This Week in Black History

Week of January 1-7, 2010

January 1

1804—Jean Jacques Dessalines proclaims the independence of Haiti from France. The island nation, after the United States, became the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere. The chief slogan of his independence speech was “live free or die.” The Haitian war of independence had actually begun in August of 1791. The leader and greatest hero of that war was a former slave who worked as a carriage driver—Toussaint L’Ouverture. As a general, L’Ouverture was comparable to, and in some respects superior to, America’s George Washington and France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. However, under the ruse of discussing peace, L’Ouverture was tricked into traveling to France where he died in prison in April of 1803. The Haitians nevertheless prevailed over the French under the leadership of Dessalines and he was able to declare independence on this day in 1804.

Jean Jacques Dessalines and George Washington Carver

1854—Lincoln University becomes one of the first institutions of higher learning for Blacks in America when it is incorporated as Ashmun Institute in Oxford, Pa., on this day in 1854.

1863—The Emancipation Proclamation becomes law. Like many of the pro-Black measures taken by President Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation while welcomed by Blacks, reflected many contradictions. First of all, it only freed slaves in the South—an area of the country over which Lincoln at the time had no effective control. Further, it did not free slaves in the Border States. And even in the South, it exempted from nominal freedom slaves in 13 parishes in Louisiana, including New Orleans, 48 counties in West Virginia and seven counties in Virginia, including Norfolk.

1997—Kofi Annan of Ghana becomes the first black secretary general of the United Nations.

1997—The notorious Robbens Island off the coast of South Africa, the prison that held legendary Black freedom fighter Nelson Mandela for 27 years, was converted into a museum.

January 2

1831—William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), one of the great White heroes of Black history, began publishing the anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, in Boston. Garrison was a fiery and strong-willed abolitionist who believed in the “immediate and complete” end of slavery. Thus, he ran afoul of not only the pro-slavery crowd but also those anti-slavery activists who favored a gradualist approach to the problem. He was so militant that he was imprisoned for libel because of his criticism of a merchant involved in the slave trade and at one point the state of Georgia offered a $5,000 reward for his arrest and conviction. According to Garrison, when it came to fighting slavery he was opposed to “timidity, injustice, and absurdity.” His oft-repeated slogan as editor of The Liberator was, “I am in earnest; I will not equivocate; I will not retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.”

1837—The first National Negro Catholic Congress is held in Washington, D.C.

1898—Brilliant scholar Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander is born. She was the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in economics in America. She accomplished that feat in 1921 at the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 23. Later she earned a law degree and in 1927 became the first Black woman admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. She came from a distinguished family of educated and accomplished Blacks. She died in 1989.

1915—One of America’s most prominent historians, John Hope Franklin, is born. Perhaps his best known work on Black history is “Before the Mayflower.”

1954—Oprah Winfrey, talk-show queen and black America’s first recognized billionaire, is born in Kosciusko, Miss. (There is some debate that Winfrey may have been the second Black billionaire after Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson.) Winfrey recently announced her retirement from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for 2011.

January 3

1621—The first black child is born in America. He was named William Tucker and was born on a plantation in Jamestown, Va. His parents were Anthony and Isabella who were among the first group of black indentured servants (later slaves) brought to the American colonies in 1619. Indentured servants could work off so-called contracts and become free. But after 1619, all Africans brought to America were classified as slaves and only whites were treated as indentured servants. (There is some dispute over the year of William Tucker’s birth. But it appears he was born in 1621 and baptized in 1624.)

1966—One of the most tragic and senseless events of the Civil Rights Movement occurred. Sammy Younge Jr. was shot and killed in Tuskegee, Ala., by White service station attendant Marvin Segrest for using the “Whites Only” restroom at the service station where Segrest worked. Younge was a 21-year-old Tuskegee Institute student and civil rights activist.

