Nobody is ever going to mistake me for African-American, but I’m an unrepentant history buff and a trivia queen. So when a month is announced that celebrates history — especially history that hasn’t always traditionally been in the curriculum (trivia by another name?), you know I’m going to be all over it like a cheap suit. Besides: Black History, White History, Green History, Purple History. If it happened in this country, it’s all American History. Therefore I’m claiming it.
The Two Terriers Twist? I’m seeking out what I think are the lesser known figures in the hopes that I’ll amaze you with little-known facts. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe the figures I highlight here are all well known and it’s been too many years since I was in High School. But maybe I’ll introduce you to some unsung heroes of American history.
Our first contestant:
Born into slavery, Henry Ossian Flipper was appointed to the West Point Class of 1877 by his Atlanta Congressman. He endured four years of “silent treatment” where his fellow cadets refused to speak to him, look at him or acknowledge his existence. He graduated with distinction and served with honor until racism and a trumped up court martial stripped him of military status. Afterwards, he distinguished himself as a civil engineer, in the Spanish-American War and as assistant and advisor to the US Secretary of the Interior in 1921. He never stopped fighting to clear his name. In 1976, his descendants petitioned successfully to have his dismissal reversed and an honorable discharge dated retroactively to 1882. West Point now awards the annual Henry O. Flipper Award to graduating cadets at the Academy who “exhibit leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties.” Read more about him through his autobiographies: The Colored Cadet at West Point and Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper.
You get a two-fer with our next contestant. Son of the first African-American general in the United States Army, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. began his air career as a barnstorming teen pilot, eventually as a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen and finally as the first African-American General of the Air Force. A member of the West Point Class of 1936, Davis suffered the same silent treatment as Ossian Flipper. During a distinguished and decorated military career through two wars, he was tapped by President Harry Truman to draft and help implement the full integration of the Armed Services in the Fifties. See him played by Andre Braugher in the movie The Tuskegee Airmen.
Now for some of the ladies:
The Guinness Book of Records cites Walker as the first female who became a millionaire by her own achievements. Not the first African-American female. The first female. The first of her family to be born into freedom, she eventually developed her own line of cosmetics and haircare products formulated for African-American skin and hair. More than for amassing a fortune, Madam Walker should be remembered for the economic opportunities she created for thousands. Her agents, mostly black women, could earn from $5 to $15 per day in an era when unskilled white laborers were making about $11 per week — a fact in which she took great pride. She retired to an Italianate Villa in New York, designed by architect Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. There she, and later her daughter, supported artists, musicians and playwrights including many members of the Harlem Renaissance. Her biography has been written by her great-great granddaughter. I’m nominating Oprah to play her in the movie version.
Our next contestant: hero, villain, groundbreaker or voodoo priestess? Her life is a mystery — partially of her own making. At various points, she claimed to be the daughter of a Voodoo priestess and the youngest son of a Governor of Virginia as well as a relative of and practitioner under famed New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. What is known is that she showed up in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and quickly amassed a fortune from boarding houses, catering companies and wise investments with insider trading tips from wealthy clients. Although she, at first passed for White, she didn’t conceal her race from fellow African-Americans and was adept at finding many of them jobs and political appointments. She was also active in the Abolitionist Movement, was a great friend of John Brown and was thought to have financed his attack on Harper’s Ferry. After the Civil War, she officially changed her legal status to Negro, took her rights battles to the courts, including integrating cable and street cars. Her Civil Rights work was unmatched until the 1960s and one of her victories was cited and upheld as late as the 1980s. A series of lawsuits with various relatives of her partners in the late 1800s unleashed a storm of smears and scandals making her the most talked about woman in the San Francisco tabloids. Newly dubbed “Mammy” Pleasant, she was variously accused of being a baby stealer, a baby eater, a multiple murderess, a madam, an embezzler and a thief. She’s buried in a Napa cemetery, but not under an epitaph she was said to have preferred: “A Friend to John Brown.” There is precious little information about her, but this filmaker seems determined to set the record straight.
And could we close without mentioning cowboys?
How about the fact that some historians estimate that at least one quarter of all working cowboys were Black? Although racial discrimination certainly existed, there was a rough sort of frontier equality in parts of the West. There were relatively few people, much danger, lots of work to be done and not a lot of social structures. Apparently cowboy crews were a pretty mixed lot of Whites, Blacks, Mexicans and sometimes Native Americans forced by necessity to rub shoulders. (Sort of makes you wonder about the John Wayne/Roy Rogers image of cowboy life many of us grew up with.) African-American cowboys, sometimes brought as slaves or sometimes escaped from slavery, became ranch hands, cowboys, even gunslingers, rustlers, dance hall girls and Gold Rush miners. There are lots of sources but check out The Oakland Black Cowboy Association for a start.
Addendum: One of my readers, Maybelline in Bakersfield, suggested I add Bill Pickett to the list. Pickett was a famous rodeo star who appeared with Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, Tom Mix and others in rodeos and Wild West shows. He often traded on his Native American blood (Cherokee) to get himself admitted to rodeos that barred African Americans (he billed himself as Commanche.) You think cowboys are tough? Bill Pickett took that to the tenth power. He invented a form of steer wrestling called “Bulldogging.” Pickett’s method included biting a cow on the lip and then falling backwards. This technique eventually fell out of favor for more traditional steer wrestling and riding — and no doubt because PETA would have had something to say about tough ol’ Bill Pickett. But you might want to catch the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, the nation’s only all Black touring rodeo. They’re touring this summer, including Oakland, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Phoenix, Washington DC and Atlanta.
So that’s the contribution from Two Terrier Vineyards. Did we introduce you to anyone new? Got someone else to nominate? We’d like to hear from you. But remember our motto over here: