Courage and repression
Black history has lessons for us all
Comedians have commented on the fact that Black History Month is February, the shortest month of the year. This is so because its originator, Carter Woodson, originally created Black History Week, and he chose the week that Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born.
“History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” wrote Joseph Anthony Wittreich, and that is a good reason to learn real history and not the sanitized version given to us by state textbook officials who pressure publishers to clean up the past and make it more palatable and thus less useful.
1859 Nevada became a U.S. territory, with an African American population of 44.
1861 Eight months after the Civil War began, President Lincoln recommended a program of shipping African Americans “back” to Africa ("at some place or places in a climate congenial to them"), although most of that population was born in the U.S.
1861 The New York Times editorialized that schemes like Lincoln’s back-to-Africa plan assumed the willingness of other nations to accept the “absorption of four million black barbarians.”
1861 Congress enacted the Crittenden Resolution, declaring the purpose of the Civil War to be preservation of the union and not the abolition of slavery.
1862 Slavery was outlawed in U.S. territories, including the Territory of Nevada.
1863 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring some slaves free, which had dubious legality except for public relations purposes in Europe, where it discouraged governments from recognizing the Confederacy.
1864 In the U.S. House, Representative Henry Winter Davis pointed out that Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” had no legal effect, so Congress should continue working on abolishing slavery.
1864 In Fort Harrison, Virginia, African American soldiers James Gardiner and Thomas Hawkins each took actions for which they both received the Medal of Honor for gallantry.
1864 Nevada became a state.
1865 President Lincoln received a wire from Nevada: “Received constitutional amendment yesterday abolishing slavery our legislature ratified it immediately only two 2 dissenting [signed:] H G Blasdell Gov Nevada.”
1865 The 13th amendment abolished slavery for real.
1865 A three-day convention of African Americans held in newly conquered Virginia adopted an appeal to the federal government not to lose politically what it gained militarily.
1866 Under a treaty between the United States and the Choctaw and Chickasaw, the tribes agreed to give up their African American slaves.
1868 The South Carolina House convened with the only African American majority in a state legislature in U.S. history, working on reforms in education, jury trials, local government and land ownership, though tales of irresponsible post-Civil War black legislatures abound in fiction, including some textbooks.
1870 African American barber William Bird announced his candidacy for mayor of Virginia City, Nevada, upsetting Republicans who felt he would draw votes away from the (white) GOP candidate.
1872 Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback became acting governor, the first African American to serve as chief executive of a state.
1877 Four decades after he left St. Michaels, Maryland as a fugitive slave, Frederick Douglass returned as a U.S. marshal.
1879 The Nevada State Journal editorialized on legislation in Congress to establish reservations for African Americans: “It lacks practicality.”
1879 William Edward White became the first African American player in major league baseball by playing one game for the Providence Grays.
1884 Christopher Perry began publication of the Philadelphia Tribune, now believed to be the oldest continuously published African American newspaper.
1895 Booker Washington made a speech urging blacks to work hard to win their place in U.S. life, urging whites to employ African Americans instead of immigrants, and endorsing separate-but-equal arrangements.
1896 Nevada’s Gold Hill News reported that the African American “has obtained his rights, or is so near obtaining them, that he has ceased to be an object of special interest.”
1898 In the only known coup d’etat against a municipal government in U.S. history, white supremacist Democrats led by Josephus Daniels in Wilmington, North Carolina, frustrated by their inability to dislodge the moderate, black-friendly city fusion government of Republicans and Populists in elections, used white rioting to slaughter an undetermined number of blacks, exile more blacks, destroy an African American newspaper office, overthrow the local government and install white racist Democrats in office.
1901 In Leavenworth, Kansas, an African American named Fred Alexander who was jailed on dubious evidence for allegedly assaulting two women was broken out of jail by a mob and burned at the stake in a nearby ravine (Nevada State Journal: “One More Inhuman Brute Gets His Just Deserts.").
1905 The Niagara Movement, a gathering of 29 influential African American leaders, met secretly in Ontario to draft a manifesto denouncing Booker Washington’s “accommodation” approach to black rights.
