Black History Month: Celebrating the lesser known historical figures

A few Black History Figures that you might have missed

I LOVE history, especially African American history, so of course I love the month of February because it is a time of year that everyone stops to appreciate the history that I enjoy year around.  African Americans reached where they are today because of the sacrifices of so many African Americans over the course of history. Most Americans of any race can name the big leaders and activist, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to name a few.  Black History Month is a great time for us to look beyond the most famous African American leaders and look to others who made large contributions to the civil rights movements yet do not receive the same recognition.  Here are a few African American history makers they you may not have heard of.

1. Charles Hamilton Houston

We have all heard of Thurgood Marshall but few are aware of the mastermind behind the Brown v. Board case and the cases that led to that decision.  Charles Hamilton Houston a Harvard law grad set the path for the NAACP legal branch but unfortunately died before he could see his dream completed.  Houston was instrumental in making Howard Law School the training school for the nation’s greatest civil rights attorneys.  He saw it as an opportunity to build an army of attorneys who could carry on the fight for equality in America’s courts.  One of his students was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  With a constant flow of the best-trained civil rights lawyers, Hamilton mounted one of the most important aspects of the Civil Rights movement, the attack on the legal front. Working for the NAACP legal branch, Houston litigated Murray v. Pearson, Gaines v. Canada , and other cases that laid the groundwork for the monumental case Brown v. Board of Education.  At the time of his death Brown was in its initial stages.  Colleagues stated that on his deathbed, Houston discussed with colleagues the possibility of attacking segregation itself as unconstitutional and unequal.  This of course was the theory that would later prove successful in the Brown case. Although he did not live to see the final outcome of his work Houston’s work changed the make up of American schools and the legal aspect of the Civil Rights movement.

2.  Fredi Washington

I recently encountered Fredi Washington’s story when I watched her in the original Imitation of Life.  In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life Washington played a young black women whose appearance allowed her to pass as white.  For Fredi Washington art imitated life.  As a young black actress trying to break into Hollywood in the 1930’s Freddi Washington’s light appearance would have allowed her to pass but Washington vehemently refused.  Of course the roles for African American women during this time were limited.   Due to her own experiences Washington became a civil rights activist, helping form the Negro’s Screen Actor’s Guild of America.  I personally find Washington’s story intriguing on so many levels.  I have been surprised with the lack of information that I have been able to find about Fredi Washington, there seems to be very little written on her.  I am currently searching for more information about her life.

3. Lloyd Gaines

Without his pioneering effort I literally would not be where I am today.  Lloyd Gaines was a graduate of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri who dreamed of attending law school in his home state.  Although he was clearly qualified to attend University of Missouri School of Law, he was denied admittance because of his race. With the help of NAACP legal fund led by Charles Hamilton Houston, Gaines took his fight to the courts. University of Missouri and the state of Missouri suggested building a law school at Lincoln University or sending him to a law school outside of the state of Missouri just to prevent Gaines from attending University of Missouri School of Law.  Before the Supreme Court, Charles Hamilton Houston argued that this was not enough.  A hastily established law school would not meet the separate but equal standards the court set to uphold.  The Supreme Court agreed and held that Gaines was entitled to admittance to the University of Missouri School of Law.  Building an equal law school or forcing blacks to attend law school outside of the state would not suffice.

Unfortunately Gaines never had the opportunity to attend the University of Missouri School of Law.  He disappeared not long after the Supreme Court made its decision.  There has been much speculation about what actually happened to Lloyd Gaines.  Many believe that he met the fate of so many other pioneers during that time and others feel that the pressure got to him and he left the country.   I personally am more inclined to believe that Gaines was the victim of foul play.

Older African Americans often tell younger generations that people died for you to have these rights and privileges yet you do not exercise them.  For me it was eerie to look at Lloyd Gaines picture prominently hanging in the law school lounge because I knew, that without his sacrifice, which likely cost him his life, I would not be able to attend the University of Missouri School of Law.  It has honestly makes me emotional at times.  I will always appreciate his sacrifice and his fight for equality.

4. Harry Belafonte

I am sure you heard of Harry Belafonte as an actor and singer but did you know that he was also a major player in the Civil Rights movement?  In his book Why We can’t Wait, Martin Luther King Jr. highlights how instrumental Harry Belafonte was in the Civil Rights Movement.  Belafonte’s home was the site of many meetings between other Civil Rights leaders in New York.  During the times when Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King were arrested following demonstrations, they looked to people like Belafonte to raise funds for bail.  Belafonte is credited with raising fifty thousand dollars for bail money for Dr. King and others.  The actor financed many other activities including the freedom rides and voter registration drives.  Belafonte is an excellent example of a celebrity using their fame to benefit others.  His type of dedication is so rare among the celebrities of today. At 83 Harry Belafonte continues to advocate for civil rights and similar causes around the world.  A documentary entitled “Sing Your Song” profiling Belafonte’s life as a civil rights activist recently premiered at the 2011 Sundance film festival.

5. Barbara Jordan

My knowledge of Barbara Jordan is mainly due to the fact that I grew up in Houston.  My mother worked at the main post office in downtown Houston that was named in her honor and while I was touring colleges in high school I visited the Barbara Jordan papers collection at Texas Southern University.  Barbara Jordan is definitely considered a history maker in Texas African American history but I think she also deserves to be honored outside of the great state of Texas.  After being the first African American woman to serve in the Texas state legislature, Barbara Jordan was elected to the United States Congress.  Jordan was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress from a Southern state.  While in Congress Jordan served on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment trial of Richard Nixon.  Jordan also delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1976 making her the first African American woman to do so.  Barbara Jordan, a trailblazer, opened the door for so many other African American women lawmakers.

6.  A. Phillip Randolph

The 1963 March on Washington is a pinnacle moment in African American history but it was not the first time that this type of event was attempted.  Almost twenty years before in 1941 A. Phillip Randolph planned the first March on Washington.  The organizers of the first march hoped that they could bring the attention to the plight of African Americans seeking employment in the defense industries during wartime.  Following the successful planning of the march, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in defense industries.  The President and his advisors feared the image that a March on Washington would portray during wartime and worked hard to reach another solution.  With their goal reached, the 1941 march was called of.  Randolph was also credited with the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor organization to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor.   Randolph’s contributions to history are overshadowed by the greats that came after him but he clearly laid the foundation for what was to come.

* There are a few more weeks left in February.  I may add an additional post if I think of any other history makers.

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3 thoughts on “Black History Month: Celebrating the lesser known historical figures

  1. Great post Erika! I definitely learned some new things!

  2. Mother says:

    Great information. You should add additional people at least weekly during the month of February. There are many more who names are not so known.

  3. Erika, you might be interested in the digitization project we did on the Gaines case a couple of years ago. You’ll find info and a link at http://law.missouri.edu/library/collections/ . And I am so with you on Mr. Houston. After doing the research for that project, I came away with so much respect for his talent and dedication. You might want to take a look at the Road to Brown video that is in the MU Law Library’s dvd collection: http://laurel.lso.missouri.edu/record=b5280944~S2 . There is a sizeable part of that video about Houston and Gaines.

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