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African American History

African-American Woman Bessie Coleman


Bessie Coleman, First African American Pilot - GPN-2004-00027.jpg
Bessie Coleman, via Wikipedia.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) defied Jim Crow laws and racism towards Blacks early in the 20th century by becoming the first African-American female aviator. Despite the fact that she grew up poor, she sought out the opportunity to make her dreams come true. With the help of a mentor and the inspiration of her brothers, she ventured overseas to France to obtain flight training. France at the time did not discriminate against Blacks but welcomed them into its society and schools. There Bessie not only completed her training but gained fame and prestige as a fully qualified and talented airplane pilot, who performed stunts at air shows. This recognition influenced other African American women to realize they too could defy oppression by White society and seek opportunities previously closed to women of their race. Bessie’s success and others contributed not only to the Women’s Movement and but also to the Equal Rights Movement for years to come because of her belief in optimism and perseverance.

Unfortunately, Bessie would not live to see the changes inspired by her contributions of African-American firsts. She died on April 30, 1926, at her final air show. Her legacy continues to this day through the recognition and adoration by modern female African American aviators.

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History on Saturday: James C. Craig, Barber from Grand Rapids


jubilee-barber-shop-large
1915. Henry Wayne Robbins’ barber shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Meet James C. Craig, a barber from Grand Rapids, Michigan in the late 1800s. He is an African-American man who immigrated to the city in 1871. Amazed at his success during the late 19th and early 20th centuries a newspaper editor inquired about the man, and Mr. Craig replied to him, telling his story in his words.

“I was born in the city of Louisville, Kentucky on the second day of April 1849. I was a slave until 1862. I followed the 23rd Regiment of Michigan in 1864 throughout the southern states and left them at [in] Atlanta, Georgia. Then I came to Flint, Michigan with Captain George Buckingham. He was sick. I then learned the barber trade in the year 1865. Then in the year 1868, I went to Battle Creek, Michigan. I lived there until 1870 and went into business for myself. I did not meet with success as I hoped. In 1871, I came to Grand Rapids and opened up business again as a barber. I am pleased to tell you that I have made it a success this time. My place of business is 70 Canal Street. On October 28, 1884, I was appointed the honorary commissioner of the 5th District of the World’s Fair at New Orleans.”-James C. Craig (1)

This biography is modest because it tells the story of Mr. Craig’s life of perseverance and determination but it does not include information about his membership and participation in African-American (men-only) organizations. His collection does contain clippings of meetings and notes that suggest he was interested in the quality of life of fellow African-American citizens and their fight for equal rights in Grand Rapids. How active he was in these memberships or the privileges they might have given him are not known at this time. Mr. Craig’s commitment to his business and networking through memberships did distinguish him as a gentleman of his class and race. Additional research is needed to understand how if any of his contributions, his legacy, and his life helped influence the African-American community of Grand Rapids as well as the dream of equal rights for everyone in America. (2)

1. Finding aid for the James C. Craig collection Collection 183 Finding aid prepared by Lynn Eleveld … Finding aid for the James C. Craig collection Collection 183 http://grplpedia.grpl.org/wiki/images/7/7b/183.pdf

2. Jelks, Randal Maurice. African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois, 2006. Print.

1968: A Pivotal moment for African-Americans


     1968 was a pivotal year in America’s civil rights movement. Black Americans were still suffering from white supremacy of which met them at every tuned opportunity to advance in their standards of living. Martin Luther King Jr., a spokesman for black Americans, preached reform through peaceful means. Even more so, he warned Americans that situations of unrest would occur in the event this fell upon deaf ears or further spurred black’s civil rights infringement. Feeling a lack of support for them, Black Americans grew impatient with bureaucracy in waiting for their needs to be met or not at all. In 1968, all of these things came to a head in April of that year.

Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in Memphis on April 5, 1968. Just days earlier he stood tall at one of his many speaking engagements preaching his message of peace not violence as a means to secure civil rights for all Americans. Angry, shocked and hurt, Washington, DC. black residents flooded the streets and local businesses to release their pent-up frustration. They looted, rioted and shouted the need for action and this time no amount of police force would deter their ambitions.

The following day schools and government offices were open as usual. This was unlike President Kennedy’s day of mourning after his assassination. In protest of this unfair action, a more liberal black activist, Stokely Carmichael, persuaded local black business owners to shut down and close in a wave of defiance against white’s lack of sympathy showed the black community. The looting and fires lead to the discharge of National Guard troops who were not allowed to fire upon the rioters.  For once, blacks were not ruled by police brutality. After the riots, the first black mayor of  Washington, DC., Walter Washington, was placed in charge of the city, supported by President Johnson; a pro-Civil Rights leader. Blacks that remained in these looted and rioted areas took over soon after as segregation ended and middle-class black families moved away. What remained was a new community built by blacks and protected by blacks so strongly no white person dared to venture there.

What was learned from this trying time in 1968 was thatAmericawas ready more than ever to end segregation and to begin to allow law to work for the advancement of civil rights. Black Americans would not sit idly by and be intimidated into accepting things the way they were. They mourned Martin Luther King Jr. and honored him by picking up the torch and carrying his vision with them into the future. Americans also learned that violence on violence was not the answer and it could not control the black community; strong as any other in its determination for political freedoms.

The Fires of 1968 Marker Photo, Click for full size

Today a marker stands to remind those who pass by to remember lives lost and reborn on the eve of major advancement of the civil rights movement.

Black Buffers


In 1968, the Black Buffers were a group of ex-convicts formed by fundamentalists William Porter and John Staggers. The purpose of this group was to patrol the streets of Washington D.C. along side the radical political group, the Black Panthers. The men were installed to preach and recruit for fellowship with the fundamentalists. They were called Black Buffers because they essentially buffeted the Black Power movement against an all white police force that used brutality to control of Black citizens.

To keep the buffers from being seen as a fundamentalist group to establish their own right, Doug Coe, fundamentalist group leader, created The Young Life program. This program was literally run by white leadership but camouflaged with black men to appear as a normal civil rights activist group. It was an experiment in social conservatism. The experiment set up the conservatism using the control of a social group, the black ex-cons in Washington D.C., then manipulating the public into believing they were not a group capable of uprising and producing hysteria which was rampant in the 1960’s. The group did not ignite the flame it intended to do but fizzled out about a year later when revenues could not be obtained for its continuation through fund raising.

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