Black History Month 2017 Day 15


Today we will visit George Padmore

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Trinidadians have played a conspicuous part in the Pan African Movement, and in the African anti-colonial struggle. H. Sylvester Williams originated the movement in 1990. George Padmore was one of the fathers of African liberation in the 1940s and 1950s.

Born Malcom Nurse at Arouca in 1902, his father was an interesting personality, a black schoolmaster, entomologist and agricultural instructor. Malcolm’s grandfather was a Barbadian who had been born a slave. He was educated at Tranquillity, St. Mary’s and Pamphylian High School in Port of Spain. For a time he worked with the Guardian, but he hated it and was soon fired. Trinidad seemed too confined for the highly intelligent and ambitious young man. He left for the U.S.A. in 1924, proposing to study medicine.

But Nurse was not destined to the respectable world of Negro professionalism. Soon after his arrival in the USA, Nurse entered the Communist Party, taking the cover name of George Padmore when engaged in Party Business. He became quite an important figure in the US Communist world. For Padmore, only the Communist seemed to offer an answer to the colour question: it didn’t exist. Workers would unite to throw off their chains regardless of race or nationality. It was a time when the USSR seemed to be the great hope for radicals all over the world, especially the colonial world. In 1929, Padmore went to Russia and became the head of the Negro Bureau of the Communist International of Labour Unions. He also served as Secretary of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUC-NW). Both these bodies were COMINTERN agents to agitate and moblise the Negro people in the colonial world and in the USA. For a time, Padmore enjoyed great personal authority and prestige as an honoured foreign comrade in Moscow. He founded and edited Negro Worker, the organ of the Communist Negro movement.

But disillusionment was to come. In the early 1930s, Stalin’s regime reduced its anti-colonial activity in order to gain greater acceptance for the USSR from the west. The ITUC-NW was disbanded in 1933 because it was especially objectionable to the Western Imperialist powers. Padmore immediately resigned all his COMINTERN offices and was formally expelled in 1934. It marked a permanent break with the USSR, though he continued to hold that the USSR was the only state which had successfully eliminated racism. From this time on, Padmore’s interests shifted towards Africa and Pan Africanism.

For most of the rest of his life, Padmore lived in London, nearly always in poverty, as a writer, journalist and agitator in the cause of black freedom. Among his most important books were:

How Britain Ruled Africa (1936); How Russia Transformed Her Colonial Empire (1946); Africa, Britain’s Third Empire (1949);andPan Africanism or Communism? (1956).

The last named is probably his most important and certainly his best known book. He also wrote innumerable articles in a variety of left wing journals and papers, mostly on colonial matters. He lectured very frequently, for instance to meetings of the British Independent Labour Party, and conducted political study groups for colonial students in London. His lodgings became, in the 1930s and l940s, the centre of anti-colonial struggle in London. Among the callers were his boyhood friend C.L.R. James, and also a young Oxford undergraduate named Eric Williams.

In 1945, Padmore met a young African from the then Gold Coast, Kwame Nkrumah. There was an instant mutual attraction. On Padmore’s death, Nkrumah was to say, “When I first met George Padmore in London, we both realised from the very beginning that we thought along the same lines and talked the same language. There existed between us that rare affinity for which one searches for so long but seldom finds in another human

being. Our friendship developed into that indescribable relationship that exists between brothers.”

By then, Padmore’s interests focussed on Africa, though he did not abandon his commitment to the wider cause of international liberation. In 1944, with others, he founded the Pan African Federation. The next year, Padmore organised a Pan African Conference at Manchester. W. Du Bois, the veteran American black leader was its Chairman, and among the participants were Garvey’s widow, Mrs. Amy Jacques Garvey, and Nkrumah. Padmore was the main planner of the Manchester conference. After his relationship with Nkrumah developed, Padmore focussed increasingly on the Gold Coast as the vanguard of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa. He was influential in persuading Nkrumah to return there to lead the nationalist movement, and he came to see the African as the hope for a free, united Africa.

In 1957,Padmore was invited to Ghana for its independence celebrations – Ghana being the first non-white British colony to gain independence, the first of so many. He stayed on as Nkrumah’s personal adviser on African affairs. For just under two years (1957-9) Padmore exerted a powerful influence on Nkrumah, Ghana, and black Africa. There was opposition in Ghana to Padmore’s influence – after all, he was a foreigner – but Nkrumah placed great reliance on him. In 1958 he organised a meeting in Accra of the Heads of the independent African states and accompanied Nkrumah on various African tours. But his  began to fail, and late in 1959 he died in London; his ashes were buried in Accra at Nkrumah’s request.

Padmore’s career is one of considerable significance for the modem history of Africa. He may rightly be regarded as one of the fathers of African liberation. He devoted a lifetime to the cause of the black man’s dignity and freedom; his propaganda and agitation kept the issues constantly alive in Europe, America and Russia. Padmore was one of the men and women who inspired the struggle of the black man for freedom from oppression.

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Black History Month 2017 Day 14


Today we will visit Angelo Soliman, a man of remarkable intelligence.

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ANGELO SOLIMAN is probably best known in his fictional incarnation as the disgraced African servant boy in “The Man Without Qualities”, Robert Musil’s novel about the end of the Austrian monarchy. The real Soliman mixed in Vienna’s high society. His ignominy came in death rather than life.

Soliman, the subject of an exhibition at the Wien Museum in Vienna, arrived in Austria as a slave from western Africa, where he was born in 1721. There was a fashion for “House Moors” at this time and Soliman was apparently an exceptional man. He acted as a soldier and adviser in one princely household and then came to Vienna in 1753 to serve as a valet and tutor in another. There were some 40 African inhabitants of Vienna in the 18th century—many of them noble servants like Soliman. He successfully integrated into Austrian society, joining an elite Free Mason’s lodge to which Mozart belonged and strolling in the capital’s tree-lined Augarten with Emperor Joseph II.

In modern terms, he might be seen as the perfect immigrant. But after he died his stuffed skin was put on display in the imperial natural history collection, a fate that reflected a deep ambivalence towards nonwhites. In Vienna this ambivalence continues to this day, as illustrated in a video in the exhibition of interviews with Africans now living in the Austrian capital.

“Soliman: An African in Vienna” devotes as much attention to this racial context as to the former slave’s life. Pictures, documents and household objects from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries portray Africa and the Orient as both frightful and fascinating. African men are depicted as savages, docile servants or courageous fighters in the Ottoman armies that besieged Europe’s south-eastern flank.

Soliman’s life is the best-documented of any non-European in Vienna, yet his biography remains sketchy. This exhibition provides few details of his daily life. We know for whom he worked, that he won and lost a fortune in cards, and that he married a French general’s widowed sister, with whom he had a daughter. But about much else we can only speculate.

Musil re-imagined Soliman more than a century later in his famous novel, which captures in exquisite detail the gradations of inclusion and exclusion in Austria-Hungary. His Soliman, who is employed by a Jewish industrialist, is dismissed in disgrace after the revelation of an affair with a white servant girl. The real Soliman could no more escape the colour of his skin. The man who had charmed society with his talent at cards and skill at languages (he spoke six) was reduced to the specimen of a noble savage. His daughter sought in vain for a proper burial, and his body remained in the imperial collection until its destruction in a fire in 1848.

Vienna today is a far cry from the metropolis Soliman inhabited or the one Musil imagined, its face transformed by waves of immigrants from the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. Some 22,000 Africans now live in the capital. Eight of them share their experiences in video interviews at the end of this show. Kandolo Embe-Tonton, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, dramatically straddles both white and black worlds, working as an officer in a police force that is often criticised as racist. He cites his white stepmother as proof that Austria is a country open to change. Soliman, he tells exhibit visitors, “realised his potential within the possibilities of the day, and we can do the same.”

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Black History Month 2017 Day 13


Today we will visit Mansa Musa I, estimated to be the richest man in the history of the world.

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Mansa Musa, fourteenth century emperor of the Mali Empire, is the medieval African ruler most known to the world outside Africa.  His elaborate pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in 1324 introduced him to rulers in the Middle East and in Europe.  His leadership of Mali, a state which stretched across two thousand miles from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Chad and which included all or parts of the modern nations of Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad, ensured decades of peace and prosperity in Western Africa.

In 1312 Musa became emperor following the death of his predecessor, Abu-Bakr II.  When he was crowned, he was given the name Mansa meaning king.  Mansa Musa was knowledgeable in Arabic and was described as a Muslim traditionalist.  He became the first Muslim ruler in West Africa to make the nearly four thousand mile journey to Mecca.  Preparing for the expedition took years and involved the work of artisans in numerous towns and cities across Mali.  In 1324 Musa began his pilgrimage with a entourage of thousands of escorts.  He also brought considerable amounts of gold, some of which was distributed along the journey.

Accompanied by thousands of richly dressed servants and supporters Musa made generous donations to the poor and to charitable organizations as well as the rulers of the lands his entourage crossed. On his stop in Cairo, Egypt, the Emperor gave out so much gold that he generated a brief decline in its value. Cairo’s gold market recovered over a decade later.

Upon his return from Mecca, Mansa Musa brought Arab scholars, government bureaucrats, and architects.  Among those who returned with him was the architect Ishaq El Teudjin who introduced advanced building techniques to Mali.  He designed numerous buildings for the Emperor including a new palace named Madagou, the mosque at Gao, the second largest city in Mali, and the still-standing great mosque at Timbuktu, the largest city in the empire. That mosque was named the Djinguereber. El Teudjin’s most famous design was the Emperor’s chamber at the Malian capital of Niani.

Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage boosted Islamic education in Mali by adding mosques, libraries, and universities. The awareness of Musa by other Islamic leaders brought increased commerce and scholars, poets, and artisans, making Timbuktu one of the leading cities in the Islamic world during the time when the most advanced nations from Spain to central India were Muslim.  Timbuktu was clearly the center of Islamic Sub-Saharan Africa.

Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca brought Mali to the attention of Europe.  For the next two centuries Italian, German, and Spanish cartographers produced maps of the world which showed Mali and which often referenced Mansa Musa.  The first of these maps appeared in Italy in 1339 with Mansa Musa’s name and likeness.

Mansa Musa died in 1337 after a twenty-five year reign.  He was succeeded by his son, Maghan I.

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Black History Month 2017 Day 12


Today we will visit Bass Reeves, The Real Lone Ranger.

