1937 — Dennis Banks born

The co-founder of the American Indian Movement – a major ‘Red Power’ group in the civil rights struggles of native Americans – Dennis Banks was born in the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota. Dennis Banks, of course, was simply his white name – in the Ojibwe language of his people, the Anishinaabe, was Nowa Cumig (which means ‘centre of the universe’).

As a leader of the American Indian Movement, he participated in numerous protests and demonstrations, often clashing with the law and even getting convicted a few times. In recent years, he has been a leader of the annual Sacred Run movement and served as a member of the Board of Trustees for Leech Lake Tribal College, a college with a primarily native American student body.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1992 — S.I. Hayakawa dies

A noted populariser of the ideas of Alfred Korzybski, especially general semantics, Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa was a Japanese-American academic. He wrote numerous books on semantics and language, some of which remain in use as textbooks even today (notably his “Language in Thought and Action” which is now in its fifth edition).

Hayakawa was the president of San Francisco State College from 1968 to 1973. As president, his most notable action was the creation of an Ethnic Studies department after pressure from Black Panther and student protesters. In 1977, he became a member of the United States Senate (California, R), a role which he held until 1983. He died in 1992 at the age of 85.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1893 — Daniel Hale Williams performs the second successful pericardium surgery

Daniel Hale Williams was one of the first afro-american men to achieve prominence as a surgeon. He served as the surgeon-in-chief of Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. from 1896 to 1898, and also established a teaching college for nurses at the hospital. Other notable achievements include being a charter member of the American College of Surgeons (and the first ever black member) and founding the first non-segregated hospital in America.

But he is best known for performing one of the earliest successful heart surgeries, a pericardium repair on a stabbing victim named James Cornish. Cornish convalesced for 55 days after the operation, but made a full recovery. Cardiac surgery would develop little for another 50 years, until World War Two prompted surgeons to investigate it more closely, and the pioneering work of Williams and others was belatedly recognized.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1863 — Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation

Although a legendary milestone in the long fight for racial equality in the United States of America, the Emancipation Proclamation was in fact a cynical political gambit. By freeing slaves in all those areas still in open rebellion against the government in Washington D.C. – more than three quarters of the four million black slaves in America at that time – Lincoln hoped to encourage rebellions and desertions among the slave population, splitting the Confederate forces and hamstringing their economy. He made no such gesture for any of the slave holding states on his side of the Civil War – but he doubt realised that come the end of the war, he had created conditions whereby they too would expect to be freed.

The overall effects of the Emancipation were more or less as Lincoln had hoped, although less drastic in their effects than he might have wished. There were plentiful desertions by slaves; conversely, there were also desertions by Union troopers who felt that this was not what they had signed up for.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1909 — Matthew Henson becomes the first explorer to reach the North Pole

The most trusted of Robert Peary’s fellow polar explorers, Henson was a member of Peary’s party when they became the first people to reach the geographic North Pole. Henson was the very first – they actually overshot the target on their first attempt, but upon doubling back later that day, they could see from Henson’s footprints that he had been the first to arrive at their destination.

Henson was also the man who planted the flag of the USA at the Pole – and the polar expedition was but one of six similar expeditions that he and Peary embarked upon over the course of about 18 years. Henson was later honoured by being inducted into the Explorer’s Club in 1937, the first negro ever to join the club. Henson’s remains are interred in a place of honour in Arlington National Cemetery.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1939 — Harvey Williams Cushing dies

The founder of neurosurgery as a separate discipline within medicine, Cushing was the youngest of ten children, and the son of a doctor. He studied medicine at both Yale and Harvard, interning at Massachusetts General and later Johns Hopkins. He was a firm believer in the application of hard science to medical problems, drawing especially on physics to better diagnose and treat patients.

Among other things, he pioneered the use of x-rays to detect tumours and used electro-cortical stimulation to investigate and better understand the workings of the brain. In the first few decades of the 20th century, he was the world’s leading teacher of neurosurgeons. But his most lasting effect on medicine may be the introduction of the earliest sphygmomanometer to America, which would rapidly become a great diagnostic tool. Ironically, while the proximate cause of Cushing’s own death at the age of 70 was a myocardial infarction, his autopsy revealed that he had a colloid cyst of the third ventricle in his brain.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1621 — Squanto makes contact with the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth

Tisquantum – better known to history as Squanto – was an Indian of the Patuxet tribe who learned to speak English after being abducted into slavery in 1614. Eventually winning his freedom and making his way back to the region of what is now New England where his people lived, he discovered that the Patuxet were almost extinct. They had succumbed to a plague (likely smallpox caught from European settlers) in his absence, as had many of the neighbouring tribes.

Squanto settled at one of the Pilgrim encampments on March 16, 1621, where he became very popular amongst his new neighbours when he taught them how to farm maize after the harsh winter of 1620-21, an act which many people believe may have made the difference between the success or failure of the colony.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1926 — Michio Kushi born

Japanese-born Michio Kushi is probably best known for introducing the ideas of modern macrobiotics to the USA in the Fifties.early 1950s. He arrived in the States in 1949, he and his wife Aveline have founded Erewhon Natural Foods, the East West Journal, the East West Foundation, the Kushi Foundation, One Peaceful World and the Kushi Institute. They have also written more than seventy books, mostly on the subjects of macrobiotics, spirituality and health.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1914 — Garrett Morgan patents a gas mask

Although understandably primitive by modern standards, Morgan’s gas mask – or safety hood as he called it – was a considerable improvement in the state of its particular art.

Morgan, a black man in a racist age, had been inspired by reports of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to create gear that protected the wearer from smoke and other noxious gasses. Although he got his patent, his invention was slow to catch on, and Morgan’s race was probably the major reason why.

His fortunes improved after the safety hood achieved national prominence in 1916, when he and three others used it to save the lives of two men trapped in a tunnel. For this Garrett was awarded a gold Medal of Bravery by prominent citizens of Cleveland, and additional gold medals for bravery from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Lack of recognition never held Morgan back – he also patented an early traffic light design, among other creations – but it was not until 1963, shortly before his death, that white America gave him the recognition he deserved.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1923 — Garrett Morgan patents a traffic signal

Garrett Morgan was not the first to invent or patent a traffic signal, but he was the first to invent one that could be changed at a distance, via a mechanical linkage. (He also patented a gas mask.) Morgan was a black man living in Cleveland, Ohio, who was a successfuly businessman and well-liked citizen of his town in a time long before the Civil Rights movement.

No doubt he still suffered from quite a deal of racism, and there’s a certain irony in that his inventions probably saved far more white lives than they did black lives. Morgan is remembered in Cleveland as the first black man there to own a car, and also for his heroic rescue of trapped minors (using his own gas mask invention) in 1916, for which he received awards and acclaim.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1942 — Dr Charles Drew patents a method of preserving blood plasma

Born in 1904, Dr Charles Drew was one of the first black surgeons in the United States – although that is far from being his only claim to fame.

His work in the fields of blood transfusions and storage led to breakthroughs in the field, culminating in the development of large scale blood banks that saved thousands of lives of Allied soldiers and civilians during the war. He also protested the segregation of blood supplies along racial lines, on the ground that there was no scientific basis for it (as indeed, there is not). He lost his job over this stance, but it did not deter him from it.

He also became the first black man to be selected to serve as an examiner of the American Board of Surgery.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1804 — Sacajawea joins the Lewis and Clark expedition

Probably the most famous member of Shoshone tribe of North American Indians, Sacajawea (or Sacagawea, depending on your translation) is best-remembered as the native guide who helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey up the Missouri river, and on to the Pacific Ocean.

Sacajawea was vital to the success of the mission, as without her knowledge of the Shoshone tongue, Lewis and Clark would not have been able to barter with that tribe for badly needed supplies. Lewis and Clark tended to refer to her as ‘the Indian woman’ in their journals – but those same journals make it very clear that the entire expedition would likely have died, either from starvation or encounters with hostile Indians, without her knowledge of the lands, tribes and tongues of the areas they explored, and her apparently considerable skills in diplomacy.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1962 — César Chávez founds the United Farm Workers

César Chávez is perhaps the most famous Latino or Mexican-American civil rights activist in history. He was a very astute user of the media, and made the union cause very sympathetic to the American public.

One of the major steps in this process was the formation of the he National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962. Later called the United Farm Workers, which was created by the merger Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led by Filipino organizer Larry Itliong, and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) led by Chávez.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder