Black History Month: February
Arrangers, Authors, Composers, Educators, Inventors, Musicians, and Scientists
“One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes…instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings.”
When manumission came, they left home. Walked off the plantation. After two hundred years of hard labor. With nothing to show for it but the thin clothes on their back. They were barefoot, half-naked, homeless, illiterate, penniless, and sore, but they were free. “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardship” (WEB DuBois). They didn’t ask for much. To go to school with the other children. To worship with the saints. To have a place to call their own. To vote like a man. To ride a rail coach like ordinary folk. So little. Inclusion. Acceptance. When they came to the church, the schoolhouse, the ballot box, the store, the train…the gatekeeper could’ve smiled and said, “Sure, come on in. We can always make room for one more. Welcome.” Instead they were snubbed. If they wanted a church, they’d have to erect their own. If they wanted schoolhouses, they’d have to build them themselves. So they did. Not shanties and shacks, but masonry edifices. They made their own brick. By hand. And with them assembled their own churches, their own schools, their own houses, their own businesses, their own printing presses, their own music houses, even their own funeral homes. A parallel world. An unnecessary duplication of what was already there—if the majority had simply shared. Considering their “ignorance,—not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities” (WEB DuBois), it is astounding what they accomplished. On their own. From such humble beginnings. Without anyone’s help. In so short a time. This is a celebration of a few of their remarkable stories.
Archie Alphonso Alexander (1888-1958), a native of Iowa, was a mathematician, civil engineer, one of a 12-member commission to look into conditions in Haiti, and, for a time, governor of the US Virgin Islands. Long before the Civil Rights Act, Alexander played football at the University of Iowa, graduated (1912), worked for a bridge-building company, tried going into business for myself, and afterward studied bridge design in London, England. Back in this country, he established his own firm, Alexander and Repass, and, working around Washington, DC, designed the Whitehurst Freeway, the Tidal Basin Bridge, and part of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Outside DC, he, with George Higbee (a white man), designed the Tuskegee Airfield and did the HVAC for Iowa State University. Alexander is also responsible for a 52-acre sewage treatment plan in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a powerhouse in Columbus, Nebraska. Howard University honored him with a doctorate in engineering. He is buried in Glendale Cemetery, Des Moines, Iowa.
“Some of my competition acts as though they want to bar me. I walk in, throw my cards in and I’m in. My money talks just as loudly as theirs.” ~Archie Alphonso Alexander
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Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), son of free-born parents, and grandson of a former blind slave who sang Negro spirituals, was America’s first prominent Black composer. He graduated from the Institute of Musical Arts, New York. One of his professors was Antonín Dvořák, for whom Burleigh served as copyist, a job that prepared him for his future work as a music editor. Burleigh arranged, for piano and voice, a large collection of Negro spirituals, which he began publishing in 1911; but it was his Jubilee Songs of the USA (1916) that became the standard for singers of his day, such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Singers. His most notable arrangement was probably “Deep River” (1917); some others were “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Steal Away,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Besides his arranging and composing music for the concert hall, Burleigh was also a charter member of ASCAP. Dubbed the celebrated Western baritone, he sang at the Metropolitan Church, Washington, DC; served, for over 50 years, as baritone soloist at St George’s Episcopal Church, an all-white church, Manhattan; and for twenty-five years sang in the synagogue choir at Temple Emanu-el, the only Black ever to do so. On the liturgical calender of the Episcopal Church Burleigh was honored with a feast day: 9/11. St George’s Episcopal Church is listed in the National Register. On the Stuyvesant and Gramercy Parks Historic Districts Walking Tour you will find a statue of Antonín Dvořák and across the street his house. At 6th Street and Route 5A, Erie, Pennsylvania, you will find an historical marker commemorating Burleigh’s birthplace.
“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides!” ~Artur Schnabel
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George Washington Carver (1864-1943) was born to slaves Mary and Giles, near Diamond Grove, Missouri, during the Civil War. As an infant, he was kidnapped, with his mother and sister (his brother James escaped), carried to a slave state (Kentucky), and held for ransom. The German farmer, Moses Carver, who owned the family, sold a $300 racehorse to get money for the return of the infant, the only survivor the searchers could find. Though James and George were manumitted, the white farmer, and his wife Susan, reared the youths as their own. Susan taught them to read and write and encouraged them to go to school.
