Black History Month Obscure Fact #26

In 1949, black audiences in Atlanta tuned in to the first radio station owned and operated by African-Americans, WERD. Established by Jesse B. Blayton Sr. in 1949, the station was housed in a Masonic building in one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in the United States. Blayton hired his son Jesse Jr. to run the station, along with, “Jockey” Jack Gibson, one of the most popular black DJs at the time. Housed in the same building as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, it is rumored that when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wanted to get on the air, he would beat on the ceiling so that the station would send a microphone down. WDIA in Memphis, Tenn., had black programming on the air in 1948, but was not owned by African-Americans. (Source: “Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio,” by William Barlow. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999)

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Black History Month Obscure Fact #25

In 1930, Valaida Snow captivated audiences with her professional singing and jazz trumpet playing. Her abilities earned her the name “Little Louis”, in reference to the style of trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

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Black History Month Obscure Fact #24

Question: Who was Mary Todd Lincoln’s close friend and confidant for most of her life? Answer: Her modiste or seamstress, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly. Keckly was born a slave in Virginia in 1818 and was moved around and loaned out to different members of her master’s family. She was eventually moved to St. Louis, Mo., where she bought her freedom in November of 1855. Throughout her time as a slave, Keckly worked as a seamstress. Once she was emancipated she moved to Baltimore with dreams of making dresses for upper-class women and opening a school for young African-American women.

Her Baltimore plans were unsuccessful. She then moved to the capital to try and find work. But, destitute as she was, Keckly didn’t have enough money for a license to remain in the city for more than 30 days. With the help of some of her patrons who knew the mayor of the city, Keckly found a place to stay and was eventually granted a license.

Eventually she ended up making a dress for Robert E. Lee’s wife, sparking the rapid growth of her business. After working tirelessly to finish a dress for one of her patrons, Keckly got a call from the White House. Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was requesting an interview.

Mrs. Lincoln hired Keckly to be her seamstress on inauguration day, March 4, 1861. Keckly became involved with the Lincoln family. She comforted Mrs. Lincoln when her sons passed away, and when dealing with the day-to-day difficulties of being a president’s wife. Mrs. Lincoln leaned on Kecklyeven more after the death of her husband. When Mrs. Lincoln fell on hard times after President Lincoln’s death, Keckly had an idea to write a book to help her friend financially and to clear her good name.

With her book, “Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” Keckly intended to show the world that Mary Todd Lincoln was misunderstood. But advertisers labeled it as a ‘literary thunderbolt’ and a tell-all book by a black woman who had no business talking about the former first lady. Lincoln felt betrayed, and Keckly’s sewing business suffered. She continued to work as a seamstress and teach young African-American women the trade. Keckly later accepting a faculty position at Wilberforce University and organized a dress exhibit for the Chicago World’s Fair.

Keckly’s gowns are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

(Source: “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between a First Lady and a Former Slave,” by Jennifer Fleischner. New York: Broadway Books 2003; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Keckly)

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Black History Month Obscure Fact #23

In addition to her career in Washington D.C., Condoleezza Rice is an accomplished pianist who has accompanied cellist Yo-Yo Ma, played with soul singer Aretha Franklin, and performed for Queen Elizabeth II.

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Black History Month Obscure Fact #22

Despite Tiger Woods iconic status, it’s safe to say the Professional Golf Association hasn’t always been in love with African-Americans.
One of the first African-Americans to play in the PGA was Dewey Brown. He became a member of the PGA in 1928. Brown learned the game as a caddie and became a renowned club designer and teacher during the 1920s and 30s. He even crafted a set of clubs for President Warren G. Harding. In 1934, the PGA terminated Brown’s membership because they found out he was African-American. During the six years he was a member, everyone assumed he was white because of his light skin color.

Brown was not the only black American in the golf world in the early part of last century. George Grant, a dentist from Boston, designed the first golf tee registered by the United States Patent Office in 1899. John Shippen was the first black American to play in the United States Open, in 1896, even though some competitors threatened to withdraw. And Joseph Bartholomew, a noted architect, designed and built more than a half-dozen golf courses in the New Orleans area. But because he was black, Bartholomew was not allowed to play on the courses he built.

(Sources: Brown, Clifton “Members Only” The New York Times, 20 Dec. 1998; “Forbidden Fairways: African Americans and the Game of Golf,” by Calvin H. Sinnette. Sleeping Bear Press, 1998; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dewey_Brown)

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