February may be the shortest month of the year, but its celebration of Black History is among the longest-standing social justice movements in history. While many facts and events in Black History are widely recognized, the dense fabric of their making has been equally if not more influential than the events themselves. We want to share some interesting facts about history, the people who made it, and how their contributions changed our country and world.
We hope you find this interesting and encourage you to look deeper into the wells of knowledge offered through the links. Grab a coffee or tea and take your time to savor history from each day of the month.
On February 1, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led hundreds of activists to the county courthouse in Selma, Alabama, to register to vote. All were arrested during the peaceful demonstration, charged with parading without a permit. In a letter written from jail that night and later published in the New York Times, Dr. King decried the racist conditions in Selma, saying, “there are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.” The arrests resulted in protests in which African Americans were injured and killed. Still, despite these attacks, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders continued their work and organized the historic 54-mile voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery the next month, which raised awareness of the difficulties faced by Black voters and the need for a national Voting Rights Act.
Alfred L. Cralle was an African American businessman and inventor best known for inventing the ice cream scoop. He applied for and received a patent on February 2, 1897, when he was 30 years old. His invention, called an Ice Cream Mold and Disher, was designed to keep ice cream and other foods from sticking.
On this day in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified, guaranteeing the right to vote could not be denied based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude, and complementing the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which abolished slavery and guaranteed citizenship, respectively, to African Americans. The Fifteenth Amendment enfranchised African American men while denying the right to vote to women of all colors. Women would not receive that right until Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Rosa Parks was born in Alabama on February 4, 1913. After high school, she became actively involved in civil rights issues. Parks rose to national fame on December 1, 1955. On her way home from work as a seamstress in Montgomery, she was arrested for refusing a bus driver’s order to give her seat to a white passenger. Montgomery City Code required that public transportation be segregated, and bus drivers had the powers of a police officer. Drivers separated passengers by assigning seats, with white passengers in the front and African Americans in the back. Parks’ arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 13-month mass protest resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. Parks’ bravery inspired nationwide efforts to end racial segregation. She was awarded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
In 1934 on this day, Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron was born. Widely regarded as one of the greatest baseball players in history, his 755 career home runs broke the longstanding MLB record set by Babe Ruth and stood for 33 years. He still holds many MLB batting records. During his time in Major League Baseball, Aaron and his family endured extensive racist threats, experiences that fueled his activism during the civil rights movement. He passed away in January 2021 at the age of 86.
On this day in 1990, young Barack Obama became the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, considered the most prestigious organization and journal of legal scholarship in the country and the highest student position at Harvard Law School.
Arthur Ashe rose from segregation and racial roadblocks to becoming the first African American male to win the U.S. Open (1968), the Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975). In 1963, he was the first African American chosen to play the Davis Cup for the United States. In 10 years, he helped the United States win five championships (1963, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1978). He was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985. Much more than a storied tennis player, Ashe was an activist, author, educator, and tireless campaigner for civil rights and racial equality, not only in the United States but worldwide, particularly against the apartheid systems of South Africa. His life tragically ended on February 6, 1993, after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion following heart bypass surgery.
The observation of Black History Month dates back to 1915, when Carter G. Woodson, known as the Father of Black History, along with friends, created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Woodson initiated the first “Negro History Week” on Feb. 7, 1926, to celebrate and raise awareness of Black history. In 1976, 50 years after the first celebration, ASALH used its influence to institutionalize the shifts from a week to a month and from Negro history to Black History. Since the mid-1970s, every American president, Democrat and Republican, has issued proclamations endorsing the Association’s annual theme.
On February 8, 1944, Harry S. McAlpin was the first African American to be accredited to attend the White House press conference. A correspondent for the Atlanta Daily World, McAlpin covered his first Oval Office conference over the objection of the Correspondents’ Association, an all-white club. Franklin Roosevelt agreed to admit McAlpin to a news conference. Forty-two years later, on February 8, 1986, Oprah Winfrey became the first African American woman to host a nationally syndicated talk show. In 2021, she and Hearst Magazines teamed up for interviews that pair young Black journalists with elders, including civil rights activists, celebrities, and others. The project, Lift Every Voice, was featured on OprahDaily.com and in magazines like ELLE, Good Housekeeping, Esquire, Runner’s World , and Winfrey’s O Quarterly.
On February 9, 1995, Bernard Anthony Harris, Jr., a former NASA astronaut, was the first African American to perform an extra-vehicular activity (spacewalk) during the second of his two Space Shuttle flights. Since he was a boy, Harris wanted to be an astronaut, inspired by the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. His dream came true. Selected by NASA in 1990, he became an astronaut in 1991. Dr. Harris received a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of Houston in 1978 and a doctorate in medicine in 1982 from Texas Tech University School of Medicine. He first went to space in 1993, becoming the first Black person to leave Earth’s orbit.
