Black History Month 2017
Throughout the month of February, the 2019 Commemoration will highlight a number of important moments in black history, spanning from 1619 to the present, which influenced the evolution of diversity, race relations, and civil rights in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States. Be sure to check back often for new entries, and follow us on social media for updates.
Did you know that Black History Month actually began as “Negro History Week” in 1926, and was started by Virginia native Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History? It originally took place in the second week of February, and was designed to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The NAACP was also founded in the second week of February in 1909 for this same reason.
In February 1969, the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University suggested that the entire month of February become Black History Month, but this change was not officially recognized until 1976. That year, as a part of the United States Bicentennial, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month and called upon the American public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Other nations, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also recognize Black History Month in February.
Since 1976, every American president has endorsed Black History Month. The event is also given a yearly theme by the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, which continues to promote the study of black history today. The 2017 theme is “The Crisis in Black Education.”
THE ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST AFRICANS TO ENGLISH NORTH AMERICA, 1619
In August 1619, a privateering vessel flying the flag of the Dutch Republic arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia (in present-day Hampton). According to John Rolfe, the ship held no cargo but “20 and odd” Africans who were traded to Governor George Yeardley and Cape Merchant Abraham Peirsey in exchange for provisions. This event marked the first documented arrival of Africans in English North America.
Though Rolfe believed the ship, the White Lion, to be Dutch, modern research has revealed that both the ship and its captain, John Jope, were English. As a privateer, Jope had been commissioned by Maurice, Prince of Orange to aid the Dutch Republic in its rebellion against the Spanish Empire. Due to the dynastic union between Spain and Portugal that existed at the time, this legally permitted Jope to capture both Spanish and Portuguese ships. He could not have done so under English authority, as England and Spain were at peace in 1619.
While patrolling the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 1619, Jope encountered the Treasurer, another privateering vessel captained by Daniel Elfrith. Sailing in consort with one another, the White Lion and the Treasurer managed to capture a Portuguese slave trading vessel, the São João Bautista, off the coast of Mexico. Jope and Elfrith discovered that the ship was carrying several hundred Africans who were victims of Portugal’s war with the kingdom of Ndongo, in what is now Angola. Luis Mendes de Vasconcellos, the Portuguese governor of Angola, enslaved approximately fifty thousand Africans between 1617 and 1621, sending them from the Angolan port city of Luanda to colonies in Spanish America. After taking on approximately 50-60 captive Africans from the São João Bautista, Jope and Elfrith chose to sail north to the Virginia colony. The White Lion arrived at Point Comfort shortly ahead of the Treasurer, which sailed into port four days later.
Fort Monroe (formerly Point Comfort), the landing site of the first Africans to arrive in English North America.
While John Rolfe’s account confirms that the slaves aboard the White Lion were left in Virginia in 1619, the same cannot be said of the slaves aboard the Treasurer. After arriving at Point Comfort, Captain Elfrith discovered that his patron, the Duke of Savoy, had made peace with Spain, invalidating his privateering marque. Fearing that Governor Yeardley might arrest him for piracy and unable to secure supplies from the residents of Point Comfort, Captain Elfrith quickly departed for Bermuda.
In 1619, slavery was not officially legal in the colony of Virginia. However, slavery was prevalent in other colonies, including Bermuda, so Virginians were not unaware of the concept. While records indicate that many early African servants were able to earn their freedom and even purchase their own land, others appear to have been kept as servants for life, making them de facto slaves.
John Punch - First Documented Slave for Life
As a young man, John Punch was captured from his home in West Central Africa and transported to Virginia, where he became an involuntary servant of planter Hugh Gwyn. Gwyn, a member of the House of Burgesses, employed a number of both African and European servants on his plantations in what would become York County. In 1640, Punch and two white servants conspired to escape Gwyn's plantation and travel to Maryland. Their escape was successful, but the trio were eventually caught and returned to Virginia.
On July 9, 1640, as punishment for their escape attempt, the Governor’s Council sentenced both of Punch’s white co-conspirators to serve Gwyn as indentured servants for an additional four years, on top of their original terms of service. Punch, however, was sentenced to serve Gwyn for the rest of his life. In effect, Punch became the first documented slave in America, though he was still officially identified as a servant. This was one of the first decisions made by colonial officials that made a distinction between black and white servants, and historians believe that it was the first legal sanctioning of outright slavery in Virginia.
In July 2012, genealogists and researchers employed by Ancestry.com identified President Barack Obama as a possible descendant of John Punch through his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Through a combination of historical research and DNA analysis, they concluded that Punch fathered a child named John “Bunch” with a white woman some time before his escape attempt. Unfortunately there are no surviving documents that can conclusively identify Punch as John’s father. However, given the apparent rarity of the surname Punch (or Bunch) in colonial Virginia, and the fact that there were fewer than 300 Africans in Virginia in the 1640s, the relationship is very likely. Though their surnames obviously differ, the misspelling of names and places based on how they were perceived by the listener was quite common, even in official records. John Bunch was also closely acquainted with relatives of Hugh Gwyn and owned property in New Kent County, making the connection more probable.
Anthony Johnson - First Free Black Landowner in Virginia
In 1647, Anthony Johnson became one of the first recorded black landowners in Virginia, but his success did not come without opposition. After being freed from servitude sometime around 1635, Johnson (born in Angola, Africa) was able to obtain a plot of land on which he raised a small number of cattle. By 1651, he was given a patent for an isolated 250-acre tract of land on the north side of Nandua, Virginia, where he settled with his wife Mary (who had arrived from Africa in 1622) and proceeded to build a livestock business. Over the next few years, the Johnson's sons, John and Richard, accumulated an additional 650 acres adjacent to their parents' land. Despite having been captured from Africa himself as a young man, Anthony purchased the labor of a number of white and African servants, including a black man named John Casor.
The accumulation of several hundred acres of land, a herd of cattle, and several servants constituted an impressive economic achievement for a free black family in mid-seventeenth-century Virginia. Historians have pointed to Anthony Johnson as proof that in the early and mid-1600's at least, Virginia's free blacks sometimes operated on an equal footing with whites. It is true that during the 17th-century free black men occasionally purchased not only black servants but indentured white servants, and they sometimes married white women. They established profitable farms and livestock businesses, and successfully sued whites in court. However, more recent investigations into the lives of free blacks on the Eastern Shore suggest that while they had relatively more opportunity and freedom than their descendants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they too suffered at the hands of the white majority.
The Johnsons, for example, were harassed by two of their white neighbors, George and Robert Parker, who were able to lure John Casar away from the Johnson household in early 1655. Johnson successfully petitioned the court for Casar's return, ironically setting an early legal precedent for slavery in Virginia. Another white planter attempted to defraud the Johnsons out of their land in 1653, and in 1658 planter Matthew Pippen succeeded in taking land away from Anthony's son Richard. The Johnson family eventually moved to Maryland, but in 1670 a jury of white men decided that "because [Anthony] was a Negroe and by consequence an alien," the Virginia land originally held by the Johnsons should revert to the Crown. The Johnson family's economic success is a tribute to their hard work and resourcefulness, but the attempts by their white neighbors to ruin them are indicative of the severe obstacles to success placed in the path of blacks even during colonial times.
The Virginia Colony Institutionalizes Slavery
Though Africans first arrived in Virginia in 1619, slavery did not take root immediately. Records indicate that while some early African immigrants were kept as servants for life, others were granted their freedom after only a period of servitude. Once free, these men and women officially held all the same rights as any other Virginian. Over time, however, colonial officials began to draw increasingly sharp legal distinctions between white and black colonists. In 1640, for instance, a law requiring all citizens of Virginia to own a gun specifically excluded black men. Despite the growing legal distinction between black and white Virginians, however, lifetime servitude was not institutionalized in the colony until 1662. That year, the General Assembly decreed that children would inherit their legal status from their mothers. This directly contrasted with English common law, which held that a child’s status was inherited from their father, but it ensured that children born into slavery would remain slaves as well.
Continental Army Spy James Lafayette Born in Kent County, VA
In 1748, James Armistead Lafayette (known only as James at the time) was born a slave in New Kent County, Virginia. His master, William Armistead, became the commissary of military supplies in Virginia during the American Revolution, operating out of Richmond. When James learned that the British army was marching into Virginia in the spring of 1781, he volunteered to join the Continental Army under the Marquis de Lafayette. In desperate need of reliable intelligence, Lafayette assigned James to spy on British General Charles Cornwallis. As an African-American, James was able to pose as a runaway slave loyal to the British in order to slip through enemy lines and conduct surveillance of British camps.
Over time, James became a servant in the camp of General Cornwallis. Acting as a double agent, he pretended to relay important information about the movements of Continental forces to the British. As their trust in him grew, officers began to speak freely about their plans in front of James, who sent the information back to General Lafayette along with documents that he was able to smuggle out of Cornwallis’ headquarters. This information proved instrumental in the Continental Army’s siege of Yorktown, where Cornwallis was forced to surrender, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. After his surrender, Cornwallis visited the Marquis de Lafayette’s headquarters and recognized James, reportedly telling him “Ah, you rogue, then you have been playing me a trick all this time!”
Despite his valorous service on behalf of the Continental Army, James returned to New Kent as a slave. While the Emancipation Act of 1783 granted freedom to most volunteer slave soldiers, the colony determined that as a spy who had not served in active combat, James was not eligible for release. In 1786, James petitioned the General Assembly to correct this, and his petition was supported by a letter from the Marquis de Lafayette, now widely considered to be a national hero. Lafayette declared that James was “entitled to every reward his situation can admit of,” and James was officially freed on January 9, 1787.
With no official last name on record, James chose the last name Lafayette in honor of the Marquis. James Lafayette spent the remainder of his life as a farmer in Richmond. When the Marquis returned to the United States in 1824, James hoped to visit him in Yorktown, but could not afford the trip. Instead, he attended a parade in the Marquis’ honor in Richmond. Spotting James amongst the crowd, the Marquis stopped the parade, dismounted from his horse, and embraced James, warmly greeting his old comrade. James died in Baltimore, Maryland on August 9, 1830, though the exact place of his burial is not known.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts Born in Norfolk, VA
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a merchant born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1809, was the first black President of the African colony of Liberia. At the age of 20, Roberts learned that the American Colonization Society, an abolitionist group dedicated to supporting a free black state in Africa, was preparing an expedition across the Atlantic. On February 20, 1829, he and his family (including his wife and child, mother, and five of his six siblings) emigrated to the new colony of Liberia, where he and his brothers operated a successful trading partnership with their friend and fellow merchant William Nelson Colson of Petersburg. They exported palm oil, wood, and ivory to Virginia in exchange for American goods.
In 1833, Roberts became a high sheriff of the colony of Liberia, responsible for organizing the colonial militia and collecting taxes from Liberia’s indigenous people. In 1839 he was appointed vice governor by the American Colonization Society, and in 1841 he became the first black governor of Liberia after the death of his predecessor Thomas Buchanan. After five years as governor, Roberts called for a referendum to decide on independence from the American Colonization Society, which passed on July 26, 1847. The colony’s first independent presidential election was held later that year, and Roberts was sworn into office as the first President of Liberia on January 3, 1848. He was reelected three times, serving a total of eight years during his first tenure as president.
Roberts spent the majority of his first presidential term attempting to gain international recognition from Europe and the United States. After visiting Queen Victoria in 1848, Great Britain became the first nation to recognize Liberia, followed by France, Germany, Portugal, Brazil, and others in 1849. The United States, however, did not recognize Liberia until 1862, under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. After his first presidency ended in 1856, Roberts travelled extensively as a diplomat, during which time he collected enough funds to create Liberia College, where he served as president until 1876. In 1872, he was again elected as the President of Liberia, though his second term was cut short by his death in 1876, only two months after his reelection.
Roberts is remembered fondly in Liberia and the United States. His birthday, March 15, is a national holiday in Liberia, and the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for the Study of the African Diaspora at Norfolk State University was named in his honor.
Nat Turner Leads the Largest Slave Rebellion in American History
On August 21, 1831, Nat Turner led one of the largest slave rebellions in American history against Virginia plantation owners. Born a slave in Southampton County in 1800, Turner was an immensely complex figure. Known as a deeply religious man, he claimed to receive messages from God through visions. After escaping from his master’s plantation in his early 20s, Turner inexplicably returned, claiming that God had instructed him to do so. He was also known to be highly intelligent. After learning to read and write at a young age, he developed a reputation for his quick wit.
In 1828, Turner claimed to have seen a vision of God instructing him to take up arms against slave owners. Awaiting another sign to begin his rebellion, Turner confided in several fellow slaves who supported his efforts. Finally, on February 11, 1831, a solar eclipse provided Turner with the sign he was waiting for to begin his plans in earnest. Initially planning to revolt on July 4, he fell ill and postponed the rebellion until August, when yet another solar eclipse occurred. Starting with only a few of his fellow slaves, Turner moved from house to house, freeing slaves and killing any white people found inside. Before the militia could respond, 60 men, women and children were dead. Turner later confessed that it was his goal to spread “terror and alarm,” believing that the violence of his rebellion would awaken white Americans to the violence and brutality of slavery. Within two days, Turner’s rebellion was suppressed and most of the approximately 50 slaves involved were killed, along with an additional 100-200 unrelated black slaves and freedmen in the area who were killed by militia forces and white mobs. Turner himself escaped into the woods, but he was captured on October 30, 1831 when he was discovered accidentally by a hunter. He was sentenced to death and hanged on November 11.
Following Turner’s rebellion, the General Assembly heard approximately 40 petitions, signed by several thousand Virginians, urging the legislature to engage with the problem of slavery. Some Virginians (particularly Quaker groups) suggested total emancipation, while others demanded that the colony’s slaves be exported to Liberia. The General Assembly considered a motion to emancipate all slaves in Virginia, but the decision was postponed indefinitely to “await a more definite development of public opinion.” This proved difficult, as large plantation owners east of the Blue Ridge Mountains were primarily in favor of slavery, while those to the west were in favor of emancipation. The idea of dividing into Virginia and West Virginia was considered, but eventually abandoned. Ultimately, the General Assembly failed to come to a conclusion on the matter. Instead, conservative legislators used the rebellion as an excuse to pass laws prohibiting anyone from teaching black Virginians, slave or free, to read or write. The culture of fear created by Turner's actions gradually spread to the rest of the South, and may have expedited the coming of the Civil War.
Booker T. Washington Born in Franklin County, Virginia
Booker T. Washington, born a slave in 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia, was one of the most prominent black educators, authors, and orators of the 19th and early 20th centuries. After the Civil War, Washington’s family moved to West Virginia, where he worked in salt furnaces and coal mines until he could afford to return to Virginia to attend Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and Wayland Seminary (Virginia Union University). After graduating, Washington accepted a teaching position at Hampton Institute, where he remained until the founders of Tuskegee Institute selected him to manage their new school in 1881.
