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Recommit to Progress Tennesseans Have Fought For
Today we begin our celebration of Black History Month honoring the critical role African Americans have played in making our nation a more perfect union and our state a better place for all Tennesseans.
We recognize the vast accomplishments of African Americans throughout our nation’s and our state’s history, and we celebrate the contributions and triumphant victories of leaders like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hammer, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks who helped to lead the way in overcoming the stain of segregation and ensuring that all Americans have access to the ballot box.
There is one entry in this long list of leaders, in particular, we’d like to highlight: Tennessee’s own, Ida B. Wells.
Wells, a native of Memphis, was a newspaper editor and fearless advocate for civil rights who challenged segregation and racism with a international campaign to end lynching.
In addition to being a prolific civil rights leader, Wells was a tireless worker for women’s suffrage. She participated in the famous 1913 march for universal suffrage in Washington, D.C., attended suffrage meetings with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams, and founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in her efforts to secure every woman’s right to vote.
“One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.” — Ida B. Wells
In this critical moment, we cannot afford to turn back the clock on the progress made by leaders like Wells . We know that we must continue moving America forward on the path of progress, opportunity and fairness for all.
That means standing up to attempts to suppress the right of all citizens to cast a ballot, ensuring that all Americans have access to quality affordable health care, and investing in education to guarantee that every single person in this country has a fair chance at living the American Dream.
Throughout Black History Month, we reaffirm our commitment to a more perfect union and more perfect state as we honor and celebrate the contributions of African Americans to our great nation — as we continue the critical work of striving for justice and equality for all.
More on Ida B. Wells & Women’s Right to Vote.
It was in Memphis where she first began to fight (literally) for racial and gender justice. In 1884 she was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man and ordered her into the smoking or “Jim Crow” car, which was already crowded with other passengers. Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color, in theaters, hotels, transports, and other public accommodations, several railroad companies defied this congressional mandate and racially segregated its passengers. It is important to realize that her defiant act was before Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the fallacious doctrine of “separate but equal,” which constitutionalized racial segregation. Wells wrote in her autobiography:
I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.
Wells was forcefully removed from the train and the other passengers–all whites–applauded. When Wells returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad. She won her case in the local circuit courts, but the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and it reversed the lower court’s ruling. This was the first of many struggles Wells engaged, and from that moment forward, she worked tirelessly and fearlessly to overturn injustices against women and people of color.
Other Great Stories in Tennessee:
First African Americans Elected to the General Assembly. Two and a half years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, in November 1872, Tennessee voters elected their first African American representative to the General Assembly. The achievements of the fourteen black men, some of them former slaves, who served as Tennessee legislators before 1900 represent an important part of state history. However, after the end of the 45th General Assembly in March of 1887, Tennessee would not seat another African American in its legislature until 1965.
First African American Woman Elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. In 1966, Dorothy Lavinia Brown was the first African-American woman elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. She represented Nashville during the 85th General Assembly. “Dr. D” was also the first female African-American surgeon in the Southeast and, in 1956, she became the first single woman to adopt a child in Tennessee.
Sen. Thelma Harper
In 1990, Thelma Harper was the first African-American woman elected to the Tennessee Senate, where she still serves representing Nashville.
Richard H. Boyd
This African-American minister and businessman, who was the founder and head of the National Baptist Publishing Board and a founder of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., was inducted posthumously into the Music City Walk of Fame for preserving music of former slaves through hymnals and songbooks.
Henry A. Boyd
With his father, Richard H. Boyd, Henry Boyd founded the Nashville Globe. As controller of the editorial content, Boyd relentlessly promoted the idea that business enterprise offered the best mechanism for advancement, both personally and as a race.
Judge Joe Brown
This popular politician and television celebrity was the first African-American prosecutor in Memphis. He oversaw the last appeal of James Earl Ray and later became a judge on the State Criminal Court of Shelby County.
Henry Alvin Cameron
A graduate of Fisk University, Henry Alvin Cameron is known for his work as a science teacher, basketball and baseball coach at Pearl High School in Nashville. He served as president of the Middle Tennessee Teacher’s Association, Secretary of the Tennessee Aid Association, as well as several other important roles.
The Clinton Twelve
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, federal judge Robert Taylor ordered Clinton High School to be the first among Tennessee public schools to integrate. The twelve black students who attended Clinton High School came to be known as the Clinton Twelve. On February 10, 2006, three of the Twelve reenacted their walk to school to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1956 integration.
