TODAY WE CELEBRATE... IN BLACK HISTORY
TODAY WE CELEBRATE...
IN BLACK HISTORY
FEBRUARY 1ST - CICELY TYSON
Cicely Tyson was a stage, screen and television actress whose vivid portrayals of strong African-American women shattered racial stereotypes in the dramatic arts of the 1970s, propelling her to stardom and fame as an exemplar for civil rights. She gained an Oscar nomination for her role as the sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” won a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and touched TV viewers’ hearts in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” A onetime model, Tyson began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally starting to get starring roles. Tyson refused to take parts simply for the paycheck, remaining choosey.
1942 - 2016
Muhammad Ali was born "Cassius Clay" in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali was considered by many the greatest boxer of all time. His style, power, ring savvy and winning of an Olympic gold medal and the world heavyweight title three times was unprecedented. In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. Even Dr. King praised Ali for his refusal to take part in the Vietnam War. At the memorial service held after his death on June 3, 2016, his widow, Lonnie Ali, said this: “Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world.”
1928 - 2014
Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim.
1931 – 1989
Although Ailey died nearly 30 years ago, many of his best-known pieces have become as emblematic of vibrant, relevant American art as tap dance, jazz, the literature of Toni Morrison and hip-hop. Ailey explored issues of social justice, racism and spirituality in the African-American experience. This was during the height of the civil rights movement, when the notion of black classically trained dancers moving to the music of Duke Ellington, gospel, blues, Latin and African pop was truly revolutionary, if not unfathomable. He always addressed the pain of the African-American journey, but he also celebrated the triumph and redemption of the human spirit” in pieces such as Revelations (1960), Ailey’s most celebrated work. The up-from-slavery dance suite finds beauty in the midst of tragedy and pain, celebrates black folks’ resilience and humanity, and allows hope to overcome tribulation.
1903 – 1986
Ella Baker is one of history’s lesser-known civil rights heroes, yet one of the most important. Born on Dec. 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in North Carolina, Baker cultivated her passion and desire for social justice at a young age. Her grandmother, who was a slave, once told her a story of being whipped for refusing to marry a man of her slave owner’s choosing — fueling Baker’s desire for systematic change and justice for her people. In the 1940s, she developed a grassroots approach as an NAACP field secretary to gather and convince black people of the group’s message — a vision that holds true today — that a society of individuals can and should exist “without discrimination based on race.” In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help King form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, through which she facilitated protests, built campaigns and ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.
Baker earned the nickname “Fundi,” which is Swahili for a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. As a dedicated change agent, Baker taught young people that their spirit was essential to the movement. As long as they had the audacity to dream of a better, equal and brighter tomorrow — through the means of relentless peaceful protest and endurance — a fairer society awaited them. Baker died on Jan. 13, 1986, on her 83rd birthday.
1870 – 1940
Born just five years after the end of the Civil War, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded a weekly newspaper, The Chicago Defender, one of the most important black newspapers in history, in 1905. Without Abbott, there would be no Essence, no Jet (and its Beauty of the Week), no Black Enterprise, no The Source, no The Undefeated. The success of The Chicago Defender made Abbott one of the nation’s most prominent post slavery black millionaires. The son of slaves, Abbott grew up with a half-German stepfather whose relatives eventually joined the Third Reich during the 1930s. Ironically enough, young Robert was taught to hate racial injustice, despite encountering it at every turn in his life, from his early foray into the printing business to his time in law school in Chicago, all the way to religious institutions. An alum of Hampton University (then named Hampton Institute), Abbott was a catalyst for the Great Migration at the turn of the 20th century, when 6 million African-Americans from the rural South moved to urban cities in the West, Northeast and Midwest, with 100,000 settling in Chicago. Abbott took it upon himself to lay out the welcome mat for the millions of blacks abandoning the Jim Crow South to head to the Windy City, where manufacturing jobs were awaiting as World War I approached.
What started off as 25 cents in capital and a four-page pamphlet distributed strictly in black neighborhoods quickly grew into a readership that eclipsed half a million a week at its peak, numbers that mirror the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel today. The paper’s rise in stature and circulation was due in large part to Abbott being a natural hustler. The Defender was initially banned in the South due to its encouragement of African-Americans to abandon the area and head North, but the Georgia native used a network of black railroad porters (who would eventually become the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) to distribute the paper in Southern states. Abbott’s nephew, John H. Sengstacke, took The Defender over in the 1940s, eventually heading black newspapers in Detroit and Memphis, Tennessee, and the historic Pittsburgh Courier.
1924 – 2005
Shirley Chisholm was relentless in breaking political barriers with respect to both race and gender. She was a pioneer.
