Forgotten Voices of Black History
Everyone knows that February is Black History Month. Everyone also knows about Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and Fredrick Douglas. Every February we talk about these figures and the impact they had on the civil rights movement and the struggle for justice for all in America. But how many people have heard of Bayard Rustin? Maybe you have heard of George Washington Carver, but do you know what he did? How about Ella Baker, Althea Gibson, George Watson, Sr., or the countless other black Americans whose lives and actions helped to shape the civil rights movement, the way America thought of race, and the history of America itself. Few Americans know who these individuals are, but these are all individuals whose contributions to our history are worth remembering.
Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1912. As a kid, his mother was active in the NAACP, and Rustin would often meet NAACP leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois. Rustin began to be involved in activism while attending college. In 1941, he organized a march on Washington along with A. Phillip Randolph and A. J. Muste to protest employment discrimination against black Americans. The march led to President Roosevelt signing Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Act, which barred federal agencies and defense contractors from discriminating against employees based on race. He organized protests of the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942, and was a pioneer in bus boycotts, himself being arrested in 1942 after refusing to move to the back of the bus to give up his seat for a white man.
As a pacifist, Rustin refused induction into the military when he was drafted in 1944 and as a result, from 1944 to 1946 was imprisoned for violating the Selective Service Act. In 1948, he traveled to India to study the ways of nonviolent resistance with Gandhi. When he returned to America, he met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., advising him that the way of nonviolent resistance should be the strategy of the civil rights movement in America. Shortly thereafter, Rustin and King, along with others, organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. However, due to the fact that Rustin was an openly gay man, many leaders of the civil rights movement at the time did not want Rustin to be associated with the movement. Rustin therefore often worked behind the scenes. Even though they may have tried to keep Rustin at a distance, everyone knew Rustin’s organizing experience and talents, and in 1963 when they needed someone to organize a massive rally in Washington, they turned to Rustin. Within a couple of months, Rustin was able to organize one of the biggest peaceful protests in the history of the world which culminated in Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech.
In the years that followed, Rustin would continue to be involved in movements to desegregate schools, defend the right to unionize, and promote gay rights. When he died in 1987, President Reagan issued a statement praising his commitment to civil rights stating, “He will be sorely missed by all those who shared his commitment to the twin causes of peace and freedom.”
George Carver was born into slavery in Missouri sometime in the early 1860s. When he was just a week old, he, along with his sister and mother, were kidnapped by night raiders and sold to another planation. The plantation owner where George was born hired a man to find George, his mother and his sister. Only George was found. He was raised, along with his older brother who was not kidnapped in the night raid, by Moses Carter and his wife Susan who encouraged George to pursue his education. Because there was no school for black children in his town, George needed to travel 10 miles south, which was the closest location for black children to attend school. There his teacher, Mariah Watkins told George, “You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people.”
After attending several different schools as a kid, George Carver was accepted into Highland University in Highland, Kansas. When George arrived at the campus, they informed George that there was a mistake and he would not be able to attend school there because he was black. After homesteading and farming 17 acres of land for several years, George enrolled in Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. He would later transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College (today known as Iowa State University). He was the first black student to be enrolled there and in 1896 he received his master’s degree there, later becoming not only their first black student, but also their first black faculty member as well.
Booker T. Washington recruited Carver to be the head of the Agricultural Department at the Tuskegee Institute. Among his many contributions to the field of agriculture while he was there, was his techniques to improve soils that were becoming depleted by the repeated growing of cotton. He encouraged farmers to rotate their crops, growing sweet potatoes, peanuts, soybeans, and cowpeas to help the soil replenish nutrients for the continued growth of cotton. He also hoped that in growing crops other than cotton, southern farmers would become more self-sufficient. He distributed pamphlets detailing recipes, and he went on to start a research center dedicated to finding uses for these alternative crops. Carver and his research center were responsible for the creation and discovery of 300 products from peanuts and 118 products from sweet potatoes. When the boll weevil beetle made its way into the southern united states in the early 20th century and began to destroy the south’s cash crop of cotton, Carver’s alternative crops and the many uses he discovered for them helped to diversify southern agriculture.
Upon his death in 1943, he was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University. He was never married and had no children. His entire life savings he left to the Tuskegee Institute to conduct further research in soil fertility and the development of products from crops and waste material. Today there are numerous institutes of learning named for him, a national park, and previously a commissioned U.S. Navy nuclear submarine.
Like Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker is another individual who played a major role in the civil rights movement, though most people have never heard her name. In 1903 she was born in Norfolk, VA. Her grandmother who had lived as a slave would share stories of slavery with Ella. She once told Ella how she was beaten for refusing to marry a man that was chosen for her by her slave master. Impressed with her grandmother’s willingness to stand up for herself despite knowing the painful consequences of her actions, the story inspired Ella her entire life.
In 1927 Baker graduated valedictorian from Shaw University in Raleigh, NC and quickly began involvement in the civil rights movement. In 1940 she began working as a secretary at the NAACP, and then became the Director of Branches in 1943 where she traveled throughout the nation to register and organize activists at the grassroots level, always believing that any successful movement in society would be a bottom up, not a top down movement.
Beginning in 1957, Baker was instrumental in helping to organize and form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1960 she began to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, responsible for organizing a number of protests, set ins, and boycotts all vital to the civil rights movement. In 1964, Baker helped to form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was instrumental in changing the rules of the national Democratic Party to prevent discrimination in choosing delegates to the national convention, and also had a major impact in the passing of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.
Always dedicated to the idea of a bottom-up approach to organizing, Ella Baker once said, “You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders.”
Althea Gibson was born the child of sharecroppers in South Carolina in 1927. When the depression hit her family hard, they relocated to Harlem, where Althea lived near a Police Athletic League play area where she would learn to play tennis. Having dropped out of school as a teenager, she went to live in a Catholic shelter for abused children escaping a domestic violence home. When she was 13 a group of neighbors took up a collection for her to learn tennis at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem. Just one year later she entered and won the American Tennis Association New York State Championship. She went on to win the national tournaments in 1944 and 1945. She returned to lose in 1946; however, in 1947 she won again, starting a streak of ten national title wins in a row.
In 1950 she was the first black player to receive an invitation to the United States National Championships (today known as the US Open). In 1957 she became the Wimbledon singles champion as well as the Wimbledon Doubles champion. When she returned home, she received a ticker tape parade. Despite her success on the court, she was often not invited to a number of events, due to widespread discrimination in the sport. In 1958 she retired from tennis with 56 national and international titles in singles and doubles events. In 1964 she switched sports and became the first black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Like tennis, golf was a sport dominated by white athletes. Gibson was often not allowed to compete in golf tournaments because many golf clubs were still segregated. When allowed to compete, Gibson often had to change in her car because they would not allow her into the club house. In 1980, Althea Gibson became one of the first six women inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
George Watson Sr. was a supply sergeant for the original Tuskegee Airmen during WWII. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first unit of black fighter pilots. At the time, it was believed by many that black soldiers were not smart enough to serve as pilots or manage the logistics necessary to operating an airwing. Not only did the Tuskegee Airmen prove them wrong, but they went on to become one of the most respected airwings during World War II, paving the way for the entire military to be integrated. After the war, Watson continued his service in the military, and in 1951 he became the first black man to serve as a recruiter for both the Army and the Air Force.
Deployed to Italy in 1944, Watson was responsible for ensuring that the planes for the famed Tuskegee Airmen were supplied and capable of getting off the ground. Wounded during a German air raid one night, Watson had shrapnel in his knee and both ankles. Afraid that he would be transferred out of his unit or sent home, Watson did not report his wounds. 66 years later, after he reported his injuries for the first time, he received a purple heart. He retired from the military with 26 years of service at the rank of Tech. Sgt.
Like the others discussed here, Tech. Sgt. Watson is one of the many people often not talked about during black history month. The irony here is that black history month was started because for so many years, black history was not talked about in schools. The history of black people in America, and the contributions that black people made to our nation and society, were ignored by authors of history. To right this wrong, we began to use February as the month to discuss the contributions of black people to American history, and to come to realize that black history is part of American history, and without their contributions, we would be much different, and in a negative way, as a nation. Ironically, in honoring black history month, we tend to focus on the contributions of a few, leaving out those that for one reason or another did not find their way into our history books. But like black history itself, maybe we should realize that the contributions made by these individuals should be remembered and talked about, because their history is our history, and together we all make our history, our present, and our future better.