Little-Known Facts in Black History
- Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins
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1. In 2004, the Army named its first ship after an African-American. That man was Robert Smalls. Smalls was born to a slave mother and a white father in Beaufort, S.C. As a young man, Smalls held several jobs in Charleston, S.C., and finally began working at the docks. He eventually learned to be a seaman, and then how to pilot a ship.
In 1861, Smalls was hired as a deckhand on the USS Planter, the transport steamer serving Brigadier General Roswell Ripley, commander of the Second Military District of South Carolina. The USS Planter served the Confederacy as an armed dispatch and transport boat. Soon after Smalls was hired he became the ship's pilot.
On May 12, 1862, the Planter's three white officers spent the night ashore. It was at that time that Smalls enacted a plan that he had been working out for some time. The plan was to take the Planter, pick up his family and some of the other black crew men's families and head towards the Union Army's blockade in the North. By the morning of May 13 Smalls had already picked up his family and the others and was already heading North.
He piloted the ship past the five Confederate forts which guarded the Charleston harbor, including Fort Sumter. When Smalls reached the Union blockade, he turned the ship over to United States Navy, along with all of the artillery and explosives on board.
Smalls began working for the United States Navy and became a hero in the North. Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, rewarding Smalls and his crewmen with the prize money for the captured ship. Smalls' share was $1,500 (what would be nearly $40,000 today).
Smalls was also sent to Washington, DC to persuade President Lincoln to permit black men to fight for the Union. He was successful. 5,000 African-American men were allowed to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal as the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.
Smalls was taught to read and write by tutors and after the war he became a major general in the South Carolina militia and a state legislator. He participated in drafting the constitution of the state in which he had been a slave. He was the most powerful black man in South Carolina for five decades.
Robert Smalls served five terms as a U.S. Congressman during Reconstruction. For nearly 20 years he served as U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, S.C. where he bought the house in which he had been kept as a slave.
(Source: Robert Smalls.org: http://www.robertsmalls.org/about.htm; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Smalls; "From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915," by Okon Edet Uya. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971)
2. Railroad employees and farmers owe a big thanks to Andrew Jackson Beard. Beard was an African-American inventor and Renaissance man. Beard was born in Alabama in 1849 and spent the first 15 years of his life as a slave on a small farm. A year after he was emancipated, he married and became a farmer in a small city outside of Birmingham. After an unbearable trip to Montgomery to sell bushels of apples, Beard decided to quit the farming business and get a real job. As a result of his extensive farming experience, he was able to develop and champion his first invention, a plow. Three years later, he patented a second plow. These two inventions earned him almost $10,000 and enabled him to enter the lucrative real estate business.
But, his most important invention wasn't patented until 1897. It was the automatic railroad car coupler (aka the Jenny Coupler). This invention allowed two railroad cars to lock automatically by bumping into each other. Prior to this invention, a railroad employee would have to drop a bin between the two connectors of the railroad cars. Often times they could not get out in time and many lost their limbs and even their lives.
Beard's invention eliminated this risk. Beard was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio for his life-saving invention.
(Source: About.com: http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blbeard.htm; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Jackson_Beard; The African-American registry: http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2149/Andrew_J_Beard_was_a_great_inventor)
3. Before there was Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, there was Thomas Wiggins, aka Thomas Bethune or Blind Tom. Wiggins entertained large crowds in the 19th century. Born a slave in 1849, he was purchased at two years old, along with his parents, Charity and Mingo Wiggins, by James Neil Bethune, a prominent Georgia lawyer and anti-abolitionist.
Wiggins was blind and autistic but a musical genius with a phenomenal memory. Music fascinated him and he could pick out tunes on the piano and reproduce them by the time he was four. By the age of six Wiggins was improvising on the piano and composing music. He made his concert debut at eight-years-old in Atlanta. Eventually Wiggins could recite any poem and play any piece of music on the piano after hearing it only once.
