Happy Black History Month!
- February 1st: Today, we salute Mary McCleod Bethune. She was a committed educator, advocate, and leader. She founded a school in Daytona Beach Florida that later grew to be Bethue-Cookman College. In her last will and testament she expressed her lifelong commitment to education saying: “I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour. More and more, Negroes are taking full advantage of hard-won opportunities for learning, and the educational level of the Negro population is at its highest point in history. We are making greater use of the privileges inherent in living in a democracy. If we continue in this trend, we will be able to rear increasing numbers of strong, purposeful men and women, equipped with vision, mental clarity, health and education.”
(Source: http://www.cookman.edu/abou…/history/lastwill_testament.html, and http://www.cookman.edu/about_bcu/history/our_founder.html)
- February 2nd: Today’s Black History Post is about Claudette Colvin, Civil Rights Activist and Medical Professional. Born in 1939, Claudette Colvin was a civil rights activist in Alabama during the 1950s. She refused to give up her seat on a bus months before Rosa Parks’ more famous protest. She refused, saying, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.” Colvin felt compelled to stand her ground. Colvin was only fifteen at the time but because she was also pregnant, other activists decided to put Rosa Parks in the forefront of their impactful movement. She was arrested and became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional. Colvin moved to New York City and worked as a nurse’s aide. She retired in 2004. ### Her courage and activism serve as an inspiration to us all. We can look to her for a great example to continue to stand up for our rights and our freedom! (Source: http://www.biography.com/people/claudette-colvin-11378)
- February 3rd: Today, for Black History Month, learn more about Mary Peake!
In 1831, Virginia passed a law which made illegal “all meetings of free negroes or mulattoes, at any school-house, church meetinghouse, or other place for teaching them reading or writing either in the day or night, under whatsover prextext.” This law also prohibited paying a white person to teach enslaved Black people to read and write. Virginia was not alone in the structural and legal barriers to education for Black people. And Black Virginians were not alone in their continued advocacy and action to obtain education for themselves and their children. For example, Mary Peake of Norfolk, daughter of a free Black woman and an Englishman, went to school in Alexandria (which at the time was part of D.C.). She returned home after her schooling and moved to Hampton with her family in 1847. Peake began teaching African Americans in secret while working as a dressmaker. In September of 1861 she started a school for African Americans near Fort Monroe, near what is today, Hampton University. Today Peake’s name graces a street, park, and school in the city of Hampton. There still exist disparities in and barriers to quality education for some African American students today. We must continue to make sure that quality education is available to all students no matter their skin color or zip code!
(Sources: Self Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom by Heather Andrea Williams and http://www.lva.virginia.gov/…/trailblazers/2010/honoree.asp…; image “Mary Peake Under Emancipation Oak” by Marcella Hayes Muhammad http://maruvadq.com/shop1/)
- February 4th: Today’s Black History Fact — VA-BLOC is composed of everyday citizens and community members working to do their part to impact their community. Tirelessly promoting equal rights, we can’t help but to admire every leader who has pioneered before us, during the most unimaginable of times. As the 1950 president of Jackson Mississippi’s NAACP chapter, Dr. A. H. McCoy was a passionate civil rights leader, innovative entrepreneur and a prominent dentist. In addition to graduating from Tougaloo and Meharry Medical College, McCoy built and operated two African American theaters in Jackson and founded Security Life Insurance Company of the South in 1938. Thanks to the perseverance of his wife, Dr. Rose Embly McCoy, the A. H. McCoy Federal Building became the very first federal building in the United States to bear the name of an African American.
- February 5th: VA-BLOC exists to build empowered communities. In order to do this we focus our efforts on reaching out to the community, hearing the concerns, and finding ways to best support community led efforts to implement solutions. To today we honor Ella Baker, a woman whose life work involved developing leaders and empowering communities. Ella Baker was born in Norfolk, VA in 1903 and raised in Littleton, North Carolina. Her life was dedicated to activism. From organizing consumer cooperatives in New York, serving as national field secretary of the NAACP, co-founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to nurturing the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Ella Baker practiced what she preached! She championed “group-centered leadership” and helped young student activists and protestors organize their efforts into the organization now known as SNCC. This focus on developing leaders and empowering communities was evident in the legacy she left behind in the work and legacy of SNCC and VA-BLOC today.
