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Historic People and Moments Celebrating Black History Month

Posted on February 10, 2022

By Darrius Frazier

In 1902, James Mercer Langston Hughes, well known as Langston Hughes, was born in Joplin, Missouri.  One of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1960 at Greensboro, North Carolina, four African-American college students from North Carolina A&T State spark a nationwide civil rights movement by refusing to leave a “whites-only” lunch counter at a popular retail store, Woolworth, after they were denied service.  By the end of the first week, 200 protested at the store.  The demonstration in Greensboro continued for six months, until Woolworth gave in and integrated the lunch counter.  Although not the first sit-in, the non-violent Greensboro protest became the best known.

In 1978, anti-slavery crusader and Civil War veteran Harriet Tubman becomes the first African American woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp, the first in the Post Office’s Black Heritage Series.

In 2009, the United States Senate confirmed Eric Holder as the first African American Attorney General in the United States by a vote in the affirmative of 75-21.  President Barack Obama had nominated holder on December 1, 2008. Holder was formally installed on March 27, 2009.
In 2013, the first African American female congresswoman from Illinois, Cardiss Collins died in Arlington, Virginia at age 81.   Collins was elected in a special election on June 5, 1973 to replace her husband, Congressman George Collins, who died in a plane crash aboard United Airlines Flight 553 on December 8, 1972.  She served twelve consecutive congressional terms from 1973 to 1997 while representing the 7th district of Illinois.  Collins is remembered as a champion for the rights of African Americans, women and the poor.
In 1913, “The First Lady of Civil Rights”, Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, known commonly as Rosa Parks, was in Tuskegee, Alabama. On Friday, December 1, 1955, at Montgomery, Alabama, Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger and was promptly arrested.  Her very patriotic and brave act was the stimulus that helped strengthen the Montgomery Bus Boycott and civil rights demonstrations around the country. Parks actions became a symbol of support against the crude racial discrimination that was prevalent in the south and many parts of the country.

In 1999, plainclothes officers of the New York Police Department’s Street Crime Unit (SCU) fired 41 shots at unarmed Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, killing him on the steps of his apartment building shortly after midnight.  Diallo’s killing sparked a public outcry and eventually resulted in the shuttering of the SCU, but the four officers who shot him were found not guilty of his murder.

In 1934, One of America’s greatest baseball players, Henry Louis Aaron, also known as Hank Aaron or Hammerin Hank, was born in Mobile, Alabama.  The baseball Hall of Famer held the Major League Baseball record 33 years with 755 career home runs when he retired in 1976.  Aaron played for the Milwaukee Braves from 1954-66 until the Braves moved to Atlanta to become the Atlanta Braves.  Aaron stayed on with the team until after the 1974 season.  In 1975 and 1976, Aaron played the last two seasons of his career with the Milwaukee Brewers.  Amidst racist death threats for getting ready to pass Babe Ruth’s home run record, Aaron broke the record with 715 home runs on April 8, 1974 for the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium against the Los Angeles Dodgers on NBC-TV.  After his retirement, Aaron worked in the Front Office of the Atlanta Braves.

In 1994, after a third trial, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted in the murder of African American civil rights leader Medgar Evers, over 30 years after the crime occurred. Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home on June 12, 1963, while his wife, Myrlie, and the couple’s three small children were inside.  Beckwith was sentenced to life in prison without parole and died in prison in 2001 at the age of 80.

In 1820, the first organized immigration of freed enslaved people to Africa from the United States departs New York harbor on a journey to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa. The immigration was largely the work of the American Colonization Society, a U.S. organization founded in 1816 by Robert Finley to return formerly enslaved African people to Africa.

In 1993, legendary tennis player, Arthur Ashe, died in New York City at age 49. Ashe became the first African American to win the US Open Tennis Championship on September 9, 1968.  In addition, he set many first on the competitive courts of tennis including being the first African American to win the singles cup at Wimbledon on July 5, 1975.  Ashe achieved the ranking of No. 1 in the world among his peers and had a singles career record of 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles, which included wins in the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.

