That’s a clean cut! : The history of black barbershops in America, Black History 365

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Barbershops are not only places to get a clean cut and look sharp, but it’s also a place where you can relax, talk and feel a part of a community. It’s a workplace but has the feeling of a lounge and throughout the nation, it’s a vital part of black communities. I have been cutting my hair for the last five years (A good job I’ll add) and haven’t been in a barbershop since 2016 but that doesn’t negate my experience from childhood and up until that point (2016) on how instrumental barber shops especially black-owned ones did to my growth in terms of socialization and culture. With that said, in this post, I’ll be explaining the history of African American barbering.

Black Barber Shops

The Importance Of Barbershops

As mentioned, Barbershops play a pivotal role in the cultural and economical development of African American communities. Barber Shops displayed social and cultural appreciation to both its visitors and owners. Additionally, from my experience, even though the majority of patrons were African Americans, that doesn’t exclude other races entering that environment and being welcomed. Furthermore, not only will you be able to get great haircuts but you will build rapport with your barber and patrons. Newfound connections will result in repeat visits and that’s why I believe barbershops have been imperative in black communities in terms of strengthening the black male identity.

The power and politics of the black barbershop | The FADER

Cutting the way to freedom

It was during slavery in the 19th century when black barbers were introduced to America. Since they were the property of their masters, the masters would find new ways to profit from their slaves and in this case did with barbering. They would lease black male slaves to their neighbors and local establishments to groom prominent white men. Furthermore, even though black-owned barbershops were run by slaves or ex-slaves, it wasn’t easy for a black man to visit a black barber and get a haircut not only in the south but also in the north! The reason being, those black barbershops were a competition for white-owned barbershops, and their ( and I mean the black barbers) patrons were primarily white men. Economic reasons hindered the barber’s financial stability but black barbers preferred indoor conditions compared to the brutal conditions they faced in the fields. Their futures as barbers would improve once they were freed under Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863), and once they began working as free men, they opened their shops in black communities for black communities. Shortly after, the barber industry began to stagnate a bit and many began to close down, all due to state laws requiring formal training for barbers to be licensed. From then on, barbers owning shops were to be licensed with no exceptions.

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Mikes BarberShops Opens With Restrictions - COVID-19 Regulations

In 1934 Henry M. Morgan established Tyler Barber College, a school for aspiring African American barbers. Around 80 percent of barbers were schooled here. The conception of this college initiated a shift in attitude between white men and black barbers.

Wealth and opportunities

At the beginning of the 20th century, black men began experiencing wealth from barbering. One of the first African American millionaires, Alonzo Herndon, began his empire in 1878 with his first barbershop. Before his legacy ended he owned more than 100 rental places which subsequently caused him to become the wealthiest black man in Atlanta. Furthermore, he expanded his ventures to the YMCA and the National Negro Business League which played a vital role in the growth of Black America.

Willie Lee Morrows, another pivotal figure in the history of black barbering, started his career in the ’60s and never looked back. He started his barbering journey when he was hired by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service to train thousands of army barbers in Vietnam and other Asian countries during the war. Currently, Morrows is a multimillionaire and is known as a pioneer in the black hair care industry.

Believe it or not but African American barbershops were places where black liberation activists gathered and brought their call to action mentality to bring awareness about civil rights to patrons. Not to mention, the impact had on the Hip Hop scene beginning in the ’80s.

Znalezione obrazy dla zapytania Willie Lee Morrow barber

Today

 The importance of barbershops to American history is vital. Other than it being a place to get one’s hair cut, it’s a place where communities can connect, and in this case black communities that found a haven in barbershops. Discussions of social and societal reform took place there, and it was a catalyst for individuals to find not only confidence in themselves but in their communities. Today, barbers and barbershops are instrumental in being a staple in many communities’ development.

Why the culture of black barbershops is so important

The Murder of Louis Allen (Black History 365)

Welcome to Black History 365, a series where I explain, educate, and explore historical events, unsung black figures in world history, and the struggles and triumphs of black people worldwide. In this entry, I will present a true crime story that’s a cold case to this day, and that is the murder of Louis Allen. 

Louis Allen ran a small timber business in Liberty Mississippi the county seat of Amite County, a county that was notorious for having a heavy presence of the Ku Klux Klan. Allen was a World War II veteran with a seven-grade education and was a landowner. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating which I spoke about in previous episodes were active in the county, but Allen did not attempt to register nor become involved in the movement. Allen’s life changed on the morning of September 25th, 1961, when he witnessed the murder of NAACP leader and SNCC supporter Herbert Lee by Eugene Hurst, a state legislator. 

Allen witnessed as Hurst aimed his pistol at Lee who stood defenseless with empty hands and an unlit cigarette in his mouth after a limited verbal exchange. Regardless of Allen being a witness or not, he felt compelled to speak out against the crime. As a result, Allen was pressured by local law enforcement officials to lie about what happened. Allen would go on to testify that he had seen Lee holding a tire iron with the intention of hitting Representative Hurst. A piece of iron was “found” under Lee’s body by the same authorities that coerced Allen to be on their side.

With that, the coroner’s jury exonerated Hurst the next day, After testifying, Allen was uncomfortable perjuring himself to survive from the wraith of Eugene Hurst. Allen would say “I did not want to tell no story about the dead because you can’t ask the dead for forgiveness,” he told SNCC organizer Bob Moses. As a result, Allen decided to tell the truth at the grand jury hearing that would examine the coroner’s jury. By doing this, he knew it meant putting his life on the line. 

Bob Moses arranged for Allen to meet with Justice Department officials, but when protection was offered, Allen reneged to testify. However, it was too late, officials in Liberty had already been informed that Allen was willing to testify. 

Whites stopped patronizing Allen’s business and cut off his credit. Additionally, Deputy Sheriff Daniel Jones, whose father was a Ku Klux Klan leader, began repeatedly harassing and arresting Allen on trumped-up charges such as trespassing or writing bad checks. 

A year later in 1962, Allen filed an affidavit detailing some of the indignant incidents he experienced at the hands of law enforcement. He described one particular encounter in which Deputy Jones struck his face with a flashlight and broke his jaw. Allen would write “They (the police) have someone out to my house, watching me all the time”. Allen pleaded for help, asking that “this matter be investigated at once because if not this kind of intimidation will continue. 

Allen’s efforts were futile because the harassment continued. He wanted to leave the county, but outstanding debts and a sick mother kept him there. After his mother passed away, Allen made plans to leave.

On January 31st, 1964, the night before his planned departure, Allen’s teenage son found his father’s dead body lying in the driveway. The entire left side of his face was blown off. Deputy Jones, the same who threatened Allen’s life on numerous occasions was made the lead investigator on the case. Officially, the murder remains unsolved today, thus making it a cold case. 

When news of Allen’s murder reached a COFO staff meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi the following morning, the group was in the middle of a deep debate about the potential summer project in Mississippi which would become called Freedom Summer aka what would become Mississippi Burning. Moses had kept out much of the argument his mind still on the murder of Allen. Being visibly affected by the death caused him to be assertive, undoubtedly swinging favorable staff support for the project which would later be known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. Moses would say, “It became clear that we had to do something.”

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The Underground Railroad (Black History 365)

 “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say, I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger. 

– Harriet Tubman, 1896

Black and white photograph of Harriet Tubman photographed by Harvey Lindsley.

One of the most famous historical events in U.S. history is the Underground Railroad which was the resistance to enslavement through escape and flight to freedom in the Northern states.   African American slaves had to put in much for their safety and lives when escaping bondage. They escaped at first to maroon communities in remote or rugged terrain on the edge of settled areas and eventually across the state and international borders. It was these acts of self – emancipation that labeled these slaves as “fugitives”, “escapees, or runaways but in retrospect the more accurate description is “freedom seekers”. Many of these freedom seekers would go on to embark on an unaided journey, and many completed their self – emancipation without assistance, but each subsequent decade in which slavery was legal in the U.S.  there was an increase in active efforts to assist escape.     

