This Week In Black History

Week of March 12-18

March 12

1773—This is the most probable date when Black explorer Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable begins building the settlement which would eventually become the city of Chicago, Ill. The Haitian-born de Sable would over time become a man of considerable wealth owning commercial buildings, docks, trading posts and a mansion. De Sable was the product or a French man and an African woman. He died Aug. 19, 1818.


1791—Pierre Charles L’Enfant is commissioned to design and layout the nation’s capital city—Washington, D.C. However, a dispute with President George Washington forces his departure the very next year. Thus, the final design and layout fell to Black inventor and mathematician Benjamin Banneker. Although two White men were nominally in charge of the project, historical records show that it was Banneker’s mathematical skills and his memory of L’Enfant’s plans that enabled the project to be completed.

1955—One of the chief founders of modern Jazz, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, dies on this day in New York City. Parker is widely considered “the greatest Jazz saxophonist of all time.” His death at 35 was reportedly a result of pneumonia worsened by drug and alcohol abuse.

1964—Legendary Black leader Malcolm X formally separates from the Elijah Muhammad-led Nation of Islam although his initial statement of resignation was given March 8. The separation was triggered by growing differences over Islam and the proper role of religion in the Black liberation struggle as well as by Malcolm’s objections to Elijah Muhammad’s infidelities. Less than a year later, Malcolm was assassinated by men allegedly connected with a Nation of Islam mosque in New Jersey.

March 13

1794—Eli Whitney patents the Cotton Gin—a device which made cotton production much more profitable by more efficiently separating the seed from the cotton. The invention had the effect of extending the life of slavery in the South. However, there remains a historical dispute as to whether Whitney actually invented the cotton gin as most history books claim. There is some evidence that Whitney’s entire idea was based on a device developed by slaves laboring on the Georgia plantation of Catherine Green. Whitney, a lawyer, worked briefly for Mrs. Green. And it was while working for her that he allegedly invented the Cotton Gin.

1868—The impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson began in the United States Senate. The ultimate failure to convict and oust Johnson from the presidency was a major setback for the recently freed slaves. Even though he was Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, Johnson actually favored the former slave owners and the continuation of White power in the South. He was also opposed to Blacks having the right to vote. Although the impeachment and trial weakened him, his continuation as president helped pave the way for the emerging power of the Ku Klux Klan and the denial of rights to Blacks.

1932—The first Black daily newspaper begins publication. The paper was the Atlanta Daily World and it was founded by William A. Scott III.

March 14

1821—The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is officially formed in New York City. However, the church had been actually operating since 1796. A decision to officially separate from the White-controlled Methodist Church was reached in 1820. The dispute centered in part on the refusal of the Whites to allow Black ministers to preach. Among the founders were James Varnick, Abraham Thompson and June Scott. Today the denomination has an estimated 1.2 million members and operates Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C.

1933—Legendary music composer and producer Quincy Jones is born on this day in Chicago, Ill.

1977—One of the unsung heroines of the Civil Rights Movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, dies on this day in 1977. Hamer, the youngest of 20 children born in Ruleville, Miss., became active in voter registration and later became Mississippi field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as well as head of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She also coined the phrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

March 15

1897—The 55th Congress convenes with one Black member remaining in the legislative body—George White of North Carolina. All the Black political progress made during Reconstruction had been snatched away after the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1887. By 1890 states throughout the South had effectively taken away the right of Blacks to vote with schemes ranging from literacy tests to poll taxes to Whites-only primaries. As a result Blacks were forced from elected office. When White’s term expired in 1901, there would not be another African-American elected to Congress for 27 years and he would come from the North—Oscar DePriest of the Southside of Chicago (1st Congressional District of Illinois).

March 16

1827—The first Black-owned and operated newspaper in America begins publishing. It was Freedom’s Journal. It published weekly in New York City from 1827 to 1829. Editors John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish declared as their mission: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”

March 17

1806—Norbert Rillieux, one of the earliest Black chemical engineers in America or Europe, was born on this day in 1806. The product of a wealthy French plantation owner in New Orleans and his Black mistress, Rillieux was given his freedom and sent to Paris, France to be educated. He is best known for his invention of the “multiple evaporation process” which revolutionized the sugar and paper industries. It also saved the lives of many who had previously labored in extremely dangerous conditions. Rillieux returned to the U.S., but as conditions for free Blacks deteriorated prior to the Civil War, he went back to Paris and died there in 1894.

1999—Maurice Ashley, a Jamaican immigrant living in Brooklyn, becomes the first Black grandmaster in modern chess history.

March 18

1933—The first Black woman elected mayor of a Mississippi town, Unita Blackwell, was born on this day in Lula, Miss. The former field worker with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee became mayor of Mayersville, Miss., in 1977.

1963—Singer-actress and the first Black woman to win the Miss America Pageant, Vanessa Williams, was born on this day in Millwood, N.Y.

1970—Actress and rapper Queen Latifah was born on this day in 1970.

(This Week in Black History is compiled by Robert Taylor. Get a free subscription to his weekly Black History Journal by writing him at Robert N. Taylor, P.O. Box 58097, Washington, D.C. 20037. Simply include $3 to cover postage.)


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