The first Miss Black America pageant takes place

Year
1968
Month Day
August 17

At nearly three in the morning, Saundra Williams walked across a stage with a cream rhinestone cape around her shoulders, a sash across her torso and a scepter in her hand, ready to be crowned as pageant royalty. Though it was the same night as the Miss America pageant, Williams’ crowning wasn’t just about beauty. It was about protest.

She was the first Miss Black America, and her message was clear: Black is beautiful, too. 

A year before Williams took the stage, J. Morris Anderson, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, asked his two young daughters what they wanted to be when they grew up. They gave an answer that most girls at the time would: they wanted to be Miss America. But he knew that the racist standards would keep them from even being considered for the crown. It was then that he decided to do something—to show his girls they could be Miss America, too.

Phillip H. Savage, then director of the Tri-State NAACP, helped the groundbreaking—but then taboo—pageant get national coverage. They decided to hold it the same night, and in the same city, as the Miss America pageant. They chose to start their so-called “positive protest” at midnight, in hopes that newsmen would drop by when they left Convention Hall after the conclusion of the other pageant.

The 19-year-old winner from Philadelphia grew up in a middle class home and said she never experienced racism until she went to college at Maryland State College. For the first time, she walked into a restaurant and was refused service. That’s when she became an activist in the Black Awareness Movement, leading a silent protest march to attempt to integrate that very same restaurant.

For talent, Williams performed a traditional African dance and, during the Question and Answer segment, she shocked the crowd by saying men and women should do equal housework because she thought “the male is getting awfully lazy.”

The men in the audience booed, but it wasn’t enough to cost her the crown, a trip to Puerto Rico, a modeling contract and a trophy.

Williams said being ordained with this crown was even better than winning Miss America. She wanted this to be the first of many positive messages to Black women.

“There is a need to keep saying this over and over because for so long none of us believed it,” she said. “But now we’re finally coming around.”

Sixteen years later, Vanessa Williams would be crowned Miss America. She was the first Black woman to win the honor. The Miss Black America pageant continues to this day.

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Balloon crosses the Atlantic

Year
1978
Month Day
August 17

The Double Eagle II completes the first transatlantic balloon flight when it lands in a barley field near Paris, 137 hours after lifting off from Presque Isle, Maine. The helium-filled balloon was piloted by Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman and flew 3,233 miles in the six-day odyssey.

Human flight first became a reality in the early 1780s with the successful development of the hot-air balloon by French papermaking brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. Soon balloons were being filled with lighter-than-air gas, such as helium or hydrogen, to provide buoyancy. An early achievement of ballooning came in 1785 when Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries became the first to cross the English Channel by air. In the 18th and 19th centuries, balloons were used more for military surveillance and scientific study than for transport or sport. As a mode of air travel, the balloon was supplanted by the self-propelled dirigible–a motorized balloon–in the late 19th century.

In the early 20th century, however, interest in sport ballooning began to grow, and an international trophy was offered annually for long-distance flights. Belgian balloonists dominated these early competitions. After World War II, new technology made ballooning safer and more affordable, and by the 1960s the sport enjoyed widespread popularity. The transatlantic flight, first accomplished by aircraft and dirigible in 1919, remained an elusive goal of elite balloonists.

From 1859 until the flight of the Double Eagle II in 1978, there were 17 unsuccessful transatlantic balloon flights, resulting in the deaths of at least seven balloonists. In September 1977, Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson made their first attempt in the Double Eagle I but were blown off course and forced to ditch off Iceland after traveling 2,950 miles in 66 hours. Abruzzo took several months to recover from frostbite suffered during the ordeal, but by 1978 he and Anderson were ready to make the attempt again. They added Larry Newman as a third pilot, and on September 11, 1978, the Double Eagle II lifted off from Presque Isle, Maine.

The 11-story, helium-filled balloon made good progress during the first four days, and the three pilots survived on hot dogs and canned sardines. The only real trouble of the trip occurred on August 16, when atmospheric conditions forced the Double Eagle II to drop from 20,000 feet to a dangerous 4,000 feet. They jettisoned ballast material and soon rose to a safe height again. That night, they reached the coast of Ireland and on August 17 flew across England en route to their destination of Le Bourget field in Paris, site of Charles Lindbergh’s landing after flying solo in a plane across the Atlantic in 1927. Over southern England, their wives flew close enough to the balloon in a private plane to blow kisses at their husbands.

Blown slightly off course toward the end of the journey, they touched down just before dusk on August 17 near the hamlet of Miserey, about 50 miles west of Paris. Their 137-hour flight set new endurance and distance records. The Americans were greeted by family members and jubilant French spectators who followed their balloon by car. That night, Larry Newman, who at 31 was the youngest of the three pilots, was allowed to sleep with his wife in the same bed where Charles Lindbergh slept after his historic transatlantic flight five decades before.

In 1981, Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark, and Rocky Aoki of Japan flew from Nagashimi, Japan, to Mendocino National Forest in California in the first transpacific flight. American Joe Kittinger made a solo transatlantic balloon flight in 1984. In 1995, American Steve Fosset accomplished a solo transpacific flight. One of the last frontiers of ballooning was conquered in 1999, when Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Englishman Brian Jones completed the first nonstop trip around the world in a hybrid helium and hot-air balloon. They flew from the Swiss Alps, circumnavigated the globe, and landed in Egypt, having traveled more than 29,000 miles in 20 days.

Then, in 2002, American adventurer Steve Fossett became the first man in history to fly around the world solo in a hot-air balloon.

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General George S. Patton wins race to Messina

Year
1943
Month Day
August 17

U.S. General George S. Patton and his 7th Army arrive in Messina several hours before British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery and his 8th Army, winning the unofficial “Race to Messina” and completing the Allied conquest of Sicily.

Born in San Gabriel, California, in 1885, Patton’s family had a long history of military service. After studying at West Point, he served as a tank officer in World War I, and these experiences, along with his extensive military study, led him to become an advocate of the crucial importance of the tank in future warfare. After the American entrance into World War II, Patton was placed in command of an important U.S. tank division and played a key role in the Allied invasion of French North Africa in 1942. In 1943, Patton led the U.S. 7th Army in its assault on Sicily and won fame for out-commanding Montgomery during their pincer movement against Messina.

Although Patton was one of the ablest American commanders in World War II, he was also one of the most controversial. He presented himself as a modern-day cavalryman, designed his own uniform, and was known to make eccentric claims of his direct descent from great military leaders of the past through reincarnation. During the Sicilian campaign, Patton generated considerable controversy when he accused a hospitalized U.S. soldier suffering from battle fatigue of cowardice and then personally struck him across the face. The famously profane general was forced to issue a public apology and was reprimanded by General Dwight Eisenhower.

However, when it was time for the invasion of Western Europe, Eisenhower could find no general as formidable as Patton, and the general was again granted an important military post. In 1944, Patton commanded the U.S. 3rd Army in the invasion of France, and in December of that year his expertise in military movement and tank warfare helped crush the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes.

During one of his many successful campaigns, General Patton was said to have declared, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” On December 21, 1945, he died in a hospital in Germany from injuries sustained in an automobile accident near Mannheim.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About George Patton 

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Dakota uprising begins in Minnesota

Year
1862
Month Day
August 17

Minnesota erupts in violence as desperate Dakota Indians attack white settlements along the Minnesota River. The Dakota were eventually overwhelmed by the U.S. military six weeks later.

The Dakota Indians were more commonly referred to as the Sioux, a derogatory name derived from part of a French word meaning “little snake.” They were composed of four bands, and lived on temporary reservations in southwestern Minnesota. For two decades, the Dakota were poorly treated by the Federal government, local traders, and settlers. They saw their hunting lands whittled down, and provisions promised by the government rarely arrived. Worse yet, a wave of white settlers surrounded them.

