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February is Black History Month

Check back every week day of February to learn about an influential African American chosen to be highlighted for the day! Keep scrolling for more information on Black History Month.

 

Richard Pryor

Pain was always Richard Pryor’s comedic easel of choice. Pryor’s jokes were a therapeutic soundtrack for black America and a no-holds-barred crash course for those who failed to understand what it meant to be an outsider in one’s own country a century after the abolition of slavery. 

Born December 1,1940, in Peoria, Illinois, Richard Franklin Lennox Pryor III’s art reflected his life — hard, vulgar, sensitive and, of course, hilarious. He was molested at 6, abandoned by his mother, a sex worker, at 10, and was raised in his grandmother’s brothel.

No comedian has used the black experience more effectively to express its complexities to diverse audiences. His was a comedy that black folks usually heard in private, that sometimes made white folks squeamish — yet appreciative of the reality check. The recipient of one Emmy and five Grammys from 1974 to 1982 — the last of which was for Live At The Sunset Strip, arguably comedy’s greatest standup routine ever — Pryor also had a number of exceptional movie roles, including credits in Lady Sings The BluesThe MackUptown Saturday NightThe WizJo Jo DancerYour Life Is Calling, and Harlem Nights.

His life and career are a vision board of incredible highs, debilitating lows, tumultuous relationships and the ever-present demon of drug addiction. Later, there was multiple sclerosis. Comedy legends such as Eddie Murphy, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart are direct beneficiaries of Pryor’s flawed genius. – Justin Tinsley

 

Jesse Owens

One of racism’s tragic ironies is that black athletes once needed to prove themselves athletically equal to whites. Heading into the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, before the world fully recognized Adolf Hitler’s genocidal ambitions, the German dictator’s popular theories claimed that no dark-skinned person could compete with the blond-haired, blue-eyed “Aryan master race.” Hitler’s lunacy was aided, a few months before the Olympics, when Germany’s Max Schmeling knocked out the undefeated black heavyweight champion Joe Lewis.

Enter James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens. He almost didn’t make it to Berlin — the United States considered boycotting the Olympics over Hitler’s treatment of Jews, which had not yet reached its incomprehensibly horrific nadir. But many African-Americans opposed a boycott, yearning for validation on a truly level playing field. Owens already owned several world records and was recognized as the fastest man alive. He emerged in Berlin as the unquestioned star of the Olympics, setting or equaling records in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter sprint, the 400-meter relay and long jump.

German crowds enthusiastically applauded his performances, deepening Hitler’s humiliation. It’s unclear whether Hitler directly snubbed Owens by refusing to shake his hand, which has become part of the Owens legend. Olympic organizers told Hitler to either shake all the winners’ hands or none — he chose none.

Racism’s ironies have no end. Owens returned home to the oppression of Jim Crow. “I wasn’t invited up to shake hands with Hitler,” he said, “but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.” Lacking a college degree, forced through back doors and to the back of buses, he subsisted on low-paying jobs such as pumping gas and demeaning public appearances such as racing horses. Later, he established himself as a public speaker. As a believer in pursuing equality through economic rather than political means, he initially criticized the civil rights movement and the raised-fist 1968 Olympic protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith. “The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside,” Owens said. A smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1980.

Owens’ victories not only shattered the myth of white athletic superiority, but established a black man as a heroic standard-bearer for America amid boiling geopolitical conflict. In many ways, he was the first black sports hero for all Americans. It took decades for another to rise. – Jesse Washington

 

Katherine Johnson

Every American kid — by the time he or she reaches fourth grade — has studied the important history of this country’s space missions. The significance of NASA being able to send John Glenn around the earth three successful times is well-documented, well-reported on and appropriately looked at as one of the more important gains in air and space. The critical nugget that always was missing was the unseen black female force that helped him get there.

Thankfully, we now know better. Katherine Johnson, 98, was a physicist and mathematician who helped launch the first use of digital electronic computers at NASA, the independent federal government agency that handles aerospace research, aeronautics and the civilian space program. Her wisdom with numbers and accuracy was so highly regarded that her sign-off was paramount for NASA to modernize itself with digital computers.

