Black History You Never Learned in School

Thursday, February 04, 2021
What did you learn in school about Black history? Chances are it was the basics, and they were taught in the month of February. At OZY, we don’t limit our lessons to the shortest month of the year, instead weaving them throughout the calendar. But today, in honor of Black History Month, we are bringing you a Daily Dose devoted to the Black history you should have learned but probably didn’t. Among the questions we’ll answer: How does the Civil War shed light on the COVID-19 pandemic? Who were the filmmakers who laid the groundwork for Ava DuVernay? What types of technology can place some of these hidden gems in a new light? (Virtual) school’s open, so read on.
Dr. Crystal Rose, Executive Director of Academic Affairs

they led their fields

1. Health Care

Of the 54,543 physicians in the United States in 1860, only 300 were women, and none of them were Black. That’s when the trailblazing Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler enrolled at the New England Female Medical College, becoming the school’s first and only Black graduate (it closed in 1873). Her graduation coincided with the start of the Civil War, when she tended to the men on the battlefield and found a biological crisis — particularly for Black soldiers. Some 29,000 of 100,000 Black soldiers perished from disease during the war, nine times the number who died fighting. Similar conditions persisted among freed slaves, whom Crumpler treated after the war while working for the Freedmen’s Bureau. Then, as now, racism was a national health crisis, and Crumpler was a front-line hero.

2. Business

Born in Philadelphia in 1766, James Forten was a free Black man with little means. Luckily, inspiration was available for the taking — and he took a liberal dose of it when he listened to a reading of the Declaration of Independence as a 10-year-old. Just four years later, he signed on to fight in the Revolutionary War. In time, Forten became a thriving businessman with an integrated workforce, and in 1830 he teamed up with William Lloyd Garrison to launch The Liberator, which became America’s foremost anti-slavery publication. Forten was one of the first businessmen activists to discuss the importance of Black freedom and positive portrayal. Similar to Earl Gilbert Graves Sr., founder of Black Enterprise magazine, Forten created opportunities for others by breaking the Black ceiling.

3. Baseball

He is said to have swung the longest, heaviest bat in the league and swatted some 800 home runs — including 84 in a single season — though Negro Leagues statistics are incomplete. Josh Gibson, aka the “Black Babe Ruth,” died at age 35, mere months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. So although Gibson never got the chance to test his talents in the major leagues, when the MLB announced last month that it was merging Negro Leagues statistics with the American and National leagues, that gave the power-hitting catcher the best single-season batting average in history, at .441 in 1943.

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moving the dial

1. Dual-Sport Legend

Being inducted into one hall of fame is hard enough. How about two? You may have heard of Althea Gibson, but Ora Washington was the original Black female tennis superstar — winning 20 national titles in the all-Black American Tennis Association from the 1920s through the 1940s. (She was shut out from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association because of her skin color.) What’s more, Washington was a basketball phenom as the leading scorer and captain of the Philadelphia Tribunes for 11 seasons. With a place of honor in both the Black Tennis Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Washington has yet to be recognized by the International Tennis Hall of Fame, even though historians celebrate her as the Serena Williams of her time.

2. Making a Name in the Sky

Eugene Bullard spent his last days working as an elevator operator in New York’s Rockefeller Center, but by then he’d lived enough for five lifetimes. He was a boxer, World War I fighter pilot, Paris nightclub owner and World War II resistance fighter. He escaped the Gestapo and was beaten by police at a civil rights demonstration. The first Black fighter pilot was as daring as any top gun, particularly during the decades he spent in France — his chosen home after leaving a racially hostile climate in Georgia. America may not have given him the recognition he deserved, but Bullard never gave up his American idealism.

3. Changing the Story With Storytelling

He was a cowboy–turned–Hollywood mogul born at the start of the 20th century, who got his break as a stand-in for Native American horsemen. Nobel Johnson took a hard look at the stories being told under the bright lights and noticed something missing: positive stories about Black people. If you listen to filmmakers of today, like Ava DuVernay, that awareness still gnaws at them — and propels their work. But Johnson’s career took a turn. Given the stain of racism combined with his racially ambiguous looks, he eventually bowed out of Black films altogether, destroyed his movie memorabilia and blocked mementos from being displayed at UCLA — where DuVernay would study years later. Still, Johnson left his mark by cementing on film what had yet to be seen in broader society.

4. Searching for Utopia

As a freed slave and a British loyalist in 18th-century America, it’s no surprise that Sergeant Thomas Peters and his family sought greener pastures. After fighting for the Brits during the American Revolution, Black loyalists like Peters were evacuated to Nova Scotia when the war turned against the Redcoats in 1783. They’d been promised both land and liberty — but arrived on shores no more willing to accept them than the U.S. So Peters and 3,000 others journeyed to Sierra Leone, where they founded Freetown, a new colony of freed slaves. Their effort to establish an independent Black nation ultimately failed, sabotaged by white officials threatened by Peters’ leadership and democratic ideals. In 2007 a statue of the visionary was erected in Freetown.

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yesterday’s lessons, today’s fights

1. The Election Day Massacre

The Florida legislature recently passed a law mandating that all schoolchildren learn about the worst episode of Election Day violence in America’s history. It happened in 1920 in Ocoee, when a white lynch mob killed dozens of Black residents, including children, and chased hundreds more from the Florida town. Why? Because some of them had dared to cast a ballot. For decades, the incident was largely kept hidden, but as OZY editor-at-large Christina Greer explains on The Carlos Watson Show, the truth is finally coming to light — and informing the voting rights debates of today.

2. The Forgotten Century of U.S. History

Too often, Black history focuses on the Civil War and emancipation, then skips ahead to the civil rights movement, overlooking an entire century of hard-won progress. During Reconstruction, Black leaders stepped forward as elected candidates in Southern statehouses, as leaders of historically Black colleges and universities, and as heads of businesses and other organizations. With their newfound freedom, they established towns and thriving businesses, as well as churches, schools and newspapers. And still, they were subject to relentless attacks by whites who destroyed their establishments by day and terrorized them in Ku Klux Klan robes after dark.

3. From 1619 to Augmented Reality

Too many Americans learn of the historical atrocities against Black people only after reaching adulthood. Thanks to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, adapted by the Pulitzer Center as a curriculum for thousands of schools, that’s finally changing. Despite criticism from some historians for inaccuracies and conservatives who contend its portrayal of America is too harsh, the 1619 Project takes the important step of placing slavery as central to America’s founding and tracing its repercussions to today. In another educational move to herald the unsung contributions of Black and brown Americans, Glenn Cantave is encouraging students to visualize new narratives through augmented reality.

4. Promised Land

The prime reason there are so few Black farmers and property owners in America is that Black families never received the land that was contractually theirs. At the close of the Civil War, the government promised emancipated slaves 40 acres and a mule but never delivered. Unbowed, Black people worked tirelessly to secure their own parcels — only to have it stolen by white people over time. Shady “legal” manipulations via processes like the Torrens Act have allowed whites to take land from Black farmers, leaving them without recourse. Today, systemic racism and inequalities lodged in gentrification have furthered the decline of Black land ownership. But many are fighting back, whether purchasing land as part of a collective or pushing for overdue government reparations.

5. A New Safe Space

Just last year, 19 Black families joined together to purchase nearly 100 acres of land in Georgia, a place they named Freedom. Realtor Ashley Scott connected with friend and entrepreneur Renee Walters to launch the Freedom Georgia Initiative after her eyes were opened to the horrors of systemic racism following the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot while jogging in a white neighborhood. The organization envisions a “thriving safe haven” for the Black community. There have been safe spaces for Black people in the past, such as Arkansas after the Civil War, but too often the promise of opportunity and equality is short-lived.

black women at the forefront

1. The Original Rosa Parks

At 15, Claudette Colvin took a stand against segregation on Montgomery’s buses and was dragged from a bus kicking and screaming. Then came 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith, who also landed in jail for refusing to surrender her seat to a white woman. When Rosa Parks was taken into custody on Dec. 1, 1955, nine months after Colvin’s arrest, the Women’s Political Council, a civil rights group, sprang into action, launching a powerful campaign that sparked a bus boycott that same day.