Sojourner Truth delivers powerful speech on African American women’s rights

At the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, on May 29, 1851, the formerly enslaved woman, Sojourner Truth, rises to speak and assert her right to equality as a woman, as well as a Black American. The exact wording of her speech, which becomes famous for the refrain, “Ain’t I a Woman?” has been lost to history. In fact, historians have since challenged whether Truth ever used the famous refrain as she spoke. Nonetheless, her speech becomes widely regarded as one of the most powerful moments of the early women’s liberation movement.

Born into slavery in Ulster County, New York, Isabella Baumfree escaped with her infant daughter in 1826 and chose the name Sojourner Truth. She later successfully sued a slaveowner for custody of her son, becoming the first Black woman to take a white man to court and win. She remained an antislavery activist and, after the Civil War, a crusader for the rights of African Americans for the rest of her life. Her speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention formed much of the foundation of her legacy.

LISTEN: Sojourner’s Truth on HISTORY This Week Podcast

There are two conflicting versions of the speech, neither of which was transcribed at the time Truth actually gave it. An account reported in the Anti-Slavery Bugle was the first to be published and does not actually include the titular phrase. On May 2, 1863, Frances Gage, a white abolitionist and president of the Convention, published an account of Truth’s words in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. In her account, Gage wrote that Truth used the rhetorical question, “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” to point out the discrimination Truth experienced as a Black woman.

Various details in Gage’s account, however, including that Truth said she had 13 children (she had five) and that she spoke in dialect have since cast doubt on its accuracy. Contemporaneous reports of Truth’s speech did not include this slogan, and quoted Truth in standard English. In later years, this slogan was further distorted to “Ain’t I a Woman?”, reflecting the false belief that as a formerly enslaved woman, Truth would have had a Southern accent. Truth was, in fact, a New Yorker.

Regardless, there is little doubt that Truth’s speech—and many others she gave throughout her adult life—moved audiences. Truth straightforwardly described of the predicament of Black women, who were not even afforded the paternalistic treatment their white counterparts received. 

According to the Bugle version, she also facetiously described the predicament of white men, who were “surely between a hawk and a buzzard” with both women and African Americans demanding equality. As Truth deftly criticized not only sexism and racism, but also the racism of her fellow feminists, her speech is now regarded not only as one of the earliest entries in the canon of American feminism but also an early example of intersectionality, more than a century and a half before the term came to prominence.

READ MORE: Early Women’s Rights Activists Wanted Much More than Suffrage

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Texas passes a bill becoming the first state in the nation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday

A celebration that has persisted for over a century receives its first official recognition on June 7, 1979, as the Texas Legislature passes a bill declaring Juneteenth a state holiday. The annual June 19 celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation—not the announcement itself, but the arrival of the news of the proclamation in Texas—is now officially observed in almost all 50 states.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially freed the enslaved peoples of the rebellious Southern states on New Year’s Day of 1863, but the order only applied to territories currently held by the Confederacy. Southerners did not recognize Lincoln’s authority, and in many cases slaveowners and whites simply withheld the news from enslaved people. The wait was especially long in Texas, where news of slavery’s demise did not arrive until two months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the Civil War. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and proclaimed the news to the enslaved people there.

READ MORE: What Is Juneteenth?

The day instantly became an important one to the African American citizens of Texas, who held annual celebrations and even made pilgrimages to Galveston each Juneteenth. In 1872, a group of Black ministers and businessmen purchased ten acres of land in Houston for the occasion, naming it Emancipation Park. Black communities across the nation continued to celebrate Juneteenth for the next century. The holiday received renewed interest with the rise of the civil rights Movement in the 1960s, particularly when Rev. Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference proclaimed Juneteenth “Solidarity Day” as part of his 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Another civil rights leader, the recently-elected State Representative Al Edwards of Houston, introduced the bill making Juneteenth a paid holiday in the state of Texas. In the following decades, most of the country either made Juneteenth a holiday or declared it would officially observe the occasion, and parades and public celebrations have attracted larger and larger crowds.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. is jailed; writes “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

On April 3, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their partners in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights led a campaign of protests, marches and sit-ins against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. By April 12, King was in prison along with many of his fellow activists. While imprisoned, King penned an open letter now known as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a full-throated defense of the Birmingham protest campaign that is now regarded as one of the greatest texts of the civil rights movement.

On April 12, Good Friday, King and dozens of his fellow protestors were arrested for continuing to demonstrate in the face of an injunction obtained by Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor, who had just lost the mayoral election, remains one of the most notorious pro-segregationists in American history thanks to the brutal methods his forces employed against the Birmingham protestors that summer. The man who had won the election, Albert Boutwell, was also a segregationist, and he was one of many who accused “outsiders”—he clearly meant King—of stirring up trouble in Birmingham. As he sat in a solitary jail cell without even a mattress to sleep on, King began to pen a response to his critics on some scraps of paper.