Be clear, Johnson wasn’t alone — many black women were hired by NASA in the early 1950s to work in the Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson came on board in 1953 — a year before the civil rights movement kicked into high gear — and she initially worked in a pool of black women who all were performing math calculations. But it was Johnson who was plucked out of the pool to work with an all-male flight research team. It was Johnson who helped calculate the orbit for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. And it was Johnson who co-authored 26 scientific papers, which NASA still links to via its archives.

Her story — our story — was told in grand Hollywood fashion. Oscar-nominated actor and Golden Globe winner Taraji P. Henson brought her life to the big screen in the critically acclaimed Hidden Figures, and Henson boldly helped to tell a story that so many of us never knew existed. Finally.

Johnson is a genius. She was a math prodigy who was 14 years old when she graduated from high school, 18 years old when she earned a double degree in math and French from West Virginia State College. And she helped to integrate the graduate school at West Virginia University — where she was one of three black students and, ahem, the lone woman — after a Supreme Court ruling. Yes, she has a story worth telling. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pioneering work that led black women to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. – Kelley L. Carter

 

Jay-Z

If hip-hop had a Mount Rushmore, there are three men whose faces would be chiseled in granite: The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Jay Z. Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac were both killed in their mid-20s. Jay Z is now 47. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be the best, but that’s what he became. Hov got flow though he’s no Big and Pac, but he’s close / How I’m ‘posed to win, they got me fightin’ ghosts, he rapped on New York City’s Hot 97 radio station in 2006, the same year MTV named him the greatest MC of all time.

Shawn Corey Carter grew up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York, where his mother, Gloria Carter, remembers he’d be in the kitchen of their apartment “beating on the table and rapping into the wee hours of the morning” until she bought him his first boom box. But he’s never been an artist, he says — always just a hustler. He never graduated from high school and sold crack cocaine until he arrived as Jay Z with his 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt.

If Jay Z is the greatest, it’s not just because the only others in his league are ghosts. It’s because when it looked like hip-hop itself was dead, Jay Z brought it back to life. His 13 Billboard No. 1 albums are the most by any solo artist in history. And they’re sprinkled with timeless tracks, from 2004’s “99 Problems,” a look at what it’s like to drive while black in America, to 2009’s “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” which single-handedly demolished a wave of music.

And as he climbed the charts, Jay Z also became an influential businessman with an estimated net worth of $610 million. He is an owner of Tidal, a streaming music service. He co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records, served as president of Def Jam Records, founded entertainment company Roc Nation, and became part-owner of the Brooklyn Nets before giving up his stake in the NBA franchise to found his own sports agency, Roc Nation Sports.

Oh, and his wife is Beyoncé.

He has lived the American dream of reinvention and second chances

 

Jimi Hendrix

For decades, a belief has taken hold among guitarists — to prove your ability, you must pay homage to Jimi Hendrix.

He was hailed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as “the most gifted instrumentalist of all time.” Hendrix’s virtuosity looms so large that many guitarists still vainly attempt to emulate him. Just as whiz-kid classical pianists flaunt their chops by interpreting Mozart, so have guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince and John Mayer felt the need to perform Hendrix classics such as “Hey Joe,” “Little Wing” and “Foxey Lady.” That’s why rock’s magazine of record, Rolling Stone, named Hendrix the greatest guitar player ever.

While Hendrix’s guitar artistry is indisputable, it‘s ultimately a puzzle piece of his panoramic talent. He was also a composer of accessibly complex songs, and a poet-caliber lyricist (“a broom is drearily sweeping / up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life …”). The rock legend has posthumously earned multiple Hall of Fame Grammy Awards, including the Recording Academy’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.

But just what makes Hendrix rock’s greatest expressionist? His live performances were at times distractingly sloppy, his guitar tone ear-piercing. Curiously, it’s these stylistic eccentricities that make him singular. For Hendrix, music wasn’t about note-perfect performance, but rather a constant search for truth. If that meant playing long, solo-intensive songs illustrating the savageness of war, then so be it.

By the time of his death in 1970, Hendrix had so thoroughly changed musical perceptions that even jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Gil Evans were taking cues from him. It’s almost impossible to imagine influential jazz-fusion albums like Davis’ Bitches Brew — or acid-funk masterpieces like Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain — without Hendrix having laid the groundwork.