1908 Two days of race rioting by 2,000 whites began in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, leaving two African Americans dead and 40 black homes and 12 black businesses destroyed, for which 75 white rioters were indicted and one convicted on a minor offense, all of which inspired Theodore Roosevelt to introduce the ultimate tokenism—the Lincoln penny—in order to shift attention to a more positive racial message. The riot led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
1908 African American Frank Price, shot by Reno’s chief of police A.A. Burke while Burke claimed he was attempting to escape arrest, was found not guilty by a jury, shocking the chief who arrested Price again on a different charge as Price was leaving the court room.
1908 Journalist Jack London responded to the world heavyweight victory of African American boxer Jack Johnson by calling for a great white hope: “The White Man must be rescued.”
1910 White hope Jim Jeffries lost to Jack Johnson at a temporary arena near the present corner of Toano and Fourth streets in Reno, prompting white riots around the nation that left 26 people dead and many injured.
1912 In a four-way race with the Republican vote split between two candidates, white supremacist Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected president with 42 percent of the vote, ushering in a calamitous eight year era that set back African American aspirations by years, including Wilson’s segregation of the federal workforce.
1915 In Temple, Texas, William Stanley was burned alive in the city square after advance publicity of the event drew thousands of people, including boys and girls on bicycles.
1916 The Journal of Negro History began publication.
1917 Encouraged by Wilson administration crackdowns on dissenters and Woodrow Wilson’s own racism, white vigilantism exploded in East St. Louis against African Americans. (The official count of the dead was 39, but newspapers at the time said 200.)
1918 Unwelcome as U.S. troops in World War I, many African Americans fought as French soldiers. U.S. commander John Pershing, for whom Nevada’s Pershing County is named, issued a document titled “Secret Information Concerning Black-American Troops” warning French military officials of the “menace of degeneracy which had to be prevented by the gulf established between the two races … because of the fact that they were given to the loathsome vice of criminally assaulting women.” The French ignored the advice.
1918 The Wilson administration barred African Americans from leaving the United States by denying blacks passports.
1921 Masked men entered a dance pavilion in Texarkana and kidnapped black orchestra conductor Gordon Harrison
1923 Garrett Morgan, son of slaves and inventor of the gas mask, patented the traffic signal.
1924 William DeHart Hubbard won a gold medal in the running long jump at the Paris Olympics, the first African American to win an individual medal.
1924 Masked men invaded a Nashville hospital and seized a 15-year-old African American boy named Samuel Smith and lynched him.
1937 At Beckwourth Pass near the California border northwest of Reno, a monument was erected to honor African American scout and explorer James Beckwourth, who located the route over the Sierra foothills by which many emigrants traveled safely to California.
1940 Benjamin Davis became the first African American general.
1941 At Pearl Harbor, African American ship’s cook Doris Miller was collecting laundry on the USS West Virginia—African Americans were restricted to such jobs—when the attack began, and he went topside, carrying wounded sailors, including the ship’s captain, to safety, then firing a 50mm machine gun—which he had never operated—at the Japanese planes until the crew was ordered to abandon the damaged ship, for all of which he was awarded the Navy Cross. (Miller was later among sailors killed when the USS Liscome Bay was sunk.)
1941 Democrat James Eastland of Mississippi, son of a man who led a lynching that murdered five African Americans, was appointed to the U.S. Senate where he eventually spent 37 years supporting white supremacy.
1941 The March on Washington was originally scheduled for this year by A. Philip Randolph, who wanted a march of 100,000 people to draw national and international attention to the plight of African Americans. He refused repeated pleas from President Franklin Roosevelt to cancel it until a desperate Roosevelt signed an executive order throwing open thousands of defense jobs to previously barred blacks and creating a Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce it. Randolph then cancelled the march, but he finally saw it happen in 1963.
1943 With African Americans still facing unemployment in the midst of wartime prosperity and white workers refusing to work alongside them, rioting broke out in Detroit, leaving 34 dead.
1943 Two hundred African American workers at the wartime Basic Magnesium plant near Las Vegas struck the plant with a demand that separate white and black restrooms be abolished. (Management blamed it all on labor organizers.)
1943 W.E.B. DuBois was made first African American member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
1944 In a speech to the Capital Press Club in Washington, publisher Marshall Field called for greater news coverage of African American contributions to the war effort as a way to break down racial barriers.