In 1858, Bethune hired out Wiggins as a musician for $15,000. He published his piano pieces "Oliver Galop" and "Virginia Polka" in 1860. During the Civil War, Wiggins and Bethune raised funds for Confederate relief. By 1865, 16-year-old Tom Wiggins, now "indentured" to James Bethune, played the works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Thalberg.
Mark Twain called him an 'inspired idiot,' who could 'play two tunes (on the piano) and sing a third at the same time, and let the audience choose the keys he shall perform in.'
By 1868 Wiggins and the Bethune family lived on a Virginia farm in the summer, while touring the United States and Canada the rest of the year. He averaged $50,000 a year in concert revenue.
Although he sustained a career that spanned 50 years and performed for all manner of distinguished critics and adoring crowds, Thomas Greene Wiggins, known to his fans as Blind Tom, is virtually unknown today.
(Source: Riis, Thomas " Blind Tom: The Legacy of a Prodigy Lost in Mystery" The New York Times, 5 March 2000; Black Past.org: http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/wiggins-thomas-blind-tom-1849-1908; Capeluto, Susanna "The Tale of 'Blind Tom' Wiggins
Play Chronicles Life of Slave Pianist Who Awed Audiences in 1800s": http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2002/mar/blindtom/index.html)
4. Dr. Lloyd N. Ferguson started the first doctoral chemistry program at a black college. Born on February 9, 1918, in Oakland, Calif., Dr. Ferguson's family lost everything during the Great Depression. However, he bought a chemistry set at 12 and experimented in a backyard shed that he built himself. In high school, Ferguson developed and products such as moth repellent, spot remover and silver polish. His high-school chemistry teacher recognized his ability and encouraged Ferguson to go to college and pursue chemistry as a career.
After graduating from high school, he worked as a porter for the Southern Pacific Railway Company in order to save enough money to enroll at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1940, he earned a B.S. in chemistry and later went on to become the first African-American to earn a doctoral degree in chemistry at Berkeley. Dr. Ferguson worked with famous chemists such as Melvin Calvin and Glenn T. Seaborg.
Dr. Ferguson taught at Howard University, North Carolina A&T, California State University Los Angeles, Bennett College and the University of Nairobi, Kenya. In 1953, the Guggenheim awarded him a fellowship, which took him to the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, Denmark. Between 1961 and 1962 he was a National Science Foundation fellow at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.
Dr. Ferguson published more than six textbooks that are still used worldwide and translated into several languages including Mandarin, Hindu and Swahili. Universities in the South used Dr. Ferguson's textbooks and research before African-Americans were allowed to teach or attend many of those same universities.
(Source: Kessler, J. H.; Kidd, J. S.; Kidd, R. A.; Morin, K. H. Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century, Oryx Press,1996; World of Chemistry: http://www.bookrags.com/biography/lloyd-n-ferguson-woc/; Journal of Chemical Education Online: http://jchemed.chem.wisc.edu/JCEWWW/Features/eChemists/Bios/Ferguson.html)
5. In 1949, black audiences in Atlanta tuned in to the first radio station owned and operated by African-Americans, WERD. Established by Jesse B. Blayton Sr. in 1949, the station was housed in a Masonic building in one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in the United States. Blayton hired his son Jesse Jr. to run the station, along with, "Jockey" Jack Gibson, one of the most popular black DJs at the time.
Housed in the same building as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, it is rumored that when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wanted to get on the air, he would beat on the ceiling so that the station would send a microphone down.
WDIA in Memphis, Tenn., had black programming on the air in 1948, but was not owned by African-Americans.
(Source: "Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio," by William Barlow. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999)
6. Before Bessie Smith, Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett Rainey, better known as Ma Rainey, tore up jazz clubs across the South. Born in Columbus, Ga., Ma Rainy was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers and one of the first blues singers to record.
She first appeared on stage in "A Bunch of Blackberries" at 14. She then joined a traveling vaudeville troupe, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. In 1902, after hearing a blues song sung by a local girl at a theater in St. Louis, Mo., Rainey started performing in that style. She later claimed that she coined the term 'the blues,' however this was never proven.
