Oscar Micheaux – Filmmaker Pioneer

Oscar Devereaux Micheaux (January 2, 1884 – March 25, 1951) was an African American author, film director and independent producer of more than 44 films. Although the short-lived Micheaux Book & Film Company produced some films, he is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker, the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century and the most prominent producer of race films.

Race films, mostly produced between 1915 and 1950 consisted of films produced for an all-black audience and featuring black casts. Micheaux produced both silent films and sound films when the industry changed to incorporate speaking actors.

Micheaux was born on a farm in Metropolis, Illinois on January 2, 1884. He was the fifth child born to Calvin S. and Belle Micheaux, who had a total of 13 children. In his later years, Micheaux added an “e” to his last name. His father was born a slave in Kentucky. Because of its surname, his father's family appears to have been associated with French-descended settlers. French Huguenot refugees had settled in Virginia in 1700; their descendants took slaves west when they migrated into Kentucky after the American Revolutionary War.

In his later years, Micheaux wrote about the social oppression he experienced as a young boy. To give their children education, his parents relocated to the city for better schooling. Micheaux attended a well-established school for several years before the family eventually ran into money troubles and were forced to relocate to the farm. Unhappy, Micheaux became rebellious and discontented. His struggles caused internal problems within his family. His father was not happy with him and sent him away to do marketing within the city. Micheaux found pleasure in this job because he was able to speak to many new people and learned many social skills that he would later reflect within his films.

When Micheaux was 17 years old, he moved to Chicago, Illinois to live with his older brother, then working as a waiter. Micheaux became dissatisfied with what he viewed as his brother’s way of living “the good life.” He rented his own place and found a job in the stockyards, which he found difficult. He worked many different jobs, moving from the stockyards to the steel mills.

After being “swindled out of two dollars” by an employment agency, Micheaux decided to become his own boss. His first business was a shoeshine stand, which he set up at a white suburban barbershop, away from Chicago competition. He learned the basic strategies of business and started to save money. He became a Pullman porter on the major railroads, at that time considered prestigious employment for African Americans because it was relatively stable, well-paid, and secure, and it enabled travel and interaction with new people. This job was an informal education for Micheaux. He profited financially, and also gained contacts and knowledge about the world through traveling as well as a greater understanding for business. When he left the position, he had seen much of the United States, had a couple of thousand dollars saved in his bank account, and had made a number of connections with wealthy white people who helped his future endeavors.

Micheaux moved to Dallas, South Dakota, where he bought land and worked as a homesteader. This experience inspired his first novels and films. His neighbors on the frontier were all white. "Some recall that [Micheaux] rarely sat at a table with his white neighbors." Micheaux’s years as a homesteader allowed him to learn more about human relations and farming. While farming, Micheaux wrote articles and submitted them to the press. The Chicago Defender published one of his earliest articles.

Oscar Micheaux's South Dakota Homestead.

In South Dakota, Micheaux married Orlean McCracken. Her family proved to be complex and burdensome for Micheaux. Unhappy with their living arrangements, Orlean felt that Micheaux did not pay enough attention to her. She gave birth while he was away on business. She was reported to have emptied their bank accounts and fled. Orlean’s father sold Micheaux's property and took the money from the sale. After his return, Micheaux tried unsuccessfully to get Orlean and his property back.

Micheaux decided to concentrate on writing and, eventually, filmmaking, a new industry. He wrote seven novels. In 1913, 1,000 copies of his first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader, were printed. He published the book anonymously, for unknown reasons. Based on his experiences as a homesteader and the failure of his first marriage, it was largely autobiographical. Although character names have been changed, the protagonist is named Oscar Devereaux. His theme was about African Americans realizing their potential and succeeding in areas where they had not felt they could.

The book outlines the difference between city lifestyles of Negroes and the life he decided to lead as a lone Negro out on the far West as a pioneer. He discusses the culture of doers who want to accomplish and those who see themselves as victims of injustice and hopelessness and who do not want to try to succeed, but instead like to pretend to be successful while living the city lifestyle in poverty.

He had become frustrated with getting members of his race to populate the frontier and make something of themselves, with real work and property investment. He wrote over 100 letters to fellow Negroes in the East beckoning them to come West, and only his older brother eventually came West. One of Micheaux's fundamental beliefs is that hard work and enterprise will make any person rise to respect and prominence no matter his or her race.

Micheaux’s first novel The Conquest was adapted to film and re-titled, The Homesteader.  In 1918, his novel The Homesteader, dedicated to Booker T. Washington, attracted the attention of George Johnson, the manager of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles. After Johnson offered to make The Homesteader into a new feature film, negotiations and paperwork became contentious between Micheaux and him. Micheaux wanted to be directly involved in the adaptation of his book as a movie, but Johnson resisted and never produced the film.

Instead, Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film & Book Company of Sioux City in Chicago; its first project was the production of The Homesteader as a feature film. Micheaux had a major career as a film producer and director: He produced over 40 films, which drew audiences throughout the U.S. as well as internationally. 

This film, was met with critical and commercial success. It revolves around a man named Jean Baptiste, called the Homesteader, who falls in love with many white women but resists marrying one out of his loyalty to his race. Baptiste sacrifices love to be a key symbol for his fellow African Americans. He looks for love among his own people and marries an African-American woman. Relations between them deteriorate. Eventually, Baptiste is not allowed to see his wife. She kills her father for keeping them apart and commits suicide. Baptiste is accused of the crime, but is ultimately cleared. An old love helps him through his troubles. After he learns that she is a mulatto and thus part African, they marry. This film deals extensively with race relationships.

Micheaux contacted wealthy white connections from his earlier career as a porter, and sold stock for his company at $75 to $100 a share. Micheaux hired actors and actresses and decided to have the premiere in Chicago. The film and Micheaux received high praise from film critics. One article credited Micheaux with “a historic breakthrough, a creditable, dignified achievement”. Some members of the Chicago clergy criticized the film as libelous. The Homesteader became known as Micheaux’s breakout film; it helped him become widely known as a writer and a filmmaker.

In addition to writing and directing his own films, Micheaux also adapted the works of different writers for his silent pictures. Many of his films were open, blunt and thought-provoking regarding certain racial issues of that time. He once commented, “It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights”. Financial hardships during the Great Depression eventually made it impossible for Micheaux to keep producing films, and he returned to writing.

Micheaux’s second silent film was Within Our Gates, produced in 1920. Although sometimes considered his response to the film Birth of a Nation, Micheaux said that he created it independently as a response to the widespread social instability following World War I.

Within Our Gates revolved around the main character, Sylvia Landry, a mixed-race school teacher. In a flashback, Sylvia is shown growing up as the adopted daughter of a sharecropper. When her father confronts their white landlord over money, a fight ensues. The landlord is shot by another white man, but Sylvia's adoptive father is accused and lynched with her adoptive mother.

Sylvia is almost raped by the landowner’s brother but discovers that he is her biological father. Micheaux always depicts African Americans as being serious and reaching for higher education. Before the flashback scene, we see that Sylvia travels to Boston, seeking funding for her school, which serves black children. They are underserved by the segregated society. On her journey, she is hit by the car of a rich white woman. Learning about Landry's cause, the woman decides to give her school $50,000.

Within the film, Micheaux depicts educated and professional people in black society as light-skinned, representing the elite status of some of the mixed-race people who comprised the majority of African Americans free before the Civil War. Poor people are represented as dark-skinned and with more undiluted African ancestry. Mixed-race people also feature as some of the villains. The film is set within the Jim Crow era. It contrasted the experiences for African Americans who stayed in rural areas and others who had migrated to cities and become urbanized. Micheaux explored the suffering of African Americans in the present day, without explaining how the situation arose in history. Some feared that this film would cause even more unrest within society, and others believed it would open the public’s eyes to the unjust treatment by whites of blacks. Protests against the film continued until the day it was released. Because of its controversial status, the film was banned from some theaters.

Micheaux's 1925 Body and Soul starred Paul Robeson in his motion picture debut.

An escaped prisoner seeks refuge in the predominantly African-American town of Tatesville, Georgia, by passing himself off as the Rt. Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins. He is joined in town by a fellow criminal, and the pair scheme to swindle the phony reverend's congregation of their offerings. Jenkins falls in love with a young member of his congregation, Isabelle Perkins, even though she is in love with a poor young man named Sylvester, who happens to be Jenkins’ long-estranged twin brother.

Jenkins steals money from Martha Jane, Isabelle's mother and convinces the young woman to take the blame for his crime. She flees to Atlanta and dies just as her mother locates her. Before dying, Isabelle reveals to her mother that Jenkins raped her and that he is the one who took her mother's money. She explains that she did not speak up before because she knew her mother would not believe her. 

Returning to Tatesville, Martha Jane confronts Jenkins in front of the congregation. Jenkins flees and during a twilight struggle he kills a man who tries to bring him to justice. The following morning, Martha Jane awakens and realizes the episode with Jenkins was only a dream. She provides Isabelle (who is not dead) and Sylvester with the funds to start a married life together.

