Black Lives Matter (Part 5)

These articles were initially posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Believe Like Thurgood

Thurgood Marshall is famous for being America’s first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. As well as serving as a lawyer, Thurgood campaigned for civil rights, believing that racial discrimination went against the Equal Protection Clause of the US constitution. 

Born in Baltimore, Maryland on 2nd July 1908, Thoroughgood “Thurgood” Marshall learned how to debate from his father, William Canfield Marshall, who worked as a railway porter. At family meals with his father and mother, Norma Arica Williams, Marshall participated in discussions about current events, which fuelled his desire to become a lawyer. Marshall recalled his father “turned me into one. He did it by teaching me to argue, by challenging my logic on every point, by making me prove every statement I made.”

In 1925, Marshall graduated from the Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore within the top third of his class. After this, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he became the star of the debate team. Marshall involved himself in sit-in protests against segregation and joined Alpha Phi Alpha, the first fraternity founded by and for blacks. During this time, Marshall paid little attention to his studies and found himself suspended twice for his behaviour.

Marshall’s attitude changed after he married Vivian “Buster” Burey (1911-55) in 1929. His wife encouraged Marshall to be a better student, and he graduated with a BA in American literature and philosophy the following year. To become a lawyer, Marshall enrolled at Howard University School of Law in Washington DC, for which his mother pawned her wedding and engagement rings to pay for the tuition. In 1933, Marshall graduated at the top of his class.

After graduating, Marshall began a private law firm in his home town and represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which he joined in 1936, in various lawsuits. In one court case, Murray v. Pearson, Marshall represented black students who wished to attend the University of Maryland Law School, which at that time only admitted whites. Not only did Marshall win, but he also created a legal precedent making segregation in Maryland illegal.

At the age of 32, Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which supported many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court. Of these cases, Marshall won 29 out of 32, most notably Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which paved the way for integration in schools. For some of the court cases, Marshall had the support of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), the 1st Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Marshall and the FBI particularly wished to discredit civil rights leader T. R. M. Howard (1908-76), whose policies went against the NAACP. Howard also believed in legalising prostitution, arguing that “man’s sinful nature made it impossible to suppress the sex trade”. 

In February 1955, Marshall’s wife Vivian passed away from lung cancer on her 44th birthday. Later that year, Marshall remarried Cecilia “Cissy” Suyat (b.1928), a civil rights activist of Filipino descent from Hawaii. They went on to have two sons, Thurgood Marshall Jr. (b.1956), who was the White House Cabinet Secretary under Bill Clinton (b.1946), and John William Marshall (b.1958), the longest-serving member of the Virginia Governor’s Cabinet.

Marshall’s successful career attracted President J. F. Kennedy (1917-63), who appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. This was a new seat created by the president, which Marshall held until 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-73) appointed him as the first African American United States Solicitor General. This also made Marshall the highest-ranking black government official. Marshall called his position as Solicitor General “the best job I’ve ever had.”

Following the retirement of Tom C. Clark (1899-1977) in 1967, Johnson appointed Marshall as the 96th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the first black man to hold the post. When questioned about his success as an African American, Marshall said, “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”

Marshall served on the Supreme Court for 24 years, during which time he fought on behalf of black citizens. As well as civil rights, Marshall campaigned for abortion rights and the end of the death penalty. He also fought against anything that made women unequal to men. When Marshall retired in 1991, he expressed the wish that President George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) did not use race as a factor when deciding on his successor. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas (b.1948) to replace Marshall, the second black man to hold the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Many accused Marshall of resigning over disagreements with the new conservative approaches of the Supreme Court, but in truth, his declining health was the reason for the decision. Less than two years later, Marshall passed away from heart failure on 24th January 1993 at the age of 84. The Supreme Court honoured Marshall with a lying in state at the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, followed by a burial at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

There are several memorials dedicated to Thurgood Marshall, including an 8-ft statue in Lawyers Mall, Maryland. The airport in Baltimore renamed itself the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in 2005, and in 2009 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church added him to the liturgical calendar, designating 17th May as his feast day. Marshall’s life is the topic of the 2017 film Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) as the first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. 

Challenge Like Rosa

Many people know Rosa Parks as the black girl who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus. Even Doctor Who portrayed the story in a recent episode, but how many people know Rosa’s background? How many people know more about her than the bus incident? She is a recognisable name in the Civil Rights Movement, but is that all – just a name?

Born Rosa Louise McCauley on 4th February 1913, Rosa grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, until her parents, Leona and James, separated. Rosa moved to Montgomery with her mother and younger brother Sylvester, where she lived on her grandparents’ farm and attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rosa’s mother taught her how to sew, and by the age of ten, Rosa had completed her first quilt. She continued to sew while studying academic courses at the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, making herself dresses to wear. Although Rosa enrolled at a high school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes, she dropped out when her grandmother became unwell.

In 1932, Rosa married the barber Raymond Parks, who belonged to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rosa took on jobs as a domestic worker, but her husband encouraged her to complete her high school education, which she achieved in 1933. A decade later, Rosa joined the NAACP, becoming its first female secretary. For some time, she was also the only female member. As part of her role, Rosa investigated false rape claims against black men and the gang-rape of Recy Taylor (1919-2017), a black woman from Abbeville, Alabama. The Chicago Defender called the resulting campaign concerning the latter “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.”

Rosa experienced “integrated life” while briefly working for the Maxwell Air Force Base, which did not condone racial segregation. This made her realise the extent of the differences between the lives of blacks and whites. Rosa also worked as a domestic and seamstress for Clifford (1899-1975) and Virginia Durr (1903-99), a white couple who encouraged and sponsored her attendance at the Highlander Folk School to learn more about civil rights in 1955.

To travel to and from work and school, Rosa used public buses, which since 1900 had specific seating areas for blacks and whites. The front four rows were for whites only, and blacks were encouraged to sit at the far end of the bus. Over 75% of passengers were black, which made the rear of the bus very crowded. Blacks also had to use the back door of the bus, but on one occasion, it was too crowded for Rosa, so she used the front entrance instead. After paying, the driver insisted she leave the bus and enter through the back door. As soon as Rosa had stepped out of the bus, the driver sped away.

Rosa avoided that bus driver until 1955 after a long day at work. She did everything right: she entered the bus through the back door and sat in the first row of seats designated for black people. During the journey, crowds of people entered the bus, meaning many people had to stand, including white people. Seeing this, the driver asked those in the first row of black seats to stand up so the whites could sit. Whilst three blacks got up and moved, Rosa remained seated. The driver demanded her to move, and when she did not, he called the police. The police arrested Rosa and charged her with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code. The NAACP bailed her out of prison that evening.

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” – Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks: My Story, 1992

Rosa Parks was not the first to refuse to give up her seat, but her actions inspired the NAACP to organise a bus boycott. On 5th December 1955, the day of Rosa’s trial, campaigners distributed 35,000 leaflets saying, “We are … asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial … You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.” That day, over 40,000 black people walked to work instead of getting the bus. Some had to walk more than 20 miles through the driving rain.

As Rosa’s trial continued, so did the bus boycott. For 381 days, black people in Montgomery avoided using the bus. Since they made up at least 75% of commuters, the bus companies suffered from a loss in bus fares, forcing the city to repeal its law about segregation on public transport. Rosa did not wish to take credit for this success, and Martin Luther King Jr agreed that Rosa was not the cause of the boycott but the catalyst. “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices.”

