The story of David Ruggles : Black History 365

  • This entry for Black History 365 presents the story of David Ruggles. Leave a like if you’ve learned something new and give the page a follow so you can stay up to date with my future posts. As always, peace and keep it real.

David Ruggles was an abolitionist, businessman, journalist, hydrotherapist, and the first owner of a black bookstore in the United States. Ruggles was born in 1810 in Norwich, Connecticut, and attended the Sabbath school for the poor which began admitting people of color in 1815. Moreover, in 1827 he left Connecticut for New York City and pursued a steady job at a grocery store. He would work at that job for the next four years. Ruggles is widely accepted to be known as the first African American bookseller. While working at his bookstore, he extended many publications and prints that promoted the abolition of slavery in opposition to the efforts of the American Colonization Society which announced a black settlement in Liberia. This promotion was the catalyst for black settlement to leave the US (Mississippi to Africa) and make a significant impact on Liberia. Furthermore, Ruggles would later take on a printing job, letterpress work, picture framing, and bookbinding to augment his income. Unfortunately, in September 1835, a white anti-abolitionist mob burned down his store. 

In 1833 Ruggles began his travels across the Northeast promoting the Emancipator and Journal of Public Morals, an abolitionist weekly. Not only did Ruggles write articles and pamphlets, but he also gave lectures denouncing slavery and Liberian colonization. This gave him notoriety and made him a figure of rising prominence in abolitionist circles in the late 1830s. Equally important, when the Underground Railroad was in effect, Ruggles was active during it from 1835 to 1838. In 1835, when the New York Vigilance Committee was organized, Ruggles became the secretary of this rare interracial organization. His work with the committee led to his involvement in numerous court cases where he helped organize the legal defense against fugitive slaves who fled up North. In the first year of the organization’s existence, Ruggles intervened in over 300 fugitive slave cases. In September 1838, Ruggles took on the case of an escaped Maryland slave by the name of Frederick Washington Bailey. Later Bailey changed to what everyone knows him as today Frederick Douglas. 

    Fast forward to 1842 and David Ruggles is a shell of himself and in poor health. At this time virtually blind and his physician didn’t think he would live more than a few weeks. Lydia Maria Child, a prominent white abolitionist, learned about Ruggles’ health and brought him to Northampton, Massachusetts where the Northampton Association of Education and Industry was located. It was composed of fellow abolitionists, and they accepted him as a member. In addition, while he was recuperating, he learned about hydrotherapy. He was said to be able to diagnose ailments by his sense of touch, called “cutaneous electricity”. Ruggles’ first patients included wealthy members of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, which further enhanced his reputation as a healer. Not to mention, On January 1st, 1846, Ruggles purchased land and a building so he could conduct hydropathic treatments. He became famous in the field and modestly wealthy, offering a cure for ailments claimed by conventional medicine to be incurable. William Lloyd Garrison was one of his notable patients. Ruggles continued his profession as a hydropathist up until he began experiencing an inflamed optic nerve in his left eye in September 1849. From there he was placed in the care of his mother and sister. Three months later on December 26th, 1849, David Ruggles, died in Northampton, Massachusetts of a severe case of inflammation of the bowels.        

Yasuke, The First Black Samurai of Japan (Black History 365)

Before there was Afro Samurai, the first black samurai was a slave from Mozambique called Yasuke. Even though the former is a fictional character it was the first representation from my understanding of a black man as a samurai in the media, and that was sort of a big deal since all samurai were all ethnically Japanese. Afro was feared for his swordsmanship by those ethnic Japanese characters that were born and raised on the land that cultivated samurai culture. Yasuke had to work to gain respect from the Japanese while Afro already had a reputation that he inherited from his father (the number one headband) who was also a samurai and raised his son the samurai way. I believe this has a connection to nature vs nurture. Afro grew up within the samurai culture in Japan and was trained to become a lethal samurai and a legend of Japan. Conversely, Yasuke was an outsider and had to earn the trust, solidify, and maintain his name and reputation once assimilated into the samurai culture. 

