April 16, 1848 – Slave Escape Foiled in D.C.

On the evening of April 15, 1848, at least 75 slaves from the D.C. area, both adults and children, tried to escape slavery with the help of two white men, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, who chartered a 64-foot schooner, The Pearl, for their departure.

In the dark, the would-be escapees made their way in small groups to a wharf in Southeast D.C. and they set sail down the Potomac River. Unfortunately, bad weather delayed the voyage, giving whites enough time to form a posse. The posse traveled by steamboat and overtook The Pearl at Point Lookout, 100 miles southeast of D.C. the next morning, on this day in history. They took everyone back to Washington.

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As the news of the escape attempt spread, pro-slavery rioters attacked abolitionist businesses. Drayton and Sayres were put in the city jail, from which a lynch mob attempted to remove them. Most of the escapees were sold South to slave dealers in New Orleans and Georgia.

Historians believe this was the nation’s largest single escape attempt.

On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed “An Act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” known as the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.

Originally sponsored by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the act provided for the freedom of all enslaved persons within the District of Columbia, compensation (up to $300) of loyal persons who filed a petition to the Commissioners affirming their claim on the manumitted person(s), and the opportunity for those emancipated to emigrate to another country such as Haiti or Liberia by offering $100 for that purpose.

Senator Henry Wilson

Senator Henry Wilson

The Act passed easily in both the House (92-38) and Senate (29-14). In the months following the enactment of the law, commissioners approved more than 930 petitions, granting freedom to 2,989 former slaves.

Wilson went on to introduce the first post-war civil rights bill in 1865 and also influenced Congress’s passage of constitutional amendments to guarantee citizenship rights to African Americans. Elected Vice President in 1873, he became ill shortly after taking office and died on November 22, 1875.

April 13, 1873 – The Colfax Massacre

As DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University Eric Foner, writing in The Washington Post (3/28/08) points out, “Scholars estimate that during Reconstruction, the turbulent period that followed the Civil War, upwards of 3,000 persons were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups. That’s roughly the same number of Americans who have died at the hands of Osama bin Laden.”

“The single most egregious act of terrorism during Reconstruction” (per Foner) took place in the Colfax area of Louisiana in 1873. In the1872 local election, a Confederate veteran supported by Democrats was running for sheriff against the Republican candidate. There was uncertainty over the winner, and unrest ensued.

Freedman rightly feared a Democratic victory. As Foner writes, “Organized violence emerged around Colfax almost as soon as the Civil War ended, targeting black leaders, school teachers, freedmen who tried to acquire land, and, once blacks won the right to vote, local officeholders.”

When the federal government supported the Republican governor by sending federal troops to Louisiana, the white residents of the state refused to cooperate. Freed black men serving in the militia of Grant Parish cordoned off the county seat of Colfax and began drilling and digging trenches. They were able to hold the town for three weeks.

Local whites, including The White League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana, began to mobilize. Rumors circulated that local blacks had initiated a “reign of terror” and were roaming the countryside with the intent to “exterminate” all white people they found. Rumors and political tensions, as usual, were expressed with a sexual subtext. Accounts of the time said that whites believed rumors of alleged threats by freedmen’s claiming they would seek revenge and take local white women for wives (or worse).

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On Easter Sunday, April 13, heavily armed whites overpowered the defenders (many of them holed up in the courthouse), and an indiscriminate slaughter followed, including the massacre of some fifty blacks who lay down their arms under a white flag of surrender. The final death toll remains unknown, but is estimated at around 150 blacks and three whites. Afterwards, the bodies of some of the blacks were mutilated to serve as a “lesson” to blacks in the vicinity.

In response to these incidents and others throughout the South, President Grant ordered federal troops to restore order. But most of the relief was temporary. After Colfax, the federal government convicted only three whites for the murders. In the end, they were freed in 1876 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Cruikshank, declared that they had been convicted unconstitutionally. Foner laments “Cruikshank hammered the final nail into the coffin of federal efforts to protect the basic rights of black citizens in the South. Reconstruction effectively ended a year later, and the Jim Crow era began.”

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April 12, 1861 – The American Civil War Began With the Attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina

In 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States. As more states followed suit and the Confederate States of America took shape, many federal installations in the South were taken over by state governments. Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, continued to fly the U.S. flag, even as Confederate forces surrounded it. President Lincoln had just taken office and no shots had yet been fired when he received an urgent appeal from Major Robert Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor. They were running low on supplies, and the Confederates had so ringed the fort with military batteries that it seemed impossible any provisions could get through with anything less than “twenty thousand good and well disciplined men.” President Lincoln notified Governor Francis Pickens of South Carolina that he needed to send provisions – food only – to the men stranded in the middle of the harbor at Fort Sumter. Pickens contacted Jefferson Davis, who directed communications to be exchanged between Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and Major Anderson.

Major Robert Anderson

Major Robert Anderson

As it turned out, Anderson had been Beauregard’s teacher at West Point. Beauregard was extremely courteous in his demand that Anderson evacuate the fort. Anderson thanked him for his communications, and declined with “regret.” The next day, April 12, at 3:20 in the morning, Anderson received this message:

Sir:
By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time. We have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servants.”

One hour later, the Civil War began.

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April 9, 1939 – Marian Anderson Performs at the Lincoln Memorial

On this day in history, the renowned contralto Marian Anderson gave an Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The DAR had a “whites only” clause governing use of the concert hall.

As a young girl, Marian Anderson sang all parts in her church choir: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. She got professional training starting at the age of 19, and at the peak of her career, she was regarded as the world’s greatest contralto. 


The Howard University’s music department usually sponsored someone of renown for a concert every year, and in 1939 they had chosen Marian Anderson, who was said to have “one voice in a million” and who had already given some seventy concerts in the U.S. in 1938.

Marian Anderson, February, 1939

Howard U. did not have an adequate venue for the concert, and so asked the DC school board to authorize the use of the large auditorium at the white high school, Central High. They were rejected. The DAR’s Constitution Hall was the next target, and they too rejected having a black woman featured at a concert. (A clause appeared in all contracts for the DAR that restricted the hall to “a concert by white artists only, and for no other purpose.”) Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR over this act, and wrote a newspaper column to publicize it.

Eleanor Roosevelt's Letter of Resignation

Roosevelt then met with some black and white leaders who decided that the Lincoln Memorial grounds would make an ideal venue to show what American could and should be like. An integrated audience of close to 75,000 attended on Easter Sunday morning and cheered as Marian Anderson sang.

With Secy. Interior Ickes After the Lincoln Memorial Concert, 1939

Several weeks later, Ms. Anderson gave a private concert at the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt was entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Britain.

Rather than fight much of the racism she received, she tended to avoid inflammatory situations. In the South, she often stayed with friends. When traveling, she would take meals in her room and traveled in drawing rooms on night trains. She said:

If I were inclined to be combative, I suppose I might insist on making an issue of these things. But that is not my nature, and I always bear in mind that my mission is to leave behind me the kind of impression that will make it easier for those who follow.”

Nevertheless, from early in her career she insisted on “vertical” seating in segregated cities; meaning black audience members would be allotted seats in all parts of the auditorium. Many times, it was the first time blacks would sit in the orchestra section. By 1950, she would refuse to sing where the audience was segregated.

Anderson as Ulrica, 1955

She continued to break barriers for black artists in the United States, and became an important symbol during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, notably singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.

In 1993, Marian Anderson died of heart failure, at the age of 96. In June, over 2,000 admirers attended a memorial service at Carnegie Hall.

April 7, 1760 – Beginning of the Slave Revolt in Jamaica

On this day in history, some fifteen hundred black men and women slaves in Jamaica began an uprising that lasted until October of the following year.

Jamaica

The British had conquered Jamaica in 1655, taking it from Spain. Jamaica was valued for its sugar and coffee crop, and therefore became hugely dependent on African slaves. The colony’s slaves, however, greatly outnumbered their white masters, and mounted over a dozen uprisings during the 18th century, including the so-called Tacky’s War in 1760.

This revolt was named for the leader of the rebellion, Tacky (Takyi), who had been a tribal chief in modern-day Ghana before his enslavement.

Over the course of eighteen months, an estimated sixty whites were killed, but over five hundred slaves died. Another five to six hundred were sent to be enslaved workers in the Bay of Honduras for their parts in the revolt.