In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson began “Negro History Week” the forerunner to Black History Month during the second week of February in 1926. He was a noted, historian, journalist, author and the founder of The Association For the Study of Negro Life and History, currently known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.  Dr. Woodson is remembered as a historian, journalist, author and the “The Father of Black History.”
In 1968, in what is known as the Orangeburg Massacre, three African-American college students were shot dead by officers with the South Carolina Highway Patrol on the South Carolina St. campus in Orangeburg, South Carolina.  Twenty seven others were injured when the State Troopers opened fire on the group of approximately 150 to 200 protesters. It all precipitated after several nights of attempted integration of the segregated “All Star Bowling Lane” a bowling alley in Orangeburg.
In 1909, accomplished poet, novelist and playwright, Paul Laurence Dunbar, died of tuberculosis.  Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio to former enslaved Blacks. He became one the first African American poets to achieve national and international acclamation.  Dunbar completed four collected volumes of short stories, four novels, three published plays, lyrics for thirteen songs, fourteen books of poetry and over 400 published poems with his writings featured in many national publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and Saturday Evening Post.

In 1971, pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige becomes the first Negro League veteran to be nominated for the Baseball Hall of Fame.  His career, including his time in the Negro Leagues, spanned five decades.  Paige pitched in the Negro Leagues from 1927-47.  In 1948, the Cleveland Indians, now known as the Cleveland Guardians, signed Paige to his first major league contract.  Paige helped the Indians win their most recent pennant when they defeated the Boston Braves in six games in that year’s World Series.  Paige was the first African-American to pitch in the World Series.

In 1957, following the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, Josephine Baker, and others founded the Southern Leadership Christian Conference (SCLC) at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta as an African-American Civil Rights organization.  Dr. King served as President of SCLC until his assassination on April 4, 1968.  SCLC became involved in many civil rights crusades not only in the South but also throughout the country.

In 1966, Andrew Brimmer became the first African-American to serve on the Federal Reserve Board on the board of governors.  Brimmer was appointed to this position by President, Lyndon B. Johnson, and served there for eight years.  Additionally, Brimmer, worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as an economist, established the central bank of Sudan and served on the Tuskegee University’s board of directors.

In 1977, Clifford Leopold Alexander Jr., became the first African-American to serve as Secretary of the Army.  He was appointed to this position by President Jimmy Carter, which he served for four years.  During this time he concentrated upon improving the all-volunteer Army, stressing programs to enhance professionalism, and emphasizing the award of contracts to minority businesses to fulfill the federal commitment to encourage diversity.

In 1990, after serving 27 years in prison, South African anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, was released from prison by President, F.W. de Klerk due to international pressure as a result of his unjust sentence of life imprisonment due to his anti-apartheid activities.  In 1994, as a result of all races voting for the first time ever, Mandela was voted president and served one term which lasted five years.  For the last fifteen years of his life after his presidency, Mandela went on a nation tour for reconciliation with the people who were formerly apart of the apartheid government prior to 1994.

In 1793, Congress passes the first fugitive slave law, requiring all states, including those that forbid slavery, to forcibly return enslaved people who have escaped from other states to their original owners.

In 1909, the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed as a result of the Springfield, Illinois race riot the previous year.  NAACP was founded at the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.  The founders of this civil rights organization that included African American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  The organization fought against lynching of African-Americans, especially in the South, as well as other types of racial discrimination affected African-Americans and people of color.  Its most famous moment came on May 1954 when NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund founder Thurgood Marshall won the landmark Brown v. Topeka, KS Board of Education decision.

In 1923, the New York Renaissance, the first all-Black professional basketball team, is organized. The Renaissance, commonly called the Rens, become one of the dominant teams of the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1939—seven years before the launch of the NBA—the Rens won the World Professional Basketball tournament.  In 1963, the Rens team was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 1817, Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Maryland.  Douglass was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and insightful anti-slavery writings.  Douglass believed in working with people across different ideologies and backgrounds throughout the rest of his life.
In 1968, Henry Lewis became the first African-American to lead a symphony orchestra in the United States when he became the conductor and musical director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in Newark, and continued as musical director from 1968 until 1976. During this time, he transformed the group from a small community ensemble of largely part-time instrumentalists into a nationally recognized orchestra.  Lewis vastly increased the orchestra’s performance schedule from 22 concerts per year to 100 concerts per season.
In 1951, New York City Council passed bill prohibiting racial discrimination in city-assisted housing developments.

