July 6, 1957 – Althea Gibson Becomes the First African American to win Wimbledon

On this day in 1957, Althea Gibson claimed the women’s singles tennis title at Wimbledon and became the first African American to win a championship at London’s All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Gibson also won the women’s doubles championship later in the day.

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Althea Gibson, born in 1927 in South Carolina, grew up in the Harlem section of New York City. Gibson’s athletic ability set her apart from her peers, and she drew even more attention to herself when she won the Police Athletic League and Parks Department paddle tennis competitions. The recreation director and musician Buddy Walker recognized her talent, purchased rackets, and took her to the Harlem River Tennis Courts. Shortly thereafter, the noted Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club took up a collection to provide Gibson with a membership and tennis lessons.

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Gibson’s big break occurred when two African American physicians offered her a home, secondary schooling, tennis instruction, and the encouragement and financial support to realize her potential. Gibson lived with one of the families in Wilmington, North Carolina during the school year and spent the summer perfecting her tennis game on the other’s backyard tennis court in Lynchburg, Virginia. She went on to win the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA) women’s singles ten years in a row (1947 – 1956), establishing herself as the best black woman tennis player.

In 1950, while in her first year as a basketball and tennis scholarship student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, she reached the finals before being defeated. But she was not invited to any national tournaments on segregated facilities until tennis champion Alice Marble declared in American Lawn Tennis magazine:

“[Gibson] is not being judged by the yardstick of ability but by the fact that her pigmentation is somewhat different.”

1950 – Althea Gibson and Alice Marble walking to the outer court at Forest Hills where Gibson’s first match was scheduled.

Largely owing to Marble’s influence, the invitations started coming in, and she entered Wimbledon in 1951, becoming the first African American to play there. She advanced to the quarterfinals before losing. Gibson’s tennis game continued to mature. In 1956, she won sixteen of the eighteen international tournaments in which she was a participant, one of which was a Grand Slam event, the French Open. With this win, Gibson became the first black person to win a major singles tennis title.

Althea Gibson defeated Darlene Hard in 1957 to win the first of her two consecutive Wimbledon titles

Althea Gibson defeated Darlene Hard in 1957 to win the first of her two consecutive Wimbledon titles

Seven years after breaking the color barrier in 1950, she established herself as champion by winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. championship in both 1957 and 1958. In 1959 she retired from amateur tennis, played exhibition tennis, appeared in movies, recorded an album, and published her biography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.

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In 1964 at the age of 37 she became a professional golfer. Gibson was the first black woman to hold a Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) player’s card, thus breaking the color barrier in two of the most socially elite sports. She still battled racism, however. For example, the Beaumont Country Club in Texas agreed to let her play the course, but wouldn’t allow her to use the clubhouse or the bathrooms.

Althea Gibson could drive over 300 yards

Althea Gibson could drive over 300 yards

Gibson married in 1965. In later years, she served as a professional tennis teacher and coach as well as the program director for a racquet club and athletic commissioner for the state of New Jersey. In 1994, Gibson suffered a stroke that left her confined to her home. She died in 2003 in her home city of East Orange, New Jersey.

Among Althea Gibson’s many honors were the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year (1957 – 1958), National Tennis Hall of Fame (1971), Black Athletes Hall of Fame, International Tennis Hall of Fame (1971), and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame (1980). Gibson served as an inspiration for others such as Zina Garrison, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams. The way was paved for black men, too. Arthur Ashe felt that Gibson set the stage for his own later triumphs on the court.

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July 4, 1831 – First Public Performance of “My Country, Tis of Thee”

Samuel Francis Smith, born in 1808, was an American Baptist minister, journalist, and author. He is best known for having written the lyrics to “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, which he entitled “America”. The book My Country ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolf Murphy follows the history of the song “America” and how the lyrics evolved over the years to reflect the political exigencies of the day. Because it is such a well known tune, and because it is such an iconic statement of about the ideals of America, generations of protestors have changed the words as part of their struggles for rights.

The author explains that the song first appeared in England in the 1740s as “God Save the King.” She then takes the song across the Atlantic where the colonists sang it, altering the words when they declared independence.

In 1831, Samuel Francis Smith published the version we sing today that begins with “My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.” Smith gave Lowell Mason the lyrics he had written and the song was first performed in public on July 4, 1831, at a children’s Independence Day celebration at Park Street Church in Boston. (Mason was a leading figure in American church music, and the composer of over 1600 hymn tunes, many of which are often sung today.) Smith later wrote an additional stanza for the April 30, 1889 Washington Centennial Celebration.

Women, blacks, Native Americans, and labor activists later issued adaptations of the song to reflect their lack of liberty.

