1848—Anti-slavery activist and the foremost Black leader of his day Frederick Douglass gives a stirring speech at the First Women’s Rights Convention, which took place in Seneca Falls, N.Y.
Douglas helped sway the 260 women and 40 men present to back a women’s right to vote resolution being pushed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Initially, many of the delegates opposed the resolution fearing it was too radical an idea for the times but changed their minds after hearing Douglass’ presentation. Women would not finally get the right to vote until 1920.
1941—The first U.S. Army Flying Academy for Black cadets is officially dedicated at Tuskegee, Ala. Between 1940 and 1946, 992 pilots were trained. More than 400 would see action in World War II even though many Whites initially felt Blacks were not intelligent enough to fly airplanes. The Tuskegee Airmen, as they became known, would fly with great distinction during the war. They were credited with downing 109 German planes and destroying numerous enemy fuel dumps, trucks and planes. Approximately 150 of them lost their lives during training or combat. Finally, in March 2007,more than 300 surviving members and their wives were honored and the airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal.
1952—Joe Louis Reliford broke the color barrier in Georgia State Baseball in Statesboro, Ga. He pinch hit, threw out a runner from left field and robbed the Statesboro Pilots best hitter, Jim Shuster of a home run—all in one inning and at the age of 12. His historical catch is on display in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he is the only batboy among Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees. Reliford is the author of “From Batboy to the Hall of Fame.”
1967—The first Black Power Conference takes place in Newark, N.J. More than 1,000 delegates representing 126 organizations attended. The conference represented a break with the integration-with-Whites thrust of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Instead, delegates called for greater focus on Black political empowerment, economic development, community control and the building of Black institutions.
1864—Amazingly, what is now considered the first Black daily newspaper begins publishing on this day during slavery. The New Orleans Tribune was founded by wealthy Black Doctor Louis C. Roudanez and edited by a Belgium Jean-Charles Heuzean. The Tribune, however, actually followed the Daily Creole which began publication in 1856. But it was so pressured by Whites that it adopted pro-slavery positions. The Tribune, meanwhile, would begin as a tri-weekly and become a full-fledged daily in October.
1896—The National Association of Colored Women is founded in Washington, D.C., and Mary Church Terrell is elected president. The association would establish nurseries, help orphans, and battle for a woman’s right to vote. Terrell became an activist and power broker in the nation’s capital fighting for desegregation of restaurants and helping build schools. She was born in 1863 and died in 1954.
2001—Blues legend John Lee Hooker dies. He was 83.
1861—President Abraham Lincoln submits the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. The order freeing slaves, however, was not actually issued until Jan. 1, 1863. And even then, it benefited very few slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the rebellious Southern states. But the federal government at the time did not have control of the South so no slaves actually went free. In the so-called Border States where the federal government did have authority, the Proclamation did not apply. About the only slaves who benefited were those who had already escaped and fled to the Union side during the Civil War.
1939—Jane Matilda Bolin becomes the first Black female judge in America. New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuadia appointed her a judge in the court of domestic relations.
1963—Floyd Patterson loses his heavyweight boxing title to Sonny Liston and Liston would later lose it to a young fighter by the name of Cassius Clay—later Muhammad Ali.
2001—Actor Whitman Mayo dies in Atlanta, Ga., of a heart attack. He was 71. Mayo is best known for his role as “Grady” in the popular 1970s television series “Sanford and Son.”
1900—The first Pan African conference took place in London, England. Blacks from throughout the world gathered to plot strategies for bringing about rights for all people of African ancestry, independence from colonialism for African countries and international Black unity. This “conference” was the precursor of all the subsequent Pan African “Congresses.” Among the most prominent names present in 1900 were African-American activist and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois and West Indian lawyer H. Sylvester Williams.
1948—The Progressive Party Convention begins in Philadelphia. The convention nominates Henry Wallace for president and he makes the strongest showing of virtually any third-party candidate in American history. More than 150 Blacks were at the convention and dozens ran for office on the Progressive Party ticket. They were attracted by the party’s call for an end to segregation, full voting rights for Blacks and universal government sponsored health insurance. The party was populated mainly by liberals and leftists. Wallace’s candidacy was even endorsed by the then relatively strong American Communist Party. The party came under vicious attack during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. But positions taken by the Progressive Party forced the Democratic Party to adopt meaningful changes in order to hold onto the Black vote.
1984—The first Black Miss America Vanessa Williams is forced to give up her crown as a result of the discovery of some sexually explicit photographs. She was replaced by the first runner-up (another African-American) Suzette Charles. Williams bounced back, however, and became a successful singer and actress.
1651—Anthony (or Antonio) Johnson, a free Black man who had purchased freedom for himself and his wife, is awarded 250 acres of land in North Hampton, Va. Johnson was among the first group of 20 Black indentured servants brought to America in 1619. Indentured servitude was a form of slavery which allowed the person to either work for or purchase his freedom. After becoming free, Johnson became the first wealthy Black person in America. He even purchased five indentured servants of his own. He probably picked up the name “Johnson” from his original owner but in official records from the period he is simply referred to as “Antonio the Negro.”
1802—Famed French writer Alexander Dumas is born. He was the product of a French general and a light-complexioned Black Haitian woman. Dumas would go on to become one of the world’s greatest and most prolific writers. He is best known for his classics such as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” His Blackness caused him some problems in French society, but by and large his fame and the money from his books enabled him to live an extravagant lifestyle.
1904—This is the day it is believed that actor Ira Aldridge was born in Africa. He would come to America, learn English and German, and develop into one of the world’s most accomplished Shakespearean actors. He played the role of the Moor Othello on many occasions.
1916—The Black inventor of America’s first gas mask, Garrett T. Morgan, made national headlines on this day when he and a team of volunteers used his invention to rescue 32 workers trapped in a gas-filled tunnel 250 feet under Lake Erie. Morgan called his device “the Morgan safety hood and smoke protector.” But it has become known simply as the gas mask. Morgan also invented America’s first traffic light. He was born in 1877, did most of his inventing in Cleveland, Ohio, and died in 1963.
1972—Faced with possible exposure by the media, the federal government (specifically the U.S. Public Health Service) finally acknowledges its involvement in the horrific and immoral Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. During the experiment, 399 Black men (mostly poor sharecroppers from Alabama) were led to believe they were being treated for syphilis while the doctors and nurses involved (some of them African-American) were actually fooling the men with fake medicines in order to discover the long-term effects of syphilis on the human body. The “experiment” lasted from 1932 to the time it was exposed in 1972. Finally, on May 16, 1997, President Clinton issued an official apology to the eight surviving members of the experiment saying, “The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong…and clearly racist.”