Although Rosa became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, she suffered as a result. She received many death threats, disagreed with King’s approaches, and both she and her husband lost their jobs, prompting them to move to Hampton in Virginia in search of work. Rosa found a position as a hostess but soon moved to live with her brother in Detroit, Michigan. Her brother believed the discrimination against blacks to be less severe in the northern states, but Rosa failed to see any improvements.

When African American John Conyers (1929-2019) stood for Congress, Rosa gave him her full support and convinced King to do the same. After Conyers’ election, he hired Rosa as his secretary and receptionist, a position she kept until she retired in 1988. She visited schools, hospitals and facilities with and on Conyers’ behalf, plus attended Civil Rights marches across the country. During this time, she became an ally of Malcolm X. She later took part in the black power movement.

Rosa continued to support the Civil Rights Movement in various ways, although she never took a leading position. During the 1970s, she helped organise the freedom of several prisoners whose actions of self-defence had landed them in police custody. Unfortunately, Rosa could not contribute much later that decade due to the poor health of her family, although she donated what little money she could to the cause. In 1977, both her husband and brother passed away from cancer. Following these losses, she broke two bones after slipping on an icy pavement, prompting her to move in with her elderly mother in an apartment for senior citizens. Her mother passed away in 1979, aged 92.

With renewed vigour, Rosa returned to the Civil Rights scene, co-founding the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation to provide scholarships for college students. When asked to speak at various organisations, Rosa usually donated her speaking fee to her scholarship foundation. Later, she established the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which aimed to “educate and motivate youth and adults, particularly African American persons, for self and community betterment.”

In her later years, Rosa faced several challenges. At 81, a man broke into her house and demanded money. When she refused, he attacked her, landing her in hospital with facial injuries. Rosa suffered severe anxiety after the attack and moved to a secure complex. Whilst she felt safe there, her fragile mind made it difficult for her to manage her finances. In 2002, she received an eviction notice due to a lack of rent payment. When members of the public found out, the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit raised funds to pay the rent on her behalf, allowing her to remain in her home for the remainder of her life.

Rosa Parks passed away at age 92 on 24th October 2005. Before her funeral, a bus, similar to the one on which she refused to stand, drove her casket to the US Capitol in Washington DC, where she became the first non-government official to lie in honour in the rotunda. At her memorial service, the United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (b.1954) said she believed that if it had not been for Rosa Parks, she would not be Secretary of State today.

At her death, Rosa left an extensive list of legacies, which continues to grow. Long before she passed away, places were named in her honour, such as Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit, and she received many medals and awards: Martin Luther King Jr. Award (1980), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996), Congressional Gold Medal (1999), and several honorary doctorates. Since her death, the Rosa Parks Transit Center has opened in Detroit; Michigan renamed a plaza Rosa Parks Circle; the asteroid 284996 Rosaparks was named in her memory, and the Rosa Parks Railway Station opened in Paris. Americans also remember Rosa Parks with a statue in Montgomery, unveiled in 2019.


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Black Lives Matter (Part 4)

These articles were initially posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Speak Like Frederick

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” These are the words of American social reformer, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement. Many found it astonishing that such a successful orator was once a slave, proving false the misconception that slaves lacked the intelligence of independent Americans. Douglass believed everyone was equal regardless of their skin tone and heritage. He was also an active supporter of women’s suffrage.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on a plantation in Maryland to Harriet Bailey, a woman of African and Native American ancestry. His father was white, possibly European, but Frederick never knew him or knew on which day or year he was born. Historians estimate his year of birth as 1818, and Frederick chose 14th February as the day to celebrate his birth. Separated from his mother at a young age, the infant Frederick lived with his grandparents, Betsy, a slave, and Isaac, a free man.

At the age of six, Frederick’s master transferred him to another plantation, but two years later, he moved again to a household in Baltimore. Despite being the property of Hugh Auld, his master’s wife Sophia ensured Frederick was well fed and clothed. When he was about 12 years old, Sophia taught him to read and write until her husband put an end to their lessons. Yet, Frederick continued to teach himself in secret, often observing the white children in the city. He believed “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

In 1833, Frederick went to work for Edward Covey, a farmer who repeatedly whipped him. Frederick attempted to run away, but his master caught him. In 1837, he met and fell in love with Anna Murray (1813-88), a free black woman who encouraged him to have another attempt at escaping. On 3rd September 1838, Frederick succeeded by sneaking onto a train to Harve de Grace dressed as a sailor. He then made his way to New York to meet up with Anna.

Frederick and Anna married on 15th September 1838, initially adopting the surname Johnson. Inspired by the poem The Lady of the Lake by Walter Scott (1771-1832), Frederick changed their surname to Douglass after the principal characters. They joined the independent African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Frederick became a preacher in 1839. Soon after, at the approximate age of 23, Frederick Douglass gave his first speech about his experiences as a slave at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention.

From then on, Douglass involved himself with many anti-slavery protests and conventions, resulting in physical attacks from slavery supporters. One occasion caused irreparable damage to Douglass’ hand. He exclaimed, “I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The Institutions of this Country do not know me—do not recognize me as a man.” Yet, he continued to fight to put an end to slavery. As well as oration, Douglass published many works, including his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845, My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.

In 1845, Douglass travelled to Ireland and England, where he was amazed at the different treatment he received, not “as a colour, but as a man.” Focusing on the abolition of slavery, Douglass gave many speeches in churches and chapels, drawing large crowds. He met with Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who had campaigned for the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Most importantly, while in Britain, Douglass legally became a free man.

With £500 from English supporters, Douglass returned to the USA in 1847 and established his first abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. The paper adopted the motto “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren” to attract a diverse readership. Meanwhile, Douglass and his wife helped over four hundred slaves escape on the Underground Railroad network managed by Harriet Tubman.

Douglass was the only African American to attend the first women’s rights meeting in New York. Douglass said he could not accept the right to vote as a black man until women also had the opportunity. “Discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency…than would be a discussion of the rights of women.” Unfortunately, Douglass received criticism when he paid more attention to the campaign to allow black men the right to vote, but he maintained he was never against women’s rights. He feared linking black men’s suffrage with women’s suffrage would result in a failure for both; it was better to focus on one at a time.

During the Civil War, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) to discuss the treatment of black soldiers. This meeting led to the declaration of the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery. After the assassination of Lincoln, Douglass met with President Andrew Johnson (1808-75) on the subject of black suffrage. In 1868, the 14th amendment gave blacks equal protection under the law, and in 1870 they finally won the right to vote. 

Due to his achievements, Douglass received several political appointments, including president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic. In 1872, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States, although he was nominated without his knowledge. The same year, he was the presidential elector at large for New York.

Douglass and Anna had five children during their marriage of 44 years. Their eldest, Rosetta Douglass (1839-1906), was a founding member of the National Association for Colored Women and also helped with her father’s newspaper business, as did Lewis Henry Douglass (1840-1908) and Frederick Douglass Jr. (1842-92). Their youngest son, Charles Remond Douglass (1844-1920), also helped with the papers and was the first African-American man to enlist in the military in New York during the Civil War. Annie Douglass, their youngest child, passed away at the age of ten.

Anna passed away in 1882, and two years later, Douglass remarried suffragist Helen Pitts (1838-1913). This caused controversy and upset Douglass’ children because Helen was twenty years younger than their father. She was also white. Douglass responded to criticism by saying his first marriage was to a woman of his mother’s colour and his second to someone of his father’s colour.

Douglass continued to speak at meetings across the USA and further abroad. In 1888, he became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States. President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) won the election and made Douglass the consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. 