When George was about ten, he said, he became a Christian and assumed responsibility for his education. “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom” (George Washington Carver). He attended Lincoln School for African-American children, Neosho, lowa, walking about ten miles one way each day; then an academy in Kansas; then, twenty-something, a high school in Minneapolis, Kansas. After graduation he began wandering, doing menial jobs to support himself, and developing an interest in plants and animals. In Kansas (1886) he took up homesteading, developed a botanical conservatory, manually plowed seventeen acres, and nursed crops, vegetables, fruit trees, forest, and shrubs.
He wanted to go to college; Highland College accepted him, then turned him away because he was Black. Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa, admitted him: he was the second African-American student. Tuition was $12 a year; he worked his way through college as a cook at a hotel in Winterset, lowa (John Wayne’s hometown). He studied piano and art, wanted to become an artist, and even won first prize at the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893) with his sketch of the Yucca gloriosa. His art teacher encouraged him to transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College, Ames, Iowa. When he started (1891), he was the first Black student and, later, the first Black faculty member. He received a BS in agricultural science (1894), stayed on to go to grad school, took charge of the greenhouse, and earned his MS (1896). For his project George demonstrated how farmers could improve their economic situation. He conducted experiments in soil management and crop production, directed an experimental farm, and gained national recognition as a botanist.
That spring (1896) Carver received an offer from Booker T Washington to teach at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. “I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last from the position you now occupy you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place: work—hard, hard work, the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty, and waste to full manhood. Your department exists only on paper and your laboratory will have to be in your head” (letter from Booker T Washington to George Washington Carver). To recruit Carver, Washington offered him a higher salary and two rooms for his personal use—usually bachelor male teachers shared a room. That fall Carver arrived by train. Tuskegee was to be his home for the next half-century, at a steady salary of $125 a month. He never received a raise, and he scarcely spent a dime. “We have become 99 percent money mad. The method of living at home modestly and within our income, laying a little by systematically…can almost be listed among the lost arts” (George Washington Carver).
Carver found that the steady, unrelenting growth of cotton had depleted Southern fields. He urged farmers to restore nitrogen to the soil by rotating crops and alternately planting legumes, peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. Crop rotation was new to farmers. In 1896, the peanut had not even been recognized as a crop. When Southern farmers, at Carver’s suggestion, began cultivating legumes, peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, they found little demand for them. So, Carver, through laboratory research, set about enlarging the commercial possibilities of peanuts and sweet potatoes. He came up with hundreds of uses for peanuts (cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils, and cosmetics), for sweet potatoes (ersatz coffee or Postum, flour, oil, vinegar, molasses, rubber, ink, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, and postage stamp glue), and for pecans; however, he did not keep a laboratory notebook and filed few patents. He published his findings in a series of near fifty bulletins, suggesting cowpeas, legumes, peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes replace cotton as commercial crops; these are the only records of his “inventions.”
Most Americans at the time were farmers. Everyone, not just Black sharecroppers, benefited from his guidance. By encouraging new farm methods, crop rotation, and soil conservation, he advanced agricultural training and extended Tuskegee’s influence. (Most nuts grow on trees like fruit; peanuts grow in fields like soybeans. Carver would not have suggested, as I have sometimes read, that farmers grow a crop of pecans.)
In 1908 George visited his 96-year-old guardian, Moses Carver, and the grave of his brother, James, in Missouri. In 1914, when the boll weevils almost ruined cotton growers, Carver revealed his experiments, and more farmers began turning to legumes, peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes for income. Much exhausted land was renewed, and the South became a major new supplier of agricultural products. As Carver gained international fame, farmers from around the world began coming to him for advice. In 1916 he was elected a member of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts in England. “Learn to do common things uncommonly well…When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world” (George Washington Carver).
In 1918 he went to the War Department, Washington, DC, to demonstrate his findings on the sweet potato. His 1921 testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee led to the passage of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Bill (1922). Refusing new attire for the occasion, he appeared before Congress in a dated green-blue suit. “They want to hear what I have to say; they will not be interested in how I look.” His almost disdain for fashion, as witnessed by his humble appearance, endeared him to whites. “It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank, that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success” (George Washington Carver).
US Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D Roosevelt came to Tuskegee to visit Carver. His friends included President Theodore Roosevelt, Henry A Wallace (later vice-president), Henry Ford, Thomas A Edison, Luther Burbank, Harvey Firestone, John Burroughs, and Mohandas K Gandhi. Carver declined Edison’s offer for his own independent laboratory and an annual stipend of $50,000. He declined Joseph Stalin’s offer (1931) to superintend cotton plantations in Russia. In 1935 he was chosen to work with the Bureau of Plant Industry of the US Department of Agriculture. In 1940 he donated his life savings ($33,000 at the time, later his entire estate: $60,000) to establish the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee.