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The real “Lone Ranger,” it turns out, was an African American man named Bass Reeves, who the legend was based upon. Perhaps not surprisingly, many aspects of his life were written out of the story, including his ethnicity. The basics remained the same: a lawman hunting bad guys, accompanied by a Native American, riding on a white horse, and with a silver trademark.

Historians of the American West have also, until recently, ignored the fact that this man was African American, a free black man who headed West to find himself less subject to the racist structure of the established Eastern and Southern states.

While historians have largely overlooked Reeves, there have been a few notable works on him. Vaunda Michaux Nelson’s book, Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, won the 2010 Coretta Scott King Award for best author. Arthur Burton released an overview of the man’s life a few years ago. Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves recounts that Reeves was born into a life of slavery in 1838. His slave-keeper brought him along as another personal servant when he went off to fight with the Confederate Army, during the Civil War.

Reeves took the chaos that ensued during the war to escape for freedom, after beating his “master” within an inch of his life, or according to some sources, to death. Perhaps the most intruiging thing about this escape was that Reeves only beat his enslaver after the latter lost sorely at a game of cards with Reeves and attacked him.

After successfully defending himself from this attack, he knew that there was no way he would be allowed to live if he stuck around.

Reeves fled to the then Indian Territory of today’s Oklahoma and lived harmoniously among the Seminole and Creek Nations of Native American Indians.

After the Civil War finally concluded, he married and eventually fathered ten children, making his living as a Deputy U.S. Marshall in Arkansas and the Indian Territory. If this surprises you, it should, as Reeves was the first African American to ever hold such a position.

Burton explains that it was at this point that the Lone Ranger story comes in to play. Reeves was described as a “master of disguises”. He used these disguises to track down wanted criminals, even adopting similar ways of dressing and mannerisms to meet and fit in with the fugitives, in order to identify them.

Reeves kept and gave out silver coins as a personal trademark of sorts, just like the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets. Of course, the recent Disney adaptation of the Lone Ranger devised a clever and meaningful explanation for the silver bullets in the classic tales. For the new Lone Ranger, the purposes was to not wantonly expend ammunition and in so doing devalue human life. But in the original series, there was never an explanation given, as this was simply something originally adapted from Reeves’ personal life and trademarking of himself. For Reeves, it had a very different meaning, he would give out the valuable coins to ingratiate himself to the people wherever he found himself working, collecting bounties. In this way, a visit from the real “Lone Ranger” meant only good fortune for the town: a criminal off the street and perhaps a lucky silver coin.

Like the Lone Ranger, Reeves was also expert crack shot with a gun. According to legend, shooting competitions had an informal ban on allowing him to enter. Like the Lone Ranger, Reeves rode a white horse throughout almost all of his career, at one point riding a light grey one as well.

Like the famed Lone Ranger legend Reeves had his own close friend like Tonto. Reeves’ companion was a Native American posse man and tracker who he often rode with, when he was out capturing bad guys. In all, there were close to 3000 of such criminals they apprehended, making them a legendary duo in many regions.

The final proof that this legend of Bass Reeves directly inspired into the story of the Lone Ranger can be found in the fact that a large number of those criminals were sent to federal prison in Detroit. The Lone Ranger radio show originated and was broadcast to the public in 1933 on WXYZ in Detroit where the legend of Reeves was famous only two years earlier.

Of course, WXYZ and the later TV and movie adaptions weren’t about to make the Lone Ranger an African American who began his career by beating a slave-keeper to death. But now you know. Spread the word and let people know the real legend of the Lone Ranger.

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Black History Month Day 11



Today we will visit The Negro Motorist Green Book and Victor Hugo Green

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In Soul Food Junkies, (…), filmmaker Byron Hurt briefly describes what it used to be like for African Americans to travel in the United States. He talks about how blacks would take along boxed lunches in order to avoid being turned away from restaurants or dining cars. And he mentions in passing a guide called The Negro Motorist Green Book, later known as The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, or more commonly, simply The Green Book.

Because of the limitations of the film’s length, the  documentary couldn’t devote much time exploring this sidebar in black history. So we decided to delve a little more deeply into the guide many considered indispensable for safe and “embarrassment-free” travel.

The Green Book, which was published [by Victor Hugo Green, a postal clerk from New York] from 1936 until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, listed establishments across the U.S. (and eventually North America) that welcomed blacks during a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws often made travel difficult — and sometimes dangerous.

“Carry The Green Book with you. You may need it,” advises the cover of the 1949 edition. And under that, a quote from Mark Twain, which is heartbreaking in this context: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”

The Green Book became very popular, with 15,000 copies sold per edition in its heydey. It was a necessary part of road trips for many families.

As horrendous as some of the issues African Americans were faced with, the guide referred to them in a sideways, almost genteel way. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the spring 1956 edition:

Millions of people hit the road each year, to get away from their old surroundings, to see and learn how people live, and meet new and old friends.

Modern travel has given millions of people an opportunity to see the wonders of the world. Thousands and thousands of dollars are spent each year on various modes of transportation. Money spent in this manner brings added revenue to tradesmen throughout the country.

The white traveler has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different. He, before the advent of a Negro travel guide, had to depend on word of mouth, and many times accommodations were not available.

