Black History Month: Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Very little is known about Mary Elizabeth Bowser, save for her contributions to the American Civil War effort.

Bowser was born Mary Jane Richards, circa 1846, likely near Richmond, Virgina. She may have been a slave of Eliza Baker and John Van Lew or their extended family. She was supposedly baptized in 1846 at a white church. This was unusual at the time, as most other Van Lew slaves were baptized at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church.

Elizabeth Van Lew, the daughter of Eliza Baker and John Van Lew, further sent Bowser to school. It is unclear where she was sent, beyond somewhere in the North.

in 1855, Bowser spent some time in Liberia with a missionary community, before returning to Virginia sometime before the spring of 1860.

During the civil war, Bowser took advantage of white supremacist beliefs that Black women lacked the intelligence to be a threat to take a job as a servant to Jefferson Davis’ family in the Confederate White House. She used her access to glean information she then passed on to Elizabeth Van Lew.

Black History Month: Elizabeth Freeman

”Any Click To Tweet a free woman— I would. — Elizabeth Freeman” username=”forwardactionmi”]

Elizabeth Freeman, also known as MumBet was the first enslaved Black person to file and win their freedom in a lawsuit in Massachusets.

Freeman’s lawsuit, Brom and Bett v Ashley (1781), resulted in a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling ruling slavery unconstitutional. The court further cited her suit in a review of a similar lawsuit by Quock Walker, implicitly ending slavery in Massachusetts.

Freeman’s lawsuit resulted in her freedom, damages to the tune of 30 shillings (approximately $350 today).

Black History Month: Ida B Wells

Ida B Wells was a Black journalist, suffragette and activist.

In 1889, three friends of hers were killed by a lynch mob. This led Wells to begin investigating lynching from a sociological perspective, publishing her work in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Wells concluded that Southerners often cited “rape” or sexual harassment of white women in an attempt to justify lynchings designed to impede Black economic progress. Wells recommended Black folk take up arms to defend against lynchings.

The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.

This led an angry mob of white people to burn down the Free Speech and Headlight, a newspaper she co-owned and edited.

Three years later Wells published another pamphlet, The Red Record which went into further detail, describing the various excuses used for lynching throughout different eras. She discussed in detail the ways whites routinely used violence to control the black population, concluding that logic and reason would not be successful in ending lynching in America, and armed resistance may be the only option.


Further Reading:

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases


The Red Record


The Fortune of Wells: Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Use of T. Thomas Fortune’s Philosophy of Social Agitation as a Prolegomenon to Militant Civil Rights Activism

Black History Month: The Black Panther Party

The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary socialist organization founded in 1966 with the intent of protecting and enriching the lives of the Black community.

The BPP publicized What We Want Now!: A Ten Point Program, demanding the following:

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the Capitalists of our Black Community.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
  6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
  7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people
  8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
  9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.


The BPP set out to accomplish these things by creating armed patrols within Black communities and neighbourhoods. These patrols would simply walk around and monitor police activity for incidents of brutality. The Black Panthers focused on learning about open carry laws and acting within those laws for self and community protection. When confronted by police, they would cite laws, and threaten to sue should those rights be violated.

They further created social programs, called Survival Programs, including things like clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, first aid and self defense classes, transportation to prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency response ambulance programs, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and testing for sickle-cell disease.

The most famous Survival Program, however, was the Free Breakfast for Children Program. This program provided breakfast for nearly 20,000 children a year during its run, making them a target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation.

The FBI, being invested in maintaining white supremacy, engaged in a program dedicated to delegitimize and eradicate the Black Panther Party and their Survival Programs. This involved raiding their breakfast programs, targetting and arresting their rank-and-file members, attempting to start rivalries and wars with various other groups, and infiltrating their organization. The FBI murdered two members, and arrested a third, who remains in prison to this day, despite declassified documents admitting to his framing.

Further reading:

The FBI’s war on the Black Panther’s South California Chapter

Black History Month: Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old Black boy shot in Florida by a white man who liked beating up women.

At 9 years old Trayvon Martin saved his father’s life, by pulling him out of a fire. He was known as a shy, kind, and quiet kid, who could often be found hiding in his hoodie and listening to music. He babysat, cut grass and washed cars to earn money. He showed amazing skill and talent for fixing and riding dirt bikes, and was focused on building a career working with airplanes.

On February 26th, 2012, Trayvon committed a crime against white supremacy by daring to walk home from a convenience store while wearing a hoodie and carrying a can of Arizona iced tea and a package of skittles. His murderer shot him in the chest, twice, claiming self-defense, and was acquitted by a jury, despite overwhelming evidence of his racist intent.

Trayvon’s story catapulted discussions on white supremacy, racial profiling, and police brutality into the media’s eye, and convinced many white Americans to finally acknowledge the problem. While police brutality, and racial injustice within the legal system continue to form a core part of our social structure. Our work is not finished.

Black History Month: Eartha Kitt

We're all rejected people, we know what it is to be refused, we know what it is to be oppressed, depressed, and then, accused, and I am very much cognizant of that feeling. Nothing in the world is more painful than rejection. I am… Click To Tweet

Eartha Kitt was an American entertainer and activist who fought for civil rights, to the detriment of her own career, and did so with no regrets and no shame.