In each instance, the author explains the context and supplies some of the new verses.

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She continues her journey through American history, culminating with the stirring speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 when he spoke of his dream of transforming the nation into one of brotherhood, declaring:

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing….”

She concludes by noting that forty-five years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea, the first person of color was elected to be President of the United States, and Aretha Franklin sang “America” at the inauguration.

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But she doesn’t suggest the struggle for equal rights has ended. She writes:

Now it’s your turn. Write a new verse for a cause you believe in. Help freedom ring.”

At the end of the book, the author provides source notes, a bibliography, links to further resources, and sheet music for the song as we know it today.

Multiple award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier uses dramatic two-page mixtures of watercolors and collage. As always, he doesn’t just illustrate the text; his imagery adds his own commentary, enhancing the text with additional meaning.

Evaluation: This is an excellent way to teach children American history from a unique perspective, in two senses: one is that it provides an encapsulation of American history from the viewpoint of minorities, and two, it uses a clever and interesting approach with its focus on the changing lyrics of one song.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2014

Civil War Song Sheet, courtesy Library of Congress

Civil War Song Sheet, courtesy Library of Congress

July 2, 1964 – Civil Rights Act of 1964 Signed Into Law

On this day in history, President Lyndon Johnson, using 72 ceremonial pens, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-352) into law. In spite of the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, individual states continued to allow unfair treatment of minorities and passed Jim Crow laws allowing segregation of public facilities. The 1964 Act outlawed any discrimination in public facilities on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote.

President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964

President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964

Passage of the act was extremely difficult, on account of the opposition of Southern senators, who staged a 75-day filibuster – among the longest in U.S. history. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro tells the story of how it got accomplished in fascinating detail. It is unfortunate that Johnson is remembered more for the tragedy of Vietnam than the triumph of pushing this important bill through Congress.

The 1964 Act did not end discrimination, and almost immediately, the new civil rights law came under legal challenge. The court cases mostly had the effect, however, of solidifying civil rights. In one case, the owner of an Atlanta motel, “The Heart of Atlanta,” argued that Congress, in passing this Act, exceeded its power to regulate commerce; that the Act violated the Fifth Amendment because the appellant was deprived of the right to choose its customers and operate its business as it wishes, resulting in a taking of its liberty and property without due process of law and a taking of its property without just compensation; and, finally, in a supremely ironic touch, the appellant argued that by requiring appellant to rent available rooms to Negroes against its will, Congress was subjecting it to “involuntary servitude” in contravention of the Thirteenth Amendment. Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc. v. United States (379 U.S. 241), decided on December 14, 1964, was a landmark case holding that the U.S. Congress could use the power granted to it by the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to force businesses, even if “of a purely ‘local’ character,” to abide by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Other relevant cases included Katzenbach v. McClung (379 U.S. 294, 1964) upholding the right of the federal government to mandate desegregation in restaurants; and Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (401 U.S. 424, 1970), in which a unanimous Court held that when an employment practice operates to exclude African-Americans or other racial minorities, that practice is prohibited unless the employer can show that it fulfills a genuine business need and is a valid measure of an applicant’s ability to learn or perform the job in question.

In Washington v. Davis (26 U.S. 229, 1976), however, the Court ruled against the African-American plaintiffs rejected for positions in the D.C. Police Department. The plaintiffs alleged that the Department’s recruiting procedures, including a written personnel test, discriminated against racial minorities, claiming that the test was unrelated to job performance and excluded a disproportionate number of black applicants. The Court found that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to prevent official discrimination on the basis of race; laws or other official acts that had racially disproportionate impacts did not automatically become constitutional violations. The Court stated: “Racial discrimination by state must contain two elements: a racially disproportionate impact and discriminatory motivation on the part of the state actor.”

Justice William J. Brennan, joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall, dissented. Although the Court stated that a showing of discriminatory intent was necessary to make out a claim under the Constitution, it did ot clarify what sort of showing might pass the test. As Justice Brennan pointed out in his dissenting opinion, discriminatory purpose cannot always be distinguished from discriminatory impact.

President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964

President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964

June 28, 1914 – Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Did it Really Cause WWI? Review of “The War That Ended Peace” by Margaret MacMillan

Anyone under the illusion that the outbreak of World War I was the result only or even mainly of the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Serbia will be disabused of that conception after reading this thorough account by Oxford University scholar Margaret Macmillan. In fact, after reading this book, one can only wonder how war was averted until 1914.

Macmillan provides a detailed introduction to all the major players in European international affairs at the turn of the 20th century. She also reviews the alliances, competitions, hostilities, jealousies, and the sociological currents feeding the inchoate war machine: in particular, inflated senses of honor, nationalism, imperialism, and what one might call a racist interpretation of Darwinism.