Within the half-century following his innovative methods, peanuts became one of the six leading US crops and, in the South, by World War II, the second cash crop (after cotton). In 1942 the Federal government allotted 5.0 million acres of peanuts to farmers. Carver’s efforts helped liberate the South from excessive dependence on cotton. During World War II, using the materials he had at hand, he ended the import of European dyes by creating five hundred shades of new textile dyes. From the red clay of Alabama he extracted a full range of colors, including a brilliant blue.
Sadly, however, Carver did not live to see the end of the war; he died in 1943. His alma mater, Simpson College, dedicated a building in his honor. At the ceremony Ralph Bunche, Nobel Laureate, described Carver as “the least imposing celebrity the world has ever known.” Within ten years of his death, the 210-acre Carver home in Missouri (upper right) was preserved as a National Monument. He is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University next to Booker T Washington; his tombstone reads, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.” He is featured on two US commemorative stamps (1948, 1998); he and Washington together appear on a commemorative half-dollar (1951-54); two ships were named in his honor; he was named to the list of 100 Greatest African-Americans (2002); his research at Tuskegee was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society (2005); that same year the Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis, opened a George Washington Carver garden in his honor, which includes a life-sized statue of him.
“I wanted to know the name of every stone and flower and insect and bird and beast. I wanted to know where it got its color, where it got its life….If you love it enough, anything will talk with you.” ~George Washington Carver
“Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God.” ~George Washington Carver
“When I was young, I said to God, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the universe.’ But God answered, ‘That knowledge is for me alone.’ So I said, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.’ Then God said, ‘Well George, that’s more nearly your size.’ And he told me.” ~George Washington Carver
“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.” ~George Washington Carver
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William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), Father of the Negro Spiritual, as a teenager, attended Tuskegee, graduated in 1925 with a BA, went to Chicago, the American Conservatory of Music, for his MM, became first trombonist in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, then, in 1931, returned to Tuskegee as director of music. Dawson conducted his Tuskegee a capella choir (pictured right) at Carnegie Hall, New York; Constitution Hall, Washington, DC (1946); then even as far afield as Europe and the Soviet Union. He studied in Africa in 1952, adding African elements. Dean of African-American Choral Composers, Dawson later also conducted the Fisk University Choir. Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra premiered his Negro Folk Symphony. Another of his well-known works was Out in the Fields. In 1989 he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame; in 1992, the Music Educators Hall of Fame. Some of his more popular spirituals are “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley,” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.” He is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University.
“If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.” ~Gustav Mahler
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Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1899-1993), a preacher’s kid, son of an itinerant Baptist minister and a church organist, was born in rural Georgia, but, in 1916, was part of the great migration north. Sometimes referred to as the most influential of all Black Gospel singers, Dorsey earned his accomplishments the hard way: making waves as he struggled between secular and sacred music. “I’ve been thrown out of some of the best churches in America,” he said. On his way to the top. He organized the world’s first Gospel chorus at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Chicago; cofounded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, 1933; created his own publishing firm, the Dorsey House of Music; eventually teamed with Mahalia Jackson, 1939, in the Golden Age of Gospel Music; and wrote over 800 songs, among them, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “There’s a God Somewhere.” You can find the historical marker for his birthplace at Villa Rica, Georgia. He is buried at Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.
“I sat down at the piano and my hands began to browse over the keys. Then something happened. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one I’d never heard or played before, and words came into my head—they just seemed to fall into place.” ~Thomas A Dorsey
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Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950), physician, surgeon, and medical researcher, became interested in medicine when his sister died in the influenza epidemic of 1920. Born in Washington, DC, and the graduate of an African-American high school, Drew attended Amherst College (Massachusetts), McGill University (Montreal), and Columbia University (New York). When he received his MD degree, he ranked second in a class of 127 students. A very smart man. At McGill he also earned a Master of Surgery (post-doctorate degree); at Columbia, a second doctorate, this one in medical science. No ordinary fellow, by any determination. When he helped with collecting and testing blood plasma, for Britain, in World War II, Drew protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood, as it lacked scientific foundation. “I feel that the recent ruling of the United States Army and Navy regarding the refusal of colored blood donors is an indefensible one from any point of view. As you know, there is no scientific basis for the separation of the bloods of different races except on the basis of the individual blood types or groups.” Drew was right, of course, for God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). Though his insistence cost Drew his job, he made a comeback, in 1943, when he became the first Black surgeon named to the American Board of Surgeons. Out of his work came the American Red Cross Blood Bank. His house in Washington, DC (above right), is a National Historic Landmark. An historic marker in Burlington, North Carolina, commemorates the place of his untimely death. He is buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Suitland, Maryland, and is featured on a US commemorative stamp (1981).
