On April 12, 1864, some 3,000 rebels under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest overran Fort Pillow, a former Confederate stronghold situated on a bluff on the Tennessee bank of the Mississippi, some 40 miles north of Memphis. The garrison consisted of about 600 Union soldiers, roughly evenly divided between runaway slaves-turned-artillerists from nearby Tennessee communities and white Southern Unionist cavalry mostly from East Tennessee. Under a flag of truce which his men violated by creeping up on the fort, Forrest demanded the garrison’s surrender, threatening that if it refused he would not be responsible for the actions of his men. Believing Forrest was bluffing, Bradford refused, whereupon the Confederates swarmed over the parapet.
In 1866 the Fisk Free Colored School was established in Nashville, Tennessee by the American Missionary Association. Housed in abandoned Union hospital barracks, Fisk set out to educate former slaves with the support of donations from former abolitionists. As those donations declined over the next five years, Fisk fell on hard times.
To save the institution, Fisk’s treasurer, George Leonard White, decided to gamble on the extraordinary voices of the young black singers who had begun to share with him the songs of their ancestors. Over the objections of his colleagues and sponsors, White and his assistant, a frail young African American pianist named Ella Sheppard, led a choir of nine young former slaves (now called the Fisk Jubilee Singers) up from Nashville to perform for congregations in the North along the route of the Underground Railway.
The Jubilees, as they were eventually called, struggled through a schizophrenic world of liberal ministers and adoring audiences, but also poor receipts, and segregated hotels, restaurants and trains. They made their way to New York, where they chose for their debut Steal Away, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Deep River, the secret hymns their ancestors sang in fields and cabins and brush arbor churches, the spirituals they were about to introduce into the universal canon of Christian worship,.
In the late 1920s, Ophelia Settle Egypt conducted some of the first and finest interviews with former slaves, setting the stage for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) massive project ten years later. Born Ophelia Settle in 1903, she was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a researcher for the black sociologist Charles Johnson at Fisk University in Nashville.
Over the course of her career Settle helped expose the infamous Tuskegee study of syphilis among black sharecroppers, and played a leading role in Charles Johnson’s "Shadow of the Plantation" study of the sharecropper system. As the Depression wore on, she left Fisk to assist with relief efforts in St. Louis. She accepted a scholarship from the National Association for the Prevention of Blindness to study medicine and sociology at Washington University, where, as a black woman, she was required to receive all her lessons from a tutor. She also became head of social services at a hospital in New Orleans, and five years later conducted research for James Weldon Johnson, about whom she wrote a children's book. Egypt was a social worker in southeast Washington, D.C., and for eleven years was the director of the community’s first Planned Parenthood clinic, which was named for her in 1981.
Ophelia Settle Egypt died in Washington, D.C. in 1984.She was 81.
James Meredith, Three Years in Mississippi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966); http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/meredith_james/.
Hervey served with Company F of the 59th United States Infantry (USCI) formerly 1st Tennessee Colored Infantry, volunteering from his home in Water Valley, Mississippi, at La Grande, Tennessee June 1863. While in military service, Gilford was involved in a number of battles including the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads on June 10, 1864 near Tupelo, Mississippi and the repulse of Nathan Bedford’s attack on Memphis on August 21, 1864. Hervey was injured during the war which prompted his claim for a pension. He was discharged from military service on January 31, 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee.
After his discharge Hervey became a minister and resided in several states including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, and California before migrating to Seattle in 1915. During those years he married three times and had one child, a son named Carey, by his first wife, Annie Rankin. Hervey maintained his Seattle residence for five years. He died, however, in a hospital in Sedro Woolley, Washington on September 8, 1920. As a member of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), Hervey was eligible for burial in Seattle’s GAR Cemetery located on Capital Hill. Hervey is one of three known African American Civil War soldiers buried there.
Karen E. Hudson, Paul R. Williams, Architect: A Legacy of Style (New York: Rizzoli, 1993); “Architect Paul R. Williams,” http://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/about/paul-revere-williams-architect/
James Meredith and Constance Baker Motley, 1962
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Ella Sheppard, soprano, pianist and reformer, was the matriarch of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a social reformer, confidante of Frederick Douglass, and one of the most distinguished African American women of her generation. Sheppard was born a slave in 1851 on Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation. A biracial relation of Jackson’s family, her father Simon Sheppard had purchased his freedom by hiring himself out as a Nashville, Tennessee liveryman and hack driver. When Sheppard was a little girl, her slave mother Sarah threatened to drown Ella and herself if their owners refused to permit her Simon to purchase Ella’s freedom. But an elderly slave prevented her, predicting that “the Lord would have need of that child.” Her owners refused to release Sarah, but allowed Ella to go with her father, who soon remarried and, fearful he and his daughter might be reenslaved, fled penniless to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Blues singer Robert Calvin "Bobby" Bland also known as Bobby "Blue" Bland, was born on January 27, 1930 in Rosemark, Tennessee. He then moved to Memphis, Tennessee with his mother where he started getting involved with local gospel groups. In addition to joining the gospel groups Bland started befriending other local aspiring musicians known collectively as the Beale Streeters. During this time Bland started recording songs but none were successful.
In 1952 Bland joined the U.S. Army. Upon completing his service in 1954, he returned to Memphis to continue to pursue his music career. Back in the Beale Street music scene he began touring with Little Junior Parker, a regionally known blues singer. Although he started as Parker’s chauffeur, eventually his performing abilities were recognized and he again was allowed to record songs.
Bland’s first commercially successful release, “Farther up the Road” came in 1957 when the song reached the top 10 on the Rhythm and Blues charts. The following year he released “Little Boy Blue” which also became a top ten recording and established Bland as a major artist in both the blues and rhythm and blues categories. A string of hits in the 1960s including “Cry Cry Cry,” “Turn on Your Love Light,” and “I Pity the Fool” made Bland, along with B.B. King, the most commercially successful of the blues artists of that decade.
Legendary blues singer B.B. King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925 in Itta Bena, Mississippi. King spent his childhood in the Mississippi Delta, but in 1946 left to pursue a music career in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, King was employed as a singer and disc jockey at radio station WDIA where he was given the radio name “Beale Street Blues Boy” which he shortened to B.B. In 1949 while at WDIA he recorded many of his early singles for RPM records in Los Angeles, California.
King began to have significant success as a blues artist in the 1950s with a string of recordings such as “Please Love Me,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and “Ten Long Years.” His hits brought him to the attention of Paramount Records which signed the blues performer in 1962. In November 1964 he recorded Live at the Regal at the Regal Theater in Chicago, Illinois, at that point one of the most successful blues albums ever produced.
Marion Barry Jr., a civil rights activist and later three term mayor of Washington D.C., was born on March 6, 1936, in Itta Bena, Mississippi. His parents, Marion Barry and Mattie Barry, were sharecroppers; the family lived in relative poverty. When Marion was eight years old, his mother took the family to live in Memphis, Tennessee.
Barry graduated from high school in Memphis and then in 1958 earned his bachelor’s degree at Le Moyne College, a small black college in the city. He received a master’s degree in organic chemistry from Le Moyne College in Nashville in 1960. Barry then completed three years of a doctoral program in chemistry at the University of Tennessee.
Jonetta Rose Barras, The Last of the Black Emperor: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders (Baltimore: Bancroft Press, 1998); Councilmember Ward 8, http://www.dccouncil.washington.dc.us/BARRY/about/default.htm; The Washington Post, “Marion Barry: The Making of a Mayor,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/longterm/library/dc/barry/barry.htm. "Marion Berry 4-Time Mayor of D.C., dies at 78," The Washington Post, Nov 23, 2014.
Academy Award-winning composer and musician Isaac Hayes, Jr. was born to Isaac Sr. and Eula Hayes on August 20, 1942 in Covington, Tennessee. Hayes began his career at the age of 20 when he joined Stax Records as a studio musician. By the late 1960s he was a songwriter/producer, crafting hit singles for Sam and Dave and other Stax acts.
A year after emerging as a solo artist, Hayes’s debut album Hot Buttered Soul (1969) took soul music in a new direction – incorporating spoken segments (he called raps), fewer, longer songs accompanied by orchestras, and eccentric album covers that featured what was to become Hayes’s signature shaved head and gold chains upon his bare chest.
Although his success in the music industry continued with his follow up album Black Moses, Hayes simultaneously pursued a film and television career. In 1971, Hayes created the score for the film Shaft. Recording the sound track in just four days, Shaft rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Chart and garnered a Grammy and an Academy Award for Best Song and Best Score in 1972, making Hayes the first African American composer to win an Oscar. He also appeared in films such as Shaft (1971); Truck Turner (1974), his only starring role.
Isaac Hayes Biography, http://www.filmreference.com/film/84/Isaac-Hayes.html; “Isaac Puts Chef Behind Him,” New York Post, January 24, 2007; The Vancouver Sun (12 August 2008); http://www.isaachayes.com/myframes.html.
James Finley Wilson was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1881 to Reverend James L. Wilson and Nancy Wiley Wilson. From 1922 to 1948, Wilson served consecutive terms as Grand Exalted Ruler of the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World (I.B.P.O.E. of W.), one of the largest African American fraternal organizations in the nation. Wilson’s accomplishments as “Grand” established him as a revered leader among his fraternal brothers and sisters and a national figure in the African American culture.
“James Finley Wilson,” Journal of Negro History 37 (1952): 356-358; “ Wilson Re-Elected Grand Exalted Ruler,” California Eagle, September 13, 1929; Rayford Logan, “James Finley Wilson,” in Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982).
The 1927 Times of London (UK) obituary noted of Florence Mills, “There is no doubt that she was a real artist full of individuality and intelligence, and her premature death is a sad loss to the profession.” Florence Mills was an internationally-recognized and multifaceted performer who paved the way for other black female stars during the Harlem Renaissance.
Born Florence Winfrey in 1896, in Washington, D.C. to former slaves Nellie and John Winfrey, Mills moved with her parents to New York City, New York in 1905. To help her financially struggling family, Mills and her two older sisters created “The Mills Sisters,” a dance and singing troupe that performed in theatres in Harlem, New York.
Bill Egan, Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2004); http://www.florencemills.com/biography.htm.
Rowan was born August 11, 1925, in the mining town of Ravenscroft, Tennessee. When he was a baby his family moved to McMinnville, Tennessee, because his parents thought its lumberyards offered more opportunity. His father, Thomas, stacked lumber for construction, and his mother, Johnnie, cleaned houses, cooked, and did laundry for wealthier families. They had five children. The Rowan family home had no electricity, running water, telephone, nor even a clock. One of young Carl's teachers encouraged him to read and write as much as possible, even going to the library for him because, as a black person, Rowan wasn't allowed to check out books for himself. He graduated at the top of his high school class.
Carl Rowan, Breaking Barriers: a Memoir (Boston: Little, Brown 1991); Cynthia Kirk, “Carl Rowan: The Life Story of an Influential Newsman,” People in America, Voice of America (May 14, 2005); J.Y. Smith, “Columnist Carl Rowan Dies at 75,” The Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2000; p. A1.
Lillian Randolph was a 20th Century actress who routinely, yet proudly, presented the role of the black domestic in film and radio and defended her right to maintain such characters in an intelligent fashion for much of her career. Randolph was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1915. She first entered the world of entertainment as a singer at WJR Radio in Detroit in the early 1930s.
In 1936, Randolph migrated to Los Angeles and made her debut as a singer at the Club Alabam. Five years later, she landed the role of the maid, Birdie, on the radio and TV series The Great Gildersleeve, and soon became one of the most sought after black actresses of the period. Randolph portrayed Birdie until 1957. She simultaneously played the role of Daisy, the housekeeper on The Billie Burke (radio) situation comedy from 1943 to 1946, and title role of the radio show, Beulah, in the early 1950s when Hattie McDaniel became ill. Also in the early 1950s she performed on the Amos n’ Andy show, recreating the role of Madame Queen, which she first played on the radio version of the series.
Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988); Christopher P. Lehman, The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008); Anonymous, Lillian Randolph, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Press Release, nd; Lillian Randolph, Letters and Pictures to the Editor, Ebony, April 1946, vol.1, p. 51.
Harry Herbert Pace was the founder of the first black record company, Pace Phonograph Corporation which sold recordings under the Black Swan Records label. He was born on January 6, 1884 in Covington, Georgia the son of Charles Pace and Nancy Ferris Pace. His father, a blacksmith by trade, died while Harry was still an infant leaving him to be raised by his mother. Pace graduated from elementary school when he was twelve and finished at Atlanta University seven years later as valedictorian. W.E.B. Du Bois was one of his instructors. After graduation he worked in a printing company. He also worked for banking and insurance companies first in Atlanta and later in Memphis.
In 1912, after moving to Memphis, Pace met W.C. Handy. The two men became friends, writing songs together. During this period Pace met and later married Ethlynde Bibb. Pace and Handy formed the Pace and Handy Music Company together and work with composers such as William Grant Sill and Fletcher Henderson. Pace moved to New York to manage the sheet music business but later decided to form a record company.
Pace Phonograph Corporation Inc. was founded in March, 1921 with $30,000 in borrowed capital. The label Black Swan Records was named after Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield a famous 19th Century entertainer known as the “Black Swan” for her singing.
Jitu K. Weusi, The Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records, http://www.redhotjazz.com/blackswan.html; Joan Potter, African American Firsts, (New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Group, 2002).
Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, born in Atlanta, Georgia on April 25, 1942, was a civil rights leader. Robinson, the second oldest of seven children born to Alice and John T. Smith, was raised in Atlanta’s black middleclass neighborhood of Summerhill. She graduated from Price High School in 1958 and earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Spelman College in 1965. Robinson’s exposure to racial discrimination in her city, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins in February 1960, all influenced her to become involved in the civil rights movement.
Cynthia Griggs Fleming, Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998). Bettye Collier Thomas, and V.P. Franklin, Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2001). Howard Zinn, SNCC, the New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964); James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Washington, DC: Open Hand Publishing, 1985).
Jesse B. Blayton, Sr., was a pioneer African American radio station entrepreneur. Blayton founded WERD-AM in Atlanta, Georgia on October 3, 1949 making him the first African American to own and operate a radio station in the United States.
Jesse Blayton was born in Fallis, Oklahoma, on December 6, 1879. He graduated from the University of Chicago (Illinois) in 1922 and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia to establish a private practice as an accountant. Blayton passed the Georgia accounting examination in 1928, becoming the state's first black Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and only the fourth African American nationwide to hold the certification.
William Barlow, Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio (Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1999); Theresa A. Hammond, A White-Collar
Profession: African American Public Accountants since 1921 (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); "WERD" in the New
Georgia Encyclopedia (online), http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/werd.
John Hope Franklin, one of the nation's leading historians, is the only African American who has served as president of both the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH).
Franklin was born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma on January 2, 1915 to parents Buck, a Tulsa attorney, and Mollie Franklin. He recalled growing up in Tulsa, in a Jim Crow society that stifled his senses and damaged his “emotional health and social well being.” While his family was in Rentiesville, Buck Franklin not only survived the June 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, but also successfully sued the city. This suit, before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, overturned a Tulsa ordinance which prevented the city’s blacks from rebuilding their destroyed community.
John Hope Franklin, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005); August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black Historians and the Historical Profession 1915-1980 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986; and John Hope Franklin, “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar,” in Herbert Hill, ed., Soon, One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940-1962 (New York: Knopf, 1963); Biography of John Hope Franklin, http://www.fhi.duke.edu/about/john-hope-franklin.
Charles Spurgeon Johnson, one of the leading 20th Century black sociologists, was born in Bristol, Virginia on July 24, 1893. After receiving his B.A. from Virginia Union University in Richmond, he studied sociology with the noted sociologist Robert E. Park at the University of Chicago, Illinois where he earned a Ph.D. in 1917. Initially a friend of historian Carter G. Woodson, he did collaborative work with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History until his relationship with Woodson deteriorated.
August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, Black Historians and the Historical Profession, 1915-1980 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); Earnest W. Burgess, Elmer A. Carter, and Clarence Faust, “Charles S. Johnson, “Social Scientist, Editor, and Educational Statesman,” Phylon, 17 (Winter, 1956); Joe M. Richardson, A History of Fisk University-1865-1946 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980) ; Patrick J. Gilpin, “Charles S. Johnson, An Intellectual Biography” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1973).
David Nelson Crosthwait Jr. was a African American inventor who is known for creating the heating system for Radio City Music Hall in New York City, New York. Crosthwait was born on May 27th 1898 in Nashville, Tennessee. He grew up in Kansas City, Kansas where he attended an all-black school.
From a young age Crosthwait trained to become an engineer. His parents and teachers were very encouraging and challenged him to do experiments and to make designs. Crosthwait upon graduating from high school in Kansas City in 1908 received a full academic scholarship to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He gradated in 1913 from Purdue at the top of his class and received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.
Otha Richard Sullivan, Black Stars: African American Inventors (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998).
Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, the founder of the Church of God In Christ, was born September 8, 1866 near Memphis, Tennessee. His parents Jerry and Eliza Mason were ex-slaves. When Charles was twelve years old his family moved to Plumerville, Arkansas due to a Yellow-Fever epidemic that struck the Memphis area. While in Arkansas, the Masons lived and worked as tenant farmers on the John Watson Plantation. Jerry, incapacitated with Yellow-Fever, passed in 1879. The following year Charles, at the age of fourteen, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He recovered from the disease some months later.
Jerry Ramsey, The Late Apostle of C.H. Mason Speaks (Memphis: COGIC Inc., 1984); http://www.cogic.com/history.html.
The Church of God In Christ (COGIC) with over six million members worldwide is one the largest Pentecostal churches in the world. It was founded by Bishop Charles Harrison Mason in 1907.
Charles Harrison Mason began his religious life in the 1890s as an ordained Baptist minister in Arkansas. However he traveled to Los Angeles, California in 1906 to participate in the Azusa Street Revival led by black evangelist Rev. William Seymour. Inspired by what he heard in Los Angeles, Mason returned to Arkansas ready to challenge many Baptist doctrines.
Charles Edwin Jones, Black Holiness: A Guide to the Study of Black
Participation in Wesleyan perfectionist and Glossolalic Pentecostal
Movements (Metuchen N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987).
Ishmael Reed is an African American novelist, essayist, playwright, satirist, editor, publisher, and poet. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on February 22, 1938 to Henry Lenoir and Thelma Coleman. Lenoir and Coleman moved to Buffalo, New York where Reed grew up. When his mother divorced Lenoir and married Bennie Reed, Ishmael took his stepfather's last name.
Reed enrolled in Millard Fillmore College in New York in 1956, taking night courses. Eventually he transferred to day classes at University of Buffalo with the encouragement of his English instructor. He attended the University of Buffalo between 1956 and 1960. Unfortunately due to financial reasons Reed withdrew and did not receive a degree. Although later, in 1995, the University of Buffalo (now the State University of New York at Buffalo) awarded him an honorary Doctorate in Letters. In 1962 Reed moved to New York's Lower East Side and started a career as a journalist. In 1967, after he published his first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, Reed moved to San Francisco, California.
Caroline Bokinsky, “Ishmael Reed.” Dictionary of Literary Biography:
American Poets Since WWII. Vol. 5 Part 2, Donald J. Greiner, Editor,
(Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1980); Joyce Pettis, “Ishmael Reed.”
African American Poets: Lives, Works, and Sources. Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002); Robert Elliot Fox, Modern American
Poetry: About Ishmael Reed's Life and Career. University of Illinois at
retrieved on 2009-03-04;
Lucretia Marchbanks, well-documented in western lore for her upright character and superb culinary talents, was one of the first African American women to venture into the Black Hills of South Dakota. Marchbanks was born enslaved on March 25, 1832 near Turkey Creek in Putnam County, Tennessee, the eldest of 13 children born to Edmund and Mary Marchbanks.
When Lucretia was 17, she and her younger brother William accompanied her new owners, Robert and Anne Marchbanks Martin, to Siskiyou County in California where Lucretia cared for the Martins’ growing family and William assisted with a livestock venture. She stayed on with the family after gaining her freedom in 1865 but in 1870 moved to Colorado to join her brothers Finley and Burr and sister Martha Ann “Mattie” Marchbanks.
At the age of 10, Turner and her older sister were sent to live with their grandparents who also lived in Nutbush. In 1956, they moved to St. Louis, Missouri to live with their estranged mother. During the same year, Turner was introduced to guitarist Ike Turner and his band Kings of Rhythm in an East St. Louis nightclub after spontaneously performing a song with them. She joined the group the next year, and adopted the stage name "Tina" in 1960. The band became The Ike and Tina Turner Revue.
Le Moyne-Owen College is a private, historically black, four year, co-educational, liberal arts institution located in Memphis, Tennessee. It is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The institution can trace its roots back to 1862, when the American Missionary Association (AMA) sent Lucinda Humphrey to Camp Shiloh to open an elementary school for freedmen and runaway slaves shortly after federal troops, commanded by Ulysses S. Grant, occupied West Tennessee. In 1863, the school then known as Lincoln Chapel, was moved to Memphis, but was destroyed by fire in 1866 during the anti-black race riots following the withdrawal of federal troops.
Tennessee State University (TSU) is a historically black, comprehensive, four-year co-educational university located on a 500 acre campus in Nashville, Tennessee. With over 10,000 students, including nearly 1,900 graduate students, it is one of the largest historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the nation. It is the only state funded HBCU in Tennessee.
TSU’s history began when the Tennessee State General Assembly passed an act creating the Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School in 1909. The school began serving a student body of 247 in June of 1912. In 1922 the school was raised to the status of a four-year teachers college and empowered to grant bachelor’s degrees. The first bachelor’s degrees were awarded in 1924, the same year that the school changed its name to the Agricultural and Industrial State Normal College. Three years later the word “Normal” was dropped from the name.
Van Jones is a social-environmental activist and the Obama administration’s former “Green Czar.” He was born in 1968 in Jackson, Tennessee. His mother and father were a high school teacher and junior-high principal respectively. While growing up, Jones was a stereotypical “geek,” going so far as to pretend that his action figures were running public offices. Jones attended the University of Tennessee at Martin where he majored in communications and political science. It was during his freshman year in UT-Martin that Jones chose for himself the nickname “Van.” In 1990 Jones enrolled at Yale Law School.
After graduating in 1993, Jones moved to San Francisco. There he became a community organizer and set up the Bay Area organizations, PoliceWatch and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in 1996, both intended to combat police abuse. Jones also involved himself and his organization in the campaign to reform California’s juvenile detention system including the fight against the construction of a huge new juvenile detention facility in Dublin, California.
Stax Records is an American record company known for its talented, and often integrated, rhythm and blues (R&B) musicians. Founded by Estelle Axton and her brother Jim Stewart in 1957 as Satellite Records, in 1960 the company moved into the Capitol Theater in Memphis, Tennessee. Later that year, a recording made in the new studio of Rufus and Carla Thomas's song “Cause I Love You” gained popularity in the Memphis area which led to a series of deals giving Atlantic Records the distribution rights to future Satellite releases. The deal provided the young company with a national audience. With national distribution came the revelation that another “Satellite Records” predated the one in Memphis and Stewart and Axton changed their company’s name to Stax, a combination of the first letters of their last names.
Benjamin L. Hooks is most notably known for serving as leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1977 to 1992. Born on January 31, 1925 in Memphis, Tennessee to Robert and Bessie White Hooks, he was the fifth of seven children.
Hooks grew up in racially segregated Tennessee. He attended LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis from 1941 to 1943 but graduated from Howard University in 1944. He then joined the U.S. Army and recalled watching Italian prisoners he guarded eat at restaurants that excluded him and other black soldiers. He left the army in 1945 as a staff sergeant and soon afterwards enrolled at DePaul University in Chicago to study law because no Tennessee university would accept him because of his race. Graduating in 1948 with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) , Hooks returned to Memphis. Four years later he married schoolteacher Frances Dancy in Memphis.
In 1956 Hooks became a Baptist minister and one year later joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) then headed by Dr. Martin Luther King. By the early 1960s Hooks, now a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), helped organize sit-ins in Memphis. By the late 1960s Hooks was pastor at Great Middle Baptist Church in Memphis and at Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit.
Callie House is most famous for her efforts to gain reparations for former slaves and is regarded as the early leader of the reparations movement among African American political activists. Callie Guy was born a slave in Rutherford Country near Nashville, Tennessee. Her date of birth is usually assumed to be 1861 but due to the lack of birth records for slaves, this date is not certain. She was raised in a household that included her widowed mother, sister, and her sister’s husband. House received some primary school education.
At the age of 22, she married William House and moved to Nashville, where she raised five children. To support her family, House worked at home as a washerwoman and seamstress. In 1891, a pamphlet entitled Freedmen’s Pension Bill: A Plea for American Freedmen began circulating around the black communities in central Tennessee. This pamphlet, which espoused the idea of financial compensation as a means of rectifying past exploitation of slavery, persuaded House to become involved in the cause that would become her life’s work.
With the help of Isaiah Dickerson, House chartered the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1898, and was named the secretary of this new organization. Eventually House became the leader of the organization. In this position she traveled across the South, spreading the idea of reparations in every former slave state with relentless zeal. During her 1897-1899 lecture tour the Association's membership by 34,000 mainly through her efforts. By 1900 its nationwide membership was estimated to be around 300,000.
Professional basketball player Oscar Palmer Robertson, nicknamed the “Big O,” was known as the most complete basketball player, with an excellent combination of scoring, passing, and rebounding skills. He still owns the record for most triple-doubles in a career with 181. Robertson played with the Cincinnati (Ohio) Royals and Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Bucks in the National Basketball Association (NBA) most of his professional career.
Robertson was born on November 24, 1938 in Charlotte, Tennessee. He grew up in poverty in Indianapolis, Indiana and attended Crispus Attucks High School, then a segregated all-black school. As a high school basketball player he led Crispus Attucks to two Indiana State Championships (1955-1956) during his junior and senior years and was named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball.”
African American cowboy and rodeo rider Jesse Stahl set the standard of performance in saddle bronc riding that continues to this day. Stahl was a topnotch horseman, a first-class gentleman, and a cowboy who was regarded by many who saw his performances as larger than life.
Conflicting sources establish Jesse Stahl’s birthplace as Tennessee, Texas or California sometime between 1879 and 1883. Nothing is known about his childhood other than he had a brother named Ambrose. Both brothers joined the rodeo circuit but only Jesse went on to fame.
Jesse Stahl is most famous for his performance at the Salinas Rodeo in California in 1912. Before over 4,000 fans, Stahl stole the show in the rodeo’s classic event of saddle bronc riding on the bronco named Glass Eye. The horse would buck, twist his body 180-degrees midair, and land in the exact opposite direction. Most observers felt that none other than Stahl stood a chance of staying on Glass Eye. He did, and that magnificent ride thrilled fans and cemented Stahl’s name into the annals of rodeo fame. Other stories of Stahl's exploits have been passed down through oral tradition.
Alonzo Franklin Herndon was an African American entrepreneur who founded and was the first president of Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Herndon was born on June 26, 1858 in Walton County, Georgia to Frank Herndon, a white farmer, and Sophenie, his slave. By the time of his death in 1927, Herndon was Atlanta, Georgia’s wealthiest African American and one of the first black millionaires in the United States.
Herndon worked on his father's plantation near Social Circle, Georgia. Freed by the 13th Amendment, Herndon and his mother, younger brother, and maternal grandparents became sharecroppers. Herndon supplemented the family income by working as day laborer and peddler of peanuts, homemade molasses, and axle grease.
In the following account writer Irene Brown recalls through her father's photo the visit of Ada Wright, mother to Roy and Andy Wright, two of the nine Scottsboro Boys accused of rape in 1931. Her account appears below.
Memories. That’s all that’s left when someone dies. I am lucky. My parents left me good memories and they also left me hundreds of photographs. One day, I came across a photo of my Dad’s that I must have seen before but somehow its significance had failed to register. It was a press photo with the stamp ‘copyright The Bulletin,’ which was a sister paper of the Glasgow Herald, one of Scotland’s national newspapers. It looked like the start of a demonstration which I assumed was in Glasgow as the photo had been taken by a Glasgow newspaper. The crowd was made up of flat-capped working class men and bareheaded boys. Two young men near the front were playing flutes. One of these young men was my father, Duncan Brown.
In the late afternoon of May 1, 1866, long broiling tensions between the residents of southern Memphis, Tennessee erupted into a three day riot known as the Memphis Riot of 1866. The riot began when a white police officer attempted to arrest a black ex-soldier and an estimated fifty blacks showed up to stop the police from jailing him. Accounts vary as to who began the shooting, but the altercation that ensued quickly involved more and more of the city. The victims initially were only black soldiers, but the violence quickly spread to other blacks living just south of Memphis who were attacked while their homes, schools, and churches were destroyed. White Northerners who worked as missionaries and school teachers in black schools were also targeted.
Caroline Gray was 35, uneducated, and unable to read or write when she moved from Clarksville, Tennessee to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1867, with her four children. In Ohio, Gray supported the family by working as a seamstress and housing foster children. All the Gray children contributed to the family’s income. While in high school, Rollins worked as a seamstress and dressmaker and in the dental office of Jonathan and William Taft. Ida Gray graduated from Gaines Public High School in 1887 when she was 20 years old.
Born in Gainesville, Florida on February 7, 1882, Emma Rochelle Wheeler had gained an interest in medicine at the young age of six after her father had taken her to a white female doctor for an eye problem. Seeing the rare female doctor persuaded young Emma that she could pursue that profession as well. Emma remained friends with the physician who followed her progress through high school and later Cookman Institute in Jacksonville.
Rochelle graduated from Cookman in 1899 at the age of 17 and married Joseph R. Howard, a teacher, in 1900. Within a year of their marriage Howard fell ill with typhoid fever and died before seeing his son, Joseph Jr. Soon after her husband’s death, Wheeler moved with her son to Nashville, Tennessee where she would continue to pursue her goal of becoming a physician.
Emma Howard attended Walden University in Nashville, graduating from Meharry Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical College in 1905. The week of her commencement she married John N. Wheeler, who was also a physician. Together they would have two daughters, Thelma and Bette, and an adopted son George, who was Emma’s nephew.
In 1885 McClellan obtained a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In October 1888 McClellan married Mariah Augusta Rabb, a teacher, who also graduated from Fisk University. Two years later McClellan received a master’s degree from Fisk.
McClellan and his wife had two sons, one of whom died in childhood of tuberculosis and about whom McClellan wrote tenderly in his poem “To Theodore.”
In the extended article that appears below historians Daudi Abe and Quintard Taylor explore the history of African Americans in Martin Luther King County from 1858 to 2014. They analyze the forces which encouraged people of African ancestry to settle in the county and discuss the rapid political, social, and economic changes that its black residents have faced since the first arrival, Manuel Lopes, came to the county in 1858.
With 119,801 people of African ancestry in a total population of 1,931,249 people, Martin Luther King, Jr. County is the most populous county in the state of Washington and is home to 29% of the state’s inhabitants and half of Washington’s black population. It is also the only county in the United States named after the 20th Century civil rights icon.
The following year, 1835, black congregants received permission to hold separate prayer services. In October 1847 black members of First Baptist were allowed to rent an old school building where they conducted services three Sundays each month.
First Colored Baptist Mission began officially in 1841 as a quasi-autonomous branch of First Baptist Church. By 1847 black members were allowed to rent an old school building where they conducted services. Six years later in 1853, former slave Nelson G. Merry was ordained and became the unofficial pastor of the mission which by 1856 had 200 members.
John Edward Reinhardt, ambassador and diplomat, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1920. After serving in World War II, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Knoxville College in 1939, a Masters degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1947, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin in 1950. Reinhardt was the first African American to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. He was assigned there from 1971 to 1975.
Born October 22, 1882 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, King Daniel’s parents were King and Hattie Ganaway. He was named after his father King and his grandfather Daniel. His devout Christian faith led King in 1903 at the age of 21 to leave Tennessee to join the Christian Catholic Church, a religious community in Zion, Illinois under the leadership of John Alexander Dowie. After nine months of waiting tables there he decided to move to Chicago.
While in New Orleans, Dr. Lavizzo developed a national reputation as a medical innovator. He coauthored “Observations on the General Adaptation of Syndrome: Surgery as Measured by the Eosinophil Response.” This prized paper was delivered at the first annual Charles Drew Memorial Forum in August 1951.
Calhoun attended Meharry Medical School located in Nashville, Tennessee. The college was established in 1876 (just 14 years before he was born) as the Medical Department of Central Tennessee College. It was one of the first medical schools in the South for African Americans, although Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C., was the first, chartered in 1868.
Following his graduation from Meharry Medical College in the early 1920s, Dr. Calhoun migrated to Seattle, Washington. In the early Seattle years, he practiced medicine from the Chandler Annex located on East Madison Street. He and his wife, Verna, lived in an apartment above his office.
Bowers grew up in Philadelphia’s “Seventh Ward,” a long narrow strip in center of the city that for nearly two centuries was home to the city’s most prominent African American neighborhood. Seventh Ward was the section where scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois lived and wrote The Philadelphia Negro, the nation's first major study of black urban life.
In 1934, Boykin entered Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas, later graduating in 1938 as valedictorian of his class. Following high school, Boykin began college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, simultaneously working at an aerospace laboratory in Nashville as a laboratory assistant testing automatic controls for aircraft.
Francis Shober earned his law degree at the University of North Carolina in 1851 and was a co-founder of the first Sunday school in the state. Meanwhile James Shober’s mother, Betsy Ann Waugh, was a mulatto slave who was only eighteen years old when Shober was born. Betsy Ann, who lived in Salem, passed away in 1859 when Shober was between the age of six and seven. He was sent back to the Waugh Plantation near Waughtown, North Carolina, where his grandmother lived with other family relatives.
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.