At this time, the major European powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) were competing for hegemony in several dimensions:

First, they wanted to be seen as strong and powerful military states.

Second, they wanted as big a share of the colonial pie as they could grab. Colonies could be exploited for natural resources, laborers, soldiers, and the psychological benefit of the impression of world dominance. Britain and, to a lesser extent France, had stolen a march on the others by gobbling up large tracts of Africa, India, and China. In addition, the Ottoman Empire was correctly viewed as on the verge of dissolution, which would soon open up great opportunities for colonizing oil rich areas of the Middle East. Germany in particular was trying to make up for lost time. Each of the powers feared that if it didn’t leap into the fray first, it would lose out, and a hated rival would steal “its place in the sun.”

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Third, each, albeit in varying degrees, had a sense of racial and/or ethnic superiority, which contributed to their determination to dominate lesser groups.

Fourth, the very powerful memes of nationalism, radicalism, and anti-Semitism all were roiling around in the air and causing destabilization.

An important factor adding to instability was the fact that no one Power was in position to dominate the others. Accordingly, all the Powers sought to ally themselves with any other strong Powers whose interests did not conflict too seriously with their own. By 1910, Europe had divided into two rather hostile (but not yet warring) camps: (1) the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (rather reluctantly) Italy; and (2) the Entente—France and Russia and (maybe) England.

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Members of both the Alliance and the Entente perceived their own agreements to be primarily defensive in nature. But MacMillan points out that those same arrangements seemed to outsiders to be offensive in purpose. As a result, every continental Power perceived itself to be surrounded by hostile forces, and endeavored to prepare for what seemed like an inevitable outbreak of war.

In addition, advances in technology, particularly railroads, made it possible to mobilize a country’s army in a much shorter time than in previous years. This situation created pressure on the others to be ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Otherwise, you could be caught at a great disadvantage, if an enemy Power was ready to deploy before you were.

Thus, Europe was a powder keg, with players just waiting for an excuse to light the fuse.  The Balkans, being the most volatile area at the time, was merely the most likely source of the much-anticipated spark.  [Ironically, Europe had weathered at least three very close calls (the Moroccan Crisis and two Balkan Wars) between 1908 and 1913 that had nearly resulted in war but were smoothed out in the end. But the pressure was building, and no leader took the necessary steps to defuse the new crisis adequately.] After the death of Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary issued a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia that could never be accepted, and the game was on.

Discussion: This is a detailed history of the period immediately preceding World War I, rather than a history of the war itself. To that end, MacMillan tells you everything you always wanted to know about the situation in Europe at that time. While she spreads plenty of blame all around, she is probably in the camp assigning the most blame for the war to Germany, with its possibly insane kaiser and its power-hungry and ideologically extremist ministers.

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902

One criticism is that the author could have forgone the minutiae about the predilections of various ministers and their wives for fishing or gardening and the like. Instead, she would have served readers better by adding background on the influential writers of the time, such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose popular book Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) argued that Germany, constituted primarily of the (allegedly) superior Aryan race, needed to come out triumphant in the never-ending struggle among ‘the chaos of races.” [Chamberlain was British, but later became a German citizen.] The anonymous and infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russia in 1903, and positing a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, was also widely translated and disseminated. Many of the racist tracts at the turn of the century, such as The Social Role of the Aryan by the Frenchman Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1899) explicitly cited Darwin to provide a scientific imprimatur to the advocacy of racial eugenics. These ideas caught fire among the political and intellectual elite in Europe at the century’s end, and indeed, were still fueling social policy before and during World War II. Some background on these writings would have provided a much-needed explanation for the currents of thought that roiled these turbulent times, and would have helped displace another commonly held misconception that it was mainly the unsatisfactory resolution of World War I that resulted in World War II.

Evaluation: This book is an excellent addition to any World War I library. MacMillan provides a fascinating backstory to many of the events leading up to the war. While some may take issue with her emphases, this book is definitely worth consideration.

We listened to an audio version of this book. The narrator, actor Richard Burnip, is quite competent and has a delightful British accent. Our only complaint is that each disc ended and then started over with nary a breath in between.

Rating: 4/5

Published unabridged on 25 compact discs by Audible Ltd. Books on Tape, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2013

June 24, 1941 – The German Army Occupies Vilna

As the Holocaust Museum online site explains:

Under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact, Vilna, along with the rest of eastern Poland, was occupied by Soviet forces in late September 1939. In October 1939, the Soviet Union transferred the Vilna region to Lithuania. The population of the city was 200,000 at this time, including over 55,000 Jews. In addition, some 12,000-15,000 Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland found refuge in the city. Soviet forces occupied Lithuania in June 1940 and in August 1940 incorporated Vilna, along with the rest of Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Soviet forces in eastern Europe. The German army occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, the third day after the invasion.”