Underground Railroad - HISTORY

A lot of the assistance the freedom seekers received was said to have been spontaneous. However, in some places, especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Underground Railroad was deliberate and organized. The Freedom Seekers went to many destinations once leaving the south. They made it as far north to Canada, Mexico, Spanish Florida, Indian territory, the West, Caribbean Islands, and Europe. 

Wherever in the south enslaved African Americans were, they were eager to escape at any cost. Slavery was practiced in all original thirteen colonies and also in; Spanish California, Louisiana and Florida, Central and South America, and on all the Caribbean islands until the Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804) and British abolition of slavery (1834). 

The Underground Railroad started at the place of enslavement. From there, the routes followed using transportation via rivers, canals, bayous, the Atlantic coast, ferries, river crossings, and roads and trails. In addition, there were locations close to ports, free territories and international boundaries prompted many escapes. 

The Underground Railroad | American Experience | Official Site | PBS

Being strategic and using ingenuity, freedom seekers were vigilant and conjured enough courage and intelligence to concoct disguises, forgeries, and other strategies to stay one step from slave catchers. In regards to that, the inevitable obstacle was trying to avoid slave catchers and enslavers who tracked runaways on escape routes they anticipated the Freedom seekers would take to escape. Slave catchers and owners would use bounties and advertise rewards to encourage public complicity in apprehension. People bit the bait and slave catchers/owners received help from enslaved and free blacks, American Indians, and people of different religious and ethnic groups. 

The Maritime industry became a vital source for spreading information, while additionally offering employment and transportation for slaves who arrived in the “new world” aka The North. The Pacific West Coast and possibly Alaska became destinations because of ties to the whaling industry. Military service was an additional option, and thousands of African Americans joined from the Colonial Era to the Civil War to gain their freedom. With that said, during the Civil War, many freedom seekers sought protection and liberty by escaping to the lines of the Union army. 

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Nat Turner’s Rebellion(Black History 365)

Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of the largest and bloodiest slave rebellions to ever take place in the U.S., and it played a significant role in the development of antebellum slave society. Historical images depict Nat Turner’s rebellion of armed black men roaming the countryside slaying white men, women, and children. They haunted white southerners and this showed how vulnerable slave owners were when they were unprepared to face the wrath of slaves who got fed up with the torturous daily life on the plantation. With that said, following the rebellion whites throughout the South were determined to prevent any further slave uprisings. To make it possible they tightened the harsh slave codes to keep African Americans from having a freedom mindset and in their perspective a constant subservient position. To understand how this rebellion occurred we must start from the beginning starting with the man who initiated him and his fellow slaves fight for freedom.

Slaves

Nat Turner was born in 1800 into slavery in Southampton Virginia, about twenty miles from the North Carolina border. As with other slaves he lived among, Turner’s experience was the typical daily hell in Southern plantations. He could not legally marry, travel without his master’s permission, own property, or earn money. Turner would work long hard hours on the fields for meager rations of food and clothing, and if he refused to accept he would have to endure whippings or other punishment. As with other slaves, Turner was sold several times to different masters. Every time that happened he was forced to leave his family and friends and start a new day in hell in a different plantation. The brutal system of slavery that was demanding and  torturous was something Nat Turner sought to overthrow. Furthermore, he sought to not only gain his freedom but to dismantle the entire system of slavery and liberate African Americans from white tyranny. 

In his twenties, Turner became a spiritual leader among his fellow slaves including his mother and grandmother. They believed that he had been chosen by God to do great things. Then, in the 1820’s he had serious visions. He had a Moses in the burning bush moment where he believed God was commanding him to prepare himself for a great battle against evil. During the religious revivals of the 2nd Great Awakening, many Americans back then no matter their background were said to have experienced visions or believed that God spoke directly to them and in Nat Turner’s case his belief that God had destined him for a special purpose which reflected the religious fervor of his time. You see the purpose for which Turner believed in was that God had chosen him to do something extraordinary. In February 1831, a solar eclipse was said to be a sign Turner was waiting for, and from there he began his preparations for an insurrection. Fast forward to August 13th of the same year, and even though this sounds implausible, it is said that Turner saw the sun appear a blue – green coloring in the sky, and Turner and his friends took it as the final sign. 

Nat Turner | Biography, Rebellion, & Facts | Britannica

On August 22nd, 1831, Nat Turner and six fellow slaves began their attack. They planned to move systemically from plantation to plantation in Southampton and began to kill all white people connected to slavery including men, women, and children. Moreover, they started on their plantation and murdered Turner’s owners and his family. During the next 23 hours, Turner and his fellow insurgents moved throughout the country to eleven different plantations, killing 55 people and inspiring 50 – 60 enslaved to join their ranks. They would then move onto the town of Jerusalem to destroy the town and kill all the inhabitants. However, before they could reach their destination they were stopped by a heavily armed white militia. Subsequently, the Governor had called about three thousand militiamen to put down the rebellion. Seeing that they were outnumbered and over matched, Turner’s insurgents disbanded and retreated into the woods and swamps. 

Remembering the horror of Nat Turner's rebellion on this day in 1831 -  Baltimore Sun

Turner and his fellow insurgents’ anger and destruction were quickly diffused due to a white militia hunting them down and capturing them. Not only were they captured, but the white militia killed the men who had participated except for Nat Turner. Turner hid for two months in the woods of Southampton County. When he was finally captured, he was tried, convicted, and then hung and skinned. Wow, talk about brutality. In addition, fifty – four other men were executed by the state. Having said that, to terrorize the local African American population some of the militia decapitated fifteen of the captured insurgents had their heads put on stakes. Afterward, fear spread through the white population and this led to white mobs turning on blacks who played no role in the uprising. An estimated two to three hundred African Americans, most of whom were not connected to the rebellion were murdered by white mobs, possibly to keep them in line to not start another uprising. The Governor of Virginia tried to put an end to this vigilante justice, insisting that those who had participated in the rebellion should be tried and executed by the state and also reinforce the supremacy of the law for both blacks and whites. In the aftermath of the rebellion, the state legislature of Virginia considered abolishing slavery but instead voted to tighten the laws restoring blacks’ freedom in hopes of preventing any further insurrections. 

Nat Turner's Rebellion – Last Best Hope of Earth

In nearby North Carolina, several slaves were falsely accused of being involved in Turner’s rebellion and executed. Rumors began to spread that slaves in North Carolina were plotting their uprising and white mobs murdered many enslaved men, while other slaves were arrested, tried, and executed. North Carolina, like Virginia, passed new legislation further restricting the rights of both enslaved people and free blacks. The legislation also made it illegal for slaves to preach to be “insolent” to white people, to carry a gun, to hunt in the woods, to coexist with a free black or white person, and to own any type of livestock. These new codes also forbade white people from teaching an enslaved person to read. 

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They deserve better #ThursdayThoughts

  • It does not matter if you’re a black American woman, Caribbean black woman, or an African black woman, justice seems to always elude the misrepresented, marginalized, and neglected women in this nation. News that is to no surprise but is always disheartening and enraging came out yesterday on the Breonna Taylor case. A Grand jury decided to not charge Louisville cops that killed Breonna Taylor. This has been a recurring theme of justice not being served to dating back to the murder of Emmit where the jury only needed an hour to make their decision to acquit his killers. In regards to that, the faces of the killers taking the lives of these black people to change, but the mentality of racism and hate remains to be passed down by generations. Protests have been ignited in the streets once again and rightly so, and the cycle of injustice continues under this land that states “liberty and justice for all. Leave a like and comment if you’d like to chime in. Also, give my page a follow so you can stay up to date with my future posts.
Breonna Taylor Commemorated with 7,000-Square-Foot Mural

The Ballad of Blind Tom (Black History 365)

Welcome readers to another entry in Black History 365, a series where I explain, educate and explore historical events, unsung black figures in world history, and recount the struggles and triumphs of black people worldwide. In this entry, I will present the story of a man who lived during slavery and had an extraordinary musical gift, but due to his disabilities his talents were minimized and forgotten about, therefore resulting in many future generations of America to not know about him.