(Source: ” We Shall Overcome” Intro and ” We Need Group Centered Leadership” in Let Nobody Turn Us Around: An African American Anthology, second edition, edited by Manning Marable & Leith Mullings, pages 343-352, 371, 375-376)
- February 6th: As you know, our mission at VA-BLOC is to build empowered communities through Voter Engagement, Civic Engagement, and Leadership Development. What that means in practice is that we try to encourage and facilitate positive change at the grassroots level. For this reason, we honor the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who shared a similar approach to civil rights activism during the 1960s. They are the community organizers on whose shoulders we stand. Their work included literacy classes, voter registration drives, and civil disobedience. And often, before getting to the action stage, included going door to door to get community input and garner support. As we gear up to restart our voter education, registration, and restoration of rights campaigns, which will indeed involve going door to door, we draw inspiration from the foot soldiers of SNCC who paved the way for us. Pictured below, from the Chrysler Museum’s recent exhibit “Women in the Civil Rights Movement” are SNCC Workers Charles Sherrod (from Richmond, VA) and Randy Battle speaking with a supporter on the porch.
(Sources: “We Shall Overcome” Intro and ” Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Sit-In Movement, 1960″ in Let Nobody Turn Us Around: An African American Anthology, second edition, edited by Manning Marable & Leith Mullings, pages 343-352, 371 and Chrysler Museum of Art “Women in the Civil Rights Movement” Collection)
- February 7th: Recently, the team participated in the Women’s March on Washington. Today, we wish to honor the legacy of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, and the history that led to that moment. Back in 1941 A. Philip Randolph, an outspoken activist and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, proposed a March on Washington in opposition to the unequal treatment Black people faced in employment. Many of the New Deal programs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not effectively benefit Black laborers. President Roosevelt tried to dissuade Randolph from going through with the march and eventually passed Executive Order 8802 which prohibited discrimination in defense contracting and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Roughly 20 years later, as the activism of the 1960s gained steam, civil rights leaders returned to the idea of a march on the nation’s capital. One of the aims of the march was to put pressure on Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. President John Kennedy also tried to dissuade leaders from the march but was unsuccessful. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were key organizers of the march, whose full title was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The various organizations, leaders, speakers, and participants represented different approaches to activism, yet the March today stands as a powerful symbol of the power of the people. It takes all types of approaches to implement the change we want to see–marches, boycotts, lobbying, to name a few. The March on Washington and other civil rights actions have inspired and continue to inspire movements for freedom and equality. The key for all of these actions and movements is the participation of people. All of us can and need to do our part. #ItStartsHere (source:http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/march-on-washington)
- February 8th: Today, learn about Benjamin Singleton, and activist and businessman who lived from 1809–1900. VA BLOC, Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative strives to build empowered communities by utilizing the power of effective organizing. In his day, Benjamin Singleton organized the movement of thousands of Black colonists, known as Exodusters, to found settlements in Kansas. After Benjamin Singleton escaped to freedom in 1846 and became a noted abolitionist, community leader and spokesman for African-American civil rights. Soon after, he concluded that Blacks would never achieve economic equality in the white-dominated South. The Exodusters traveled miles along to the Mississippi River, but with little resources Benjamin Singleton helped organize clergy and business leaders formed committees to assist the freed blacks so that they could survive.
- February 9th: Where would we be if certain pioneers did not stand up for what they felt was right? James Reese Europe (1880-1919) made an impact by standing up for his musical gift. Known for his outspoken personality and unwillingness to bend to musical conventions, particularly in his insistence on playing his own style of music. James Reese Europe founded The Chef Club, one of the most well known African American organizations during that time. The Chef Club Orchestra was the first band to play proto-jazz at Carnegie Hall. James Reese Europe was also one of the first African Americans to record music in the United States. Music remains an integral part of Black culture and still holds the power to stir our souls to action!
