1939: Marian Anderson sings at Lincoln Memorial
Opera singer Marian Anderson was scheduled to sing at Washington’s Constitution Hall on Easter Sunday in 1939. But at the last minute, she was refused the opportunity because of her race by Daughters of the American Revolution (a move that caused First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to leave the group). Instead, Anderson gave a free open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The moment brought even greater awareness to the issues of racial injustice during that time period.
1940: Hattie McDaniel wins an Academy Award
Hattie McDaniel made history as the first African American person to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind." She came under fire at the time for her portrayal of a maid, but the defiant McDaniel famously clapped back saying she’d rather play a maid than serve as one in real life.
[Pictured: Actress Fay Bainter (at right) presents Hattie McDaniel with the Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind on Feb. 29, 1940, at the Twelfth Annual Banquet of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.]
1941: National Negro Opera Company is created
The National Negro Opera Company was the first of its kind when musician Mary Cardwell Dawson founded it in 1941. The Black music association was created with the vision of affording Black Americans opportunities for cultural development through classical music.
[Pictured: Dorothy I Height, speaker at the National Negro Opera Foundation banquet, is shown with Dorothy Farrabee of Howard University and Mary Caldwell Dawson, founder and president of the National Negro Opera Foundation, in 1961.}
1942: Hugh Mulzac becomes the first African American captain to command an integrated crew
Hugh Mulzac, a Black member of the U.S. Merchant Marine, was offered the chance at the onset of World War II to operate his own vessel. That ship was the SS Booker T. Washington, the first Liberty ship named after an African American. Mulzac said no at first, citing Commission policies stipulating he would be commanding an all-Black crew. What followed were protests from Black organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which pressured officials to change course. Mulzac then became the first African American ship commander, doing so over an integrated crew. The milestone did little to change things long-term, however, as he found himself out of a job by the early 1950s.
[Pictured: Captain and crew of the SS Booker T Washington on Feb. 8, 1943. Captain Hugh Mulzac is fourth from the left on the first row.]
1943: Detroit Race Riots
The great migration from South to North brought mass amounts of Blacks to Detroit in search of work and a better life. Despite the city having 200,000 African American residents, Black people were still treated as second-class citizens—especially where housing was concerned. When Detroit started constructing Black housing projects and factories began promoting Black workers, disgruntled whites decided to fight back against the changing of the times. What followed were racially motivated attacks involving more than 200 Blacks and whites, leaving 25 African Americans dead and hundreds more injured.
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1944: United Negro College Fund is created
Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, president of the Tuskegee Institute, put out a call to other leaders of historically Black colleges urging them to pool sums of money together in a fund for inbound Black college students in financial need. In the last 70 years, the fund has supported more than 400,000 students in earning college degrees.
[Pictured: Tuskegee Institute president Dr. Frederick D. Patterson and George Washington Carver on April 2, 1940.]
1945: Ebony magazine debuts
John H. Johnson published the first issue of Ebony magazine was published in November 1945 and heralded a new era of putting forth a positive image of Black Americans in mainstream media. A smaller news magazine called Jet was founded a few years later in 1951.
[Pictured: John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony Magazine and owner of Johnson publications.]
1946: Morgan v. Virginia invalidates separate but equal on interstate bus transport
In a case predating the Rosa Parks bus boycott, Irene Morgan was riding on a Greyhound bus and refused to give her seat up to a white passenger. Morgan was arrested but refused to plead guilty to violating Virginia’s segregation law. That move presented an opportunity for Morgan's lawyer to argue that the law unfairly got in the way of interstate commerce. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor.
[Pictured: Sign for the "colored" waiting room at a bus station in Durham, North Carolina, May 1940.]
1947: 16 men embark on the 'Journey of Reconciliation'
Sometimes called "the first freedom ride,” 16 Black and white men embarked on a direct-action bus trip that flipped racial structures on their heads: Black protesters sat at the front of the bus, while white protestors sat at the back. Protests like these served as a tangible representation of the power of hands-on activism.
[Pictured: As a Trailways bus carrying Freedom Riders arrives in Jackson, Mississippi on May 24, 1961, police officers with dogs prepare to arrest and jail those on board.]
1948: Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces
In a step to dissolve segregated racial lines, President Harry Truman signed an executive order to integrate the U.S. Armed Forces, which effectively ended segregation across the military. There was significant pushback to the order; but by the end of the Korean War, most of the military was integrated.
[Pictured: Tuskegee airmen Woodrow W. Crockett and Edward C. Gleed in Ramitelli, Italy, in March 1945.]
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