In 1970, Joe Frazier knocked out Jimmy Ellis in the fourth round at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and became the world heavyweight boxing champion.  It was not only the first time Ellis was knocked out, but it was his first ever loss.

In 1918, Charles Hayes was born in Cairo, Illinois.  Hayes was elected as a Democrat to the 98th United States Congress by a special election held on August 23, 1983, to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Harold Washington, who had been elected mayor of Chicago. While a representative, Hayes was on the Committee on Education and Labor and Small Business Committee. Hayes was a resident of Chicago for most of his adult life after graduating from Cairo High School in 1936. During the late 1950s, he raised funds for Martin Luther King Jr.’s voter registration drive in the South. He was a civil rights leader who worked closely with King in the SCLC during the 1960s. Later, he was one of major labor leaders arrested during the 1980s anti-apartheid protests that eventually won the freedom of Nelson Mandela. Congressman Hayes was the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU)’s first executive vice president, serving from 1972-1986.  He was most noted for pieces of legislation to encourage school dropouts to re-enter and complete their education.  Hayes served four terms as a member of the House of Representatives until 1993.
In 1931, Toni Morrison, a well-renowned novelist, was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio.  Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987); she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

In 1965, Dr. Dre was born Andre Romelle Young at Compton, California, a suburb south of Los Angeles.  In 1986, he along with Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Ice Cube and Eazy-E formed the band, NWA.  The band were the pioneers of gangster rap, which incorporated profane lyrics about violence, drugs and life on the streets. They gained prominence with their first album in 1988, “Straight Outta Compton” which became a major success.  In 1991, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube left the group to form Death Row Records with bodyguard, Marion “Suge” Knight.  He released his first single at Death Row for the soundtrack of the film “Deep Cover” in which he collaborated with rapper Snoop Dogg.  Dr. Dre also released his first solo album titled “The Chronic” in 1992 which became triple platinum.  In 1996, Dr. Dre left Death Row to form his own label “Aftermath Entertainments.”  His first album with Aftermath titled “Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath” which went platinum.  In 2008, he founded the company Beats Electronics with producer Jimmy Iovine. The company sold Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones, which were so popular that Apple bought them out in 2014 for $3 billion, which made Dre the richest rap star. Both Dre and Iovine joined Apple in executive roles.

1940: Soul singer William “Smokey” Robinson born in Detroit, Michigan.  In addition to being a singer, Robinson was a songwriter, record producer, and former record executive director. Robinson was the founder and leader of the singing group, The Miracles, which he formed in 1955 while still in high school. The group’s first success came in 1960 with the hit, “Shop Around.”  Between 1960 and 1970, Robinson would produce 26 top forty hits with the Miracles as lead singer, chief songwriter and producer, including several top ten hits such as “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”, “I Second That Emotion“, “Baby Baby Don’t Cry” and the group’s only number-one hit during their Robinson years, “The Tears of a Clown“.  Other notable hits such as “Ooo Baby Baby“, “Going to a Go-Go“, “The Tracks of My Tears“, “(Come Round Here) I’m The One You Need“, “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” and “More Love” peaked in the top twenty. In 1965, the Miracles were the first Motown group to change their name when they released their 1965 album Going to a Go-Go as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.  Between 1962 and 1966, Robinson was also one of the major songwriters and producers for Motown, penning many hit singles such as “Two Lovers“, “The One Who Really Loves You“, “You Beat Me to the Punch” and “My Guy” for Mary Wells; “The Way You Do The Things You Do“, “My Girl“, “Since I Lost My Baby” and “Get Ready” for the Temptations; “Stillwater” for the Four Tops; “When I’m Gone” and “Operator” for Brenda Holloway; “Don’t Mess With Bill“, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and “My Baby Must Be a Magician” for the Marvelettes; and “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye.  After being retired from the music business for five years raising his family, Robinson in 1975 produced the album, Quiet Storm.  The album launched three singles – the number-one R&B hit “Baby That’s Backatcha”, Love Machine”, and “Quiet Storm.”  His last hits were: “Cruisin”,”Being With You”, “Just to Tell Her”, “Tell Me Tomorrow.”  On February 22, 1983, Smokey was awarded an individual star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. Four years later, in 1987, Robinson was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Robinson’s single “Just to See Her”” from the One Heartbeat album was awarded the 1988 Grammy Award for Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. This was Robinson’s first Grammy Award. One year later, in 1989, he was inducted to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
In 1919, Pan-African Congress, organized by W.E.B. Du Bois, met a Grand Hotel, Paris. There were fifty-seven delegates sixteen from the United States and fourteen from Africa form sixteen countries and colonies. Blaise Diagne of Senegal was elected president and Du Bois was named secretary.

