Feature – Black History Month


What is Black History Month?

Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, is an annual celebration and remembrance of the achievements of African Americans and their role in the history of the United States. First observed as “Negro History Week” in 1926 and expanded beginning in the 1970s, February has been recognized Black History Month by every President since Gerald Ford in 1976.

In his 2016 proclamation, President Barack Obama noted that Black History Month allows us to “pay tribute to countless good-hearted citizens—along the Underground Railroad, aboard a bus in Alabama, and all across our country—who stood up and sat in to help right the wrongs of our past and extend the promise of America to all our people. During National African American History Month, we recognize these champions of justice and the sacrifices they made to bring us to this point, we honor the contributions of African Americans since our country’s beginning, and we recommit to reaching for a day when no person is judged by anything but the content of their character.”

What is Voting Rights Act of 1965?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is an act of Congress that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. In the hundred years since African Americans had been freed through the Civil War and passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, their right to vote had been suppressed through segregation laws, intimidation, biased “literacy tests”, and violence. In 1964, activists involved in the “Freedom Summer” project set out to register African-Americans in the state of Mississippi, a goal which segregationist forces met with a campaign of beatings, bombings, and arrests. Three activists – New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and Mississippian African American James Chaney – were arrested and killed by a lynch mob. The murders, which Mississippi refused to prosecute, became a national scandal and led to a Federal investigation.

Outrage over these actions, and violence used against civil rights activists during protests such as ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma, Alabama, led President Lyndon Johnson to call on Congress to enact protections for voting rights. He concluded his speech with the title of a gospel song that had become an anthem of the civil rights movement: “We shall overcome.” The legislation which emerged prohibited jurisdictions from applying practices or requirements which results in a denial or abridgement of the right to vote on account of race, color, or language minority status. That same year, a quarter million African Americans registered to vote. African American registration, and the number of elected African American officials, continued to soar in subsequent years and decades. The VRA has been amended several times, and its applications and interpretations remains an issue of debate to this day.

Famous African-Americans

Who is Harriet Tubman?

Harriet Tubman was born a slave on a Maryland plantation in the early 1820s. Tubman’s early life was defined by the cruel practices of plantation slavery – three of her sisters were sold off, never to be seen by her again. Tubman herself was hired out as a laborer beginning at age five, and subject to harsh work and physical abuse. As a young woman, Tubman escaped from slavery with the assistance of a diffuse and informal network of anti-slavery Americans, black and white, known as the Underground Railroad. Tubman herself joined the Underground Railroad under the code name “Moses”, and became renowned for her daring missions to liberate slaves, including her own family. These actions put Tubman and the people she guided at tremendous risk, but neither she nor any of her charges were apprehended. During the American Civil War Tubman worked as a nurse, a scout, and a raider. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Tubman became an early and key figure in the women’s suffrage movement.

Who is Rosa Parks?

Rosa Parks was an activist whose civil disobedience was at the center of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks, Secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, worked to bring justice and attention to the violence and oppression African Americans faced in the segregated South. In 1955, violence against African Americans was gaining national attention. Activist Lamar Smith and minister George W. Lee were both murdered for registering African American voters, and fourteen year old Emmett Till was murdered on the accusation of whistling at a white woman.

On December 1, 1955, Parks was sitting in the ‘Colored’ section of a Montgomery bus, which African Americans were limited to by law. When the bus filled up and several white passengers were left standing, the driver insisted that Parks and other African American passengers give up their seats and move to the back of the bus. Parks later said “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.” The driver called the police, and Parks was arrested. Although Parks was bailed out quickly, the event sparked a widespread boycott of Montgomery’s segregated bus system. Some African Americans organized car pools; most simply walked, regardless of distance or weather. The boycott continued for 381 days, as a Federal civil rights lawsuit inspired by the action of Rosa Parks worked its way through the courts. The boycott came to an end when the court ordered segregation be ended on public transportation in Alabama. Rosa Parks continued to work as an activist for racial and social justice until her death in 2005.

Who is George Washington Carver?

George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Missouri in the 1860s. Only a week old, George, his sister, and his mother were kidnapped by raiders to be re-sold as slaves. His father was only able to reclaim the infant George – his mother and sister were never seen again. After the abolition of slavery, Carver fought against the constraints of his time and sought out education, facing frequent rejection because of his race. Carver was the first black student to attend Iowa State Agricultural College, where he received a master’s degree in botany. Carver led the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute for 47 years, pioneering and popularizing new uses for crops, such as the peanut, and agricultural techniques, such as crop rotation. Carver’s achievements made him an international celebrity. He met with three American Presidents, tutored the Crown Prince of Sweden, and was invited to speak by Henry Ford and the United States Congress.

Who is Maya Angelou?

Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. She is an author, poet, historian, songwriter, playwright, dancer, stage and screen producer, director, performer, singer, and civil rights activist. Maya Angelou is the first black woman director in Hollywood, she has written, produced, directed, and starred in productions for stage, film, and television. In 1971, she wrote the original screenplay and musical score for the film Georgia, Georgia, and was both author and executive producer of a five-part television miniseries, “Three Way Choice.” She has also written and produced many prize-winning documentaries, including “Afro-Americans in the Arts,” a PBS special for which she received the Golden Eagle Award. Angelou was asked by President Clinton to write and recite a poem for his inauguration ceremony.