Now things are different. The Negro traveler can depend on The Green Book for all the information he wants, and has a wide selection to choose from. Hence this guide has made traveling more popular, without encountering embarrassing situations.

The tone was the same throughout the guide’s history. Wendell P. Alston wrote in the 1949 edition that, “The Negro traveler’s inconveniences are many and they are increasing because today so many more are traveling, individually and in groups.” Inconveniences?Embarrassments? They abounded, to be sure, but the guide tended not to directly allude to the genuine dangers faced by black travelers in certain areas.

The Green Book, with its list of hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, barber shops and various other services can most certainly help solve your travel problems,” Alston wrote. “It was the idea of Victor H. Green, the publisher, in introducing The Green Book, to save the travelers of his race as many difficulties and embarrassments as possible.”

Green, a Harlem postal worker and activist, thought of the guide in 1932, and four years later the first edition rolled out. Writes Novera C. Dashiell in the spring 1956 edition:

The idea crystallized when, not only himself but several friends and acquaintances complained of the difficulties encountered; oftentimes painful embarrassments suffered which ruined a vacation or business trip.

Our leaders and educators look forward to the day when as a racial group, we will enjoy the rights and privileges guaranteed us, but as of now withheld in certain areas of these United States.

In looking ahead…A trip to the moon? Who knows? It may not be so improbable as it sounds. A New York scientist is already offering for sale pieces of real estate on the moon. When travel of this kind becomes available, you can be sure your Green Book will have the recommended listings!

Green and others involved in the book had a wish that the publishers of most guidebooks and periodicals don’t: They looked forward to the time they would have to cease publishing.

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” Green himself wrote in one introduction. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”

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Black History Month Day 10


Today we will visit Patrice Lumumba.

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Patrice Lumumba was the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, calling for national unity and overall African independence.


Born on July 2, 1925, in Onalua, Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Patrice Lumumba was a writer and civic organizer before co-founding the Congolese National Movement. He became the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo with the country’s independence; yet massive unrest followed with other leaders’ uprisings, along with U.S. and Belgian involvement. Lumumba was killed on January 17, 1961.

Background and Early Career

Future Prime Minister Patrice Émery Lumumba was born Élias Okit’Asombo on July 2, 1925, in the Kasai province of Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), in the village of Onalua. He was able to hone his love for literature and learning while attending missionary school and borrowing books to read.

After some travels within his country and acquiring different languages, Lumumba became a postal service clerk during the mid-1940s in what is now Kinshasa, later working as an accountant in another region. He also wrote poems and essays for publication, earning acclaim, and became increasingly involved in political movements, keeping in mind the oppression endured by Africans from the Belgian colonial system.

After having established himself as a leader in organizing unions, Lumumba co-established the Congolese National Movement in 1958. He called for countrywide unity, bringing together different ethnic backgrounds, and freedom from colonial atrocities, with major links to Pan-Africanist movements as well.

Becomes Prime Minister

On June 30, 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo officially took its independence from Belgium, and, at 35 years old, Lumumba became the country’s first prime minister. However, nationwide disarray was to follow with various leaders vying for power, including a Belgian-fortified secession of the region of Katanga, headed by Moise Tshombe.

Lumumba called for United Nations aid to no avail and turned to the Soviet Union for military intervention, with the Congo thus caught in Cold War politics and Lumumba perceived by the U.S. as having communist ties. Years later it was revealed that a C.I.A. operative in the field during the Eisenhower administration was instructed to poison Lumumba; the agent recounted in a 2008 New York Times article he secretly chose not to do so, though some accounts clash with this.

Death and Legacy

With the country falling under the control of military leader Joseph Mobutu, Lumumba was captured and, though at one point escaping, was eventually taken to Katanga, where he was beaten and killed on January 17, 1961. His death ignited international outrage and years later continues to provoke dialogue on foreign investment in creating the turmoil seen after his rise to power and African independence in general. Congo soon endured the decades-long, highly-damaging reign of Joseph Mobutu, who would become known as Mobutu Sésé Seko.

Lumumba, his story and vision have been chronicled in a number of literary works and films, including the 2001 book The Assassination of Lumumba, by Ludo De Whitte, and the Raoul Peck movie released the same year, Lumumba. Peck had also directed a documentary on the leader.

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Black History Month 2017 Day 9


Today we will visit with Bessie Stringfield.

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The life and times of African-American motorcycling pioneer Bessie B. Stringfield seem like the stuff of which legends are made. In 1990, when the AMA opened the first Motorcycle Heritage Museum, Bessie was featured in its inaugural exhibit on Women in Motorcycling. A decade later, the AMA instituted the Bessie Stringfield Award to honor women who are leaders in motorcycling. And in 2002, she was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Bessie – BB as she was known among friends – would probably be amused and yet proud of all the attention. Referring to her adventures and her 60-plus years of riding, she once quipped: “I was somethin’! What I did was fun and I loved it.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, Bessie took eight long-distance, solo rides across the United States. Speaking to a reporter, she dismissed the notion that “nice girls didn’t go around riding motorcycles in those days.” Further, she was apparently fearless at riding through the Deep South when racial prejudice was a tangible threat. Was Bessie consciously championing the rights of women and African-Americans? Bessie would most likely have said she was simply living her life in her own way.