When Washington arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama, the “Institute” was little more than a rented church space. Based on his education and experience in Hampton, Washington emphasized the training of practical skills in addition to academic study. After he purchased a former plantation in 1882, students built several new structures on the grounds as a part of their work study programs, and the Institute quickly expanded. Many students, unable to pay their tuition by traditional means, used their construction, agricultural, and domestic labor skills to support the Institute.
Just after starting his tenure in Tuskegee, Washington married Fannie Smith, and the couple had one daughter before Fannie’s death in 1884. The next year, Washington married Virginia native Olivia Davidson, his assistant principal at Tuskegee Institute, and the couple had two sons before Olivia also died young of tuberculosis. Washington’s third wife, Margaret Murray, was exceptionally bright, beginning her teaching career in 1879 when she was only fourteen. Initially hired by Washington to manage the women’s programs at Tuskegee, the couple were married in 1893. Margaret wrote a number of Washington’s speeches on his behalf, and often traveled with him to speaking engagements. She is frequently credited as a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women, and eventually outlived her husband.
Washington rose to national prominence as a participant in the predominantly white 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, where he gave a speech on the topic of race relations. It detailed an informal compromise between African-American leaders in the south and white political leaders, in which the black community would continue to submit to white political rule in exchange for guaranteed protection of their rights to basic education and due process under the law. Many notable figures such as W.E.B. DuBois grew to oppose the compromise, arguing that activism could bring about social equality at a quicker pace. Washington, however, was convinced that America’s deep-seated racism could only be overcome by first proving to the white community that blacks were “responsible, reliable American citizens” and not “naturally stupid and incompetent” as many whites at the time believed.
Washington also contributed a great deal of his wealth (raised through Tuskegee Institute and the support of several white philanthropists like the leaders of Sears, Standard Oil, and Kodak) to support legal challenges against segregation and disenfranchisement. After publishing his second autobiography, Up From Slavery, in 1901, Washington garnered national attention when he was invited to dine at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt and his family, making him the first African American to be invited to the White House by a sitting president. Returning to Alabama, Washington remained the principal of Tuskegee Institute until his death on November 14, 1915.
Dred Scott v. Sanford Heard in U.S. Supreme Court
Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia in 1795. Little is known of his early life in the Commonwealth, before his owner Peter Blow moved to Alabama in 1818. At the age of 35 Scott was sold to an Army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson, who took him north to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin territory, which officially prohibited slavery. However, Scott remained in Emerson’s service. While in Wisconsin, Scott married a slave named Harriet Robinson, who was transferred into Emerson’s care.
In 1837, Emerson was reassigned to Fort Jesup, Louisiana, where he married Eliza Sandford. He soon sent for Scott and Harriet, who agreed to return to his service. During their trip, Scott’s daughter Eliza was born on a steamboat in Illinois, making her a free person under federal law. The Scotts likely could have utilized their daughter’s status to sue for their own freedom, but chose not to do so. They continued to serve Dr. Emerson until his death in 1843, when they were inherited by his widow. In 1846, Scott finally attempted to purchase his family’s freedom, but Ms. Sanford refused, prompting Scott to take his case to the courts.
With the help of a number of abolitionists and financial assistance from his first owner, Peter Blow, Scott sued for his freedom in a Missouri court. His case hinged on the fact that his long residence in northern free territories justified his family's emancipation. Missouri courts had previously ruled in favor of slaves in similar circumstances, but Scott lost the case on a technicality. Upon appeal, a trial court found in favor of the Scotts, but Ms. Sanford refused to accept the outcome and appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri. The state Supreme Court reversed the initial decision, ruling that the Scotts were still slaves and that they should have sued for their freedom while they still lived in a free state.
After being transferred into the service of Ms. Sanford’s brother John, Scott appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, the court ruled 7-2 that Scott had no standing to sue for his freedom in court, because slaves of African descent were not officially American citizens. The court also ruled that free states and territories had no right to free slaves from their owners. The decision was made almost directly along North-South lines, with Justice John Catron being the only northerner on the court to side with the majority. Historians have since discovered that Catron was pressured into siding with his southern colleagues by President-elect James Buchanan, in order to avoid the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines. One of the dissenters, Justice John McLean, argued that because African Americans had the right to vote in five of the thirteen American states when the Constitution was written, the court had no basis for claiming that black Americans were not citizens.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford had much more far-reaching consequences than the Scott family’s continued enslavement. The court’s decision to declare the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional as a part of Scott’s case opened the way for slavery to spread into new western territories, and was viewed by northerners as a direct attempt to weaken the political power of the anti-slavery North. Though the Supreme Court felt that their decision would settle the matter of slavery’s expansion once and for all, it had the unintended effect of creating even deeper divisions between slave owners and abolitionists, and contributed to the onset of the Civil War.
John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry
On October 16, 1859, John Brown, a northern abolitionist, led a daring raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) with the intention of arming slaves for rebellion. Born into an extremely devout religious family in 1800, Brown spent his early years as a tanner in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He faced a great deal of personal and financial hardship throughout the 1930s, including bankruptcy and the loss of several of his children as well as his first wife. However, it was not until Elijah Lovejoy, a prominent Presbyterian minister and abolitionist, was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois in 1837 that Brown dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery.
In 1844 Brown moved his business to Springfield, Massachusetts, one of the most active abolitionist strongholds in the North. As he became more and more involved in the abolitionist movement, his belief that slavery could only be ended through violence grew. In 1847, Frederick Douglass wrote of his experience meeting Brown, noting that “From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield […] while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man's strong impressions.” In response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that authorities in the North return escaped slaves to their owners, Brown founded an underground anti-slavery militia known as the “League of Gileadites.” The League was designed to prevent lawmakers from arresting free blacks in Springfield, and members often resorted to the threat of violence to achieve their ends.
By 1855, several of Brown’s sons had moved to the Kansas Territory, and they alerted their father to the fact that pro-slavery forces were forming militia groups to intimidate abolitionists. Determined to defend Kansas from the encroachment of slavery, Brown travelled to the territory with the intent of supporting so-called “Free State” settlers in the region. When pro-slavery militiamen sacked Lawrence, Kansas, Brown retaliated by killing 5 supposedly pro-slavery settlers, sparking a period of violence between the two sides that would later be known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Brown aided Free State settlers in several conflicts that followed, successfully repelling a number of pro-slavery militia units intent on destroying abolitionist settlements.
When Kansas was finally settled as a free state in 1858, Brown shifted his attention to Virginia. After embarking on a fundraising tour attended by important cultural figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Brown began recruiting supporters for an armed rebellion against slaveholders. Some of his supporters suggested that Brown’s forces engage in a campaign of terrorism against the South, including the bombing of several Southern churches, but Brown refused to engage in such activities. Instead, he chose to prepare for an open military campaign against the Southern states, with the ultimate goal of creating a new state for freed slaves. He firmly believed that if he began a rebellion against slavery, that slaves across the South would rise up in response. His efforts were aided by Harriet Tubman, who recruited a number of freed slaves from Ontario to join their cause. Brown also attempted to recruit Frederick Douglass to his side, but Douglass refused, and urged Brown to abandon his plans for armed rebellion.
By late September, only 21 men (16 white and 5 black) had arrived in Harper’s Ferry to join Brown on his planned raid of the federal armory. By contrast, Brown had expected to be joined by several hundred men, as evidenced by his acquisition of 200 rifles in preparation for the attack. Brown’s plan was to distribute the approximately 100,000 rifles in the Harper’s Ferry armory to local slaves before travelling south, where his men would free slaves county by county and only fight in self-defense. He hoped that depriving the Southern states of their slaves would cause the regional economy to collapse, thereby putting an end to slavery as an institution.
On the morning of October 16, 1859, Brown and 18 of his men infiltrated Harper’s Ferry, cutting the town’s telegraph lines and easily capturing the lightly-defended armory. After gathering hostages from nearby towns, Brown spread the news of his victory and asked local slaves to rise up against their owners. Unfortunately for Brown, events quickly spiraled out of control. When a passenger train arrived in Harper’s Ferry, Brown’s men shot the train’s baggage master, who was ironically a free black man. For unknown reasons, Brown allowed the train to continue on its way after this incident, and the train’s conductor quickly sent a telegram to the railroad. By late morning the news that Brown had seized the federal armory had already reached Washington, D.C., and militia forces began mobilizing to reclaim the facility. With the bridge to the armory blocked by the militia, Brown’s only escape route from the armory was blocked. Holed up in the engine house of the armory, Brown’s men exchanged gunfire with their attackers. When Brown’s son left the structure under a white flag of truce, the angry militia forces immediately shot and killed him.
For the next two days, Brown and his men defended the engine house, which was eventually surrounded by a force of U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. First Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart offered to spare Brown’s men in exchange for their surrender, but Brown refused. In response, the Marines used a sledgehammer and ram to break down the doors before capturing Brown and his men. At 11:15 a.m. on December 2, Brown was executed at the age of 59, and his body was buried at his family’s homestead in New York. After his death, Brown was eulogized by figures including Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, W. E. B. Du Bois, and later Malcolm X.
Today, historians believe that Brown’s raid hastened the arrival of the Civil War by polarizing the nation’s already contentious political parties. Southern Democrats blamed the Republican Party for inspiring Brown’s actions, while abolitionists defended Brown’s motivations even as they distanced themselves from his actions. Following the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction, Brown was portrayed as an insane madman, particularly by southern authors and historians. Contemporary studies, however, often acknowledge the nobility of Brown’s motives, even if they denounce his specific actions.
Union Major General Benjamin Butler Declares Escaped Confederate Slaves "Contraband of War"
At the outset of the American Civil War in 1861, Union forces had no official policy when it came to the protection of escaped or liberated slaves. The decision to allow slaves to travel north to freedom or return them to the South was left up to individual officers. Just over a month into the war, however, Union Major General Benjamin Butler decided to take the issue into his own hands. On May 24, 1861, three escaped slaves fled into Gen. Butler’s custody at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Their master, a Confederate colonel, demanded that they be returned to him under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In response, Butler declared that because Virginia had seceded from the Union, the federal Fugitive Slave Act no longer applied. Furthermore, he argued that because the three escaped slaves had been helping the Confederacy construct fortifications, they were considered “contraband of war” and were therefore considered property of military value. By defining the slaves as contraband in this way, Union officers could justify capturing and freeing escaped slaves who had been forced into labor by the Confederacy.
Despite making the decision to free the three escaped slaves without the approval of the federal government, Butler’s “contraband” policy was quickly adopted by other Union officers in the South. President Lincoln also approved of Butler’s reasoning, and in August Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, declaring that any slaves being used to aid the Confederate effort would be immediately freed upon arrival in Union custody. However, the act was limited in scope. When General John Fremont attempted to free all of the slaves owned by active Confederate soldiers in Missouri, his actions were overruled. For those slaves who were freed under the Confiscation Act, many were sent to Washington D.C. or other strategic areas, where they were paid to construct fortifications for the Union army. Initially many of these freed laborers were paid a paltry sum, but the federal government soon demanded that black laborers be paid fair wages. The government also demanded that officers keep records of the condition of any contraband laborers under their purview, in order to ensure that they were treated fairly.
Butler was eventually removed from command of Fort Monroe in late 1861 and sent to New Orleans. Despite having been a pro-slavery Democrat (and active supporter of Jefferson Davis) before the outbreak of war, Butler continued to serve the Union and gradually became convinced that total emancipation for slaves was a worthy goal. On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, expanding the scope of the First Confiscation Act by freeing all slaves held by Confederate soldiers. Soon after the release of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Butler switched parties and even began supporting the arming of African American troops, which was still a controversial issue in the North at the time.
By mid-1863, the recruitment of African American volunteers into the Union Army began in earnest, led by the Bureau of Colored Troops. Still subject to prejudice by Union officers, black soldiers did not serve in front line combat as often as white units, but those who did served with distinction in a variety of important battles. By the end of the Civil War, approximately 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army, and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Though they were initially paid only half the salary of white soldiers, in 1864 Congress granted equal pay to black troops, and even made the act apply retroactively.
The Virginia General Assembly Approves the Reconstruction Amendments
As the Civil War came to a close, Congress proposed a series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery, was ratified in December 1865. The 14th Amendment, dealing directly with the consequences of the war, made all freed people citizens of the United States and ensured that any state attempting to deprive its citizens of their voting rights would lose a portion of its representation in Congress. The amendment also prohibited Confederate veterans from serving in federal office, much to the chagrin of the Virginia legislature. Finally, the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to African American men.
While the Virginia legislature, reformed at the end of the Civil War, quickly approved the ratification of the 13th Amendment, there was strong resistance against the other Reconstruction amendments. In January 1867, the Senate of Virginia and House of Delegates almost unanimously refused to ratify the 14th Amendment, with only one member of the House voting in favor of ratification. On March 2, however, Congress declared that the Confederate states would not be allowed to take their seats in the U.S. Congress until they ratified the amendment. This condition remained in place even after enough states ratified the amendment to make it a part of the Constitution, which occurred in July. With little remaining choice, the General Assembly finally ratified the 14th Amendment on October 8, 1869, officially recognizing black Virginians as citizens of the United States. (Ironically, American Indians were not recognized as citizens until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.)
The 15th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification on February 26, 1869. By allowing African American men to vote, the federal government hoped to ensure that freedom from slavery would give way to genuine freedom. While the concept of African Americans voting in Virginia elections was opposed by many legislators, Virginians especially resented the amendment’s provision forbidding Confederate veterans from voting or holding any federal office. Eventually President Ulysses S. Grant was forced to compromise with the General Assembly, allowing them to ratify the amendment without the provision disenfranchising former Confederates. The amendment was finally approved by both houses on October 8, 1869. With the 14th and 15th Amendments finally passed, Congress agreed to allow Virginia’s elected senators and representatives to finally take their seats in Washington, D.C.
Anne Spencer, Famous Virginia Poet, Born in Henry County
Anne Spencer, Harlem Renaissance poet, was born Annie Bethel Bannister in Henry County on February 6, 1882. Her father, born a slave in 1862, was of black, white, and Seminole ancestry, while her mother was the daughter of a slave and a white Virginia aristocrat. At the age of 11, Anne began attending the Virginia Theological Seminary and College (now Virginia University of Lynchburg). Upon arrival at the college Anne was barely literate, but her aptitude for language was immediately apparent, and in 1899 she delivered the valedictory address at her graduation. In 1901 she married her college boyfriend Edward Spencer, who operated a parcel service and construction business.