After 12 days of debate and voting on 125 amendments, the U.S. House of Representatives, on February 10, 1964, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by a vote of 290-130. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964, the act became the most sweeping civil rights legislation of the century.
In response to international pressure and the threat of civil war, South Africa president F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from prison on February 11, 1990. Four years later, Mandela became president of South Africa and served five terms. Here are some little-known facts from National Geographic’s 2020 piece on Mandela, the man who was the world’s most famous political prisoner for 27 years and then became South Africa’s first Black president. Mandela began his life under another name: Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela. On his first day in a segregated elementary school, he was stripped of his identity when his schoolteacher gave every child an English name, a common practice in a society in which whites “were either unable or unwilling to pronounce an African name and considered it uncivilized to have one,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. News of Mandela’s imprisonment galvanized anti-apartheid activists all over the world. During his 95 years, a lifetime of resistance, imprisonment, and leadership, Mandela helped topple South Africa’s brutal social order and lead the country out of apartheid into an era of reconciliation, majority rule, and a full, multiracial democracy.
The United States’ largest, most widely recognized, and today the oldest civil rights organization was established on February 12, 1909. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is an interracial U.S. organization created to abolish segregation and discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting, and transportation. It was founded to oppose racism and ensure African Americans have their constitutional rights. After 113 years in existence, the grassroots organization currently has two million members.
Many talented African American baseball players would likely not have become legends without an organized league. On Feb. 13, 1920, the Negro National League (NNL) was created. But with Jim Crow laws and segregationist sentiment left over from the Civil War, the careers of talented Black players were short-lived due to unwritten rules and agreements that shut Black players out of big-league competition. Financial hardships of the Great Depression forced the league to shut down, but it resurfaced in 1937 as the Negro American League (NAL). The NAL thrived until Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s (MLB) color barrier in 1947, which had segregated baseball for more than 50 years. As the first Black MLB player in the modern era, Robinson’s breakthrough signaled the decline of the Negro Leagues. ”The leagues died having served their purpose,” said baseball writer Steven Goldman, “shining a light on African American ballplayers at a time when the white majors simply did not want to know.”
Morehouse College, a private historically Black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, was founded on February 14, 1867, as Augusta Institute. The school relocated from Augusta, Georgia, to Atlanta in 1879 and in 1919 became Morehouse College. In the first part of the 20th century, Morehouse, along with Spelman College, also in Atlanta, were symbols of hope and inspiration to Southern African Americans and, over time, had a profound effect on the quality of leadership in Atlanta’s Black community. Morehouse produced many influential alumni, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond, Maynard Jackson, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Edwin Moses, former Surgeon General David Satcher, and Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, who served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
At the age of 16, Henry Lewis joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic, becoming the first Black instrumentalist in a major orchestra. That was just one of his firsts. On February 14, 1968, he broke racial barriers in the music world as the first Black conductor and music director of a major American orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony, and the first Black to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Lewis died in 1996 at the age of 63, leaving a powerful legacy for other African American orchestral musicians that spanned nearly 50 years.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the late 1800s, Bessie Smith grew up in poverty and obscurity but would become one of the greatest American blues singers. For several years, she traveled the South singing in tent shows, bars, and theatres in cities and small towns. After 1920, Smith made her home in Philadelphia, where she was heard by a representative of Columbia Records. On February 16, 1923, she made her first recording, “Down Hearted Blues,” which sold more than two million copies. Smith made 160 recordings in all, many accompanied by jazz greats of the time, including Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong. Other notable songs included “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “Careless Love Blues,” “Empty Bed Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “Gimme a Pigfoot.“
In 1878, American songwriter James A. Bland wrote a song called “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny.” A modified version, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” was the official state song of Virginia from 1940 to 1997. On February 17, 1997, the Virginia House of Delegates unanimously voted to retire the state song because the tune glorifies slavery.
On this day in 1688, a community of Quakers living in Germantown, Pennsylvania, filed the Germantown Quaker Petition against Slavery. Francis Daniel Pastorius, who founded Germantown in 1683 as a German-speaking community, wrote the petition for the monthly Quaker Meeting, basing it on the Golden Rule from the Bible (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). He urged the abolishment of slavery for the British colony of Pennsylvania. While slavery continued to be practiced in Pennsylvania, increasing numbers of Quakers and Mennonites began protesting and objecting. In 1776 a proclamation was issued by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banning the ownership of slaves. The 1688 petition remains the first American document arguing for equal human rights for everyone.
