This Week in Black History

The Week of Feb. 19-25:

February 19


1919—The “first” Pan African Congress is held, bringing together prominent Blacks from throughout the world to chart a program for Black unity and betterment. African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois was the chief organizer. The gathering was held in Paris, France, and drew 57 distinguished delegates including 16 from the United States, 14 from Africa and others from the Caribbean, South America and Europe. [The 1919 Congress is considered by many the “first” but another such Congress had been organized in 1900.]

1940—Smokey Robinson is born William Robinson in Detroit, Mich. He formed “The Miracles” in 1955 while still in high school. With his voice and poetry of song Robinson led The Miracles as the group became one of the all-time best record sellers for Berry Gordy’s Motown music empire.

1942—The Tuskegee Airmen are activated for service in World War II. The all-Black pursuit squadron, later designated 99th Fighter Squadron, was organized and trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The squadron served with honors in Europe. During the war, the nearly 1,000 pilots who had been trained flew 15,000 sorties, destroyed 1,000 German aircraft and earned more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

February 20

1895—The great Black leader Frederick Douglass died at 78 in Washington, D.C. Douglass was the foremost Black abolitionist struggling to end slavery in the mid-1800s. He used his great oratory skills and his abilities as a newspaper publisher on behalf of freedom and justice for Blacks. Most of his early work emanated from the Rochester, N.Y. area. But after the Civil War he moved to Washington, D.C. Douglass was the nation’s foremost Black leader for nearly 40 years.

1927—Actor Sidney Portier was born in Miami, Fla., and grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas. However, by the early 1950s, he established a career in movies. Indeed, it can be said that Portier was the first Black actor to make it in mainstream movie roles without having to play stereotypical and often demeaning “Black roles.”

1963—Basketball great Charles Barkley is born on this day in Leeds, Ala.

February 21


1933—Song stylist and activist Nina Simone is born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C. She was a child prodigy who was playing the piano by age 4. She had numerous songs to her credit but one of the most memorable was “Mississippi Goddam,” which was composed as a protest against the terrorist bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Ala., which resulted in the deaths of four little Black girls. Simone, often referred to as the High Priestess of Soul, died in France April 21, 2003.

1965—The most prominent Black nationalist of the 20th century, Malcolm X, was assassinated on this day in Harlem, N.Y.’s Audubon Ballroom while giving a speech for Black unity. Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb. on May 19, 1925, he graduated at the top of his high school class but had his dream of becoming a lawyer crushed when a teacher told him that was “not realistic for a nigger.” He gradually drifted into the underworlds of first Boston and then New York where he became a drug dealer and gangster known as “Detroit Red.” He was friends with comedian and upcoming star Redd Foxx who at the time was known as “Chicago Red.” Malcolm was arrested and jailed for robbery at age 20. While in prison he converted to Islam and after his release in 1952, he became the leading force of the Nation of Islam, building the group into a major national organization. He was a brilliant orator and organizer as well as a fierce opponent of racism, imperialism and the nonviolent approach to combating the nation’s evils. But disagreements with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad led to a split. He then formed the Organization for Afro-American Unity. However, 11 months after his split with the Nation of Islam he was assassinated. Many in the Black community felt the New York City police and the FBI played a role in his death. But three man associated with the Nation of Islam were tried and convicted of his murder.

February 22

1950—Basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving is born in Roosevelt, N.Y. He was the most dominant NBA player of his era. The former Philadelphia 76er was 6-7, 210 pounds.

February 23

1868—Dr. W.E.B. DuBois is born William Edward Burghardt DuBois in Great Barrington, Mass. DuBois can easily qualify as Black America’s leading scholar and intellectual of the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was also an educator and social activist fighting tirelessly against racial injustice and U.S. imperialism. He started the NAACP’s influential “Crisis” magazine. He organized what many consider the First Pan African Congress. [Actually, it was the second. The first took place in 1900.] However, in his later years DuBois became increasingly frustrated with American racism, injustice and hypocritical brand of democracy. He turned to socialism around 1927 and despaired of the NAACP’s legalistic approach to obtaining rights for Blacks. He nevertheless authored several influential books including “The Souls of Black Folks.” He coined the phrase ‘talented tenth” to describe what he believed would have to be a class of educated and skilled Blacks who would have to lead the race out of its oppression. DuBois finally went into self-imposed exile in the West African nation of Ghana saying, “In my own country for nearly a century I have been nothing but a nigger.” He died in Ghana’s capital, Accra, Aug. 27, 1963. He was 95.

February 24

1864—Rebecca Lee Crumbler became the first African-American woman to receive a medical degree. Born in 1833, she graduated from the New England Female Medical College. Prior to becoming a doctor, she worked as a nurse in Massachusetts for more than six years.

1868—The U.S. House of Representatives voted 126 to 47 to impeach President Andrew Johnson. Johnson had run afoul of a group of pro-Black legislators known as the Radical Republicans because of his opposition to full citizenship rights for former slaves. He survived being ousted as president by one vote in the U.S. Senate. As far as historical speculation goes, it would have been much better for Black rights and the course of Black history if Johnson had been ousted. His opposition to full rights, including voting rights, for Blacks helped lay the foundation for the un-doing of Reconstruction and the many gains Blacks had made during that period.

1966—Kwame Nkrumah is ousted in a military coup as president of the West African nation of Ghana. This was another event which changed the course of Black history for the worse. Nkrumah, educated at predominantly Black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, had been a major intellectual and pragmatic force for Pan-Africanism and worldwide Black unity. From the time he became the first president of Ghana in March 1957, he had worked tirelessly for international Black advance and world peace. His ouster left a void which after 40 years has not been filled by any other African leader. Nkrumah died in 1972.

February 25

1839—Seminole Indians and their Black allies are shipped from the Tampa Bay, Fla. area to the Midwest after years of battling White adversaries and U.S. government troops. The Whites had for years longed to possess Seminole lands. Their anger at the Seminoles was heightened because the Indians frequently gave safe haven to escaped slaves. Intermarriage often resulted and some Black Seminoles rose to take leadership positions in the tribe. Among the Black Seminole leaders was the famous warrior John Horse. Finally, a treaty was reached allowing the Seminoles to leave Florida for government owned lands in the Midwest. But the Seminoles refused a government demand to turn over their 500-800 Black brothers and sisters who the Whites wanted to treat as escaped slaves.

1870—Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi is sworn in as the first Black United States senator. Born free in 1827 in Fayetteville, N.C., Revels was secretly taught to read by a free Black woman. He later became a minister and helped recruit Black soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War. He served only briefly in Congress before moving on to head up what would become Alabama’s Alcorn State University.

1964—Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, defeated Sonny Liston to become boxing’s world heavyweight champion.

1975—Elijah Muhammad died in Chicago, Ill., at the age of 77. He was the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam—a Black nationalist and Islamic organization he built primarily through assiduous recruitment of talented people including Malcolm X. After his death, however, the organization split with one group following his son Wallace D. Muhammad into orthodox Islam. A second group stayed with Minister Louis Farrakhan who maintained more of the group’s original principles.

(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. He welcomes comments and additions at If you would like to join a local Black History Club, leave a message for him at 202-657-8872.)

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