By Progress for Today
February is a very special month, and no, not just because of Valentine’s Day. The whole entire month is special. February is known to many as Black History Month. Black History Month started as a single week started by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. The week of Fredrick Douglass and President Lincoln’s birthday was the original “Black History Month”. Then in 1976, President Gerald Ford made Black History Month an official month. Now every year, there is a chance for people to have a platform to explain African-American history. It is also the only time in the year where we can grab the attention of people and teach things that people don’t normally learn. In this article, I’ll be giving mini-biographies on black historical figures. Some are well known, and some aren’t as recognized. I want to give these brief explanations, so you have the interest to go look into the background and lives of these people, from Civil War Spies to artists.
Mary Bowser was a former slave who operated as a spy for the Union during the Civil War. She was born on a plantation owned by John Van Lew in 1839. After the death of John Van Lew in 1843, his daughter (Elizabeth) and wife freed their slaves. Elizabeth was a very outspoken abolitionist and arranged for Bowser to get an education in Philadelphia, but tension grew between the South and North. Bowser ended up going back to work for the Van Lew family as a household servant. Before the war, Elizabeth would send reports to Union officials on things that were happening in the South. Elizabeth also knew that there was a war looming over America, so she recommended Bowser for a Davis Household staff position. Bowser was a very successful spy for the Union. The other staff believed she was a slave. This caused military leaders and David and his cabinet members to speak very openly in front of her about their strategies. They also took her illiteracy for granted because she was able to read important documents Davis left lying around. She would then share the newfound information with the Union or Van Lew who then shared the information with military leaders.
Not much is known about the life of the Civil War spy, Mary Bowser. After the war, the U.S. government destroyed any record of her and her work. They also destroyed records of Van Lew and others for their protection. There is no record of her life after the war, not even information about her death.
James Baldwin was a novelist and playwright and used his writing to voice his opinion on the Civil Rights movement. He was known as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He broke so many barriers with his writing about racial and social issues. He was most known for his essays on the Black experience in the United States. Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York. He was the oldest of nine children. His dad was a preacher, and this encouraged him to become a preacher when he was 14. When he was 18, he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. While he was going to this school, he wrote for the school magazine. At this time, he realized that he wanted to be a writer and do it for a living. In 1944, Baldwin met the writer Richard Wright. Wright helped Baldwin earn a writing award so he could have enough money to give all of his time to literature. Baldwin soon decided that he could not get his work done properly in the U.S., so in 1948, he moved out to France to escape the mountains of civil unrest. While in France, Baldwin published 3 books: Notes of a Native Son, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Giovanni’s Room.
After 9 years of living overseas, Baldwin returned to America as the leading spokesperson among writers for the civil rights of African Americans. He traveled around the South giving lectures to groups of people (sometimes the groups were all white people), teaching them about Civil Rights. While moving throughout the South, Baldwin realized that the social conditions for African Americans had worsened even more while he was overseas. With the increasing violence in the South, in the mid-1960s, Baldwin responded with 3 books: Nobody Knows My Name, More Notes of a Native Son, and The Fire Next Time. Along with the 3 books, he published 2 plays: The Amen Corner and Blues for Mr. Charlie. Blues for Mr. Charlie was based on the Emmett Till case (Emmett Till was a 14-year old boy that was lynched for supposedly whistling at a woman, more on him later).
Baldwin was making a real name for himself and making a change during the civil rights movement. Then there was the sudden assassination of his friends: Medgar Evers (1926-1963), Malcolm X (1925-1956), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968). All of his plans to help end the racial divide in America had washed away. Baldwin decided to move back to France. He lived in France and continued to publish his work. James Baldwin sadly passed away on December 1, 1987.
Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was born in Tyron, North Carolina on February 21, 1933. She started music at the age of 3, when she would play piano by ear. Her parents taught her to carry herself with dignity and to always work hard. Her performances started in her mother’s church. She would play piano, but wouldn’t sing. She graduated high school as valedictorian of her class, and her community raised enough money for a scholarship for Simone. She was denied admission by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her dreams of becoming a classical pianist were blown away. She then ended up with an even better, worldwide career as Nina Simone.
Her new stage name was from taking the nickname “Nina” (which in Spanish means “little one”) and “Simone” after the actor Simone Signoret. Simone’s big break was when she cut the song “My Baby Just Cares For Me” by Nate King Cole. Her cut was used in a European commercial for Chanel in the 1980s. Simone also wrote music that expressed moments during the Civil Rights Movement. She also wrote songs of empowerment, such as the song “To Be Young, Gifted, & Black” which was written in memory of her good friend Lorraine Hansberry. During the 1970s and early 1980s, she lived in multiple countries. She also settled in Southern France after her two marriages and continued to do tours through the 1990s. With her autobiography, she explains that she wanted her music “...to make people feel on a deep level.” Simone died in her sleep at her home on April 21, 2003. Her funeral was attended by very famous people such as singer Pattie Labelle and poet Sonia Sanchez. Nina Simone’s legacy still continues today with her music everywhere.
Emmitt Till was a 14-year old African American boy that lived on the south side of Chicago. His elementary school was segregated, and his mom would often tell him to worry about his surroundings because of his race. Emmett still enjoyed pulling pranks. On August 24, Emmett, some friends, and his cousins were standing outside of a country store in Money. Mississippi. They were joking around and dared Emmett to go flirt with the lady behind the counter. He bought some candy and was heard saying, “Bye baby” on the way put to the woman. There were no witnesses to clarify or give any other details, but Carolyn Bryant (the white woman behind the store counter) claimed that he made physical contact with her and wolf-whistled at her as he left the store.
Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband) returned home from a business trip a few days after that say, and Carilyn told him about the things Emmett had allegedly done. He was very angry and decided to to go Emmett’s great uncle’s house (Mose Wright) with his half-brother, J.W. Milam, early in the morning of August 28. They made Wright bring Emmett to them and Wright begged them, but it didn’t work. They forced Emmett into the car and drove, eventually they arrived at the Tallahatchie River. Three days after Emmett was taken from the home, his body was found. Due to the violent nature of the crime, his Great Uncle Wright couldn’t recognize him. The only thing that identified Emmett was the ring that had his initials.
After seeing her son, Emmett Till’s mother (Mamie Bradley) decided to have an open-casket funeral so the world could see what the violent racists did to her son. An African American magazine, Jet, published a photo of Emmett’s body and it got the attention of the mainstream media. In about two weeks after Emmett Till was buried, Milam and Bryant went on trial in a segregated courthouse. There weren’t very many witnesses. On September 23, the (all-white) jury (discussing for less than an hour) issued the verdict of “not-guilty”. They explained that they believed that the state failed to prove the identity of the body. So many people around the country were furious with the verdict. Milam and Bryant were also never charged with kidnapping.