1944 In Contra Costa County, California, an explosion at Port Chicago Naval Magazine, killed 320 sailors and civilians and injured more than 400 others, mostly African Americans, and when black servicepeople were instructed to continue working in the unsafe conditions, 258 of the 320 sailors in the ordnance battalion refused.
1944 The 370th Regimental Combat Team (later the 92nd Combat Team), an African American unit, disembarked at Naples, Italy.
1944 At Mare Island Navy Yard at Vallejo, California, 50 African American workers responded to the Port Chicago explosion by refusing to go back to work unless the officers and workplace practices—including putting blacks in most of the dangerous jobs—were changed, resulting in their courts martial and convictions.
1946 In the Philippines, the Manila Morning Courier reported that white U.S. soldiers engaged in a gunfight with African American U.S. soldiers, and that machine guns and hand grenades were among the weapons employed.
1949 The Nevada Assembly defeated a measure sponsored by Don Crawford of Washoe County to outlaw the poll tax. Crawford pointed out that Nevada was bracketed in the nation’s mind with the Southern states that used the tax to keep African Americans from voting, but James Johnson of White Pine argued that in Nevada it was merely a revenue producer.
1950 Ralph Bunche, grandson of a U.S. slave, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for stepping in after the assassination of his boss Count Bernadotte and negotiating a settlement between Israel and the Arab states.
1951 A mob tried to keep an African American family from moving into their home in Cicero, Illinois, sparking rioting. The Cicero police did nothing, and Gov. Adlai Stevenson sent in the national guard.
1951 In a game between Drake and Oklahoma A&M, Oklahoma players—particularly defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith—kept attacking Drake’s African American halfback John Bright, the nation’s leading ground gainer, after Bright had already passed or handed off, battering him and breaking his jaw. The pattern was exposed the next day in a dozen photographs taken from overhead by Don Ultang and John Robinson, and published in the Des Moines Register and Tribune and later in Life Magazine, winning the Pulitzer Prize. Drake withdrew from the conference and severed all ties with Oklahoma A&M, and the NCAA made illegal hits grounds for suspension and also mandated facemasks and mouth guards for all players. Bright played most of the game injured, recovered from his injuries, and later passed up a draft into the NFL in favor of the Canadian Football League, where he spent a great career.
1952 The U.S. Army announced that because Reno businesses refused to serve African Americans stationed at Stead Air Force Base, the army was starting bus service between Stead and Sacramento for black soldiers to use for R&R.
1954 The NAACP launched a boycott of Las Vegas after African American delegates to the convention of the American Public Welfare Association were denied lodging in the city’s major hotels.
1954 Plans were announced for a plaque memorializing slaves who were used to operate a mine at the 1850s mining camp of Rough and Ready in Nevada County, California.
1955 African American Emmitt Till, 14, of Chicago, visiting Money, Mississippi, was dragged from his bed, beaten to death, and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River. His confessed killers were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury, a lynching that helped spark the civil rights movement.
1955 Half of the African Americans in Georgia who signed a petition calling for school integration were fired from their jobs and their names circulated through white citizens councils to prevent their being hired elsewhere.
1957 Althea Gibson became the first African American woman to win a tennis championship at Wimbledon.
1958 Letter to Martin Luther King after a mentally ill woman stabbed him in the chest at a book signing in New York: “Dear Dr. King, I am a ninth grader at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that [your surgeon said that] if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
1960 Harry Belafonte received the first Emmy awarded to an African American.
1961 The U.S. Census Bureau reported that non-whites made up about 7 percent of Nevada’s population of 285,278 persons, including 13,484 African Americans residing mostly in Reno and Las Vegas.
1961 After Nevada blacks poured into the state capital, a senate committee kept approving a weak civil rights bill and then revoking its approval, finally allowing a full senate vote by which the measure lost 9 to 8.
1962 Nevada Attorney General Roger Foley informed U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy that because Nevada had no anti-discrimination statutes, it had no authority—except for casino licensing—to stop racial discrimination. (The letter responded to criticism from Nevada civil rights leader Prentiss Walker, who said African Americans had been prevented from attending a Hawthorne breakfast at which U.S. Senator Howard Cannon spoke.)
