This Week In Black History January 11-17, 2023

LORRAINE HANSBERRY

• JANUARY 11

1965—The extraordinarily talented author and dramatist Lorraine Hansberry dies. Deeply committed to the Black struggle, Hansberry’s brilliant career was cut short by cancer. She was only 35. Her primary works included “A Raisin In The Sun” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” “A Raisin In The Sun” became the first play written by a young Black woman to be produced on Broadway.

1971—Popular R&B singer Mary J. Blige is born on this day in the Bronx, N.Y. Blige starred in the Lifetime movie “Betty and Coretta” alongside Angela Bassett, Malik Yoba and Lindsay Owen Pierre. She played Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X. The film premiered in February 2013.

1988—Scientists (paleo-anthropologists) announce the discovery of the “African Eve”—the mother of all humankind. Based on research in East African involving mitochondrial DNA, the researchers from the Welcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, England, conclude that the original woman evolved in East Africa approximately 200,000 years ago and that all of humanity can ultimately trace their ancestry to this woman. However, some more recent studies suggest that humankind first evolved in Southern Africa.

• JANUARY 12

1890—Educator Mordecai Wyatt Johnson is born in Paris, Texas. Johnson became the first Black president of Howard University and presided over the prestigious Black institution for more than 30 years. He died in 1976.

1920—Civil rights leader James Farmer is born on this day in Marshal, Texas. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s he was among the top three or four most prominent civil rights leaders. He helped organize the “Freedom Rides” to help desegregate public transportation and founded the Congress of Racial Equality. He died in 1999.

• JANUARY 13

1869—On this day in 1869, one of the earliest post-Civil War attempts at organizing Blacks on a national level occurs. The National Convention of Black Leaders is held in Washington, D.C. Frederick Douglass is elected president. Also, the first Black labor union convention takes place. It was called the Convention of the Colored National Labor Union.

1913—The sorority Delta Sigma Theta is organized on the campus of Howard University by 22 coeds. It develops into one of the most prestigious and influential Black Greek letter organizations in the nation.

1953—Don Barksdale becomes the first African-American to play in an NBA All-Star game.

1966—Robert C. Weaver becomes the first Black member of a presidential cabinet. Lyndon B. Johnson appoints him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

1987—In what many considered a racist decision, Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham rescinds the gubernatorial decree, which had established the birthday of civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr. as a state holiday. The decision sets off protests and a national Black boycott of Arizona.

1989—Poet Sterling Brown dies. Brown, a middle-class Black, born into one of Washington, D.C.’s, most prominent Black families, has probably never received full credit for the power, thought-provoking and even revolutionary nature of his poetry. He was a professor at Howard University for nearly 40 years.

• JANUARY 14

1895—A group of African-Americans organized the National Steamboat Co. in Washington, D.C. The group sailed the luxury steamer “George Leary” between the nation’s capital and Norfolk, Va., during the waning years of steamboat popularity in America. The George Leary was a triumph for Black entry into business.

1930—Ernest Just becomes vice president of the American Association of Zoologists. Just was perhaps the most noted Black zoologist in American history. He accomplished pioneering research in fertilization and cell division while also publishing more than 70 scientific papers and books. Born in Charleston, S.C., he was a brilliant student who graduated from Dartmouth magna cum laude. He taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for years and helped a group of students organize the Black Greek letter fraternity—Omega Psi Phi. Just died in 1941 of pancreatic cancer.

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REDD FOXX FROM ‘SANFORD AND SON’

1972—“Sanford and Son” starring Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson premiers on NBC. The sitcom gains almost immediate popularity among Blacks as well as develop a large following of Whites. The name “Sanford” came from John Sanford—Redd Foxx’s real name.

• JANUARY 15

1908—Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black Greek letter sorority, is founded on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., by Ethel Hedgeman Lyle of St. Louis, Mo. The sorority gradually branched out to other campuses and became one of the leading organizational vehicles for college-trained Black women to make their mark on American society.

1929—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the man who was to become America’s greatest civil rights hero, was born on this day in 1929. Actually, his original given name was “Michael,” but it was later changed to Martin. He first rose to national prominence as the country’s premier civil rights leader when he successfully led the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott by Blacks angered by the arrest of Rosa Parks for her refusal to give up her seat on a city bus to a White man. In 1957, King was elected to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which became the leading organization of the civil rights era. Between 1957 and 1968, he traveled more than six million miles, gave more than 2,500 speeches, was arrested more than 20 times, and physically assaulted at least four times—all on behalf of civil rights for American Blacks. Perhaps his most famous speech was the “I Have A Dream” speech given before a crowd of 250,000 during the March on Washington Aug. 28, 1963. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and the nation now celebrates his birth as a national holiday on the third Monday of each January. But during his life, King also became the target of a massive FBI operation that some feel indirectly paved the way for his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. During his “I Have A Dream” speech, King summarized the purpose of the march and the Civil Rights Movement: “But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

1961—One of the original super groups—The Supremes—signed with Black record company Motown on this day in 1961. The name was later changed to Diana Ross and the Supremes and the R&B singers rocketed to international fame.

• JANUARY 16

1901—Hiram R. Revels, the first African-American elected to the United States Senate, died on this day in Aberdeen, Miss. Revels, a politician, minister and educator was of Black and Cherokee descent.

1920—Zeta Phi Beta sorority was founded on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., by five socially conscious Black women. It became one of the nation’s leading Black sororities. It was founded as a sister organization to Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

1950—Dancer-producer Debbie Allen is born on this day in Houston, Texas. She is perhaps best known for her work on the 1982 musical-drama television series “Fame,” where she portrayed dance teacher Lydia Grant, and served as the series’ principal choreographer. She is the younger sister of actress/director/singer Phylicia Rashad.

• JANUARY 17

1759—Paul Cuffee is born near Dartmouth, Mass. He was one of the most prominent Blacks of the 1700s. Born of a Black father and an Indian mother, Cuffee grew wealthy as a whaling captain, ship builder and merchant. He was an ardent fighter for Black rights and built the first integrated school in the state. But in his later years he became frustrated with the slow progress for Black freedom and began to support a program calling for free Blacks to return to Africa and build a nation of their own. He actually financed and helped a small group of Blacks establish a base in the West African nation of Sierra Leone in 1815. His program ended with his death in 1818.

1874—Armed and racist Whites violently seize control of the Texas state government, bringing an end to Reconstruction and to post-Civil War Black rights and gains in the state. Actually, when it became clear that President Andrew Johnson was a friend of the old South and had no intention of enforcing rights for Blacks, Texas-style armed revolts took place in several Southern states in which integrated governments were violently and illegally driven from office.

EARTHA KITT

1927—Multi-lingual singer, dancer and actress Eartha Kitt is born in a small plantation town called North, S.C. But when abandoned by her mother because her second husband did not want to raise a mixed-race child, she was raised by an aunt in New York City. Kitt became a star of stage and screen, including playing the role of Cat Woman in the Batman television series. The U.S. entertainment industry would not touch her for nearly 10 years after a 1968 White House luncheon during which she angered President Lyndon Johnson’s wife by criticizing the war in Vietnam. Kitt died in December 2008 at the age of 81.

1931—Stage and screen actor James Earl Jones is born on this day in Tate County, Miss. Ironically, you cannot tell from his deep baritone voice today that he had a stuttering problem as a child.

1942—Boxing legend Muhammad Ali is born on this day in Louisville, Ky.

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