In interviews for Hear Me Roar, Bessie revealed how she drew courage from two things: Her Catholic faith in Jesus Christ, whom she called “The Man Upstairs,” and the values she learned from her adoptive mother.

Early on, Bessie had to steel herself against life’s disappointments. Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1911, as a child she was brought to Boston but was orphaned by age 5.

“An Irish lady raised me,” she recalled. “I’m not allowed to use her name. She gave me whatever I wanted. When I was in high school I wanted a motorcycle. And even though good girls didn’t ride motorcycles, I got one.”

She was 16 when she climbed aboard her first bike, a 1928 Indian Scout. With no prior knowledge of how to operate the controls, Bessie proved to be a natural. She insisted that the Man Upstairs gave her the skills.

“My [Irish] mother said if I wanted anything I had to ask Our Lord Jesus Christ, and so I did,” she said. “He taught me and He’s with me at all times, even now. When I get on the motorcycle I put the Man Upstairs on the front. I’m very happy on two wheels.”

She was especially happy on Milwaukee iron. Her one Indian notwithstanding, Bessie said of the 27 Harleys she owned in her lifetime, “To me, a Harley is the only motorcycle ever made.”

At 19, she began tossing a penny over a map and riding to wherever it landed. Bessie covered the 48 lower states. Using her natural skills and can-do attitude, she did hill climbing and trick riding in carnival stunt shows. But it was her faith that got her through many nights.

“If you had black skin you couldn’t get a place to stay,” she said. “I knew the Lord would take care of me and He did. If I found black folks, I’d stay with them. If not, I’d sleep at filling stations on my motorcycle.” She laid her jacket on the handlebars as a pillow and rested her feet on the rear fender.

In between her travels, Bessie wed and divorced six times, declaring, “If you kissed, you got married.” After she and her first husband were deeply saddened by the loss of three babies, Bessie had no more children. Upon divorcing her third husband, Arthur Stringfield, she said, “He asked me to keep his name because I’d made it famous!”

During World War II, Bessie worked for the army as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider. The only woman in her unit, she completed rigorous training maneuvers. She learned how to weave a makeshift bridge from rope and tree limbs to cross swamps, though she never had to do so in the line of duty. With a military crest on the front of her own blue Harley, a “61,” she carried documents between domestic bases.

Bessie encountered racial prejudice on the road. One time she was followed by a man in a pickup truck who ran her off the road, knocking her off her bike. She downplayed her courage in coping with such incidents. “I had my ups and downs,” she shrugged.

In the 1950s, Bessie bought a house in a Miami, Florida suburb. She became a licensed practical nurse and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. Disguised as a man, Bessie won a flat track race but was denied the prize money when she took off her helmet. Her other antics – such as riding while standing in the saddle of her Harley – attracted the local press. Reporters called her the “Negro Motorcycle Queen” and later the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” In the absence of children, Bessie found joy in her pet dogs, some of whom paraded with her on her motorcycle.

Late in life, Bessie suffered from symptoms caused by an enlarged heart. “Years ago the doctor wanted to stop me from riding,” she recalled. “I told him if I don’t ride, I won’t live long. And so I never did quit.”

Before she died in 1993 at the age of 82, Bessie said, “They tell me my heart is three times the size it’s supposed to be.” An apt metaphor for this unconventional woman whose heart and spirited determination have touched so many lives. She was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.

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Black History Month 2017 Day 8


Today we will visit Eugene Bullard.

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Eugene Bullard was the world’s first black combat aviator, flying in French squadrons during World War I (1917-18). Before he became a pilot he served in the French infantry and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Born in a three-room house in Columbus, Eugene James (Jacques) Bullard was the seventh child of Josephine Thomas and William O. Bullard. Bullard’s parents, married in Stewart County in 1882, had Creek Indian as well as African American ancestry. William Bullard was born into slavery on the property of Wiley Bullard, a planter in Stewart County. In the early 1890s William Bullard moved to Columbus, where he worked for W. C. Bradley, a rising cotton merchant.

The young Bullard attended the Twenty-eighth Street School from 1901 to 1906. Although his education was minimal, he nonetheless learned to read, one of the keys to his later successes. With his older sister and brothers, Bullard absorbed his father’s conviction that African Americans must maintain dignity and self-respect in the face of the prejudice of a white majority determined to “keep blacks in their place” at the bottom of society. Shaken by the near lynching of his father in 1903 and seeking adventure in the world beyond Columbus, he ran away from home in 1906.