While she was a student at the Virginia Seminary, Anne began writing poetry, a pastime which she engaged in as much as possible. While working with Anne to open an NAACP chapter in Lynchburg, NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson noticed Anne’s poetry and forwarded several of her pieces to his own editor, H.L. Mencken. Mencken, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent American authors, published one of Anne’s poems in The Crisis in February 1920. Her poetry was extremely popular, particularly amongst civil rights activists and members of the Harlem Renaissance art movement. The Spencers’ home, known as “Edenkraal”, soon became a center of intellectual activity for prominent African American artists and activists including Langston Hughes, George Washington Carver, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and W.E.B. DuBois.
Anne Spencer holds an important place in Virginia history as the first Virginian and the first African American to have her poetry included in the famed Norton Anthology of American Poetry. She continued to write for several decades, until her death in 1975 at the age of 93. Her home is now operated as the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, which is dedicated to the preservation of Anne’s legacy and her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance.
William Harvey Carney is Awarded the Medal of Honor
William Harvey Carney, born a slave in Norfolk in 1840, was the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The details of Carney’s early life are unclear, though it is believed that he escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad as a young man. He joined the Union Army as a member of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in March 1863, and on July 18, 1863 he participated in the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. When his unit’s color guard was fatally wounded, Carney took the American flag and led the charge, despite taking several serious wounds in the process. When his unit was forced to retreat, Carney turned the flag over to another member of his unit, stating "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!" He was honorably discharged from the Army to his wounds in June 1864. Carney’s actions in the battle were the inspiration for the movie “Glory”.
After his discharge, Carney worked a streetlight technician in Massachusetts, and later as one of the city’s four mail carriers. He also toured as a public speaker, delivering addresses to various veterans groups. It was not until May 23, 1900, 37 years after the events of Fort Wagner, that Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry. Though several African Americans had received the Medal of Honor since 1863, Carney is considered the first African American to receive the honor, as his actions took place earlier in the war than the others. The medal’s citation reads, “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.” Carney died on December 9, 1908 in an elevator accident, and was buried in his family’s plot in New Bedford, Massachusetts. A six-foot high granite statue of Carney, surrounded by the graves of nearly one hundred black military veterans of both the Civil and Spanish American Wars, was erected in the West Point section of Norfolk’s Elmwood Cemetery in 1909. James Fuller, a former slave and Norfolk's first African-American councilman, was responsible for having the statue erected.
Maggie L. Walker Becomes the First Female Founder and President of a Chartered Bank in the United States
Maggie Walker was born Maggie Lena Mitchell in Richmond, Virginia in 1864. Her mother, a former slave, served as the assistant cook in the mansion of Elizabeth Van Lew, who became famous for operating a Union spy ring in Richmond during the Civil War. Maggie attended public school in Richmond as a child, and spent her free time making money for her family by delivering laundry.
As a teenager, Maggie joined the Richmond branch of the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal society established after the Civil War to aid the sick and elderly and promote various humanitarian causes. After marrying Armstead Walker Jr., a brick contractor, in 1886, Maggie left her job as a schoolteacher and began supporting the Order full time in addition to caring for her children. She served the Order in numerous positions of increasing responsibility for many years, before becoming the Order’s “Right Worthy Grand Secretary” in 1899, the position she held until her death. As a delegate to the Order’s biannual convention in 1901, Maggie suggested that the Order establish a number of independent operations to support its members, including a newspaper, bank, and factory. She felt strongly that a bank operated by the Order could promote economic independence for African Americans and combat racial segregation in the financial industry.
Within a year, Maggie’s plans began to take shape. In 1902, she published the Independent Order of St. Luke’s first newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, and on July 28, 1903 she charted the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Serving as the bank’s first president, Maggie officially became the first woman of any race to charter and run a bank in the United States. In order to encourage wise financial spending amongst upcoming generations of African Americans in Richmond, Maggie distributed small penny banks to children. Once children had deposited 100 pennies into their personal “bank”, they were allowed to open an official account at St. Luke’s. The bank also issued over 600 mortgages to black families by 1920, giving them an opportunity to realize their dreams of home ownership.
By 1928, Maggie became confined to a wheelchair, but despite her condition she continued to operate her business and enact positive change for the African American community in Richmond. In 1929, as the bank’s financial situation began to decline, Maggie negotiated a merger with two other local African American banks, creating the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. She continued to serve as the chairwoman of the company’s board of directors after the merger, and the new company was able to successfully navigate through the Great Depression unlike hundreds of other financial institutions. Until it was purchased by Abigail Adams National Bank in 2005, Consolidated Bank and Trust was the oldest continually African American operated bank in the United States. Today, Consolidated Bank and Trust is a part of Premier Bank.
Maggie continued to lead the Independent Order of St. Luke and operate Consolidated Bank and Trust until her death on December 15, 1934. Her residence at 110 ½ East Leigh Street, in the heart of Richmond’s Jackson Ward, remained in the hands of the Walker family until 1979, when it and its contents were purchased by the National Park Service. Today, the home is operated as a national historic site, along with a number of surrounding buildings which serve as the visitor’s center and exhibit hall. The site is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until February 28, at which point the site will remain open until 5 p.m. on those same days.
Ella Fitzgerald, American Jazz Icon, Born in Newport News, Virginia
Ella Fitzgerald, American jazz icon, was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1917. After spending a portion of her childhood in Virginia, Ella and her family moved north as a part of the Great Migration, ultimately settling in Yonkers, New York. Ella was an outstanding student, but her true passion even as a child was music. She began dancing in the third grade, and learned the basics of music through involvement in her local church. As a young woman she began listening to records by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and others, which began to influence her musical tastes and vocal style.
Tragically, Ella’s mother passed away in a car accident in 1932. Ella, who was only 15 at the time, moved in with aunt in Harlem. Following the trauma of her mother’s passing, Ella began skipping school, instead choosing to work as a lookout for an illegal brothel and as a runner for the Italian-American Mafia. She was eventually caught by the authorities and sent to the New York Training School for Girls, a reformatory school in Hudson. After only a few years she escaped, and survived by singing on the streets of Harlem. On November 21, 1934, at the age of 17, Ella managed to secure a spot in one of the Apollo Theater’s “Amateur Nights”. Originally intending to dance, she opted to sing instead, and won the night’s top prize. Two months later, she won a chance to perform at the Harlem Opera House, where she impressed singer and talent scout Charlie Linton. Linton offered Ella a spot in the band of Chick Webb, and her performances met with wide acclaim.
Performing with Webb for several years, Ella secured her first hit with a 1938 version of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” followed by another hit in “I Found My Yellow Basket.” When Webb died in 1939, Ella became the band’s new leader and it was renamed “Ella and her Famous Orchestra.” She recorded almost 150 songs with the Orchestra between 1935 and 1942, but also performed with other bands including the Benny Goodman Orchestra. In 1942, however, she left the band to pursue a solo career, and quickly began recording a number of popular hits. During her occasional work with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, Ella began incorporating scat singing into her performances, which became incredibly popular amongst jazz artists.
In 1955, Ella and her manager created Verve Records. Under her own record label, Ella was able to pursue a number of new opportunities. Some of Ella’s most famous works, including her various Songbook sets, were recorded during this period. These works became particularly famous for their ability to cross traditional racial and ethnic barriers in music. As the New York Times put it, “Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.”
Ella continued to tour and record dozens of new albums throughout the 1960s and 70s, but by 1975 her vocal abilities began to decline. Due to the effects of her diabetes, Ella was forced to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993, and she was no longer able to perform. Confined to a wheelchair, she spent the remainder of her life at home with her children and grandchildren before her death in 1996 at the age of 79. Before her passing, Ella founded the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, which is dedicated to providing musical education opportunities to underprivileged children, providing healthcare to the needy, and supporting diabetes research.