Jamaican slaves would not cease their efforts to be free, however, and on Christmas Day in 1831 as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slaves went on general strike. “The Baptist War” (the revolt was led by the slave Samuel Sharpe who was also a Baptist preacher) became the largest slave uprising in the history of the British West Indies. Slaves burned and looted plantations for several days, causing a great deal of property damage, and resulting in the death of 14 whites and approximately 300 slaves. Three hundred more slaves—including the ringleader Sharpe—were hanged. Only one year later, the British Parliament abolished all slavery in the British Empire.

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April 4, 1968 – Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Last Day

At Canaan’s Edge concludes “America in the King Years,” a three-volume history by Pulitizer Prize winner Taylor Branch that provides an account of the civil rights movement in the U.S. Studded with detail that brings the charismatic icons of that era to life, Branch provides a poignant account of King’s last day.

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After a day of meetings, phone calls, and a get together with his brother, King and his close friend Ralph Abernathy made plans for the evening. Branch writes:

[King] reminded Abernathy that Bill Kyles expected them at five o’clock for an early supper before the mass meeting. They certainly would arrive late, with extra guests such as Eskridge and the Kentucky group, but King claimed to worry most about the menu. He wanted to make sure they would get real soul food rather than some dainty starvation of asparagus and greens. ‘Call her,’ he prodded Abernathy with an insistent undercurrent of mirth, until the exasperated sidekick called Gwen Kyles. She said there was plenty of food and the dinner was at six o’clock, not five. (By disclosing the actual time, she inadvertently spoiled her husband’s trick to combat King’s chronic tardiness.) As for the puzzling question about the menu, she mentioned a few dishes hesitantly until excitement spread through her household that Abernathy was repeating each item to King – roast beef, sweetbreads, chitterlings, pork chops, neck bones, fried chicken, and ham in the meat line, plus six kinds of salad, featured turnip greens and candied sweet potatoes, a bread table of hot rolls, corn bread, corn muffins, biscuits, and corn pones, and pretty much the works for dessert. Kyles had recruited the best cooks from her church, along with many helpers, favored daughters, and hostesses in finest clothes to spread forth a feast. (‘They were really laying for that dinner,’ she recalled.) Her menu, greatly embellished in Abernathy’s relayed account, more than satisfied King….”

Close to 6 p.m., Rev. Billy Kyles went up to King’s room to hurry him along. King teased Kyles about his new house and said “Now Billy, if you’ve bought this big new house and can’t afford to feed us, I’m gonna tell everybody in the country.” They joked a little more, and King went out on the balcony, to see who had arrived from the rest of their group. He bantered over the handrail with some of the men. Jesse Jackson called up to King to ask if he remembered Ben Branch, a saxophonist and song leader. “Oh yes, he’s my man,” said King. “How are you, Ben?” Branch waved. King recalled his signature number from Chicago and called down, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Branch called back, “Okay, Doc, I will.’” Taylor Branch writes what happened next:

Solomon Jones, the volunteer chauffeur, called up to bring coats for a chilly night. There was no reply. Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging the last words fixed on a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once, and his sojourn on earth went blank.”

King was only 39 years old.

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April 1, 1853 – Cincinnati Becomes the First U.S. City to Put Firefighters on Salary

On this day in history, Cincinnati established the first professional and fully paid fire department in the United States.

The department’s first chief, Miles Greenwood, pushed for a fire department after an 1852 fire destroyed much of his ironworks business. Rather than bemoaning his fate, he set about constructing, along with two other Cincinnati residents, the world’s first practical steam-powered fire engine. There had been earlier versions invented by others, but the Cincinnati engine could begin pumping water out of a water source much faster than the others, in only ten minutes.

The fire engine was presented to the Cincinnati Fire Department on Jan. 1, 1853, making Cincinnati the first city in the world to use steam fire engines. This first engine was named “Uncle Joe Ross” after a City Council member.

Fire engines then....

Fire engines then….

Firefighting was not new in the United States; even George Washington served at one time as a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria, Virginia.

However the United States did not have government-run fire departments until Cincinnati instituted the practice with 100% full-time, paid employees. Prior to this time, private fire brigades were used. Even as recently as 2010, some 70 percent of firefighters in the U.S. were volunteers.

and now....

and now….

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