On 20th February 1895, Douglass attended a meeting with the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C, where he received a standing ovation. That evening after returning home, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Thousands of supporters attended his funeral, and four years later, they erected a statue in his memory. He was the first African American to be memorialised in this way. Frederick Douglass continues to receive such honours today. Statues of Douglass stand in the United States Capitol Visitor Centre, Central Park, and the University of Maryland.

Educate Like W.E.B

W.E.B Du Bois was the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists campaigning for equal rights. Through his campaigns and essays, Du Bois documented the widespread racism in the United States of America. Ultimately, Du Bois wished to put an end to prejudices, and in the process, educated many people about the inaccuracies of American history that painted blacks in a bad light.

Born on 23rd February 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in a tiny black population. His father left when Du Bois was only two years old, and his mother raised him alone. Fortunately, Great Barrington had a large European American community that treated Du Bois well, and his school teachers encouraged him to pursue his academic studies at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

Du Bois experienced little racism until his time at university, where he came face to face with the harshest bigotry. Fortunately, this had little impact on his education, and after Du Bois graduated in 1888, he attended Harvard College, paying his tuition by taking on summer jobs and accepting loans from friends. In 1890, Du Bois graduated with a degree in history. Yet, this was not the end of his education. After another year at Harvard studying sociology, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin. While in Berlin, Du Bois observed the differences in the treatment of black people. “They did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world.” Racism, he noted, was much worse in the USA. On returning home, Du Bois earned a PhD from Harvard University, the first black person to do so.

Following this extensive education, Du Bois received many job offers, including a teaching job at Wilberforce University, Ohio. After working there for two years, Du Bois married one of his students, Nina Gomer, on 12th May 1896 and moved to Pennsylvania to work as an assistant in sociology. Whilst there, Du Bois worked on the study The Pennsylvania Negro, which noted the treatment blacks received in the area. He rejected Frederick Douglass’ idea of blacks integrating into white communities, believing instead that they needed to embrace their African heritage while contributing to American society. He published the latter in his article Strivings of the Negro People in The Atlantic Monthly

In 1897, Du Bois moved to and accepted a job as a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University. The US government gave Du Bois a grant to research African-American workforce and culture, which he did alongside hosting the annual Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems. In 1900, Du Bois flew to London to attend the First Pan-African Conference, which implored the USA to “acknowledge and protect the rights of people of African descent”. Later that year, Du Bois attended the Paris Exposition, where he organised The Exhibit of American Negroes for which he won a gold medal.

By the early 20th century, Du Bois was a respected spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Du Bois disagreed with many of Washington’s ideas, which asked blacks to submit to white supremacy in exchange for fundamental education. He expressed his criticism of Washington in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Du Bois believed blacks should fight for equal rights and opportunities. 

In 1905, Du Bois met with other civil rights activists in Canada, near Niagara Falls. Together, they established the Niagara Movement, which aimed to reach out to other black people through magazines such as The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line. Unlike periodicals owned by or sympathetic to Washington, The Niagara Movement encouraged African Americans to stand up for their rights rather than submit to humiliation and degradation.

It was not just the Niagara Movement that changed the minds of the African American population. In 1906, President Roosevelt (1858-1919) dishonourably discharged 167 black soldiers for allegedly committing crimes. Following this, riots broke out in Atlanta, where black men received accusations of assaulting white women. Rioters attacked any man with dark skin, resulting in at least 25 deaths. 

Fuelled by these events and his growing support, Du Bois continued to write about the dangers of white supremacy. He was the first African American invited to present a paper by the American Historical Association. Unfortunately, most white historians ignored his work, and the association did not invite another African American speaker for three decades. 

In 1909, Du Bois joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and accepted the post of Director of Publicity and Research the following year. This entailed editing the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis, which denounced the US government and introduced the principles of the Socialist Party. Du Bois endorsed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) in the 1912 presidential race, extracting from the future president the promise to support black rights.

When the First World War broke out, the NAACP established a camp to train African Americans to serve in the US Army. The government promised 1000 officer positions for blacks, but riots broke out across the country in opposition. Only 600 black officers managed to join the Army. Nonetheless, Du Bois saw this as a success and interviewed many African American soldiers during the first Pan-African Congress. Unfortunately, he discovered many officers served as labourers while the white men went out to fight.

Du Bois was more determined than ever to fight for equal rights. “But, by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if, now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” Race riots continued to take place across the country, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of black people. As well as wishing to end this unnecessary violence, Du Bois wanted to educate black children about their heritage, teaching them that they did not deserve the racist treatment. As a result, Du Bois published the textbook The Brownies’ Book, which was full of black culture and history. 

After working with the NAACP, Du Bois resigned from his post in 1933 and returned to an academic position at Atlanta University. This allowed him to continue his research, documenting how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction. His magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, was published in 1935 and is still perceived as “the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography.” 

In 1936, Du Bois embarked on a trip around the world, where he received amicable treatment from people of all races. This was a stark contrast to the treatment of blacks back home. Du Bois admired the growing strength of Imperial Japan and was at first opposed to America joining the Second World War because he thought this would undo Japan’s fight to escape white supremacism. He was also disappointed that blacks only made up 5.8% of the US army.

Du Bois openly discussed his strong views in his books and papers, which eventually got him fired from his position at Atlanta University. Fortunately, scholars intervened, and Du Bois received a lifelong pension and the title of professor emeritus. Other universities offered Du Bois teaching positions, but he turned them down and rejoined the NAACP. Du Bois was one of three members of the NAACP to attend the 1945 conference in San Francisco, which oversaw the establishment of the United Nations.

The NAACP continued to fight for civil rights, submitting several petitions to the UN. Although the NAACP supported socialism, it made it clear the association had no involvement with Communism. Yet, Du Bois showed sympathy towards the Communist Party, resulting in the loss of his passport. He eventually regained his passport in 1958 and travelled the world with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977), who he married in 1951. Nevertheless, when the US upheld the Concentration Camp Law in 1960, requiring all Communists to register with the United States Attorney General, Du Bois joined the Communist Party in protest. At this time, he was 93 years old.

In 1960, Du Bois travelled to Africa to celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana and to attend the inauguration of the first African governor of Nigeria. The following year, Du Bois took up residence in Ghana to work on the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. By this time, Du Bois’ health was declining, and he passed away on 27th August 1963, not long after the US refused to renew his passport. On hearing of his death, thousands of Americans honoured Du Bois with a minute’s silence. Almost a year later, the US passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, representing many of the things Du Bois campaigned for during his long life. 


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Black Lives Matter (Part 3)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Think Like Garvey

Founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican political activist leader who influenced Rastafarians, the Nation of Islam and other activists, such as Malcolm X. Although often controversial, his ideas and dreams about the unification and empowerment of African-American people have become known as Garveyism.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. was born on 17th August 1887 in the Colony of Jamaica. Although it was an ethnic country, there was a colourist social hierarchy and Garvey’s family, with their very dark skin, were at the lowest end. Garvey’s grandparents had been born into slavery and had taken on their Irish owner’s surname. Despite this, Garvey’s parents were considered well-off in the peasant community. His father, Malchus Garvey, was a stonemason and his mother, Sarah Richards, was a domestic servant.

As well as a stonemason, Malchus Garvey was a layman at the local Wesleyan Church, so it was only natural that Marcus attended the church school. At 14, Garvey left school due to a lack of funds and was apprenticed to his godfather, who ran a printing business. Until then, Garvey had not fully felt the effects of racism. He had friends with various skin tones, including a white girl, and he never thought his race would be a problem.

In 1905, Garvey moved to Kingston to work at P.A. Benjamin Manufacturing Company, where he became the first Afro-Jamaican foreman. He was able to provide for his mother and sister, who had moved in with him after leaving his father. Sadly, an earthquake struck in 1907, destroying his home. The family were forced to sleep in the open for several months, and his mother died the following year.

Whilst living in Kingston, Garvey converted to Catholicism. He also started to voice his opinions, which led to him being sacked from the manufacturing company. By this point, he was very angry with the inequalities in Jamaican society. After getting a job as the first secretary of Jamaica’s first nationalist organization, the National Club, Garvey enrolled in elocution lessons with Bahamian-born clergyman Dr Robert Love (1831-1914) and began entering public speaking competitions.

Between 1910 and 1914, Garvey travelled abroad, beginning with Costa Rica, where he worked as a timekeeper on a large banana plantation. He also briefly set up his own newspaper Nation/La Nación, in which he expressed his strong opinions. Garvey gradually worked his way through Central America, moving from job to job until he decided to travel to London in the hopes of improving his education.

In London, Garvey found a job as a labourer in the city docks. His sister, Indiana, came over to join him and found herself a position as a domestic servant. Garvey noted there were not many black people in the city, and those he came across were usually some form of labourer. Garvey visited the House of Commons during his stay and was impressed by the politician David Lloyd George. He also visited Hyde Park Corner and began to regularly speak there.

In 1913, Garvey got a job at the African Times and Orient Review as a runner and began writing for them the following year. After a brief trip through Europe, during which he had a short engagement with a Spanish-Irish heiress, Garvey had run out of funds and decided to return to Jamaica. During the journey, he met and spoke to an Afro-Caribbean missionary who inspired Garvey to envision a movement that would unite all black people of African descent.

This idea formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, commonly abbreviated as UNIA, which Garvey launched in July 1914 with the motto “One Aim. One God. One Destiny”. The association aimed to establish a brotherhood among the black race, to promote a spirit of race pride, to reclaim the fallen and to assist in civilising the backward tribes of Africa.” The association got off to a very slow start but Garvey was enthusiastic and attended many meetings, including with the Queen Street Baptist Literary and Debating Society, where he met Amy Ashwood, with whom he secretly became engaged.

Having failed to gain many members in Jamaica, Garvey moved the UNIA to the USA, where he initially lodged with a Jamaican expatriate in New York City. He travelled the country lecturing, having been inspired by black Baptist and Episcopal preachers. Back in New York, Garvey targeted his speeches at Afro-Caribbeans as well as African-Americans. Membership of the UNIA began to grow rapidly.

Within 18 months of its establishment in the USA, the UNIA had branches in 25 states as well as some Central American countries. It is not certain how many people became members of the association, but at one point, Garvey boasted over 2 million members. Unlike other activist groups, the UNIA had a blacks-only policy, so Garvey was often accused of hindering attempts at racial integration. Things came to a head when Garvey called the writer Cyril Briggs (1888-1966) and other members “white” because of their mixed heritage.

In October 1919, a vendor of Negro World attempted to assassinate Garvey, who survived with a couple of gunshots to his legs. The shooter, George Tyler, was arrested but died attempting to escape from prison. With his mortality in mind, Garvey married Amy Ashwood at a private Roman Catholic service on Christmas Day. Sadly, the marriage lasted little more than three months, and they soon separated.

Garvey moved on to new and bigger ideas, including the Black Star Line, a ship for black people run by black people. The ships travelled between Africa and the Americas, and after a few monetary problems, began to do quite well. Unfortunately, many people were beginning to dislike Garvey for his views, and he was often booed at his speeches.

In 1922, Garvey and three other UNIA officials were charged with fraud involving the Black Star Line. Their finances were in a mess and contained many inaccuracies, so it was difficult for them to defend themselves. Garvey was found guilty and imprisoned for five years. On his release in 1927, Garvey was deported to Jamaica.

Garvey continued to work with the UNIA, but people were confused when he collaborated with organisations like the KKK. Garvey reportedly claimed he respected white supremacists because they acted on their word, unlike other white people. As a result, Garvey lost a lot of support within the Black population.

In 1935, Garvey moved to London, where he died after a series of strokes in 1940. By this time, he was far less popular than he had been a decade ago, but in 1964, Jamaica hailed him as a national hero. Although he alienated a lot of people through his radical beliefs and actions, he was the spark that influenced many civil rights activists, for instance, Malcolm X. Most of his Black Nationalist views have been ignored, but his key messages live on, particularly “Black is beautiful”.

“We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honour black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history … I am the equal of any white man; I want you to feel the same way.” – Marcus Garvey

Build Like Madam C.J.

Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America; she was also the first black female millionaire. Despite racism being rife in the country, Madam C.J. built an empire from nothing, developing a line of hair and beauty products for black women. She is also remembered for being a civil rights activist.

Born on 23rd December 1867 in Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove, Madam C.J. was originally known as Sarah. She had one sister and four brothers, the elder of whom were born into slavery. Sarah was the first Breedlove child born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862. Sadly, her mother passed away from cholera in 1872, and her father died the following year.

From the age of ten, Sarah was brought up in Mississippi by her much older sister Louvenia and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. Around the same time, Sarah began working as a domestic servant. As an orphan, she had no time or money to go to school, and the only education she received was at Sunday school before the death of her parents.

Sarah had a rough time living with Louvenia. Jesse was an abusive man, and Sarah took the first opportunity to escape from the household: getting married. Sarah was only 14 years old when she married Moses McWilliams in 1882. Three years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A’Lelia (1885-1931), but in 1887, their lives were shattered by the death of Moses.

To earn money, Sarah moved to St Louis, Missouri, where her brothers lived to work as a laundress. She was determined to earn enough money to send her daughter to school, which was a difficult task earning less than $1 a day. Sarah also wanted to live an educated life and was jealous of the educated women at the African Methodist Episcopal Church she attended.

In 1894, Sarah married John Davis, but their marriage was not a happy one, and she left him in 1903. Meanwhile, Sarah was battling severe dandruff, leading to baldness, which was a common problem for black women at the time. Hair products were made for white-skinned customers and were unsuitable for African-Americans.

Sarah knew a little about haircare from her brothers, who were barbers, but she was determined to do something about the quality of products available for black women. In 1904, she became an agent for Annie Malone (1877-1957), a black inventor and businesswoman, who specialised in cosmetics. Using the knowledge she gained working for Malone, Sarah began to develop her own products. Meanwhile, she continued to work for Malone in Denver, Colorado, where she had moved in 1905. When Malone found out about Sarah’s products, she accused her of stealing the formula despite it having been around for centuries. From then on, Sarah and Malone were rivals.

In 1906, Sarah married a newspaper advertising salesman, Charles Joseph Walker (d.1926), and took on his name. Soon she was known as Madam C.J. Walker, a name under which she marketed her products. To begin with, Sarah sold her products door-to-door whilst her husband began to arrange advertising and promotion. When business improved, A’Lelia became involved with the business, setting up a mail-order operation in their home. Charles and Sarah travelled to the southern states to promote the business, eventually moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to set up a beauty parlour and training college.

A’Lelia joined Madam C.J. in Pittsburgh in 1907 and persuaded her mother to open a beauty salon and office in New York. In 1910, Madam C.J. relocated to Indianapolis, where she established the headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and began hiring staff to help with the management.

Despite the competition, Madam C.J.’s products were popular because they helped hair to regrow and prevented them from becoming brittle. Between 1911 and 1919, she employed thousands of women and trained over 20,000 people. Unfortunately, Charles and Sarah divorced in 1912, meaning she lost her business partner.

As well as training her staff in haircare, she taught black women how to build their own businesses and become financially independent. In 1917, she established the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents, which welcomed 200 people to its first annual conference. This was also the first-ever conference for businesswomen in the USA.

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” This is what Madam C.J. told the National Negro Business League (NNBL) when she spoke at one of their meetings in 1912. As well as concentrating on her business, Madam C.J. involved herself in many good causes, wishing to put her well-earned money to good use.

Madam C.J. helped to raise funds for the YMCA and donated money to various churches and schools. She also became a patron of the arts and became friends with notable people, such as the author Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). In 1917, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the following year, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), making sizable monetary donations to both.

Around this time, Madam C.J. began to suffer from kidney failure and hypertension, passing away on 25th May 1919 at the age of 51. At her death, she was worth an estimated one million dollars, making her the wealthiest African-American woman in the country. Her daughter took over the company as its president, which continued to operate until 1981.

Madam C.J. Walker has been honoured several times since her death, including in recent years. Her company’s building in Indianapolis has been designated a National Historic Landmark, which now houses the Madam Walker Legacy Centre. In 2006, American actress and playwright Regina Taylor wrote The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove about Madam C.J.’s journey from rags to riches. Her most recent honour occurred in 2016 when the French beauty company Sephora launched a line of hair products called “Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture”, which are suitable for many different hair types. 

Not only did Madam C.J. Walker create a successful business at a time when black people were struggling for equality, but she also improved the lives of thousands of others. Thanks to her, black women were able to start their own businesses, thus helping them escape poverty and oppression. Madam C.J. was also a huge inspiration for future hair care and cosmetic businesses and will continue to be looked up to in years to come.


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Black Lives Matter (Part 2)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Fight Like Malcolm

Malcolm Stuart Little, or Malcolm X as he was better known, was an African American nationalist and civil rights activist. Malcolm was born on 19th May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Baptist lay-preacher Earl Little and Louise Helen Little, who were both involved with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). They taught their children to stand up for themselves and be proud of their heritage and black skin. Yet, the family were constantly targeted by the racist group, the Black Legion, forcing them to move twice, firstly to Wisconsin, then to Michigan.

Malcolm’s father died when he was only six years old. The official ruling was Earl had been involved in a streetcar accident, but Malcolm’s mother was certain it had been murder. In 1937, by which time Malcolm was 12, his mother suffered a mental breakdown and Malcolm and his siblings were separated and placed in foster care.

Malcolm did well at school but was deterred from going on to study law by a teacher who told him it was not a realistic career for a black man. As a result, Malcolm looked for jobs but never settled anywhere for long, eventually falling in with the wrong crowd in New York. For some time, Malcolm was involved with drugs, gambling, pimping and robbery until he was arrested for the latter in 1946.

While in prison, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious movement founded in 1930 that aimed to improve the lives of African Americans. On his release, Malcolm contacted the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who helped him convert to Islam and encouraged him to join the movement. All members were instructed to leave their family names behind and replace them with the letter X. Malcolm was more than happy to leave the name “Little” behind, which had been given to his ancestors by a slavemaster. Thus, he became known as Malcolm X.

In 1953, Malcolm became the assistant minister at a temple in Detroit, where he proved to be a skilful speaker and encouraged many people to join the Nation of Islam. Amongst Malcolm’s recruits to the Nation of Islam was the boxer Cassius Clay, who adopted the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. The FBI opened a file on Malcolm after he declared himself a communist. His popularity amongst the movement’s members increased the FBI’s concerns.

Malcolm married Betty Sanders in 1958, who renamed herself Betty X after joining the Nation of Islam. They had six daughters who they named after notable Muslims: Attallah (Attila the Hun), Qubilah (Kublai Khan), Ilyasah (Elijah Muhammad), Gamilah Lumumba (Gamal Abdel Nasser and Patrice Lumumba), and twins: Malikah and Malaak, named after Malcolm, who took on the Muslim name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Teaching the movement’s followers that all white people were bad, Malcolm made himself a public figure, turning up at police stations to protest the wrongful arrests of several black people. His comments on various issues were published in magazines or reported on radio and television. Topics included the Nation of Islam’s beliefs that black people were the original people of the world. They believed white people were devils, blacks were superior to whites, and the demise of the white race was imminent. These statements alarmed many people of all races, particularly followers of Martin Luther King Jr, who wanted blacks accepted as equal to whites.

Between 1962 and 1963, Malcolm began to reassess his involvement with the Nation of Islam. He began to disagree with some of Elijah Muhammad’s choices and disapproved of Muhammad’s involvement in extramarital affairs, which went against the movement’s teachings. By 1964, Malcolm believed the movement had gone as far as it could, and felt restricted by its rigid teachings. Although he wanted to remain a Muslim, Malcolm wanted to support other civil rights leaders, which Muhammad had actively discouraged.

After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, which focused more on the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Later that year, he took the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, where he met Muslims of “all colours, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” which made him realise there was not a superior race, but that everyone was equal.

Having completed his journey to Mecca, Malcolm visited several African countries where he gave many interviews and television appearances. Following this, he visited France and the United Kingdom, where he involved himself in national debates. On his return to the USA, he was invited to speak at various universities and public spaces, encouraging people to fight for their rights and support one another.

As time passed, Malcolm received many death threats, and not only from anti-black organisations. The Nation of Islam branded Malcolm a hypocrite and wished to “bump him off”. Despite warning many people of the threats against his life, no one was able to prevent gunmen from advancing on him during a speech. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm on 21st February 1965, having suffered 21 gunshot wounds. The assassins were identified as members of the Nation of Islam, but only Talmadge Hayer was convicted. Hayer refused to name the other men, and, to this day, they remain unknown. The case continues to intrigue people, and earlier this year (2020), Netflix aired the docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X? which launched a new investigation into the assassination.  

After Malcolm’s death, Martin Luther King Jr got in touch with his wife, saying, “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.” Even those who were against Malcolm’s beliefs and ideas were shocked at his death.

Malcolm X has been described as one of the most influential African Americans in history. Although many did not approve of his tactics and beliefs, his actions stirred black communities into action to fight for the lives they deserved. As one biographer put it, Malcolm X “made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to black America’s legitimate demands.”

Write like Maya

Maya Angelou was one of the most influential black poets of the 20th and early 21st century, writing on themes of racism, identity, family and travel. She was also a civil rights activist and worked with Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. She was showered with awards and over 50 honorary degrees, but her life was not always plain sailing.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on 4th April 1928 in Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Johnson, Maya was given her nickname by her older brother, Bailey Jr. Unfortunately, her parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and they separated when she was three years old. Rather than take responsibility for his children, her father sent them to Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. They remained there until Maya was seven when they moved home to live with their mother.

Sadly, living with their mother also meant living with their mother’s abusive boyfriend, who raped Maya when she was only eight years old. The man was arrested and locked up for one day but was murdered four days later, most likely by Maya’s uncles. The abuse greatly affected Maya, who became mute for five years, even after moving back in with her grandmother. Fortunately, her school teacher helped Maya to regain her voice whilst also feeding her passion for reading, introducing the young girl to authors who would influence her future career.

When Maya was 14, she rejoined her mother, who was then living in California. At 16, she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco, where she worked whilst also attending school. Unfortunately, she got herself in trouble, and no more than three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to a baby boy, Clyde.

In 1951, Maya married a Greek electrician called Tosh Angelos, despite her mother’s disapproval. At that time, interracial marriages were unusual. Maya began taking dance lessons and dreamt of a career in a dance team. In an attempt to increase her prospects, Maya, Tosh and Clyde moved to New York for a year, where she studied African dance. For reasons unknown, in 1954, not long after returning to San Francisco, Maya’s marriage ended.

Having to fend for herself financially, Maya began dancing in local clubs, such as The Purple Onion, under her professional name, Maya Angelou. In 1954-5, she toured Europe by acting in the opera Porgy and Bess and, in 1957, wrote and recorded an album called Miss Calypso. In every country she visited, Maya made a point of learning the language, quickly becoming proficiently multilingual.

In 1959, African-American author John Oliver Killens encouraged Maya to focus on writing songs and poems rather than solely performing. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and soon became a published author. The following year, she met Martin Luther King Jr and was inspired to organise a concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called Cabaret for Freedom

Maya had a brief relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved with him to Cairo in 1961 along with her son, who had renamed himself, Guy. The relationship only lasted a year, after which Maya moved to Ghana, where her son enrolled at university. While Guy was studying, Maya worked as a freelance writer for The African Review and Radio Ghana. 

Whilst living in Ghana, Maya met Malcolm X, who was touring Africa. He encouraged her to return to the USA in 1965 and help him set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly after, Malcolm X was assassinated, and Maya, at a loss, moved to Hawaii, where her brother lived and refocused on her singing career. Not long after, she returned to Los Angeles to resume her writing career.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr approached Maya for help organising a march. Tragically, in a similar fate to Malcolm X, King was assassinated on Maya’s 40th birthday. After a bout of depression, Maya resumed writing and published her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Initially, the publishers were unsure whether to publish the book, but it went on to become a bestseller, earning Maya international recognition. 

In 1972, Maya became the first black woman to write a screenplay, which was filmed in Sweden and released under the name Georgia, Georgia. She also wrote the soundtrack for the film. The following year, she married the Welsh carpenter Paul du Feu, who had once been married to the radical feminist Germaine Greer. For the next decade, Maya continued writing articles, screenplays, poems and books and became close friends with Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, her second marriage ended in divorce in 1981.

Returning to the southern states, Maya accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, becoming one of the first black women to be a full-time professor. She taught on a variety of themes that interested her, including philosophy, ethics, writing and theatre, but also continued to write.

In 1993, Maya Angelou recited one of her poems at the inauguration of Bill Clinton – the first poet to do so since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. This televised event increased her fame across the world and earned her a Grammy Award. In 1996, she finally achieved her goal of directing a film (Down in the Delta) and, by 2002, she had published her 6th autobiography. 

Hillary Clinton, during her campaign for the Democratic Party 2008 presidential primaries, used Maya Angelou’s endorsement in her advertisements. After Obama won the primary, Maya gave him her full support. When Obama became the first African-American president, Maya said, “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism.”

Maya published her 7th and final autobiography in 2013 called Mom & Me & Mom, focusing on her relationship with her mother. The following year, on 28th May 2014, Maya passed away after her health deteriorated. Despite cancelling a few events, Maya Angelou was working and attended events until her death. Tributes flooded in as soon as the news was made public, and her first biography instantly became the number one bestseller on Amazon. A public funeral was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had been a member for 30 years. 

As well as the Grammy Award for her poetry recital at Clinton’s inauguration, Maya Angelou received several awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, two more Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and over 50 honorary degrees. Although these were awarded for her talents, they were also a sign that she overcame her past and did not let racial inequalities stand in the way of her success.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Black Lives Matter (Part 1)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Dream like Martin

Martin Luther King Junior was an American minister who became the spokesperson and leader of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955 until his assassination in 1968. He is a hero and inspiration for the recent Black Lives Matter campaign and was instrumental in combating racial inequality in the United States.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 15th January 1929, he was originally named Michael, although his father, Reverend Michael King Snr, claimed this to be a mistake. Apparently, his mother, Alberta, gave him the name Michael, which a physician entered onto the birth certificate without consulting the father. Nonetheless, after a trip to Germany in 1934, where he learnt about the German professor Martin Luther, Michael King Snr began referring to himself as Martin Luther King and his son as Martin Luther King Jr. On 23rd July 1957, Junior’s name was officially changed on his birth certificate.

King and his two younger siblings grew up listening to bible stories and lived in harmony with black and white children until they began school. Only then did King notice the difference in treatment between black and white. King had no choice but to attend Younge Street Elementary School for black children and was no longer allowed to play with his white friends. His father refused to accept segregation laws and led protests and marches in Atlanta.

King Jr began to resent racial humiliation during his teenage years. He had grown up memorising bible passages and hymns, but his experiences as a black boy made him question the authenticity of Christian beliefs. Fortunately, his mentor at college, a Baptist minister, who also became his spiritual mentor, encouraged King to follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from college, King enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania.

In 1951, King began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University, and the following year he was called as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Whilst studying in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, who he later married on 18th June 1953. Over the next decade, the Kings became the parents of four children: Yolanda King (1955–2007), Martin Luther King III (b. 1957), Dexter Scott King (b. 1961), and Bernice King (b. 1963).

In 1955, a schoolgirl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat for a white man in protest of the enforced racial segregation laws. King, who was in the Birmingham African-American community, looked into the case, but it was eventually dismissed on account of Colvin being a minor. Later that year, a similar incident occurred when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. As a result, King led a boycott of the buses in Montgomery, which lasted 385 days until King’s house was bombed. Although King was arrested during the campaign, it resulted in the end of racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.

In 1957, King and some other black ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which aimed to encourage black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the name of civil rights. The conference was inspired by Reverend Billy Graham, who, despite being white, had befriended King and shared his sentiments. During the SCLC’s 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom demonstration in Washington, King made his first public speech to the nation.

The following year, King published his book Stride Toward Freedom. During a book signing in Harlem, he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener. He narrowly escaped death with the help of surgeons and was hospitalised for three weeks. The attack was not deemed a racial offence as the perpetrator was a mentally ill black woman called Izola Curry, who believed King was conspiring against her with a group of Communists. 

After recovering from his near-death experience, King returned to the fore of the Civil Rights movement and led several non-violent protests and marches. These aimed to provide black citizens with the right to vote and provide labour and civil rights, most of which were granted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

King and the SCLC involved themselves with uprisings around the country. In Albany, Georgia, King was arrested at a peaceful demonstration in 1961 and again in 1962. The following year in Birmingham, Alabama, King was arrested again for campaigning against racial segregation and economic injustice. This was his 13th arrest, and by the end of his life, he had been arrested 29 times. Nonetheless, he remained undeterred and joined or organised protests in New York and Florida in 1964.

Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous “I have a dream” speech took place during the March on Washington in 1963. The march demanded the removal of racial segregation in schools, a law to prevent racial discrimination at work, a minimum wage for black workers and protection from police brutality, amongst other things. King’s speech has since been listed as one of the finest speeches in the history of America.

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

King continued to organise marches, speeches and protests and, in 1967, involved the SCLC with the protests against the war in Vietnam. Not only was King concerned about black rights, but he also spoke strongly against the USA’s involvement in the war in general. Following this, in 1968, King organised the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address the issues of economic justice across America. By then, some circumstances had improved for black people, and King emphasised that black and white were equal and everyone deserved the same rights.

On 29th March 1968, Martin Luther King Jr went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support the strike of black sanitary public works employees, where he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The following evening, whilst standing on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel where he was staying, Martin Luther King Jr was fatally shot in the face by James Earl Ray. Despite being rushed to hospital, King passed away an hour later. His death resulted in mass riots in cities across America until, on 7th April, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning for the Civil Rights leader. Just days after his death, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed to prohibit discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions based on race, religion, or national origin.

Despite dying at the age of 39, Martin Luther King Jr’s actions and legacy changed the lives of black people forever. The struggle was by no means over, but black and white were beginning to live in harmony. His dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” was finally coming true.

Lead like Harriet

Araminta “Minty” Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland but later escaped and became one of the leaders of the “Underground Railroad”, which led hundreds of slaves to freedom. It is not certain when Harriet and her eight siblings were born, but it is estimated to be between 1815 and 1825. Plantation owners owned her parents, Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross, and some of their children were sold to other plantations in other states.

Physical violence was a common occurrence for Harriet and her family, particularly in the form of whipping. Harriet carried scars on her back for the rest of her life. On one occasion, when she refused to do something, Harriet’s overseer threw a two-pound weight at her head, knocking her out. This led to seizures, headaches and narcolepsy, which Harriet suffered for the rest of her life. On the other hand, the seizures caused her to fall into intense dream states, which she believed to be religious experiences.

Harriet’s father became a free man at the age of 45, but having nowhere to go, he remained working on the plantation in slave-like conditions. He did not feel he could leave his family, who remained in the plantation owner’s possession. Even when Harriet married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, she was not released from slavery.

In 1849, Harriet made her first trip from South to North following a network known as the Underground Railroad. Following the death of her owner, Harriet decided to escape from slavery and run away to Philadelphia. On 17th September 1849, Harriet and two of her brothers began the long journey, but after they learnt that Harriet was being sought in the papers for a reward of $300, the boys had second thoughts and returned home. Harriet’s husband had also refused to go with her and later took on a new wife.

Continuing alone, Harriet travelled almost 90 miles to Philadelphia, where she finally entered a Free State. “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” But this was not the end of Harriet’s story. No sooner had she arrived, she returned to the South to help more than 300 people escape from slavery. Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet made 19 trips, the first being to help her niece Kessiah and family flee from the harsh conditions. 

Things became harder when the Fugitive Slave Law came into practice, stating that escaped slaves could be arrested and returned to their owners even if they were living in Free States. Nonetheless, Harriet persevered, rerouting the Underground Railroad to Canada.

Harriet had a prophetic vision about the abolitionist John Brown, who she later met in 1858. Although Brown advocated violence, he ultimately wanted the same result as Harriet, and they began working together. Unfortunately, Brown was arrested and executed, for which Harriet praised him as a martyr.

During the Civil War, Harriet entered the Union Army as a cook and nurse, although she ended up working as an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war, which resulted in the liberation of over 700 slaves in South Carolina.

In 1859, Harriet bought a small piece of land near Auburn, New York, from fellow abolitionist Senator William H. Seward. Ten years later, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis and, in 1874, adopted a baby girl called Gertie. They lived happily in their own home, despite never being financially secure. Friends and supporters endeavoured to raise money for her. One fan, Sarah H. Bradford, wrote Harriet’s biography and gave her all the proceeds.

In 1903, Harriet opened her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and, five years later, opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Sadly, Harriet’s health was not good. The physical abuse received as a slave caused her severe problems, resulting in brain surgery to alleviate some of the pain. She died in 1917 from pneumonia and was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery with military honours.

At the end of the 20th century, Harriet Tubman was named one of the most famous civilians in American History, and she will soon be the face of the new $20 bill. Yet, outside of America, Harriet remains unknown, although, in 2019, a film was released titled Harriet, which documents her life as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. A Woman Called Moses from 1978 also documents her career. 

To be continued…


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The African Mahler

Many have heard of the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), but how many people know Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the English composer and conductor? Known in America as the “African Mahler”, Coleridge overcame the constraints of his race to succeed in his career as a classical composer and musician. African people considered Coleridge-Taylor a beacon of hope for the future and continue to remember him as an iconic figure of Black British history.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor was born on 15th August 1875, the son of a white British woman and an African-American man from Sierra Leone. His father, Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, met his mother, Alice Hare Martin (1856-1953), whilst studying medicine at King’s College London. After a short relationship, Taylor returned to Africa, unaware that Alice was pregnant. Alice, who lived with her father and step-mother in Croydon, South London, named her son after her favourite poet, although she preferred to call him Coleridge.

Coleridge’s grandfather, Benjamin Holmans, worked as a farrier, but also taught the violin. After his fifth birthday, his grandfather began giving Coleridge violin lessons and, after noticing the young boy’s talent, insisted he receive professional training. Coleridge also enjoyed singing and joined the local church choir.

In 1887, Alice Martin married a railway worker called George Evans and moved out of her father’s home. Although he no longer lived with his grandfather, Coleridge’s maternal family encouraged him to continue his music studies and arranged for him to attend the Royal College of Music. At only 15 years old, Coleridge began studying under the composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), one of the founding professors of the college. For his degree, Coleridge opted to focus on composition rather than the violin and, after graduating, began teaching at the Crystal Palace School of Music. He also worked as a professional musician and became the conductor of the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. Due to a printing error in which a hyphen was added to his name, people came to know him as “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor”, which he kept as his professional name.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor c. 1893

In 1893, Coleridge-Taylor published his first composition, Piano Quintet in G minor. Following this success, he produced nonets, suites and symphonies for a variety of instruments. In 1896, his growing reputation caught the attention of English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Noticing the young man’s talent, Elgar recommended Coleridge-Taylor to the annual Three Choirs Festival, one of the oldest classical choral music festivals in the world. Dating back to 1715, the festival was instrumental to the careers of some of the most famous composers in history, including Handel, Mozart and Beethoven.

After Coleridge-Taylor premiered at the Three Choirs Festival with Ballade in A minor, Elgar introduced him to August Jaeger (1860-1909), an Anglo-German music publisher. Impressed, Jaeger called Coleridge-Taylor “a genius” and offered to guide the young man in his professional career. With the help of this influential editor, Coleridge-Taylor produced one of his most successful series of works, The Song of Hiawatha.

Written between 1898 and 1900, Coleridge-Taylor based the trilogy upon his favourite poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). The Song of Hiawatha relates the fictional adventures of a Native American called Hiawatha and his love for Minnehaha, whose life comes to a tragic end. The first part, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898), consists of nine sections for orchestra and voice. The premiere, conducted by Charles Villiers Stanford, took place on 11th November 1898 at the Royal College of Music and was attended by many famous names.

Before the performance, the English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) wrote to Coleridge-Taylor, “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried.” He later mentioned in his diary, “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original – he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour – at times luscious, rich and sensual. The work was very well done.” Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), a contemporary of Elgar, also praised Coleridge-Taylor and described the performance as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.”

Initially, Coleridge-Taylor did not plan to compose a trilogy, but the success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned him the commission for a sequel. The first part rivalled Handel’s Messiah in popularity, but the second part, The Death of Minnehaha (1899), did not receive as much praise. The third part, Hiawatha’s Departure, which premiered in 1900, received the least admiration due to Elgar and Jaeger’s open criticism.

Christmas greeting card displaying the Coleridge-Taylor family, 1912

In 1899, Coleridge-Taylor married Jessie Walmisley, who he met while studying at the Royal College of Music. Her parents tried to prevent the marriage because they did not want a man of mixed-race to marry their white daughter, but they soon relented, most likely on account of Coleridge-Taylor’s musical success. In 1900, Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie welcomed a son named Hiawatha (1900-80) after the protagonist of Longfellow’s poem. Three years later, Jessie gave birth to a daughter, Gwendolen Avril (1903-98). Both followed in their father’s footsteps to have careers in music.

Invitation to the Pan-African Conference at Westminster Town Hall, London, 23–25 July 1900

The success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned Coleridge-Taylor the opportunity to tour three times in the United States of America. He also participated in the 1900 First Pan-African Conference, of which he was the youngest delegate. Organized by Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams (1867-1911), the conference took place at Westminster Town Hall (now Caxton Hall) between the 23rd and 25th July. According to the chair, Bishop Alexander Walters (1858-1917), it was “the first time in history black people had gathered from all parts of the globe to discuss and improve the condition of their race, to assert their rights and organize so that they might take an equal place among nations.”

The conference aimed to improve the treatment of Africans in Britain and the British Empire but also attracted many American attendees. Coleridge-Taylor became acquainted with the civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963) and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), who inspired the young composer. Working together, the 37 delegates penned a petition to Queen Victoria (1819-1901) to look into the treatment of African people, particularly in South Africa and Rhodesia, where they faced segregation, could not vote and had difficulty purchasing properties. The Queen responded positively towards the cause but passed away not long after.

In 1904, on a tour of the USA, Coleridge-Taylor met President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) at the White House. Whilst Roosevelt invited Coleridge as a result of the success of his music, African-Americans also viewed this as an achievement. At that time, black people very rarely received invites to meet the President. Encouraged by this, the American civil rights movement adopted The Song of Hiawatha as their “battle song”. Coleridge-Taylor also met with Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), who despite his skin colour, often advised the President on racial matters. Coleridge-Taylor shared his experiences of racial abuse with Washington and other members of the Black community, which inspired him to demonstrate his African heritage through his music.

In England, Coleridge-Taylor collaborated with Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poems represented the lives of African Americans. Coleridge-Taylor set many of Dunbar’s works to music, which they performed in London at a joint recital under the patronage of John Hay (1838-1905), the US Secretary of State. Encouraged by the praise and support he gained from black people, Coleridge-Taylor endeavoured to integrate African music and themes into his compositions. In doing this, Coleridge-Taylor said, “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.”

As well as introducing African culture to classical music, Coleridge-Taylor based some of his compositions on historical events, for instance, his concert overture Toussaint L’Ouverture (1901). François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was a prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born a slave in the French colony, then known as Saint-Domingue, Louverture rebelled against the government and led a successful revolutionary movement, earning him the epithet “Father of Haiti”. Unfortunately, Coleridge-Taylor’s overture did not prove as successful as The Song of Hiawatha. Whereas the BBC Proms have performed the latter over 60 times, Toussaint L’Ouverture only appeared at the music festival once in 1919.

In 1902, Coleridge-Taylor composed the march Ethiopia Saluting the Colours to commemorate the Ethiopian victory over Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. The outcome secured Ethiopia’s independence and made the country a symbol of Pan-Africanism. A few years later, Coleridge-Taylor composed Twenty-Four Negro Melodies (1905), which also celebrated Pan-Africanism. Coleridge-Taylor based the melodies on 24 tunes sung by slaves across Southeast Africa, South Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, and America. Slaves sang while labouring in the fields or in the evenings to express their pain and weariness. The songs also spoke of hope for the future and encouraged all slaves in the vicinity by letting them know they were not alone in their plight. In concert, the orchestra tended to play all Twenty-Four Negro Melodies in one sitting, but each piece differs in sound and style. Many Thousands Gone, for example, was based on a Negro spiritual, whereas Deep River sounded like a church-hymn and Warriors’ Song like a battle cry.

Coleridge-Taylor’s third tour of the USA took place in 1910 when he performed at the Litchfield Festival in May 1910. He also conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which at the time was directed by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Initially, the musicians expressed concern about having a black conductor, but only one person refused to play. The success of the concert earned Coleridge-Taylor the sobriquet “African Mahler”.

When in England, Coleridge-Taylor worked at the Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music in London. Many described him as a shy person but an effective conductor, particularly for the Rochester Choral Society and the Handel Society. He often received invitations to judge music competitions around Britain, although he still faced racist abuse due to his mixed heritage.

Despite the racist judgements, Coleridge-Taylor’s works were undeniably successful, and he became an inspiration to a new generation of musicians. Unfortunately, composers earned very little, often selling their compositions outright when low on funds. Coleridge-Taylor sold his most successful work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for a mere 15 guineas. The publishers, on the other hand, sold many copies of the music, thus reaping all the royalties. Although Coleridge-Taylor learned from this mistake and insisted on retaining his rights for future compositions, his financial situation remained precarious.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s grave at Bandon Hill Copyright © Peter Hughes

In 1912, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor contracted pneumonia and passed away at the age of 37. Many blame the stress of his finances for his early death. On his gravestone at Bandon Hill Cemetery in Wallington, Surrey, are engraved the words of his friend and poet Alfred Noyes (1880-1958): Too young to die: his great simplicity, his happy courage in an alien world, his gentleness, made all that knew him love him.

Concerned for the welfare of Coleridge-Taylor’s wife and children, King George V (1865-1936) granted Jessie Coleridge-Taylor an annual pension of £100. A memorial concert held at the Royal Albert Hall raised an additional £300 for the family. Although they could not benefit from the sales of the Song of Hiawatha, which soared following the composer’s death, musicians formed the Performing Rights Society in his honour, which campaigned to gain revenue from all performances and publications.

A 1912 obituary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review

The death of Coleridge-Taylor attracted attention across the world with news reports and obituaries appearing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church ReviewSierra Leone Weekly News and Crystal Palace Reporter, amongst other papers. He was mourned by many, particularly those who considered him a beacon of hope for Black lives as well as those who admired his music. Schools in Kentucky and Maryland were named in his memory, and the 200-voice African-American chorus established in 1901 continued singing under the name of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. In London, a blue plaque adorns the wall of his childhood home in Dagnall Park, South Norwood, and another where he lived and died in St Leonards Road, Croydon.

Both Coleridge-Taylor’s children followed in his footsteps to attain a career in the music industry. Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor adapted many of his father’s works for various performances, and his daughter, Gwendolen Avril, became a composer and conductor. Coleridge-Taylor did not live to hear his daughter’s first composition, which she wrote aged twelve. This song, Goodbye Butterfly, won her a scholarship at Trinity College of Music.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor

In 1924, Gwendolen married Harold Dashwood but continued to compose under her maiden name. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last and, after her divorce, she officially dropped her first name and worked professionally as Avril Coleridge-Taylor. In 1933, she made her first debut as a composer at the Royal Albert Hall, followed by becoming the first female conductor of H.M.S. Royal Marines.

During her career, Avril composed many successful songs, orchestral pieces, chamber music and keyboard compositions. Yet, Avril did not have as much success as her father due to her gender. On occasion, this forced her to compose under the pseudonym Peter Riley. Unlike her father, Avril did not experience racial abuse in England, so she was unprepared for the reaction she caused during a tour of South Africa in 1952. South Africa, which was in the grips of apartheid, treated Avril as a white woman until they learned of her one-quarter black ancestry. Immediately, the government banned her from composing and conducting in the country. From then on, Avril supported the efforts of Black African movements and composed the Ceremonial March to celebrate Ghana’s independence in 1957.

History books record little else about Avril’s career other than she wrote a biography of her father in which she recorded her memories. She passed away aged 95 in 1998 at a nursing home in Seaford, Sussex. Until recently, her father, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was also an unfamiliar name, but the Black Lives Matter movement has unearthed him from the archives. Whilst Coleridge-Taylor is celebrated for his involvement with Pan-Africanism, we ought to remember him for his talent irrespective of his skin colour.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor produced over 80 compositions during his short life, which is more than some composers write during a much longer period. Nicknamed the “African Mahler”, Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way to joining Gustav Mahler amongst the ranks of top composers and conductors. Unfortunately, he died before he could fully realise his potential, but his surviving achievements are evidence of his talent and genius.


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