She married fellow vaudeville singer William "Pa" Rainey in 1904, billing herself from that point as "Ma" Rainey. The pair toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as "Rainey & Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues," singing a mix of blues and popular songs. In 1912, she trained a young Bessie Smith to sing with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Smith and Rainy worked together until 1915.
Rainy toured for decades in African-American shows. She sang about many things including her bisexuality. Rainey's career dried up in the 1930s, like most who sang in the classic blues style, but her earnings were enough to allow her to retire in 1933. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a Ma Rainy stamp. In 2004, her song "See See Rider Blues" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
(Source: "The Music of Black Americans: A History," by Eileen Southern: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma_Rainey)
7. When speaking about the first African-American novelist to be published in the United States, many incorrectly claim it was William Wells Brown and his novel "Clotel," also known as "The President's Daughter," in 1853. Wells is considered the first African-American to write a novel, but his book was published in the UK.
The first novel published by an African-American in this country was "Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There by Our Nig," also known as "Our Nig," by Harriet E. Wilson in 1859. "Our Nig" illustrates injustices of the indentured servitude system of the antebellum North. The book fell into obscurity soon after it was published, only rediscovered in 1982.
More recently, the "Curse of the Caste," also known as "The Slave Bride" by Julia C. Collins is also noteworthy. Some say Collins' 1865 book is the first fully fictional novel published by an African-American. Wilson's novel is somewhat autobiographical. One thing is for certain, the first novel published in this country by an African-American was done so by a woman.
8. Question: Who was Mary Todd Lincoln's close friend and confidant for most of her life? Answer: Her modiste or seamstress, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly. Keckly was born a slave in Virginia in 1818 and was moved around and loaned out to different members of her master's family. She was eventually moved to St. Louis, Mo., where she bought her freedom in November of 1855. Throughout her time as a slave, Keckly worked as a seamstress. Once she was emancipated she moved to Baltimore with dreams of making dresses for upper-class women and opening a school for young African-American women.
Her Baltimore plans were unsuccessful. She then moved to the capital to try and find work. But, destitute as she was, Keckly didn't have enough money for a license to remain in the city for more than 30 days. With the help of some of her patrons who knew the mayor of the city, Keckly found a place to stay and was eventually granted a license.
Eventually she ended up making a dress for Robert E. Lee's wife, sparking the rapid growth of her business. After working tirelessly to finish a dress for one of her patrons, Keckly got a call from the White House. Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was requesting an interview.
Mrs. Lincoln hired Keckly to be her seamstress on inauguration day, March 4, 1861. Keckly became involved with the Lincoln family. She comforted Mrs. Lincoln when her sons passed away, and when dealing with the day-to-day difficulties of being a president's wife. Mrs. Lincoln leaned on Kecklyeven more after the death of her husband. When Mrs. Lincoln fell on hard times after President Lincoln's death, Keckly had an idea to write a book to help her friend financially and to clear her good name.
With her book, "Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House," Keckly intended to show the world that Mary Todd Lincoln was misunderstood. But advertisers labeled it as a 'literary thunderbolt' and a tell-all book by a black woman who had no business talking about the former first lady. Lincoln felt betrayed, and Keckly's sewing business suffered. She continued to work as a seamstress and teach young African-American women the trade. Keckly later accepting a faculty position at Wilberforce University and organized a dress exhibit for the Chicago World's Fair.
Keckly's gowns are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
(Source: "Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between a First Lady and a Former Slave," by Jennifer Fleischner. New York: Broadway Books 2003; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Keckly)
9. Celebrating Mammy?
Early in 1923, Senator John Williams of Mississippi and a Virginia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, proposed a bill for 'the erection as a gift to the people of the United States ... a monument in memory of the faithful, colored mammies of the South' on the the National Mall in D.C.
African-American men and women across the nation were horrified at the proposal for a Mammy statue. Civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell wrote that if it were built, 'there are thousands of colored men and women who will fervently pray that on some stormy night the lightning will strike it and the heavenly elements will send it crashing to the ground.'
African-American women had such a visceral reaction to the idea of a national monument to Mammy because they understood the link between a public monument, public image and civil rights. A monument to Mammy would have diluted the brutal reality of slavery by emphasizing Mammy's relationship to her white charges.
