Charles Henry Langston, the grandfather of poet Langston Hughes, was born a free man on a Virginia plantation in 1817 to Captain Ralph Quarles and Lucy Jane Langston, Quarles’ mulatto slave. He had two brothers, John Mercer (who would become a Virginia Congressman in 1888) and Gideon. After the death of his father in 1834, Charles inherited a large part of his father’s estate, and he went to be educated at Oberlin College in 1842 and 1843.
The liberation of the accused fugitive slave John Price in 1858 helped Charles Langston emerge as a prominent public figure and champion for the cause of anti-slavery. In a bold act of defiance, Charles led a group of white and black abolitionists to rescue John Price from federal authorities after he was arrested for allegedly violating the fugitive slave act. Charles Langston was tried and convicted for his part in this event. Langston’s conviction proved so unpopular in the area that he was freed before serving his full sentence. He would later use this experience to argue that if black people are not able to serve on juries, then they are not tried by their peers.
Arthur Ashe was a Hall of Fame tennis player and humanitarian. Ashe was born and raised in segregated Richmond, Virginia. He began playing tennis for the love of the game at public recreation courts. At the age of ten, Ashe started training with Dr. Walter Johnson, who coached black tennis and golfing phenomenon, Althea Gibson. His tennis career was given notice in 1963, as he was named for the first time to the U.S. Davis Cup Team—a feat repeated eight times including four years in a row. In 1965, his fame increased as he led UCLA to the NCAA tennis championship. Three years later, as an amateur, he astonishingly won a Grand Slam title, winning the 1968 U.S. Open: an achievement repeated at the 1970 Australian Open, and 1975 Wimbledon. In the process Ashe was ranked #1 in men’s tennis on two occasions in 1969 and 1975. Every accomplishment mentioned was a first for black men in the sport.
As a humanitarian, Ashe was just as prolific as on the court. Throughout Ashe’s eleven-year career (1969-1980) and in retirement, he was in the forefront of the South African anti-apartheid movement, developing tennis programs for inner city youth, and co-founding the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).
Born Albert Turner Reid in Hampton, Virginia, November 13, 1927, this world-renowned mathematician earned his bachelor’s degree at Iowa State University in 1949 but never completed a graduate degree in his chosen field. Despite this, he immediately found work as a research assistant and statistician at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley. Early in his career Reid published papers on mathematical biology.
Nathaniel “Nat” Turner was born in Southampton County, Virginia on October 2, 1800, the son of slaves owned by Benjamin Turner, a prosperous farmer. Taught to read by the son of his owner, Turner studied Christianity which he interpreted as condemning slavery. Turner also began to believe that God had chosen him to free his people from slavery. He soon became known among fellow slaves as “The Prophet.”
Turner was sold to slaveholder Joseph Travis in 1830. Less than a year after the sale, Turner received what he assumed was a sign from God when he witnessed the eclipse of the sun. After sharing this experience with a few close friends, they began to plan an insurrection. While still planning the uprising, Turner saw that the color of the sun had changed to a bluish-green, which he believed was the final sign to initiate the uprising. With this confidence, Turner and seven other slaves moved forward with their plans. They first murdered the entire Travis family and eventually fifty whites in the futile effort to incite a general slave uprising. Only 75 slaves and free blacks joined the rebellion.
Robert Russa Moton was born on the William Vaughan Plantation in 1867 in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Moton attended the local freedman’s school and eventually went on to college at the Hampton Institute (now called Hampton University).
At Hampton Institute Moton distinguished himself academically and after graduation was appointed the school’s Commandant in charge of military discipline, a post he held for 25 years. Moton also became a Hampton fundraiser, traveling north to lecture on the school’s programs.
In 1915, Moton left the Hampton Institute to accept a post as Tuskegee Institute as its second president after the death of founder Booker T. Washington. Soon after his arrival Moton began to expand the Institute’s academic programs, adding a new department to educate future black school teachers. He also initiated the construction of what would become the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital which would treat African American World War I veterans. Despite local white opposition, Moton insisted that the federal hospital be staffed by black doctors, nurses, and administrators.
