THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 1, 1955

Rosa Parks Arrested

rosa-parks-arrestedOn December 1, 1955, Rosa Louise Parks (1913–2005) refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus for a white passenger. This act of defiance against Jim Crow segregation sparked the Montgomery bus boycott—often heralded as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement—a nonviolent economic boycott of Montgomery’s bus system by the black community that successfully ended racial segregation on the city’s public transit. For her courage and actions, Parks is widely considered the mother of the Civil Rights movement.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, to James and Leona McCauley. After James and Leona separated, Leona moved with her children, Rosa and Sylvester, to Pine Level, Alabama, a town on the outskirts of Montgomery where they lived with Leona’s parents. By the age of 11, Rosa attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, and a few years later, she attended the laboratory school at Alabama State Teacher’s College for Negroes in Montgomery. Family illnesses forced Rosa to abandon her education to support her family.

While living in Montgomery, 18-year-old Rosa met Raymond Parks, a barber. The self-educated Parks had been one of the charter members of Montgomery’s NAACP and had been actively involved in supporting the Scottsboro Boys’ defense in the early 1930s. Parks’s courage, at a time when black activism was extremely dangerous, deeply impressed Rosa. They were married on December 18, 1932, in Pine Level. Historian and Parks’s biographer Douglas Brinkley has noted that her husband was a significant factor in her radicalization during the Great Depression, as he would discuss the NAACP an its strategies for encouraging African American suffrage and integration with Parks. Encouraged by her husband, Rosa Parks returned to school and earned her high school diploma in 1933.

Until World War II, Parks had not been involved in the black civil rights struggle. This changed after she took a job at Maxwell Field in Montgomery in 1941. By 1943, all military bases, Maxwell Field included, had been desegregated. Unlike Montgomery’s city buses, she rode integrated trolleys on base and her experience at desegregated Maxwell prompted her to join the Montgomery NAACP. At her first meeting, Parks was elected secretary of the organization. In this capacity, she helped lead a voter registration drive, although white registrars worked diligently to keep African Americans off the voter rolls. It took until April 1945 for Parks to finally be registered to vote.

After the war, Parks continued as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, but she also worked as a housekeeper and seamstress, most notably for the liberal white activists Clifford and Virginia Durr. In July 1955, Virginia Durr arranged for Parks to attend a two-week session on racial desegregation at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The experience at Highlander, and her exposure to individuals such as civil rights pioneer Septima Clark, strengthened her desire to work for civil rights.

Just months after her return from Highlander, on the evening of December 1, 1955, Parks violated segregation laws by refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. Parks initially had been seated in the first row of the black section, but as more whites boarded the bus, the color line moved farther back. When this occurred, African Americans were expected to relinquish their seats to make room for the white passengers. Parks refused. The bus driver, James F. Blake, called the police and had Parks arrested. As she recounted in her autobiography, she was not physically tired. A few days later, Parks was found guilty of disorderly conduct and violating a Montgomery ordinance and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs.

In response to Parks’s arrest, E. D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, met to discuss a boycott of the bus system by Montgomery’s African Americans. At a subsequent mass meeting, Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was chosen to lead the effort. The entire African American community supported the Montgomery bus boycott, refusing to ride the city’s buses for 381 days, placing a tremendous financial strain on the bus company. On May 11, 1956, a federal court decision in Browder v. Gayle ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional, upheld by the United States Supreme Court on November 13, 1956. The boycott came to an end on December 20, 1956, after the city passed a desegregation ordinance for the city’s buses. Whereas the boycott propelled King into national prominence as the leader of the Civil Rights movement, Rosa Parks’s courageous refusal to give in to the inequities of the Jim Crow system made her a symbolic figure whose inspiration reached well beyond the borders of the United States.

