19: This Month in Black History – Accepting Tom Wiggins and #autisticblackpride

Accepting Tom Wiggins and #autisticblackpride

By Katrina Naoko Frank, an #actuallyautistic Afro-Asian Indigenous Latina (editorial support from Dr. Fari Nzinga)

Black Autistic Awareness

With April marking Autism Acceptance month, take a moment to clear your mind. When you hear the word “autism” what do you think of?

For many, the image of a thin, white, male–usually with a short haircut, blank expression and dry humor comes to mind. Looking past the American “ideal” of autism, autistic folks are as diverse in race, intellect, emotional intelligence, and ability, as any other group. We are Black, we are Latinx, we are Indigenous, we are Asian. We are of all gender identities and economic status–we are not a monolith.

And in fact, this month’s 19 story proves just that, by highlighting Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a renowned Black, blind, autistic musical mastermind of the mid-19th century.

What is Autism?

For those unaware, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined as “a complex developmental condition involving persistent challenges with social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behavior.” People with ASD have brains and neurosystems that work differently which is why we use the term “neurodivergent” to describe them. And just like with human sexuality, ASD exists on a spectrum with various outward manifestations.

A famous Autistic American from the annals of history, Thomas Wiggins was classified as “idiotic,” a medical term used at the time to describe “a person with profound intellectual disability.” It has been documented that Wiggins was “mostly non-speaking and used sounds and body language to communicate with others [he] rocked, twitched, and echoed people around him.” Based on his method of communication and his musical genius current historians “believe that Wiggins was an autistic savant” (NOSmag.org, Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence).

Tom Wiggins AKA “Blind Tom”

Thomas Greene Wiggins, known as “Blind Tom” was born into slavery on May 25, 1849 in Columbus, Georgia to Charity and Domingo Wiggins. As an infant Tom and his family came under the enslaver, General James Bethune, a Columbus lawyer that both fostered Tom’s gift and exploited him for his own gain.

There have been many accounts of Tom mimicking the sounds around him without error as a toddler. Around the age of eight, “Tom was licensed out to a traveling showman named Perry Oliver who promoted him as a barnum-styled freak” along with many other outlandish descriptors (Who Was Blind Tom?). By age eleven he was the first African American artist to perform at the White House while at age fifteen Wiggins “composed his most famous piece ‘The Battle of Manassas,’ a song evoking the sounds of battle interspersed with train sounds and whistles, which [he] made himself” (New Georgia Encyclopedia, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins).

Although Tom was considered an international celebrity, he was both oppressed and taken advantage of. Not only was his neurodivergence used as a ploy to collect more money during his travels, but his musical talents, and his nontraditional way of interacting with others would keep him enslaved under the Bethune family even after emancipation during the Civil War.

Tom Greene Wiggins was unique, intelligent, empathetic, and resilient. To share Finn Gardiner’s sentiment in his article “Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence,”

“[…] we can still look to [Tom] as an example of black neurodivergent excellence. His deep connection to the world around him and his remarkable musical ability led him to create music that resonated within his own soul and the souls of others. We must remember, too, that the talents of black neurodivergent people should be nurtured without exploitation. We belong to ourselves. Tom Wiggins may not have had this freedom, but we can claim our own freedom today.”

Black and Autistic

Although we are working towards a better, more inclusive and socially just world, there are still specific stereotypes and stigmas that are hurting and killing autistic Black, Indigenous and other people of color (Elijah McClain and Osaze Osagie). For instance, in research unveiling the correlation between late diagnosis for Black children and provider racial bias, “Black children usually obtain a diagnosis for autism one and a half years later than white children.” Due to this delay, Black autistic children are being disadvantaged from the beginning. To create positive change in both autistic and neurotypical communities it is imperative that we honor and share the stories of Black autistic individuals, identify and openly discuss their challenges as well as their triumphs.


Want to learn more? Listed below are a handful of extraordinary Black autistic people and Black leaders based in the autistic community:

19: This Month in Black History – All Eyes on SCOTUS & the Dred Scott decision of 1857

By Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

All eyes are turned towards the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) because of upcoming challenges to laws that have set the legal precedents, standards and customs by which we live.

Some SCOTUS history & background:

According to White House Government Documents (the following are select passages given here for context):

“The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land and the only part of the federal judiciary specifically required by the Constitution. The Constitution does not stipulate the number of Supreme Court Justices; the number is set instead by Congress. There have been as few as six, but since 1869 there have been nine Justices, including one Chief Justice. All Justices are nominated by the [sitting] President, confirmed by the Senate, and hold their offices under life tenure. Since Justices do not have to run or campaign for re-election, they are thought to be insulated from political pressure when deciding cases…

The Court’s caseload is almost entirely appellate in nature, and the Court’s decisions cannot be appealed to any authority, as it is the final judicial arbiter in the United States on matters of federal law…

… the Court’s task is to interpret the meaning of a law, to decide whether a law is relevant to a particular set of facts, or to rule on how a law should be applied.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has quite a long history of arbitrating questions of race and rights. Social scientists call “race” – the product that is produced through processes of defining and categorizing people based on perceived physical traits – a political identity or designation, because it can be defined differently under different (historical and/or geographic) circumstances, and, more importantly, because one’s assigned racial membership is upheld and enforced by legal, political and economic systems.

On March 6, 1857, the SCOTUS, in a 7-2 vote, rendered what has been considered as “the most egregious example in the Court’s history of wrongly imposing a judicial solution on a political problem” in the Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sanford case.

This is the story of Dred Scott.

Dred Scott was a Black man who availed himself of every opportunity to be free. Born into slavery in Southampton, Virginia, Dred Scott had been called Sam as a youth; until he changed his name. Enslaved to a man named Peter Blow, Dred Scott was forced to migrate to Huntsville, Alabama and later to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1831, upon the death of Peter Blow, Dred Scott was sold to U.S. Army Surgeon, Dr. John Emerson. Again, Scott was forced to migrate, but this time to the free state of Illinois. Emerson reported for duty at Fort Armstrong, Illinois, and his assignment lasted for nearly three years. Under the conditions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and the State Constitution of Illinois, Dred Scott was entitled to his freedom. While living and working in what is present-day Minnesota, Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson, a young woman enslaved by Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian agent for the Wisconsin territory. Harriet Scott then became the property of Dr. Emerson, and while he traveled to Louisiana and Florida to serve in the Seminole Wars, he hired out Dred and Harriet Scott.

Emerson died unexpectedly after serving in the wars and upon returning to Missouri. His widow, Irene Emerson became the owner of Dred and Harriet and refused to emancipate them, so they decided to take advantage of a Missouri statute that stated that any person, black or white, held in wrongful enslavement could “sue for freedom.” On April 6, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott each filed separate petitions in suits against Irene Emerson in the St. Louis Circuit Court to obtain their freedom from slavery. These documents, identical in nature, stated that the petitioners were entitled to their freedom based on residences in the free state of Illinois (Rock Island) and the free Wisconsin Territory (Fort Snelling). After almost a decade of court cases and appeals the Scott’s case was finally heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was argued February 11 – 18, 1856 by Montgomery Blair and George Ticknor Curtis on behalf of petitioner Dred Scott and Henry S. Geyer for respondent John F.A. Sanford (brother of Irene Emerson, who at this point owned the Scott family – Dred, Harriet, and their two children). The case was decided March 6, 1857, in a 7-2 decision in favor of Sanford; the majority held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves, whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore did not have standing to sue in federal court.” Because the Court lacked jurisdiction, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney dismissed the case on procedural grounds.

Appointed by President Andrew Jackson, Chief Justice Taney was the son of Catholic tobacco plantation owners in Maryland. As an active participant in the institution of slavery, Taney, from the bench, sought to limit federal regulation of the business of enslavement. He, therefore, held that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional and foreclosed the ability of Congress to pass laws that would free slaves within Federal territories. The opinion showed deference to the Missouri courts, which held that moving to a free state did not render Scott emancipated. Taney ruled that slaves were property under the Fifth Amendment, and that any law that would deprive a slave owner of that property was unconstitutional.

On May 26, 1857, two months after the SCOTUS decision, Scott and his family were freed, but not through the courts! The Scott family was re-purchased by the Blow family who had sold Dred Scott in the first place, and freed them. Dred Scott died of tuberculosis in St. Louis the following year, and Harriet Scott lived until June 1876, long enough to see the Civil War and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

History archives about Dred Scott state that “The Dred Scott Decision outraged abolitionists, who saw the Supreme Court’s ruling as a way to stop debate about slavery in the territories.” And suggest that “The divide between North and South over slavery grew and culminated in the secession of southern states from the Union and the creation of the Confederate States of America. The Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862 freed enslaved people living in the Confederacy, but it would be another three years until Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States.”

Today, the Supreme Court holds in the balance judicial decisions that will be solutions to political problems, with a disregard for the people the decisions will affect. Stay active and vigilant!

It is still Women’s History Month – and if you are looking for things to occupy some time during our off week, check out the library’s Collections for Women’s History, created by our awesome Reference librarians: Collections for Women’s History

19: This Month in Black History – Medical Injustices in the History of Black Americans

Medical Injustices in the History of Black Americans

Written by Dr. Fari Nzinga and Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

Happy Black History Month has been said in the USA since 1970. During the month of February, we celebrate the achievements of Black people and honor historical pioneers. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several institutions have honored Black Pioneers in Medicine during February Black History Month Celebrations (see these Black medical pioneers). In 2022 Kalamazoo College has joined in these celebrations (ARRK event on Feb 15, Henrietta Lacks event on Feb 17, and this Feb 19 Black History story).

Throughout American history however, “Black people have endured a medical system that has been simultaneously exploitative and dismissive. And the damaging implicit and explicit biases present in our medical system do not suddenly vanish because we are in the middle of a pandemic. In fact, the pandemic has made them impossible to ignore” (referenced from Vox article, how medical bias against black people is shaping Covid-19 treatment and care).

To understand why it is that during a global pandemic so many Black Americans are distrustful of the medical authorities and are hesitant to get vaccinated, one needs to look back at history.

The next two stories adapted from the Annals of American Medical History are but two examples of medical malpractice towards Black people that may help shed light on some of the roots of a bigger problem.

Many of us may have heard of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (discussed later in this piece) but we may not have heard the story of Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy before.

1840s – Montgomery, Alabama

Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, considered the Mothers of Modern Gynecology according to Women & the American Story, were three enslaved women who lived and worked on different plantations near Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1840s (referenced from Life Story: Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy-The Mothers of Modern Gynecology). After giving birth, these three women developed a painful medical condition that caused them to lose control of their bladders and bowels. At that time, enslaved women with this condition were separated from other slave workers as there was no treatment for the condition. These women’s frustrated slave owners wanted a cure, so that the women would be able to resume their hard labor to earn them money. Dr. J. Marion Sims caught the interest of these women’s slave owners, as he and others in the 1800s were very interested in medical advancement and experimentation. Dr. Sims, while attempting to treat and cure Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, leased them for the duration of their treatment, ensuring his complete control over their bodies. Between medical procedures and experiments, the women worked for the Sims family, and for 5 years, Dr. Sims would operate on Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and other women in rooms crowded with doctors who had traveled for miles to observe the details of his procedures. These women were naked and in chains while on the operating table. Dr. Sims did not use anesthesia in his many procedures, partly because doctors feared the potentially fatal side-effects of anesthesia, and partly because it was commonly believed that Black women did not experience pain the same way white women did (this belief, BTW, still makes its way into medical practices today). Many of his medical experiments ended up being failures, causing his white male assistants to quit. Undeterred, Dr. Sims trained Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy to be his assistants. In time, they became skilled medical practitioners in their own right, caring for each other and others during their recoveries. Finally, after enduring over 30 painful and humiliating surgeries, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy were returned to their enslavers to continue to toil on their plantations. The exploitation of Black women did not end with the Civil War, nor with emancipation. With the lens of 2022, one could imagine that this story could only happen during slavery…