Micheaux adapted two works by Charles W. Chesnutt, which he released under their original titles: The Conjure Woman (1926) and The House Behind the Cedars (1927). The latter, which dealt with issues of mixed race and passing, created so much controversy when reviewed by the Film Board of Virginia that he was forced to make cuts to have it shown. He remade this story as a sound film in 1932, releasing it with the title Veiled Aristocrats. The silent version of the film is believed to have been lost.

Ten Minutes to Live is another 1932 Micheaux film. A movie producer offers a nightclub singer a role in his latest film, but all he really wants to do is bed her. She knows, but accepts anyway. Meanwhile, a patron at the club gets a note saying that she'll soon get another note, and that she will be killed ten minutes after that.

Micheaux's films were coined during a time of great change in the African-American community. His films featured contemporary black life. He dealt with racial relationships between blacks and whites, and the challenges for blacks when trying to achieve success in the larger society. Micheaux films were used to oppose and discuss the racial injustice that African Americans received. Topics such as lynching, job discrimination, rape, mob violence, and economic exploitation were depicted in his films. These films also reflect his ideologies and autobiographical experiences. The journalist Richard Gehr said, “Micheaux appears to have only one story to tell, his own, and he tells it repeatedly”.

Micheaux sought to create films that would counter white portrayals of African Americans, which tended to emphasize inferior stereotypes. He created complex characters of different classes. His films questioned the value system of both African American and white communities as well as caused problems with the press and state censors

Oscar Micheaux (center) with an actor and possibly a crew member appearing in an advertisement for the Micheaux Film Corporation.

The critic Lupack described Micheaux as pursuing moderation with his films and creating a “middle-class cinema”. His works were designed to appeal to both middle- and lower-class audiences.

Micheaux said,

“My results…might have been narrow at times, due perhaps to certain limited situations, which I endeavored to portray, but in those limited situations, the truth was the predominate characteristic. It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights. I am too imbued with the spirit of Booker T. Washington to engraft false virtues upon ourselves, to make ourselves that which we are not.”

Micheaux died on March 25, 1951, in Charlotte, North Carolina, of heart failure. He is buried in Great Bend Cemetery in Great Bend, Kansas, the home of his youth. His gravestone reads: "A man ahead of his time".


List of Oscar Micheaux Films

The Homesteader (1919)

Within Our Gates (1920)

The Brute (1920)

The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)

The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921)

The Dungeon (1922)

The Hypocrite (1922)

Uncle Jasper's Will (1922)

The Virgin of the Seminole (1922)

Deceit (1923)

Thirty Years Later (1928)

When Men Betray (1929)

Wages of Sin (1929)

Easy Street (1930)

A Daughter of the Congo (1930)

Darktown Revue (1931)

The Exile (1931)

Veiled Aristocrats (1932)

Ten Minutes to Live (1932)

Black Magic (1932)

The Girl From Chicago (1932)

Ten Minutes to Kill (1933)

Phantom of Kenwood (1933)

Harlem After Midnight (1934)

Murder in Harlem (1935)

Temptation (1936)

Underworld (1937)

God's Step Children (1938)

Swing! (1938)

Lying Lips (1939)

Birthright (1939)

The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940)

The Betrayal (1948)

Birthright (1924)

A Son of Satan (1924)

Body and Soul (1925)

Marcus Garland (1925)

The Conjure Woman (1926), adapted from novel by Charles W. Chesnutt

The Devil's Disciple (1926)

The Spider's Web (1926)

The Millionaire (1927)

The Broken Violin (1928)

The House Behind the Cedars (1927), adapted from novel by Charles W. Chesnutt


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Much of the article text republished under license from Wikipedia

Annie Malone – Chemist, Inventor, Entrepreneur, philanthropist

Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone (August 9, 1869 – May 10, 1957) was an American businesswoman, inventor, and philanthropist. In the first three decades of the 20th century, she founded and developed a large and prominent commercial and educational enterprise centered on cosmetics for African-American women.

Annie Minerva Turnbo was born in southern Illinois, the daughter of enslaved Africans Robert and Isabella (Cook) Turnbo. When her father went off to fight for the Union with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry in the Civil War, Isabella took the couple's children and escaped from Kentucky, a neutral border state that maintained slavery. After traveling down the Ohio River, she found refuge in Metropolis, Illinois. There Annie Turnbo was later born, the tenth of eleven children.

Annie Turnbo was born on a farm near Metropolis in Massac County, Illinois. Orphaned at a young age, Annie attended a public school in Metropolis before moving to Peoria to live with her older sister Ada Moody in 1896. There Annie attended high school, taking particular interest in chemistry. However, due to frequent illness, Annie was forced to withdraw from classes.

While out of school, Annie grew so fascinated with hair and hair care that she often practiced hairdressing with her sister. With expertise in both chemistry and hair care, Turnbo began to develop her own hair care products.  At the time, many women used goose fat, heavy oils, soap, or bacon grease to straighten their curls, which damaged both scalp and hair.

By the beginning of the 1900s, Turnbo moved with her older siblings to Lovejoy, now known as Brooklyn, Illinois. While experimenting with hair and different hair care products, she developed and manufactured her own line of non-damaging hair straighteners, special oils, and hair-stimulant products for African-American women. She named her new product “Wonderful Hair Grower”. To promote her new product, Turnbo sold the Wonderful Hair Grower in bottles from door-to-door. Her products and sales began to revolutionize hair care methods for all African Americans.

A variety of Poro products available for sale during the companies operations.
Price list of select Poro products

In 1902, Turnbo moved to a thriving St. Louis, where she and three hired assistants sold her hair care products from door-to-door. As part of her marketing, she gave away free treatments to attract more customers.

Due to the high demand for her product in St. Louis, Turnbo opened her first shop on 2223 Market Street in 1902. She also launched a wide advertising campaign in the black press, held news conferences, toured many southern states, and recruited many women whom she trained to sell her products.

One of her selling agents, Sarah Breedlove Davis (who became known as Madam C. J. Walker when she set up her own business), operated in Denver, Colorado until a disagreement led Walker to leave the company.

Madame C. J. Walker

This development was one of the reasons which led the then Mrs. Pope to copyright her products under the name "Poro" because of what she called fraudulent imitations and to discourage counterfeit versions. Madame C. J. Walker became one of the wealthiest African-American women in the country. Annie Malone was a millionaire before Walker, yet unlike Madame Walker, Malone lived quite modestly, so Walker is often mistakenly credited as the first black female millionaire.

In 1902 she married Nelson Pope; the couple divorced in 1907. Poro was a combination of the married names of Annie Pope and her sister Laura Roberts. Due to the growth in her business, in 1910 Turnbo moved to a larger facility on 3100 Pine Street.

On April 28, 1914, Annie Turnbo married Aaron Eugene Malone, a former teacher, and religious book salesman. Turnbo Malone, by then worth well over a million dollars, built a five-story multipurpose facility.

Poro Lobby

Poro College advertising

In addition to a manufacturing plant, it contained facilities for a beauty college, which she named Poro College. 

General offices of Poro Products
Poro College Auditorium

The building included a manufacturing plant, a retail store where Poro products were sold, business offices, a 500-seat auditorium, dining and meeting rooms, a roof garden, dormitory, gymnasium, bakery, and chapel.

Poro rooftop garden

The Poro College building served the African-American community as a center for religious and social functions.

Shipping Department of Poro

The College's curriculum addressed the whole student; students were coached on personal style for work: on walking, talking, and a style of dress designed to maintain a solid persona. 

Poro College employed nearly 200 people in St. Louis. Through its school and franchise businesses, the college created jobs for almost 75,000 women in North and South America, Africa and the Philippines.

Vintage photo of graduation class with Annie Malone in the center (back row, with glasses) held at Big Bethel AME Church, Atlanta.
Diploma Day at Poro College, 1920

By the 1920s, Annie Turnbo Malone had become a multi-millionaire. In 1924 she paid income tax of nearly $40,000, reportedly the highest in Missouri.

While extremely wealthy, Malone lived modestly, giving thousands of dollars to the local black YMCA and the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC. She also donated money to the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, where she served as president on the board of directors from 1919 to 1943. 

With her help, in 1922 the Home bought a facility at 2612 Goode Avenue (which was renamed Annie Malone Drive in her honor).

The Orphans Home is still located in the historic Ville neighborhood. Upgraded and expanded, the facility was renamed in the entrepreneur's honor as the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center. As well as funding many programs, Malone ensured that her employees, all African American, were paid well and given opportunities for advancement.

Her business thrived until 1927 when her husband filed for divorce. Having served as president of the company, he demanded half of the business' value, based on his claim that his contributions had been integral to its success. The divorce suit forced Poro College into a court-ordered receivership. With support from her employees and powerful figures such as Mary McLeod Bethune, she negotiated a settlement of $200,000. This affirmed her as the sole owner of Poro College, and the divorce was granted.

After the divorce, Turnbo Malone moved most of her business to Chicago’s South Parkway, where she bought an entire city block. Other lawsuits followed. In 1937, during the Great Depression, a former employee filed suit, also claiming credit for Poro's success. To raise money for the settlement, Turnbo Malone sold her St. Louis property. Although much reduced in size, her business continued to thrive.