Although Parks was a symbol of the Civil Rights movement and an inspiration to millions because of her courage and quiet dignity, official recognition of her contributions to American history came late in her life. On September 9, 1996, President William J. Clinton presented her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian. A few years later, on May 3, 1999, she received a Congressional Gold Medal. Time magazine also recognized her as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005, in Detroit at the age of 92. In striking contrast to her notoriety as one of the most detested figures in the United States after the boycott, Rosa Park became the first woman in American history to lie in state in the United States Capitol. It is estimated that 50,000 people paid their respects to the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Puckett, Dan J. “Parks, Rosa.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker. Vol. 3. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010. 955-957. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NOVEMBER 21, 1934

Ella Fitzgerald Wins Amateur Night At the Apollo

ella-fitzgerald-apolloKnown as the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) was an accomplished jazz musician who charmed audiences and critics alike from the time she won the Apollo Amateur Night in 1934 to her final concert in 1992. She lent her voice, characterized by impeccable pitch, superb diction, and a sweet and clear quality, to a range of musical styles that appealed to a variety of audiences. By one count, she recorded 1,117 different songs.

Fitzgerald was born April 25, 1917, to the unwed couple of William Fitzgerald and Tempie Williams Fitzgerald in Newport News City, Virginia. By the time she was four, her father had left, and her mother was living with Portuguese immigrant Joseph Da Silva. The family moved to Yonkers, New York, where Fitzgerald grew up listening to popular music and especially adored Louis Armstrong and Connee Boswell, an early and innovative white jazz singer whom Fitzgerald strove to emulate at her first Apollo appearance.

Fitzgerald’s mother died in 1932. Her mother’s sister, Virginia, soon removed her from her stepfather’s home, fearing she was being mistreated. Her half-sister soon joined them when Da Silva died as well. Fitzgerald found work running numbers and alerting a prostitution house to police presence. The authorities caught her and sent her to a reform school, where at the time black girls were placed in the worst housing, beaten, held in basements, and perhaps even tortured, according to a 1936 government report and a 1990s journalistic investigation. Fitzgerald later became known for her work on behalf of children and helped establish the Ella Fitzgerald Child Care Center in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1977.

In the fall of 1934, Fitzgerald escaped from the reform school and lived homeless in New York City to evade the authorities. By November 21 of that year, she was on stage at the Apollo, where, as the story goes, she planned to dance but decided at the Monday screening to sing. Her top prize of a week’s worth of singing engagements was not honored, possibly because of her appearance from living on the streets. Her unkempt condition later reportedly put off bandleader Fletcher Henderson. It also put off bandleader Chick Webb when he first met her. His male singer, Charles Linton, persuaded him to try her out in front of an audience.

Webb quickly came to see Fitzgerald as key to his aspirations to greater commercial success. In 1935, Fitzgerald and his band made her first record, “Love and Kisses,” and after that, Webb barely recorded without her. In 1938, Fitzgerald had her first big hit with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a nursery rhyme she wanted to record against the judgment of Decca recording executives. She continued to write many of her own novelty songs — with such names as “Gotta Pebble in My Shoe” and “Chew, Chew, Chew, Chew Your Bubble Gum”— and in 1940 became one of the youngest members of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). In 1939, Chick Webb, whose growth had been stunted and back hunched from a childhood disease, died of spinal tuberculosis at age 30. Fitzgerald became the leader of her own big band, an astounding feat for a female or for a vocalist, though trumpeter Taft Jordan took over most of the traditional duties. The band split up in 1942 as the big band heyday drew to a close.

Fitzgerald became interested in the emerging bop sound exemplified by Dizzy Gillespie, and indeed, biographer Stuart Nicholson calls her the only musician to successfully cross over from swing to bop. Her record “Flying Home” (1945) combined scat singing—popularized by Louis Armstrong—with bop sensibilities and became a landmark of scat, and her records “Smooth Sailing” and “How High the Moon” also exemplified bop. Such recordings also demonstrate why musicians praised the hornlike quality of her voice.