Almost 100 years later, 1930s – Tuskegee, Alabama

In 1932 at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Black men in Macon County were targeted for research. The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” (now referred to as the “USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee”) was a study conducted for a little over 40 years (1932-1972) by the United States Public Health Service (see Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Ted Talk, Ugly History: The U.S. Syphilis Experiment by Susan M. Reverby). The study initially involved 600 Black men – 399 who had syphilis and 201 who did not have the disease. Researchers told the men that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. During their “treatment” and “free medical exams” sessions the men were provided free meals as an incentive, but they were subjected to painful procedures. Researchers wanted to understand the course of the disease (which ends in death and causes severe organ damage along the way), as well as whether the disease manifested differently in Blacks and Whites. During the course of the 40 years, many of the 600 subjects died and they were provided and promised burial insurance. Although treatment was the promise, the reality was that the men received no treatment at all. And even after penicillin was discovered as a safe and reliable cure for syphilis in 1943, the majority of the Tuskegee patients did not receive it – in fact, they were banned from receiving this treatment as a way to continue the study.

On July 25, 1972, Associated Press reporter Jean Heller broke news about the study (see article, Black men untreated in Tuskegee Syphilis Study) that severely damaged public trust in the American medical establishment. As a result, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs appointed an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel to review the study. The advisory panel concluded that the study was “ethically unjustified and advised stopping the study.” A month later, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs announced the end of the study (see the Memorandum Terminating the Tuskegee Syphilis Study). The following year, in March 1973, the panel also advised the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) (now known as the Department of Health and Human Services) to instruct the USPHS to provide all necessary medical care for the survivors of the study. The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) was established to provide these services. At the same time, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the study participants and their families, resulting in a $10 million, out-of-court settlement in 1974. In 1975, participants’ wives, widows and children were added to the program. In 1995, the program was expanded to include health, as well as medical, benefits. The last study participant died in January 2004. The last widow receiving THBP benefits died in January 2009. Participants’ children (10 as of 2021) continue to receive medical and health benefits and continue to fight for justice.

Almost 90 years after the start of the Tuskegee Study and 49 years (1973) after these men and their families were provided medical benefits, many Black Americans have poorer health outcomes than their White counterparts in part due to racist thinking and policies that prevail in our society. Despite major advances in obstetrics and gynecology, Black women still suffer higher rates of maternal mortality in the United States. Black patients continue to receive less pain medication for a myriad of conditions including broken bones and cancer, and Black children receive less pain medication than white children for conditions such as appendicitis – still today, some medical practitioners inaccurately believe that Black people experience less pain than other human beings. It’s no wonder that Black people distrust “science” and the medical establishment!

Honoring Black Medical Pioneers

Let’s continue to honor medical pioneers, but most importantly
let us work on equalizing how every member of society is treated.

Continue to Celebrate Black History Month…

Check out these further readings:

  • HOBERMAN, JOHN. “Why Bioethics Has a Race Problem.” The Hastings Center Report, vol. 46, no. 2, [The Hastings Center, Wiley], 2016, pp. 12–18, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44159426.
  • Sirleaf, Matiangai. “DISPOSABLE LIVES: COVID-19, VACCINES, AND THE UPRISING.” Columbia Law Review, vol. 121, no. 5, Columbia Law Review Association, Inc., 2021, pp. 71–94, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27033038.

Would you like to contribute a story?

Anyone can contribute a 19 story. Contact Regina Stevens-Truss at Regina.Stevens-Rruss@kzoo.edu for information on how to get started!

19: This Month in Black History – Pinckney Benton Stewart (P.B.S.) Pinchback

P.B.S. Pinchback
The First Black Governor of Louisiana

by Leslie D. Burke, MLIS (editorial support from Dr. Fari Nzinga and Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

The Kalamazoo College Library subscribes to Accessible Archives, where in fall 2021, was published a white paper on Pinckney Benton Stewart (P.B.S.) Pinchback – the first Black Governor of the state of Louisiana!

Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback (known by his contemporaries as P.B.S. Pinchback) was at the helm as the governor of the state of Louisiana — for only 30 days (from December 9, 1872 to January 13, 1873). During the contentious political struggles of the Reconstruction, P.B.S. Pinchback and the Republican party were embroiled in the debate around Negro rights, once the institution of slavery had been abolished through armed struggle. During that time period, Republicans were typically the anti-slavery party with the Democrats generally on the other side, and political corruption equally divided.

P.B.S. Pinchback was quite a character by all accounts, having both successes and failures in his life, with those that admired him and those that thought him somewhat of a scoundrel. Major William Pinchback (a plantation owner in Virginia) and an enslaved woman he loved named Eliza Stewart (an enslaved woman who was the child of a white father and an enslaved mother, with also Native American blood). All total, William and Eliza had 9 children, although only 3 lived. P.B.S. Pinchback was born on May 10, 1837, a free person because prior to his birth, William obtained Eliza’s manumission papers, P.B.S. Pinchback was then considered a quadroon (¼ black) – he could likely have passed for white in a time when that may have advantaged him.

P.B.S. Pinchback and his older brother attended boarding school in Cincinnati, OH, as the family valued education. But before P.B.S. Pinchback was 12 years old, his father William died. And because Eliza was an ex-slave, the Pinchback family appropriated the majority of the inheritance forcing Eliza to move her family to Cincinnati Ohio forcing P.B.S. Pinchback to become the breadwinner of the family, as his older brother had developmental issues, which precluded him from providing much help. P.B.S. Pinchback became a cabin boy, and later steward, on the river boats that traveled to and from Cincinnati. This provided income for the family, but also a street-smart education for P.B.S., and he learned how to gamble from a couple of pairs of gamblers operating on the river. James Haskins said “Legend has it that Pinchback was forced into an unceremonious leave-taking more than once…One such escape was reportedly from the steamboat Homer. Pinchback had won the game fairly—or almost—” and when the losers fought him after, he “had been forced to shoot his way out, killing a man.” (Haskins, pp. 15-16) One of his gambling mentors had likely shown him how to escape in these situations.

