins in Montgomery, Ala. The Black boycott of city buses was set in motion when civil rights heroine Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a White man. The law at that time required her to give up the seat. A young minister named Martin Luther Kings Jr. was called upon to lead the boycott, launching his career as a national civil rights leader.

1957—New York becomes the first city to pass a law banning racial or religious discrimination in housing with the Fair Housing Practices law.

December 6

1849—Harriet (Ross) Tubman escapes slavery in Maryland. She became perhaps the greatest “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, returning to the South 19 times and helping an estimated 300 slaves escape. Despite a serious head injury received from an angry slave master when she refused to beat another slave, Tubman was one of Black America’s greatest examples of courage and determination. During the Civil War she also spied on the South and relayed the information to Northern generals.

1870—Joseph H. Rainey (1832-1887) is sworn in as the first Black to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He represented South Carolina—the state in which he was born a slave. But his father—a barber—managed to raise the money to purchase his family’s freedom.

1949—Blues legend Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter dies. Ledbetter was born in 1885 near Mooringsport, La. His musical genius was discovered in jail by a visiting White folklorist. Upon release from prison, he moved north and became a sensation performing in the U.S. and Europe. He was among the original group that introduced the “blues” to the world.

1961—Revolutionary psychiatrist and writer Frantz Fanon dies in Washington, D.C., where he had gone for medical treatment. In his writings, the Martinique-born Fanon explored the psychological aspects of racial oppression and Black liberation. His most famous works were “Black Skins, White Masks” and “Wretched of the Earth” which was considered by many to be “the handbook for Black revolution.”

December 7

1931—Comer Cottrell is born. Cottrell founded the Pro-Line hair care products company. He also became the first Black to own part of a professional baseball team when he bought into the Texas Rangers in 1989.

1941—Dorie Miller shoots down three or four Japanese warplanes during the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Miller was actually a kitchen worker on the USS Arizona who had somehow learned to operate the ship’s weapons. After his death he was awarded the Navy Cross.

December 8

1850—Lucy Ann Stanton graduates from Oberlin College in Ohio. She is believed to be the first Black female college graduate in America.

1936—The Gibbs v. Board of Education in Montgomery County, Md., decision is rendered. It was the first of a series of court rulings that eliminated the practice of paying White teachers more than Black teachers.

1987—Kurt Schmoke becomes the first Black mayor of Baltimore, Md.

December 9

1872—P.B.S. Pinchback begins serving as the first Black governor of Louisiana. He served for a little more than a month. Pinchback, son of a White plantation owner and a former Macon, Ga. slave, was a major force in Louisiana politics after the civil war and during Reconstruction. He was also instrumental in the 1879 establishment of Southern University. He traveled widely and died in Washington, D.C. in 1921.

1875—Carter G. Woodson is born in New Canton, Va. In 1926, Woodson started the first Negro History Week which grew to become Black History Month. Woodson is considered the “Father of Black History” in the United States. One of Woodson’s most famous quotes was “Those who have no record of what their forebears accomplished lose the inspiration that comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

1925—Comedian Red Foxx is born in St Louis, Mo. He was raised on the South side of Chicago. He gained Black fame as a standup comic on the so-called “chitlin circuit”—shows that only played to African-American audiences. Foxx was a close friend of Malcolm X during the days when Malcolm was a gangster known as “Detroit Red.” Foxx was called “Chicago Red.” He became a national celebrity in the 1970s with the popular television series “Sanford and Son.” Foxx died in Los Angeles in 1991 shortly after the IRS seized most of his property to collect back taxes. He died of a heart attack.

December 10

1846—Norbert Rillieux invents the “multiple effect pan evaporator” which revolutionizes the sugar industry and makes the work much less hazardous for the workers. Rillieux was born “quadroon libre” in New Orleans, La. His father was a wealthy French plantation owner and his mother a former slave.

1854—Edwin C. Berry is born in Oberlin, Ohio. In Athens, Ohio, he co-founded the City Restaurant and built the Hotel Berry which was to become one of the most elegant hotels in the entire state. By the time he retired in 1921, he was one of the most successful Black businessmen in America. He died in 1931.

1950—Ralph Bunch becomes the first African-American awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Bunch was born in Detroit, Mich., but his family moved to Albuquerque, N.M., and then to Los Angeles, Calif., where he showed academic genius and won a scholarship to Harvard. He worked out a temporary settlement between the Palestinians and the Jews after the state of Israel was established in 1948 on Palestinian lands.

(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and additions at his new website or brief messages at 202-657-8872.)

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