Did you know that Phillis Wheatley was the third woman in the world to publish a book of poetry? She met George Washington in March 1776 at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts after she had written several poems about him.
Wheatley was born in Senegal/Gambia around 1753. At the age of eight, she was kidnapped and brought to Boston on an enslaved person ship. Upon her arrival, John Wheatley purchased the young girl, who was in critical health, as a servant for his wife, Susanna. Under the family's direction, Wheatley was taken under Susanna's wing. Her quick intelligence was noticed by the Wheatley's, and as a result, Susanna and her two children taught Wheatley to read and was actively encouraged in her literary pursuits by the household. Wheatley received lessons in theology, English, Latin, and Greek. Ancient history was soon folded into the teachings, as were lessons in mythology and literature.
Wheatley wrote her first published poem at around age 13. The work, a story about two men who nearly drown at sea, was printed in the Newport Mercury. In 1773, Wheatley gained considerable stature when her first and only book of verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published, with the writer having received patronage from Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, in England. As proof of her authorship, the volume included a preface in which 17 Boston men, including John Hancock, asserted that she had indeed written the poems in it. Poems on Various Subjects is a landmark achievement in U.S. history. In publishing it, Wheatley became the first African American and the first U.S. enslaved person to publish a book of poems, as well as the third American woman to do so.
Phillis Wheatley died in her early 30s in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 5, 1784.
After her death, many of her poems continued to be edited, revised, and updated over the next fifty years.
Did you know that Oscar Micheaux was a pioneering African American author, filmmaker, and famous producer of race films? He was the firs African American to produce a film to be shown in "white" movie theaters.
Oscar Micheaux was born near Metropolis, Illinois. He was one of eleven children of former slaves and grew up in Great Bend, Kansas. He shined shoes and worked as a porter on the railway as a young boy, then as a young man, he very successfully homesteaded a farm in an all-white area of South Dakota where he began writing stories. Micheaux formed his own publishing company followed by his own movie production company, and in 1919 became the first African American to make a film. He wrote, directed, and produced the silent motion picture The Homesteader, starring the pioneering African American actress Evelyn Preer and based on his novel of the same name.
His accomplishments in filmmaking and publishing were outstanding, including being the first African American to produce a film to be shown in “white” movie theaters. He provided a diverse portfolio of non-stereotyped black characters, as well as images and stories of African American life. Additionally, in his film Within Our Gates, Micheaux attacked the racism depicted in D.W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation. The Producers Guild of America called him “The most prolific black – if not most prolific independent – filmmaker in American cinema.” Over his illustrious career, Micheaux wrote, produced, and directed forty-four feature-length films between 1919 and 1948, including musicals, comedies, westerns, romances, and gangster films. He also wrote seven novels, one of which was a national bestseller.
Micheaux's place in history was assured as he injected an African American perspective, via the powerful medium of the motion picture, into the American consciousness. Some of the popular themes in his work were African Americans passing for white, intermarriage, and legal injustice. He used actors from New York's Lafayette Players and always cast his actors on the basis of type, with light-skinned African American actors typically playing the leads and darker-skinned blacks the heavies. That trait was part of the consciousness of the African American community (and mirrored the very racism that he inveigled against) that persists to this day, and Micheaux was severely chastised for it by later critics. However, no critic could deny the importance of Micheaux's movies, as they were a radical departure from Hollywood's racist portrayals of blacks as lazy dolts, Uncle Toms, Mammies, and dangerous bucks. Micheaux died in Charlotte, North Carolina while on a business trip. His body was returned to Great Bend, Kansas, where he was interred in the Great Bend cemetery with other members of his family.
Allan Rohan Crite
He was a prolific artist whose eye for detail captured the pulse of the African American community living in Boston’s South End nearly a century ago. Starting at a young age, visits to historic sites and museums led to Crite’s observations and portrayals of local people and places. By nine, his precocious drawings were recognized at the newly opened Children’s Art Centre on Rutland Street, part of the South End Settlement Movement. We also have a special video by our seniors, Nora, Clare, and Jess, talking about one of Crite’s paintings. Check it out here: https://www.wevideo.com/view/2056860175. Allan Rohan Crite was born on March 10, 1910, in Plainfield, New Jersey and at a young age, moved to his permanent residence in Boston, Massachusetts, where he died in 2007. Although he is best known for his religious illustrations, Allan Rohan Crite was a significant biographer of urban African-American life in Boston during the 1930s and 1940s. He studied at Boston University, the Massachusetts School of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, and Harvard University, and was awarded degrees from the last two institutions.
During the Depression years and into the 1940s when many African-American artists were engaged in mural projects, Crite developed a series of “neighborhood paintings” that were inspired by his Boston community’s predominantly African-American Roxbury district. Crite stated in regards to his neighborhood paintings: “My intention in the neighborhood paintings and some drawings was to show aspects of life in the city with special reference to the use of the terminology “black” people and to present them in an ordinary light, persons enjoying the usual pleasures of life with its mixtures of both sorrow and joys … I was an artist-reporter, recording what I saw.”