In 1860, probably looking for more stability, he married Nina Emily Hawthorne in Memphis. Soon after, the Civil War started, and P.B.S. Pinchback turned his attention to ways that he could support the Federal troops, eventually becoming a captain of an all-black regiment in the Federal Army. He was vocal and active about the poor treatment to himself and to other black troops. Several times over the course of the war, he tried to recruit and lead black soldiers, but when he tried to get the promotions he sought, he was always thwarted in the end because a black man was not allowed to be in command.

Around 1867, now in New Orleans, he started to develop his political career, organizing the Fourth Ward Republican Club. He began to accept more political appointments and was eventually elected as a delegate to the 1867 Louisiana Constitution Convention, where he both “introduced and succeeded in securing adoption of the Thirteenth Article, which guarantees civil rights to all people of the State; regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” (Sewell, p. 8)

P.B.S. Pinchback gradually assumed enough political credentials that he became lieutenant governor, and was in this position on December 8, 1872, when a highly contentious gubernatorial election was held and two different election boards certified elections with two different candidates, one Republican and one Democratic. Henry Clay Warmouth seemed to be the apparent winner, but he alienated his own party, and P.B.S. Pinchback, as the presiding officer of the Louisiana Senate, had the power and seated the previously elected senators. Warmouth was shortly impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors” for his actions and P.B.S. Pinchback was seated as Governor from December 9, 1872 until January 13, 1873, when Republican W. P. Kellogg was inaugurated as Governor. (Bennett, Jr.)

P.B.S. Pinchback was simultaneously running for a Congressional Senate seat, and although his elected credentials were duly signed, twice, by W. P. Kellogg, due to political maneuvering in Congress, he was never able to take his elected seat. He eventually moved his family to Washington and continued to champion for civil rights.

A bit of College History & the Republican Party:

The history of Kalamazoo College and its link to James and Lucinda Stone is well documented (see College archive’s info, and local history of Lucinda Hinsdale Stone). What is not well documented is their role in the formation of the Michigan Republican Party, which formed in 1854 – then, the party of the abolition of slavery (read the Founding and Founders of the Republican Party in the Kalamazoo Area, 1854-1862 in our College Archives , also written about in Marlene Crandell Francis (’58) – A Fellowship in Learning: Kalamazoo College 1833-2008 linked in the digital archives here).


Bennett, Lerone. “The First Black Governor.” Ebony, vol. 42, no. 1, Johnson Publishing, 1986, p. 116. https://col-kzoo.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01COL_KZOO/144driq/cdi_proquest_miscellaneous_232560069

Christian, Marcus B. “OSCAR J. DUNN, CHARLES E. NASH, P. B. S. PINCHBACK, JAMES LEWIS.” Negro History Bulletin, vol. 5, no. 6, Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1942, pp. 137–137. http://kzoocoll.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.jstor.org/stable/44246307

Haskins, James. Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback. Macmillan, 1973.

McCoy, Sharon D. “‘The Trouble Begins at Eight’: Mark Twain, the San Francisco Minstrels, and the Unsettling Legacy of Blackface Minstrelsy.” American Literary Realism, vol. 41, no. 3, University of Illinois Press, 2009, pp. 232–48, https://doi.org/10.1353/alr.0.0022. https://col-kzoo.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01COL_KZOO/144driq/cdi_gale_lrcgauss_A195428049

Mohr, Clarence L. “Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 1, Georgia Historical Society, 1974, pp. 122–24. https://col-kzoo.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01COL_KZOO/144driq/cdi_jstor_primary_40579676

Sewell, George. “BLACK HISTORY HON. P.B.S. PINCHBACK: LOUISIANA’S BLACK GOVERNOR.” The Black Collegian (New Orleans), vol. 4, no. 5, Black Collegiate Services, Inc, 1974, p. 8–. https://col-kzoo.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01COL_KZOO/1p0hjec/cdi_proquest_miscellaneous_2135607743

“This Week in Black History.” Jet, vol. 112, no. 23, Johnson Publishing, 2007, p. 20–. https://col-kzoo.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01COL_KZOO/144driq/cdi_gale_incontextgauss_8GL_A172512510

Would you like to contribute a story?

Anyone can contribute a 19 story. Contact Regina Stevens-Truss at Regina.Stevens-Rruss@kzoo.edu for information on how to get started!

19: This Month in Black History – ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly

Happy Kwanzaa!

by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

Happy Holidays! This is the time of year when millions of people will wish each other a Merry Christmas, happy Solstice or happy Hannukah. Some may even say happy Kwanzaa… but, how many know it’s roots or know someone who celebrates it? [FYI – Oprah, Maya Angelou, Chuck D, Angelina Jolie, and Synthia Saint James (who designed the first Kwanzaa postage stamp in 1997), all celebrate it]

So, what is Kwanzaa anyway, you ask?

Kwanzaa is a festival that takes place annually from December 26th to January 1st. I know what you’re thinking, but it was not meant to replace Christmas. In 1966, after a rather tumultuous year of violent social unrest in Los Angeles – Watts especially – Maulana Karenga, a young Black man involved with activist groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers, was one of many Black youngsters who had been starved of information about his past and was intellectually curious about African peoples’ histories and civilizations. Wanting to marry scholarship in Black and Africana studies with direct action and other forms of activism, Karenga turned his attention to the political possibilities of Black and African culture. One of his first cultural projects was the creation of Kwanzaa, a secular, week-long celebration of African heritage, culture and philosophy.

