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
The Cotton Club inspired imitatators using its name in cities across the country, including one in Chicago run by the Capone gang. Wikimedia

9. Harlem’s famous Cotton Club was racially segregated for much of its existence

The former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson founded what became the Cotton Club in 1920, calling it the Club Deluxe. In 1923 a prominent New York organized crime figure, Owney Madden, took over the club, retaining Johnson as its manager. Under Johnson both Whites and Blacks were welcomed at the club, Madden made it segregated for Whites only. The segregation did not apply to the entertainment, and Duke Ellington and his orchestra gained local, and eventually international fame as the sound of the Roaring Twenties. Eventually Ellington and other black performers gained enough leverage, through their fame, that the segregation eased, allowing socially prominent Blacks to enter the club. Little socializing between the races occurred, other than with the celebrity entertainers and musicians.

Ellington left the club in 1931, replaced by Cab Calloway. Other Black performers at the club included Sammy Davis Jr, as a tap dancer, a teenaged Lena Horne, and Ethel Waters. In 1935 the club became fully integrated. The following year it relocated to Broadway at 48th Street. Its period as a segregated all-White club with Black entertainment drew heavy criticism from many Black leaders, also directed to many who performed there. The Black poet Langston Hughes (a great-great-nephew of John Mercer Langston) described the Cotton Club as “a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites”. The fame of its name was such that other Cotton Clubs with similar policies opened in cities across the country. In Chicago, the Cotton Club was part of the Capone crime syndicate, managed by Al’s older brother Ralph.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
Pullman Porters in its dining and sleeping cars offered jobs and travel opportunities for Black men, though they were later stereotyped and denigrated. Wikimedia

10. Pullman Porters contributed to the development of a Black middle class

Today the term porter is considered derogatory, and the presentation of Pullman Porter’s racist and a pejorative. Not so during their heyday. George Pullman actively recruited former slaves to work as porters in his sleeping cars following the American Civil War. The Pullman Company owned the sleeper and dining cars in which the porters worked, operating them as basically rolling hotels. Pullman service, offered by the porters, became the gold standard on long-distance trains. Pullman Porters received relatively low wages, though their income was subsidized through gratuities from passengers served. In 1925 Pullman Porters organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black labor union in the United States. Membership extended to porters from competing companies.

By necessity, Pullman Porters travelled extensively and became an information channel between Black communities. In their day they were highly esteemed by most Blacks, as well as many Whites. Following the formation of the Brother of Sleeping Car Porters, wages improved. According to a prominent Black historian, Timuel Black, “…a Pullman Porter was a prestigious position because it offered steady income and an opportunity to travel across the country”. By the 1950s, some Pullman Porters were White. A decade later, declining rail traffic and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement placed Pullman Porters in a bad light among many Blacks, who considered them a symbol of servitude. The son of a Pullman Porter, Thurgood Marshall, later became the first African American on the Supreme Court.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
Most historians attribute the draft of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to Rufus King, though others claimed to be its primary author. Wikimedia

11. Abolishment of slavery in some states preceded the Constitution

Before the United States had a President and a Supreme Court, the national government operated under the Articles of Confederation. One of the few lasting acts of the Confederation Congress, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, created the first organized territories of the United States. It incorporated the lands north and west of the Ohio River to the Great Lakes and the Upper Mississippi, including what became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, part of Wisconsin, and Michigan. Article 6 of the Ordinance stated, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. The Ohio River became the symbol of the divide between slave states and free, a natural extension of the Mason-Dixon line.

History does not record who wrote the passage, though it is repeated verbatim in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery throughout the United States. At least two members of the Confederation Congress claimed authorship, though neither at the time, and historians have largely discounted both. When the US government was formed under the Constitution in 1789, the Ordinance was affirmed by the new Congress, and the US Supreme Court affirmed it as Constitutional the same year. It was the first national act to restrict the spread of slavery in the United States, and thus laid the foundation for disputes over slavery as more territories and states joined the Union.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
Thomas Chittenden, the first Chief Magistrate of the Vermont Republic, which abolished slavery and awarded voting rights to Black men in 1777. Wikimedia

12. Vermont granted voting rights to African American males before it became a state

Vermont was neither a state nor an organized separate colony in 1777. Both New York and New Hampshire claimed sovereignty over the territory, which the latter called the Hampshire Grants. Nonetheless, independent minded Vermonters organized their own legislature and in 1777 abolished slavery within its boundaries. There were slaves in the territory, both Black males and Native Americans held in slavery, and Vermont’s actions did not completely free all of them. But it did specify that free Black males in the colony held the right to vote, as did any other free male.

From 1777 to 1791 Vermont governed itself as the Republic of Vermont. A Chief Magistrate oversaw governing the Republic, who openly negotiated with British Canada about becoming a province. In 1791 it became the first state to join the United States not part of the original 13. During the antebellum era it became a major route along the Underground Railroad to Canada, with known support of escaping slaves as early as 1843. Vermont also became a hotbed of resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave hunters to roam the Northern states to attempt to capture escaping slaves and return them to the South. Vermont’s admission to the Union (1791) served to counter the admission of Kentucky, a slave state, thus maintaining the balance of senators representing slave and free states in the Senate.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
A patent drawing for Latimer’s improved process of manufacturing carbon filaments. Wikimedia

13. Lewis Howard Latimer was a self-trained draftsman and inventor

On September 16, 1863, Lewis Howard Latimer enlisted aboard USS Massasoit, a steamer which served in the Union blockade. Honorably discharged in 1865, he became what was known at the time as an office boy, called a gofer in a later day. He used his time to teach himself the use of draftsmen’s tools, the square, compass, and arc. His talent became apparent to his employer, a patent law office, and by 1872 he became the head of the patent drawing department. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell hired him to produce the patent drawings for his telephone. He later went to work for a lighting company in competition with Thomas Edison. The latter resolved that issue by hiring Lewis in 1884. Prior to joining Edison, Lewis obtained a patent of his own, for the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons”, an improvement of carbon filaments for light bulbs.