He leaped effortlessly from metallic fury to gossamer balladry and jazzy excursions. Arguably, Hendrix’s freakish talent is best demonstrated on his Woodstock performance of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” where he performs guitar emulations of artillery and air-raid sirens in an audacious condemnation of American militarism.

Since his demise, a horde of guitarists has challenged Hendrix’s primacy, yet none have matched his genius. Sure, Eddie Van Halen is brilliant, but his solos tell us little about him, or his time.

By contrast, a Hendrix masterwork like “If 6 was 9” allows us a glimpse into the mind of a nonconformist and his anti-establishment generation. That’s why in the world of electric guitar, there are two ages — the monochrome era Before Hendrix, and the limitless, kaleidoscopic period After Hendrix. – Bruce Britt

 

Dr. Charles Drew

The blood bank is something we take for granted now, but it wasn’t always so. As a researcher and surgeon, Dr. Charles Drew revolutionized the understanding of plasma, the liquid portion of blood without cells. Plasma lasts much longer than whole blood, making it possible to be “banked” for long periods of time.

As a young man, Drew was an exceptional athlete, starring in football, baseball, basketball and track and field at Washington, D.C.’s, Dunbar High School. He was an All-American halfback at Amherst College in Massachusetts and captain of the track team. But he couldn’t afford medical school in the United States and attended McGill University in Montreal. He later moved back to the United States and taught at Howard University’s medical school.

After becoming the first African-American to get his doctorate from Columbia University in 1940, Drew was the world’s leading authority on blood transfusions and storage, just as the United States and Great Britain were becoming deeply involved in World War II. His research established protocols on how blood should be collected and refrigerated, how donors should be recruited and screened, and training methods for people who would collect and test blood.

As medical director of the American Red Cross National Blood Donor Service, Drew led the collection of tens of thousands of pints of blood for U.S. troops. Some historians say his work might have saved the world from Nazism, since battlefield blood storage and transfusions didn’t exist before he was asked to manage two of the largest blood banks during the war.

Even so, the U.S. military ruled that the blood of African-Americans would be segregated and not used on white troops, although blood has no racial characteristics. Outraged, Drew resigned from the Red Cross and returned to Howard as a professor and head of surgery at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he trained a generation of black physicians.

He died in 1950 at the age of 45 in a car accident in Burlington, North Carolina, while returning from a clinic at Tuskegee Institute in 1950. Today, according to the Red Cross, there are 15.7 million blood donations a year in the United States from 9.2 million donors. – John X. Miller

 

 

Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr., the first African-American general for the U.S. Army, battled segregation by developing and implementing plans for the limited desegregation of U.S. combat forces in Europe during World War II.

Davis, who was born in Chicago in 1877 and Howard University-educated, began his military career in the trenches of the Spanish-American War as a volunteer grunt. He liked the military’s discipline and order, so when he was discharged as a volunteer, he enlisted after deciding he wanted a military career.

In the throes of segregation for four decades, he commanded troops in Liberia and the Philippines, where his unit was the famed Buffalo Soldiers. He was three times assigned as a professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University in Ohio and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

His duty assignments were designed to avoid him being put in command of white troops or officers. He rose slowly through the ranks, becoming the first black colonel in the army in 1930. All of his appointments were considered temporary, a move designed to limit his exposure to white troops.

During World War II, he headed a special unit charged with safeguarding the status and morale of black soldiers in the army, and he served in the European theater as a special adviser on race relations. In 1940, he was promoted to brigadier general by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a move some thought was only because Roosevelt needed black votes in the presidential election. Davis retired in 1948 after 50 years of service.

Following many years of service, he became an adviser for the military on racial discrimination, pushing for full integration of the armed forces. He earned a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Medal.

Davis’ determined and disciplined rise in the Army paved the way for black men and women — including his son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate who in 1954 became the second African-American general in the U.S. military and the first in the Air Force.

Davis Jr. led the Tuskegee Airmen and continued the fight against the establishment and tradition to advance the cause of blacks in the military.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the end of discriminatory practices in the armed forces, relying on the foundation built by Davis. After his death in 1970, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

In January 1997, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Black Heritage Stamp to honor his service and contributions. – John X. Miller

 

 

Mary McLeod Bethune

Though she was able-bodied, Mary McLeod Bethune carried a cane because she said it gave her “swank.”