Norfolk State University Founded
Norfolk State University was founded in 1935, during the Great Depression, to provide higher education to African Americans in Virginia. At its founding, it was known as the Norfolk Unit of Virginia Union University. Only 85 students attended classes in the university’s first year, but attendance grew steadily. By 1942, the university was successful enough to become the independent Norfolk Polytechnic College. However, within two years the Virginia Legislature merged Norfolk Polytechnic into Virginia State College (now Virginia State University). By 1950, the university had over 1000 students and 50 faculty members. The school also adopted its current mascot, the Spartan, in 1952. Having grown significantly, the university was provided with a new permanent campus by the City of Norfolk, and the first building opened on the university’s current site in 1955. In 1956, the university began offering its first bachelor’s degrees.
In 1969, the university became independent once again, and was known as Norfolk State College. By that time, total attendance was up to 5400 students. The college began a graduate program in 1975, and in 1979 the General Assembly designated Norfolk State College as Norfolk State University. Today, the University is one of the largest predominately black institutions of higher learning in the nation. All nine members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, an organization of historically African American fraternities and sororities, have chapters at Norfolk State University. Norfolk State is also the alma mater of several notable alumni including Evelyn Fields, the first African American director of NOAA, and Jedidah Isler, the first African American woman to receive a PhD in Astrophysics.
Chauncey Spencer Concludes Ten-City Flight Tour
Chauncey Spencer was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1906. His mother was famous Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer (read more about Anne in our 1882 entry). At the age of 11, Chauncey saw his first airplane in flight, and from that point forward he had an insatiable desire to fly. However, after graduating college, Chauncey discovered that despite his family’s fame and respect, no aviation school in the area would allow an African American to take flying lessons. At the suggestion of Oscar De Priest, a family friend and the first black Congressman elected after Reconstruction, Chauncey moved to Chicago where flying lessons were more readily available to African Americans.
Chauncey spent several years working as a kitchen helper in Chicago, spending the bulk of his wages on flying lessons. After completing his flight training, Chauncey helped organize the National Negro Airmen Association of America, which was founded in 1934. Claude Barnett, director of the Association of Negro Press, suggested that the word “negro” be dropped from the organization’s title, and with Chauncey’s support the name was changed to the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAAA).
In May 1939, Chauncey and fellow NAAA member Dale White planned a ten-city flight tour from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Sensing that war in Europe was imminent, the duo hoped to convince Congress and military officials that black pilots were equally as skilled as whites. Flying a rented Lincoln-Paige biplane, the pair successfully navigated their way to D.C. with only two flight instruments, gathering increased press coverage at every stop along the way. When they arrived in Washington D.C., they were met at the airstrip by a number of Congressmen including then-Senator Harry Truman. Impressed by Spencer and White’s courage, intelligence, and initiative, Truman and several of his fellow Congressmen supported the creation and funding of an Army Air Corps training program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which would include black cadets. This program later served as the training program of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who served with distinction in World War II.
When the United States became involved in the war, Chauncey worked for the Army Air Corps as an instrument repairman. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered an end to discrimination in federal agencies in 1941, Chauncey was sent undercover as an aircraft mechanic to Tuskegee, where he was asked to report on the conditions faced by African American cadets. When he reported that black cadets were subject to frequent discrimination at the hands of white officers, Tuskegee’s commanding officer was removed from his post and new policies were put in place to prevent further issues. In 1948, the Air Force awarded Chauncey Spencer the Exceptional Civilian Service Award for his work during the war and his efforts to integrate African American soldiers into the military. The Exceptional Civilian Service Award is the highest honor that the Air Force can bestow upon a civilian.
Unfortunately, many military officers and Congressmen opposed the desegregation of the military, and resented Chauncey’s efforts to move the process forward. In September 1953, Chauncey was accused of being a Communist, and as a result he was charged with disloyalty and fired from his position. After suffering a great deal of public embarrassment and economic hardship, Chauncey was finally cleared of all charges by the Air Force in June 1954. He was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983, and passed away on August 21, 2002.
Irene Morgan Protests Bus Segregation
Eleven years before Rosa Parks became famous for her stand against bus segregation in Alabama, Irene Morgan of Gloucester County, Virginia took the same stand on a Greyhound bus traveling from the Old Hayes Store in Gloucester County to Baltimore, Maryland. Shortly after boarding the bus, the driver ordered Irene to give up her seat to a white passenger. When Irene refused to move, the driver contacted the authorities and a sheriff boarded the bus with a warrant. In response, Mrs. Morgan threw the warrant out the window and kicked the sheriff, resulting in her arrest.
With the help of the Virginia chapter of the NAACP, Irene appealed her case to the courts. Her lawyers, Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie, were two of the most prominent civil rights lawyers in America. Instead of attempting to argue against the concept of segregation as a whole, they argued that Virginia's bus segregation laws violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. In 1946, the Supreme Court ruled in Mrs. Morgan's favor, arguing that bus segregation placed an "undue burden" on interstate commerce. A song written soon afterwards declared, "You don't have to ride Jim Crow, 'cause Irene Morgan won her case!" Unfortunately, the reality of the situation was not so simple. Black and white supporters of the Morgan decision traveled throughout the south in an attempt to force southern states to recognize the ruling, but they were often arrested for violating local segregation statutes or beaten by angry white mobs.
Nonetheless, Irene Morgan's stand for equal treatment paved the way for Rosa Parks to take a similar stand eleven years later. Until recently, Mrs. Morgan's contribution to civil rights has gone largely unrecognized. She received national attention on August 5th, 2000, when Gloucester County's 350th Celebration Committee paid tribute to her in a "Welcome Home Ceremony."
Moton High School Students Strike Against Unfair School Conditions
On April 23, 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns led her fellow students in a strike against the abysmal conditions they faced at Moton High School in Prince Edward County. Moton, an all-black school, was built in 1939 to accommodate only 180 students. It had no gym, cafeteria, science lab, or athletic fields. Over the next decade, the school’s student population grew from 180 to over 400. In order to accommodate so many students, the county built freestanding plywood shacks with wood stoves and no plumbing to serve as additional classrooms. Johns felt that leading a strike was the only way to convince the county to construct a new school building equal to that of nearby white schools.
Without the knowledge of school faculty, the students at Moton High held their own assembly on the morning of April 23, where Johns detailed her plans for a strike. Met with overwhelming support, Johns led the students in a picket-line outside of the school, with students holding signs reading “a new school or none at all” and “down with tar-paper shacks.” The next day several students met with the county superintendent, but they were told that nothing could be done until they returned to school. The strike continued until May 7, but by that time the scope of the strike had moved far beyond Prince Edward County.
Two lawyers for the Virginia chapter of the NAACP, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson III, heard about the strike from some of the students and arrived at Moton High on April 25. As a part of the NAACP’s broader strategy to dismantle the concept of “separate but equal,” they offered to represent the students of Moton in a court case against the county. On May 23, they officially filed suit to end segregation in Prince Edward County. The case was bundled together with similar cases from across the U.S., into what eventually became known as the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional, ending the legal justification for segregated schools.