1963 Aeronautical engineer Ed Dwight, an African American air force test pilot, was admitted to U.S. astronaut training, where—after full public relations mileage was obtained from him—he was harassed and threatened into quitting two years later. (He is now a renowned sculptor.)
1963 African Americans in Las Vegas led by NAACP figure Dr. James McMillan agreed to call off a march on the strip after the city’s casinos made concessions in hiring and training.
1963 The March on Washington was finally held with its originator A. Phillip Randolph a dominant participant and Dr. King’s powerful speech broadcast live, though in later years its militant tone was sanitized by whites who focused solely on the “dream” segment: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. … It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hoped that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
1965 At a hearing on the color line at Hawthorne’s El Capitan and other businesses, two restaurant spokespeople said they were reluctant to serve African Americans for fear of losing white customers.
1966 Attorney Robert Reid became the first African American named a Nevada judge when the Las Vegas city commission appointed him an to be alternate municipal court judge.
1971 The U.S. Department of Justice charged 17 Las Vegas casinos and hotels, four unions, and the Nevada Resort Association with discrimination against African Americans employees.
1971 The Reno Police Department announced plans for a program to reduce racial tensions between the department and the community, reflected by numerous complaints of police harassment of African Americans.
1971 A taxpayers’ lawsuit was filed to overturn the new Nevada legislative reappointment plan on the grounds that it failed to provide one-person, one-vote, it created multi-member senate districts to protect incumbents, and it created districts for African American voters.
1972 Joe Neal was elected first African American member of the Nevada Senate, later—as president pro tempore—becoming the first African American to act as governor.
1972 Beverly Harrell defended her decision not to admit an African American man to her brothel at Lida Junction—"a bordello should have a choice of who they entertain"—but Nevada Equal Rights Commission director Tony McCormick said a formal complaint would be filed against her.
1972 Four years after Orangeburg, two years after Kent State and Jackson State, African American students Leonard Brown and Denver Smith were shot and killed at a Southern University protest in Baton Rouge, with law enforcement officers suspected but never charged or prosecuted.
1975 Daniel James became the first African American four star general.
1980 Lt. Col. Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez of Cuba became the first African American in space when he was launched by the Soviet Union in Soyuz 38 on an eight day mission.
1981 Nineteen-year-old African American Michael Donald of Mobile, Alabama, was lynched by four Klansman who chose him at random and beat him to death in anger over the mistrial of an unrelated black man.
1984 The Center for the Study of Social Policy reported that while African Americans had made political gains in the previous quarter century, they made no economic gains at all.
1988 Las Vegas hanger-on Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder was fired by CBS for comments that African Americans could push whites out of sports management and blacks had been bred during slavery to produce stronger children: “The slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid … If they take over coaching jobs like everybody wants them to, there’s not going to be anything left for white people.”
1989 Douglas Wilder was elected Virginia governor and David Dinkins was elected mayor of New York City, the first African Americans elected to both posts and, in Wilder’s case, the first elected black governor in U.S. history.
1993 Carol Moseley-Braun was sworn in as the first female African American U.S. senator.
1993 The African Burial Ground, a colonial era cemetery for blacks unearthed at 290 Broadway in 1991 during excavation for a planned federal building in New York City, was declared a historical landmark.
1996 During competing Ann Arbor rallies and after a liberal leader urged protesters to “look for people who may be identifying themselves with the other side and deal with them appropriately,” protestors began chasing Confederate flag-wearing Albert McKeel, Jr., knocked him to the ground, and kicked him, whereupon African American teen Keisha Thomas threw herself over him to protect him from the angry liberals, producing a memorable newspaper photo.
1997 Census Bureau figures reported an estimated 34 million African Americans living in the United States, comprising 12.7 percent of the total population.
2000 After blocking confirmation for five months, Republicans finally allowed the U.S. Senate to approve Johnnie Rawlinson of Nevada for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the first African American woman on the court.
2004 A marker was dedicated in Virginia City commemorating African Americans on the Comstock near the site of the Boston Saloon, a black-owned business of the 1860s that was the subject of a 1999 dig by archaeologist Kelly Dixon.
2008 Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, the first African American to hold the post.