Dr. Mark Dean
Holding more than 20 patents–including three of IBM’s original nine PC patents–and credited as the leader of the team that developed the 1-gigahertz chip, this Jefferson City native and UT engineering graduate is remembered as an instrumental part in the invention of the personal computer.
Fisk Jubilee Singers
This group of vocal artists and students at Fisk University in Nashville preserve the unique American musical tradition of Negro spirituals by singing and traveling worldwide. They have entertained kings, queens and European leaders, have been featured on PBS and received the 2008 National Medal of the Arts from President George W. Bush.
“Queen of Soul” Franklin, born in Memphis, was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and holds the record for most Best Female R&B Vocal Performance awards.
A Knoxville-born poet and Grammy nominee, Nikki Giovanni is currently a Distinguished Professor of Literature at Virginia Tech. She also teaches part-time at her alma mater, Fisk University.
The Rev. Al Green
This American gospel and soul music singer has sold more than 20 million records. Rolling Stone named him on their list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Al Green in 1995, referring to him as one of the most gifted purveyors of soul music.
Buried near his childhood home in Henning, the prolific journalist began as a writer for Playboy, where he interviewed such influential subjects as Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr. His book Roots: Saga of an American Family won Haley an award from the Pulitzer board and his book The Autobiography of Malcolm X was named by Time as one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
W. C. Handy
Known widely as the “Father of the Blues,” W. C. Handy is among the most influential American songwriters of all time, credited with giving the blues its contemporary form. While he was not the first to publish music in the blues form, he brought the genre into a dominant force in American music.
American songwriter, musician, singer, actor and producer was one of the creative geniuses behind the southern soul music label Stax Records. He won an Academy Award for the “Theme from Shaft” and 3 Grammy awards.
Memphis native served as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1977 to 1992. Throughout his career as a Baptist minister and practicing attorney, he was a vocal campaigner for civil rights in the United States.
B. B. King
The blues legend and his famous custom guitar Lucille got their start in Memphis’ Sun Studios. B. B. King has received multiple awards for his accomplishments, including being named third on Time magazine’s list of the ten best electric guitarists.
James Raymond Lawson
An accomplished physicist and alumnus university president acquired an infrared spectrophotometer for Fisk University, his alma mater. Lawson was the first student at Fisk to receive a degree in physics, with a record of impressive leadership as university president during the turbulent mid-1960s through mid-1970s.
This influential leader aided the growth of a free black community in Nashville by authoring legislation to allow the hiring of black school teachers, police officers and firefighters, and became the first African-American to preside over the Nashville City Council. Secretary of the Treasury Napier, under President William Taft, established the nation’s first bank owned and operated by African-Americans.
Gregory D. Ridley Jr.
A master artist, Ridley enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a teacher, museum coordinator and advisor on the arts, including faculty appointments to Alabama State University, Grambling State University, Tennessee State University, Fisk University and City University of New York. His latest major work, “A Story of Nashville,” can be seen in Nashville’s public library.
One of the most prominent black journalists of the 20th century, Rowan was the first African-American with a nationally syndicated column. He was among the first African Americans to be an officer in the U.S. Navy, frequently appearing on news programs such as Meet the Press.
Born in Clarksville, Rudolph suffered from polio as a child. She later became a star member of Tennessee State University’s track team. On September 7th, 1960, Rudolf became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in the Olympics. June 23rd is Wilma Rudolph Day in Tennessee.
Stanley Scott became the first African-American general assignment reporter for the Associated Press. He was the only reporter present when Malcolm X was assassinated. Later, Scott worked on the communications staffs of presidents Nixon and Ford.
One of the most popular female blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s, this “Empress of the Blues”, born in Chattanooga, is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era.
Born Anna Mae Bullock, the career of this American musical legend has spanned more than 50 years. She has been named the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll and been called “one of the greatest singers of all time” by Rolling Stone magazine.
As professor of law at Washington College of Law, Wallace was the first African-American varsity athlete in the Southeastern Conference, playing basketball for Vanderbilt University.
Ida B. Wells
This iconic journalist, speaker and activist served as an early leader in the civil rights and suffragist movements. She earned a name for herself with her documentation of lynching and for refusing, 71 years before Rosa Parks, to give up her seat on a train. Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women and founded the National Afro-American Council, which later became the NAACP.
Actress, talk show host, entertainment executive and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey has been named the wealthiest African-American of the 20th-century. Oprah is a graduate of Tennessee State University.
Tennessee State Library: African American Collections
VisitMusicCity.com: Black History Month activities
CommercialAppeal.com: Black History Month Events
Chattanooga Times Free Press: Black History Month Events
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