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

The destruction of the Vilna Jewry began soon thereafter.

Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” It was an important center of the Jewish Enlightenment and had a number of famous institutes of research and education, including the Jewish Scientific Institute, YIVO. The book Stronger Than Iron reports on the fate of Vilna Jews from the moment the Germans came in June, 1941 until the Soviet liberation in September, 1944. Some seventy thousand Jews died. The author notes that “by the most optimistic assessment only one thousand Jews [of Vilna] survived.”

I have read quite a few books written by Holocaust survivors, but I think this one stands out because of the astute observation skills of the narrator, who was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Vilna, Lithuania. (The book was originally written in Yiddish by Theodore Balberyszki, and translated into English by his son Mendel.)

As you read about the amazing sequence of events that led both Theodore and his son to live in spite of all they endured, you will understand how rare and crucial this eyewitness account actually is.

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

Mendel Balberyszski, in his Preface, explains the title of this book:

“My book is entitled Stronger Than Iron, for a human being had to be stronger than iron to endure the savage brutality and hatred of the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers, who were determined to implement a policy of the extermination of Vilna Jewry.

One had to be tough as iron to absorb the blows of the ‘good’ German during the slave labor; to survive when the body was swollen from hunger; to overcome disease and lice and to work from dawn till night in rain, snow, blizzards, winds, frost and heat.

“One had to be tough as iron not to collapse physically as well as morally when witnessing the pain of an old mother, of one’s wife and most importantly of one’s little children who all of a sudden, from a beautiful, cultured, materially secure life, were thrown into the abyss of need, confinement, dirt, hunger and horrible suffering.”

Evaluation: I will say that, in spite of having read many survivor accounts, I found this book riveting. If you are at all interested in this genre, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Note: There is a good article on Vilna Jewry and what happened to them on the online site of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gefen Books, 2011

June 21, 1811 – John Adams writes of George Washington’s Theatricality

As historian Gordon Wood observed in the May 25, 2017 “New York Review of Books,” George Washington “faced the awesome task of fashioning the character and responsibilities of the office [of President]. To that end, “[h]e commonly saw himself as an actor on stage and was always concerned with maintaining appearances.”

On this day in history, John Adams was thinking of that aspect of Washington when he wrote to his friend Benjamin Rush, reporting on his current life and thinking. Adams began with family news, and then wrote, “And now how Shall I turn my Thoughts from this good humoured Small Talk, to the angry, turbulent Stormy Science of Politicks.”

John Adams

Writing about politicians, he commented on how much of politics is theater, observing that:

Washington understood this Art very well, and We may say of him, if he was not the greatest President he was the best Actor of Presidency We have ever had. His Address to The States when he left the Army; His solemn Leave taken of Congress when he re[s]igned his Commission; his Farewell Address to the People when he resigned his Presidency. These were all in a strain of Shakespearean and Garrickal Excellence in Dramatic Exhibitions.”

Ron Chernow, in his biography of Washington, also wrote about Washington’s awareness of his image and the steps he took to manipulate it:

Aware of how impressive he looked atop a white mount, he once instructed a friend to buy him a horse, specifying that he ‘would prefer a perfect white.’ … So taken was Washington with his unblemished chargers that he had grooms rub them with white paste at night, bundle them in cloths, then bed them down on fresh straw. In the morning the hardened white paste gleamed, its paleness accentuated by black polish applied to the horses’ hooves. For command performances, the animals’ mouths were rinsed and their teeth scrubbed.”

Washington on a white horse

You can read Adams’ entire letter here.

June 14, 1838 – U.S. Congressman Benjamin Howard Expresses His Regret that Women are Straying from Their Proper Sphere

Benjamin Chew Howard was an American congressman from Baltimore County, Maryland. His father was John Eager Howard, a Revolutionary War officer after whom Howard County, Maryland was named when it officially was formed as a county in 1851.

Benjamin Chew Howard

Benjamin Chew Howard

On this day in history, Representative Howard rose in the House during the debate over the annexation of Texas to express his “regret” that so many women had presented petitions on this matter:

These females could have a sufficient field for the exercise of their influence in the discharge of their duties to their fathers, their husbands, or their children, cheering the domestic circle, and shedding over it the mild radiance of the social virtues, instead of rushing into the fierce struggles of political life.”

By leaving their proper sphere, Howard charged, women were “discreditable, not only to their own particular section of the country, but also to the national character.”

Source: Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, & Women’s Political Identity by Susan Zaeske, University of North Carolina Press, 2003)