The summer of 1862 was particularly hard on the Dakota. Cutworms destroyed much of their corn crops, and many families faced starvation. Dakota leaders were frustrated by attempts to convince traders to extend credit to tribal members and alleviate the suffering. On August 17, four young Dakota warriors were returning from an unsuccessful hunt when they stopped to steal some eggs from a white settlement. The youths soon picked a quarrel with the hen’s owner, and the encounter turned tragic when the Dakotas killed five members of the family. Sensing that they would be attacked, Dakota leaders determined that war was at hand and seized the initiative. Led by Taoyateduta (also known as Little Crow), the Dakota attacked local agencies and the settlement of New Ulm. Over 500 white settlers lost their lives along with about 150 Dakota warriors.

President Abraham Lincoln dispatched General John Pope, fresh from his defeat at the Second Battle of Bull RunVirginia, to organize the Military Department of the Northwest. Some Dakota fled to North Dakota, but more than 2,000 were rounded up and over 300 warriors were sentenced to death. President Lincoln commuted most of their sentences, but on December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were executed at Mankato, Minnesota. 

READ MORE: Native American History Timeline 

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Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s last living henchman, dies

Year
1987
Month Day
August 17

Rudolf Hess, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s former deputy, is found strangled to death in Spandau Prison in Berlin at the age of 93, apparently the victim of suicide. Hess was the last surviving member of Hitler’s inner circle and the sole prisoner at Spandau since 1966.

Hess, an early and devoted follower of Nazism, participated in Hitler’s failed “Beer Hall Putsch” in 1923. He escaped to Austria but voluntarily returned to Germany to join Hitler in Landsberg jail. During his eight months in prison, Hitler dictated his life story—Mein Kampfto Hess. In 1933, Hess became deputy Nazi party leader, but Hitler later lost faith in his leadership ability and made him second in the line of succession after Hermann Goering.

In May 1941, Hess stole an airplane and landed it in Scotland on a self-styled mission to negotiate a peace between Britain and Germany. He was immediately arrested by British authorities. His peace proposal—met with no response from the British—was essentially the same as the peace offer made by Hitler in July 1940: an end to hostilities with Britain and its empire in exchange for a free German hand on the European continent. However, by May 1941 the Battle of Britain had been lost by Germany, and Hitler rightly condemned Hess of suffering from “pacifist delusions” in thinking that a resurgent Britain would make peace.

Held in Britain until the end of the war, Hess was tried at Nuremberg after the war with other top Nazis. Because he had missed out on the worst years of Nazi atrocities and had sought peace in 1941, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was held in Spandau Prison in Berlin, and the USSR, the United States, Britain, and France shared responsibility in guarding him.

On August 17, 1987, he was found strangled to death in a cabin in the exercise yard at Spandau Prison. Apparently, he choked himself to death with an electrical cord he found there. Some suspected foul play.

READ MORE: The 7 Most Notorious Nazis Who Escaped to South America

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Woodstock Music Festival concludes

Year
1969
Month Day
August 17

On August 17, 1969, the grooviest event in music history–the Woodstock Music & Art Fair–draws to a close after three days of peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll in upstate New York.

Conceived as “Three Days of Peace and Music,” Woodstock was a product of a partnership between John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang. Their idea was to make enough money from the event to build a recording studio near the arty New York town of Woodstock. When they couldn’t find an appropriate venue in the town itself, the promoters decided to hold the festival on a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York—some 50 miles from Woodstock—owned by Max Yasgur.

READ MORE: The 8 Most Memorable Performances at Woodstock

By the time the weekend of the festival arrived, the group had sold a total of 186,000 tickets and expected no more than 200,000 people to show up. By Friday night, however, thousands of eager early arrivals were pushing against the entrance gates. Fearing they could not control the crowds, the promoters made the decision to open the concert to everyone, free of charge. Close to half a million people attended Woodstock, jamming the roads around Bethel with eight miles of traffic.