In the Down Beat readers poll for top vocalist, Fitzgerald placed first from 1937 to 1939 and again from 1953 to 1970. In the magazine’s critics poll, instituted later, she placed first from 1953 to 1971 and again in 1974. In 1974, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore named its performing arts center after her, and in 1979, she received a Kennedy Center Honors Medal. She won 14 Grammys, and in 1989, the Society of Singers named its lifetime achievement award the “Ella.”

Sherrard, Brooke. “Fitzgerald, Ella.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010. 196-198. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NOVEMBER 17, 1749

Birth of  Nicolas Appert, the Father of Canning

nicolas-appert-father-of-canningNicolas Appert (1749-1841) may not have understood the science behind food preservation, yet his canning process is directly responsible for the multitude of prepared foods that sit on grocery store shelves around the world.

Nicolas Appert was born on November 17, 1749 at Chalons-sur-Marne, France. The son of an inn-keeper, he received no formal education. He had an interest in food preservation and, at an early age, learned how to brew beer and pickle foods. Appert served an apprenticeship as a chef at the Palais Royal Hotel in Chalons, France. In 1780, he moved to Paris, where he excelled as a confectioner, delighting customers with his delicious pastries and candies.

During the late eighteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte expanded his quest to conquer the world. As French troops invaded neighboring countries, it soon became apparent to the government that world conquest would not be within its grasp without the ability to carry foods for an extended time without spoilage. The executive branch, known as the Directory, offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a practical means of preserving food for the army during its long forays.

Appert began a fourteen-year quest, determined to win the prize. Chemistry at this time was a little known science and there was virtually no knowledge of bacteriology. Appert’s experiments on the preservation of meats and vegetables for winter use was conducted through trial-and-error. He had little reference on which to rely since there was only one published work on food preservation through sterilization, written by Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799). Appert based his process on heating foods to temperatures in excess of 100o degrees Celsius (212o degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature at which water boils. To do this, Appert used an autoclave, a device that uses steam under extreme pressure to sterilize foods.

In 1804, Appert opened the world’s first canning factory in the French town of Massy, south of Paris. By 1809, he had succeeded in preserving certain foods and presented his findings to the government. Before awarding the prize, the government required that his findings be published. In 1810, he published Le Livre de to us les Menages, ou l’Art de Conserver pendant plesieurs annees toutes les Substances Animales et Vegetables. (The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years). Upon publication, the Directory presented him with the 12,000 franc award. His work received critical acclaim and a gold medal from the Societe d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. (Society for the Encouragement of National Industry.)

“Nicolas Appert.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 18-19. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NOVEMBER 8, 1895

rontgen-discovers-xray

Rontgen Discovers X-Rays

Although Wilhelm Röntgen is credited with the discovery of x-rays, he was almost certainly not the first to observe them, since they were readily produced using cathode ray devices. Many earlier scientists may have noticed but ignored such strange effects around their laboratories as glowing lights and foggy or overdeveloped photographic plates while experimenting with cathode rays, but probably dismissed or ignored them. It was Röntgen who recognized x-rays as a new type of radiation.

Born in a small German village, Röntgen decided at an early age to study science, rather than follow his father as a cloth merchant. As a student, however, he preferred the outdoors to a classroom, and he was expelled from high school for assisting in a prank which had offended one of the instructors. Reputed to be insubordinate, Röntgen found the doors to the universities all but closed to him, and he was forced to apply to a local Technical School. Still, he completed his undergraduate studies in 1868, and in 1869 received his Ph.D. in philosophy. Röntgen then moved to Zurich, Switzerland and became an assistant to German physicist August Kundt (1839-1894) who introduced him to the world of physics.

It was not until he was fifty years old that Röntgen began the work that made him internationally famous. While studying the effects of cathode rays emitted by luminescent chemicals, Röntgen noticed something very strange: when he turned on the power in his cathode ray tube, a sample of barium platinocyanide across the room glowed even though the tube was enclosed in black cardboard thick enough to prevent cathode rays from escaping. He deduced that the rays crossing the room must be of a completely new variety and many times more penetrating than cathode rays. He moved the barium platinocyanide sample away from the tube, finding that it glowed even when placed in the next room.
Röntgen, having discovered what was at that time the most powerful radiation known to science, was understandably excited. He knew that, in order to gain recognition, he must publish his findings before someone else discovered these rays. He spent the next seven weeks exhaustively researching and observing his new rays, which he named x-rays, since “x” is the mathematical symbol for an unknown. During this period he found that x-rays were completely invisible, traveled in a straight line, could be neither reflected nor refracted, and were unaffected by magnetic fields. Never before or since has there been a more dramatic reaction among the scientific community as well as the general populace as that which followed the publication of Röntgen’s x-ray research in December, 1895. He delivered his first public lecture on x-rays in January, 1896 and demonstrated therein the rays’ ability to photograph the bones within living flesh. Less than twenty days later, an x-ray machine was used in the United States to locate a bullet within a patient’s leg. Newspapers world-wide printed astounding photos of “living skeletons.” Physicians proclaimed it a modern miracle, while doomsayers predicted an end to privacy, envisioning devices that could peer through walls, doors, and clothing.

The repercussions of Röntgen’s discovery spread exponentially. Henri Becquerel used x-rays as the springboard for his own discovery of radioactivity, a discovery that ultimately led to a greater understanding of the atom and that opened the door to the nuclear age. Scientists today consider the discovery of x-rays to be the beginning of the Second Scientific Revolution (just as Galileo’s discoveries sparked the first).
Röntgen received numerous accolades for his discovery, including the very first Nobel Prize for physics, but he invariably declined or donated any monetary prizes that would accompany his awards. He strongly believed that science belonged to everyone, and that all nations should benefit from its advances; he also refused to patent any facet of x-rays or their production. Thus, he was without substan-tial savings when the years following World War I brought hyperinflation to the German economy. He died in poverty in 1923 from intestinal cancer, probably caused by prolonged exposure to x-rays.

“Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen.” World of Health. Gale, 2007. Science in Context. Web.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NOVEMBER 1, 1512

Sistine Chapel Ceiling Opens to the Public

this-week-in-history-2016-1The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, one of Italian artist Michelangelo’s finest works, is exhibited to the public for the first time.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, the greatest of the Italian Renaissance artists, was born in the small village of Caprese in 1475. The son of a government administrator, he grew up in Florence, a center of the early Renaissance movement, and became an artist’s apprentice at age 13. Demonstrating obvious talent, he was taken under the wing of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of the Florentine republic and a great patron of the arts. After demonstrating his mastery of sculpture in such works as the Pieta (1498) and David (1504), he was called to Rome in 1508 to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—the chief consecrated space in the Vatican.

Michelangelo’s epic ceiling frescoes, which took several years to complete, are among his most memorable works. Central in a complex system of decoration featuring numerous figures are nine panels devoted to biblical world history. The most famous of these is The Creation of Adam, a painting in which the arms of God and Adam are stretching toward each other. In 1512, Michelangelo completed the work.

After 15 years as an architect in Florence, Michelangelo returned to Rome in 1534, where he would work and live for the rest of his life. That year saw his painting of the The Last Judgment on the wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel for Pope Paul III. The massive painting depicts Christ’s damnation of sinners and blessing of the virtuous and is regarded as a masterpiece of early Mannerism.

Michelangelo worked until his death in 1564 at the age of 88. In addition to his major artistic works, he produced numerous other sculptures, frescoes, architectural designs, and drawings, many of which are unfinished and some of which are lost. In his lifetime, he was celebrated as Europe’s greatest living artist, and today he is held up as one of the greatest artists of all time, as exalted in the visual arts as William Shakespeare is in literature or Ludwig van Beethoven is in music.