In 1942, during World War II, the Army Air Corps’ all African American 100th Pursuit Squadron, later designated a fighter squadron, was activated at Tuskegee Institute. The squadron known as the Tuskegee Airmen, served honorably in England and in other regions of the European continent during the conflict.

In 1992, John Singleton became the first African American director to be nominated for the Academy Award for best director and best screenplay for his first film, Boyz N the Hood.  The film’s title is a double entendre; a play on the term boyhood and a reference to the 1987 Eazy-E rap song of the same name, written by Ice Cube.  In 2002, the United States Library of Congress deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

In 1936, Barbara Charline Jordan was born in Houston, Texas.  Jordan was an American lawyer, educator and politician who was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. A Democrat, she was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives.  In 1976, she became the first African-American, and the first woman, to ever deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous other honors. She was the first African-American woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery.  Jordan is also known for her work as chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which recommended reducing legal immigration by approximately one-third.

In 1965, in New York City, Malcolm X, an African American civil rights, nationalist and religious leader, is assassinated while addressing his organization, Organization of Afro-American Unity, at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights. He was 39. Three members of the Nation of Islam—Mujahid Abdul Halim, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam—were soon after charged with first-degree murder. Islam and Aziz maintained their innocence, and during the 1966 trial, Halim confessed to the crime and testified that Islam and Aziz were innocent. All three men were found guilty, however, and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

In 1950, Julius Winfield (“Dr. J“) Erving II, professionally known as Julius Erving or Dr. J, is born in Roosevelt, New York.  He is regarded as one of the most influential basketball players of all time.  Erving played collegiately at the University of Massachusetts before playing professionally from 1971-87.  Erving helped legitimize the American Basketball Association (ABA) and was the best-known player in that league when it merged into the National Basketball Association (NBA) after the 1975–76 season.  Erving won three championships, four Most Valuable Player Awards, and three scoring titles with the ABA’s Virginia Squires and New York Nets (now the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets) and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. During his 16 seasons as a player, none of his teams ever missed the postseason. He is the eighth-highest scorer in ABA/NBA history with 30,026 points (NBA and ABA combined). He was well known for slam-dunking from the free-throw line in slam-dunk contests and was the only player voted Most Valuable Player in both the ABA and the NBA. The basketball slang of being posterized was first coined to describe his moves.  In 1993, Erving was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1994, Erving was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the 40 most important athletes of all time. In 1996, Erving was honored as one of the league’s greatest players of all time by being named to the NBA 50th Anniversary Team. In 2004, he was inducted into the Nassau County Sports Hall of Fame. In October 2021, Erving was again honored as one of the league’s greatest players of all time by being named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team.
In 1868, W.E.B. DuBois was born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois at Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  DuBois was an American sociologist, socialist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community, and after completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.  Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, is a seminal work in African-American literature.  His 1940 autobiography Dusk of Dawn is regarded in part as one of the first scientific treatises in the field of American sociology, and he published two other life stories, all three containing essays on sociology, politics and history. In his role as editor of the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, he published many influential pieces.  DuBois passed away while living in Ghana at the age of 93 on August 27, 1963, a day before Dr. King’s March on Washington which Dr. King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech.
In 1811, Daniel Alexander Payne, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, was born as a free Black in Charleston, South Carolina.  Payne stressed education and preparation of ministers and introduced more order in the church, becoming its sixth bishop and serving for more than four decades (1852–1893) as well as becoming one of the founders of Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1856. In 1863, the AME Church bought the college and chose Payne to lead it; he became the first African-American president of a college in the United States and served in that position until 1877.  By quickly organizing AME missionary support of freedmen in the South after the Civil War, Payne gained 250,000 new members for the AME Church during the Reconstruction era. Based first in Charleston, he and his missionaries founded AME congregations in the South down the East Coast to Florida and west to Texas. In 1891, Payne wrote the first history of the AME Church, a few years after publishing his memoir.

In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler becomes the first African-American woman to receive a medical doctorate degree (M.D.). She graduated from the New England Female Medical College in Boston.

In 1975, Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam since 1934, passed away due to congestive heart failure at the age of 77.  Many children, including his two daughters and six sons by his wife, most notably future leader Warith Deen Muhammad, survived him.  During his time as leader of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad had developed the Nation of Islam from a small movement in Detroit to an empire consisting of banks, schools, restaurants, and stores across 46 cities in America. The Nation also owned over 15,000 acres of farmland, their own truck- and air- transport systems, as well as a publishing company that printed the country’s largest black newspaper. As a leader, Muhammad served as a mentor to many notable members, including Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan and his son Warith Deen Mohammed. The Nation of Islam is estimated to have between 20,000 and 50,000 members, and 130 mosques offering numerous social programs.
In 1870, during the Reconstruction period in the United States, Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African-American to be elected in the U.S. Senate by a vote of 81 to 15 in the Mississippi legislature to finish the term of one of the state’s two seats in the U.S. Senate, which had been left vacant since the Civil War. Previously, Albert G. Brown, who withdrew from the U.S. Senate in 1861 when Mississippi seceded, had held it.  At the time, as in every state, the Mississippi legislature elected U.S. senators; they were not elected by popular vote until after ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.
In 1869, the U.S. Congress adopts the 15th constitutional amendment, making it illegal for the US or any single government to deny or abridge the right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”  It was ratified on February 3, 1870, as the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments.  After surviving a difficult ratification fight, the amendment was certified as duly ratified and part of the Constitution on March 30, 1870.

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to the United States Congress, and represented New York’s 12th Congressional District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first major-party African-American candidate for President of the United States, and the first woman ever to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In 1984, Michael Jackson’s sixth album, Thriller, wins eight Grammy Awards.  His album, broke all sales records to-date, and remains one of the top-grossing albums of all time.  Thriller sold one million copies worldwide per week at its peak. Thriller was the best-selling album in the United States in 1983 and 1984, making it the first album to be the best-selling for two years. It also spent a record 37 weeks at number one on the Billboard 200, from February 26, 1983, to April 14, 1984, and has remained on the chart for 485 nonconsecutive weeks (and counting).  Quincy Jones, who had previously worked with Jackson on his 1979 album Off the Wall, produced the album. Jackson wanted to create an album where “every song was a killer”. With the ongoing backlash against disco, he moved in a new musical direction, resulting in a mix of pop, post-disco, rock, funk, and R&B sounds. Thriller foreshadows the contradictory themes of Jackson’s personal life, as he began using a motif of paranoia and darker themes.
In 1896, in the First Italo-Ethiopian War at the Battle of Adwa, Ethiopian forces defeated the Italian invading force.  The decisive victory thwarted the campaign of the Kingdom of Italy to expand its colonial empire in the Horn of Africa. By the end of the 19th century, European powers had carved up almost all of Africa after the Berlin Conference; only Ethiopia and Liberia still maintained their independence. Adwa became a pre-eminent symbol of pan-Africanism and secured Ethiopian sovereignty until the Second Italo-Ethiopian War beginning in October 1935.  The Italians suffered about 6,000 killed and 1,500 wounded in the battle and subsequent retreat back into Eritrea, with 3,000 taken prisoner.  Ethiopian losses have been estimated at around 4,000–5,000 killed and 8,000 wounded.  As a direct result of the battle, Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing Ethiopia as an independent state.


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