January 4

1777—Prince Hall, founder of the first Black Masonic lodge in America, petitions the Massachusetts legislature for funds to allow free Blacks to return to Africa. The petition was rejected and Hall went on to become a major leader in Boston’s Black community as well as develop a nationwide influence by helping develop Black Masonic temples around the country.

1901—C.L.R. James is born on the West Indian island-nation of Trinidad. James is one of those not well known figures who greatly influenced radical Black intellectual thought from the 1930s to the 1970s. He was a Marxist who traveled the world advocating socialism and influencing developments in the Caribbean, the United States and England. James died in 1989.

1920—The legendary National Negro Baseball League is organized in Kansas City, Kansas by the “father of Black baseball” Rube Foster. It is not widely known that under the 6-4 Foster’s leadership not only did more than 4,000 Blacks get a chance to play professional baseball during the days when they were not allowed to play in the white-controlled major leagues but the Negro Baseball League became one of the largest Black-owned businesses in America. The teams represented Black communities and had major followings. They had names like the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the New York Black Yankees, the Birmingham Black Barons, the Chicago American Giants and the Atlanta Black Crackers. One of the unfortunate side effects of integration was the destruction of many Black businesses. Thus, when the white leagues broke the color barrier and hired Jackie Robinson in 1947, the Negro Baseball League gradually began to decline. Most of the teams were gone by 1960.

January 5

1911—Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity was formed at Indiana University. It went on to become one of the nation’s leading Black Greek-letter organizations.

1931—World famous choreographer Alvin Ailey is born in Rogers, Texas. During his life Ailey created over 70 ballets. He died in 1989.

1943—Agricultural scientist George Washington Carver dies. Carver was renowned for his ability to develop new uses from everyday products. Indeed, he developed more than 300 products from the peanut and the sweet potato. He spent his professional career at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and was nicknamed the “Wizard of Tuskegee.” Carver is credited with helping to revolutionize American agriculture.

January 6

1820—The first organized return of a group of U.S. Blacks to Africa takes place. Records indicate that between 85 and 90 free Blacks boarded a ship in New York Harbor on this day for return to the Motherland. Ironically, the ship was named the “Mayflower to Liberia.” However, the Blacks actually went to British controlled Sierra Leone and along with former British slaves helped to found that nation.

1968—Movie director and screenwriter John Singleton is born in Los Angeles, Calif. Singleton is perhaps best known for his directing of the controversial movie “Boyz N The Hood.”

1993—Famed jazz musician John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie dies. He was an outstanding trumpeter and band director who also helped to create bebop jazz.

2003—Mamie Till Mobley dies at 81. She was the mother of Emmett Till whose lynching at 14 became one of the events that gave life and angry energy to the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. Till was tortured and killed for allegedly whistling at a White woman while on a trip to Mississippi. Amazingly the men who killed Till were found not guilty by an all-White jury but the two would later brag to Look magazine that they had actually murdered Till.

January 7

4th century AD—Ethiopian Christmas—known as Ganna—is celebrated on Jan. 7. Ethiopian Christianity was much closer to the Christian Coptic Church of Egypt and as a result never incorporated many of the dictates of the early Roman Catholic Church. Thus, a plausible argument can be made that Ethiopian Christianity is more pure (or less corrupted) than what emerged from the early Christian Church in Europe. Regardless, the best scientific speculation is that Jesus was born neither Dec. 25 nor Jan. 7. The most probable month of his birth is April.

1891—Zora Neale Hurston is born in Eatonville, Florida. She became one of the central figures in that great African- American cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. She excelled as a writer, folklorist and anthropologist.

1955—Marian Anderson debuts at the New York Metropolitan Opera House as Alrica in Verdi’s operate “Mask Ball. She was the first African-American to perform such an opera at a major opera house.

(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. In early 2010, Taylor will launch a Black History Club in this area. Indicate your interest in becoming a member by e-mailing him at or by leaving a brief message brief message at 202-657-8872.)

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