“Perform well and segregation will disappear.” ~Charles Richard Drew
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William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963) was a Northerner, a Yankee, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, not long after the Civil War. Like Robert Frost, he grew up a New Englander, with all that means, not far from Northfield, the home of Dwight L Moody, and The Mount, Lenox, home of Edith Wharton; he attended a Congregational church. An eyewitness of history, he lived through Reconstruction, and beyond: through the Presidencies of Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S Grant, Rutherford B Hayes, James A Garfield, Chester A Arthur, Grover Cleveland (counted twice), Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Dwight D Eisenhower, and John F Kennedy (nineteen of our forty-four US Presidents). His boyhood home—”It is the first home that I remember….” (DuBois, 1928)—is a National Historic Landmark (upper right); the home no longer exists, though a marker indicates the site.
Why DuBois chose to attend Fisk University (1885-88), Nashville, Tennessee, I don’t know, but perhaps for the same reason we choose one school over another: because it was the best fit. However, the experience, his first with the South, was an eye-opener. “I suddenly came to a region where the world was split into white and black” (WEB DuBois). He did not like Southern Blacks, perhaps because they were not as well bred as he, or because they were slow and uneducated. I have sometimes wondered if his struggle was not more between North and South than between Black and white.
DuBois graduated Fisk at age twenty, went on to Harvard University (1888-92), where he took a second AB, this time in philosophy, and stayed on to do an AM in history. He studied philosophy with William James, which stirred thoughts on individualism and pragmatism and the use of ideas to promote change. He then spent two years (1892-94) at the University of Berlin, returned to America, and taught Greek and Latin (Classics) at Wilberforce University (1894-96). Still working on his doctorate, he did scholarly work at the University of Pennsylvania (published 1899), and, at age twenty-eight, became the first Black to receive a doctorate from Harvard (1896); his dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, became the first volume in the Harvard Historical Studies.
That spring, in a landmark decision the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal” in Plessy v Ferguson (1896). The defendant, Homer Plessy, on 7 June 1892, was arrested for violating the Louisiana 1890 Separate Car Act by boarding, in New Orleans, a railcar designated for whites only. A memorial at the corner of Press Street and Royal Street outside the French Quarter marks the spot. No doubt, this decision angered DuBois. After the ruling, the New Orleans Comité des Citoyens, who had contrived the situation and had brought the suit to challenge the state’s segregation law, replied, “We, as freemen, still believe that we were right and our cause is sacred.”
Thirty-something, DuBois then settled into teaching economics and sociology at Atlanta University (1897-1910), Atlanta, Georgia; founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association (AMA), it was the nation’s oldest predominantly African-American graduate school. He became a political activist, professor, scholar, social theorist, and writer, served as the secretary of the first pan-African Congress (1900) and, at age thirty-five, published his most famous book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), calling for nonaccommodation. Disagreeing with Booker T Washington’s philosophy of peaceful integration, the idealistic DuBois—a radical who admired John Brown, “the martyr of Harpers Ferry”—thought Blacks around the world should unite as a people and resist white domination. Desiring an upside down world where Blacks dominated, or at least could govern their own turf and have some control over their lives—and working toward that end—he became a leader (1905) in the all-Black Niagara Movement, which opposed “the Tuskegee machine.”
In 1909 DuBois helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), with both Black and white members. Now in his forties, DuBois gave up his professorship in Atlanta and moved to New York to edit (1910-34) the group’s journal, Crisis. He used the magazine as his personal platform to sow the seeds of civil unrest. At age fifty he visited France (1919), reporting the heroism of Black soldiers in World War I. Though the undisputed intellectual leader of African-Americans, he was perennially frustrated with his status in life and discouraged with fellow Blacks—even some of his own ideas. DuBois, in his mid-sixties, left the NAACP (1934), and returned to teaching in Atlanta. Realizing that his scholarly work reached only a limited audience, he began considering other literary genres. He had long contemplated an Encyclopedia Africana; an experienced writer and editor, he was hoping to create it himself: it didn’t work out. About ten years later (1944-48) he and the NAACP briefly reconnected. To some, he was a “bourgeois intellectual”; to others, an “extremist.” He was temperamentally unsuited, it seems, to get along with anyone—perhaps a symptom of genius. Now eighty years old, he declined offers to teach at Howard University and Fisk University; he would never teach again.