Soaked by rain and wallowing in the muddy mess of Yasgur’s fields, young fans best described as “hippies” euphorically took in the performances of acts like Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The Who performed in the early morning hours of August 17, with Roger Daltrey belting out “See Me, Feel Me,” from the now-classic album Tommy just as the sun began to rise. The most memorable moment of the concert for many fans was the closing performance by Jimi Hendrix, who gave a rambling, rocking solo guitar performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

READ MORE: 5 Reasons Why Woodstock ’69 Became Legendary

With not enough bathroom facilities and first-aid tents to accommodate such a huge crowd, many described the atmosphere at the festival as chaotic. There were surprisingly few episodes of violence, though one teenager was accidentally run over and killed by a tractor and another died from a drug overdose. A number of musicians performed songs expressing their opposition to the Vietnam War, a sentiment that was enthusiastically shared by the vast majority of the audience. Later, the term “Woodstock Nation” would be used as a general term to describe the youth counterculture of the 1960s.

A 25th anniversary celebration of Woodstock took place in 1994 in Saugerties, New York. Known as Woodstock II, the concert featured Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills and Nash as well as newer acts such as Nine Inch Nails and Green Day. Held over another rainy, muddy weekend, the event drew an estimated 300,000 people. A major 50th anniversary festival was planned for 2019, but never came to fruition. 

READ MORE: How a Music Festival That Should’ve Been a Disaster Became Iconic Instead

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President Clinton testifies before grand jury

Year
1998
Month Day
August 17

On August 17, 1998, President Bill Clinton becomes the first sitting president to testify before the Office of Independent Counsel as the subject of a grand-jury investigation.

The testimony came after a four-year investigation into Clinton and his wife Hillary’s alleged involvement in several scandals, including accusations of sexual harassment, potentially illegal real-estate deals and suspected “cronyism” involved in the firing of White House travel-agency personnel. The independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, then uncovered an affair between Clinton and a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. When questioned about the affair, Clinton denied it, which led Starr to charge the president with perjury and obstruction of justice, which in turn prompted his testimony on August 17.

After testifying, Clinton addressed the nation live via television and gave his side of the story. He admitted to an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky and said that he regretted misleading his wife and the American people when he denied the affair earlier. He insisted that he had given “legally accurate” answers in his testimony and that “at no time” had he asked anyone to “lie, hide or destroy evidence or to take any unlawful action.” In addressing the investigation into his past business dealings, Clinton insisted that the investigation did not prove that he or his wife Hillary had engaged in any illegal activity.

The damage, however, was already done. Revelations from the investigation sparked a battle in Congress over whether or not to impeach Clinton. While Democrats favored censure, Republicans called loudly for impeachment, claiming Clinton was unfit to lead the country. In December 1998, the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president, but after a five-week trial in the Senate, Clinton was acquitted. Public opinion polls at the time revealed that while many people disapproved of Clinton’s extramarital affair—which he conducted in the White House Oval Office—most did not consider it an action worthy of impeachment or resignation.

READ MORE: Why Clinton Survived Impeachment While Nixon Resigned After Watergate

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Billy the Kid kills his first man

Year
1877
Month Day
August 17

Though only a teenager at the time, Billy the Kid wounds an Arizona blacksmith who dies the next day. He was the famous outlaw’s first victim.

Just how many men Billy killed is uncertain. Billy himself reportedly once claimed he had killed 21 men—“One for every year of my life.” A reliable contemporary authority estimated the actual total was more like nine: four on his own and five with the aid of others. Other western outlaws of the day were far more deadly. John Wesley Hardin, for example, killed well over 20 men and perhaps as many as 40.

Yet, William Bonney (at various times he also used the surnames Antrim and McCarty) is better remembered today than Hardin and other killers, perhaps because he appeared to be such an unlikely killer. Blue-eyed, smooth-cheeked and unusually friendly, Billy seems to have been a decent young man who was dragged into a life of crime by circumstances beyond his control.

Such seems to have been the case for his first murder. Having fled from his home in New Mexico after being jailed for a theft he may not have committed, Billy became an itinerant ranch hand and sheepherder in Arizona. In 1877, he was hired on as a teamster at the Camp Grant Army Post, where he attracted the enmity of a burly civilian blacksmith named Frank “Windy” Cahill. Perhaps because Billy was well liked by others in the camp, Cahill enjoyed demeaning the scrawny youngster.

On this day in 1877, Cahill apparently went too far when he called Billy a “pimp.” Billy responded by calling Cahill a “son of a bitch,” and the big blacksmith jumped him and easily threw him to the ground. Pinned to the floor by the stronger man, Billy apparently panicked. He pulled his pistol and shot Cahill, who died the next day. According to one witness, “[Billy] had no choice; he had to use his equalizer.” However, the rough laws of the West might have found Billy guilty of unjustified murder because Cahill had not pulled his own gun.

Fearing imprisonment, Billy returned to New Mexico where he soon became involved in the bloody Lincoln County War. In the next four years, he became a practiced and cold-blooded killer, increasingly infatuated with his own public image as an unstoppable outlaw. Sheriff Pat Garrett finally ended Billy’s bloody career by killing him on July 14, 1881.

READ MORE: How Did Billy the Kid Die? 

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A serial rapist strikes in England

Year
1984
Month Day
August 17

The serial burglar and rapist known as “the Fox” breaks into a house and physically assaults a girl, her boyfriend and the girl’s brother near the village of Brampton, England. After raping the woman, the attacker proceeded to remove any traces of evidence from both his victim’s body and the surrounding area. The attack turned out to be a part of a crime spree had had begun in the spring of 1984 when a hooded burglar broke into several houses in an area north of London. A few months later, the thief turned to rape.

Despite the attacker’s efforts, detectives called to the scene near Brampton found fresh tire tracks in a field next to the victim’s home and a tiny flake of yellow paint on a nearby tree. A shotgun that the Fox had stolen from a previous victim was also found, hidden under some leaves. 

Police staked out the site, hoping that the Fox might return for the gun, but he never did. Fortunately, the paint flake turned out to be an essential clue; apparently, the color had been used only on a single model of a particular car manufacturer, Leyland, and that the car was produced in 1973 and 1974.

The victims also reported that the Fox had a northern accent. When investigators checked their records, they found more than 3,000 known burglars who were from northern England but had moved south. Detectives sent to investigate each of these men found a man washing a yellow Leyland in front of his house on September 11. Upon closer inspection, they noticed that a bit of paint was missing from the back of the car.

Malcolm Fairley confessed to the crimes after his arrest and received six life sentences in 1985.

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East Germans kill man trying to cross Berlin Wall

Year
1962
Month Day
August 17

East German guards gun down a young man trying to escape across the Berlin Wall into West Berlin and leave him to bleed to death. It was one of the ugliest incidents to take place at one of the ugliest symbols of the Cold War.

READ MORE: All the Ways People Escaped Across the Berlin Wall

The 1962 incident occurred almost a year to the day that construction began on the Berlin Wall. In August 1961, East Berlin authorities began stringing barbed wire across the boundary between East and West Berlin. In just a matter of days, a concrete block wall was under construction, complete with guard towers. In the months that followed, more barbed wire, machine guns, searchlights, guard posts, dogs, mines, and concrete barriers were set up, completely separating the two halves of the city. American officials condemned the communist action, but did nothing to halt construction of the wall.

On August 17, 1962, two young men from East Berlin attempted to scramble to freedom across the wall. One was successful in climbing the last barbed wire fence and, though suffering numerous cuts, made it safely to West Berlin. While horrified West German guards watched, the second young man was shot by machine guns on the East Berlin side. He fell but managed to stand up again, reach the wall, and begin to climb over. More shots rang out. The young man was hit in the back, screamed, and fell backwards off of the wall. For nearly an hour, he lay bleeding to death and crying for help. West German guards threw bandages to the man, and an angry crowd of West Berlin citizens screamed at the East German security men who seemed content to let the young man die. He finally did die, and East German guards scurried to where he lay and removed his body.

During the history of the Berlin Wall (1961 to 1989), nearly 80 people were killed trying to cross from East to West Berlin. East German officials always claimed that the wall was erected to protect the communist regime from the pernicious influences of Western capitalism and culture. In the nearly 30 years that the wall existed, however, no one was ever shot trying to enter East Berlin.

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