The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.” Kwanzaa is a holiday that draws inspiration from traditional harvest festivals celebrated throughout Africa (it is important to note that although over 2000 languages are spoken on the African continent, Swahili is spoken by millions on the continent and was adopted as the unifying language of Kwanzaa). Karenga sought to emphasize that the basic principles found in producing the harvest are vital to building and maintaining strong and wholesome communities.

Kwanzaa kinara

The primary symbols of Kwanzaa can be seen in the Kwanzaa Table Candles image from gettyimages: the mkeka, a woven straw mat symbolizing how African heritage builds upon tradition; the kinara, a seven-space candle holder, representing the original stalk from which the African people originated; the mishumaa sabaa, the seven candles displayed (black, red, and green based on the colors of the Pan-African flag) and used in the candle lighting ceremony (more on this to follow below), represent the seven principles described below; the kikombe cha umoja is the cup with which to pour libations; the muhindi are the ears of corn which represent the offspring (children) of the stalk (parents of the house); and the zawadi (gifts) represent the fruits of the labor of the parents and the rewards of seeds sown by the children.

Each day of Kwanzaa corresponds with a principle upon which celebrants reflect. The seven principles (described below) representing the seven days are known as the Nguzo Saba. During the celebration of Kwanzaa, it is customary to greet friends and family with the Swahili phrase, “Habari gani“, meaning, “What’s the news?” In response, one answers with the principle of the day (Umoja, for example, is the response given on December 26th):

Umoja (unity) – to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Kujichagulia (self-determination) – to define ourselves, name ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

Ujima (collective work and responsibility) – to build and maintain our community together and to make our brothers and sisters problems our problems and to solve them together.

Ujamaa (cooperative economics) – to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit together from them.

Nia (purpose) – to make as our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba (creativity) – to do always as much as we can, in the way we can in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.

Imani (faith) – to believe with all our heart in our parents, our teachers, our leaders, our people and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

So, what happens during the 7 days of Kwanzaa, you ask?

Well, the National Museum of African Art and the Anacostia Museum describe the candle lighting ceremony, which is central to the celebration of Kwanzaa observance and which reinforces the meaning of the seven principles, as follows:

Each night (from Dec 26 to Jan 1) at a time when all members of the family are present – children are encouraged to take an active role in all activities – a candle is lit.

Day 1 (Dec 26) – the ceremony begins with the lighting of the black candle and TAMBIKO (libation), which an African form of praise which pays homage to personal and collective ancestors. The elder of the household pours wine, juice or distilled spirits from the KIKOMBE CHA UMOJA (unity cup) into the earth or an earth-filled vessel, and while pouring, the elder makes a statement honoring departed family members for the inspiration and values they have left with their descendants. Friends are also remembered.

After the TAMBIKO, as a gesture of unity, the elder drinks and then passes the unity cup around for all to share, while leading the call, “HARAMBEE” (let’s pull together), and everyone participates in repeating the phrase seven times.

Following the lighting of the first candle on day one “The candles are lit beginning with the black candle (always the black candle that represents Black people) on day one; followed by a red candle, representing the struggle of the people, on day two; then on day three a green candle is lit, representative of the future” (Oprah Magazine, The Principles and Meaning of Kwanzaa). The remaining candles are then lit, alternately, with the final one on January 1st. After each candle lighting, the principle of the day is discussed.

The evening of December 31 (Day 6) is the KARAMU (feast), a joyous celebration with food, drink, dance, and music for the collective family and friends. It is a time of rejoicing, reassessment and recommitment.

Day 7 (January 1) is reserved for SIKA YA TAAMULI, a day or meditation or assessment used by people to reflect on their lives.

Family celebrating Kwanzaa

Now, although Kwanzaa is a secular holiday, that does not mean that it is necessarily an apolitical one. The colors red, black and green are especially important and communicate Kwanzaa’s Pan-African political sentiment. Back in 1920, infamous Jamaican immigrant and Harlem resident, Marcus Garvey created the Pan-African flag (also referred to as the Black liberation flag) consists of three horizontal bars, one red, one black and one green. Garvey, also the founder and leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the largest pro-Black political organization in the world, said in a 1921 speech that appeared in the Negro World newspaper: “Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride. Aye!” In song and mimicry they have said, “Every race has a flag but the coon.” How true! Aye!” Garvey saw the flag as a sign of political maturity, a manifestation of resistance to oppression, and a source of racial pride. According to Garvey, the red symbolizes the blood of martyrs, the black symbolizes the skin of Africans, and the green represents the vegetation of the African land (Marcus Garvy, Wikipedia)

While plenty of people think of Kwanzaa as an Afrocentric Christmas knock-off (if they think of Kwanzaa at all that is), plenty more have turned to the holiday as a much-needed reprieve from the demands of contemporary consumer culture. This holiday season, whether you choose to celebrate Kwanzaa or not, spend a little time reflecting on how YOU are contributing to the cause of Black liberation.

Here is wishing everyone happy holidays, and especially this year, happy Kwanzaa!

Regina Stevens-Truss

19: This Month in Black History – “The Crisis” & W.E.B. Du Bois

The Crisis” and W.E.B. DuBois

by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

The Crisis has been in continuous print since November, 1910, and is the oldest Black-oriented magazine in the world. Today, The Crisis is a quarterly journal of civil rights, history, politics and culture and seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues that continue to plague African Americans and other communities of color.” One of the founding fathers and The Crisis’ was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, known as W.E.B Du Bois (pronounced Dew-Boys), who served as the journal’s editor for over 20 years.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a trailblazing public intellectual. He was a man of many firsts, and a giant in many fields like sociology, history, and political science, as well as a generous patron of literature and the arts. The encyclopedia Brittanica states that Du Bois was “the most important Black protest leader in the United States during the first half of the 20th century.”