Because of his political activity (1950s), he was branded a Communist—indeed, he did join the Communist Party—and was often in dispute with Federal authority; eg, he demanded that nuclear weapons be outlawed, showed public appreciation of the Soviet Union, and sympathized with the Rosenbergs—no doubt, as he had sympathized with John Brown. The Feds took his passport so he couldn’t leave the country. They kept it a few years. When he got it back, he traveled. The Soviet Union gave him the International Lenin Peace Prize (1959): he was ninety-one. At ninety-three he emigrated to Ghana (1961)—still hoping to produce an Encyclopedia Africana—became an ex-patriot, then a citizen of Ghana (1963). He died in Accra, Ghana, the day before the Civil Rights March on Washington. His autobiography was published posthumously (1968). He is featured on a US commemorative stamp (1992, 1998). His Encyclopedia Africana was finally created by others and dedicated to him. DuBois is listed among the 100 Greatest African-Americans (2002); he was honored with a Medallion in The Extra Mile (2005) and with a feast day, 3 August, on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church.
“He created, what never existed before, a Negro intelligentsia, and many who have never read a word of his writings are his spiritual disciples.” ~Arthur Spingarn
“A little less complaint and whining, and a little more dogged work and manly striving, would do us more credit than a thousand civil rights bills.” ~WEB DuBois
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John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) was a Midwesterner, born in an all-Black community, Rentiesville, not far from Tulsa, Oklahoma, during World War I. His dad, Buck Colbert Franklin, was an attorney; his mother, Mollie, a schoolteacher. The parents had moved to this small, rural community, thinking separation from whites would mean a better life. Mollie put the boy in the classroom when he was only three. By age five he could read and write.
At six an incident occurred that made John aware that he was on the wrong side of a deep “racial divide separating me from white America.” When his mother refused to move to the overcrowded Negro coach, she, he, and his sister, Anne, were kicked off the railcar. As the three made their way on foot back to Rentiesville, the boy began to cry. His mother told him, “There was not a white person on that train or anywhere else who was any better than I was. She admonished me not to waste my energy by fretting but to save it in order to prove that I was as good as any of them” (John Hope Franklin).
The place they would later call home, Tulsa, witnessed a race riot (1921), when John was only a child. Christ Temple CME was destroyed in the riot, and it was costly to rebuild. When the Franklins moved to Tulsa, in 1925, the congregation was still worshiping in a basement. “I call it post-race riot architecture” (John Hope Franklin).
John attended all-Black Booker T Washington High School. When he and his Latin teacher, Charles S Roberts, responded to a dinner invitation at the Mayo Hotel, they were ushered to a separate table. “I did not hear much of what was said that night….I spent my time trying to determine who benefited from having me and Mr Roberts seated separately like that. I have not been able to answer that question yet” (John Hope Franklin).
After high school John went to an all-Black college, Fisk University, Nashville (1931-35). He had planned to be an attorney like his dad, but changed his mind and studied history. At Fisk he met his wife, Aurelia Whittington, whom he married in 1940; they were to stay together for the next fifty-nine years, until her death in 1999. A white professor, Ted Currier, was so impressed with John’s academic ability that he borrowed $500 to send him to graduate school. Aurelia spent part of their honeymoon at the Census Bureau, Washington, DC, helping him with research. John completed his doctorate in history from Harvard University (1941). His dissertation The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (published 1943) was a study of free Blacks in antebellum North Carolina.
During World War II, Franklin responded to the call of Uncle Sam but was turned down because he was the wrong color. Instead, he taught history: first, at Fisk University, then St Augustine’s College and North Carolina College. After the war, he completed his best-known work, From Slavery to Freedom (1947)—the book through which I came to know him. It sold more than three million copies. Readers learned that Black patriots fought at Lexington and Concord, crossed the Delaware with George Washington, and explored with Lewis and Clark.
Franklin taught nine years (1947-56) at Howard University, Washington, DC, another historically Black institution. In 1952 he and Aurelia had a son, John Whittington Franklin, their only child. The following year, when Fisk became the first Black college to have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa honor society, Frankin was elected a member. He was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and an early beneficiary of a fellowship for writers addressing African-American issues. During the time he lived in Washington, Franklin served on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team led by Thurgood Marshall. The team helped lay the groundwork for the landmark US Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education (1954), ending segregation in public schools. “It was evident how much the lawyers appreciated what the historians could offer. For me, and I suspect the same was true for the others, it was exhilarating” (John Hope Franklin).
Franklin left Washington to chair the history department at Brooklyn College, New York—becoming the first Black person to head a major history department. Some of his greatest moments of triumph, though, were marred by bigotry. His joy at being offered the chair of the Brooklyn College history department in 1956 was tempered by his difficulty getting a loan to buy a house in a “white” neighborhood. He stayed several years (1956-64), taking time out to serve as visiting professor at the University of Cambridge (1962). He was appointed to the Fulbright Board of Foreign Scholarships (1962–69), which he chaired (1966-69). He was then recruited by the University of Chicago, where he served almost twenty years: professor (1964-68), department chair (1967-70), and the endowed position of John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor (1969-82). He believed in academic freedom and defended the right of persons like WEB DuBois to express unpopular ideas.
In 1976 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected him for the Jefferson Lecture, the Federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. His three-part lecture became the basis for his book Racial Equality in America. He left Chicago (1983) for North Carolina. He served only two years as James B Duke Professor of History, Duke University, before taking emeritus status (1985), but stayed on as professor of legal history (1985-92), Duke University Law School. He was the first Black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke University. Three academic units at Duke University are named in his honor: (1) the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture, which contains his personal and professional papers, (2) the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, and (3) the Franklin Humanities Institute.
Franklin led a full life with many awards, being named to boards, committees, and commissions, serving as president of several associations, and receiving many honorary degrees. In 1985 he was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. His students showed their esteem with The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin (1991). He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995) and was named to the list of 100 Greatest African-Americans (2002). At age ninety, four years before his death, he published Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (2005).
“My challenge was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of Blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly.” ~John Hope Franklin
“I want to be out there on the firing line, helping, directing or doing something to try to make this a better world, a better place to live.” ~John Hope Franklin
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Jan Earnst Matzeliger (1852-1889) was born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now Suriname), in South America, the son of a Dutch engineer and a Black slave. In his native land Matzeliger worked as a machinist, turned to sailing, and, at age nineteen, came to Philadelphia. Within a few years he could speak English; he relocated to Lynn, Massachusetts, and went to work in a shoe factory. Attaching the shoe to the sole had to be done by hand; a skilled hand-laster could do about fifty shoes in ten hours. A machinist, Matzeliger figured he could create something that could do better, so, 1883, he invented the first shoemaking machine, which could do up to seven hundred shoes in ten hours, thereby cutting the cost for a pair of shoes in half. Unfortunately, he died prematurely, of tuberculosis and never enjoyed the fruit of his labor. He is buried at Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn, Massachusetts.
Patent 274207 Automatic method for lasting shoe (1883)
Patent 415726 Mechanism for distributing tacks, nails, etc (1889)
Patent 421954 Nailing machine (1890)
Patent 423937 Tack separating and distributing mechanism (1890)
Patent 459899 Lasting machine (1891)
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Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr (1877-1963), the son of former slaves, was born in Paris, Kentucky. As a youngster, Morgan had little formal schooling, but he had a desire to learn; so still young, already on his own, working as a handyman in Cincinnati, Ohio, he hired a tutor to teach him. Before age twenty, he relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, to work as a sewing machine repairman. That was his vocation, but his avocation was studying gadgets, taking them apart and seeing how they worked. An enterprising young man, he established his own sewing machine repair business, his own tailoring operation, and even his own newspaper. Still his passion was tinkering. At a time when the country was new to automobiles, he was the first African-American in Cleveland to own an automobile. He invented and received a patent for a traffic signal. Though not today’s electric red, yellow, and green traffic light, it was the germ of the idea. He came up with a number of other inventions, including a hair straightener. Another invention was a gas mask, which, in 1916, made national news when he used it to rescue some men trapped in a gas-filled tunnel under Lake Erie. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He is buried at Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio; an historical marker was erected in his honor.
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Charles Albert Tindley (1856-1933) was called the Prince of Preachers, and considering his enormous success and brilliant mind, no doubt he was. Largely self-taught, Tindley learned Greek and Hebrew through a local synagogue, took a correspondence course through Boston Theological School, and qualified for ordination by examination alone (much later he received an honorary DD). In his early ministry he was an itinerant preacher on the Eastern Shore (Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey), but, in his maturity, he founded one of the largest churches in the USA: East Calvary Methodist Episcopal (Philadelphia). This church grew to house a mixed congregation of 10,000 and, after his death, was renamed Tindley Temple in his honor. A Holiness preacher and a man of the Word, he protested theatre, cake walks, balls, dances, and minstrel shows.