On May 10, 1957, Annie Malone suffered a stroke and died at Chicago's Provident Hospital. Childless, she had bequeathed her business and remaining fortune to her nieces and nephews.  At the time of her death, Poro beauty colleges were in operation in more than thirty U.S. cities. Her estate was valued at $100,000.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Much of the article text republished under license from Wikipedia

Frederick Patterson – Black Automobile Manufacturer

Frederick Douglas Patterson (1871–1932) was an American entrepreneur known for the Greenfield-Patterson automobile of 1915, built in Ohio. He later converted his business to the Greenfield Bus Body Company. 

While in college at Ohio State University, he was the first African-American to play on its football team. He returned to Greenfield to join his father in his carriage business, which became C.R. Patterson and Sons.

C.R. Patterson & Son Carriage Ad

The younger man saw opportunity in the new horseless carriages, and converted the company in the early 1900s to manufacture automobiles, making 150 of them.

Development of an automobile began in 1914 and the first Patterson-Greenfield rolled out of the company’s Washington St. facility on Sept. 23, 1915. Priced at $850, the Patterson-Greenfield was offered as a touring or roadster and featured a 30hp Continental 4-cylinder engine, full floating rear axle, cantilever springs, demountable rims, electric starting and lighting and a split windshield for ventilation.

Later he shifted to making buses and trucks and renamed his company as Greenfield Bus Body Company. After Patterson's death in 1932, his son kept the business going through much of the Great Depression, finally closing it in 1939.

1917 Patterson-Greenfield Roadster

Named after the noted abolitionist, Frederick Douglas Patterson was born in 1871 as the youngest of four children of Josephine Utz (aka Outz) and Charles Richard Patterson. He had an older brother Samuel. Their father was an ex-slave who had escaped to Greenfield, Ohio from Virginia shortly before the American Civil War.

Charles Richard Patterson of C.R. Patterson & Sons

After getting established as a blacksmith in town, Charles had married Josephine Utz, a young local white woman. By the time Frederick was born, his father had a successful carriage business with a partner. The Pattersons encouraged the education of their children: Samuel, two daughters, and Frederick.

Just before the Civil War, Charles Patterson left slavery and headed north, bringing blacksmithing skills he learned in Virginia. Not long after settling in, Patterson began working at a carriage company. By 1870 he was a foreman and by 1873, Patterson had gone into business with J.P. Lowe, a white carriage maker.

The State of Ohio’s 1888 Bureau of Labor Statistics Report lists J.P. Lowe & Co., carriages, etc. with a staff of 10. It is believed that Patterson became a partner in the business that was popularly known as Lowe & Patterson, although its legal name remained J.P. Lowe & Co. until 1893 when Patterson bought out Lowe's share in the business and reorganized as C.R. Patterson, Son & Co. to reflect the involvement of Samuel C. Patterson, Charles’ youngest son.

Frederick graduated from the old Greenfield High School in 1888 and went on to Ohio State University. While at the university, he played on the football team in his junior year in 1891, the first African American to do so. He withdrew from college in his senior year before graduating, taking a job as a high school history teacher in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a different career than his father's business, where his older brother was already working.

Frederick's brother Samuel entered the family business with their father. In 1893, Charles bought out his 20-year partner, J.P. Lowe, and renamed the carriage business C.R. Patterson & Son Company. In 1897, Charles became ill. By this time, Samuel had died. Frederick resigned his teaching position to return and help operate the family business. His father renamed it C.R. Patterson and Sons, and the younger man took on an increasing role.

Patterson got married in 1899 and had a family, including a son Postell Patterson.

After his father died in 1910, Frederick D. Patterson took over the business. Seeing the rise of "horseless carriages", he started development of the first Patterson-Greenfield car, completed in 1915. His two styles competed with Henry Ford's model T and sold for about $850. He was the first African-American to own and operate a car manufacturing company.

C.R. Patterson & Sons Automobile Ad

After producing about 150 vehicles, and having difficulty getting financing for expansion, Patterson decided to change his business rather than compete head on with the major Detroit industry.

A Patterson-Greenfield bus used by the local Greenfield school district

He built bodies for trucks and buses set upon a chassis made by Ford or GM. In 1920, he changed the name of his company to Greenfield Bus Body Company. 

Between 1922 and 1925 advertisements and press releases for the Greenfield Bus Body Co. appeared in the nation’s commercial vehicle trade journals. Although the firm's factory was located on Washington Street, near Lafayette, the 90 Webster Ave. address refers to its shipping address, which was located across from the railroad depot on the outskirts of town.

Early advertisement of Greenfield Bus Bodies

He built strong business relationships with numerous school districts, which became steady customers.

The Crash and Great Depression had a devastating effect on his company, as widespread financial problems caused his customers to cut back on bus orders. Patterson died in 1932. His son Postell Patterson, who had worked with him, closed the business in 1939.

No Patterson-Greenfield autos are known to exist, but some of his father's C.R. Patterson & Sons Company carriages have survived.


Note: There was another unrelated Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson born 30 years later, who became president of Tuskegee University and the found of the United Negro College Fund.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Article text republished from Wikipedia with additional source material from AfricaSource and Coachbuilt.

Cathy Hughes – Radio One and TV One Founder

Catherine L. Hughes, more commonly known as "Cathy" Hughes is an entrepreneur, radio and television personality, and business executive.

Hughes founded the media company Radio One, and when the company went public in 1999, she became the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. 

Cathy Hughes was born Catherine Elizabeth Woods on April 22, 1947, to Helen Jones Woods, a trombonist with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and William Alfred Woods, who was the first African-American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University.

The family lived in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects while Hughes' father attended college. Hughes attended University of Nebraska-Omaha and Creighton University, her father's alma mater, but never completed her degree.

Cathy Hughes and her son Alfred Liggins III

Cathy Hughes became pregnant at age 16, her friends said her life was over. Her mother kicked her out of the house. Hughes said she “was in shock.” Pregnancy “was the beginning,” Hughes said. The birth of her son, Alfred Liggins, was “an impetus to achieve,” “It was the reason I took my life seriously for the first time as a teenager and made a promise to myself, my son and God that he would not become a black statistic.”

Cathy Hughes and son Alfred C. Liggins III

In the 1970s, Hughes created the urban radio format called "The Quiet Storm" on Howard University's radio station WHUR with disc jockey and fellow Howard student Melvin Lindsay.

Before radio, in the mid-1960s, Hughes worked for an African American newspaper called the Omaha Star. Hughes began her career in 1969 at KOWH in Omaha but left for Washington, D.C. after she was offered a job as a lecturer at the School of Communications at Howard University. 

In 1973, she became General Sales Manager of the university's radio station, WHUR-FM, increasing station revenue from $250,000 to $3 million in her first year. In 1975, Hughes became the first woman Vice President and General Manager of a station in the nation’s capital and created the format known as the “Quiet Storm,” which revolutionized urban radio and was aired on over 480 stations nationwide.

In 1980, Hughes founded Radio One, and with then-husband, Dewey Hughes, bought AM radio station WOL 1450 in Washington, D.C.  After the previous employees had destroyed the facility, she faced financial difficulties and subsequently lost her home and moved with her young son to live at the station. Her fortunes began to change when she revamped the R&B station to a 24-hour talk radio format with the theme, “Information is Power.” Hughes served as the station's Morning Show Host for 11 years. WOL is still the most listened to talk radio station in the nation’s capital.

Cathy's son Alfred joined the company in 1985 as a salesman and by 1989 Alfred had risen to president. Cathy credits Alfred's leadership and vision as the driving force that took the company public and grew it into the media powerhouse it is today.

Radio One went on to own 70 radio stations in nine major markets in the U.S. In 1999, Radio One became a publicly traded company, listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. As of 2007, Hughes's son, Alfred Liggins, III, serves as CEO and president of Radio One, and Hughes as chairperson. Hughes is also a minority owner of BET industries.

In January 2004, Radio One launched TV One, a national cable and satellite television network which bills itself as the "lifestyle and entertainment network for African-American adults." Hughes interviews prominent personalities, usually in the entertainment industry, for the network's talk program TV One on One.

Both Cathy Hughes and her son, Alfred Liggins have been named Entrepreneur of the Year by the company Ernst & Young. She is a notable member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

In 2015, a local business organization unofficially named the corner of 4th Street and H Street NE in Washington, D.C. “Cathy Hughes Corner”.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Article text republished from Wikipedia.

Ella Baker – Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was a civil rights and human rights activist. Baker was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned more than five decades. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr. She also mentored many emerging activists, such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses.

Baker criticized professionalized, charismatic leadership; she promoted grassroots organizing and radical democracy. She has been ranked as "One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the Civil Rights Movement."

Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised by her parents Georgiana and Blake Baker. When she was seven, her family moved to her mother's hometown of Littleton in rural North Carolina. As a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. Baker's maternal grandmother Josephine Elizabeth "Bet" Ross, had been born into slavery. She was whipped as a young woman for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave master. 

Ella attended local schools. She went to the state capital to attend Shaw University, a historically black university in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated as class valedictorian in 1927 at the age of 24. As a student, she challenged school policies which she thought were unfair. After graduating, she moved to New York City during the period of the Great Migration, when many blacks were leaving the South to escape its oppressive society. Baker worked for most of her life-based in New York City.