In Atlanta he joined a group of gypsies (an English clan known by the surname Stanley) and traveled with them throughout rural Georgia, tending and learning to race their horses. The Stanleys brought to his attention that the racial color line did not exist in England. Disheartened that the gypsies were not soon returning home, Bullard left them at their camp in Bronwood in 1909 and found work and patronage with the Zachariah Turner family of Dawson. Friendly and hard working as a stable boy, Bullard won the affection of the Turners, who allowed him to ride as their jockey in horse races at the Terrell County Fair in 1911.
Despite his relationship with the Turners, Bullard was still affronted by racism and he resolved to leave the United States for Great Britain. He did so as a stowaway on a German merchant ship, the Marta Russ, which departed Norfolk, Virginia, on March 4, 1912, bound for Aberdeen, Scotland. In 1912-14, Bullard performed in a vaudeville troupe and earned money as a prizefighter in Great Britain and elsewhere in Western Europe. He appeared in Paris for the first time at a boxing match in November 1913.
At the beginning of World War I, Bullard joined the French army, serving in the Moroccan Division of the 170th Infantry Regiment. The French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre for his bravery at the Battle of Verdun. Twice wounded and declared unfit for infantry service, he requested assignment to flight training. He amassed a distinguished record in the air, flying twenty missions and downing at least one German plane.
Between the world wars he owned and managed nightclubs in the Montmartre section of Paris, where he emerged as a leading personality among such African American entertainers as Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet. In 1923 he married Marcelle Straumann, the daughter of a wealthy Parisian family. The couple had two surviving children, Jacqueline and Lolita, before separating in 1931. In the late 1930s Bullard joined a French government counterintelligence network spying on Germans in Paris. When Nazi Germany conquered France in 1940 Bullard and his daughters escaped to New York City. He worked there in a variety of occupations for the rest of his life.
In 1959 French president Charles de Gaulle made Bullard a knight of the French Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest ranking order and decoration. Bullard died on October 12, 1961.

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Black History Month 2017 Day 7


Today we will visit Octavius V. Catto.

Article and Picture Source here.

Murder of Octavius Catto

By Aaron X. Smith

A tumultuous, racially polarized Election Day in Philadelphia set the stage for the October 10, 1871, murder and martyrdom of Octavius V. Catto (b. 1839), an African American leader who struggled against segregation and discrimination in transportation, sports, politics, and society.

Election Day in 1871, just one year after the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution restored voting rights for African Americans in Pennsylvania, was mired in the bloodshed of many. Fighting between angry white Democrats and African Americans, who aligned with the Republican Party, expanded into a riot in the predominantly African American neighborhood along eastern Lombard and South Streets. Police did little to intervene.

In the years prior to the election, Catto had worked to help the nation realize its founding democratic vision through actions to increase educational opportunities, desegregate trolley cars, increase voting opportunities for African Americans, and (as a notable local athlete) to integrate baseball. Fierce opposition to Catto’s activism and the general progress of African Americans contributed to his eventual murder.  At the time of the election, he was an instructor at the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney University), at Sixth and Lombard Streets. In a twist of tragic irony, he beseeched Mayor Daniel Fox (1819-90) to consider providing greater protection to black voters. He and his colleagues decided to close the Institute early due to risks to staff and students.

Catto also was a major and inspector general of the 5th Brigade, 1st Division of the National Guard of Pennsylvania, a position that required him to have a horse, sword, and sidearm (pistol). On this Election Day, he went to the Philadelphia branch of the Freedmen’s Bank (a powerful symbol of black empowerment through cooperative economics) at 919 Lombard to withdraw twenty dollars to purchase a gun. On his way there, he encountered white attackers, whom he narrowly escaped. Shortly thereafter, Catto met with his friend Cyrus Miller and the two traveled to a pawnshop on Walnut Street where Catto purchased a six-shot revolver.

Around 3 p.m. the two friends parted and Catto started for home (814 South Street), where he had stored ammunition for his newly purchased firearm. Around 3:30 p.m., moments from his home, Catto passed two white men, Edward Reddy Denver and Frank Kelly. Seconds after crossing paths and without any words being exchanged, Kelley pulled a pistol and fired into Catto, who staggered backward as he clutched his bleeding wound. Catto attempted to flee to safety behind a streetcar to no avail. Kelly discharged his revolver at close range with no regard for the multitude of onlookers. Catto collapsed lifeless into the arms of an approaching police officer.

The funeral of Octavius Catto created a moment of mourning that provided a distinct departure from the violence and rioting that led to his demise. The service, held in the City Armory at Broad and Race Streets, was a national event with attendees from numerous states including Delaware, Washington, New York, and Mississippi. The funeral procession, beginning at 7 a.m. in the drizzling rain at Broad and Race Streets and ending at Lebanon Cemetery in Philadelphia (the remains were later brought to Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, after Lebanon closed), included regimental guards, students, faculty and graduates from the Institute for Colored Youth, preachers, politicians, and more than 5,000 mourners. Catto was eulogized in pulpits throughout the country.

Additional Biographical Information Source here.

The Triumph and Tragedy of Octavius V. Catto

By V. Chapman Smith


In the 19th century Philadelphia was home to America’s largest free-black, pre-Civil War community and as such played a major role in the fight against slavery and for African American rights of citizenship and opportunity.

Black Philadelphians thoughtfully and purposely created a community that reflected an African American worldview. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones each founded America’s first black churches in 1794, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and Mother Bethel, as a means to overcome the racism faced by blacks in white churches.

Philadelphia blacks joined together to petition Congress to abolish the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which permitted masters to pursue runaways across state lines.

During the city’s Yellow Fever epidemic, the black community organized to nurse and care for the afflicted, believing (falsely) that blacks were immune to the disease.

During the War of 1812 the community recruited 2,500 black men to defend Philadelphia against a possible attack from the British. The community saw these actions as ways of demonstrating that African Americans deserved all the privileges and rights of citizenship.

Philadelphia’s early black community, which began to solidify in a neighborhood along Lombard Street near the Pennsylvania State House (known today as Independence Hall), was integral in the Abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad.

The community also produced successive generations of leaders, male and female, who grew to local and national prominence in the years before the Civil War and following. Octavius V. Catto is one of these leaders…one who made a mark both locally and nationally.

A learned man, Catto’s insistence on equality for all men has been categorized as “fanatical”. He was linked to virtually every important black movement and the inner circle of Radical Republicans of his time. In the late 1860’s he became a national spokesperson for enfranchisement and civil rights for African Americans.

What is Catto’s story?

Octavius V. Catto was born in Charleston, S.C. on February 22, 1839. His mother, Sarah Isabella Cain, was a descendant of one of Charleston’s most distinguished mulatto families, the DeReefs. His father, William Catto, was an articulate and prominent Presbyterian minister who later became a leader in the black church and worked across its various denominations.

William Catto brought his family north when Octavius was about five and finally settled in Philadelphia by 1850. In Philadelphia, Catto was afforded an excellent education; his last school being the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became the historic black college, Cheney University.

Catto graduated from the Institute in 1858 as valedictorian and, not satisfied with his level of skill, trained further in classical languages under a distinguished black scholar in Washington, D.C. Upon returning to Philadelphia, he was appointed to the Institute’s teaching staff as assistant to the principal, Professor Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett, a highly regarded black scholar educated at Yale University and later ambassador to Haiti.

In many respects, Catto was a renaissance man… capable in many arenas, as well as a natural leader. However, as an African American, he continually hit the wall of racism. He strove to break that barrier:

All that he (the colored man) asks is, that there shall be no unmanly quibbles about intrusting to him any position of honor or profit for which his attainments may fit him. And that which is committed to him as a man, he will perform as no other than a man could perform.

His many intellectual pursuits included founding the Banneker Literary Institute and being inducted into The Franklin Institute, a scientific organization, which attracted inventors and scientist from around the world. His membership in this latter organization was met with rebuff by some. Catto also was an accomplished baseball shortstop and player-coach and was founder and captain of Pythian Baseball Club.

Catto attempted to break down racial barriers in baseball, when a group of whites formed the Pennsylvania Convention of Baseball Clubs in 1868. His aggressive nature and strivings for equality in this instance greatly offended many immigrant whites who enjoyed baseball as their pastime.

His boldest and greatest accomplishments, however, were in the political arena, as a staunch supporter of the Union cause and the Lincoln Administration. Catto worked in the inner circles of the Republican Party to gain civil liberties for blacks and in support of the war effort.

When the Confederates invaded Pennsylvania in 1863, culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg, Catto responded to the Call for Emergency Troops by raising one of the first volunteer companies. The company was officered by whites and comprised of black men. Catto continued to seek ways of raising black troops to fight for black emancipation. He joined with other leading blacks of his time, including Frederick Douglass, to raise troops under the U.S. War Department authority granted by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Catto also led efforts to gain equal access to public transportation using passive resistance and political influence. His war experience solidified his ardor for the Republican Party, which he saw as the only hope for black Americans to obtain equal rights. Catto joined the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League, begun by Republicans to help blacks gain the right to vote. In 1864, he and other black leaders from all over the country met at the National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse, New York and established the National Equal Rights League (NERL) with Frederick Douglas as president. The NERL focused on removing racial barriers in Union states.

The Incident

With the passage of the 15th Amendment, Catto’s life took another turn. Catto pledged that black men would vote republican and worked tirelessly to get Pennsylvania to ratify the 15th Amendment. This was accomplished in October 1870.

The elections that followed became alarming to most whites, as it became apparent that blacks, enfranchised by the Amendment, would vote in large numbers. In Catto’s own political ward, it was likely that blacks could change the balance between Democrats and Republicans in local offices.

On Election Day, October 10, 1871, violence and murder had started early and continued throughout the day, as gangs of white thugs roamed the black community, seeking to discourage residents from voting. Local police, many of whom were Irish immigrants and supporters of the Democrats, fueled the situation by not providing protection for black residents.

As he nearly reached his doorsteps, Catto was confronted by Frank Kelly, a Democratic Party operative and associate of the Party’s boss, who recognized Catto as he walked down the street. Kelly fired several shots at Catto with one bullet piercing his heart.

Catto was pronounced dead at a local police station, where his body had been carried. Catto’s murder produced both a public outcry and revealed the paradox of justice in a community still steeped with racism.

A backlash against the violence turned out a large majority for the Republican ticket. However, Frank Kelly was never convicted of Octavius Catto’s murder.

Kelly escaped Philadelphia after the shooting, most likely with the help of Democratic friends. He was found six years later in Chicago and extradited to Philadelphia for trial.

At the trial on April 23, 1877, six prosecution eyewitnesses, three whites and three blacks, identified Kelly as the shooter. Several of these witnesses had known Kelly prior to the shooting, so for them the identification was without question.

A key defense witness for Kelly was an ex-police sergeant, John Duffy, who himself had been tried for the murder of Levi Bolden, another casualty of the 1871 election riot. A jury of twelve mostly working class men, none African American, acquitted Kelly after the close of the 10-day trial.

For some time, Catto was memorialized after his tragic death. Public schools honoring him were opened first in Philadelphia in 1879 and then in Camden, New Jersey in 1929.