Born in Great Barrington, in 1868, Du Bois was raised by his mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt, a domestic worker, and her relatives in rural Western Massachusetts. In 1884, Du Bois became the first African American graduate of the racially integrated public school. He would continue his education at Fisk University in Eastern Tennessee, and go on to enroll at Harvard University, where he received a BA cum laude, in 1890, an MA in 1891, and a PhD in 1895, making him the first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard. His doctoral thesis, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870,” was published in 1896 as the inaugural volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series.

That same year, Du Bois was commissioned by The University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study of the predominantly Black Seventh Ward in Philadelphia. Together with his assistant, Isabel Eaton, Du Bois utilized participant observation, archival research, descriptive statistics, interview and survey methods. The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899, was the first sociological study of an African American community in the United States.

After conducting the research for his monumental study, Du bois put his talents to the service of his people and went on to teach at the historically Black Atlanta University in 1897. In Atlanta, he established the University’s sociology program, now recognized as the first school of American sociology; and, he established himself as a leading scholar, writing for journals like The Atlantic. Known for his astute and meticulous research methods, and his eloquent and cogent writing, Du Bois was invited by the U.S. Bureau of Labor to conduct several studies of southern African American households, which were later aggregated and published as a bureau bulletin under the title The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia: A Social Study.

Basically, Du Bois was a hot-shot, up-and-coming scholar, but with the publication of his monograph, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he became an academic rock star. In the book, he observed that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” In response to this problem, Du Bois theorizes that some Black people develop a sense of double consciousness, where “one ever feels his twoness an American, a Negro, two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals, and one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Soon, Du Bois was ruffling feathers and presenting a so-called third option between Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, both of whom Du Bois characterized as too-ready to accommodate the structures and systems of white supremacy. Instead of the integrationism espoused by Douglass, Du Bois argued that Black people should embrace their African heritage; and instead of supporting Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, Du Bois argued for first class citizenship and full political participation for Black people in the North as well as in the Jim Crow South. However, Du Bois was not satisfied with merely thinking, writing and teaching about Black cultural and political concerns. Du Bois became active in movements both national and international in support of Black freedom. He was a founding member of the Niagara Movement through which the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was conceived. Du Bois, the only Black Board Member of the NAACP, served as the director of research and for over two decades Du Bois edited its flagship publication, The Crisis.

As the editor-in-chief, Du Bois saw his mission as helping to cultivate Black writers, thinkers and artists, by creating a forum for full expression. He also helped to organize the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900 and was a principal architect of four Pan-African Congresses held between 1919 and 1927. During this time, Du Bois strategically exploited his position at The Crisis to draw attention to the widespread use of racial violence, pushing for nationwide legislation that would outlaw the practice of lynching. As a socialist, Du Bois also published articles in favor of unionized labor, although he called out union leaders for barring Black membership. Under his guidance, the journal grew to a readership of 100,000 in 1920, and drew many new supporters to NAACP.

One thing that’s cool about Du Bois is that as he became more and more aware of the conditions and forces shaping and governing Black life, he became more and more strident in his calls for radical protest and action. For example, he resigned from the editorship of The Crisis and the NAACP in 1934, yielding his influence as a race leader and charging that the organization was dedicated to the interests of the Black bourgeoisie at the expense of the Black masses. A year later, he was back at Atlanta University, this time as the Chair of the Sociology department, his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction (1935) newly published. Du Bois’ characterization of the Civil War and Reconstruction placed the experiences of Black men and women at the center of the narrative, provided historical, political and economic context, and called out influential historians whose racist ideas, interpretations and emphases had disfigured the historical record. As per usual, the volume was impeccably researched using social science methods and argued using stirring prose.

W.E.B. Dubois’ voice is one that is needed today – amidst the noise in all sectors – his, would be a voice of reason.

We wish everyone a safe Thanksgiving Holiday filled with family, friends, good food, and love.

Regina Stevens-Truss

19: This Month in Black History – The True meaning of Diez de Octubre

Diez de Octubre

by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

The history of Black people can be told from all over the world. And, Black people in the Diaspora are quite over-expressed in the Caribbean islands.

Cuba has been in the news recently, as young people took to the streets to protest in unprecedented numbers during the summer of 2021. Not surprisingly, Havana’s primarily Black neighborhoods, such as La Güinera, Centro Habana, Diez de Octubre, Cerro, and La Habana Vieja, have been the epicenters of the largest and most recent demonstrations. But if you are familiar with Cuban social and political history, it begins to make sense as to why these locations would be at the vanguard of political protest.

Revered as Cuba’s Padre de la Patria, or Father of the Nation, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y del Castillo called for open rebellion against Spain in his manifesto, El Grito de Yara, published on Diez de Octubre (October 10), 1868. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was born in Bayamo, in Eastern Cuba, to well-to-do, land-owning parents of Andalusian origin. He was raised in the lap of luxury and recalled with tenderness and nostalgia the enslaved woman who nursed and cared for him all his life. By helping to establish the Junta Revolucionaria de Cuba, and publishing the Grito, or shout, Céspedes was essentially committing racial and class suicide. Though not officially recognized by the United States government and consciously ignored by President Grant, the Cuban Junta was active in the United States. Raising money around the country as monetary support for the Cuban rebels.

From the town of Yara near his plantation in La Demajagua, Céspedes kicked off the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) by freeing his slaves and declaring Cuba’s independence from Spain. In the independence manifesto, Céspedes cited, amongst his numerous complaints: arbitrary government, excessive taxation, corruption, the exclusion of Criollos (Cuban-born men) from government employment, and the lack of religious and political liberty – particularly the rights to assembly and petition. It called for the establishment of a republic with universal male suffrage, and the abolition of slavery. As a strategic move, discussion of emancipation had the immediate effect of attracting large numbers of Black people and abolitionists to the cause. And though full abolition would not happen until 1886, the revolutionary, anti-slavery movement throughout the island picked up momentum.

Generals Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo took up arms against Spain and ignited the rebel campaign in the eastern provinces around Guantánamo. General Máximo Gómez Baez, who would come to be lionized in Cuban history and popular culture, was actually born in Baní, Santo Domingo – which was then a part of Haiti. He gained his military experience by fighting against Haitian expansion in Hispañola. Gómez burned sugar plantations to the ground in efforts to destroy the economic base of the Spanish colonialists, and called for others to do the same. It is important to note that Eastern Cuba is to Western Cuba as the Southern U.S. is to the Northern U.S.: the landscape is much more rural, the economy is organized around agricultural production, the institution of slavery was much more widespread, and as a result today, there is a much larger population of Black people in Eastern Cuba. In 1868, the region of Oriente Province of Cuba, was known for its Spanish loyalism and the supposed meekness of its enslaved population. However, in just a few months after the start of emancipation fights, the entire Oriente Province was up in arms, and the Spanish were only able to keep control the municipalities of Guantánamo, Imías, and Caimanera in Guantánamo Province, which actually gave them control of much of the rich sugar and coffee growing areas in the region. Of important note is Lt. General José Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales, who was second-in-command of the Cuban Army of Independence (nicknamed “El Titán de Bronce” after being wounded several times in battle), refused to surrender when other Cuban generals believed they could not defeat the Spanish army, citing that Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery needed to happen first. Interestingly, Maceo’s mother was an AfroCuban woman and his father a Venezuelan “mulatto” whose father had fought for the Spanish against the forces for independence led by Simón Bolívar – his parents ironically, had moved to Santiago de Cuba for the tranquility of Eastern Cuba, fleeing the unrest in Hispañola.

So, you see, the spirit of that rebellion continues to live on into the 21st century as AfroCubans continue to fight for freedom and justice. As Cuban artist and dissident Tania Bruguera, while being on house arrest for eight months and who was arrested in July, 2021 after speaking to Politico about the unprecedent protests in Cuba stated: “[Vandalizing] the food stores means they are hungry and there is no way they have access to food. And turning over the police cars is saying they have enough of the police abuse. The people have spoken very clearly.” As we honor the anniversary of Grito de Dolores heard around the circum-Caribbean, it seems appropriate to examine the ongoing struggles against the undying legacies of racism and imperialism around the world – this history of the island of Cuba is but one!

Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry

19: This Month in Black History – The U.S. Surgeon

Dr. Joycelyn Elders, US Surgeon General (19913-1994)
Photo Credit: HHS.gov – Office of the Surgeon General

by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

“The U.S. Surgeon General is the Nation’s Doctor, providing Americans with the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury. The Surgeon General oversees the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps, an elite group of over 6,000 uniformed officers who are public health professionals. The USPHS mission is to protect, promote, and advance the health of our nation.”

Today, the public looks to this office for information regarding the state of COVID-19. But did you know that the first Black U.S. Surgeon General was sworn in on September 8th, 1993 and was a woman (only the second woman to head that office since its inception in 1871)?  It’s a fact!  Dr. Minnie Joycelyn Elders was sworn in by President Bill Clinton as the fifteenth Surgeon General of the United States. (See a list and history of the previous Surgeons General)

Minnie Joycelyn Elders was born August 13, 1933 to sharecropping parents (one of eight children) in Arkansas. While she would grow up to be a renowned physician and public advocate, it wasn’t until she was 16 years old that she met her first doctor! Elders and her siblings worked as field laborers and domestic servants and pooled their money together in order to pay for her to attend the Historically-Black liberal arts college, Philander Smith College, in Little Rock. Finding her options severely limited in Jim Crow Arkansas, Elders joined the Army and trained in physical therapy at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. After discharge in 1956, she took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled at the University of Arkansas Medical School.

Elders began her studies for a career in medicine one year before the Little Rock Nine African American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957 following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional. Their enrollment precipitated the tumultuous events that would come to be known as the Little Rock Crisis, in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas. Elders was forced to endure segregated accommodations during her time in medical school as one of very few Black and/or female students on campus.

Elders did an internship in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, and in 1961 returned to the University of Arkansas for her residency. In no time, Elders became chief resident in charge of the all-white, all-male residents and interns. She must have endured countless instances of racial abuse, sexual harassment, and elitist entitlement. But she didn’t let that deter her! Dr. Elders went on to earn her masters degree in biochemistry in 1967; became an assistant professor of pediatrics at the university’s Medical School in 1971; and ranked as a full professor by 1976. A mere 2 years later, in 1978, Dr. Joycelyn Elders was the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology. Her research and clinical practice focused on mitigating the effects of pregnancy on diabetic girls and young women. As such, Dr. Elders worked with her patients to educate them on their sexual and reproductive health, and offered potentially life-saving family planning resources and information. Dubbed the “condom queen,” she was known for her positions on ensuring sex workers’ access to reproductive health care and making condom available to all public high schoolers.

Using her platform as Surgeon General during a period of “tough on crime” policies that would facilitate the mass incarceration of poor, Black, and other racialized people largely for low-level, non-violent drug offenses, Dr. Elders was ahead of her time in saying: “I do feel that we would markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized.” President Clinton, however, did not support her position and foreclosed the possibility of a national conversation around drug legalization. One year after her controversial comments, Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign from her Surgeon General post by the Clinton administration. Not long thereafter, in 1996, Elders (with David Chanoff) published her autobiography, Joycelyn Elders, M.D.: From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America.

In 2014, former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders teamed up with the Program in Human Sexuality and the Institute for Sexual and Gender Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School to advance comprehensive science-based sexual health education by creating the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education. The position supports research, scholarship and pedagogy that aims to create comprehensive life-long sexual education curricula, to increase the number of health care providers trained in sexual health care, and to expand scientific research in sexuality education.