Since I cannot hear him preach, most important for me, he became a prolific lyricist and composer and was dubbed the Father of American Gospel Music. Often in my youth, long before I knew who Tindley was or even bothered to notice who wrote a song, when I opened a hymnal, it was the hymns of Charles Tindley I went to: “I Know the Lord Will Make a Way,” “I’m Going Through,” “Leave It There,” “Let Jesus Fix It for You,” “Nothing Between,” “Stand By Me,” and “We’ll Understand It Better By and By.” The emphasis was the lyrics, not the music. If his preaching was anything like his lyrics, what a wonderful man of God he must have been! He is buried in Eden Cemetery, Collingdale, Pennsylvania (America’s oldest African-American public cemetery); to the right is his headstone.
“[Music’s] language is a language which the soul alone understands, but which the soul can never translate.” ~Arnold Bennett
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Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915), a Southerner, was born on a small farm near Bedford, Virginia, before the Civil War, the son of a Black slave and a white father. What time he spent in slavery was not long: Booker was seven years old at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863)—but, of course, many of the persons he knew, including his mother, were former slaves. Like DuBois, Washington was also an eyewitness of history. He too lived through the Era of Reconstruction, both before and after: through the Presidencies of James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S Grant, Rutherford B Hayes, James A Garfield, Chester A Arthur, Grover Cleveland (counted twice), Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson (one-third of our Presidents).
Liberated, his mother, Jane, with Booker, made her way to West Virginia (a state carved out of Virginia during the Civil War) to be with the man who would become her husband, Washington Ferguson. It was from him that Booker took the surname Washington. Like everyone else in those days, the youngster worked the fields—“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem” (Booker T Washington)—but unlike most people he had a desire to go to school and to be somebody. So it was not long before he went to Hampton Roads, where, still a teenager, he worked his way through what is now Hampton University and, later, what is now Virginia Union University. “Character, not circumstances, makes the man” (Booker T Washington).
Afterward Washington taught at Hampton University, then went to what is now Tuskegee University, in Alabama, where he stayed for the rest of his life, made his mark as an educator, orator, and political leader, and acquired a circle of influential friends. A boots-on-the-ground realist, he could see that the immediate necessities were homes, jobs, and education. Politics could wait. He believed, “Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company”…”There is no power on earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple and useful life.” His philosophy was to work with the dominant white society to better the lives of Blacks. “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work”…“At the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, even at the bottom of religion, there must be for our race economic independence”…“If you can’t read, it’s going to be hard to realize your dreams” (Booker T Washington).
Among his many books was his autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901), parts of which now appear in literary anthologies. He had honorary degrees from Harvard and Dartmouth. As the guest of President Theodore Roosevelt, he was the first African-American to dine at the White House; he was the first African-American depicted on a postage stamp (right) and a coin (memorial half-dollar above left) and the first for whom a ship was named. His birthplace in Virginia (above) was designated a National Monument; his school, Tuskegee, a National Historical Site. A bust of Washington is at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. He is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University.
Tuskegee University, though closely associated with Washington (left is his home, the Oaks), has a story of its own. The bricks for the school buildings were made by the students themselves. Many of the faculty and staff were famous persons in their own right: George Washington Carver, William Levi Dawson, et al. The Tuskegee Airmen (right) were the first African-American aviators in World War II: the 332nd Fighter Group of the US Army Air Corps (see my blog “Deep River—The Drama of Black Folk” at Aesthetics). For decades Tuskegee was synonymous with Black progress.
“In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” ~Booker T Washington
“We do not want the men of another color for our brothers-in-law, but we do want them for our brothers.” ~Booker T Washington
“We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” ~Booker T Washington
“If you want to lift up yourself, lift up someone else.” ~Booker T Washington
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James Edward Maceo West (1931- ) was born in Virginia, not too far from Richmond. West graduated from Temple University with a degree in physics, then (1957) joined Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey, where he became an inventor and acoustician (sound man). He has worked in electroacoustics, physical acoustics, and architectural acoustics. West and Gerhard Sessler, in 1962, developed the foil-electret microphone. Nearly 90 percent of the more than two billion microphones produced annually are based on the principles of the foil-electret and are used in telephones, camcorders, and audio-recorders. West holds over two hundred foreign and over forty domestic patents for the production and design of microphones and techniques for creating polymer foil electrets. In 2001, after a distinguished career, during which he was named a Bell Laboratories Fellow, West retired from Lucent Technology, then joined the faculty of the Whiting School at Johns Hopkins University, where he is currently a research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is a Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a member of the IEEE Communications Society, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Acoustical Society of America. He has authored scientific papers, and, in 1999, was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.
