- MAY 18
1896—The United States Supreme Court issues its infamous ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. The decision declared the doctrine of “separate but equal” was constitutional. By doing so it, in effect, approved all Jim Crow or segregationist laws designed to degrade Blacks or keep them separate from Whites. The ruling would stand until the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.
1955—Legendary educator Mary McLeod Bethune dies at 79 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Born the 15th of 17 children in Mayesville, S.C., Bethune would rise to become one of the nation’s foremost Black educators and early civil rights activist. She was a driving force behind the founding of Florida’s Bethune-Cookman College.
- MAY 19
1925—Black revolutionary Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on this day in Omaha, Neb. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and a follower of the legendary Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey. For his outspokenness, Earl Little would be brutally killed in 1929 by a Ku Klux Klan type group. A smart and focused student, Malcolm dreamed of becoming a lawyer. But that dream would be crushed by prejudice when one of his favorite teachers told him that was “not a realistic goal for a nigger.” He would end up dropping out of school and moving with his mother to Boston, Mass. He would later travel to New York City where he began a criminal life of petty crimes, but rapidly moved up to coordinating drug, prostitution and gambling rings. With the “heat” on, he moved back to Boston where he was arrested and sentenced to prison on a burglary charge in 1946. By the time he was paroled in 1952, he was a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad and a small Muslim sect known as the Nation of Islam and had dropped his “slave” last name in favor of being referred to as “Malcolm X.” From 1952 to 1963, he became the primary force behind the building of the Nation of Islam from a sect of fewer than 1,000 members to a national organization of more than 30,000 members. But his faith in Elijah Muhammad was crushed when he learned in 1963 that the married and outwardly puritanical Muhammad had had extra-marital affairs with at least six young Nation of Islam women. A bitter separation resulted between Malcolm and the Nation. Malcolm then turned to a more orthodox version of Islam and began to seek closer relations with other Black Nationalist and civil rights groups. He was assassinated at Harlem, N.Y.’s, Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965 by three men associated with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X was 39.
1930—Lorraine Hansberry is born in Chicago, Ill. During her short life she becomes one of Black America’s most prolific authors and playwrights. Her most famous play was “A Raisin in the Sun”—which was the first drama written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. After her death from cancer in 1965, another one of her plays—“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” became a major off-Broadway production.
1952—Eccentric model and singer Grace Jones is born in Spanish Town, Jamaica. In addition to her singing and modeling, her unusual style propels her into a status as one of the icons of the disco and new music scene of the 1970s.
- MAY 20
1743—Touissant L’Ouverture, the father of Haitian independence, is born. Although he was not part of the initial disturbances, L’Ouverture was quickly drafted into leadership of the 1791 Slave Revolt. He converted the random burnings of plantations and killings of unlucky Whites into a full-scale revolution against slavery on the island. Under his leadership, the slaves were organized into an effective fighting force which would go on to defeat the British army and the greatest conqueror of the period, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, L’Ouverture’s fighting might was indirectly responsible for the growth of America. Desperate to raise money to fight the Haitians, Napoleon sold the massive Louisiana territory to America at an amazingly low price. L’Ouverture was tricked into attending a phony “peace conference” in France. Once there he was jailed. But the leadership void was immediately filled by one of his lieutenants—Jean Jacques Dessalines who would complete the revolution started by L’Ouverture. Haiti became independent in 1804.
- MAY 21
1862—Mary Patterson becomes the first Black woman in U.S. History to be awarded a master’s degree. She earned it from Oberlin College in Ohio.
2009—NFL star quarterback Michael Vick is released from federal prison after serving 19 months of a 23-month sentence for financing a dog fighting ring. Formerly with the Atlanta Falcons, Vick finished his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
2009—A Black man—James Young—is elected mayor of Philadelphia, Miss.,—a town which during the 1960s had the nation’s most racist reputation. Ku Klux Klan members dominated the town and it was known for the mistreatment and unpunished killings of Blacks. One of the most brutal events in the city was the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers. In his 2009 election victory, Young captured 30 percent of the White vote.
1881—Blanche Kelso Bruce is sworn in as a senator from Mississippi. He became the first Black man to serve a full term in the United States Senate. During his service, he advocated for the political and social rights of Blacks, Indians and Chinese immigrants.
- MAY 22
1863—The War Department establishes the Bureau of Colored Troops and began to aggressively recruit Blacks for the Civil War. The Black troops would play a major role in turning the tide of battle against the rebellious Southern slave states.
1959—Benjamin O. Davis Jr. becomes the first African American general in the U.S. Air Force. His father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., had been the first Black general in the U.S. Army.
- MAY 23
1921—“Shuffle Along”—the first of a succession of widely popular Black musicals performed for White audiences—opened at the 63rd Street Theatre in New York City, becoming the first African-American Broadway musical. The musical comedy combined the talents of the legendary team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. “Shuffle Along” produced a long list of hits including “Shuffle Along,” “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” “Gypsy Blues” and “Love Will Find A Way.”
1981—Legendary Reggae artist Bob Marley is given an official state funeral in his homeland of Jamaica. He had died of cancer on May 11 in Miami. Marley and his band “The Wailers” had made Reggae popular worldwide with such hits as “Stir It Up” and “No Woman, No Cry.” He was considered the first third world superstar and a prophet of the Rastafarian religion. He was only 36 when he died. His body now lies in a mausoleum in Jamaica.
- MAY 24
1854—Anthony Burns, one of the most celebrated fugitive slaves in American history, is captured by deputy U.S. Marshals in Boston. But at the time anti-slavery feeling was running high in Boston and it was one of the cities which had vowed not to obey the Fugitive Slave Act—a federal law that required even those opposed to slavery to help slave owners capture run-away slaves. For fear that Boston residents would help Burns escape to Canada, the U.S. government sent 2,000 troops to Boston to assist in returning Burns to Virginia. Thousands lined the streets as Burns was marched to a ship on June 3 for a trip back South. However, a Black Boston church raised the money to purchase Burns and within a year of his capture, he was back in Boston a free man.
1856—The so-called Pottawatomie Massacre takes place. A force of men led by famed abolitionist John Brown attacks a pro-slavery settlement in Franklin County, Kan., leaving at least five men dead. The attack was part of a period known as “Bleeding Kansas” when pro and anti-slavery forces battled one another in a bid to determine whether Kansas would be a slave or free territory. The “Pottawatomie Massacre” was also one of the events which made the Civil War unavoidable.
1944—Legendary singer Patti LaBelle is born Patricia Louise Holte in Philadelphia, Pa.