• Ben Koponen

Four Greats From History You Need to Know: Black History Month

Updated: Nov 17

Sojourner Truth (Swaretekill, New York, U.S.A 1797-1883)

In 1797, a child was born who would go on to become a champion of civil rights, escape slavery, fight an unjust justice system, and give one of the most memorable speeches from the times--all while unable to read or write. This child was Isabella Baumfree, later known as Sojourner Truth.


Of course, there is a lot all of us could learn from Truth’s actual civil rights projects. We could analyze her short, yet powerful, speech; Ain't I A Woman?- We could analyze the arguments her lawyers made to free her son from slavery in the south, and how she applied sanctions to slanderers in the North. We could dissect the content of her discussions with Frederik Douglas and the talks she delivered for the (first) National Woman's Rights Convention, to understand the plight of the times. All of these factual descriptions would expose the social problems African Americans confronted, but they would not tell us who Truth was, or who she had to be.


Truth’s fight for freedom is a testament to the injustices she confronted in her life. She escaped from slavery in 1826, a year before New York state emancipated its enslaved people (July 4, 1827). John Dumont, went against his promise to free her before legal emancipation, thus forcing Truth and her two daughters to escape. It wasn’t until about 5 years later when she found out that her son had been illegally sold to a southern man. The case to free her son was one of the first cases in which a black woman won against a white man. She also won the second time she went to court, regarding a slander case about her speech Ain’t I A Woman?.



Madam C.J. Walker (Delta, Louisiana, U.S. (December 23, 1867- May 25,1919)

Sarah Breedlove, more popularly known as Madam C.J. Walker, was the first self-made female millionaire in the United States. Her story is one about prestige, excellence, and paying dues forward. However, even though she was the first of her four other siblings to be free-born, she was still placed in numerous precarious positions. The first of which, came at 7 years of age, when her parents died and she was sent to live with her sister and brother-in-law. The arrangement continued until she was 14 and married her first husband (Moses McWilliams). This was not a choice made out of love, but a calculated decision she made to escape the abuse from her brother-in-law. However, that is not her legacy.


Her business was based on the hair products she made for Black women. Eventually, she and her husband began giving demonstrations and lectures about how to use the products. And in 1908, Sarah (now going by the name of Madam C.J. Walker) opened a factory and beauty school in Pittsburg, P.A..


Sarah was more than a brilliant businesswoman. She also gave discussions about political, social, and civil rights issues. This is exemplified by her time as leader of the Circle For Negro War Relief (during WWI) and participation in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

A few months before she passed, in 1919, Sarah made the largest donation to the NAACP in the association's history; a pledge of $5000 (equal to $75,281.50 in 2021).



Otis Boykin (Dallas, TX, United States, August 29, 1920-1982)

Great inventions have a way of re-inventing our lives. Otis Boykin’s inventions have done just that. Otis, a tenacious engineer, and ambitious businessman developed electronic controls for IBM computers, the pacemaker, and even self-guided missiles. Before these successes, he worked numerous research assistant jobs and opened a research laboratory with a partner/mentor of his. Eventually, he became the company’s chief engineer. His legacy is marked by having patented 26 devices in total, and as one, of many brilliant Black inventors.



Hiram Rhodes Revels (September 27, 1827-January 16, 1901)

Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first black senator in U.S. history. Although his term was short (1870-1871), his appointment to the Senate (as was done at the time) sparked debates concerning citizenship for African Americans. His appointment challenged the 1857 Dred Scott Decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which stipulated that people of African descent could not be U.S. citizens. However, other arguments in favor of his appointment highlighted his citizenship as exemplified by having voted and by the political context of the civil war. During his time in the Senate, Revels paid close attention to civil rights, integrating schools, employment, and restoring Confederate citizenship.


Revels was more than a politician. Before his seat in congress, Revels worked as a minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Church (presumably where he learned brilliant oration skills which were admired in the senate), and organized two Black regiments for the Union Army during the civil war. After his term in the Senate Revels became president of the Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College where he also worked as an instructor in philosophy.


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All the individuals described above are characterized by originality. However, we should not forget that each individual described above, at the end of the day, was just an ordinary person who made extraordinary decisions. Looking back on the context and consequences of those actions is at the heart of Black History Month.



Sources:

Sojourner Truth


Madam C.J. Walker


Otis Boykin


Hiram Rhodes Revels

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