This Week in Black History

Week of December 11-17

December 11

1917—Thirteen Black soldiers were hanged for their participation in the so-called Houston riot. The “riot” had occurred in August of 1917 when Whites objected to the presence of Black soldiers in the city. Racist insults and mistreatment began. Then a Black soldier intervened in the arrest of a Black woman. A Black corporal inquired with the police about the arrest of the soldier. A fight broke out between the corporal and the police.


A rumor spread that a White mob was marching on the Black camp. Roughly 100 Black soldiers grabbed rifles and marched on downtown Houston. Within two hours they had killed 15 Whites including four police officers. They returned to camp but military officials pressured seven soldiers to snitch on the others. That  resulted in the convictions and hangings of 13 Black soldiers.

1917—The Great Jazz Migration  began when noted musician Joe “King” Oliver left New Orleans, La. and settled in Chicago, Ill. He was soon joined by other early jazz greats. Their presence in Chicago laid the foundation for the Southern Black music genre (with heavy sexual overtones) to become a national obsession. Actually, the “migration” may not have been quite so romantic. Instead of being forced by the closing of the New Orleans Storyville district, jazz greats probably left New Orleans for Chicago for the same reason other Blacks left the South—failing crops forced the disappearance of jobs while Northern factories recruited Blacks for work to produce arms and other goods for World War I. Nevertheless, many historians view Oliver’s relocation to Chicago as the start of New Orleans jazz migrating to the rest of the nation.

1926—Blues legend Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton is born in Montgomery, Ala. She started signing in the Baptist Church but at 14 ran away from home to pursue a secular music career. She became the “big mama” of the blues. A powerful voice, a fiery stage presence and her 6 foot, 350-pound frame enabled her to become famous. She recorded “Hound Dog” in 1956 with the Johnny Otis band and the soon-to-be rock ’n roll king Elvis Presley copied it making himself famous. She never got the full fame and money her talent deserved but she performed up until her death in Los Angeles in 1984.

December 12

1911—Josh Gibson, legend of the Negro Baseball League, is born in Buena Vista, Ga. Standing 6-2 and weighing between 205 and 215, Gibson was a near perfect physical specimen who became the league’s home run king. He is credited with up to 932 home runs and a lifetime batting average of over .350. The only Negro League baseball player better known than Gibson was the great pitcher Satchel Paige. The tremendous talent of the Negro League players was summed up by Washington Post sports writer Shirley Povich in a 1941 column, “The only thing keeping them out of the big leagues is the pigmentation of their skin.”

1941—Three-time Grammy winning singer Dionne Warwick is born on this day. She is a woman of many accomplishments, including leading Hollywood’s anti-AIDS campaign and having her own skin care line. Her career was tainted a bit by her association with the so-called Psychic Friends Network.

1963—The east African nation of Kenya was proclaimed independent from colonial rule. The first president was the charismatic Jomo Kenyatta. Despite many of the same problems which beset most other African nations, Kenya has remained one of the most politically stable countries on the continent. This is despite its beginnings that saw the brutal British repression of the Mau Mau movement—a secret insurgency of Kikuyu tribesmen which had risen up to drive out the White settlers.

December 13

1903—Another one of the great unsung heroines of the Civil Rights Movement ,Ella Baker, is born in Norfolk, Va. She directed the New York branch of the NAACP; became executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr.-founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the turbulent 1960s; and played a key role in the founding of the “Black Power”-oriented Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In addition, she was a mentor to Rosa Parks and helped to lead the Mississippi voter registration drive. She frequently found herself as the only woman in the usually all-male leadership structure of civil rights organizations and often had to battle sexism. Even more than Parks, Baker deserves to be called the “mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” Baker, a teacher, mentor, and organizer, died in 1986 on her 83rd birthday.

1913—Archie Moore  is born Archibald Lee White in Benoit, Miss. He became light heavyweight champion in 1952.

1981—Old-style Black comedian Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham dies. His standup comedy routine was a major attraction at many Black-oriented events and shows during the 1950s and 1960s. He also achieved some national fame among Whites with his “here comes the judge” routine on the 1970s TV series “Laugh In.”