In 2020 she was honored by TIME Magazine as one of the historical 100 Women Of The Year.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry

19: This Month in Black History – Black Wallstreet and The Tulsa Massacre

by Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

Dear Colleagues, happy summer. I hope this message finds you enjoying your time away/off and that that you are resting and healthy. So much continues to occur in our Nation and the world, that we cannot drop the ball at this point. So, although I promised no story during the summer months, for those of us for whom the work does not stop or take a break, this message is offering an opportunity to continue to educate ourselves on the issues of racism, racist policies, and the destruction of communities.


If you have not seen any of the documentaries about the Tulsa Massacre, they are available at:

Tulsa Race Massacre Reading

This is another sad episode in the growth of this nation, and there are many others like it that need to be told (if you cannot access either film, you can read the History.com Tulsa Race Massacre article. As they say, “history is bound to repeat itself” if we do not know it, study it, and confront its effects head on wherever we see it. Best said by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Stay tuned for a new HHMI IE supported series that will be introduced in August. Stay well,

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry

19: This Month in Black History- May Day

Lucy Gomez Parsons, Albert Parsons, and May Day

May Day

by Dr. Lisa Brock (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

Did you know that May Day, typically celebrated on May 1st, is not just an old European tradition where kids dance around a maypole, nor is it a radical holiday that occurs only in socialist countries, but is the original “Labor Day” in the United States? Did you know that May Day began in Chicago on May 1, 1886 by “Chicago unionists, reformers, socialists, anarchists, and ordinary workers [who] combined to make the city the center of the national movement for an eight-hour [work] day?” If you knew that, kudos to you. Did you also know that one of the leaders of the movement was Lucy Gomez Parsons, a Black woman of indigenous and Mexican lineage?

This month’s 19 Story is her story and the story of May Day.

Lucy Gomez Parsons was born in Texas around 1853; her parents were likely enslaved. Because of her triple heritage, she sometimes claimed to be Mexican or Indian, depending on the circumstances of oppression she found herself in at any given time. Around 1870, she met and married Albert Parsons who was white, and together they were politically active during the time of Reconstruction (1865-1877), working to register Black people to vote in Texas. Their political action, however, made them targets, as their lives were often threatened. Following Albert getting shot in the leg, they decided to escape to Chicago where their marriage, while frowned upon, would at least be legal, and where they felt they could continue their political work.

The 1870s in Chicago were highly charged times, as was true in many of America’s northern cities, where European, African-American, and Latinx immigrants migrated to looking for work and a better life. What they found, however, was horrendous working conditions, such as those of the meat packing industry depicted in Upton Sinclair’s classic 1907 novel, The Jungle and Bill Dukes 1984 film, The Killing Floor.

When Lucy and Albert arrived in Chicago in 1873, an economic depression was underway. Much like the Great Depression of the 1930s, masses of people were being laid off pushing wages down. Albert, though, was fortunate, and managed to get a job as a printer at the Chicago Times newspaper. Lucy, along with a friend, Lizzy Swank, opened a Dress Shop.

Now, understand that the eight-hour day/forty-hour work week became Federal law in the US in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. But the struggle for this, was real and slow. For example, on May 1, 1867, the Illinois legislature passed a law mandating an eight-hours workday, and on May 19, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that guaranteed a stable wage and an eight-hours workday for government workers. However, private industries refused to comply, and neither the state nor the federal government were making them.

As the workers’ movement brewed for a decade, it’s been said that Lucy and Albert held meetings in the Dress Shop, which is believed to have led to Albert’s firing and his being blacklisted as a printer. At this time, industrial workers were fighting for higher wages and better working conditions. In 1877, the Baltimore-Ohio Railroad, one of the largest companies in the country, cut the wages of their workers, for which a strike ensued with solidarity strikes occurring all over the country. New Unions were created during this time, and Lucy emerged as a leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

Lucy was considered by some to be “dangerous” at this time as she wrote articles in The Alarm, published weekly by the International Worker’s People’s Association (IWPA) with the aim of advocating for direct action by people if needed to defend workers’ rights – a publication Lucy and Albert helped found in 1883.

On May 1, 1886 a day of action was planned – workers demanded an eight-hours work day with no cut in pay, and as you can guess, this was not received well by companies. Thus, on May 1, 1886, 350,000 workers across the nation walked off their jobs to participate in the largest mass general strike in US history; forty thousand workers struck in Chicago, alone, creating a whirlwind of workers’ activity, which inspired workers all over the world. Two days later, on May 3rd, 1886, the McCormick Harvest workers went on strike, joining the movement. With so many workers on strike, industries put pressure on City and State governments to do something. So, police were unleashed, with them firing into crowds of striking workers. A bomb was thrown into a crowd who was meeting at the Haymarket Square in Chicago killing one policeman. Riots broke out and both strikers and police were hurt. In the days that followed, city authorities, in response, raided the homes of leaders, many of whom had not even been at Haymarket Square, and they shut down newspapers. Police were looking for Albert and other strike leaders, many of whom went into hiding; some were found and some turned themselves in. In October, 1887, Albert and four other movement leaders were put on trial. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, and on November 11, 1887, Albert and the others were hung.

Between May 1, 1886 and October, 1887, you can imagine that Lucy, who was then under constant surveillance and harassment, tried to save her husband. As she was not to be silenced, she traveled the country to raise awareness of what was happening. She was often jailed and beaten in cities through which she traveled. In fact, she and her two children were jailed to “avoid trouble” after they visited Albert in jail for the last time.

Lucy Gomez Parsons, a Black woman, lived just long enough to see the eight-hours day/forty-hours week become a reality. She remained politically active until she died at the age of 89 in what the authorities said was an accidental fire at her house in Chicago on March 7, 1942. Sadly, her library of 1500 books, on sex, socialism and anarchy, which according to the FBI survived the fire, mysteriously disappeared.

Because of the work of Lucy Gomez Parsons and many others, the US Federal government negotiated with labor unions for Labor Day to be observed in September instead of May – ironically, the US is the only country that celebrates Labor Day on a day other than May 1st.

And if you didn’t know – now you know! Happy Labor Day month.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History