Despite the ruling however, counties across the South resisted efforts to desegregate schools. Virginia enacted a policy known as “massive resistance,” in which any public school attempting to integrate was closed. By 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court overturned the laws allowing for massive segregation, but Prince Edward County continued to resist desegregation until 1962, when the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief on behalf of all black students in the county. President John F. Kennedy, in a civil rights address to Congress, specifically mentioned the Prince Edward County case as an example of Southern counties resisting segregation, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said that "the only places on earth not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia." By September 16, 1963, black students in Prince Edward County were finally able to return to class with the support of President Kennedy and private donors, who leased several of the county’s closed public schools. Finally, on May 25, 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the county had violated black students’ right to an education by closing public schools, and demanded that all schools be reopened. By the time the affair was brought to a close, most black students in Prince Edward County had been deprived of five years of public education.
On the 50th anniversary of the Moton strike, Moton High School opened as the Robert R. Moton Museum. The museum focuses on the history of civil rights and education in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Barbara Johns and her legal representatives are also featured on the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, which was dedicated in 2008.
Wendell Scott Becomes NASCAR's First Licensed African American Driver
Wendell Scott was born in Danville, Virginia in 1921. As a young man, Scott learned how to drive and repair automobiles from his father, who worked as a chauffeur and mechanic for several wealthy white families. After dropping out of high school in the late 1930s, Scott spent several years as a taxi driver before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942. Serving in a segregated unit, Scott became a driver in the Army motor pool, and spent three years transporting goods across Europe during World War II.
After the war ended, Scott returned to Virginia and opened his own auto-repair shop. Like many other professional drivers in the rural south, Scott supplemented his income by transporting illegal moonshine across the state. He was caught only once and sentenced to three years of probation, during which time he continued to run moonshine regardless. In 1947, Scott began competing in races at the Danville Fairgrounds as a driver in the regional Dixie Circuit, one of NASCAR’s many competitors.
After winning several races, Scott sought admission into the prestigious all-white ranks of NASCAR, but his application was denied. Refusing to give up, he appeared unbidden at a number of NASCAR-sanctioned events across the south, and eventually managed to catch a lucky break. In 1953, he towed his vehicle to a race at the Richmond Speedway, and requested a NASCAR license from the race’s steward, Mike Poston. Poston, who was only a part-time employee of NASCAR, was unaware that the organization had a strict policy against licensing black drivers. After ensuring that Scott was aware that he would likely face harsh discrimination from NASCAR drivers and audience members alike, Poston agreed to grant Scott a NASCAR license, making him the first official black NASCAR driver. Scott later revealed that Poston’s superiors were extremely unhappy with his decision, but they did not reverse it.
As a NASCAR driver, Scott was occasionally the subject of discriminatory treatment, but most of the organization’s white drivers quickly came to respect Scott’s skills as a driver and mechanic. After winning dozens of races in regional competitions, Scott also garnered a sizeable white fanbase. In 1959 he won the Virginia sportsman-class championship at Richmond’s Southside Speedway, but continued to aspire to even greater titles.
In 1961, Scott moved up to NASCAR’s “Grand National” Series (known today as the Cup Series), the organization’s premier division. After only two years, Scott managed to finish 15th in the series, and on December 1, 1963, he became the first (and only) African American driver to win a Grand National event. With 25 laps remaining in a race at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida, Scott managed to pass Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty (aka “The King”) and hold on to the lead for his first major victory. However, when the race ended, officials did not recognize Scott’s victory, awarding the race to the second-place driver. It is unknown exactly why the results of the race were initially unclear, though it was widely presumed to be an issue of racial discrimination. Two years later, NASCAR officials retroactively awarded Scott with the victory he rightfully deserved, though his family still did not receive the race trophy until 2010.
Scott continued to race in NASCAR for many years, finishing in the top ten of the Grand National series from 1966 to 1969. Unfortunately, he was forced to retire due to injuries after crashing only eight laps into a race at Talladega Superspeedway on May 6, 1973. Four years later, Warner Brothers released “Greased Lightning,” a Richard Pryor film based on Scott’s life and racing career. Since Scott’s retirement, only one other African American driver, Darrell Wallace Jr., has won an event in one of NASCAR’s three top series. Scott eventually passed away from spinal cancer in 1990, at the age of 69. On January 30, 2015, he was posthumously inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a replica of his 1962 Chevrolet can be viewed by visitors.
The "Richmond 34" are Arrested after Sit-in Protest
On the morning of February 22, 1960, nearly 200 Virginia Union University students and faculty members marched from their dormitories and classrooms to Thalhimer’s Department Store in downtown Richmond. Led by students Frank Pinkston and Charles Sherrod, who had been counseled on effective methods of nonviolent protest by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the group planned to protest the department store’s segregation policies by participating in a sit-in at the “whites only” lunch counter. A number of students seated themselves at the counter and refused to leave until they were served, but the manager refused and called the local police.
34 students, 11 women and 23 men between the ages of 18 and 23, were ultimately arrested and charged with trespassing. When they were found guilty in county court, all 34 students collectively appealed their case to the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled that it was the shop owner’s constitutional right to refuse service to anyone. Angered by this decision, the students appealed to the United States Supreme Court for a final ruling. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the “Richmond 34,” overturning their original convictions and striking a blow against segregation.
For over a year after the initial arrest of the Richmond 34, African Americans continued to protest and boycott segregated businesses and public facilities in Richmond. These boycotts were so successful that 1960 remains the only year in history that Thalhimer’s total sales and earnings decreased from the previous year. Unable to handle the financial strain of a major boycott, Thalhimer’s and other Richmond businesses quietly desegregated their stores and lunch counters. Later in his life, Thalhimer’s owner William Thalhimer Jr. wrote that “Judgment and instinct told me that integration was the right thing. People are people under God. We didn’t decide to be Jewish. No one decides to be black or white.” In 1963, President John F. Kennedy consulted Thalhimer personally on the challenges of desegregation and the drafting of his upcoming civil rights bill.
On the 50th anniversary of the sit-in in 2010, Virginia Union University hosted a celebration in honor of the actions of the Richmond 34, and several surviving participants of the sit-in were in attendance. In June 2016, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources also unveiled a historical marker at the former site of Thalhimer’s Department Store commemorating the Richmond 34. Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, granddaughter of William Thalhimer Jr., was on hand for the dedication.
Evelyn Butts Challenges Virginia's Poll Tax
Evelyn Butts was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1924. After her mother died when she was only ten, Evelyn was sent to live with her aunt, who fostered her interest in politics. Evelyn dropped out of school in the tenth grade, and in 1941 she married Charlie Herbert Butts, who served in the U.S. Army in World War II and later worked at the Norfolk Naval Air Station. When Charlie's wartime injuries eventually disabled him, the couple lived off of his military pension.
In the early 1950s, Evelyn became increasingly active in civil rights organizations and began campaigning against racial segregation laws. She was especially involved in the Norfolk chapter of the NAACP. In November 1963, with the aid of Norfolk attorney Joseph Jordan, Evelyn filed suit against Virginia Governor Albertis Harrison and several Norfolk officials in federal court, charging that Virginia's poll tax violated the U.S. Constitution. She argued that the tax violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment by placing an undue burden on African Americans, who were more likely to be unable to afford the tax. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Butts' case, along with a later case against the poll tax filed by several African American residents of Fairfax County, was first heard by the Supreme Court in January 1966, under the name Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections. On March 24, the Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Butts (and Harper). In the court's majority decision, the justices argued that making wealth a standard for voting was a clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause, and that wealth had no correlation to a person's voting qualifications.
After the decision, Evelyn Butts returned to Norfolk, where she led a number of voter registration campaigns. She also founded Concerned Citizens for Political Education, one of Norfolk's most active political organizations. In 1968, the Concerned Citizens helped elect Joseph Jordan as Norfolk's first African American city council member of the 20th century. In 1969, they campaigned on behalf of William P. Robinson, who became the first African American to represent Norfolk in the Virginia House of Delegates. By the end of the 1970s, Evelyn Butts was regularly considered to be one of the most influential black political figures in Virginia. She ran for city council in Norfolk several times in the 1980s, but lost by a slim margin each time. She remained active in politics until her death in Norfolk in 1993.
Loving v. Virginia Invalidates Laws Against Interracial Marriage
Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Loving, an African American and Virginia Indian woman, were married in 1958. Natives of Central Point, Virginia, they were forced to travel to Washington, D.C. to obtain a marriage license, due to Virginia's prohibition of interracial marriage. When the couple returned to Central Point, an anonymous tip led police to raid their home, and the couple were arrested.
Even though Richard and Mildred had been legally married in Washington D.C., Virginia law did not recognize interracial marriages conducted out of state. In 1959, the couple were found guilty of "cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth" and were sentenced to a year in prison. The sentence was shortened on the condition that the couple leave Virginia and never return together. The Lovings moved to Washington D.C. shortly thereafter.
Over time, the couple grew increasingly frustrated with the conditions of their shortened sentence. Unable to enter Virginia together, they were unable to travel to visit their families, and they struggled to find work in D.C. In 1964, Mildred wrote to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to protest the situation, and she was referred to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU quickly filed a suit on behalf of the Lovings, arguing that Virginia's laws against interracial relationships violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The case made it to the Virginia Supreme Court, but the court ruled that because the ruling applied equally to both the white and non-white spouse, the Lovings' punishment was not in violation of the 14th Amendment.
With the continued support of the ACLU, Loving v. Virginia was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings. The court ruled that Virginia's laws against interracial relationships violated both the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, making them unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that "Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' ...To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes... is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law."
The Supreme Court's decision invalidated laws against interracial marriage in several states, though judges in some states continued to enforce them. Despite this, interracial marriages increased across the United States in the wake of the ruling. Only 0.4% of marriages in 1960 were interracial, compared to 2% in 1980 and 12% in 2013. In 2016, director Jeff Nichols released the film Loving based on the life and struggles of Richard and Mildred Loving.
Virginia's Sixth Constitution is Ratified by the General Assembly
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia has been redrafted a number of times since it was first written in 1776. Historically, it was modified in response to significant changes in American society, often related in some way to voting rights or the institution of slavery. The first revision came in 1830, when the General Assembly loosened property restrictions on voting in the Commonwealth. The property requirement for voting was abolished entirely when the state Constitution was redrafted for the second time in 1851. Following the Civil War, the Virginia Constitution was modified to expand suffrage to all adult men in the Commonwealth, including African Americans, but in 1902 the inclusion of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other discriminatory voting requirements effectively negated the change.
Virginia's current Constitution was drafted in 1971 as a result of changing attitudes on race in the Commonwealth following the Civil Rights Movement. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, several aspects of Virginia's 1902 Constitution designed to disenfranchisement black voters had been effectively overturned. Governor Mills Godwin, elected in 1965, pushed for a new constitution, and by 1968 the General Assembly began the drafting process. The resulting 1971 Constitution, which is still in effect today, includes several provisions designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of race as well as sex, gender, disability, or national origin.
L. Douglas Wilder Takes Office as the Nation's First Elected African American Governor
Lawrence Douglas Wilder was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1931. After working his way through Virginia Union University as a waiter and shoe shiner, Wilder graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1951 before being drafted into the United States Army during the Korean War. During the Battle of Pork Chop Hill in 1953, he and two other Americans were cut off from their unit but managed to bluff the 19 soldiers attacking them into surrendering. Wilder was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his actions, and was honorably discharged in 1953 as a Sergeant.
With the war over, Wilder returned to Virginia to work in the state medical examiner's office while pursuing his master's degree in chemistry. However, he soon changed his mind and decided to pursue law, enrolling in Howard University Law School in 1956. After graduating he established a law practice in Richmond.
Wilder's political career began in 1969, when he became the first African American elected to the Virginia State Senate since Reconstruction. He represented Virginia's 9th district in the Senate until 1985, when he was elected the 35th Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. His campaign relied heavily on a grassroots approach designed to appeal to rural voters, and his victory made him the first African American to ever win a statewide election in Virginia.
On November 8, 1989, Wilder was elected Governor of Virginia, defeating Republican candidate Marshall Coleman by only half a percent. He was officially sworn into office on January 13, 1990 as the nation's first elected African American governor. For his historic achievement, Wilder was awarded the 1990 Spingarn Medal by the NAACP. As governor, Wilder pursued a number of crime prevention and gun control initiatives, as well as a number of infrastructure funding projects. In May 1990 he also pushed Virginia to become the first state in the nation to divest itself of any investments in South Africa to protest apartheid. He left office at the conclusion of his term in 1994.
In 2004, Wilder was elected as the Mayor of Richmond, winning the election with 79% of the vote. After a single term, he chose not to run for reelection and retired from public life. Since that time, Wilder has remained an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and has also spent considerable time and effort attempting to create a national museum on slavery in America. His autobiography, Son of Virginia, was published in 2015.
Katherine Johnson Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Katherine Johnson, one of NASA's most prominent research mathematicians, was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918. As a young woman, she developed an insatiable appetite for education and learning. By the age of 10 she had already graduated from middle school, a remarkable achievement in an era when African American children normally completed their schooling in the 8th grade. Her parents, determined to allow their daughter to continue her schooling, uprooted their family and moved 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where an African American public high school was available. By the age of 14, Katherine had already completed her public education and begun preparing for college.
Katherine chose to attend nearby West Virginia State College, where she took every math course available. She was mentored by a number of faculty members including W.W. Schieffin Claytor, the third African American to receive a PhD in Math. When Katherine completed all of the college's available math courses, Claytor added addititonal courses just for her. By the time she was 18, Katherine had already graduated with a degree in both math and French. In 1939, she chose to pursue a graduate degree in math as one of only three African American students at West Virginia University, though she ultimately left the program to start a family with her first husband James.
In 1953, after working for several years as a teacher and stay-at-home mother, Katherine moved to Newport News, Virginia to work as a mathematician at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor to NASA) in Hampton. Responsible for the challenging work of measuring and calculating the results of various mathematical tests, Katherine and her other female co-workers were known as "computers." Katherine quickly garnered a reputation for her ability to calculate complicated mathematical equations, and she was soon chosen to assist with a number of research projects.
In 1958, the NACA was superseded by NASA, and the human "computer" department was disbanded in favor of digital computers. Katherine quickly transitioned into a role as an aerospace technologist, where she was responsible for calculating spacecraft trajectories as a part of NASA's Spacecraft Controls Branch. On May 5, 1961, Katherine calculated the trajectory for the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission, America's first manned mission into space. Astronaut John Glenn also asked that Katherine personally verify the calculations made by digital computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7, when he became the first American to orbit the Earth. Her calculations were critical to a number of other important missions including the Apollo moon landing program and the start of the space shuttle program.
On November 24, 2015, President Barack Obama presented Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. The Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia also opened the new Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility on May 5, 2016. In December 2016, Katherine was portrayed by actress Taraji P. Henson in the film Hidden Figures, based on the book by the same name about the experience of African American mathematicians at NASA.