Posts Tagged ‘African Americans’

On this day in 1906, Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri and christened Freda Josephine McDonald by her mother, Carrie McDonald.  Homeless at the age of 12, she was discovered dancing on a street corner three years later and recruited to join the St. Louis Chorus.  She is perhaps best remembered for her performances at the Folies Bergères in Paris throughout the 1920s where she danced in her iconic banana skirt and often appeared on stage with her pet cheetah, Chiquita.  Through the 1930s, she rose to fame as a singer, dancer, and actress.  In 1937 she became a French citizen, and as World War II progressed, she shifted her focus toward supporting the underground resistance movement.  After the war, she often returned to the United States where she was active in the American Civil Right Movement, speaking at the 1963 March on Washington and famously refusing to perform before segregated audiences.

Josephine Baker with the Nobel Prize winning political scientist, Ralph J. Bunche, ca. 1960. Image courtesy of the UCLA Special Collections via Calisphere, the Online Archive of California.

You can find more primary sources about activists and entertainers of the twentieth century through Opening History.


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Throughout the month of May in 1961, groups of civil right activists, known collectively as the Freedom Riders, boarded interstate buses traveling through the southern United States.  Three separate United States Supreme Court decisions —  Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946), Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company (1955) and  Boynton v. Virginia (1960) — had ruled segregation illegal on interstate buses and in the waiting rooms and restaurants that served those buses, allowing interstate travelers to disregard local laws upholding racial segregation.  The Freedom Riders sought to exercise their rights by testing the new federal law but were attacked by violent mobs and arrested by police willing to uphold local Jim Crow laws.

A group of Freedom Riders visiting with civil rights leader John LeFlore in Mobile, Alabama, 1961. Image courtesy of the University of South Alabama via Alabama Mosaic.

In Alabama, members of the Klu Klux Klan conspired with local police to end the Freedom Rides, and on May 14, 1961 Klansmen firebombed the first bus to arrive in the town of Anniston, Alabama and beat the riders mercilessly as they escaped from the bus.  Later, the injured riders were refused care at a local hospital because hospital staff feared the mob that has congregated outside.  Despite the severe brutality of these attacks, the Freedom Riders insisted on pushing forward and efforts continued throughout the month.  At the time, their actions were deemed disruptive and unpatriotic by much of the general public and even by the Department of Justice; however, by the end of the year, the Interstate Commerce Commission was fully compliant with the Supreme Court’s rulings, and the Freedom Riders served as an inspiration for many of the direct action initiatives that would soon follow.

You can learn more about the civil rights movement through Opening History, which includes such collections as the Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive and the Civil Rights Digital Library among others.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is observed annually on the third Monday of January, which usually falls within a few days of Dr. King’s birthday on January 15.  King was a Baptist minister who rose to prominence as a leader of the civil rights movement.  He is best known for having organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and delivering the speech entitled “I Have a Dream” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism.  Tragically, King was assassinated on March 29, 1968 on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963. Image courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Though passed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1983, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was not celebrated by all fifty states until the year 2000.  In some states, the holiday is meant to commemorate civil and human rights more broadly. In the state of Pennsylvania and in many universities and organizations across America, residents, students, and employees are encouraged to use the holiday as a day of volunteer service in honor of Dr. King.

A memorial march in Mobile, Alabama following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Image courtesy of the University of South Alabama.

Further images and documents relating to Dr. King may be found across multiple collections in Opening History.

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Though the exact date of his birth is unknown (and presumed to be sometime during the latter half of 1867), Scott Joplin’s birthday has historically been observed and celebrated on November 24. Joplin was an American composer and pianist best known for his Ragtime compositions.  During the late 1890s and early 1900s, he composed “The Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer,” and many of his most enduring works.  Toward the end of his life, he focused on composing and producing an opera, Treemonisha, which proved a failure in 1915.  Long after Joplin’s death, however, Treemonisha was revived to critical acclaim, and he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

Cover art of sheet music for "The Maple Leaf Rag." Image courtesy of the University of Indiana.

At Opening History, you can find audio recordings and notated sheet music of Scott Joplin’s works through the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection and Indiana University’s Sam DeVincent Collection of American Sheet Music, respectively.

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On October 18, 1773, Phillis Wheatley was emancipated from slavery in the wake of her first publication, a book of poetry entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.  Wheatley was the first African-American poet and the first African-American woman ever to publish.  The broadside below is an elegiac poem in honor of George Whitefield, composed by Wheatley at age 17.

Elegiac poem, on the death of that celebrated divine, and eminent servant of Jesus Christ, the reverend and learned George Whitefield. By Phillis, a servant girl, of 17 years of age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley of Boston... Image courtesy of Connecticut History Online.

More poetry by Phillis Wheatley may be found through Opening History in A Celebration of Women Writers, American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera, and Connecticut History Online.

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On June 20, 1863, West Virginia was officially admitted to the Union. Statehood came about primarily through long-standing regional tensions between eastern and western Virginia that erupted with the issue of whether or not to secede from the United States. While at the beginning of the Civil War West Virginia remained part of Virginia, counties in the northwestern part of the state were generally against secession. As it became apparent that Virginia would choose to secede, Union supporters from this area held two conventions in Wheeling, followed by a popular vote in 39 counties that led to the formation of a new state that would remain loyal to the Union. Results of this election were likely skewed, as Union troops stationed in many counties stopped secessionists from voting. Unionists from the northern part of the future state were also heavily overrepresented during the November 1861 Constitutional Convention, which ultimately ratified a state constitution with an amendment calling for the gradual abolition of slavery in the state. In 1871, the U.S. Supreme Court case Virginia v. West Virginia called into question the constitutionality of West Virginia’s legitimacy as a separate state, but the court reaffirmed its legality.

Train cars in front of an African-American elementary school near the West Virginia coal fields. Image courtesy of the University of Virginia Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Opening History has several important collections related to the history of West Virginia. The Cyrus F. Jenkins Civil War Diary offers an important look at the presence of Confederate troops in the southern part of what would become West Virginia. The Jackson Davis Collection of African American Educational Photographs from the University of Virginia also includes a rich selection of images featuring African-American schools in West Virginia.

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On June 13, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated celebrated attorney and then-United States Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall is best remembered today not only as the first African American on the bench, but also as an advocate for civil rights who throughout his career fought to reform policies that unfairly discriminated against individuals and groups of people based on race.

NAACP Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall speaking at the 1956 NAACP Convention in San Francisco, California. Image courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Marshall himself was born in 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland, and graduated at the top of his class from Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. (He had wished to attend law school in his home state, but was not allowed to attend because of segregation policy.) At only 32 years old, Marshall became Chief Counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Over the next two decades, he successfully argued many cases aimed at ending racial discrimination in education, voting, and housing. As a Supreme Court Justice, Marshall continued to argue for individual rights and freedoms, not only regarding racial injustice but also criminal procedure, labor law, and other issues.

Opening History offers many collections related to the history of the law in the United States, especially for individual states. One important collection, Ada Lois Sipuel v. Board of Regents University of Oklahoma, explores a Supreme Court case argued by Marshall that helped undermine educational discrimination in universities.

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