Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month

Larry Holzwarth - January 31, 2021

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson he wanted a player with “the guts not to fight back” when encountering racist bigotry. Wikimedia

17. Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey broke the baseball color barrier through remarkable persistence

Jackie Robinson’s travails as he became the first Black player in Major League Baseball since the late 19th century are well known. Robinson encountered racism and threats of violence in the clubhouse, on the field, off the field, in hotels and restaurants, and everywhere he went. At spring training Branch Rickey, the Dodger executive who hatched the plan to integrate baseball, encountered the same. Facilities for practices were locked, local communities reviled Rickey nearly as much as Robinson. So did other team owners and their players. Rickey selected Robinson as the first Black player based on his character, rather than his playing ability. It was widely believed that the best player on the Kansas City Monarchs, where Rickey found Robinson, was Josh Gibson. Rickey agreed, but selected Robinson anyway after conversations with both men.

Gibson wasn’t selected because Rickey didn’t believe he would be able to endure the constant harassment and humiliation, which was at its worst in towns like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. Despite Robinson’s success on the field (as well as Larry Doby’s in the American League) baseball’s color barrier yielded slowly. Not until 1959, twelve years after Rickey and Robinson broke the color barrier, did the Boston Red Sox place a Black player, Pumpsie Green, on their roster. Ironically, the Red Sox had been the first Major League team to offer Robinson a tryout in 1945, though it was little more than a an attempt to convince a powerful member of the city council they were serious about considering integration. In reality they were more interested in a license to play baseball on Sunday, which required an exemption from the city’s blue laws. City council had threatened to deny the license unless the Red Sox evaluated black players.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
Alice Ball developed the first successful treatment for leprosy, though she wasn’t ackowledged for it during her short life. Wikimedia

18. Alice Ball developed the first successful treatment for a long dreaded disease

For most Americans, leprosy is a disease from Biblical times. They are surprised to learn that as recently as the 1980s over 5 million people worldwide were afflicted with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. Treatment with antibiotics has brought that number down, though over 200,000 cases are still diagnosed annually, usually in underdeveloped countries. The cause of leprosy was identified by G. H. Armauer Hansen in 1873. It was the first bacterium positively identified to cause disease in humans. But there still was no effective treatment for the disease, although some doctors treated patients with mercury, often leading to mercury poisoning.

Alice Ball became the first woman and the first Black woman to receive a Master’s degree (Chemistry) from what became the University of Hawaii. While serving as a research chemist and instructor in the university’s chemistry department (also a first for an African American woman) she developed the first successful treatment for leprosy. Her treatment became the accepted means of treating and curing leprosy for decades, until the development of antibiotic drugs in the 1940s. She did not live to see the results of her success. She died on New Year’s Eve, 1916, at the age of just 24. Not until years after her death did her work become well known in the medical community. Her treatment became known as the Ball Method. Hawaii celebrates February 29 every four years as Alice Ball Day in her memory.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
Soprano Leontyne Price as Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1953. Library of Congress

19. Leontyne Price achieved international fame as an opera singer

During the 1950s and 1960s Leontyne Price, of the small town of Laurel, Mississippi, became one of the most acclaimed sopranos in the world. She attended Wilberforce College in Ohio, where she sang in the glee club as well as the chapel choir. In the late 1940s she began to give recitals in Mississippi before entering the Juillard School in 1948. By the early 1950s she sang on Broadway, including performances of Verdi’s Falstaff and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Despite no shortage of Black characters in many operas, Black singers faced racial bias which prevented them from obtaining many roles. Price toured giving recitals and concerts in Europe, India, and Australia before performing the title role in Verdi’s Aida, in Michigan in 1957. It became her signature role.

In 1961 she finally made her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Her performance earned one of the longest ovations in that venue’s long history. In the late 1960s she cut back on opera performances, preferring to sing in concerts and television. She sang at the inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, and at his state funeral in 1973. She performed at the White House at the invitation of President Carter in 1978, and later for Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. She is among the most decorated women in American history, having been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Spingarn Medal, 19 Grammy awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as numerous honorary degrees and testimonials. Miles Davis once said of her, “She should be an inspiration for every musician, black or white. I know she is to me”.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
Phillis Wheatley corresponded with several of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, both of whom admired her poetry. Wikimedia

20. Phillis Wheatley wrote poetry admired by many of the Founding Fathers

Kidnaped from her African home and sold into slavery in colonial Boston, Phillis learned to read and write from the family which enslaved her. She studied the Bible, the works of Virgil and Ovid, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and other classic literature. Estimated to have been around the age of 7 upon arrival, by the age of 18 she wrote poetry of her own. In 1770 she published An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield. It became known under the more manageable name of the Whitefield Elegy, and famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Unable to find publishers willing to promote works by Black authors in America, she went to London, accompanied by her owner’s son. There she published Poems Subjects, Religious and Moral. It was received with acclaim.

Phillis received emancipation on her return to America. She applied the name Columbia to America in her poetry in support of the Revolution, believed to be the first to do so. Wheatley corresponded with George Washington, dedicated a volume of poetry to Benjamin Franklin, and hailed the rebellion against Great Britain after her return to America. She has been called the poet-laureate of the American Revolution. Wheatley married a freeman, John Peters, and took his name in 1778. Peters lacked any form of gainful employment during most of their marriage, and was evidently in debtor’s prison at the time of her death in 1784. Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book in the United States, quickly fell into oblivion for decades.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Carter G. Woodson”. Article, Korey Bowers Brown. ASALH, Our History. Online

“Langston, John Mercer”. Article, History, Art, and Archives. US House of Representatives. Online

“The Continental Army”. Robert K. Wright Jr, US Army Center of Military History. 2006. Online

“Niagara Movement”. Editors, December 2, 2009. Online

“Red Summer. The Race Riots of 1919”. Article, National World War I Museum and Memorial. Online

“NCAAP History: W. E. B. Du Bois”. Article, NAACP History. Online

“Oscar’s First Black Winner Accepted Her Award in a Segregated ‘No Blacks” Hotel”. Seth Abramovitch, The Hollywood Reporter. February 19, 2015

“Garrett A. Morgan”. Article, Ohio History Online.

“Cotton Club of Harlem”. Elizabeth Winter, Black Past. December 16, 2007. Online

“Five Things to Know About Pullman Porters”. Erin Blakemore, Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Magazine. June 30, 2016

“The Northwest Ordinance of 1787”. Article, History, Art, and Archives. US House of Representatives. Online

“Going its own way: When Vermont was an independent republic”. Isaac Fornarola, Burlington Free Press. October 10, 2019

“Lewis Howard Latimer”. Article, April 2, 2014

“The Champ remembered”. Dave Anderson, Golf World. July 8, 2008

“The Work and Impact of Benjamin Banneker”. Article, Online

“Madam C. J. Walker”. Debra Michals, National Women’s History Museum. 2015

“Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey: Together in History”. Steven Marcus, Newsday. February 25, 2017

“Alice Ball’s treatment for leprosy”. Nina Notman, Chemistry World. May 18, 2020

“Leontyne Price”. Article, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Online

“Phillis Wheatley”. Sondra A. O’Neale, Poetry Foundation. Online