Thursday, 02 February 2017 15:39

Black History Month Profiles

Written by  Kathy O'Connell
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There are some historical figures whose names are known by everyone, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Perhaps you have done a research paper on one or both of them. For this year’s Black History Month, here are seven suggestions for figures from African American history you might find interesting:

Alex Haley (1921-1992): Writer, journalist, and family historian. Alex Haley brought an entire country to a halt in 1977 each night while we watched the TV miniseries based on his book “Roots: the Saga of an American Family.” Alex Haley became a journalist during his 20 years in the US Coast Guard. After retiring from the service, he started researching his family’s history, and traced his roots back to a young man named Kunte Kinta, who was brought to America as a slave from Gambia in 1767. Alex Haley inspired people to trace their own family’s roots. His book was a mixture of fact and fiction, all based on his actual genealogical research.  


Matthew Henson (1866-1955) Maryland-born explorer whose expeditions with Robert Peary took him to Nicaragua and the North Pole over 23 years. Henson was a navigator and craftsman, and his trading and language skills helped the expedition gain the trust of the local Inuit people. It was Henson who planted an American flag at the North Pole when Peary was taken ill. Matthew Henson’s fame was primarily limited to black Americans until 30 years after his expeditions when Henson was the first African-American invited to join the Explorers Club. Before his death in 1955, he was honored by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.  


Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” is the famous quote from Fannie Lou Hamer, who rose from the poverty of Mississippi sharecropping to become an important figure in the modern American Civil Rights Movement. Her work was in voting rights and trying to remove barriers to Mississippi’s African American voters trying to exercise their legal rights. She became a national figure when she challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democratic party at their convention in 1964. She formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and tried to be seated at the convention. While she failed in seating the whole delegation, she helped change the way Presidential candidates were chosen and opened the process to all.  


Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) Jack Roosevelt Robinson became the first African-American player in modern Major League baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Facing a society that was still racially segregated, this great player endured horrible name-calling and prejudice from fans and other players. His teammate Pee Wee Reese was a vocal friend and supporter of Robinson’s, and those two men formed an unbeatable double play combination. Jackie Robinson was a star infielder and outfielder for the Dodgers, and was named Rookie of the Year for 1947. He helped lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to their only World Series win in 1955, and he stayed in Brooklyn when the team left them flat and moved to Los Angeles. Today, you can drive the Jackie Robinson Parkway across Brooklyn. After leaving baseball, Jackie Robinson was an outspoken fighter for civil rights.  


Vivien Thomas (1910-1985) Vivien Thomas was a pioneer in the field of heart surgery, although he was not a doctor and never went to college. His title was Surgical Research Technician. Thomas dreamed of going to medical school, but the Depression wiped out his money, and he took a job as assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University. Throughout his long partnership with Dr. Blalock, Vivien Thomas developed complicated surgical procedures that saved many lives. His research led to the use of blood and plasma transfusions during World War II. At a time in America when black students were not permitted at Johns Hopkins University, Vivien Thomas served as supervisor of surgical research laboratories at the school, and taught many white medical surgeons their surgical skills. It took many years for recognition of Thomas’ role in developing medical procedures. In 1971, many of the surgeons he had trained gathered to honor his lifetime of work.  


Biddy Mason (1818-1891) Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born a slave in Mississippi. When her owner moved his household and slaves to the Utah Territory across the country Biddy walked the 2,000 mile journey. She also herded the cattle, delivered and cared for children, and cooked the meals. When her owner moved his household to California, Biddy petitioned the courts for freedom for herself and her children, since California had been admitted to the Union as a free state. She was successful and moved to Los Angeles as a free woman. Biddy Mason lived frugally and worked as a nurse and midwife to earn $250 to buy land in Los Angeles. This land is now the center of the city. Over the years, she bought and sold land so well that she earned a fortune. She used her money to help unfortunate people. She helped prisoners, fed and sheltered poor people, and founded the first black church in Los Angeles. Today, Biddy Mason Park is located where she lived in downtown Los Angeles.


Charlotta Bass (1874-1969) Charlotta Bass was a newspaper publisher, writer, editor, and civil rights activist. She was the first African-American person to run for national office in 1952 when she ran for Vice President on the Progressive Party ticket. She took over as publisher of the California Eagle newspaper in 1912, and served until she retired in 1951. She and her husband (also a journalist) used their newspaper to fight stereotypes of black people in movies, to fight discrimination in job hiring, and to call for better conditions for African-American people. She was called disloyal and a communist, but it did not stop her from fighting for economic and social equality for people of all races. She was a rabble rouser.  

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