The first SNYC conference was held in Richmond, Virginia on February 13 and 14, 1937 at the Fifth Baptist Church. Five hundred thirty-four delegates from across the South attended the meeting including individuals from almost every historically black college as well as delegates representing YMCA branches and chapters of the Girl and Boy Scouts across the region. One international delegate, a young woman from China, also attended. Like its parent organization, the National Negro Congress, SNYC also included Communists among its members.
Bill Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia on May 25, 1878 to Maxwell and Maria Robinson. Due to the death of both of his parents when he was an infant, Bill and his younger brother Percy were brought up by his grandmother. As a young child, Bill was given the nickname of “Bojangles” although Robinson himself was unsure of the origin of the name.
At the young age of six, Robinson began dancing for a living in local beer gardens as a “hoofer,” or song and dance man. By the time he was twelve, Robinson joined a traveling company and was entertaining audiences far from home. By 1905, he performed on stage in vaudeville shows featuring numbers by dancers, singers, comedians, and actors. Throughout his vaudeville experience, Robinson became a top dancer in the vaudeville circuit while inventing a new way to tap, transforming it from a flat-footed dance to a style that pushed the performer to his toes. Robinson was noted for his “cool” style, rarely using his upper body and depending on his feet and his expressive face. In 1908 in Chicago, Robinson met Marty Forkins, who became his lifelong manager. Under Forkins, Robinson began working as a solo act in nightclubs, increasing his earnings to an estimated $3,500 per week. Despite Robinson’s great success, his opportunities were still limited to black venues because of racism.
Samuel Lee Gravely Jr. was a highly decorated Navy Officer who pioneered the way with a multitude of firsts for African Americans in the military. Some of his most notable achievements included, being the first African American Navy Vice Admiral, the first African American to command a Navy warship, the first African American to command a warship during combat, the first African American to command a Navy Fleet, and the first African American to obtain Flag Rank in the military. His decorations include the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Navy Commendation Medal, and Meritorious Service Medal.
Samuel Gravely was born in Richmond, Virginia on June 4, 1922. He attended Virginia Union University for three years, where he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate fraternity established for African Americans in 1906. Postponing his education, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1942 where he trained as a fireman apprentice.
Henry E. Dabbs, Black Brass: Black Generals and Admirals in the Armed Forces of the United States (Charlottesville, Virginia: Howell Press, 1997); http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/samuel-gravely.htm.
John Mitchell, Jr. edited and published the Richmond Planet newspaper from one year after its founding in 1883, until his death in 1929. He was known as the “fighting editor” for his writing against racism.
In 1863, John Mitchell, Sr. and his wife Rebecca were living on the Lyons family estate in Henrico County, Virginia, near Richmond. The Mitchells were slaves; John was a coachman and Rebecca was a seamstress. On July 11, 1863, they had John, Jr., the first of two sons. After the Civil War, the Mitchell family moved to Richmond, where Rebecca and John, Jr. continued to work for the Lyons family.
Mitchell graduated high school at the top of his class in 1881. He taught in Virginia Public Schools until state politics led to the firing of many black teachers, including him.
In 1883 the black lawyer Edwin Archer Randolph founded the Richmond Planet. After just a year, the newspaper was in the red and on the verge of collapse. Mitchell led a group of former teachers who resurrected it.
Ann Field Alexander, Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting
Editor,” John Mitchell Jr., Charlottesville: University of Virginia
Press (2002); Richmond Planet, Richmond, Virginia (1884 – 1929);
William J. Simmons, Men of Mark, Cleveland: George M. Rewell & Co
In choosing librarianship over teaching or social work, Effie Lee Morris combined her desire to help people with a personal passion for education. In doing so she became one of America’s leading advocates for services to children, minorities, and the visually-impaired. Born in Richmond, Virginia on April 20, 1921, Morris spent her youth in Cleveland, Ohio. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1945, Bachelor of Library Science in 1946, and Master's in Library Science in 1956 all from Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University).
Morris began work in 1946 at the Cleveland Public Library and established the first Negro History Week celebration for children there. In 1955, she moved to New York as a children’s branch librarian in the Bronx. Three years later, in 1958, she pioneered the development of library services for blind children. She later served as president of the National Braille Club from 1961 to 1963.