In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, representing New York’s 12th District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. As both a New York state legislator and a congresswoman, Chisholm championed the rights of the least of us, fighting for improved education; health and social services, including unemployment benefits for domestic workers; providing disadvantaged students the chance to enter college while receiving intensive remedial education; the food stamp program; and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program. Chisholm remarked in words that still resonate today that “in the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism.
1904 – 1950
The blood bank is something we take for granted now, but it wasn’t always so. As a researcher and surgeon, Dr. Charles Drew revolutionized the understanding of plasma, the liquid portion of blood without cells. Plasma lasts much longer than whole blood, making it possible to be “banked” for long periods of time. After becoming the first African-American to get his doctorate from Columbia University in 1940, Drew was the world’s leading authority on blood transfusions and storage, just as the United States and Great Britain were becoming deeply involved in World War II. His research established protocols on how blood should be collected and refrigerated, how donors should be recruited and screened, and training methods for people who would collect and test blood. Even so, the U.S. military ruled that the blood of African-Americans would be segregated and not used on white troops, although blood has no racial characteristics. Outraged, Drew resigned from the Red Cross and returned to Howard University as a professor and head of surgery at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C., where he trained a generation of black physicians. He died in 1950 at the age of 45 in a car accident in Burlington, North Carolina
1891 – 1960
Zora Neale Hurston was the author of four novels, including the now beloved and celebrated Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Hurston had the "pesky" habit of writing the way black people in the South — and in particular the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, where she was raised — actually spoke. Furthermore, she had the nerve not to think anything was wrong with it, not even after spending six years studying at Howard University, from 1918 to 1924, which Hurston regarded as a clearinghouse of “Negro money, beauty and prestige.” While she was a student there, Hurston founded The Hilltop, Howard’s student-run newspaper. But Hurston retained a self-assured elegance and wit that didn’t bother worrying itself with outside acceptance. And it’s that sort of thinking that allowed her to gift us with this gem of quotation, and a philosophy we could all stand to internalize, Southern or not: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me,” Hurston once said. “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
1875 – 1955
Though she was able-bodied, Mary McLeod Bethune carried a cane because she said it gave her “swank.”
MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE was an educator, civil rights leader and adviser to five U.S. presidents, the “First Lady of the Struggle” has been synonymous with black uplift since the early 20th century. She turned her faith, her passion for racial progress, and her organizational and fundraising savvy into the enduring legacies of Bethune-Cookman University and the National Council of Negro Women.
1880 – 1970
Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr., the first African-American general for the U.S. Army, battled segregation by developing and implementing plans for the limited desegregation of U.S. Combat forces in Europe during World War II.
Davis, who was born in Chicago in 1877 and Howard University-educated, began his military career in the trenches of the Spanish-American War as a volunteer grunt. He liked the military's discipline, so when he was discharged as a volunteer, he enlisted after deciding he wanted a military career.
1899 – 1974
Just as soul music and Motown provided the aspirational soundtrack for the 1960s civil rights movement, swing music furnished the upwardly-mobile score for the mid-1900s Harlem Renaissance. And of all the formidable bandleaders of the era, Edward “Duke” Ellington towered over the competition like a musical Everest. Where Count Basie, Benny Goodman and competing bandleaders favored high-stepping songs with hard-swinging arrangements, Ellington tunes such as “I Got it Bad and That Aint Cool,” “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” seem mysterious by comparison, romantic songs whose world-weary blues melodies helped Ellington earn 11 Grammy Awards, 13 Grammy Hall of Fame nods, and a Grammy Trustees Award.
1942 – 2018
Her career has spanned five decades, and she also was the first female performer inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 — as she should have been. She’s had more than 100 singles that have reached the Billboard charts, and 17 of them have been top 10 singles. She’s won an impressive 18 Grammys, has sold more than 75 million albums, and she’s one of the most influential voices ever, inspiring and paving the way for acts such as Beyonce', Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Franklin is a musician’s musician — she can bang it on the piano as well as she can on a microphone — and she can sing opera music as effortlessly as she can sing gospel.
Katherine Johnson, 98, was a physicist and mathematician who helped launch the first use of digital electronic computers at NASA, the independent federal government agency that handles aerospace research, aeronautics and the civilian space program. Her wisdom with numbers and accuracy was so highly regarded that her sign-off was paramount for NASA to modernize itself with digital computers.
Be clear, Johnson wasn’t alone — many black women were hired by NASA in the early 1950s to work in the Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson came on board in 1953 — a year before the civil rights movement kicked into high gear — and she initially worked in a pool of black women who all were performing math calculations. But it was Johnson who was plucked out of the pool to work with an all-male flight research team. It was Johnson who helped calculate the orbit for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. And it was Johnson who co-authored 26 scientific papers, which NASA still links to via its archives.