The resulting letter was addressed to “Fellow Clergymen” who had criticized the protest campaign. King first dispensed with the idea that a preacher from Atlanta was too much of an “outsider” to confront bigotry in Birmingham, saying, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” While stressing the importance of non-violence, he rejected the idea that his movement was acting too fast or too dramatically: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” King also advocated for violating unjust laws and urged that believers in organized religion “[break] loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity.” All told, the lengthy letter constituted a defense of nonviolent protest, a call to push the issue of civil rights, and a rallying cry for fence-sitters to join the fight, even if it meant that they, too, might end up in jail.

The worst of Connor’s brutalities came after the letter was written, but the Birmingham campaign succeeded in drawing national attention to the horrors of segregation. The United Auto Workers paid King’s $160,000 bail, and he was released from jail on April 20. Four months later, King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, regarded by many as the high-water mark of his movement. The following year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guaranteed voting rights to minorities and outlawed segregation and racial discrimination in all places of public accommodation. 

READ MORE ABOUT MLK:

10 Things You May Not Know About Martin Luther King, Jr
For Martin Luther King, Jr., Nonviolent Protest Never Meant ‘Wait and See’
The Fight for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

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Michael Brown is killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri

Year
2014
Month Day
August 09

On August 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shoots and kills Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in the street of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Protests and riots ensue in Ferguson and soon spread across the country.

There are many different accounts of the incident, including the testimonies of Wilson and of Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown at the time. Many details differ, but most accounts agree that Wilson saw Brown and Johnson walking in the street, demanded they get on the sidewalk, then stopped his police SUV in front of them in order to confront them. He and Brown had an altercation through the open window of the car, during which Wilson fired twice. Brown and Johnson tried to leave, Wilson exited his car to pursue them, and at some point Brown turned back around to face Wilson, who then fired 12 shots, six of which hit Brown. Wilson claimed he fired in self-defense as Brown charged him, which Johnson denied. Many have claimed that Wilson warned Brown he would open fire, and that Brown responded with “Don’t shoot!” before he was killed.

The community immediately reacted with rage at the news of 18-year-old Brown’s death. The shooting ignited long-simmering tensions between the majority-Black population of Ferguson and the local police, who were mostly white. Though public opinion was sharply divided, the protests and riots and the response by Ferguson’s heavily militarized police demonstrated the extent to which the relationship between racial minorities in America and the police had frayed. 

Brown’s name, the phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot” and the very mention of Ferguson quickly entered the lexicon of the growing Black Lives Matter movement. 

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President Truman ends discrimination in the military

Year
1948
Month Day
July 26

President Harry S. Truman signs Executive Order 9981—ending discrimination in the military—on July 26, 1948. Truman’s order ended a long-standing practice of segregating Black soldiers and relegating them to more menial jobs.

African Americans had been serving in the United States military since the Revolutionary War, but were deployed in their largest numbers during World War II. By December 31, 1945, more than 2.5 million African Americans had registered for the military draft, and with African American women volunteering in large numbers throughout the war the U.S. Armed Forces had become the number one employer of Black people. By the time WWII ended, some 900,000 African Americans had served in the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Army Nurse Corps.

Black WWII veterans were eligible for a free college education under the Servicemen Readjustment Act of 1944—the GI Bill—as well as other benefits, but most faced discrimination when trying to access their benefits. This led many veterans to re-examine their poor treatment while they were in service.

READ MORE: How the GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans

After witnessing racism in the service, Grant Reynolds resigned from his commission as a WWII chaplain and joined with the activist A. Philip Randolph to co-chair the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training. By composing letters and telegrams, holding protest rallies and hearings, and threatening to conduct a nationwide draft resistance campaign, the Committee worked with groups like the Committee to End Segregation in the Armed Forces and the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation to demand equal treatment for Black people in the United States Armed Forces.

READ MORE: When Black Nurses Were Relegated to Care for German POWs

The pressure from these groups pushed President Truman to establish a Commission on Civil Rights which, in October 1947, issued a report calling for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, federal anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws, and a bolstering of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Truman urged the U.S. Congress to move forward with the Commission’s recommendations. When Congress rejected his pleas, Truman pushed for many of the proposals on his own. One of his most significant actions was the signing of Executive Order 9981, which states: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”

READ MORE: Black History Milestones: A Timeline

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Sandra Bland dies in jail after traffic stop confrontation

Year
2015
Month Day
July 13

Only July 10, 2015, Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia pulls over a 28-year-old Black woman, Sandra Bland, for failing to signal a lane change. After a heated encounter, he arrests her and takes her to a nearby jail. Three days later, on the morning of July 13, she is found dead in her cell, apparently by suicide. The circumstances surrounding her death lead many to question how Bland could end up losing her life following a minor traffic stop. 