Lewis eventually obtained seven patents of his own, on diverse inventions including an improved toilet for railroad cars, electric lamps and lightbulbs, and an early air conditioner. In his spare time he wrote a book on the technical side of distributing electrical lighting, as well as a book of poetry, titled Poems of Love and Life. In 1918 he became the first Black member of the Edison Pioneers, and in 2006 an inductee to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, for his contributions to the improvement of the electric light bulb. He did not invent the light bulb, as is sometimes falsely claimed (for that matter, neither did Edison). Both men patented processes for improving the light bulb and its components, making it commercially viable.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis sewing new stripes on his uniform following a promotion in 1945. US Army

14. Joe Louis paved the way for Black professional golfers in the United States

Joe Louis attained international acclaim and esteem as a professional boxer, holding the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World from 1937 to 1949. During his reign he successfully defended his title 25 times. During World War II he served in the US Army, which assigned him to the Special Services Division. He logged more than 22,000 miles traveling to conduct exhibition boxing matches to raise morale, often in the company of Sugar Ray Robinson. On one such trip, in the American South, Louis and Robinson were ordered to remove themselves to a bench in the back of a segregated bus station. Both refused. MPs threatened to arrest both men, but eventually cooler heads prevailed.

Less well known than Louis’s boxing career was his devotion to the game of golf. In the early 1950s the Professional Golfer’s Association’s (PGA) bylaws contained a clause excluding all but Caucasians from membership. In 1952 Louis played, by invitation, as an amateur in the San Diego Open (today’s Farmers Insurance Open). He accepted the invitation despite resistance from the PGA, and became the first Black American to play in a PGA Tour event. In 1961, after steady pressure from Louis and others, the PGA removed the exclusion clause from its bylaws. Louis thus opened the door for several Black golfers to follow. The PGA granted Joe Louis a posthumous membership in the organization in 2009. Louis faced discrimination throughout his life, and worked to end racism in America. When sportswriter Jimmy Cannon heard someone call Louis a credit to his race, he responded, “Yes, Joe Louis is a credit to his race – the human race”.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
According to the National Archives, none of the claims on this Office of War Information card are verifiable, and have been disproved by historians. National Archives

15. Benjamin Banneker’s extensive mythology grows with each succeeding year

Much of what is reported regarding Benjamin Banneker is based on urban myths, which grow with repetition every year. For example, he did not lay out the streets of the Capital city of Washington, as is so often reported. Other urban myths include his making of a case clock using the works of a pocket watch as his guide. Others refer to astronomical studies, his publication of the first almanac in America, and that Banneker was the first to document the 17-year cicada cycle. All are false, and unfortunately so, because they distract attention from Banneker’s very real accomplishments. Banneker served on the surveying team which established the ten-mile sides of the District of Columbia in 1791, under the direction of Andrew Ellicott. His actual role is unknown.

Banneker served on the team for only three months, leaving far before its completion, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the layout of the Capital City’s streets. He did correspond with Thomas Jefferson, using the phrases of the Declaration of Independence to excoriate Jefferson over the treatment of slaves. He did produce several almanacs which contained accurate predictions of astronomic events for the year. Most of the physical evidence of his life’s work were destroyed when a fire destroyed his log cabin on the day of his funeral. During his lifetime, praise for his almanacs centered on their accuracy, and the fact they were produced by a Black man. Lifted to mythological status by abolitionists in the early 19th century, Banneker became a symbol of proof of equality in arguments with white supremacists.

Events and Historical Figures to Celebrate this Month
Madam CJ Walker, a self-made millionaire, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, at the wheel of her car.

16. Madam C. J. Walker became a business tycoon in the late 19th century

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire was Sarah Breedlove, who called herself Madam C. J. Walker. Sarah married a salesman named Charles Joseph Walker (her third marriage). Madam C. J. Walker derived from his name. Her fortune began with the door-to-door sales of hair and beauty products of her own creation, marketed toward Blacks. By the time of her marriage in 1906 the business had expanded into mail order, with Walker’s daughter from a previous marriage in charge of the operations in Denver. Madam and her husband relocated the business to Pittsburgh, and later to Indianapolis.

Walker employed sales staff in communities around the country, and provided training in sales at her Indianapolis headquarters. They marketed the products both directly to consumers and to hair salons. She also created training schools for hair stylists. Eventually the company claimed in its marketing materials to have trained over 20,000 women. Walker also actively trained women in how to start and expand their own businesses, usually hair and beauty salons, further expanding the market for her products. The Walker Company continued to exist until 1981. Under her guidance, it was one of the first consumer businesses to practice multi-tiered marketing, and it created a personal fortune for her of over $1.5 million.

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