Ophelia Devore Mitchell
1867—Famed Black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge dies in Poland. Aldridge was born in New York, where he developed a love for the theater. But prejudice in America forced him to go to England to practice his craft. Despite running into racism there as well, he was able to find work. He came in for harsh criticism when paired with White female actresses. But after performing Shakespeare’s Othello, he was proclaimed “an actor of genius” by several newspapers. (Note: There is some authority that Aldridge actually died on Aug. 7.)
1981—A nationwide African American boycott of the giant Coca Cola bottling company ends after the firm reaches an agreement with Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH. Coke agreed to pump at least $34 million into Black businesses and increase the number of African American-owned distributorships. Critics would later charge that the beverage giant reneged on the deal and the amount of money pumped into Black businesses never came to more than $11 million.
1868—One of the greatest White heroes of Black history dies in Washington, D.C. His name was Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, a congressman from Pennsylvania, and Sen. Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, led the Radical Republicans movement, which favored punishing the South for starting the Civil War and taking land from the former slave owners and giving it to the former slaves. He headed the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and he used his power at every turn to aid Blacks. Indeed, many of the pro-Black measures and legislation of the period attributed to President Abraham Lincoln were actually initiated by Stevens and Sumner. After Lincoln’s assassination, Stevens led the move to impeach President Andrew Johnson in part because Johnson, a Southerner, opposed many measures which would have benefited Blacks. More than 20,000 people (nearly half of them Black) attended his funeral in Lancaster, Pa.
1921—Accomplished writer Alex Haley is born on this day in Ithaca, N.Y. Haley is best known for co-writing the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” and for “Roots”—a history of a Black family during slavery, which became a major television series during the 1970s. Haley died in February 1992.
1965—The largest, longest and possibly most destructive Black riot of the turbulent 1960s begins in Los Angeles, Calif. The Watts Rebellion lasted six days, caused between $35 million and $50 million in damage while leaving 34 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and nearly 4,000 arrested. It took place during a “long hot summer” when similar riots were taking place throughout the country.
1890—This is generally considered the day that the systematic and nominally legal exclusion of Blacks from the political life of the South began. It was the day that the Mississippi Constitutional Convention began. Barred by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution from excluding Blacks by race, the convention instead adopted a host of strategies including literacy or so-called “Education Tests” specifically designed to prevent Blacks from voting. The tests required reading and interpreting the Constitution. Blacks would be given difficult passages to interpret while Whites were either exempted or given easy passages. Soon, most Southern states adopted the so-called Mississippi Plan to exclude Blacks from voting. The racist plan was effective. In one Mississippi County, for example, there were 30,000 Blacks but only 175 were eligible to vote. Most aspects of the Mississippi Plan were not overturned until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
1922—Ophelia Devore Mitchell—the founding mother of African-American modeling—is born on this day in Edgefield, S.C. Her family would move to New York during the 1930s, where she entered the Vogue School of Modeling at 17. She excelled at modeling, as well as in academics mastering Latin, German and French. She modeled professionally for several years before opening her own modeling school in 1946. Her aim was to overcome stereotypes and negative portrayals of Black women. She wrote a fashion column for the Pittsburgh Courier, started her own line of cosmetics and eventually helped found the Columbus Times newspaper in Georgia. In 2004, she was formally recognized by the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Fashion and Arts Exchange for her contributions to the industry.
1881—The first African-American nursing school opens at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga.
1892—The Afro-American newspaper is founded. The first edition is published in Baltimore, Md., by John H. Murphy Sr. At its height, the newspaper chain would publish papers in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Richmond, Virginia and Newark, N.J. It continues to publish today in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
1906—The “Brownsville Affair” takes place. Angry Black soldiers, who had been subjected to intense racial discrimination and insults, are accused of sneaking into Brownsville, Texas, and killing a local White bartender and wounding a police officer. Although the evidence was weak, President Theodore Roosevelt sided with Brownsville Whites and ordered 167 of the Black soldiers dishonorably discharged for a “conspiracy of silence” because they either denied involvement in the shootings or refused to say who was involved. However, 66 years later (as a result of the findings of a book) the Army opened a new investigation which cleared the accused soldiers and reversed the 1906 dishonorably discharges.
1862—President Abraham Lincoln (for the first time) meets with a group of prominent Blacks to discuss the Civil War and public policy. But before the meeting was over, he would anger those gathered. Although an outspoken opponent of the expansion of slavery, Lincoln suggested that it would be best for America and Blacks if African Americans were to emigrate to Africa or Central America. Nevertheless, a Littlemore than a month later on Sept. 22 he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation technically freeing all slaves in the rebellious Southern states.
1883—Ernest E. Just is born in Charleston, S.C. Just would become one of the nation’s most prominent biologists conducting pioneering research in cell division. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Dartmouth University in 1907 and would go on to establish the Zoology Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Just would die in 1941.
1959—Modern basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson is born on this day in Lansing, Mich.
1975—In another of those highly publicized “trials of the century,” which frequently grip national attention, 20-year-old Joan Little is found not guilty of murder after she stabbed a White jailer who had entered her cell in Beaufort County, N.C., to sexually assault her. The trial had been moved to Raleigh because of widespread racial prejudice in the Eastern North Carolina area where the incident actually took place.
1979—President Jimmy Carter forces the resignation of United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young after he angered Jewish groups by meeting with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The resignation created stormy relations between Blacks and the generally uncompromising pro-Israel lobby in the United States.
1922—Author and investigative reporter Louis E. Lomax is born in Valdosta, Ga. Little is known today, but in the 1960s Lomax was one of the most prominent Black journalists in America. He was renowned for his coverage of the Civil Rights Movement and his investigative reporting. He died mysteriously in an automobile accident near Santa Rosa, N.M., on July 30, 1970. One urban legend is that his car was forced off the road by persons working for the FBI because he was completing a book which would show that the assassination of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was part of a government plot. This urban legend is often repeated, but there has been little concrete evidence offered to support it. Lomax’ best known books are “Negro Revolt” and “To Kill a Black Man.”