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Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) was born seven years before the Emancipation Proclamation, near Altoona, Pennsylvania. The son of a barber, Williams became a physician, graduating from a three-year degree program at Chicago Medical School. In 1889 he was named to the state Board of Health; in 1891, he established his own hospital, Provident, which was the first hospital owned and operated by an African-American and the first to offer nurse’s training to African-Americans. Williams is credited with performing the first successful open-heart surgery, December, 1893. The following year he was asked by President Grover Cleveland to serve as surgeon-in-chief at Freedmen’s Hospital, Washington, DC, which he did for four years (1894-98). In 1895 he helped to organize the National Medical Association for African-American physicians. In 1912 he left Provident to become staff surgeon at St Luke’s Hospital, where he continued many years. The following year he was named a Fellow in the American College of Surgeons and was awarded an honorary degree from Howard University School of Medicine. He retired at age seventy to a resort open to African-Americans, “Black Eden,” Idlewild, Michigan—not too far from Ludington. Throughout his illustrious career, he was a role model for Black physicians, whom he encouraged to become active in their communities. He is buried at Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.
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Granville T Woods (1856-1910) was born in Ohio, seven years before the Emancipation Proclamation. A child laborer, who left school at age ten, Woods learned his skills on the job, working as an apprentice in a machine shop. In 1872, age sixteen, he obtained a job as a fireman on the Danville and Southern Railroad in Nebraska, and eventually became a railroad engineer; in his spare time he studied electronics. Two years later he moved to Springfield, Illinois—Lincoln country—to work in a rolling mill. In 1878, age twenty-two, Woods took a job aboard the Ironside, a British steamer, and, within two years, became chief engineer. Eventually his travels led him to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became dedicated to modernizing the railroad. Not yet thirty, possessed with an entrepeneurial spirit, he established his own shop, the Woods Electric Company, but later, 1890, moved it to New York City.
Known as the Black Edison, Woods laid claim to a number of patents—one website says forty-five, another sixty—mostly related to the railroad. Some of his inventions are listed below with a link to the patent itself; I found almost thirty—there may be more. You can see by the patent number that while some patent names are similar, there is no duplication. Probably Woods’ most famous invention was the synchronous multiplex railway telegraph (1887), which allowed trains to communicate with the depot and with each other in transit. He died in Harlem, New York, following a stroke, and is buried at St Michaels Cemetery, East Elmhurst, New York. Long after his death (1969) an elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, was named in his honor. October 1974 John J Gilligan, governor of Ohio, issued a proclamation in recognition of a native son.
Patent 299894 Steam-boiler furance (1884)
Patent 364619 Relay instrument (1887)
Patent 366192 Polarized relay
Patent 368265 Electro-mechanical brake (1887)
Patent 371655 Electro-magnetic brake apparatus (1887)
Patent 373915 Induction telegraph system (1887)
Patent 383844 Overhead conducting system electric railway (1888)
Patent 388803 Railway telegraphy (1888)
Patent 395533 Automatic safety cut-out electric circuits (1889)
Patent 463020 Electric Railway System (1891)
Patent 509065 Electric Railway Conduit (1893)
Patent 630280 System of electrical distribution (1899)
Patent 639692 Amusement apparatus (1899)
Patent 656760 Incubator (1900)
Patent 662049 Automatic circuit-breaking apparatus (1900)
Patent 667110 Electric railway (1901)
Patent 678086 Electrical railway system (1901)
Patent 681768 Regulating and controlling electrical devices (1901)
Patent 690807 Method of controlling electric motors (1902)
Patent 690809 Apparatus for controlling electric motors (1902)
Patent 697767 System of electrical control (1902)
Patent 697928 Motor-controlling apparatus (1902)
Patent 701981 Automatic air brake (1902)
Patent 718183 Electric railway system (1903)
Patent 729481 Electric railway (1903)
Patent 762792 Electrical railway apparatus (1904)
Patent 795243 Railway brake apparatus (1905)
Patent 833193 Safety apparatus for railways (1906)
Patent 837022 Safety apparatus for railways (1906)
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“The moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” ~James Baldwin
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee
*The term “Black Folk” echoes WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk.