Black History Month Reflections – Week 2

Take a look at each noteworthy person of color in this week’s reflections.

Remember, each person featured throughout the month has “something else in common” — follow along each week and see if you can guess their commonality! The answer will be revealed on our Facebook and Instagram on Tuesday, March 1st.

This Week’s Features

Frederick Douglass was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings. Accordingly, he was described by abolitionists in his time as a living counterexample to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Likewise, Northerners at the time found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave.

Douglass believed in dialogue and in making alliances across racial and ideological divides, as well as in the liberal values of the U.S. Constitution. When radical abolitionists, under the motto “No Union with Slaveholders”, criticized Douglass’s willingness to engage in dialogue with slave owners, he replied: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

In his first autobiography, Douglass stated: “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.” However, based on the extant records of Douglass’s former owner, Aaron Anthony, historian Dickson J. Preston determined that Douglass was born in February 1818. Though the exact date of his birth is unknown, he chose to celebrate February 14 as his birthday, remembering that his mother called him her “Little Valentine.”

Benjamin Banneker helped shape the contours of Washington DC.  Born a free African-American almanac author, surveyor, landowner and farmer who had knowledge of mathematics and natural history. Born in Ellicott’s Mills, Baltimore County, Maryland, to a free African-American woman and a former slave, Banneker who had little or no formal education and was largely self-taught.  He became a mathematician and astronomer.  When Congress passed the 1790 Residence Act, establishing the new federal city on the Potomac River, it was decided that the city’s boundaries should be precisely delineated through a mathematical survey of the physical landscape.  Banneker assisted Major Andrew Ellicott in the survey that established the original borders of the District of Columbia, the federal capital district of the United States.  After completing this work, Banneker returned to Maryland and used his knowledge of astronomy to author a commercially successful series of almanacs.  Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of our Lord, 1792 was the first in a six-year series of almanacs and ephemerides that printers agreed to publish and sell.

J. Rosamond Johnson was trained at the New England Conservatory and then studied in London. His career began as a public school teacher in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Traveling to New York, he began his show business career along with his brother and composer Bob Cole.

In 1899, Johnson set to music a three-stanza poem by his brother, the writer and future civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson.  The result was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the soaring, inspirational hymn later adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and widely embraced as the “Black National Anthem”.  The work debuted on February 12, 1900, when it was performed in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday by five hundred children of the Stanton School, the only school open to Black students in Jacksonville, Florida.  IN January 2021, Representative James Clyburn introduced a bill in Congress that would make “Lift Every Voice and Sing” the national hymn.

William A. Campbell was a decorated fighter pilot who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  He was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on April 12, 1917, the fourth child of Thomas Monroe Campbell, the first Cooperative Extension Agent in the United States, and Anna Campbell. In total, he had five siblings, including three younger than himself. He attended elementary and high school in Tuskegee, Alabama.[3] He then matriculated at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute from which he graduated with his Bachelor of Science degree in Business in 1937.

William A. “Bill” Campbell joined the military in 1942 when all branches of the armed forces were rigidly segregated.  Shortly after America’s entry into World War II, Campbell enrolled in fight training at special facilities established for African American pilots and technicians at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University).  Earning his wings in July 1942, Second Lieutenant Campbell was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Corp’s Ninety-Ninth Pursuit Squadron.  On June 2, 1943, he saw action as a wingman on the inaugural combat mission carried out by the Tuskegee Airmen.  The first African American pilot to bomb an enemy target, Campbell flew 106 missions and ended the war as commander of the Ninety-Ninth Fighter Squadron.  Awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, and thirteen Air Medals.  He retired from the service a full colonel in 1970.  Colonel Campbell died at the age of 95 on April 24, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. The San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. was renamed in his honor. Colonel Campbell’s personal papers documenting his military career, the Tuskegee Airmen and their service, as well as his personal life were donated to the University of California, Riverside.

Mary McCleod Bethune was one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the twentieth century. The college she founded set educational standards for today’s black colleges, and her role as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave African Americans an advocate in government.

A champion of racial and gender equality, Bethune founded many organizations and led voter registration drives after women gained the vote in 1920, risking racist attacks. In 1924, she was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and in 1935, she became the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune also played a role in the transition of black voters from the Republican Party—“the party of Lincoln”—to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1936, Bethune became the highest ranking African American woman in government when President Franklin Roosevelt named her director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, where she remained until 1944. She was also a leader of FDR’s unofficial “black cabinet.” In 1937 Bethune organized a conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth, and fought to end discrimination and lynching. In 1940, she became vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), a position she held for the rest of her life. As a member of the advisory board that in 1942 created the Women’s Army Corps, Bethune ensured it was racially integrated. Appointed by President Harry S. Truman, Bethune was the only woman of color at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945. She regularly wrote for the leading African American newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.

Rosa Parks was an American activist in the civil rights movement best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. The United States Congress has honored her as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks rejected bus driver James F. Blake’s order to vacate a row of four seats in the “colored” section in favor of a white passenger, once the “white” section was filled. Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws, and she helped inspire the black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year. The case became bogged down in the state courts, but the federal Montgomery bus lawsuit Browder v. Gayle resulted in a November 1956 decision that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

John Lewis was an American politician and civil rights activist who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020. He was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. Lewis was one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He fulfilled many key roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States. In 1965, Lewis led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In an incident which became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers and police attacked the marchers, including Lewis.

A member of the Democratic Party, Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1986 and served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district he represented included most of Atlanta. Due to his length of service, he became the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation. While in the House, Lewis was one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, serving from 1991 as a chief deputy whip and from 2003 as a senior chief deputy whip. Lewis received many honorary degrees and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.