For years, Catto’s 5th Brigade continued to pay tribute to him in ceremonies at the unit’s quarters as well as at his gravesite. In the early twentieth century as a part of the black Elk (Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World (IBPOEW)) movement, a group of Philadelphia men formed the O.V. Catto Lodge in 1906.

This same year, white Elk leaders finally began efforts to improve relations with the black lodges and end the six-year long, sometimes violent, inter-fraternal conflict between the groups. The formation of the Philadelphia lodge does not appear to have been greeted with the same consternation and enmity black lodges endured earlier.

Did the selection of Catto for the lodge’s name, support this healing? Today, there are many efforts in Philadelphia seeking to honor Catto and reclaim his legacy. Among them is a citizen committee formed by City Councilman James F. Kenney to erect a prominent public sculpture mounted and create education program for local schools

Thanks for your attention.


Black History Month 2017 Day 6


Today we will visit Jan E. Matzeliger.

Article Source here.

Picture Source here.

Sometimes the greatest inventions are those which simplify necessary tasks. Such is the case with Jan Matzeliger – the man who made it possible for ordinary citizens to purchase shoes.

Jan Matzeliger was born in Dutch Guiana (now known as Surinam) in South America. His father was a Dutch engineer and his mother was born in Dutch Guiana and was of African ancestry. His father had been sent to Surinam by the Dutch government to oversee the work going on in the South American country.

At an early age, Jan showed a remarkable ability to repair complex machinery and often did so when accompanying his father to a factory. When he turned 19, he decided to venture away from home to explore other parts of the world. For two years he worked aboard an East Indian merchant ship and was able to visit several countries. In 1873, Jan decided to stay in the United States for a while, landing in Pennsylvania. Although he spoke very little English, he was befriended by some Black residents who were active in a local church and took pity on him. Because he was good with his hands and mechanically inclined, he was able to get small jobs in order to earn a living.

At some point he began working for a cobbler and became interested in the making of shoes. At that time more than half of the shoes produced in the United States came from the small town of Lynn, Massachusetts. Still unable to speak more than rudimentary English, Matzeliger had a difficult time finding work in Lynn. After considerable time, he was able to begin working as a show apprentice in a shoe factory. He operated a McKay sole-sewing machine which was used to attached different parts of a shoe together. Unfortunately, no machines existed that could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. As such, attaching the upper part of a shoe to the sole had to be done by hand. The people who were able to sew the parts of the shoe together were called “hand lasters” and expert ones were able to produce about 50 pairs of shoes in a 10 hour work day. They were held in high esteem and were able to charge a high price for their services, especially after they banded together and formed a union called the Company of Shoemakers. Because the hand lasters were able to charge so much money, a pair of shoes was very expensive to purchase. Hand lasters were confident that they would continue to be able to demand high sums of money for their services saying “… no matter if the sewing machine is a wonderful machine. No man can build a machine that will last shoes and take away the job of the laster, unless he can make a machine that has fingers like a laster – and that is impossible.” Jan Matzeliger decided they were wrong.

After working all day Matzeliger took classes at night to learn English. Soon, he was able to read well enough to study books on physics and mechanical science. This enabled him to a number of inventions. Lacking sufficient money, he was unable to patent these inventions and watched helplessly as other people claimed to have created the devises and received the financial rewards they brought. Matzeliger did not despair over these situations because he was already thinking of a more important invention – the shoe laster.

Watching hand lasters all day, Matzeliger began understanding how they were able to join the upper parts of a shoe to the sole. At night he sat devising methods for imitating the mannerisms of the hand lasters and sketched out rough drawings of a machine that might work in the same manner.

Soon, Matzeliger began putting together a crude working model of his invention. Lacking the proper materials, he used whatever scraps he could find, including cigar boxes, discarded pieces of wood, scrap wire, nails and paper. After six months, he felt he was on the right track but knew he needed better materials in order to take the next steps

Although he attempted to keep his invention a secret, people found out, including the expert hand lasters he was trying to “compete” with. These people criticized and ridiculed him and tried to dissuade him pursuing his goal. He considered on, however, and decided to try to raise money in order to improve his working model. He was offered $50.00 to sell the device he had created up to that point but turned it down, knowing that if people were interested in buying, he was on the right track.

As he improved the device, other offers of money came in, some as high as $1,500.00. Matzeliger could not bear to part with the device he had put so much work into creating so he held out until he reached a deal to sell a 66% interest in the devices to two investors, retaining the other third interest for himself. With the new influx of cash, Jan finished his second and third models of the machine. At this point he applied for a patent for the device.

Because no one could believe that anyone could create a machine which could duplicate the work of expert lasters, the patent office dispatched a representative to Lynn, Massachusetts to see the device in action. In March 1883, the United States Patent Office issued a patent to Jan Matzeliger for his “Lasting Machine.” Within two years, Matzeliger had perfected the machine to that point that it could produce up to 700 pairs of shoes each day (as compared to 50 per day for a hand laster.)

Sadly, Matzeliger would only enjoy his success for a short time, as he was afflicted with tuberculosis in 1886 and died on August 24, 1889 at the age of 37. As a result of his work, shoe manufacturing capabilities increased as did efficiency. This allowed for lower prices for consumers and more jobs for workers. Matzeliger left behind a legacy of tackling what was thought to be an impossible task – making shoes affordable for the masses.

Thanks for your attention.