During 1929-1930 Baker worked as an editorial staff member of the American West Indian News, moving to a position as editorial assistant at the Negro National News. In 1930 George Schuyler, a black journalist and anarchist (and later an arch-conservative), founded the Young Negros' Cooperative League (YNCL). It sought to develop black economic power through collective planning. Having befriended Schuyler, Baker joined his group in 1931 and soon became its national director.

She also worked for the Worker's Education Project of the Works Progress Administration established during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. She taught courses in consumer education, labor history, and African history. Baker immersed herself in the cultural and political milieu of Harlem in the 1930s. She protested Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and supported the campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants in Alabama, a group of young black men accused of raping two white women. She also founded the Negro History Club at the Harlem Library and regularly attended lectures and meetings at the YWCA.

During this time, she lived with and married her college sweetheart, T. J. (Bob) Roberts. Their respective work schedules often kept them apart. They finally divorced in 1958. She befriended the future scholar and activist John Henrik Clarke, a future scholar and activist, and Pauli Murray, a future writer and civil rights lawyer, and many others who would become lifelong friends. The Harlem Renaissance influenced Baker in her thoughts and teachings. She advocated widespread, local action as a means of social change. Her emphasis on a grassroots approach to the struggle for equal rights influenced the success of the modern Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.

In 1938 Baker began her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was based in New York City. Baker was hired as a secretary in December 1940. She traveled widely, especially in the South, recruiting members, raising money, and organizing local chapters. She was named the director of branches in 1943, making her the highest-ranking woman in the organization.

Ella Baker, on Sept. 18, 1941

An outspoken woman, she had a strong belief in egalitarian ideals. She pushed the organization to decentralize its leadership structure and to aid its membership in more activist campaigns at the local level. Baker believed that the strength of an organization grew from the bottom up and not the top down. She believed that the work of the branches was the life blood of the NAACP. Baker despised elitism and placed her confidence in many. She believed that the bedrock of any social change organization is not the eloquence or credentials of its top leaders, but in the commitment and hard work of the rank and file membership and willingness and ability of those members to engage in a process of discussion, debate, and decision-making. She especially stressed the importance of young people and women in the organization.

While traveling throughout the South on behalf of the NAACP, Baker met hundreds of black people, establishing lasting relationships with them. She slept in their homes, ate at their tables, spoke in their churches, and earned their trust. She wrote thank-you notes and expressed her gratitude to the people she met. This personalized approach to political work was one important aspect of Baker’s effective effort to recruit more members, men, and women, into the NAACP. Baker formed a network of people in the south who would be important in the continued fight for civil rights. Whereas some northern organizers tended to talk down to rural southerners, Baker’s ability to treat everyone with respect helped her in recruiting. Baker fought to make the NAACP more democratic and in tune with the needs of the people. She tried to find a balance between voicing her concerns and maintaining a unified front.

When the opportunity arose in 1946 to return to New York City to care for her niece, Baker left her position with NAACP. She served as a volunteer. She soon joined the New York branch of the NAACP to work on local school desegregation and police brutality issues. She became its president in 1952. Her job as president was to supervise the field secretaries and coordinate the national office's work with local groups. Baker's top priority as the new director of branches was to lessen the organization's bureaucracy and Walter Francis White's dominating role within it.

She did not believe that the program should be so channeled through White, the executive secretary, and the national office and not the people out in the field. She lobbied for a reduction in the rigid hierarchy within the association and for placing more power in the hands of capable local leaders. She also advocated giving greater responsibility and autonomy to local branches. Between 1944 and 1946, Baker directed revolutionary leadership conferences in several major cities, such as Chicago and Atlanta. She got top officials to deliver lectures, offer welcoming remarks, and conduct workshops. She resigned in 1953 to run unsuccessfully for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket.

In January 1957, Baker went to Atlanta, Georgia to attend a conference aimed at developing a new regional organization to build on the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After a second conference in February, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed. This organization was initially planned to be a loosely structured coalition linking church-based leaders in civil rights struggles across the South. The group wanted to emphasize nonviolence as a means of bringing about social progress and racial justice for southern blacks. The organization would rely on the southern black church for the base of its support. The strength of the organization rested on the political activities of its local church affiliates. It envisioned itself as the political arm of the black church. 

The SCLC first stepped on the political scene as an organization at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. Baker was instrumental in pulling off this large scale event which became extremely successful. Her work as one of the organizers of this event demonstrated her ability to straddle organizational lines, deliberately ignoring and minimizing rivalries and battles. The conference’s first project was the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign. Baker was hired as the first staff person for the new organization. Baker worked closely with southern civil rights activists in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi and was highly respected for her organizing abilities. She helped initiate voter registration campaigns and identify other local grievances. After John Tilley, director of the SCLC resigned, she remained in Atlanta for two and a half years as interim executive director of the SCLC until the post was taken up by Wyatt Tee Walker in April 1960.

Baker's job with the SCLC was more frustrating than fruitful. She was unsettled politically, physically, and emotionally. She had no solid allies in the office. Historian Thomas F. Jackson notes that Baker criticized the organization for "programmatic sluggishness and King's distance from the people. King was a better orator than democratic crusader [she] concluded."

In the 1960s, the idea of "participatory democracy" became popular. It was a new formulation, bringing to the traditional appeal of democracy an innovative tie to broader participation.

There were three primary emphases to this new movement:

  • An appeal for grassroots involvement of people throughout society, while making their own decisions
  • The minimization of (bureaucratic) hierarchy and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism as a basis for leadership
  • A call for direct action as an answer to fear, isolation, and intellectual detachment

Ella Baker said:

You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders.

According to activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, Baker advocated a more collectivist model of leadership over the "prevailing messianic style of the period." Baker was largely arguing against the Civil Rights Movement being structured along the organization model of the Black church. The Black church, at the time, had a largely female membership and male leadership. Baker questioned not only the gendered hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement but also that of the Black church.

Ella Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other SCLC members, were reported to have differences in opinion and philosophy during the 1950s and 1960s. She once claimed that the "movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement." When she gave a speech urging activists to take control of the movement themselves, rather than rely on a leader with "heavy feet of clay," it was widely interpreted as a denunciation of King.

That same year, on the heels of regional desegregation sit-ins led by black college students, Baker persuaded the SCLC to invite southern university students to the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University on Easter weekend. This was a gathering of sit-in leaders to meet, assess their struggles and explore the possibilities for future actions. At this meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") was formed.

Baker saw the potential for a special type of leadership by the young sit-in leaders, who were not yet prominent in the movement. She believed they could revitalize the Black Freedom Movement and take it in a new direction. Baker wanted to bring the sit-in participants together in a way that would sustain the momentum of their actions, teach them the skills necessary, provide the resources that were needed, and also help them to coalesce into a more militant and democratic force. To this end, she strove to keep the students independent of the older, church-based leadership. In her address at Shaw, she warned the activists to be wary of "leader-centered orientation." Julian Bond later described the speech as "an eye opener" and probably the best of the conference. "She didn't say, 'Don't let Martin Luther King tell you what to do,' " Bond remembers, "but you got the real feeling that that's what she meant."

SNCC became the most active organization in the deeply oppressed Mississippi Delta. It was relatively open to women. Following the conference, Baker resigned from the SCLC and began a long and close relationship with SNCC. Along with Howard Zinn, Baker was one of SNCC's highly revered adult advisors, called the "Godmother of SNCC."{{cn}]

In 1961 Baker persuaded the SNCC to form two wings: one wing for direct action and the second wing for voter registration. It was with Baker’s help that SNCC (along with the Congress of Racial Equality) coordinated the region-wide Freedom Rides of 1961. They also expanded their grassroots movement among black sharecroppers, tenant farmers and others throughout the South. Ella Baker insisted that "strong people don't need strong leaders," and criticized the notion of a single charismatic leader of movements for social change. In keeping the idea of "participatory democracy", Baker wanted each person to get involved. She also argued that "people under the heel," the most oppressed members of any community, "had to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get (out) from under their oppression".

She was a teacher and mentor to the young people of SNCC, influencing such important future leaders as Julian Bond, Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Curtis Muhammad, Bob Moses, and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Through SNCC, Baker’s ideas of group-centered leadership and the need for radical democratic social change spread throughout the student movements of the 1960s. For instance, the Students for a Democratic Society, the major antiwar group of the day, promoted participatory democracy. These ideas also influenced a wide range of radical and progressive groups that would form in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1964 Baker helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party. She worked as the coordinator of the Washington office of the MFDP and accompanied a delegation of the MFDP to the 1964 National Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The group wanted to challenge the national party to affirm the rights of African Americans to participate in party elections in the South, where they were still largely disenfranchised. When MFDP delegates challenged the pro-segregationist, all-white official delegation, a major conflict ensued. The MFDP delegation was not seated, but their influence on the Democratic Party later helped to elect many black leaders in Mississippi. They forced a rule change to allow women and minorities to sit as delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, in 1964 at a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party meeting

The 1964 schism with the national Democratic Party led SNCC toward the "black power" position. Baker was less involved with SNCC during this period, but her withdrawal was due more to her declining health than to ideological differences. According to her biographer Barbara Ransby, Baker believed that black power was a relief from the "stale and unmoving demands and language of the more mainstream civil rights groups at the time." She also accepted the turn towards armed self-defense that SNCC made in the course of its development. Her friend and biographer Joanne Grant wrote that "Baker, who always said that she would never be able to turn the other cheek, turned a blind eye to the prevalence of weapons. While she herself would rely on her fists … she had no qualms about target practice."

From 1962 to 1967, Baker worked on the staff of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF). Its goal was to help black and white people work together for social justice; the interracial desegregation and human rights group was based in the South. SCEF raised funds for black activists, lobbied for implementation of President John F. Kennedy's civil rights proposals, and tried to educate southern whites about the evils of racism. Federal civil rights legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and 1965, but implementation would take years.

In SCEF, Baker worked closely with her friend Anne Braden, a white, long-time anti-racist activist. Braden had been accused in the 1950s of being a communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Baker believed that socialism was a humane alternative to capitalism, but she had mixed feelings about communism. She became a staunch defender of Anne Braden and her husband Carl; she encouraged SNCC to reject red-baiting because she viewed it as divisive and unfair. During the 1960s, Baker participated in a speaking tour and co-hosted several meetings on the importance of linking civil rights and civil liberties. 

In 1967 Ella Baker returned to New York City, where she continued her activism. She later collaborated with Arthur Kinoy and others to form the Mass Party Organizing Committee, a socialist organization. In 1972 she traveled the country in support of the "Free Angela" campaign, demanding the release of activist and writer Angela Davis, who had been arrested in California as a communist. Davis was acquitted after representing herself in court.

Baker also supported the Puerto Rican independence movement and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. Baker allied with a number of women's groups, including the Third World Women's Alliance and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She remained an activist until her death in 1986 on her 83rd birthday.

Ella Baker was a very private person. Many people close to her did not know that she was married for twenty years to T. J. "Bob" Roberts. Baker kept her own surname. She left no diaries.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Article text republished from Wikipedia.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. – First Black Air Force General

Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. (December 18, 1912 – July 4, 2002) was the first African-American general of the United States Air Force and commander of the World War IITuskegee Airmen. He was born in Washington, D.C., the second of three children born to Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and Elnora Dickerson Davis.

At the age of 13, in the summer of 1926, the younger Davis went for a flight with a barnstorming pilot at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. The experience led to his determination to become a pilot himself. He was the first officer to get his wings from the Tuskegee Army Air Field on March 7, 1942.

After attending the University of Chicago, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1932.

Benjamin O. Davis while enrolled in West Point

He was sponsored by Representative Oscar De Priest (R-IL) of Chicago, at the time, the only black member of Congress. During the four years of his Academy term, Davis was racially isolated by his White classmates, few of whom spoke to him outside the line of duty. He never had a roommate. He ate by himself. His classmates hoped that this would drive him out of the Academy. The "silent treatment" had the opposite effect. It made Davis more determined to graduate. Nevertheless, he earned the respect of his classmates, as evidenced by the biographical note beneath his picture in the 1936 yearbook, the Howitzer:

The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.

Lt. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., receiving his diploma from General John J. Pershing, during his graduation from West Point Military Academy.

He graduated in 1936, 35th in a class of 276. He was the academy's fourth black graduate after Henry Ossian Flipper (1877), John Hanks Alexander (1887), and Charles Young (1889). When he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, the Army had a grand total of two black line officers – Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and Benjamin O. Davis Jr. After graduation, he married Agatha Scott.

At the start of his junior year at West Point, Davis had applied for the Army Air Corps but was rejected because it did not accept blacks. He was instead assigned to the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment (one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments) at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was not allowed inside the base officers' club.

He later attended the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, but then was assigned to teach military tactics at Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama. This was something his father had done years before. It was the Army's way to avoid having a black officer in command of white soldiers.

Chief Civilian Flight Instructor Charles Alfred Anderson took Eleanor Roosevelt on an hour-long flight during her 1941 visit to the Tuskegee Institute. Here they are pictured aboard the aircraft shortly after landing. Airforce Historical Research Agency photo.

Early in 1941, the Roosevelt administration, in response to public pressure for greater black participation in the military as war approached, ordered the War Department to create a black flying unit. Captain Davis was assigned to the first training class at Tuskegee Army Air Field (hence the name Tuskegee Airmen), and in March 1942 earned his wings as one of five black officers to complete the course. He was the first black officer to solo an Army Air Corps aircraft.

In July that year, having been promoted to lieutenant colonel, he was named commander of the first all-black air unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron.

The squadron, equipped with Curtiss P-40 fighters, was sent to Tunisia in North Africa in the spring of 1943. On June 2, they saw combat for the first time in a dive-bombing mission against the German-held island of Pantelleria as part of Operation Corkscrew. The squadron later supported the Allied invasion of Sicily.

In September 1943, Davis was deployed to the United States to take command of the 332nd Fighter Group, a larger all-black unit preparing to go overseas.

Soon after his arrival, however, there was an attempt to stop the use of black pilots in battle. Senior officers in the Army Air Forces recommended to the Army chief of staff, General George Marshall, that the 99th (Davis's old unit) be removed from combat operations as it had performed poorly. This infuriated Davis as he had never been told of any deficiencies with the unit. He held a news conference at The Pentagon to defend his men and then presented his case to a War Department committee studying the use of black servicemen.

Marshall ordered an inquiry but allowed the 99th to continue fighting in the meantime. The inquiry eventually reported that the 99th's performance was comparable to other air units, but any questions about the squadron's fitness were answered in January 1944 when its pilots shot down 12 German planes in two days while protecting the Anzio beachhead.

Colonel Davis standing near the nose of a P-47 Thunderbolt, 1944

Colonel Davis and his 332d Fighter Group arrived in Italy soon after that. The four-squadron group, which was called the Red Tails for the distinctive markings of its planes, were based at Ramitelli Airfield and flew many missions deep into German territory. By summer 1944 the Group had transitioned to P-47 Thunderbolts.

In the summer of 1945, Davis took over the all-black 477th Bombardment Group, which was stationed at Godman Field, Kentucky.

During the war, the airmen commanded by Davis had compiled an outstanding record in combat against the Luftwaffe. They flew more than 15,000 sorties, shot down 111 enemy planes, and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground at a cost of 66 of their own planes and losing only about twenty-five bombers.

Davis himself led dozens of missions in P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs. He received the Silver Star for a strafing run into Austria and the Distinguished Flying Cross for a bomber-escort mission to Munich on June 9, 1944.

In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 ordering the racial integration of the armed forces. Colonel Davis helped draft the Air Force plan for implementing this order. The Air Force was the first of the services to integrate fully.

Davis served at the Pentagon and in overseas posts over the next two decades. He again saw combat in 1953 when he assumed command of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing (51 FIW) and flew an F-86 Sabre in Korea.

He served as Director of Operations and Training at Far East Air Forces Headquarters, Tokyo, from 1954 until 1955, when he assumed the position of Vice Commander, Thirteenth Air Force (13 AF), with additional duty as commander, Air Task Force 13 (Provisional), Taipei, Taiwan. During his time in Tokyo, he was temporarily promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, a rank not made permanent until after his temporary promotion to Major General.

In April 1957 General Davis arrived at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, as chief of staff, Twelfth Air Force (12 AF), U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). When the Twelfth Air Force was transferred to James Connally Air Force Base, Texas in December 1957, he assumed new duties as deputy chief of staff for operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), Wiesbaden Air Base, Germany. While in Germany he was temporarily promoted to major general in 1959, and his promotion to brigadier general was made permanent in 1960.

In July 1961, he returned to the United States and Headquarters U.S. Air Force where he served as the director of manpower and organization, deputy chief of staff for programs and requirements, having his promotion to major general made permanent early the next year; and in February 1965 he was assigned as assistant deputy chief of staff, programs, and requirements. He remained in that position until his assignment as chief of staff for the United Nations Command and U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) in April 1965, at which time he was promoted to lieutenant general. He assumed command of the Thirteenth Air Force (13 AF) at Clark Air Base in the Republic of the Philippines in August 1967.

Davis was assigned as deputy commander in chief, U.S. Strike Command, with headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, in August 1968, with additional duty as commander in chief, Middle-East, Southern Asia and Africa. He retired from active military service on February 1, 1970.

At the time of Davis's retirement, he held the rank of lieutenant general, but on December 9, 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him a fourth star, raising him to the rank of full general. After retirement, he headed the federal sky marshal program, and in 1971 was named Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Environment, Safety, and Consumer Affairs. Overseeing the development of airport security and highway safety, Davis was one of the chief proponents of the 55 miles per hour speed limit to save gasoline and lives. He retired from the Department of Transportation in 1975, and in 1978 served on the American Battle Monuments Commission, on which his father had served decades before.

Both Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and his wife died months apart in 2002. Davis's wife Agatha died in early 2002. Davis, who had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease, died aged 89 on July 4, 2002, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Davis was buried July 17, at Arlington National Cemetery. A Red Tail P-51 Mustang, similar to the one he had flown in World War II, flew overhead during funeral services.

His military decorations included the Air Force Distinguished Service MedalArmy Distinguished Service MedalSilver StarLegion of Merit with two oak leaf clustersDistinguished Flying CrossAir Medal with four oak leaf clustersArmy Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters, and the Philippine Legion of Honor.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Article text republished from Wikipedia.

IDA B. WELLS – Pioneering Journalist

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, more commonly known as Ida B. Wells (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931), was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, Georgist, and an early leader of the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida was one of eight children, she lost her parents, James Wells and Elizabeth "Lizzie" (Warrenton) Wells and a sibling in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic at a young age. Both of Ida's parents were enslaved by Spires Bolling, an architect. The family resided at Bolling's house, now named the Bolling-Gatewood House, where Lizzie Wells was a cook. A religious woman, Elizabeth Wells was very strict with her children. Both of Ida's parents were active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction.

Ida's father was a master at carpentry; after the Civil War and emancipation, he was known as a "race man" who worked for the advancement of black people. He was very interested in politics and became a member of the Loyal League. He attended Shaw University in Holly Springs (now Rust College), but he dropped out to help his family. He also attended public speeches and campaigned for local black candidates but never ran for office himself.

Ida attended Shaw like her father, but she was expelled for rebellious behavior after confronting the college president. While visiting her grandmother in the Mississippi Valley in 1878, Ida, then aged 16, received word that Holly Springs had suffered a yellow fever epidemic. Both of her parents and her infant brother (Stanley) died during that event, leaving her and her five other siblings orphaned.

Following the funerals of her parents and brother, friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children should be split up and sent to various foster homes. Wells resisted this solution. To keep her younger siblings together as a family, she found work as a teacher in a black elementary school.

Her paternal grandmother, Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives, stayed with her siblings and cared for them during the week while Wells was away teaching. Without this help, she would not have been able to keep her siblings together.

Wells resented that white teachers were paid $80 a month in the segregated school system, and she was paid only $30 a month. This discrimination made her more interested in the politics of race and improving the education of black people.

Ida B. Wells c. 1883

In 1883, Wells took three of her younger siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her aunt and to be closer to other family members. She also learned that she could earn higher wages there as a teacher than in Mississippi. Soon after moving, she was hired in Woodstock for the Shelby County school system.

During her summer vacations, she attended summer sessions at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville. She also attended LeMoyne. She held strong political opinions and provoked many people with her views on women's rights. At 24, she wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge."

On May 4, 1884, a train conductor with the Memphis and Charleston Railroad ordered Wells to give up her seat in the first-class ladies car and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. The year before, the Supreme Court had ruled against the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which had banned racial discrimination in public accommodations). This verdict supported railroad companies that chose to racially segregate their passengers.

Wells refused to give up her seat. The conductor and two men dragged Wells out of the car. When she returned to Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. Wells gained publicity in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train. When her lawyer was paid off by the railroad, she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884, when the local circuit court granted her a $500 award.

The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1887. It concluded, "We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride."

 Wells was ordered to pay court costs. Wells' reaction to the higher court's decision expressed her strong convictions on civil rights and religious faith, as she responded: "I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people…O God, is there no…justice in this land for us?"

While teaching elementary school, Wells was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star in Washington, DC. She also wrote weekly articles for The Living Way weekly newspaper under the pen name "Iola," gaining a reputation for writing about the race issue. In 1889, she became co-owner and editor of Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregation newspaper that was started by the Reverend Taylor Nightingale and was based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis. It published articles about racial injustice.

In 1891, Wells was dismissed from her teaching post by the Memphis Board of Education due to her articles that criticized conditions in the colored schools of the region. Wells was devastated but undaunted, and concentrated her energy on writing articles for The Living Way and the Free Speech and Headlight.

In 1889 Thomas Moss, a friend of Wells, opened the Peoples Grocery in the "Curve," a black neighborhood just outside the Memphis city limits. It did well and competed with a white-owned grocery store across the street. While Wells was out of town in Natchez, Mississippi, a white mob invaded her friends' store. During the altercation, three white men were shot and injured. Moss and two other black men, named McDowell and Stewart, were arrested and jailed pending trial. A large white lynch mob stormed the jail and killed the three men.

After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote in Free Speech and Headlight, urging blacks to leave Memphis altogether:

There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.

Wells emphasized the public spectacle of the lynching. More than 6,000 black people did leave Memphis; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. After being threatened with violence, she bought a pistol. She later wrote, "They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth."

Ida Wells concluded that perhaps armed resistance was the Nubian's only defense against lynching and recommended that black people use arms to defend against lynching:

The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.

The murder of her friends drove Wells to research and document lynchings and their causes. She began investigative journalism by looking at the charges given for the murders, which officially started her anti-lynching campaign. She spoke on the issue at various black women's clubs and raised more than $500 to investigate lynchings and publish her results.

Wells found that black people were lynched for such social control reasons as failing to pay debts, not appearing to give way to whites, competing with whites economically, and being drunk in public. She found little basis for the frequent claim that black men were lynched because they had sexually abused or attacked white women. This alibi seemed to have partly accounted for white America's collective acceptance or silence on lynching, as well as its acceptance by many in the educated African-American community. Before her friends were lynched and she conducted research, Wells had concluded that "although lynching was…contrary to law and order…it was the terrible crime of rape [that] led to the lynching; [and] that perhaps…the mob was justified in taking his [the rapist’s] life".

Cover of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases

In 1892 Wells published her findings in a pamphlet entitled "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases." Having examined many accounts of lynchings due to the alleged "rape of white women," she concluded that Southerners cried rape as an excuse to hide their real reasons for lynchings: black economic progress, which threatened white Southerners with competition, and white ideas of enforcing black second-class status in the society.

She followed this with an editorial that suggested that unlike the myth that white women were sexually at risk of attacks by black men, most liaisons between black men and white women were consensual. After the editorial was published, Wells left Memphis for a short trip to New England, to cover another story for the newspaper. Her editorial enraged white men in Memphis. Their responses in two leading white newspapers, The Daily Commercial and The Evening Scimitar, were brimming with hatred; "the fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome…calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of southern whites. But we have had enough of it". On May 27, 1892, while she was away in Philadelphia, a white mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight.

Numerous other studies have supported Wells' findings of lynching as a form of community control and analyzed variables that affect lynching. Beck and Tolnay's influential 1990 study found that economics played a major role, with the rate of lynchings higher when marginal whites were under threat because of uncertain economic conditions. They concluded the following:

…[L]ynchings were more frequent in years when the "constant dollar" price of cotton was declining and inflationary pressure was increasing. Relative size of the black population was also positively related to lynching. We conclude that mob violence against southern black people responded to economic conditions affecting the financial fortunes of southern whites—especially marginal white farmers.

According to scholar Oliver C. Cox in his 1945 article "Lynching and the Status Quo," the definition of lynching is "an act of homicidal aggression committed by one people against another through mob action…for the purpose of suppressing…[or] subjugating them further".

In an effort to raise awareness and opposition to lynching, Wells spoke to groups in New York City, where her audiences included many leading African-American women. On October 5, 1892, a testimonial dinner held at Lyric Hall, organized by political activists and clubwomen, Victoria Earle Matthews and Maritcha Remond Lyons, raised significant funds for Wells' anti-lynching campaign. The Women's Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn was formed to organize black women as an interest group who could act politically.

Because of the threats to her life, Wells left Memphis altogether and moved to Chicago. She continued to wage her anti-lynching campaign and to write columns attacking Southern injustices. Her articles were published in The New York Age newspaper. She continued to investigate lynching incidents and the ostensible causes in the cases.

Together with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders, she organized a black boycott of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for its failure to collaborate with the black community on exhibits to represent African-American life. Wells, Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and Well's future husband Ferdinand Lee Barnett wrote sections of a pamphlet to be distributed there: "Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition." It detailed the progress of blacks since their arrival in America and also exposed the basis of Southern lynchings. Wells later reported to Albion W. Tourgée that copies of the pamphlet had been distributed to more than 20,000 people at the fair. After the World's Fair in Chicago, Wells decided to stay in the city instead of returning to New York. That year she started work with the Chicago Conservator, the oldest African-American newspaper in the city.

Also in 1893, Wells contemplated a libel suit against two black Memphis attorneys. She turned to Tourgée, who had trained and practiced as a lawyer and judge, for possible free legal help. Deeply in debt, Tourgée could not afford to help but asked his friend Ferdinand Barnett for his aid. Born in Alabama, Barnett had become the editor of the Chicago Conservator in 1878. He served as an assistant state attorney for 14 years. Barnett accepted the pro bono job.

Wells took two tours to Europe in her campaign for justice, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894. In 1893, Wells went to Great Britain at the invitation of Catherine Impey, a British Quaker. An opponent of imperialism and proponent of racial equality, Impey wanted to ensure that the British public learned about the problem of lynching in the US. Wells rallied a moral crusade among the British. Wells accompanied her speeches with a photograph of a white mob and grinning white children posing near a hanged black man; her talks created a sensation, but some in the audiences remained doubtful of her accounts. Wells intended to raise money and expose the US lynching violence but received so little funds that she had difficulty covering her travel expenses. 

In 1894, Wells helped form a Republican Women's Club in Illinois in response to women being granted the right to vote for a state elective office and the right to hold elective office as Trustee of the University of Illinois. The club organized to support the nomination by the Republican Party of Lucy L. Flower to that position, and Flower was eventually elected.

In 1894 before leaving the US for her second visit to Great Britain, Wells called on William Penn Nixon, the editor of Daily Inter-Ocean, a Republican newspaper in Chicago. It was the only major white paper that persistently denounced lynching. After she told Nixon about her planned tour, he asked her to write for the newspaper while in England. She was the first African-American woman to be a paid correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper. (Tourgée had been writing a column for the same paper.)

Wells took her anti-lynching campaign to Europe with the help of many supporters. Trying to organize African-American groups across the United States, in 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and the National Afro-American Council.

Her article "In Pembroke Chapel" recounted the mental journey that an English minister had shared with her. C. F. Aked had invited Wells to speak. He told her he had found it difficult to accept the level of violence she recounted in her earlier accounts of lynching. He had traveled to the US for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and while there, read in local papers about the Miller lynching in Bardwell, Kentucky. He realized that Wells' accounts were accurate.

Wells was highly effective in speaking to European audiences, who were shocked to learn about the rate of violence against black people in the U.S. Her two tours in Europe helped gain support for her cause. She called for the formation of groups to formally protest the lynchings. Wells helped catalyze anti-lynching groups in Europe, which tried to press the U.S. government to guarantee the safety of blacks in the South.

Photo of Ferdinand Lee Barnett, Wells' husband, from 1900.

In 1895, Wells married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett, a widower with two sons, Ferdinand and Albert. She was one of the first married American women to keep her own last name as well as taking her husband's.

Ida B Wells with her four children, 1909

The couple had four more children: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. In the chapter of her Crusade For Justice autobiography, called A Divided Duty, Wells described the difficulty she had splitting her time between her family and her work. She continued to work after the birth of her first child, traveling and bringing the infant Charles with her. Although she tried to balance her world, she could not be as active in her work. Susan B. Anthony said she seemed "distracted". After having her second child, Wells stepped out of her touring and public life for a time.

Ida Wells, her husband, their four children with spouses and grandchildren

Wells often encountered and sometimes collaborated with scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Both condemned lynching. They also competed for attention. They differed in accounts for why Wells' name was excluded from the original list of founders of the NAACP. In his autobiography, Du Bois implied that Wells chose not to be included. But, in her autobiography, Wells complained that Du Bois deliberately excluded her from the list.

Wells worked on urban reform in Chicago during the last thirty years of her life. She also raised her family. After her retirement, Wells began writing her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928). She never finished it; she died of uremia (kidney failure) in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68.

She was buried in the Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. (The cemetery was later integrated by the city.)


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Text above republished from Wikipedia

Benjamin O. Davis Sr. – First African-American Army General

Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr. (1877 or 1880 – November 26, 1970) was the first African-American general officer in the United States Army. He was the father of Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. (L) and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (R) at Tuskegee during World War II.

Davis was born in Washington, D.C., the third child of Louis P. H. Davis and Henrietta (née Stewart) Davis. Biographer Marvin Fletcher has presented evidence that Davis was born in May 1880, citing a June 1880 census document. Fletcher concludes that Davis lied about his age so that he could enlist in the Army without the permission of his parents. The birth date that appears on Davis's gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery is July 1, 1877, the date he reported to the Army.

Davis attended M Street High School in Washington where he participated in the school's cadet program. During his senior year of high school, he took some classes at Howard University. His father, a messenger for the Interior Department, and his mother, a nurse, urged him to enroll in college after high school. Against his parents' wishes, he determined to take a military career.

After graduating from high school, in response to the start of the Spanish–American War, Davis entered the military service on July 13, 1898, as a temporary first lieutenant in the 8th United States Volunteer Infantry, an all-black unit. This regiment was stationed at Chickamauga Park, Georgia, from October 1898 until the unit was disbanded in March 1899. During the war, Davis briefly served in Company D, 1st Separate Battalion of the Washington D.C. National Guard.

Davis was mustered out on March 6, 1899, and on June 18, 1899, he enlisted as a private in Troop I, 9th Cavalry Regiment (one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments), of the Regular Army. At his post in Fort Duchesne, Utah, he served first as the troop's clerk and later as squadron sergeant major through 1900. In late 1900, Davis's unit was commanded by Lieutenant Charles Young, the only African-American officer serving in the US military at that time.

Colonel Charles Young, previously a lieutenant, when he encouraged Davis to become an officer

Young encouraged Davis's ambition to become an officer. Young tutored Davis in all of the subjects that were covered in the officer candidate test, especially mathematics, which had been Young's most difficult subject at the United States Military Academy at West Point. In early 1901 Davis passed the test at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, his highest score coming in the math section. (A second African American, John E. Green, passed the test along with 10 other soldiers.) On February 2, 1901, Davis was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the Regular Army.

In the spring of 1901, Troop I was posted overseas to serve in the Philippine–American War. In August 1901, Davis was assigned to Troop F, 10th Cavalry, where he assumed the duties of a second lieutenant. Troop F returned to the US in August 1902. Davis was then stationed at Fort Washakie, Wyoming, where he also served for several months with Troop M. In September 1905, he was assigned to Wilberforce University in Ohio as Professor of Military Science and Tactics, a post that he filled for four years.

In November 1909, shortly after being ordered to Regimental Headquarters, 9th Cavalry, Davis was reassigned for duty to Liberia. He left the United States for Liberia in April 1910 and served as a military attaché reporting on Liberia's military forces until October 1911. He returned to the United States in November 1911. In January 1912, Davis was assigned to Troop I, 9th Cavalry, stationed at Fort D. A. Russell, Wyoming. In 1913, the 9th Cavalry was assigned to patrol the Mexican-United States border.

In February 1915, Davis was again assigned to Wilberforce University as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. From 1917 to 1920, Davis was assigned to the 9th Cavalry at Fort Stotsenburg, Philippine Islands, as supply officer, commander of 3rd Squadron, and then of 1st Squadron. He reached the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel but returned to the United States in March 1920 with the rank of captain.

Davis was assigned to the Tuskegee University, Alabama, as the Professor of Military Science and Tactics from 1920 to 1924. He then served for five years as an instructor with 2nd Battalion, 372nd Regiment, Ohio National Guard, in Cleveland, Ohio. In September 1929, Davis returned to Wilberforce University as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. He was assigned to the Tuskegee Institute in the early part of 1931 and remained there for six years as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. During the summer months of 1930 to 1933, Davis escorted pilgrimages of World War I Gold Star Mothers and Widows to the burial places of their loved ones in Europe.

In the video below, General, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. decorates Lt. Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and other airmen of the 99th Pursuit Squadron which Davis, Jr. commanded.

In August 1937, Davis returned to Wilberforce University as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. Davis was assigned to the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard, during the summer of 1938, and took command of the regiment a short time later. Davis was promoted to Brigadier General on October 25, 1940, becoming the first African-American general in the United States Army.

Davis became Commanding General of 4th Brigade, 2nd Cavalry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, in January 1941. About six months later, he was assigned to Washington, D.C. as an assistant in the Office of the Inspector General. While serving in the Office of the Inspector General, Davis also served on the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. From 1941 to 1944, Davis conducted inspection tours of African-American soldiers in the United States Army.

Gen. B.O. Davis in France on August 8, 1944

From September to November 1942 and again from July to November 1944, Davis made inspection tours of African-American soldiers stationed in Europe.

On November 10, 1944, Davis was reassigned to work under Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee as Special Assistant to the Commanding General, Communications Zone, European Theater of Operations. He served with the General Inspectorate Section, European Theater of Operation (later the Office of the Inspector General on Europe) from January through May 1945. While serving in the European Theater of Operations, Davis was influential in the proposed policy of integration using replacement units.

After serving in the European Theater of Operations for more than a year, Davis returned to Washington, D.C. as Assistant to the Inspector General. In 1947 he was assigned as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. In this capacity, he was sent to Liberia in July 1947 as a representative of the United States for the African country's centennial celebration. On July 20, 1948, after fifty years of military service, Davis retired in a public ceremony with President Harry S. Truman presiding.

From July 1953 through June 1961, he served as a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery

Davis died on November 26, 1970, at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Article text republished from Wikipedia

Bessie Coleman – First Female African-American Pilot

Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was the first woman of African-American descent, and the first of Native American descent, to hold a pilot license. She achieved her international pilot license in 1921.

Coleman's aviation license

Born to a family of sharecroppers in Atlanta, Texas, the tenth of thirteen children, she went into the cotton fields at a young age but also studied in a small segregated school and went on to attend one term of college at Langston University.

Bessie Coleman's father George Coleman was mostly Cherokee or Choctaw and part African-American, and her mother Susan was African-American. When Coleman was two years old, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where she lived until age 23.

Coleman began attending school in Waxahachie at age six. She had to walk four miles each day to her segregated, one-room school, where she loved to read and established herself as an outstanding math student. She completed all eight grades in that school. Every year, Coleman's routine of school, chores, and church was interrupted by the cotton harvest.

In 1901, George Coleman left his family. He returned to Oklahoma, or Indian Territory, as it was then called, to find better opportunities; but Susan and her family did not go along. At age 12, Bessie was accepted into the Missionary Baptist Church School on scholarship. When she turned eighteen, she took her savings and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now called Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. She completed one term before her money ran out and she returned home.

In 1915 at the age of 23, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her two brothers, she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop and supported herself as her brothers went to fight in World War I. There she heard stories from pilots returning home from World War I about flying during the war. 

Coleman quickly learned that Chicago wasn’t any friendlier to the dreams of a young black woman than the Jim Crow South. She took a second job at a chili parlor to procure money faster to become a pilot. American flight schools admitted neither women nor blacks. Coleman turned to role model, Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, who encouraged her to study abroad. 

Blac Millionaire, publisher, and editor of the Chicago Defender, Robert Abbott

Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago, saved up money to go to France and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920, so she could earn her pilot license.

Jesse Binga, founded, The Binga State Bank, the first privately owned African-American bank in Chicago.

Coleman also received financial backing from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender.

She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 biplane with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet." On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to earn an aviation pilot's license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris and in September 1921 she sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States.

In Orlando on a speaking tour, she met the Rev. Hezakiah Hill and his wife Viola, community activists who invited her to stay with them at the parsonage of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Street. The couple, who treated her as a daughter, persuaded her to stay and open a beauty shop to earn extra money to buy her own plane. A local street in Orlando was renamed "Bessie Coleman" Street in her honor in 2013.

With the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator she would have to become a "barnstorming" stunt flier and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire.

The video below, in dedication to Bessie Coleman, is of barnstormer performances. The captions in the video are in Spanish and the beginning captions and translations are: "Mujer de aeroplanos" = Woman of Airplanes and "La Mujer de el cielo" = The woman from the sky. The ending caption, "La primeria mujer En el cielo" = The first woman in the sky.

Returning to Chicago, Coleman could not find anyone willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world's most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company's chief pilots. She then returned to the United States to launch her career in exhibition flying.

Coleman soon became a successful air show pilot in the United States, and hoped to start a school for African American fliers."Queen Bess," as she was known, was a highly popular draw. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes and other aircraft which had been army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as "the world's greatest woman flier" and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian.

Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now the grounds of Hines Veterans Administration Medical Center, Hines, Illinois, Loyola Hospital, Maywood, and nearby Cook County Forest Preserve).

But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman's dream. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day "amount to something." As a professional aviatrix, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt. In Los Angeles, she broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed on February 22, 1923.

Through her media contacts, she was offered a role in a feature-length film titled Shadow and Sunshine, to be financed by the African American Seminole Film Producing Company. She gladly accepted, hoping the publicity would help to advance her career and provide her with some of the money she needed to establish her own flying school. But upon learning that the first scene in the movie required her to appear in tattered clothes, with a walking stick and a pack on her back, she refused to proceed. "Clearly … [Bessie’s] walking off the movie set was a statement of principle. Opportunist, though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks" wrote Doris Rich.

Unfortunately, Coleman would not live long enough to establish a school for young black aviators but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African-American men and women.

On April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville, Florida. She had recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas. Her mechanic and publicity agent, 24-year-old William D. Wills, flew the plane from Dallas in preparation for an airshow but had to make three forced landings along the way due to the plane being so poorly maintained.

Upon learning this, Coleman's friends and family did not consider the aircraft safe and implored her not to fly it. On take-off, Wills was flying the plane with Coleman in the other seat. She had not put on her seatbelt because she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the terrain. About ten minutes into the flight the plane unexpectedly went into a dive and then a spin. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m) and died instantly when she hit the ground.

William Wills was unable to regain control of the plane and it plummeted to the ground. Wills died upon impact and the plane exploded and burst into flames. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had jammed the controls. Coleman was 34 years old.

"Because of Bessie Coleman," wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, "we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream."

Lieutenant William J. Powell (1897-1942)

Powell was a successful owner of several automobile service stations in Chicago who moved to Los Angeles to learn to fly. By the early 1930s, Powell had organized the Bessie Coleman Aero Club to promote aviation awareness in the black community. Both men and women were welcome to apply. Powell became a talented visionary and promoter of black involvement in aviation.

Members of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, William J. Powell (far right)

Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I, and tirelessly promoted the cause of black aviation through his book, his journals, and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which he founded in 1929

Bessie Coleman's role as a pioneering aviator was an inspiration to early pilots and to the African American community.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Portions above republished from Wikipedia. For additional information, visit the official Bessie Coleman website.

JOHN HENRY – A Steel Driving Man

John Henry is an African-American folk hero who symbolizes strength and determination. He is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man"—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel.

The stories about John Henry are not just “tall tales,” for they are based on the life of a real person, a former slave working on the railroads after the Civil War, but time has blurred fact and fiction.

In the stories, John Henry, a strong “steel-driving man,” accepted the challenge of trying to outperform a steam-powered drill. Swinging a heavy hammer in each hand, he beat the machine but died soon after — some say from exhaustion, others say from a broken heart on realizing that machines would replace muscle and spirit. 

The story of John Henry is told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books, and novels. Below is a version the John Henry folk song, sung by Harry Belafonte.

Historial Research

Guy B. Johnson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, investigated the legend of John Henry in the late 1920s. He concluded that John Henry was a real person who worked on and died at the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway's Big Bend Tunnel. The tunnel was built near Talcott, West Virginia, from 1870 to 1872 .

The original Chesapeake and Ohio railroad company line was constructed, following the New River through the Gorge, between 1869 and 1872. This line is very active today with dozens of daily runs by CSX railway corporation coal and freight trains, and Amtrak's Cardinal passenger line.

Workers posing in front of unknown tunnel circa 1880

The C&O railroad was built primarily by two groups of working men, thousands of African-Americans recently freed from enslavement, and recent Irish Catholic immigrants; both groups anxious to begin new lives for themselves and their families as American citizens.

Working from both ends of the state the workers spent three years digging and grading the rail bed, hand drilling and blasting the tunnels, and building the bridges and laying the tracks. Using hand tools and explosives, with horses and mules helping with the heaviest loads, these men literally carved the pathway for the railroad through the rugged mountains by hand.

One of the greatest legends of world folklore was born from these workers and their enormous task; John Henry "The Steel Driving Man".

Historical research supports John Henry as a real person; one of thousands of African- American railroad workers, specifically a steel driver, half of a two man team specializing in the hand drilling of holes up to fourteen feet deep into solid rock for the setting of explosive charges. Steel drivers swung a nine pound hammer straight and strong, all day, everyday, pounding assorted lengths of steel drill bits held by their steady and trusting partners, called shakers, who placed and guided the drill bits, and after every strike of the hammer turned or "shook" the bits to remove the pulverized dust. Together these teams of perfectly choreographed industrial artists would with concentration and muscle lead the way, boring the mile long tunnel through Great Bend Mountain and onward along the pathway throughout the length of New River Gorge.

A sign by the C&O railway line near Talcott, West Virginia.

Some versions of the song refer to the location of John Henry's death as "The Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O." Professor Johnson visited the area around 1929 and found several men who said that they were boys of 12 or 14 when the tunnel was begun and that they could remember seeing John Henry, a large, powerful man. Although most of these men had heard of but not seen the famous contest between John Henry and the steam drill, Johnson ultimately was able to find a man who said he had seen it.

This man, known as Neal Miller, told me in plain words how he had come to the tunnel with his father at 17, how he carried water and drills for the steel drivers, how he saw John Henry every day, and, finally, all about the contest between John Henry and the steam drill.

"When the agent for the steam drill company brought the drill here," said Mr. Miller, "John Henry wanted to drive against it. He took a lot of pride in his work and he hated to see a machine take the work of men like him.

"Well, they decided to hold a test to get an idea of how practical the steam drill was. The test went on all day and part of the next day.

"John Henry won. He wouldn't rest enough, and he overdid. He took sick and died soon after that."

Mr. Miller described the steam drill in detail. I made a sketch of it and later when I looked up pictures of the early steam drills, I found his description correct. I asked people about Mr. Miller's reputation, and they all said, "If Neal Miller said anything happened, it happened."

Talcott holds a yearly festival named for Henry, and a statue and memorial plaque have been placed along West Virginia Route 3 south of Talcott as it crosses over the Big Bend tunnel.

Statue of John Henry, Talcott, WV
Statue of John Henry, Talcott, WV

Historians also believe that John Henry died at the Great Bend Tunnel, one of the estimated hundreds of workers dying in rock falls, malfunctioning explosions and "tunnel sickness(the excessive inhalation of dust), who now rest in unmarked graves at the tunnel entrance below the statue of John Henry, who still stands as their champion.

Although, the historical record indicates John Henry was a real life person, animations and movies have depicted John Hero only as a tall tale or mythical figure. John Henry the movie is entertaining, even though it was created under the assumption that John Henry a legend.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


 Sections republished under license from Wikipedia and the National Park Service.