Updated: May 21
For some Black History Month is indeed a celebration while others find the stories within uncomfortable. The intention of the blog this month was to inspire readers with motivational quotes that promote wellness by feeding the mind and invigorating the spirit, while also shedding light on the parts of history long forgotten.
As we embark on week 3 of BHM 2022, we highlight below 7 more inspirational historical figures who lived, loved, cried, authored, fought, composed, sat, orated, sang, innovated, and triumphed through the complexities and struggles of being Black and simply existing.
As always, happy reading. Stay inspired. Please note this article contains affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through the links and finalize a purchase. Both books linked are amazing, inspirational reads and I think you will enjoy the rich history within them.
Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 - January 28, 1960)
Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and film maker. The most popular of her novels is, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She also wrote more than 50 short stories, plays and essays. All of her four grandparents had been born into slavery. Born in Notasulga, Alabama she and her family moved to Eatonville, Florida when she was about three years old. Eatonville was one of the first all-black towns incorporated in the U.S. and she viewed it as a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of white society. Her mother died in 1904, her father remarried, and she began her life of "wanderings." She ended up working menial jobs and not completing school. When she arrived to Baltimore at the age of 26, she lopped off 10 years giving her age as 16 and year of birth as 1901 just to get support to complete her high school education.
Zora Neale Hurston's writings captured contemporary issues within the Black community. She is considered one of the trailblazers for black women's empowerment and was against integration. Hurston was a Republican and a fan of Booker T. Washington's self-help politics. Her nonfiction book Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" was published posthumously in 2018.
"If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say that you enjoyed it." ~Zora Neale Hurston
Harriet Jacobs (c. 1813 or 1815 - March 7, 1897)
Harriet Ann Jacobs was an African-American fugitive slave, activist, abolitionist, and writer famous for publishing her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The initial plan regarding her autobiography was to get Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the biography, but these plans fell through after Stowe's success with Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Jacob's enslaver not only sexually harassed her, but he also threatened to sell her children if she did not submit to his desire. Miss Jacobs hid away for 7 years in a tiny crawl space under the roof of her grandmother's house. She finally escaped North and was ultimately reunited with her brother John S. Jacobs and her children Joseph and Louisa Matilda. She found work as a nanny, began working with abolitionist and feminist reformers. However, there was always the loom of being captured and returned to her enslaver until her employer was able to pay off her legal owner. After the Civil War, Jacobs and her daughter organized and helped found two schools for fugitive and freed slaves.
"Finding I was resolved to stand up for my rights, they concluded to treat me well. Let every colored man and woman do this, and eventually we shall cease to be trampled underfoot by our oppressors." ~Harriet Jacobs
Duke Ellington (April 29, 1899 - May 24, 1974)
Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, Duke Ellington was an American composer, pianist, and leader of a jazz orchestra. He is considered one of the most influential persons in jazz. Both of his parents were pianists. His maternal grandparents were both former American slaves. He was nicknamed Duke by childhood friends because of his dress which made him look like a nobleman. He wrote his first composition Soda Fountain Rag (1914) by ear as he had not yet learned how to read or write music.
In 1929, he landed a role in a high-profile short film titled Black and Tan. Duke Ellington wrote or collaborated on more than one thousand compositions, and he has one of the largest recorded personal jazz legacies. Duke Ellington was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and was a freemason. In 1986, he was featured on a United States commemorative stamp and on a Washington D.C. quarter released in 2009. In 1999, Duke Ellington was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Aware for music.
"Life has two rules: number 1, never quit! Number 2, always remember rule number one." ~Duke Ellington
Claudette Colvin (b. September 5, 1939)
Born Claudette Austin, she is one of the American pioneers of the 1950s civil rights movement. When we think bus boycott, we automatically think Rosa Parks infamous arrest. A little-known history fact is that Claudette Colvin actually did it first, at the age of 15. In 1955, she was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. This event occurred nine months before Rosa Parks's arrest.
On February 1, 1956, Claudette Colvin was one of five plaintiffs in the first federal court cases filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray; known as Browder v. Gayle, this case set to challenge the bus segregation in the city of Montgomery. Claudette testified before a three-judge panel and on June 13, 1956, the judges ruled that the state and local laws requiring bus segregation in Alabama were unconstitutional. It would not be until 2021 that the district court would expunge Claudette Colvin's arrest and adjudication of delinquency.
So why do we not know about Claudette Colvin who did the exact same thing as Rosa, nine months earlier than Rosa? Black leaders did not publicize Colvin's efforts because she was unmarried and pregnant.
"I knew then and I know now, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it." ~Claudette Colvin
Booker T. Washington (April 5, 1856 - November 14, 1915)
Born Booker Taliaferro Washington, he was an American educator, author, and orator. He was also an adviser to several presidents of the United States. He was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery. His political party affiliation was Republican.
He was one of the founders of the National Negro Business league. his base was the Tuskegee institute which would later become a historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama. Mr. Washington called for the progress of Blacks through education and entrepreneurship. He mobilized his followers with the long-term goal of building the Black community's economic strength and pride by focusing on self-help and schooling. Other Black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois found him too accommodating to white supremacy and challenged his focus on mechanical and agriculture education as being inadequate. Because of this, his legacy is rooted in controversy with some accusing that Booker T. Washington was too accommodating to white supremacy while others appreciating his firm stance on Blacks having their own self-sufficiency without requiring validation from whites.
Booker T. Washington was granted an honorary master's degree from Harvard University in 1896 and an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College. He was honored on a commemorative U.S. postage stamp in 1940, becoming the first African American to be depicted.
"I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him." ~Booker T. Washington
Ella Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 - June 15, 1996)
Born Ella Jane Fitzgerald, she was an American jazz singer. She has been titled the "First Lady of Song," "Queen of Jazz," and "Lady Ella". Some of her musical collaborations include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and The Ink Spots. In 1934, her debut at age 17 was at Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater. She won first prize. In January 1935 she performed for a week at the Harlem Opera House. Her public acclaim would come in 1938 in the form of a nursery rhyme A-Tisket, A-Tasket which went on to become a major hit on the radio. The album would go on to sell one million copies and it stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. A year later, her mentor Chick Webb passed away and his band was renamed "Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band."
She did face discrimination because of her race. She was not allowed to play the Mocambo club; however, Marilyn Monroe personally called the owner and told him she wanted Ella booked and the rest is history. Marilyn would sit at the front table every night which created a media firestorm. During her distinguished career, Ella Fitzgerald won thirteen Grammy Awards. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992. Finally in 2007, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled the Ella Fitzgerald Commemorative Stamp.
"Just don't give up on what you're trying to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong." ~Ella Fitzgerald
Henry Box Brown (c. 1815 - June 15, 1897)
Henry Box Brown was a Virginia slave, inventor, and magician who escaped to his freedom at the age of 33 by arranging to have himself mailed in a wooden crate to abolitionist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was born into slavery in 1815 or 1816.
He ordered the exact dimensions of the box to fit him most comfortably: two feet eight inches deep, two feet wide, and three feet long in a wooden box lined with baize. Henry reasoned that it would be better to peril his life for freedom than to remain under the yoke of Slavery. With him inside, the box was nailed and hooped with five hickory hoops and addressed to his friend James A. Smith, a shoe dealer. The box was marked: "This side up with care." It would be twenty-six hours from the time he left Richmond until his arrival in Philadelphia. Upon his release from the box, he reached out his hand stating, "How do you do gentleman?" He then began singing a psalm from the Bible which he had chosen earlier to celebrate his release into freedom.
He would become a well-known speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He published two versions of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown." After passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, he moved to England touring with his antislavery panorama for the next ten years. He entered the British show circuit for 25 years in order to earn a living. For more on the fascinating life of Henry Box Brown or others who made daring escapes from the grips of slavery, see the book, "The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts."
"This side up with care." ~Henry Box Brown
I hope you have found something here that spoke to your spirit and inspired you for the week ahead. You are invited to join in the comments below to share your favorite quotes and insights. If you purchased a book through my affiliate link, thank you and please let me know your insights from the books in the comments below.
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