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: OCTOBER 24, 1861

Transcontinental Telegraph Completed and The Pony
Express Ends

pony-express

On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph system was completed by Western Union, making it possible to transmit messages rapidly (by mid-nineteenth-century standards) from coast to coast. This technologi-cal advance, pioneered by inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, heralded the end of the Pony Express. Only two days later, on October 26, the horseback mail service that had previously provided the fastest means of communication between the eastern and western United States officially closed.

The short-lived Pony Express had been established only one and one-half years earlier, in April 1860. Initially a private enterprise under the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, it operated –at its full-est extent–from terminuses at St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, using a continuous relay of the best riders and horses. The nearly 2,000-mile route—running through present-day Kansas, Nebraska, the north-east corner of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California—included vast stretches of rugged terrain once thought impassable in winter.

Pushing the physical limits of man and beast, the Pony Express ran nonstop. During a typical shift, a rider trav-eled 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at relief stations along the route. Station keepers and stock tenders ensured that changes between horses and riders were synchronized so that no time was wasted. For their dangerous and grueling work riders received between $100 and $125 per month. A few riders with un-usually treacherous routes were paid $150, more than twice the salary of the average station worker.

Summer deliveries averaged ten days, while winter deliveries required twelve to sixteen days, approximately half the time needed by stagecoach. The Express logged its fastest time delivering President Lincoln’s first inaugural address, seven days and seventeen hours.

Some 200 horsemen rode for the Pony Express. Most were in their late teens and early twenties and small in stat-ure. Famous riders included William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: OCTOBER 19, 1781

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

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Hopelessly trapped at Yorktown, Virginia, British General Lord Cornwallis surrenders 8,000 British soldiers and sea-men to a larger Franco-American force, effectively bringing an end to the American Revolution.

Lord Cornwallis was one of the most capable British generals of the American Revolution. In 1776, he drove General George Washington’s Patriots forces out of New Jersey, and in 1780 he won a stunning victory over General Horatio Gates’ Patriot army at Camden, South Carolina. Cornwallis’ subsequent invasion of North Carolina was less successful, however, and in April 1781 he led his weary and battered troops toward the Virginia coast, where he could maintain seaborne lines of communication with the large British army of General Henry Clinton in New York City. After conducting a series of raids against towns and plantations in Virginia, Cornwallis settled in the tidewater town of Yorktown in August. The British immediately began fortifying the town and the adjacent promontory of Gloucester Point across the York River.

General George Washington instructed the Marquis de Lafayette, who was in Virginia with an American army of around 5,000 men, to block Cornwallis’ escape from Yorktown by land. In the meantime, Washington’s 2,500 troops in New York were joined by a French army of 4,000 men under the Count de Rochambeau. Washington and Rochambeau made plans to attack Cornwallis with the assistance of a large French fleet under the Count de Grasse, and on August 21 they crossed the Hudson River to march south to Yorktown. Covering 200 miles in 15 days, the allied force reached the head of Chesapeake Bay in early September.

Meanwhile, a British fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves failed to break French naval superiority at the Battle of Virginia Capes on September 5, denying Cornwallis his expected reinforcements. Beginning September 14, de Grasse transported Washington and Rochambeau’s men down the Chesapeake to Virginia, where they joined Lafayette and completed the encirclement of Yorktown on September 28. De Grasse landed another 3,000 French troops carried by his fleet. During the first two weeks of October, the 14,000 Franco-American troops gradually overcame the fortified British positions with the aid of de Grasse’s warships. A large British fleet carrying 7,000 men set out to rescue Cornwallis, but it was too late.

On October 19, General Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and men, 900 seamen, 144 cannons, 15 galleys, a frigate, and 30 transport ships. Pleading illness, he did not attend the surrender ceremony, but his second-in-command, General Charles O’Hara, carried Cornwallis’ sword to the American and French commanders. As the British and Hessian troops marched out to surrender, the British bands played the song “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Although the war persisted on the high seas and in other theaters, the Patriot victory at Yorktown effectively ended fighting in the American colonies. Peace negotiations began in 1782, and on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally recognizing the United States as a free and independent nation after eight years of war.


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