Famous quotes by James Reese Europe:
“We have developed a kind of symphony music that, no matter what else you think, is different and distinctive, and that lends itself to the playing of the peculiar compositions of our race … My success had come … from a realization of the advantages of sticking to the music of my own people.”
“We colored people have our own music that is part of us. It’s the product of our souls; it’s been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race.”
- February 10th: VA BLOC was created to educate, engage and build empowered leaders in a community that is at times felt to be voiceless. It takes organizers, advocates and selfless believers to rid that stereotypical notion and create a new reality of hope. Bryan Stevenson is a prime example of working to empower all. Originally founded in 1989, The Equal Justice Initiative is an amazing movement committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
As a renowned public interest lawyer and bestselling author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson’s EJI is a nonprofit providing legal representation to the marginalized by poverty, discouraged from equal treatment, illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.
EJI provides research, tours, presentations, reports, educational guides, historically relevant calendars, short films exploring racial injustice, memorials that address the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, which shapes many issues today and recommendations to assist advocates and policymakers in the critically important work of criminal justice reform.
Just like VA-BLOC, EJI is committed to rewriting the narrative of the marginalized in our communities.
- February 12th: Today, we celebrate the skill and accomplishments of Ernie Davis who lived from 1939–1963. Known for his talent on the field as a Tailback for Syracuse University, Ernie Davis became the first African-American to be awarded the Heisman trophy. In 1962, Davis was the first pick in the NFL draft, and he was the first African-American football player to be chosen first. Even with all of the great accomplishments Ernie Davis achieved on the football field, we are recognizing him for what he didn’t do. Davis was selected first overall by the Washington Redskins but refused to play because of the Redskins’ openly racist owner. He later signed a contract for $200,000 with the Cleveland Browns, the most lucrative contract in history for an NFL rookie. Sadly, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia in the summer of 1962, and passed away in May 1963, at the age of 23.
We salute Mr. Davis for his making history in the NFL and for his courage to take a stand against racism in his sport. He was resolute at such a young age and may that serve as inspiration for us!
- February 11th: At VA-BLOC we also draw inspiration from the artistic voices of the past who vocalize aspects of Black life in the United States and dare to dream of a better future. Our work involves making those dreams and aspirations tangible realities. So today, we honor poet, author, and playwright Langston Hughes. Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902 and lived in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio. Hughes lived a life replete with a wide array of experiences including attending Columbia University, sailing and traveling to places like the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Paris, and working as a busboy in Washington, D.C. One of the esteemed poets of the Harlem Renaissance, the NAACP Crisis magazine published his works and in 1926 Hughes published his first collection entitled “The Weary Blues.” Hughes earned a degree from Lincoln University in 1929. Hughes continued writing and publishing poetry, plays, anthologies, essays, and even children’s stories. His poem “I, Too” relays the subject of unequal treatment of African Americans and the aspiration for complete equality and justice. Hughes’ evocation that “I, too, am America” represents the ethos for social justice movements throughout history-it stands as an assertion for equal and just treatment as well as a sober reminder that the United States has a ways to go to live up to its promise of freedom and equality for all. Here at VA-BLOC we are continuously inspired by the spirit of Hughes and work towards the manifestation of the dreams presented in his works.
By Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
(Sources: The Vintage Book of African American Poetry, edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton, pages 142-152 and https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/i-too)
February 13th: Here at VA-BLOC we are proud advocates for civic engagement. In the early months of our organizing we focused on voter education, voter registration, and restoration of rights. We believe voting is a fundamental way to exercise our power and shape political outcomes. So today, we honor George Edwin Taylor, who was the first African American to run for President of the United States in 1904. Taylor’s father was a slave and his mother was a free Black woman. In the 1880s he was very involved in the Wisconsin People’s Party and the Union Labor Party. In the 1890s and into the first decade of the 1900s Taylor lived in Iowa where he also worked as a journalist and published a magazine called the “Negro Solicitor.” In 1892 he lead the Republican National Convention. Taylor was also a key leader in many Black organizations including the National Colored Men’s Protective Association and the National Negro Democratic League. In 1904 George Edwin Taylor ran for president of the U.S. as the candidate of the National Negro Liberty Party, also known as the National Liberty Party. This political party platform included reparations for formerly enslaved African Americans, Filipino Independence, and “unqualified enforcement of the constitution.” We are inspired by Taylor’s life of civic engagement and activism for Black people and people of color. (Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/12/01/455267676/a-forgotten-presidential-candidate-from-1904)
February 14th: Undeniable innovators, African Americans continue to play an impactful role in the field of mental health. VA-BLOC is encouraged by the passionate work of others that has given us the insight to do our part to impact the world. Founder of the Division of Global Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Chester M. Pierce is an emeritus professor of education and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Along with being the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America Association and National Chairperson of the Child Development Associate Consortium, Dr. Price was the past president of both the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Orthopsychiatric Association. Not to mention, he coined the term “microaggressions” in 1970 to help people understand the continuing stain of racism experienced by African Americans. According to Dr. Pierce, microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages that are not overt discrimination – the person may not even be aware of the denigrating action that overtime takes a toll on physical and mental health. Additionally, Dr. Pierce was a Commander in the US Navy, senior consultant to the Surgeon General of the US Air Force, author of several books and the subject of a book entitled “Race and Excellence: My Dialogue with Chester Pierce” by Ezra E.H. Griffith published in 1998. (Sources http://apahealthyminds.blogspot.com/2015/02/black-history-month-african-americans.html and http://www.mghglobalpsychiatry.org/chesterpierce.php)
- February 15th: Here at VA-BLOC we enjoy the beauty of storytelling. Another storyteller we wish to highlight today is the talented Ava DuVernay. She is the first African American woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director and have her film nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture (both for Selma). DuVernay is a writer, producer, and director whose focus has mainly been on independent films. Since the success and award nominations of her 2014 film “Selma,” which depicted African Americans organizing for voting rights in Selma, AL, she has become more widely recognized, but she has been in the film industry for a while. In the 1990s DuVernay worked in the realm of film publicity and later founded DuVernay Agency which focused on marketing films for Black audiences. She began directing short films in the early 2000s and released her first feature film “I Will Follow” in 2010. DuVernay co-founded the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, now known as ARRAY, in 2010. The collective focuses on supporting independent films by women and people of color. In 2012 she won Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival for “Middle of Nowhere.” Her show, “Queen Sugar,” is a stunning portrayal of contemporary Black life in Louisiana. Her recent documentary “13th” is a gripping and comprehensive narrative of mass incarceration and has been nominated for an Oscar. She is currently working on bringing the famed child sci-fi novel “A Wrinkle In Time” to the silver screen. We applaud Ava DuVernay’s artistry and commitment to telling stories that are too often marginalized. Her films and shows are a breath of fresh air and affirm the complexity and diversity of Black life and experiences. We are inspired by DuVernay’s commitment to using her platform to amplify Black stories and voices through film. We aim to do the same through civic engagement and leadership development. (Sources : http://www.avaduvernay.com/about/, http://www.biography.com/people/ava-duvernay, and http://www.arraynow.com/our-story/)
- February 16th: We celebrate Myesha Jemison, the first African American woman to serve as Undergraduate Student Government (USG) President at Princeton University. Jemison is from Virginia Beach, VA and attended Bayside High School. She is currently a junior at Princeton majoring in Spanish and Environmental Studies with certificates in African Studies, African American Studies, and Portuguese. Jemison has been very active on-campus since her arrival as a freshman. She has provided her gift of leadership to various organizations including Princeton Caribbean Connection, Residential College Advisor, Hallelujah Church, the USG Senate (prior to her presidency), the activist group Black Justice League, Princeton University Gospel Ensemble, Community House, the Black History Month Planning Committee, and GlobeMed. She launched her historic campaign just a few short months ago and her platform included listening to students concerns and implementing their ideas as well as serving as a link between administration and students. Through all of her leadership experiences she has worked to make Princeton a more inclusive and welcoming community. Jemison’s term as president began this month and she is already taking critical stances. Recently she signed the “No Apologies Initiative” organized by other Ivy-League student leaders to call on elite institutions to waive application fees for low-income and first generation college students. We are inspired my Jemison’s commitment to leadership and using her platform to foster equity. As she’s explained, “leadership isn’t just a position that you fill, but more so the way you live your life, and navigate throughout the world.” We are thrilled that young people like Myesha Jemison are making strides in this world. Younger generations are actively organizing and working to make sure their voices are heard! Here at VA-BLOC, we support the efforts of organizing young people and remain encouraged to continue developing young leaders in our community. (Source: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2016/12/profile-on-myesha-jemison)
- February 17th: Today we continue our celebration of contemporary Black history makers by celebrating Senator Kamala Harris. This past November Harris became the second African American woman ever elected to the United States Senate and the first Indian American woman elected to the Senate. She completed her undergraduate education at Howard University and earned her law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Prior to her rise to national politics, Harris has been very involved in law, politics, and advocacy. She was Attorney General of the state of California, the first African American woman to hold that position. Throughout her career Harris has advocated for many of the same issues we work on here at VA-BLOC, including healthcare, criminal justice reform, education, and affordable housing. We are inspired by her commitment to working for sustainable systemic changes. Here at VA-BLOC, we are dedicated to engaging in the political process to enact the changes necessary for the empowerment of our community. (source: http://www.cosmopolitan.com/…/black-women-americans-should…/ and https://www.harris.senate.gov/content/about-kamala)
- February 18th: As we at VA BLOC begin our 2017 Voter Education efforts, we must pay homage to one of the first known attempts at Black Suffrage in Norfolk, VA. In 1865, during Reconstruction, a group of African Americans in Norfolk discussed the legal implications of the abolition of slavery. They formed the “Colored Monitor Union Club” and as they created their agenda, the right to vote was at the very top of the list. As the white unionists petitioned for a civilian municipal government, the club also petitioned, for the civilian government that they white men sought to be only on a “loyal and equal basis”. In a quest for full citizenship, the club sought “the right of universal suffrage to all loyal men, without distinction of color, and to memorialize the Congress of the United States to allow the colored citizens the equal right of franchise with other citizens.” African American men from around the area began to organize as well, including Hampton and Williamsburg. The Club in Norfolk went even further after city residents called for the first election after the fall of the Confederacy. Norfolk’s black residents decided to vote in that election. On the morning of May 25, 1865, more than 500 of them assembled in the Bute Street Methodist Church; their number doubled before the end of the day. From there they sent small delegations to polling places in the city’s four wards to ascertain whether election officers would receive their votes. Officials in three of the wards refused, but in the city’s Second Ward, they agreed to record the votes of black Norfolk men on separate sheets designated as votes of men whose qualifications were in doubt. In small groups, 354 men went to the Second Ward throughout the day and voted for white candidates who pledged to support African American suffrage. The 712 residents of the other three wards remained at the church and unanimously recorded their votes for the same candidates. Without counting the votes of the black men, the candidates for whom they voted finished a somewhat distant second in the three-way races for each of the seats in the assembly. Had the African American votes from the Second Ward alone been counted, those candidates would have won the election easily. Had all of the 1,066 votes from black men been counted, the candidates pledged to support black suffrage would have won by almost 900 votes. On June 5, members of the Colored Monitor Union of Norfolk and other local African Americans met at the Catharine Street Baptist Church and adopted an “Address From the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to their “Fellow Citizens.” In part, it stated, “We do not come before the people of the United States asking an impossibility; we simply ask that a Christian and enlightened people shall, at once, concede to us the full enjoyment of those privileges of full citizenship, which, not only, are our undoubted right, but are indispensable to that elevation and prosperity of our people, which must be the desire of every patriot.” (Source: http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/African_Americans_and_Politics_in_Virginia_1865-1902#its1)
- February 19th: Some of the first Black politicians made a huge impact on the formation of Virginian policy and political tradition. Del. Peter Jacob Carter the son of Jacob and Peggie Carter, was born in 1845 in the town of Eastville in Northampton County. He worked as a house servant while enslaved but ran away during the American Civil War. In October 1863, he enlisted in Company B of the 10th Regiment United States Colored Infantry. He mustered out on May 17, 1866. After the war, Carter was educated at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University. He became an important figure in Republican* politics on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and served in the Virginia House of Delegates from Northampton County from 1871 to 1879, one of the longest tenures among the 19th century African American members of the General Assembly. He introduced measures concerning taxes on oysters, the boundaries of election precincts, correcting prisoner abuse, improving the care of black deaf-mutes, and providing housing for the elderly and poor in Richmond. A large landowner, he also introduced bills to combat the exclusion of African Americans from jury service and to improve the treatment of prisoners and abolish the whipping post as a punishment for crime. He was in the delegation from the General Assembly that met with President Ulysses S. Grant to support what became the Civil Rights Act of 1875. He served on the following House Committees: Agriculture and Mining, Retrenchment and Economy, Claims, and Militia and Police. Later, Mr. Carter was a doorkeeper of the Senate of Virginia from 1881 to 1882. He was appointed by the General Assembly to the Board of Visitors of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, now Virginia State University. His son studied medicine at Howard University and became a physician at the veterans’ hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Peter Jacob Carter died in 1886. It is important for us to know the role that previous Black politicians played in radical change in our Commonwealth so we can continue to raise our next generation of Black politicians to serve in their legacy. (Sources: http://mlkcommission.dls.virginia.gov/lincoln/pdfs/bios/carter_peter_jacob.pdf and http://mlkcommission.dls.virginia.gov/lincoln/african_americans.html#Delegates) *Prior to the party switch.
- February 20th: Today we celebrate one of our local stars, The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born April 25, 1917 in Newport News, VA and later moved to New York. She made her amateur singing debut at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1934 and soon began making moves in the music industry. In 1936 she released her first song “Love and Kisses” under the Decca Label. Her popularity and fame grew in the subsequent decades. Fitzgerald had a signature voice and could mimic instrument sounds. Her skills as a jazz singer earned her the moniker “First Lady of Song.” In 1958 she became the first African American woman to win a Grammy. Fitzgerald also quietly supported child welfare and donated to organizations created to specifically support children. In 1987 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2008 the city of Newport News renamed 24th street in her honor. This year, 2017, the city of Newport News is celebrating her centennial with a whole host of programming. We at VA-BLOC are inspired by Fitzgerald’s artistry and her use of her platform to support some of the most vulnerable members in our society. This year would have been her 100th Birthday and there are several celebrations all around the Peninsula to celebrate her life and accomplishments.
(Sources: http://www.ellafitzgerald.com/about/index.html, http://www.downinggross.org/ella-centennial/, http://www.biography.com/people/ella-fitzgerald-9296210#synopsis)
- February 21st: Today we honor the “crusader for justice” Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Ida B. Wells was born under that peculiar institution of slavery in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her parents died of yellow fever when she was 16 and she took care of her younger siblings. In 1882 she and her sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with their aunt and Wells soon pursued education at Fisk University. While traveling via train from Memphis to Nashville in May of 1884 Wells was arrested for refusing to move to the car designated for Black passengers. She protested the request to move because she had purchased a first class ticket. She sued the railroad company and won a $500 settlement, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the case. Soon after this incident Wells began writing and soon showed the power of her words to expose the rampant racism and violence towards Black people in the United States. Wells was also an educator in a segregated school and often critiqued the inequity of segregated education, which eventually cost her job in 1891. In 1892 Wells wrote about the lynching of 3 black men in Memphis, Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart. She continued to use her platform as a journalist to investigate and expose the horrors of lynching in the United States. Her writing angered many white people and a mob destroyed her newspaper office and equipment. With her life in danger, Wells fled to the North and continued her investigative journalism on lynching, violence, and injustice towards Black people. In addition to leading the anti-lynching crusade Wells helped found and organize the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We at VA-BLOC are inspired by Wells’ lifelong commitment to activism. Though this isn’t necessarily the language used during her lifetime, her anti-lynching crusade inspires our contemporary criminal justice reform efforts; her commitment to education is felt in our own advocacy for strong education for our children; and her fight for equality is echoed in our current women’s rights initiatives. Ida B. Wells-Barnett is indeed a legend and we are honored to carry on the legacy of her work.
(Sources: http://www.biography.com/people/ida-b-wells-9527635#later-career http://idabwellsmuseum.org/ida-b-wells-barnett/)
- February 22nd: Coached by Don Haskins, the 1965-66 Texas Western University Men’s Basketball Team made history by winning the 1966 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, becoming the first team with an all-black starting lineup to win a NCAA basketball national championship. In that championship game Coach Don Haskins started Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin, Orsten Artis, Willie Worsley, and Harry Flournoy against an all white Kentucky Wildcat Basketball team coached by Basketball Legend Pat Riley. Despite having one loss that year Texas Western University was the underdog team. Many people associated black basketball players’ style as ‘showboating’, but Texas Western University prove them wrong by playing a discipline, fundamentally sound game. The 1965-66 Texas Western University Men’s Basketball Team paved the way for African-Americans in a sport that is now dominated by African-American Athletes. Source: http://www.biography.com/news/african-american-firsts-in-sports-21113411
- February 23rd: Today we honor trailblazer Barbara Johns. When Johns was a student at the all Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA she was dismayed by the unequal educational accommodations under Jim Crow segregation that was the law of the land. From her own experiences and observations she saw that separate but equal was anything but equal. Her school was overcrowded, the building in abysmal condition, and the local school board refused parent requests to build another school on par with the all white school. They opted instead for band aid solutions like setting up shacks to serve as additional classrooms. This inequity and poor response of the school board propelled Barbara Johne to action! In 1951, when she was a junior, she met with fellow students and planned a strike. Johns and her comrades organized anassembly for students only, devising a ruse to remove the principal from the grounds, which insured the meeting would be student led. In this meeting in the school auditorium she and her classmates discussed strategy for the strike and asked their fellow students to participate. The students voted to indeed strike and April 23, 1951 approximately 450 students walked out of Moton High School and marched to the courthoyse and homes if local school leaders in protest of the dismally unequal educational system in Prince Edward County. A few days into the strike, the students reached out to thr NAACP for legal assistance. The NAACP lawyers Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson tool up the case and convinenced the young student leaders to push for integration as opposed to the cobstruction of a new segregated school. The NAACP filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in federal court but the court ruled to uphold the doctrine of separate but equal. The NAACP appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court who combined their ruling on this case in the 1954 landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregated schools were unconstitutional. We are inspired by Barbara Johns activism and organizing her fellow classmates and communities to address the issue of segregation. Here at VA-BLOC we are committed to empowering the community to organize and lead efforts to better our lives. We applaud the courage and leadership of Barbara Johns and know that she paved the way for us to continue the work today. We will continue to support efforts to protect and strengthen public education. She changed the world at 16 years old, let us also encourage our teenagers and let them know that have that same power and ability, if only they try! Today in Richmond, Governor McAuliffe, Lt. Governor Northam, and Attorney General Herring led the building dedication ceremony to have the AG’s Office Building named in the honor of Barbara Johns and her fantastic activism. (Sources: http://wtvr.com/2017/01/13/barbara–johns-building/ and http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_people_johns.html and https://governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/newsarticle?articleId=18937 and http://www.richmond.com/news/photos-barbara-johns-building-dedication/collection_eb4dcafb-da67-5e9d-a6e3-087a1bd230ea.html)
For the remaining days of Black History Month, we wish to celebrate our VA BLOC team- their history and their current work toward building empowered communities.
- February 24th: Simone Sibley is driven to uplift, serve and advocate for the sustainability of her community. Passionate and engaged, she loves to work with local nonprofits, organizations and community initiatives to connect those in need with resources that highlight their voice and help them to reach their fullest potential. Humbled by her growth from volunteering experiences, Simone has created a self-esteem curriculum for youth, facilitated empowerment workshops for women dealing with mental illness and encouraged teens through a leadership academy. A graduate of Spelman College with a B.A. in Psychology, Simone now works as a Community Organizer for VA-BLOC, leading the Mental Health Interest Group. Currently, Simone is working to increase voter engagement, raise awareness around suicide prevention, create alternatives to schools suspensions, and challenge the stigmatization of mental illness in the Black community as a whole.
- February 25th: Alexandria (Alex) Wheeler was born in Hampton, Virginia. She and her family moved from the area when she was 4 years old to South Carolina, before heading to North Carolina a couple of years later. She began her civic engagement at an early age. With her parents being her role models, she learned very early always to give back to others and stand up for what is right. Growing up, Alex volunteered with many organizations, striving to help those within her community and make a difference. In 2007, she returned to the Hampton Roads area to attend Hampton University pursuing a degree in Biology, with a minor in Leadership Studies. Upon completion of her program, she decided to make this area her home. She continues to work in her community by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, mentoring grade school children and serving as an election official for the city of Hampton. In 2016, Alex joined the VA BLOC team as a community organizer. Here, she leads the Women’s Rights initiative, focusing on injustices that women experience on a daily basis. Three of the issues she is currently working on are the wage gap for women, reproductive and healthcare rights, and raising awareness and increasing opportunities for women and girls in S.T.E.M. related activities. She believes that through collaborative action, positive change is possible.
- February 26th: Cameron Bell was raised in Newport News and graduated from Woodside High School. She recently graduated from Princeton University in 2016 with a degree in History and concentration in African American Studies. Prior to working with VA BLOC, Cameron was active in the community throughout high school including serving on the Mayor’s Youth Commission and Student Advisory Group on Education. Through a wide array of critical coursework and unique job opportunities in schools during her time at Princeton, Cameron realized her passion for education and history. She is committed to elevating and reclaiming the often overlooked and misinformed stories of Black people. During her years as an undergrad, she worked for the Center, now Department of African American Studies and served on the Black History Month Planning Committee–coordinating programming and events to bring Black experiences to the forefront of dialogue and consciousness of the university community. Cameron used her senior thesis to further investigate her family history and her grandmother’s involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Researching and writing her thesis further empowered her to center Black narratives and lives in academic, educational, and daily life. While an undergrad, she participated in various organizations to make her campus more welcoming and served in advisory capacity to the university administration to propose policy changes to that end. Cameron is thrilled to be working with VA BLOC as the Education Interest Group Organizer and to continue advocating with our passionate and dedicated communities to ensure our students have the best educational experiences.
- February 27th: After receiving his diploma from Phoebus High School in 2007, Darius R. Swift then received his Bachelors of Science from Shaw University in 2011. He is currently a community organizer with VA BLOC and leads the Criminal Justice Reform group. The Criminal Justice Reform group is working on disrupting mass incarceration, supporting efforts to those reentering society, and promoting community policing. Darius looks forward to making an impact by sharing the vast available opportunities for betterment with the community which they intend to serve. He also works to empower citizens by exposing them to even the simplest ways for citizens to be civically-involved.
- February 28th: For the last post of Black History Month, I want to take a moment to sincerely thank all of those who have worked with us at VA BLOC to promote empowerment, responsibility, civic engagement, and unity. From day one in September 2016, we have worked to build empowered communities on the Peninsula – where together we work toward solutions to the issues that you hold dear. We know that Hampton and Newport News have valuable resources, tangible and intangible. We must celebrate our assets and promote them so we can connect these resources to those who need them. We seek to build bridges by building relationships, creating solutions for voids we may experience, and working in meaningful and collaborative ways to enrich the lives of all generations.
- To our volunteers, I want to thank you for your time and efforts. From voter registration to letter writing campaigns to meetings to learn more about the legislative process – you have been there by our side working hard! We look forward to continuing the fight!
- To the amazing VA BLOC team, past and present… words cannot express how much you inspire me. You have taken a vision and have run with it to create something valuable. Your compassion and passion are astounding as you deeply care about each of the lives you seek to impact. You have grown in each of your issue areas and have taken the research, building, brainstorming, and implementation to heart at each step. You are helping to make Black History everyday you live out your purpose and everyday you reach out to others. Keep pressing, keep building.
- It is my absolute pleasure to be involved in this effort. We promise to continue to provide opportunities for all who seek to do the work. Remember, #ItStartsHere – it starts with you. –Marcia