Thomas Wiggins might have given Ray Charles a run for his money if they were in the same era. I know, you’re wondering who’s Thomas Wiggins? Well, Thomas Wiggins was the first black man to perform at the White House, and to make this even more of a feat he did while being blind and autistic. He was nicknamed “Blind Tom ” by his “handlers”. 

Wiggins was born into slavery on May 25th, 1849. He was blind and austistic from birth and to make it even more of a challenge he had to endure the dreadful institution of American slavery in the state of Georgia. Since his owner could not benefit from Thomas’s lack of physical abilities he took advantage of the talent Wiggins was blessed with, which was playing the piano exceptionally. 

After hearing Thomas play the piano, General James Neil Bethune Thomas’s owner allowed Thomas to have open access to the piano. Thereafter, Thomas was perfectly playing classical piano compositions and even went further by composing original pieces of his own. This was all well and good, but unfortunately Thomas was not able to develop and maintain relationships due to his autism. Furthermore, his autism made it difficult for this blind musical genius to communicate his emotions and needs. Consequently, General James took full advantage of the opportunity to exploit and control Thomas’s musical gift. 

James Neil Bethune and Perry Oliver the “handlers” for Thomas earned upwards of $100,000 a year, which is equivalent to $1.5 million in today’s society.  

Thomas Wiggins was a savant prodigy which historians believe to be one of the country’s most important musical artists, but since the record industry didn’t exist during his time his work was never enjoyed by the masses. Additionally, due to his disabilities and his status as a slave, his compositions were exploited, therefore making his contributions to music often ignored and minimized by mainstream musical historians and black history for that matter. 

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The Forgotten story of the Black Cowboys of the Wild West (Black History 365)

Welcome readers to another entry in Black History 365, a series where I explain, educate and explore historical events, unsung black figures in world history, and recount the struggles and triumphs of black people worldwide. In this entry, I will present the story behind black cowboys in the Wild West and three prominent ones in particular. The three men I will discuss in this post are three of many other black cowboys who left their legacy and contributions to the Wild West and America, but America media seems to always gloss over their existence.

Many of the depictions of cowboys we’ve seen have been of white men and that’s due to Hollywood’s whitewashing of the wild west, but some of the first settlers were freed slaves who traveled west and became black cowboys and legends of the American frontier. 

After the Civil war and Reconstruction, America turned its attention to the newly settled lands in the Great Plains and the West. Despite the traditional depictions of cowboys in Hollywood such as John Wayne for example, the American West was settled by a large portion of freed slaves who made the territory their home and they made the most of it with the contributions that they brought. In the 1870s and 1880s, as many as 25 percent of the 35,000 cowboys in the old west were black cowboys. 

Freed slaves journeyed West to find their fortunes that were among cattle ranches and rows of crops. Before being freed, slaves were in charge of crops and took care of cows for their white owners and the vast availability the land had to offer gave them a new opportunity for many to escape the south. 

To get a better understanding, below are some prominent black cowboys who were famous for their skills riding horses, managing herds, and enforcing the laws. 

Bass Reeves 

In 1875, Bass Reeves became a U.S. Marshall who oversaw Oklahoma Territory before it was annexed as a state. Being a black man after Reconstruction was adverse on the daily, and to make things even more of a challenge Reeves job as U.S. Marshall came with constant conflicts. For instance, of the 200 Marshalls killed in the line of duty, 130 met their demise in Oklahoma. However, that didn’t deter the former slave from Arkansas. He was prepared conflicts if need be due to being an expert marksman with the rifle and pistol. That kind of weaponry training can be attributed to his time in Oklahoma Territory during the Civil War. 

Reeves served as a U.S. Marshall for 27 years and is widely regarded as the first true lawman of the Wild West. With the help of his Native American assistant, he tracked down as many as 30,000 criminals during his career. He achieved this through skill, but also with his unwavering persistence. Reeves used disguises when undercover to get close to criminals before capturing them. 