An educator, civil rights leader and adviser to five U.S. presidents, the “First Lady of the Struggle” has been synonymous with black uplift since the early 20th century. She turned her faith, her passion for racial progress, and her organizational and fundraising savvy into the enduring legacies of Bethune-Cookman University and the National Council of Negro Women. She understood the intersections of education, optics and politics and was fierce and canny in using them to advance the cause of her people.

Bethune, the 15th of 17 children, grew up in rural South Carolina and started working in the fields as a young girl. She hoped to become a missionary in Africa after attending Scotia Seminary in North Carolina and Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, but was told black missionaries were unwelcome. So, she turned to educating her people at home, founding the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904 with $1.50 and six students, including her young son.

Twenty years later, the school was merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida. In 1924, Bethune, one of the few female college presidents in the nation, became president of the National Association of Colored Women. A decade later, in a move to centralize dozens of organizations working on behalf of black women, Bethune founded the influential National Council of Negro Women.

Bethune helped organize black advisers to serve on the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, the storied “Black Cabinet,” under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt considered Bethune one of her closest friends. Photos featuring her with the president or first lady ran prominently in black publications, helping to normalize the notion of black faces in high places.

Bethune worked to end poll taxes and lynching. She organized protests against businesses that refused to hire African-Americans and demonstrated in support of the Scottsboro Boys. She lobbied for women to join the military. She organized, she wrote, she lectured, and she inspired.

Perhaps her most enduring written work was her last will and testament:

I LEAVE YOU LOVE … I LEAVE YOU HOPE … I LEAVE YOU THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING CONFIDENCE IN ONE ANOTHER … I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION … I LEAVE YOU RESPECT FOR THE USES OF POWER … I LEAVE YOU FAITH … I LEAVE YOU RACIAL DIGNITY … I LEAVE YOU A DESIRE TO LIVE HARMONIOUSLY WITH YOUR FELLOW MEN … I LEAVE YOU FINALLY A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. – Lonnae O’Neal

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Eight short years. That’s how long it took Jean-Michel Basquiat to secure his legacy as an art world prodigy. He died at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose, leaving behind paintings, drawings and notebooks, many of which explored themes of counterculture American punk, the urban plight of the African diaspora, improvisational jazz music and the vagaries of fame during the Ronald Reagan-era 1980s.

Born to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat dropped out of high school and cut his artistic chops as a graffiti artist in Soho and Manhattan, New York’s Lower East Side. He had his first important gallery show in 1980 and soon befriended the pop in pop art stars Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Basquiat was handsome, fashionable and famously eccentric. He produced vibrant and emotional canvases with a kind of refined cool reminiscent of improvisational jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

The drawing in Basquiat’s best-known pieces may be primitive-looking at first glance, but the images were sexy, complex and sophisticated. While his worldview was undeniably black, urban and hypermasculine, his bold paint-splash technique was influenced more by modern abstract masters Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly. But there is a definite through line to early 20th-century African-American greats such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence to contemporary artist Kara Walker. His most recognizable motifs — a black male oracle who wears a bold king’s crown, West African griots and ferocious figures sharing space with childlike scribbles — appeared in many of his most famous pieces.

As influential as Basquiat is, most of his work is privately owned and very few public galleries or museums own or exhibit any of his best-known pieces. His paintings very rarely appear at auction and now attract stratospheric prices when they do. In May 2016, Basquiat’s 1982 Untitled painting shattered his auction world record when it was sold for $57.3 million at Christie’s, making him the most financially successful African-American painter in history. Celebrity collectors of his work include Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, and an entire generation of hip-hop artists — Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Killer Mike, Rick Ross and J. Cole — routinely name-check the Brooklyn, New York-born cool kid. Basquiat fanboy (and collector) Jay Z even bragged in his 2013 song Picasso Baby — It ain’t hard to tell, I’m the new Jean-Michel. In other words, legendary dopeness and enigmatic brilliance will never go out of style. – Jill Hudson

 

Ella Baker

Proof that visibility is not necessary to make an impact, Ella Baker is one of history’s lesser-known civil rights heroes, yet one of the most important. If Martin Luther King Jr. was the head of the civil rights movement, Ella Baker was its backbone.

Born on Dec. 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in North Carolina, Baker cultivated her passion and desire for social justice at a young age. Her grandmother, who was a slave, once told her a story of being whipped for refusing to marry a man of her slave owner’s choosing — fueling Baker’s desire for systematic change and justice for her people.

In the 1940s, she developed a grassroots approach as an NAACP field secretary to gather and convince black people of the group’s message — a vision that holds true today — that a society of individuals can and should exist “without discrimination based on race.” In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help King form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, through which she facilitated protests, built campaigns and ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.

Baker did grow frustrated at the lack of gender equality within the group, and came close to quitting in 1960. But then, on Feb. 1, four black college students sat at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. After being denied service, they were asked to leave. Instead, they refused to leave and a movement was born.

A graduate of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, who during her time there often challenged university policies, Baker viewed young people as one of the strongest and most important aspects of the civil rights movement. Inspired by the courageous sit-ins, Baker laid the framework for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC became one of the most important organizations in American civil rights history because of its commitment to effecting change through Freedom Rides and its particular emphasis on the importance of voting rights for African-Americans.

Baker earned the nickname “Fundi,” which is Swahili for a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. As a dedicated change agent, Baker taught young people that their spirit was essential to the movement. As long as they had the audacity to dream of a better, equal and brighter tomorrow — through the means of relentless peaceful protest and endurance — a fairer society awaited them. Baker died on Jan. 13, 1986, on her 83rd birthday. – Trudy Joseph and Callan Mathis

 

Richard Allen

A Feb. 20, 1898, sermon by the Rev. John Palmer on Richard Allen’s place in African-American history reads:

“If true greatness consists in that self-sacrificing heroism and devotion which makes a man insensible and indifferent to his own personal welfare, interest, comfort and advantages; and to deny himself of all for the sake of others, and for the elevation and advancement of others, without a single promise of reward — we say, if these constitute greatness, then Richard Allen, the first bishop of the AME church, was great.”

Allen is considered the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in America. That church, now with a membership of more than 2.5 million people and 6,000 churches, was the country’s first independent black denomination.

Former slave. Born into servitude in 1760 in Philadelphia, “Negro Richard” earned $2,000 to buy his freedom and that of his brother in 1780. Richard Allen, the name he chose as a freedman, came of age during the American Revolution, just as the antislavery movement and denominational Christianity were gaining prominence.

Allen discovered religion after hearing a Methodist preacher at a secret gathering of slaves in Delaware. In his biography, The Life Experiences and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, he wrote, “I was awakened and brought to see myself, poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost.”

Preacher. Allen, his wife Sarah and others opened the doors of Bethel AME Church on July 29, 1794, on the site of a converted blacksmith shop on Sixth Street in Philadelphia. Allen was ordained the church’s pastor. Driven to establish “Mother Bethel” by white Methodists’ segregation of blacks, Allen brought other black Methodist congregations in Philadelphia together in 1816. They elected Allen bishop, a position he held until his death in 1831.

Abolitionist. Allen focused his sermons on the freedom of slaves, cessation of colonization, education of youths and temperance. He created denominational groups to care for and educate the poor. His home and Bethel AME were stops on the Underground Railroad.

Educator. Recognizing that former slaves and freedmen needed education, he opened a day school for black children and a night school for adults. Allen published articles in Freedom’s Journal attacking slavery, colonialism and organizations that advocated the migration of blacks back to Africa. He authored three pamphlets about escaping the bonds of slavery, including An Address to Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice.

Allen’s legacy lives on today in the AME church’s work, whose motto is “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family.” – John X. Miller

 

Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey, was a legendary modern dance pioneer, choreographer and civil rights artist-as-activist. Although Ailey died nearly 30 years ago, many of his best-known pieces have become as emblematic of vibrant, relevant American art as tap dance, jazz, the literature of Toni Morrison and hip-hop. Ailey explored issues of social justice, racism and spirituality in the African-American experience. This was during the height of the civil rights movement, when the notion of black classically trained dancers moving to the music of Duke Ellington, gospel, blues, Latin and African pop was truly revolutionary, if not unfathomable.

Born into poverty in Texas in 1931, Ailey drew from his emotional well of close-knit black churches, rural juke joints, fiery protest songs and a lonely childhood as a closeted gay man to fuel his passion for dance. He befriended many of his fellow mid-century American masters (Maya Angelou, Carmen De Lavallade, Merce Cunningham and Katherine Dunham, to name a few) while living in New York. After Ailey’s death from an AIDS-related illness in 1989, the company and school grew into the premier repository for emerging black choreographers, and is still the most popular dance touring company on the international circuit.

Ailey created “a human dance company and school that didn’t fit any model,” said author and arts and dance patron, Susan Fales-Hill. “His dancers were and are multicultural, and his company was an amalgam of the African and European diaspora. He always addressed the pain of the African-American journey, but he also celebrated the triumph and redemption of the human spirit” in pieces such as Revelations (1960), Ailey’s most celebrated work. The up-from-slavery dance suite finds beauty in the midst of tragedy and pain, celebrates black folks’ resilience and humanity, and allows hope to overcome tribulation. “Ailey understood that the arts are a litmus test for who’s civilized and who isn’t civilized,” Fales-Hill said. “The fact that he raised people of color to the level of great, universally recognized artists was an enormous triumph.” – Jill Hudson

 

Robert Abbot

The story of the pioneer of the black press involves slaves, Nazis and 25 cents.

Born just five years after the end of the Civil War, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded a weekly newspaper, The Chicago Defender, one of the most important black newspapers in history, in 1905. Without Abbott, there would be no Essence, no Jet (and its Beauty of the Week), no Black Enterprise, no The Source, no The Undefeated.

The success of The Chicago Defender made Abbott one of the nation’s most prominent postslavery black millionaires, along with beauty product magnate Madam C.J. Walker and paved the way for prominent black publishers such as Earl G. Graves, John H. Johnson and Edward Lewis.

The son of slaves, Abbott grew up with a half-German stepfather whose relatives eventually joined the Third Reich during the 1930s. Ironically enough, young Robert was taught to hate racial injustice, despite encountering it at every turn in his life, from his early foray into the printing business to his time in law school in Chicago, all the way to religious institutions.

An alum of Hampton University (then named Hampton Institute), Abbott was a catalyst for the Great Migration at the turn of the 20th century, when 6 million African-Americans from the rural South moved to urban cities in the West, Northeast and Midwest, with 100,000 settling in Chicago. Like a politician promising tax breaks to out-of-state companies to inspire relocation, Abbott took it upon himself to lay out the welcome mat for the millions of blacks abandoning the Jim Crow South to head to the Windy City, where manufacturing jobs were awaiting as World War I approached.

What started off as 25 cents in capital and a four-page pamphlet distributed strictly in black neighborhoods quickly grew into a readership that eclipsed half a million a week at its peak, numbers that mirror the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel today. The paper’s rise in stature and circulation was due in large part to Abbott being a natural hustler. The Defender was initially banned in the South due to its encouragement of African-Americans to abandon the area and head North, but the Georgia native used a network of black railroad porters (who would eventually become the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) to distribute the paper in Southern states.

After the influx of blacks in the Midwest following the Great Migration, Abbott and The Defender turned their attention to other issues afflicting blacks in the early 20th century, including Jim Crow segregation, the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and the deadly 1919 Chicago riots that mirrored recent-day demonstrations seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.

Abbott’s nephew, John H. Sengstacke, took The Defender over in the 1940s, eventually heading black newspapers in Detroit and MemphisTennessee, and the historic Pittsburgh Courier. – Martenzie Johnson

 

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Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of blacks in U.S. history. Also known as African American History Month, the event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history.

Origins of Black History Month

The story of Black History Month begins in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

That September, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by black Americans and other peoples of African descent.

Known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the group sponsored a national Negro History week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The event inspired schools and communities nationwide to organize local celebrations, establish history clubs and host performances and lectures.

In the decades that followed, mayors of cities across the country began issuing yearly proclamations recognizing Negro History Week. By the late 1960s, thanks in part to the civil rights movement and a growing awareness of black identity, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses.

President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

This institution is an equal opportunity provider.

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