During the late 1930s, Crite began to concentrate primarily on religious themes. His productions were largely in pen and ink and lithography. Crite, a devout Episcopalian, views his religious themes from a contemporary perspective. His illustrations are nationally known, and he is the author of three books, Were You There? and Three Spirituals published by Harvard University, and All Glory, a meditation on the Prayer of Consecration in the Eucharistic Rite of the Episcopalian Church. Crite has painted murals and Stations of the Cross in various parishes in several states and has also designed private devotional works such as the Creed, Stations of the Cross, and parish bulletins that are furnished to churches in the United States and Mexico.
In 1937 Crite began a series of brush-and-ink drawings depicting three spirituals. This series was published in a large volume, Three Spirituals From Earth to Heaven, by Harvard University in 1948. The three songs selected by Crite are among the best loved of all African-American spirituals, Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and Heaven.
Crite’s pen-and-brush drawings for Three Spirituals are probably the masterpieces among his religious works. From both an iconographical and technical point of view, the fresh and original treatment of each verse of the popular hymns was splendidly conceived. Crite’s masterly handling of the brush-and-ink medium in which each line serves an expressive purpose reveals the talents of an artist with few peers among his generation. All of the figures in Crite’s paintings and illustrations are represented as African Americans and attest to his deeply instilled sense of racial pride.
The first black female neurosurgeon in the United States. She specialized in pediatric neurosurgery and helped thousands of children in her twenty-one years of career.
Alexa Irene Canady was born in Lansing, Michigan, on November 7, 1950, to a dentist father and a mother who worked in education. Her parents taught Canady the importance of hard work and learning, which helped her to graduate from high school with honors. While Alexa Canady was attending the University of Michigan, a health careers summer program for minority students sparked her interest in medicine. After graduating from college in 1971 with a major in zoology, Canady continued on to the university's medical school. Canady initially wanted to be an internist but changed when she became interested in neurosurgery. Many discouraged her future career in neurosurgery, and she encountered difficulties in obtaining an internship. But Canady refused to give up, she was eventually accepted as a surgical intern at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She went there after graduating from medical school in 1975.
When her internship ended in 1976, Canady moved to the University of Minnesota, becoming, as a resident of the university's department of neurosurgery, the first female African American neurosurgery resident in the United States. Upon completing her residency in 1981, she became the country's first female African American neurosurgeon. Canady chose to specialize as a pediatric neurosurgeon, training at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She then worked in pediatric neurosurgery at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit before moving to the Children's Hospital of Michigan. Though initially wary of how she would be accepted in her profession, she found that her charges and their parents appreciated her dedication to patient care. In a 1983 interview, she related that, although some people were at first surprised to see her, she suspected that they told themselves, "She's a Black woman and a neurosurgeon, so she must know what she's doing."
In 1984, Canady was certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery, another first for a female African American. Three years later, she became director of neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital. Under her guidance, the department was soon viewed as one of the best in the country. In addition to her other responsibilities, Canady also conducted research and taught as a professor of neurosurgery at Wayne State University. After retiring, Canady moved to Florida. When she learned that there were no pediatric neurosurgeons in her immediate area, she began to practice part-time at Pensacola's Sacred Heart Hospital. Canady was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1989 and received the American Medical Women's Association President's Award in 1993. In addition to these honors, and a career filled with other accomplishments. She not only continues to inspire young black minds who are interested in her field of work but every young mind out there.
Alexa Canady. (2020, September 03). Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.biography.com/scientist/alexa-canady
A writer, lawyer, minister, and activist breaking boundaries for all women.
Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 20, 1910. Both sides of her family were of mixed racial origins, with ancestors including Black slaves, white slave owners, Native Americans, Irish, and free Black people. After her mom’s death and her dad committed to a psychiatric institution, Murray went to live with relatives in Durham, NC at age 3. Murray lived in Durham until the age of 16, at which point she moved to New York to finish high school and prepare for college. She graduated with her second high school diploma and honors in 1927 and enrolled at Hunter College, a free city university, where she was one of the few students of color for two years. After graduating from college, Murray worked for the Works Progress Administration and the Workers Defense League and taught for the New York City Remedial Reading project. Murray was arrested in 1940 for disorderly conduct on an interstate bus trip where she challenged the constitutionality of segregating bus passengers. This incident, coupled with her time working with the Workers Defense League, inspired her to attend law school at Howard University. While there, she participated in civil rights protests in an attempt to desegregate public facilities. She also joined with George Houser, James Farmer, and Bayard Rustin to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Murray graduated from Howard with honors and planned on completing a post-graduate fellowship at Harvard University. She was denied admission at Harvard because of her gender. She ultimately finished her post-graduate work at UC Berkeley School of Law. Soon after, she published States’ Laws on Race and Color, regarded as the “bible” of civil rights work. She went on to receive her J.S.D. from Yale University, the first African American to receive this degree. Towards the end of her life, Murray devoted herself to Christianity. So, in 1977 Murray became the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She worked in a parish in Washington, D.C., based in ministry to the sick until her retirement in 1982. Murray died of pancreatic cancer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1985.Ella Baker
Reverentially known as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. Her organizing skills and amazing ideas help give birth to Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker was a strong-willed woman who pushed back against the idea of male dominance in social activism. More interested in effecting change than public acclaim and financial reward, Baker inspired a generation of young Americans to risk their lives to fight racism, sexism, and white supremacy.
Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia. Baker studied at Shaw University where she graduated as valedictorian. In 1927, She moved to New York to join several social activist organizations, including the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL). The YNCL focused on developing Black economic power. Baker also took part in multiple women’s organizations. Baker joined the NAACP in 1940, working as the field secretary and then later the director of various branches. She helped young leaders find their voice and their leadership capacity. One of those people was Rosa Parks, who we all know. Baker was also recruited by Martin Luther King Jr. to help run the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was helping to build the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to her activism, she co-founded the organization In Friendship in 1955 to combat the Jim Crow laws in the South. On the other hand, it was not an easy task to lead and organize with mostly all men leaders. She had disagreements and clashes with many male leaders, including King. Baker was a strong-willed woman who pushed back against the idea of male dominance in social activism.
She left NAACP in 1960 and developed one of the most well-known human rights advocacy organizations in the country, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was developed after Baker held a meeting at Shaw University in 1960. She called this meeting because a group of black college students was denied service at Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. In an act of nonviolent protest, the students refused to leave, which inspired similar sit-ins across the South. Baker believed that young student leaders were an instrumental resource to the movement toward racial justice. SNCC, along with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), adopted the Gandhian view of direct action through non-violence. The organization helped form the Freedom Rides of 1961 and Freedom Summer, an attempt to register Black voters and to highlight Mississippi’s racism.
Ella Baker inspired so many of her supporters to speak out and gave them the energy to push for what they believed in. More interested in effecting change than public acclaim and financial reward, Baker inspired a generation of young Americans to risk their lives to fight racism, sexism, and white supremacy. She died on Dec. 13, 1986, in New York at age 83. Her contributions toward civil rights through the creation of multiple organizations should be celebrated and honored. She was persistent, coordinated, and bold. Her name, along with the names of those who are undervalued, deserves to be recognized and celebrated during Black History Month and beyond.
If you would like to watch a short video summing up the article, feel free to check out this YouTube video: Two. 2020. “Ella Baker - ‘the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.’” YouTube Video. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McneFCdHUn0
Eugene Jacques Bullard
Did you know that Eugene Jacques Bullard was the first African American combat pilot during World War I? He was also the first African American to receive an honorable award during World War I.
Born October 9, 1895, in Columbus, Georgia, to William Bullard, a former slave, and Josephine Bullard. In 1906, at the age of 11, Bullard ran away from home, and for the next six years, he wandered the South in search of freedom. In 1912 he stowed away on the Marta Russ, a German freighter bound for Hamburg, and ended up in Aberdeen, Scotland. In 1913, Bullard went to France for a boxing match and he decided to make it home. After World War I had begun in the summer of 1914, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. While serving with the 170th Infantry Regiment, Bullard fought in the Battle of Verdun (February to December 1916), where he was wounded seriously. In November 1916 he entered the Aéronautique Militaire. After the United States entered the war in 1917, Bullard attempted to join the U.S. Air Service, but he was not accepted, ostensibly because he was an enlisted man, and the Air Service required pilots to be officers and hold at least the rank of First Lieutenant. In actuality, he was rejected because of the racial prejudice that existed in the American military during that time. Bullard returned to the Aéronautique Militaire, but he was summarily removed after an apparent confrontation with a French officer. He returned to the 170th Infantry Regiment until his discharge in October 1919. When World War 2 began he enlisted in the 51st Infantry Regiment. Bullard was badly injured after that and later settled in New York.
On September 14, 1994 Bullard was posthumously commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. A display case in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, honors him.
The founder of the city of Chicago was Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable. He was born to a white Frenchman and an African-born Black woman in Saint-Domingue, Haiti (a French colony at the time) during the Haitian Revolution. At some point, he settled in the part of North America that is now known as the city of Chicago. In the late 1700s, Jean-Baptiste was the first person to establish an extensive and prosperous trading settlement in what would become the city of Chicago. Historic documents confirm that his property was right at the mouth of the Chicago River. He died in August 1818, and because he was a Black man, many people tried to whitewash the story of Chicago's founding. But in 1912, after the Great Migration, a plaque commemorating Jean-Baptiste appeared in downtown Chicago on the site of his former home. Later in 1913, a white historian named Dr. Milo Milton Quaife also recognized Jean-Baptiste as the founder of Chicago. And as the years went by, more and more Black notables such as Carter G. Woodson and Langston Hughes began to include Jean-Baptiste in their writings as "the brown skin pioneer who founded the Windy City." In 2009, a bronze bust of Jean-Baptiste was designed and placed in Pioneer Square in Chicago along the Magnificent Mile.