In 1968, Kitt answered a question posed to her by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam war, stating

The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons – and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson – we raise children and send them to war.


This caused Ms. Johnson to burst into tears, and led to the CIA investigating Kitt, calling her a “sadistic nymphomaniac” and making it difficult for her to find paid work in the US.

Kitt didn’t let that stop her, continuing to build her career in Europe, singing in eleven languages, fluent in four. She continued her activism despite the CIA’s attempt at blacklisting her.

Kitt never stopped fighting for civil rights, coming out in support of LGBTQ rights, establishing the Kittsville Youth Foundation, and working with Rebels with a Cause in 1966.

Black History Month: Bree Newsome

It's time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality -- Bree Newsome Click To Tweet


Bree Newsome is an activist, speaker, filmmaker and musician best known for her work in climbing a flagpole and removing a confederate battle flag from the South Carolina state house grounds. Her act of civil disobedience helped push government officials to finally remove the flag from all government buildings in South Carolina.

Bree Newsome had the following to say about why she took down that flag:


I realized that now is the time for true courage the morning after the Charleston Massacre shook me to the core of my being. I couldn’t sleep. I sat awake in the dead of night. All the ghosts of the past seemed to be rising.

Not long ago, I had watched the beginning of Selma, the reenactment of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and had shuddered at the horrors of history.

But this was neither a scene from a movie nor was it the past. A white man had just entered a black church and massacred people as they prayed. He had assassinated a civil rights leader. This was not a page in a textbook I was reading nor an inscription on a monument I was visiting.


Newsome was charged with a misdemeanor “defacing monuments on state capitol grounds” which carried a sentence of up to 3 years in prison and a $5000 fine. Public pressure helped convince the state to dismiss charges against her.

Black History Month – Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman born in 1920 whose cervical cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, used extensively in medical research.

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 after going to the hospital with what she described as “a knot in [her] womb.” She was initially diagnosed with a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix and was treated with radium tube inserts. During her treatment, doctors removed two samples of tissue, one healthy, and one cancerous without Lacks’ knowledge or consent. The cancerous tissue eventually became the first immortal cell line used in biomedical research, and is still used to this day.

Lacks died in 1951 at age 31 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Lackstown. No one is sure of her exact burial location, but she is assumed to be near her mother. She was never made aware, nor was she ever compensated for her contributions to medical science.

Lacks Family medical records were published without their knowledge or consent in the 1980s. In 2013, they became aware that Henrietta Lacks’ genome sequence had been published when the author of the paper contacted them.

The HeLa line is still in use today, as yet another example of Black bodies used for white benefit, without consent or recompense.

Black History Month – Emmett Till

Emmett Till was a 14 year old boy lynched in 1955 after being falsely accused of flirting with 21 year old white Carolyn Bryant while in her family’s grocery store in Money, Mississippi.

A few days after having visited Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market with friends, Carol Bryant’s husband Roy Bryant returned from a hunting trip, at which point his wife informed him that Till had flirted with her. Roy Bryant immediately began attempting to track down Till. A few days later, The Bryants, and Roy’s half brother J.W. Milam climbed into a truck and drove to Till’s uncle’s home in the middle of the night. There, Bryant and Milam forced their way in, dragged Till out of his home, and threatened his family that should they tell anyone, they would be killed. They tied Till up, depositing him in the back of their pick up truck and driving him to a barn in Drew, Mississippi. Witnesses heard crying and the sounds of someone being beaten from the barn, but no one got involved. Till was shot, and driven to Glendora, Mississippi, where his body was thrown over the Black Bayou Bridge.

Three days later, Till’s swollen and bloated body was found by two boys fishing the Tallahatchie river. His face had been badly disfigured, along with evidence of impacts to his back and hips. A fan blade had been attached to his neck with barbed wire to weight down his body.

Roy Bryant and JW Milam were tried for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, but were acquitted by an all-white jury.

A year later, in 1956,  Bryant and Milam were paid $4000 for an interview with Look Magazine, where they admitted to murdering Till, proudly insisting they hadn’t done anything wrong. In 2008, Carolyn Bryant admitted that Till had never flirted with her.

Black History Month: Claudette Colvin

I kept saying, 'He has no civil right... this is my constitutional right... you have no right to do this.' And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white… Click To Tweet

In March 2nd 1955, Claudette Colvin was a high school student attending the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery Alabama. Returning home from class on city busses, Claudette Colvin was thinking about a school paper she had written on local segregation issues within department stores. Black folk weren’t allowed to use dressing or fitting rooms.

At the time, segregation meant that Black folk were expected to stand in the back of the bus, rather than take up seats up front that were reserved for white people. When a white woman entered the bus, the driver insisted that Colvin move to the back of the bus, and she refused.

Police were called, and Colvin was arrested, and convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and assault. Colvin insisted, accurately, that there was never any assault. She was bailed out by her reverend, who told her that she had brought the revolution to Montgomery

Colvin was one of the five plaintiff’s in a lawsuit by Fred Gray against the Mayor and city of Montgomery, Alabama which ultimately determined that bus segregation was unconstitutional. The lawsuit made it to the Supreme Court. On November 13th, 1956, The Supreme Court ordered Alabama and Montgomery to desegregate the bus system. This finally happened on December 20th, 1956.

Aila Moireach is a social justice writer and educator. You can find her on facebook or on her blog