December 14

1799—The first president of the United States, George Washington dies. In his will the “founding father” stipulated that his slaves be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha. Washington was a wealthy Virginian who supported slavery but did not want to see it expanded. In this regard, he signed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 but also signed legislation barring the expansion of slavery into the Northwest Territories. Upon her death, Martha Washington also freed the slaves she owned. One Washington slave is known to have escaped and was never recaptured. His name was Ona Judge Staines.

1915—Jack Johnson, perhaps the most controversial Black boxer in American history, won the heavy weight championship. He fought at least 114 matches, winning most of them. One biographer described Johnson as a man who “lived life his way.” But his outspokenness and affairs with White women ran him afoul of the racist authorities of the day. He was jailed for nearly a year in 1913 on trumped up charges. He fought his last match in 1928. After boxing he became a sensation on Broadway in the play “The Great White Hope.” Born in Galveston, Texas, Johnson (full name Arthur John Johnson) died in Raleigh, N.C., as a result of an automobile accident. For reasons that remain unclear, President Obama has delayed granting Johnson a pardon on his 1913 conviction even though the measure has little opposition.

December 15

1864—One of the most decisive battles of the Civil War began on this day with Black troops helping to crush one of the South’s finest armies at the Battle of Nashville. In a bid to stop the advances of the Union Army under Maj. General William T. Sherman, rebel general John Bell Hood led the powerful army of Tennessee to Nashville to cut off Sherman’s supply lines. After two weeks of positioning and waiting for a break in the cold weather, the Union side finally decided to hurl the 13th United States Colored Troops (USTC) at the army of Tennessee. Although suffering massive casualties, the Black troops broke through the Confederate lines in a matter of hours. The victory helped to seal the South’s fate and bring an end to the Civil War the very next year.

1934—Maggie Lena Walker died on this day at 69. She had become perhaps the most powerful Black female businesswoman and social activist in America. Born to former slaves who themselves became activists for Black betterment, Walker at 14 joined the Independent Grand United Order of St. Luke in Richmond, Va. She helped transform the order and led it to become a premier Black self-help group. At its height, the order had 50,000 members, 1,500 local chapters and a multi-purpose financial complex. Under Walker, the order started a newspaper—the St. Luke Herald and a bank—the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. The bank was the only Black Richmond bank to survive the Great Depression, bringing other banks under its wing and becoming the Consolidated Bank and Trust Co.

1943—Band leader and composer Thomas W. “Fats” Waller dies in Kansas City, Mo. Waller was an accomplished musician and composer but when he formed a business relationship with the great White composer George Gershwin, he became world famous. He starred on radio, nightclubs and toured Europe. He had a show called “Keep Shufflin” and his most famous song was “Ain’t Misbehavin.” He died at 39 from pneumonia.

December 16

1859—The last known slave ship—The Clotilde—lands in Mobile, Ala., with a cargo of 110 to 160 Africans. The importation of Africans as slaves had been illegal in America since 1808. But the law was poorly enforced. However, fearing possible arrest by federal authorities, owners burned the Clotilde and attempted to scatter the slaves. But a group managed to escape and succeeded in establishing a village near Mobile known as “Africatown.” The last known survivor of this group was Cudjo Lewis (African name Kossula).

December 17

1663—Queen Nzingha of Angola dies at the age of 82. Known as the Warrior Princess of Matamba, Queen Nzingha gained legendary fame for her resistance to Portuguese attempts to colonize the interior of Africa. She also battled the Dutch slave trade. Leading a tribal group known as the Jugas, she is generally credited with leading the stiffest resistance to early European colonialism and imperialism.

1939—Eddie Kendricks is born in Union Springs, Ala. Kendricks was the lead singer for the Temptations during the group’s heyday.

(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and additions. You can get one free edition of his popular Black History Journal. But you must have an e-mail address. Contact him at or leave a brief message at 202-657-8872.)

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