Bill Pickett 

Born in Texas in 1870, Bill Pickett was a master ranch hand who invented the art of bulldogging a method that subdued cattle by biting their lip. Pickett would observe bulldogs wrangle the cattle to the ground by biting their lips until the cow sat still. Pickett turned bulldogging into a way of wrestling cattle that humans could utilize. For example, he would ride up next to a cow or bull, and then lasso the animal and pull it to the ground. Pickett would then jump off his horse and next to the cow before biting the lip and tying the cow’s legs.

Bulldogging became a very popular and consistent main attraction for rodeos in the late 1880s and early 1900s. The technique eventually became outlawed due to animal cruelty concerns. In 1972, 40 years after his death Pickett became the first inductee into the National Rodeo Hall of fame. Below is a video depicting the art of bulldogging in action. 

Bob Lemmons 

Bob Lemmons grew up a slave before moving to West Texas. West Texas territory contained herds of wild mustangs, which were valuable commodities to ranchers settling in the Wild West. Lemmons had a unique approach that started with the trust of the herd. He would do this by working alone rather than in a group because having a large group of men would spook the herd. 

Lemmons infiltrated the herd of wild mustangs and then broke the lead the horse or in other words he would capture and use it as not only his ride but his leader of command for the rest of the horses, who would follow that leader horse he first captured back to his ranch. Furthermore, his lucrative work allowed him to earn enough money to buy a ranch and build up the large herds of horses and cattle. He died in 1947 at the age of 99. 

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The Tuskegee Airmen (Black History 365)

Welcome readers to another entry in Black History 365, a series where I explain, educate and explore historical events, unsung black figures in world history, and recount the struggles and triumphs of black people worldwide. In this entry, I will present the story behind the “Tuskegee Airmen”, how they formed, the adversity they faced and the ways their contributions to aviation help pave the way for future generation of black pilots. Below is the story, so let’s get started.

The date is March 19th 1941 and the U.S. War Department established the 99th pursuit Squadron, which along with a few other squadrons combined to become better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. This aviator team consisted of America’s first black military pilots and once assembled they had to not only endure with the racism at home (America) but confront it from enemies abroad. However, despite the extra obstacles they had to overcome, they would go on to compile an exemplary record in the Mediterranean and European theaters of War World II, and that would help them pave the way for desegregation of the military. 

Tuskegee Airmen
Tuskegee Airmen receiving their commissions at the Tuskegee Army Flying School in Alabama in 1942.

Even though African Americans had fought in every major U.S. conflict dating back to the revolutionary war, they were always confined to menial jobs that segregate them from whites. As late as 1925 an Army war college report called them “ a sub-species of the human family”. The rest of the report went with degrading remarks that held no truth whatsoever. You have to understand that physiological and physical pain was one of the ways that whites had to exude their “superiority” during the Jim Crow days. The rest of the quote stated; “they perform poorly as soldiers due to their cowardly, subserviant, superstitious, amoral, and mentality inferior nature. In retaliation black advocacy groups  and newspapers attempted to counter that pseudoscience. However, as WWII approached, the militarily remained staunchly opposed both to integration and to putting blacks in positions of authority. For example, in 1940 U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Marshall Plan, remarked that now was “not the time for critical experiments which would inevitably have a highly destructive effect on morale.” With that said, the navy and war secretaries agreed with the latter writing that “leadership is not embedded in the Negro race yet” and that mixing white and black troops would be “trouble.” 

Tuskegee Airmen prepare for a flight from Tuskegee Army Airfield, 1943.
Tuskegee Airmen prepare for a flight from Tuskegee Army Airfield, 1943.

Due to Jim Crow laws, blacks were barred from flying in the U.S. Army Air Corps (The predecessor to Air Force). In fact, they rarely were allowed to enter the cockpits. Moreover, census records show that only a few dozen licensed black pilots lived in the entire U.S. prior to WWII. That number would begin to finally increase when several historically balack colleges were included in the Civilian Pilot Training Program which congress created in 1939 to ensure that pilots would be available should a war break out. Even with implemented the Air Corps remained opposed to admitting black recruits. However, in 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie promised to desegregate the military, prompting his opponent, Demorcratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt , to authorize the entitlement of African American aviators, among other modest civil rights concessions aimed at keeping the blakc vote. On January 16th, 1941, it was then announced that an all-black fighter pilot unit would be trained at the Tuskegee institute in Alabama, a historically black college founded by Booker T. Washington. 

The War Department officially established the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron on March 19, 1941, and it activated the unit three days later. Furthermore, before the first cadets even arrived, the program got a publicity boost when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was taken up in a plane by C. Alfred “Chief Anderson, a black aviation pioneer who served as the Tuskegee Institute chief flight instructor. Nevertheless, many top military officials, including the war secretary, reportedly expected the Tuskegee experiment to fail. As a result, local whites expressed opposition, and at one point nearly initiated a race riot following a tense confrontation with an armed black military policeman. Meanwhile, about 100 whites signed a petition lamenting that the Tuskegee Army Air Field which was built at a great expense purely so that preexisting army air fields wouldn’t have to integrate. This kind of action could be perceived as fear that might cut off the “only outlet of expansion for white citizens of Tuskegee.”

Tuskegee airmen attending a briefing in Italy in 1945. First row (l-r): Hiram E. Man, unidentified airman, Newman C. Golden, Bertram W. Wilson Jr., Samuel W. Watts Jr., Second row (l-R): Armour G. McDemoe, Howard C. Gamble, Harry T. Steward, Jr, Earle R. Lane, Wickliffe, Wyrain T. Shell, Harold M. Morris, John E. Edwards, John H. Porter, James H. Fischer, Wyrain T. Shell. Third row (l-r): William E. “Porky” Rice, Tony Weaver, Charles L. White, George Arnold Lynch, Samuel L. Washington, Calvin J. Spann, Frank N. Wright.
Tuskegee airmen attending a briefing in Italy in 1945. First row (l-r): Hiram E. Man, unidentified airman, Newman C. Golden, Bertram W. Wilson Jr., Samuel W. Watts Jr., Second row (l-R): Armour G. McDemoe, Howard C. Gamble, Harry T. Steward, Jr, Earle R. Lane, Wickliffe, Wyrain T. Shell, Harold M. Morris, John E. Edwards, John H. Porter, James H. Fischer, Wyrain T. Shell. Third row (l-r): William E. “Porky” Rice, Tony Weaver, Charles L. White, George Arnold Lynch, Samuel L. Washington, Calvin J. Spann, Frank N. Wright.

The airmen lived primarily in primitive tents in the inaugural class of Tuskegee pilots studied subjects such as radio code, navigation and meteorology. They also took to the air for more hands -on learning. In regards to that, of the 13 original cadets, five made it to graduation in March 1942, including Benjamin O. Davis Jr. who would eventually become the units commander. More graduations quickly followed, and the program was expanded to comprise not only the 99th Fighter Squadron, but also the 100th 301 st and 302nd fighter squadron, which together made up the 332nd Fighter Group. (Also considered Tuskegee Airmen are the black bomber pilots of the 477th Bombardment group, as well as all support personnel.) Overall, 922 pilots completed the Tuskegee training program, nearly half of whom were shipped overseas, where they gained fame for their unparalleled success at escorting bombers on long – range raids deep into Nazi – controlled terrority. They would fly some 1,600 missions and destroying over 260 enemy aircraft, the Tuskegee Airmen helped lay the foundation for Harry S. Truman’s decision  to desegregate the armed forces in 1948. 

The Freedom Riders (Black History 365)

Welcome readers to another entry in Black History 365, a series where I explain, educate and explore historical events, unsung black figures in world history, and recount the struggles and triumphs of black people worldwide. In this entry, I will present the story behind “The Freedom Riders”. This post is much needed to be presented after the recent passing of civil rights legend and former U.S. representative John Lewis who was the frontman so to speak in this group of activists. 

The Freedom Riders were a group of Black and White Americans civil rights activists who participated in Freedom rides, bus rides through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals. During their travels, The Freedom Riders tried to use “whites – only” restrooms and lunch counters at the bus stations in Alabama, South Carolina, and other southern states. As expected they were met with hostility from police officers as well as horrific violence from white protesters. However, with all the adversity they endured, they had supporters as their actions and bravery were spotlighted on an international scale. 

John Lewis

The original members of Freedom Riders totaled at 13, seven African Americans and six whites left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus on May 4, 1961. Their objective was to reach New Orleans, Louisiana on May 17 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown V. Board of Education decision, which ruled that segregation of the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.

They would travel to Virginia and North Carolina drawing little public notice. The first violent incident occurred on May 12 in Rock Hill, South Carolina John Lewis, an African American seminary student and member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), white Freedom Rider and World War II veteran Albert Bigelow and another African American rider were viciously attacked as they attempted to enter a whites-only waiting area.

The next day, the group reached Atlanta, Georgia, where some of the riders split off onto a Trailways bus.

Soon after the mob followed the bus in automobiles, and when the tires on the bus blew out, someone threw a bomb into the bus. The Freedom Riders escaped the bus as it burst into flames, only to be brutally beaten by members of the surrounding mob.

The second bus, a Trailways vehicle, traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, and those riders were also beaten by an angry white mob, many of whom carried metal pipes. Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor stated that, although he knew the Freedom Riders were arriving and violence awaited them, he posted no police protection at the station because it was Mother’s Day. Talk about a setup. 

Photographs of the burning Greyhound bus and the bloodied riders appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country and around the world the next day, drawing international attention to the Freedom Riders’ cause and the state of race relations in the United States.

Following the widespread violence, CORE officials could not find a bus driver who would agree to transport the integrated group, and they decided to abandon the Freedom Rides. However, Diane Nash, an activist from the SNCC, organized a group of 10 students from Nashville, Tennessee, to continue the rides.

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, began negotiating with Governor John Patterson of Alabama and the bus companies to secure a driver and state protection for the new group of Freedom Riders. The rides finally resumed, on a Greyhound bus departing Birmingham under police escort, on May 20.

Federal Marshals Called In

The violence toward the Freedom Riders was not quelled, rather, the police abandoned the Greyhound bus just before it arrived at the Montgomery, Alabama, terminal, where another white mob attacked the riders with baseball bats and clubs as they disembarked. Attorney General Kennedy sent 600 federal marshals to the city to stop the violence.

The following night, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. led a service at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, which was attended by more than one thousand supporters of the Freedom Riders. A riot ensued outside the church, and King called Robert Kennedy to ask for protection.

Kennedy summoned the federal marshals, who used teargas to disperse the white mob. Patterson declared martial law in the city and dispatched the National Guard to restore order.

Kennedy Urges ‘Cooling Off’ Period 

On May 24, 1961, a group of Freedom Riders departed Montgomery for Jackson, Mississippi. There, several hundred supporters greeted the riders. However, those who attempted to use the whites-only facilities were arrested for trespassing and taken to the maximum-security penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi.

That same day, U.S. Attorney General Kennedy issued a statement urging a “cooling off” period in the face of the growing violence:

“A very difficult condition exists now in the states of Mississippi and Alabama. Besides the groups of ‘Freedom Riders’ traveling through these states, there are curiosity seekers, publicity seekers, and others who are seeking to serve their causes, as well as many persons who are traveling because they must use the interstate carriers to reach their destination.

In this confusing situation, there is an increasing possibility that innocent persons may be injured. A mob asks no questions.

A cooling-off period is needed. It would be wise for those traveling through these two Sites to delay their trips until the present state of confusion and danger has passed and an atmosphere of reason and normalcy has been restored.”

During the Mississippi hearings, the judge turned and looked at the wall rather than listen to the Freedom Riders’ defense—as had been the case when sit-in participants were arrested for protesting segregated lunch counters in Tennessee. He sentenced the riders to 30 days in jail.

Attorneys from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization, appealed the convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed them.

Desegregating Travel

The violence and arrests continued to garner national and international attention and drew hundreds of new Freedom Riders to the cause.

The rides continued over the next several months, and in the fall of 1961, under pressure from the Kennedy administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals.

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