Who is Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a minister, civil rights activist, pacifist, and advocate for the poor. Born in 1929 in segregated Georgia, King became known for his public speaking and activism at an early age, and gained admittance to Morehouse College at the age of 15. After graduating at 19, King entered the seminary, and later received his doctorate from Boston University. King first rose to national prominence from his leadership in the anti-segregation Montgomery Bus Boycott. For his role in the boycott, King was jailed and his home was bombed while his wife and daughter, who were unharmed, were inside. Uncowed, King and other activists went on to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which played a major role in the Civil Rights movements in organizing large, nonviolent protests and boycotts. King helped organize and lead marches in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, which drew international attention when nonviolent protesters of all ages were attacked by law enforcement with dogs, high pressure hoses, and truncheons. Most famously, at the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King delivered what became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, which is reproduced in full below. This massive event, with crowds of over 200,000 people, is credited with helping the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King’s final years were marked by his opposition to the Vietnam War and his Poor People’s Campaign, devoted to economic justice across racial lines.

On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was standing on the balcony of his motel when he was fatally shot. The day prior he had given what proved to be his final speech, concluding “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Martin Luther King Jr.: I have a Dream

Watch Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech – I have a Dream

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Black History Month Facts

2/1 - What is now known as Black History Month, was first celebrated on this date as Negro History Week by Carter G. Woodson. It became a month long celebration in 1976.

2/2 – Today in 1914, artist William Ellisworth is born in Washington, North Carolina. Educated at Syracuse University, he was a student of Florida artist Augusta Savage. His works were exhibited at Atlanta University, the Whitney Museum, the Two Centuries of Black American Art exhibit, Fisk University, Hampton University, the North Carolina Museum of Art and private collectors.

2/3 – Six time All-Star Bill White was named president of National League IN 1989. Former Saint Louis Cardinals first baseman Bill White is named president of the National League. He is the first African American to head a major sports league. On February 3, 1903; Jackson became the first Negro Heavyweight Champion, The Negro Baseball League founded IN 1920.

2/4 – Today in 1986, a stamp of Sojourner Truth is issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

2/5 – Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, printed the Pentagon Papers which disclosed the lies and cover-up of the Vietnam War.

2/6 – Henry “Home Run King” Aaron, baseball superstar was born in 1934.

2/7 – Negro History week originated by Carter G.Woodson is observed for the first time in 1926.

2/8 – Leon Spinks defeated Muhammad Ali for heavyweight boxing championship. Ali regained the title on September 15 and became the person to win the title three times in 1978. Figure skater Debi Thomas became the first African American to win the Women’s Singles of the U.S. National Figure Skating Championship competition, was a pre-med student at Stanford University in 1986.

2/9 – Baseball Hall of Fame inducts Leroy “Satchel” Paige in 1979.

2/10 – 1946 Georgia-born Jackie Robinson — major league baseball’s first black player — married Rachel Isum.

2/11 – Today in 1996, Penn’s Baccalaureate Speaker was the Right Reverend Barbara Clementine Harris, a Philadelphian who was the first woman ever to become a bishop in the Anglican Communion.

2/12 – Birthday of William Felton Russell, better known as “Bill” Russel, he was player-coach of the Boston Celtics basketball team in 1968 and 1969. Russell was born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1934.

2/13 – The first Black professional basketball team “The Renaissance” organized 1923.

2/14 – Today in 1867, Morehouse College organized in Augusta, Georgia. The institution was later moved to Atlanta.

2/15 – Today in 1848, Sarah Roberts barred from white school in Boston. Her father, Benjamin Roberts, filed the first school integration suit on her behalf.

2/16 – Joe Frazier knocked out Jimmy Ellis in the second round of their New York fight and became the world heavyweight boxing champion in 1970.

2/17 – James Nathaniel Brown, 63, Pro Football Hall of Fame Fullback, Born February 17, 1936 in St. Simons Island, GA, Michael Jeffrey Jordon, Basketball player, former minor league baseball player, Born New York, New York, February 17, 1963.

2/18 – Today in 1913, the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was incorporated at Howard University.

2/19 – Vonetta Flowers became the first black gold medalist in the history of the Winter Olympic Games. She and partner Jull Brakken won the inagural women’s two-person bobsled event in 2000.

2/20 – Charles Wade Barkley, basketball player, born Leeds, AL, February 20, 1963.

2/21 – Today in 1987, African Americans in Tampa, Florida rebelled after an African American man was killed by a white police officer while in custody.

2/22 – Julius Winfield( “Dr.J”) Erving, former basketball player, born Roosevelt, NY, Feb 22, 1950.

2/23 – Baseball catcher Elston Gene Howard was born in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1965, Howard signed a $70,000 contract with the NY Yankees and became the highest paid player in the history of baseball at the time in 1929.

2/24 – Former world heavyweight boxing champion Jimmy Ellis was born James Albert Ellis in Louisville, Kentucky in 1940. Ellis won the World Boxing Association title after beating Jerry Quarry in April 1968.

2/25 – Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston for world heavyweight boxing championship in 1964. Boxer Mike Tyson becomes the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World by defeating challenger Frank Bruno of England in 1989.

2/26 – Theodore “Georgia Deacon” Flowers wins middleweight boxing title in 1926. On this day, the Kentucky boxer known to all as Cassius Clay, changed his name to Muhammad Ali as he accepted Islam and rejected Christianity. “I believe in the religion of Islam. I believe in Allah and in peace…I’m not a Christian anymore.” In 1964.

2/27 – Figure skater Debi Thomas becomes the first African American to win a medal (bronze) at the winter Olympic Games in 1988.

2/28 – In 1932, Richard Spikes invents the automatic gear shift.