“ALA Names Three Honorary Members,” American Library Association, http://www.ala.org/ala/newspresscenter/news/pressreleases2008/february20... Effie Lee Morris Collection, San Francisco Public Library, http://sfpl.lib.ca.us/librarylocations/main/elm/elm.htm; Jennifer M. York, editor, Who’s Who Among African Americans, 16th edition (Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2003); Violet Harris, “An Interview with Effie Lee Morris,” The New Advocate, 14:3, 277-284 (Summer 2001).
Osborne Perry Anderson was one of the five African American men to accompany John Brown in the raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in October 1859. Anderson was a free-born black abolitionist, born in West Fallow Field, Pennsylvania on July 27, 1830. Along with John Anthony Copeland Jr., another member of the Brown raiding party, Anderson attended Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. He later moved to Chatham, Canada, where he worked as a printer for Mary Ann Shadd's newspaper, The Provincial Freeman. In 1858 Anderson met John Brown and eventually became persuaded to join his band of men determined to attack Harpers Ferry.
One year after meeting John Brown, on October 16, 1859 Anderson took part in Brown’s radical scheme to free the United States of slavery. Like Brown and the other followers, Anderson believed that if the group seized weapons at Harpers Ferry and then marched south, they would create a massive slave uprising that would liberate all of the nearly four million African Americans in bondage.
Osborne Perry Anderson, A Voice from Harper's Ferry: A Narrative of
Events at Harper's Ferry with incidents Prior and Subsequent to its
Capture by Captain John Brown and His Men (Boston: Privately Printed,
1861); Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer, Prophets of Protest:
Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (New York: The New
Press, 2006); Herb Boyd, Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of
African American History Told by Those Who Lived It (New York:
Doubleday, 2000); Peggy A. Russo and Paul Finkelman, Terrible Swift
Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005);
Virginia State University is a public, historically black college located in Petersburg, Virginia. The university is the first fully supported, four year institution for African Americans in the United States and is one of two land-grant colleges in the State of Virginia.
The university was founded on March 6, 1882 as the Virginia Normal and College Institute after the state legislature passed a bill sponsored by Delegate Alfred W. Harris, a black attorney, which chartered the university. The state established the university to serve the needs of a population that was at the time excluded from other public institutions in Virginia. Virginia Normal and College Institute opened as a teacher training college for both male and female black students but it also included a modest liberal arts curriculum.
The campus opened on October 1, 1883 with 126 students and seven faculty members, all of whom were black, on an operating budget of $20,000. In 1885, John Mercer Langston, a leading African American figure of the time and soon to be the first African American elected to Congress from Virginia, was named the university's first president.
Virginia State University History, http://www.vsu.edu/pages/749.asp (Official site); Trudy Harrington Becker, "Broadening Access to a Classical Education: State Universities in Virginia in the Nineteenth Century," Classical Journal, 96:3 (March 2001).
Following the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865, branches of the National Theological Institute in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia decided to establish separate schools in Richmond to educate ex-slaves. The Washington organization received a $1,500 grant from the Freedman's Bureau and established Wayland Seminary, named after Dr.
Charles Lewis was a sailor and soldier during the American Revolutionary War. Lewis was born sometime around 1760 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia on Bel Aire, the Lewis Family Plantation owned by John Lewis. John and a free mulatto woman, Josephine Lewis, were the parents of Charles and his younger brother, Ambrose. Lewis and his brother were born free but their mother was indentured to John Lewis.
On April 15, 1776, Charles Lewis and his brother entered into the naval service of Virginia when they served on board the Galley Page, a warship commanded by Captain James Markham. On March 20, 1778, they entered the Naval Service of the United States when they joined the crew of the USS Dragon commanded by Captain Eleazor Callender.
BlackPast.org is an independent non-profit corporation 501(c)(3). It has no affiliation with the University of Washington. BlackPast.org is supported in part by a grant from Humanities Washington, a state-wide non-profit organization supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the state of Washington, and contributions from individuals and foundations.