1893—“Queen Bess,” Bessie Coleman, the nation’s first Black female aviator, was born in the small town of Atlanta, Texas. Coleman was also the first African American (male or female) to earn an international pilot’s license. Because of the racism and sexism in America, she had to travel to France to earn the license. She traveled the U.S. encouraging other Blacks to become pilots. Queen Bess died in plane accident in 1926.
ANGELA DAVIS raises her fist in a Black Power salute after being introduced by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in Dallas, Texas, Aug. 17, 1972. (AP Photo/Charles Bennett/File)
1944—Political activist Angela Davis is born in Birmingham, Ala. She was a brilliant scholar and philosopher who made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list because of her suspected involvement in the violent Aug. 7, 1970 courthouse attempt to free jailed Black revolutionary inmate George Jackson. She was also associated with the Black Panther Party. However, shortly after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she joined the Communist Party. She later became a tenured professor at the University of California Santa Cruz although then governor and later U.S. President Ronald Reagan had vowed to block her from teaching.
1953—One of Black America’s most gifted novelists, Ralph Ellison, wins the prestigious National Book Award with his powerful novel “The Invisible Man.” The novel helped him achieve international fame. The main character constantly escapes one disaster after another. The disasters are brought on by a combination virulent racism and the character’s own naiveté. Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Okla.
1961—Opera diva Leontyne Price makes her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
1972—Mahalia Jackson, generally considered the greatest gospel singer that ever lived, dies of heart failure on this day near Chicago, Ill. She was born in New Orleans, La. She settled in Chicago where she briefly studied beauty culture under the nation’s first Black millionaire, Madame C.J. Walker. Among her greatest and most frequently requested songs were “Did It Rain,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, “ “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
1938—Crystal Byrd Fauset becomes the first Black woman elected to a state legislature when she wins a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
1944—Matthew Henson receives a medal from the U.S. Congress for being co-discoverer of the North Pole along with Robert Peary. The medal, however, came 35 years after the historic feat because Peary, a White man and Henson’s boss, received all the credit for decades. However, records show that Henson, leading a party of four Inuits (Eskimos) actually reached the North Pole 45 minutes before Peary.
1989—After 62 years and numerous protests, the Colgate-Palmolive Company ends the sale of “Darkie Toothpaste.” The toothpaste, which was only sold in Asia, was renamed “Darlie” and the Sambo-style character on the tube was dropped.
1837—The great Russian literary genius Alexander Pushkin dies on this day as a result of a duel. He is generally considered Russia’s greatest poet. Unlike many famous Europeans of color, Pushkin was proud of his Black heritage, which is traced to his great grandfather on his mother’s side—Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal who was most probably an Ethiopian who became part of Russian royalty. Pushkin’s poetic style combined drama, romance and satire.
1908—Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity is incorporated. The Black Greek-letter organization was actually founded, however, on Dec. 4, 1906. The “brothers of the black and gold” have included as members a host of distinguished men ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1913—Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority is incorporated. It is the nation’s oldest Black Greek-letter sorority having been founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1908. The AKAs are currently headquartered in Chicago, Ill.
1954—Talk-show diva Oprah Winfrey was born on this day in Kosciusko, Miss. However, she was raised in Nashville, Tenn. Winfrey ended her popular “Oprah” show in 2011. She has already launched her own network, OWN.
1797—Sojourner Truth is born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, N.Y. She becomes the most influential and powerfully spoken Black female abolitionists of the 1800s. She worked with other fiery abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. She says, in 1843, a spiritual revelation compelled her to change her name and preach for the end of slavery. She was also deeply religious and a strong spokesperson for a woman’s right to vote.
1797—The first multi-state organization of Blacks in America is formed when Black Masons in Boston, Mass., led by Prince Hall, create African-American Masonic lodges in Philadelphia, Pa., and Providence, R.I. Overtime, the Prince Hall Masons would become a major force in Black communities around the nation.
1800—The Census Bureau reveals that the United States has a population of 5,300,000 of which 1,002,000 or 19 percent were Blacks. Today, African Americans constitute roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population. However, the latest Census projections say the percentage of Blacks in America is not expected to grow over the next 40 years, while the Hispanic population is projected to skyrocket.
1926—The Harlem Globetrotters, a comedic but highly skilled basketball team, is organized by Abe Saperstein in Chicago, Ill. The group’s original name was the “Savoy Big Five” after Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom. However, in their early games they wore jerseys suggesting they were from New York. After World War II, they also achieved international fame playing in more than 100 countries. Some of the greatest names to play with the Globetrotters were Geese Ausbie, Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes, Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon.
1956—The Montgomery, Ala., home of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is bombed by racists apparently angered by his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, which set the modern Civil Rights Movement into motion. This would be the first of several attempts on the civil rights legend’s life.
1865—Congress passes the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which upon ratification, abolished slavery in America. The vote was 121 to 24. Ratification was not completed until December 1865. The amendment read simply: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States nor any place subject to its jurisdiction.” The exception for crime led to the passage of a host of laws, especially in the South, specifically designed to criminalize certain behaviors and place Blacks back into involuntary servitude.
1919—Baseball great Jackie Robinson in born in Cairo, Ga. He became the first Black to play in the White major league of baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He played from 1947 to 1956. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. Prior to the Dodgers, Robinson played with the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Baseball League. He retired as perhaps the most admired man in baseball and died in 1972.
1963—James Baldwin’s influential collection of essays, “The Fire Next Time” is published. The essays warn White America that they can expect racial turmoil if they do not address issues of injustice in America. Baldwin expected Blacks to show Whites how to avoid conflict by adopting a redemptive spirit. Born in Harlem, N.Y., in 1924, Baldwin became a homosexual apparently as a result of being raised by a non-emotionally supportive and often cruel father.
2006—Coretta Scott King, widow of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died at the age of 78.