Armed and Ready : The Story of Rob F. Williams, Black History 365

Last spring and summer we’ve seen black lives being lost to the hands of police, and it’s been happening for decades, may I saw centuries. This past summer I became aware of “The Not Fucking Around Coalition (NFAC) a black nationalist paramilitary militia movement that arms itself against attacks from white supremacists and any other opposition. They once took the streets armed ready to defend against any white supremacists. The reason I’m bringing them up to start this post is that in this entry of Black History 365 I’ll be presenting the story behind Rob Williams and his version of Black Power which meant advocating for the arming of black people with guns to defend against the violence that came their way.

Robert Franklin Williams was the first African American civil rights leader to advocate armed resistance to racial oppression and violence. Robert F. Williams was born on February 26 1925 in Monroe, North Carolina. The fourth of five children born to Emma Carter Williams and John Williams, Williams quickly learned to navigate the dangers of being black in the Deep South. The Ku Klux Klan was rampant in the Deep South and in this case Monroe and their feared force and power where Williams lived in had the community regularly brutalized at the hands of these white supremacists. 

Williams’ grandmother, a well-read and proud woman was born a slave in Union County in 1858. She taught Williams to cherish his heritage and to not back down from adversity. Before she died, she presented her young grandson with his first gun, a rifle that had belonged to his grandfather, as a symbol of their family’s resistance against racial oppression. 

After high school, Williams joined the Marines with the hopes of being assigned to information services, where he could pursue journalism. He would instead receive a typical assignment given to African American Marines at that time: supply sergeant. Williams’ resistance to the Marine Corps’ racial discrimination earned him an “undesirable” discharge and which cause him to return to Monroe. 

Becoming a Leader

In 1956, Williams took over leadership of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which was close to disbanding due to a relentless backlash by the Ku Klux Klan. Williams canvassed for new members and eventually expanded the branch from only six to more than 200 members. 

Williams would subsequently file for a charter in the National Rifle Association (NRA) and formed the Black Guard, an armed group committed to the protection of Monroe’s black population. Members received weapons and physical training from Williams to be prepared to keep the peace and come to the aid of black citizens, whose reports for help from law enforcement often went ignored. 

With his fellow NAACP members, Williams went on to start local civil rights campaigns and brought conditions of the Jim Crow South to the attention of the national and international media. Furthermore, Williams led an ongoing fight to integrate the local public swimming pool and opposed the condemnation of two young African American boys for the “crime” of kissing a white girl during a harmless child’s game, a cause that was deemed too controversial for the national NAACP. 

Profile of Rob Williams, facing left, aiming a pistol straight up wearing a white shirt, short Afro, a beard and mustache.

Meeting Violence with Violence 

In 1959, after a jury in Monroe acquitted a white man for the attempted rape of a black woman, Williams took matters into his own hands by making a historic statement on the courthouse steps. He said of his courthouse proclamation at a later press conference. “I made a statement that if the law of the United States Constitution cannot be enforced in this social jungle called Dixie, it is time that Negroes must defend themselves even if it is necessary to resort to violence. 

Negroes with guns - Robert F. Williams

“That there is no law here, there is no need to take the white attackers to the courts because they will go free and that the federal government is not coming to the aid of people who are oppressed and it is time for Negro men to stand up and be men and if it is necessary for us to die we must be willing to die. If it is necessary for us to kill we must be willing to kill.” 

At Odds with the Mainstream Civil Rights Movement 

The NAACP suspended Williams for advocating violence. In 1961, the Freedom Riders came to Monroe to demonstrate the efficacy of passive resistance, the hallmark of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. This type of action was nonretaliatory and didn’t take on the racism they were beaten down with by any means necessary. Moreover, an angry mob of Klansmen and Klan supporters overwhelmed the Riders, who called upon Williams and his Black Guard for help. Amid the chaos, Williams sheltered a white couple from an African American mob, only to be accused later of kidnapping them. 

Life in Exile

 With state and local authorities pursuing Williams for “kidnapping” and frenzied Klansmen calling for his death, Robert and Mabel Williams and their two small children fled Monroe. As a result, Fidel Castro granted Williams political asylum in Cuba and the family spent the next five years in Havana. Robert and Mabel Willias continued to fight for human rights from Havana through their news and music radio program, “Radio Free Dixie,” and the publication of Williams’ pamphlet, The Crusader, which reached an influential underground audience. In 1962, he wrote the book Negroes With Guns. 

Robert F. Williams - Wikipedia
The cover of Rob Williams’ book, Negroes With Guns. The title is written in boxy block lettering set on a darker background.

In 1966, Williams moved his family to China during the height of the Cultural Revolution. In China, he enjoyed celebrity status and fraternized with Mao Zedong and Chou En Lai. 

Homecoming 

In 1969, Williams returned to the U.S. aboard a TWA flight chartered by the federal government. All the charges against Williams were dropped and he went on to advise the State Department on normalizing relations with China. In regards to that, Williams did not, however, assume leadership of what had become a divided and beleaguered Black Power Movement. Instead, Williams accepted a position as a research associate at the Institute for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, and he and Mabel moved to Baldwin, near the University. In 1996 Williams died of cancer and buried in his hometown Monroe North Carolina. 

An elderly Rob Williams sits on a bench in a garden holding a walking cane. His hair and beard are mostly white, he is wearing a shirt and jeans and looks at the camera with a dignified expression.

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The King Shark (Behanzin Hossu Bowelle, Black History 365)

The Scramble for Africa or to put simply the colonization of Africa was destructive for the continent due to the invasion, occupation and division by European powers. In 1870 only 10% of the countries in the continent were under European control, but by 1914 it skyrocketed to 90% with only Ethiopia and Liberia not colonized. Having said that, in this post I will present a man fought against European Imperialism in the Dahomey Kingdom (Present day Benin). 

The Dahomey Kingdom, present day Benin during the 18th and 19th centuries was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa. The nation had one of Africa’s biggest armies at the time, including the powerful Dahomey Amazons. At the height of the Scramble for Africa they had extensive foreign trade with different European nations. The kingdom had a robust economy, as well as a highly functioning political structure. Even though the kingdom was strong, the French colonized it in 1894. However, the Dahomey Kingdom did not go down without a fight led by Dahomey’s last king known as King Shark.

Behanzin Hossu Bowelle was born in 1844, in the capital of Dahomey, Abomey. He was the son of King Glele, who at that time was king of Dahomey. Behanzin became the 11th King of Dahomey when his father died. After this he was referred to as the King Shark. A king is given a name reflecting his personal symbols as per Dahomey’s customs. The dolphin, the egg and the coconut palm trees are representations. 

As the King Shark, Behanzin Hossu Bowelle lived up to his reputation due to his fearlessness. He commanded a strong army as a ruler, with 150,000 males and 5,000 females. He was considered to be a brave and wise monarch. 

In 1868, the French government came to agreement to sign a treaty with King Glele (his father) before his death. The agreement placed Contonou’s territories under French control. However, they were prohibited from enforcing their customs and practices on the indigenous people. Subsequently, the French did not keep their word, and they were regarded strictly by the local people. The French were hoping to have a better relationship with the King Shark when King Glele died, but he was unable to play according to their rules. As a result, this contributed to one of the most important resistances to European invasion in Africa. 

The motto of King Shark was “the angry shark will terrorize his enemy” , and this is exactly how he fought against the colonizers from the West. Furthermore, he was able to battle endless wars against the French in Cotonou, Dogba, Poguessa, and Oueme Valley with his strong army, including the Amazons of Benin, and his relationship with Germany. Unfortunately, in 1894, the Battle of Adegon put an end to the brave war of King Shark because the French had better weapons than the Dahomey army. The French took possession of the kingdom afterwards. 

This caused The King Shark to be exiled to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. He would spend the rest of his life on the island, but died in Algeria on African soil in 1906. Behanzin Hossu Bowelle is regarded today as one of Africa’s greatest rulers who refused to cooperate with colonizers and fought for his people.

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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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Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave (Black History 365)

In this entry of Black History 365, I’ll be presenting the story of an African American man who was a farmer and musician, but his life as a person seeking a prosperous life was halted when taken hostage and sold into slaverly in 1841. This is the story of Solomon Northup’s 12 years as a slave.

Who was Solomon Northup

Solomon Northup grew up a free man, working as a farmer and violinist, all while being a family man. Northup’s life took a drastic turn to a path that would lead to constant pain and servitude. In 1841 he was drugged and kidnapped to work in the deep south, specifically a plantation in Louisiana, where he would be enslaved for more than a decade. As a free man he never had to endure persistent torture, but once enslaved he would endure horrible violent conditions. Northup would once again become a free man in 1853 with help from colleagues and friends. His experiences as a slave became a narrative, titled “12 years a slave.” 

Early life   

Northup was born in July 1808 in Minerva, New York. His father Mintus was a former slave but was released by his former master’s death, hence leaving Solomon and his older brother Joseph growing up knowing freedom. Northup worked with his father on a farm growing up, while also taking to books and the violin. 

Established Family and Farm   

On Christmas Day in 1829, Northup married Anne Hampton, a woman of multiracial descent. They would go on to raise three children, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Solomon and Anne established a farm in 1832 in Kingsbury with Northup also having a reputation in the community as the most excellent fiddlers. With the help of his wife, Northup was able to earn income for her in-demand cooking skills, the couple did well and moved to Saratoga Springs in 1834, where Northup would land a job in the United States Hotel, among other jobs. 

Taken Captive

In March 1841 while seeking employment, Northup met two white men who claimed they were affiliated with a circus. Northup initially intended to accompany the men and help provide violin performances for their act, but Northup was convinced to travel with them to Washington D.C. From there the trap was set. Northup was drugged by the men, help captive, severely beaten, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. 

Horrors of slavery

While in captivity Northup was forced to do a variety of daily strenuous tasks slaves had to do. While being among other slaves, he never revealed to them that he had once lived as a free man for fear of him being sent further away. Furthermore, he observed and later recounted the plight of others like Eliza, whose young son Randall was sold and taken away from her at auction in New Orleans.    

Northup’s eventually sold in 1843 to Edwin Epps residing in Bayou Beouf. Once arriving there he had to learn to survive under barbaric conditions with his peers. The constant vile and violence led him discovering a woman named Patsey, who was targeted by the sexually abusive Epps while having to fear attacks from his hate-filled wife. Patsey’s side of the story represented the ordeals of many slave women subjugated in the slavery system. 

Free in 1853 and Death

Northup fortunate changes when Samuel Bass, anti-slavery Canadian carpenter visiting the Beouf Plantation, befriended Northup and reached out to friends of the musician back in Saratoga Springs looking for verification that he had been a free member of the community. Lawyer Henry B. Northup, who was part of the family Northup and his clan took their name, traveled South, and facilitated Solomon’s release in 1853. 

It was in that year Northup published the memoir “Twelve years a slave”. The work was known for its meticulousness and thoughtful quality became a top seller and vital historical document which would be an aiding factor for the abolitionist cause. 

Northup subsequently gave lectures on his experiences and worked with the Underground Railroad in helping those fleeing slavery to reach Canada. He later disappeared from the public and is thought to have died around 1864.

Legacy and films 

Solomon Northup’s life has been adapted into motion pictures and other media. Filmmaker and photographer released an American Playhouse film on Northup’s life, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey in 1984. And at the end of the millennium, Saratoga Springs resident Renee Moore created the event Solomon Northup Day: A Celebration of Freedom,” which is an annual event set by the city that began in 2002. Lastly, in 2013 a film by British director Steven McQueen was adapted from Northup’s memoir. 

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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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