Eventually, the bill failed.
Time Magazine on Mar. 3, 1923:
'In dignified and quiet language, two thousand Negro women of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA protested against a proposal to erect at the Capitol a statue to 'The Black Mammy of the South.' A spokesman carried the resolution to Vice President Coolidge and Speaker Gillette and begged them to use their influence against the reminder that we come from a race of slaves.'
This, of course, will rebuke forever the sentimentalists who thought they were doing honor to a character whom they loved. They desired to immortalize a person famous in song and legend. But that person's educated granddaughters snuffed out the impulse by showing that they are ashamed of her.'
(Source: "Ye Gave Them a Stone," by Joan Marie Johnson; Journal of Women's History: http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/journal_of_womens_history/v017/17.1johnson.html)
10. Despite Tiger Woods iconic status, it's safe to say the Professional Golf Association hasn't always been in love with African-Americans.
One of the first African-Americans to play in the PGA was Dewey Brown. He became a member of the PGA in 1928. Brown learned the game as a caddie and became a renowned club designer and teacher during the 1920s and 30s. He even crafted a set of clubs for President Warren G. Harding. In 1934, the PGA terminated Brown's membership because they found out he was African-American. During the six years he was a member, everyone assumed he was white because of his light skin color.
Brown was not the only black American in the golf world in the early part of last century. George Grant, a dentist from Boston, designed the first golf tee registered by the United States Patent Office in 1899. John Shippen was the first black American to play in the United States Open, in 1896, even though some competitors threatened to withdraw. And Joseph Bartholomew, a noted architect, designed and built more than a half-dozen golf courses in the New Orleans area. But because he was black, Bartholomew was not allowed to play on the courses he built.
(Sources: Brown, Clifton "Members Only" The New York Times, 20 Dec. 1998; "Forbidden Fairways: African Americans and the Game of Golf," by Calvin H. Sinnette. Sleeping Bear Press, 1998; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dewey_Brown)
11. The term "Buffalo Soldiers" was a nickname given to African-American soldiers of the 10th regiment U.S. Army by the Native Americans they fought in 1866. Although several African-American regiments were created during the Civil War to fight alongside the Union Army, the "Buffalo Soldiers" were established by Congress as the first peacetime all-black regiment in the regular U.S. Army.
Many don't know that Buffalo Soldiers were some of the first national park rangers. In 1899, Buffalo Soldiers from Company H, 24th Infantry Regiment, served in Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and General Grant (Kings Canyon) National Park. U.S. Army regiments had been serving in these national parks since 1891, but until 1899 the soldiers serving were white.
(Sources: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Soldier; Yosemite Association: http://www.yosemite.org/newsroom/clips2003/february/020103.htm)
12. When the question "Who was the first black doctor?" is asked, people often think of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. It's true that Dr. Williams was renown for being the first in the United States to repair a pericardium -- essentially performing open-heart surgery. But this country's first black physician was actually James Derham.
Although he never received the degree of M.D. he was the first African-American to formally practice medicine in the U.S. Derham was born in 1762 as a slave. He had several masters who were doctors and one encouraged him to practice medicine. He worked as a nurse to buy his freedom, which he was granted in 1783. He opened his first medical practice at age 26. He was acquainted with Dr. Benjamin Rush, who asked him to move to Philadelphia and practice. He opened up a practice there and became the foremost specialist in disorders of the throat.
Additionally, the first black university-trained physician was James McCune Smith and the first black person to graduate from an American medical school was David J. Peck.
Alexander Lucius Twilight was the first African-American to receive a college degree from an American institution. He earned a bachelor's degree from Middlebury College in 1823.
(Sources: e-ssortment: http://ohoh.essortment.com/africanamerican_rqdo.htm, "African-American Firsts: Famous, little-known and unsung triumphs of blacks in America" by Joan Potter with Constance Claytor. Pinto Press 1994; huntsvilleurbannetwork.com)
13. Although slavery started in the United States in 1619, the first black child born into slavery wasn't born until 1624. His name was William Tucker, and he was named after his master, a sea captain. Tucker was the child of Anthony and Isabella, who are speculated to be two of the first 20 slaves brought on a Dutch ship to the Jamestown Colony. Together they formed the first African-American family.
14. Before the great migration of African-Americans to the Northern, Northeastern and Western United States, there were "The Exodusters." The Exodusters were African-Americans who fled the Southern United States for Kansas in 1879 and 1880. After the end of reconstruction, racial tension and poverty made large groups of blacks head north. They chose Kansas because it was the land of abolitionist John Brown and it was promoted by civil rights leader Benjamin "Pap" Singleton.
Many Southern whites believed that the Exodus was a plot hatched by Northerners to take away the Southern work force. And some African-American leaders, like Frederick Douglass, could not comprehend the mass migration. He felt that the blacks of the South should stand their ground and win their rights. In 1870, the black population of Kansas was 16,250. By 1880, it had jumped to 43,110, of which the "Kansas Fever Exodus" accounted for 6,000.
(Source: National Park Services: http://www.nps.gov/untold/banners_and_backgrounds/expansionbanner/exoduster.htm; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exodusters)
15. Contrary to the current demographics of the National Basketball Association, when the league first started in 1946, all the players were white. The first African-Americans didn't play for the NBA until the 1950 season.
Chuck Cooper from Duquesne University was the first black player to be drafted. Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton was the first to sign a contract, and Earl Lloyd was the first to play in an NBA game.
But before 1950, African-Americans did play professional basketball. Like baseball, black players had their own teams. The first was the Spartan Braves of Brooklyn, which became the New York Renaissance, or Rens, in 1923. They played most of their games against black colleges in the South. In 1932 the Rens played and won their first professional world championship against the original Boston Celtics.
In 1927 the Harlem Globetrotters were formed. By 1940 the Globetrotters were considered better than the Rens, but they both suffered from the fact that there was no black league. The team took another big hit, losing all of their best players, when the NBA integrated. After that, they switched to playing as an entertainment team.
Although the first African-American did not play in the NBA until 1950, the NBA color barrier was broken in the 1947-48 season when Wataru Misaka, a Japanese-American played with the New York Knicks.
(Source: "1001 Things Everyone Should Know about African-American History," by Jeffrey C. Stewart. Doubleday, 1996; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Basketball_Association)
16. Not only did George Washington Carver research 300 products made from peanuts and 118 products from the sweet potato, but 75 from the pecan as well.
(Source: Huntsville Urban Network:www.huntsvilleurbannetwork.net)
17. Most folks think of Motown as America's first and only African-American record company. But, before Barry Gordy and Motown, there was Harry Pace. Pace formed the Pace Phonographic Record Company in 1921, which issued records under the Black Swan Label.
(Source: "African-American Firsts: Famous, little-known and unsung triumphs of blacks in America," by Joan Potter with Constance Claytor. Pinto Press, 1994)
18. The W.E.B. in W.E.B. DuBois stands for William Edward Burghardt. And even though DuBois is French, the correct pronunciation, the pronunciation that DuBois used himself is (Do-boyz).
(Source: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._E._B._Du_Bois )
19. Most people think Lawrence Douglas Wilder was the first black governor in the United States. They are partially correct. He was the first black governor elected. The first black governor to serve was actually Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback in 1872. He was serving as lieutenant governor at the time, and the sitting governor was impeached.
(Source: "African-American Firsts: Famous, little-known and unsung triumphs of blacks in America," by Joan Potter with Constance Claytor. Pinto Press, 1994)
20. African-Americans were among the first non-Native settlers of the Ohio Valley. For example, when Knox County, Ohio, was established, there were already famous blacks living there. One was an expert stable hand and horse handler, Enoch "Knuck" Harris. Although, most blacks were servants to white families, they were generally not slaves and eventually obtained and farmed small parcels of land.
(Source: "1001 Things Everyone Should Know about African American History," by Jeffrey C. Stewart. Doubleday, 1996)