The Tuskegee Airmen were initiated into the U.S. armed forces on February 19, 1942. They blazed their way into history as the first African American pilots who fought in World War II. They were subjected to segregation and discrimination despite being as brave as the rest of the military. Racism in America was very much alive. All who served in the squadrons were trained at Tuskegee Institute. They earned the nickname “Red Tail Angels” because the bombers they escorted saw them as angels, and their plane tails and propellers were painted red. By the end of WWII, 992 men had graduated from Tuskegee, having carried out more than 200 bomber escort missions, damaged 409 German planes and 950 ground units, and sank a battleship.[Text Wrapping Break]
Born in Miami on February 20, 1927, Bahamian American actor, director, and producer Sidney Poitier broke the color barrier in the U.S. motion-picture industry as the first African American to win an Academy Award for best actor (Lilies of the Field, 1963) and the first Black movie star. He redefined roles for African Americans by rejecting parts based on racial stereotypes. Portier is recognized by the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, located at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, which honors activists involved in the civil rights movement and others involved in civil rights activities. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of Portier, “He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.” Poitier died on January 6, 2022.
According to the National Archives, there was perhaps no other single figure whose life and career embodied the promise, success, and challenges of civil rights for Black Americans than John Lewis. Born in Alabama on February 21, 1940, Lewis was at the forefront of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He led and helped organize many seminal moments, including the Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington, and the Selma to Montgomery Marches. He was one of the original group of 13 Freedom Riders, white and African American activists who participated in bus trips through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals. Lewis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986 and continued to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional District until his death in 2020.
Horace Pippin was an African American painter born February 22, 1888, 23 years after the Civil War and the end of slavery. Pippin’s grandparents were slaves, and his parents were domestic workers. His most frequently used theme centered on the African American experience, as seen in his series entitled Cabin in the Cotton (mid-1930s) and his paintings of episodes in the lives of antislavery leaders John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. After the art world discovered Pippin in 1937, these paintings, in particular, brought him acclaim as the greatest Black painter of his time.
As documented by the National Women’s Hall of Fame, making history and making law were the twin components of Constance Baker Motley’s life and career. Born in 1921, her legal career began as a law clerk in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Education Fund, where she clerked for Thurgood Marshall. She became a key legal strategist in the civil rights movement, helping to desegregate Southern schools, busses, and lunch counters, and successfully argued nine of 10 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1964, she became the first African American woman elected to the New York State Senate. On February 23, 1965, she was elected Manhattan Borough President, the highest elective office held by a Black woman in a major U.S. City. And in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson named her a Federal Court judge, the first African American woman to hold the position.
February 24, 2020, marked the final journey for NASA’s ‘human computer,‘ Katherine Johnson, when she died at 101 of natural causes. Born in 1918, Johnson was one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. She later became the NASA mathematician whose calculations made space exploration possible, calculating flight trajectories by hand for the U.S. space program. In 1953, she was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which became NASA two years later. In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work she would become most known for. Computers were programmed with the equations that would control the capsule’s trajectory in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines. Glenn asked engineers to have Johnson run the same numbers by hand. ”If she says they’re good,'” Johnson remembers Glenn saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.
In the fall of 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his first sermon at the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The congregation voted to license King as a minister soon afterward, and he was ordained on February 25, 1948. He served as Ebenezer’s associate minister during his breaks from Crozer Theological Seminary and from his doctoral studies at Boston University through early 1954. He returned as co-pastor with his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., serving from 1960 until his assassination in 1968.
Travon Benjamin Martin was born on February 5, 1995. On the night of February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Martin was followed, shot, and killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was acquitted of charges under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. Millions of people protested the jury’s decision, pumping passionate life into the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which quickly grew into a global organization with a mission to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities. Grammy Award-winning rapper Common said, “While Trayvon is no longer with us, his name continues to inspire millions of people in the fight for justice and equality.”
Charlotte E. Ray graduated from Howard Law School on February 27, 1872, becoming not only the first female African-American lawyer in the United States but also the first practicing female lawyer in Washington, D.C. Ray was born in 1850 in New York City, where her father worked as a minister and was a prominent abolitionist. She attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C., one of the few educational institutions in the country that educated African American girls.
Elias Neau opened a school for Blacks in New York City on February 28, 1704. After being persecuted in France for his Protestant beliefs, he became an English citizen and settled in New York. He felt a calling to help enslaved Blacks and Native Americans and worked to secure the spiritual education of vulnerable populations. Neau became a member of New York City’s Trinity Church and served on its Vestry from 1705 to 1713. In partnership with Trinity, Neau and his students convened in the steeple three days a week. In less than ten years, he had 200 pupils, and shortly after his death in 1722, the Trinity Vestry minutes reported that a considerable number of slaves (1,400) had been instructed in the principles of Christianity. Neau’s life work was continued by Trinity Church and other teachers, and in 1788 the first of many African Free Schools was established by the Manumission Society of New York on land donated by Trinity.
Keep on Learning!
Here are many more important facts in Black History that helped shape our world for the better:
- 120 things you probably didn’t know were created by Black inventors, from Daily Hive
- Black History, from History.com
- 5 Black History Heroes Every Student Should Know, by the editors of Scholastic