Bland’s case drew international outrage over the treatment of Black people by white police officers and became a painful case cited in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Encinia’s dashcam and Bland’s phone both recorded partial videos of the incident. Bland refused Encinia’s orders to put out her cigarette and get out of her car, at which point he brandished his Taser and told her, “I will light you up.” Encinia later claimed that Bland kicked him, prompting him to wrestle her to the ground. The alleged fight was not captured on video—save for Bland describing being knocked to the ground and telling Encinia she has epilepsy. Several days later, an officer sent to deliver Bland her breakfast found her dead, and an autopsy concluded she had hung herself with a plastic bag.

Bland’s family and friends immediately questioned not only her treatment but also the official report of her suicide. Bland was reportedly in good spirits around the time of her arrest, excited by the prospect of a new job she was due to start in a few days. Her death—almost exactly a year after the killing of Eric Garner by the New York Police Department—fit into a pattern of police violence and systemic racism in law enforcement that became increasingly visible to the American public over the course of the 2010s. 

The jail where Bland died was found to have been ignoring protocols regarding prisoner observation, and in 2017, Texas passed the Sandra Bland Act, which attempts to educate police officers about mental illness and de-escalation and mandates that jails divert people with mental health or substance abuse issues into treatment. 

Bland’s name became known across the country shortly after her death and was chanted at racial justice protests for years.

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The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter first appears, sparking a movement

Outraged and saddened after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who killed a Black teenager in 2012, Oakland, California resident Alicia Garza posts a message on Facebook on July 13, 2013. Her post contains the phrase “Black lives matter,” which soon becomes a rallying cry and a movement throughout the United States and around the world.

Garza said she felt “a deep sense of grief” after Zimmerman was acquitted. She was further saddened to note that many people appeared to blame the victim, Trayvon Martin, and not the “disease” of racism. Patrice Cullors, a Los Angeles community organizer and friend of Garza, read her post and replied with the first instance of #BlackLivesMatter.

As the hashtag became popular on Facebook and Twitter, Garza, Cullors and fellow activist Opal Tometi built a network of community organizers and racial justice activists using the name Black Lives Matter. The phrase and the hashtag were then quickly adopted by grassroots activists and protests all across the country, particularly after the subsequent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and a number of other African Americans at the hands of police officers or would-be vigilantes like Zimmerman. 

Simple and clear in its demand for Black dignity, the phrase became one of the major symbols of the protests that erupted after Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. While polling showed that a majority of Americans disapproved of the Black Lives Matter movement when it first began, in the years following, support for its central arguments grew. 

After the May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis unleashed a nationwide protest movement against police brutality and racism, support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased by a 28-point margin in two weeks—almost as much as it had in the preceding two years, according to the New York Times

Perhaps more than any other phrase since “Black Power,” “Black Lives Matter” became a singular rallying cry for the American and global racial justice movements.

READ MORE: Black History Milestones: Timeline 

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Members of the Niagara Movement meet for the first time

Year
1905
Month Day
July 11

Niagara Movement members begin meeting on the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls. This all-African American group of scholars, lawyers and businessmen came together for three days to create what would soon become a powerful post-slavery Black rights organization. Although it only lasted five years, the Niagara Movement was an influential precursor to the mid-20th century civil rights movement.

Scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois was a founding member of the Niagara Movement. Twenty-nine men showed up for the group’s initial meeting, which discussed establishing an organization to fight racial segregation and promoting the full incorporation of African Americans into U.S. society.

Du Bois was determined to pit this new group in opposition to the platforms put forward by the Tuskegee Institute’s famed Booker T. Washington—then the nation’s foremost spokesperson on Black issues.

Washington had famously declared in his 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech that Black people should remain in the South and work alongside white citizens, even in the face of Jim Crow segregation and race-based violence.

The Niagara Movement opposed Washington’s ideas of appeasement. Members coordinated the creation of several state-level chapters and vowed to agitate for Black voting rights, better health care, education, employment opportunities and civil liberties.

Despite continuing to meet annually around the country, membership in the Niagara Movement only reached a high of 170. A large part of its lack of support was due to its opposition towards Washington, who wielded enough influence to limit publicity about the organization. By 1910, the Niagara Movement had completely disbanded, but its principles lived on in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. 

READ MORE: Black History Milestones: Timeline

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Activist Bree Newsome removes Confederate flag from South Carolina State House

Year
2015
Month Day
June 27

On the morning of June 27, 2015, activists posing as joggers signal to one of their comrades that the police have momentarily turned their attention away from the flagpole outside the South Carolina State House. Having received the signal, Brittany “Bree” Newsome scales the pole, takes down the Confederate flag that was flying there and is placed under arrest. Newsome’s actions reverberated across the nation and eventually resulted in the state of South Carolina permanently removing the flag from its capitol.

Newsome’s civil disobedience came just ten days after a white supremacist murdered nine African Americans in a bible study at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Newsome heard President Barack Obama‘s eulogy for one of the victims, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, as she drove to Columbia. In preparation, she practiced climbing and received advice from Greenpeace activists with experience scaling trees. As she held the flag in her hands, a police officer ordered her to come down, to which she responded, “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” She recited Psalm 23 as she was taken to jail.

READ MORE: How the US Got So Many Confederate Monuments 

Although the flag was flying again within an hour, Newsome’s actions had an immediate and lasting effect. Civil rights leaders and other prominent cultural figures spoke out against the flag and in support of Newsome, with NBA star Dwayne Wade and filmmaker Michael Moore both offering to pay her bail. The protest drew attention to the many Confederate symbols that still held places of public prominence across the American South, and this attention ultimately forced the state of South Carolina to act. 

On July 9, the Republican-dominated legislature of South Carolina passed a bill permanently removing the flag from the capitol building, and Republican Governor Nikki Haley quickly signed it. Newsome later connected her actions to acts of civil disobedience from the first Civil Rights era, equating it to the way “that it demonstrated power and agency for the Greensboro Four to go and sit down at the Woolworth’s counter. ‘You’re saying we can’t sit here? We’re going to sit here.’ You’re saying we can’t lower this flag? We are going to lower this flag today. It was just a feeling of triumph.”

WATCH: Bree Newsome and Diane Nash in Conversation

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Tulsa Race Massacre begins

Beginning on the night of May 31, 1921, thousands of white citizens in Tulsa, Oklahoma descended on the city’s predominantly Black Greenwood District, burning homes and businesses to the ground and killing hundreds of people. Long mischaracterized as a race riot, rather than mass murder, the Tulsa Race Massacre stands as one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history.

In the years following World War I, segregation was the law of the land, and the Ku Klux Klan was gaining ground—not only in the Jim Crow South, but across the United States. Amid that charged environment, Tulsa’s African American community was nationally recognized for its affluence. The Greenwood District, known as “Black Wall Street,” boasted more than 300 Black-owned businesses, including two movie theaters, doctors’ offices and pharmacies.

LISTEN: Blindspot: Tulsa Burning from The HISTORY® Channel and WNYC Studios

READ MORE: Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’ Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub in Early 1900s

On May 30, 1921, a young Black man named Dick Rowland entered an elevator in an office building in downtown Tulsa. At some point, Rowland was alone in the elevator with its white operator, Sarah Page. It’s unclear what happened next (one common version is that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot) but Page screamed, and Rowland fled the scene. The next day, the police arrested him.

Rumors about the incident spread quickly through Tulsa’s white community, some members of which undoubtedly resented the prosperity of the Greenwood District. After a story published in the Tulsa Tribune on the afternoon of May 31 claimed that Rowland had attempted to rape Page, an angry white mob gathered in front of the courthouse, demanding that Rowland be handed over.

Seeking to prevent a lynching, a group of some 75 Black men arrived on the scene that night, some of them World War I veterans who were carrying weapons. After a white man tried to disarm a Black veteran and the gun went off, chaos broke out.

READ MORE: What Role Did Airplanes Play in the Tulsa Race Massacre?

Over the next 24 hours, thousands of white rioters poured into the Greenwood District, shooting unarmed Black citizens in the streets and burning an area of some 35 city blocks, including more than 1,200 Black-owned houses, numerous businesses, a school, a hospital and a dozen churches. Historians believe as many as 300 people were killed in the rampage, though official counts at the time were much lower.

By the time Governor James Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa by noon on June 1, the Greenwood District lay in ruins. Survivors of the massacre worked to rebuild the neighborhood, but segregation remained in force in Tulsa (and the nation) and racial tensions only grew, even as the massacre and its lingering scars were left largely unacknowledged by the white community for decades to come.

In 1997, the Oklahoma state legislature created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (later renamed the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission), which studied the massacre and recommended that reparations be paid to the remaining Black survivors. City officials continue to investigate the events of May 31-June 1, 1921, and to search for unmarked graves used to bury the massacre’s many victims. 

READ MORE: ‘Black Wall Street’ Before, During and After the Tulsa Race Massacre: PHOTOS

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