February 2013 Archives

Selma to Montgomery March

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Bloody_Sunday-officers_await_demonstrators.jpegIn January 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Dallas County Voters League, and other local African American activists began a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, where only two percent of eligible African Americans were on the voting rolls despite repeated registration attempts by local black citizens.

On March 7, 1965, activists attempted to march from Selma to Alabama's state capital in Montgomery to draw further attention to their voting rights campaign, but they were met by a blockade of state troopers and local police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the edge of Selma. When the marchers did not immediately obey an order to disperse, the officers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas, and mounted police chased retreating marchers, continuing to beat them. The event, which became known as "Bloody Sunday," was widely covered on television news, provoking outrage nationwide.

Organizers called for another march to take place on March 9th. President Lyndon Johnson and other federal officials pressured march leaders to postpone the new march until a federal court could order protection for the marchers. On March 9th, Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had responded to Dr. King's call to travel from all over the country to join the marchers, to the site of Sunday's attack. There he stopped and asked them to kneel and pray. After prayers, they rose and marched back to Selma, thus avoiding confrontation with state troopers. Many marchers were displeased with the decision not to march on to Montgomery as planned, but President Johnson approved of the show of restraint and promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress within a few days.

On March 15, 1965, President Johnson addressed Congress, saying, "What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome." Two days later he submitted voting rights legislation to Congress. A day after that the Selma marchers submitted a plan for their march to Montgomery to a federal judge, who approved it.

The marchers left Selma on March 21st, protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents. They marched 7 to 17 miles per day, covering the 54-mile journey in 5 days and camping on supporters lawns at night. Tens of thousands joined in on the final day as the marchers reached the steps of the capitol in Montgomery on March 26, 1965.

In August of that year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the presence of Dr. King and other civil rights leaders.

Learn more about the Selma to Montgomery march at your Milwaukee Public Library.

Birmingham Campaign

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Carry_Me_Home.jpgIn April 1963, civil rights activists led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Birgmingham civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth launched a major direct action campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, which King described as "the most segregated city in America." The campaign targeted the city's segregation system by putting pressure on merchants during the traditionally lucrative Easter shopping season. In addition to the boycott of downtown merchants, a series of mass meetings were held to spread the movement's philosophy of non-violence and to encourage volunteers to participate in lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, sit-ins at the library, kneel-ins at churches, and a march on the county building to register voters. Shuttlesworth's organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), issued the "Birmingham Manifesto" which called the campaign "a moral witness to give our community a chance to survive."

On April 12, 1963, King was arrested and spent eight days in jail, from where he wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in response to local religious leaders' criticism of the campaign in the Birmingham newspaper.

On May 2, 1963, a month after the start of protests in Birmingham, the Children's Crusade began. More than 1,000 African American students marched toward downtown Birmingham and hundreds were arrested. When hundreds more gathered to march the next day, Birmingham's ardently segregationist commissioner of public safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, directed police and fire departments to use force to break up the demonstrations. Images of adults and children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police, and attacked by police dogs appeared all over newspapers and television broadcasts, triggering national and international outrage.

Meanwhile, the decline in business and the adverse publicity weakened the resolve of the white business establishment in Birmingham, making them agree to participate in negotiations with prominent black citizens facilitated by a representative from Attorney General Robert Kennedy's office. By May 10, 1963, an agreement was in place that would remove "Whites Only" and "Blacks Only" signs in restrooms and on drinking fountains and would put in place a plan to desegregate lunch counters, along with other ongoing measures, including the formation of a biracial committee to monitor the progress of the agreement.

Birmingham segregationists responded to the agreement with a series of bombings, leading President John F. Kennedy to send 3,000 federal troops into position near Birmingham and to make plans to federalize the Alabama National Guard. Tragically, reactionary white violence returned to Birmingham a few months later, when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, killing four young African American girls.

Dr. Martin Luther King later credited the events of the Birmingham Campaign as inspiring the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to address race and sex discrimination in employment and a Community Relations Service to help local communities solve racial disputes. It also authorized federal intervention to ensure the desegregation of schools, parks, swimming pools, and other public facilities and restricted the use of literacy tests as a requirement for voter registration.

Learn more about the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham at your Milwaukee Public Library.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech

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A_Call_to_Conscience.jpgOn August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd of 200,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In the speech, King drew a contrast between the hope engendered by emancipation a century before and the harsh conditions in which African Americans still struggled:

Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of materia1 prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. So we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition...

There will be neither rest nor tranquility In America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundation of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge...

I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Listen to the entire "I Have a Dream" speech at Stanford University's King Research and Education Institute and read the text of the speech online from the National Archives.

Away from the computer, read his stirring words in A Call to Conscience: the Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or find dozens of other writings by Dr. King at your Milwaukee Public Library.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

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MarchonWashington1963.pngPlanning for the now legendary March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963 began the previous year. African American organizations such as the Negro American Labor Council (NALC), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began preparations for a large scale march for political and economic justice. By the summer 1963 the list of participating and sponsoring organizations expanded to include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America, the United Auto Workers (UAW), and others.

The stated goals of the protest included:

  • a comprehensive civil rights bill" that would do away with segregated public accommodations
  • "protection of the right to vote"
  • mechanisms for seeking redress of violations of constitutional rights
  • "desegregation of all public schools in 1963"
  • a massive federal works program "to train and place unemployed workers"
  • and "a Federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination in all employment."
After the march, King and other civil rights leaders met with President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House, where they discussed the need for bipartisan support of civil rights legislation. Though they were passed after Kennedy's death, the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflect the demands of the march.

Learn more about the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement at your Milwaukee Public Library. Join us tomorrow for a special blog post featuring Dr. Martin Luther King's stirring "I Have a Dream" speech.

Freedom Rides

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freedom_riders_small.jpgIn the spring of 1961, the northern civil rights group CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) sent thirteen trained volunteers on a Freedom Ride through the South to test the Supreme Court's recent guarantee of the right to integrated travel on interstate buses. Each of the two buses was attacked by a white mob in separate incidents in Alabama. One bus was attacked and burned outside Anniston, Alabama, while in Birmingham a Ku Klux Klan posse severely beat the second bus's passengers when they arrived at the Trailways station there. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent officials to evacuate the injured CORE riders.

Upon learning that the CORE riders were abandoning the Freedom Ride, students in Nashville who were part of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) moved to continue the Freedom Rides, in consultation with CORE. Among the Nashville Freedom Riders were future Congressman John Lewis and Wisconsite Jim Zwerg, pictured above still bleeding after being beaten by a mob in Montgomery, Alabama. Despite the threat of mob violence, frequent arrests, and harsh prison conditions, hundreds of volunteers organized by CORE, SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) kept the Freedom Rides rolling throughout the summer months. If they weren't arrested in some small town along the way, they were sure to be arrested when they reached Jackson, Mississippi, often ending up in the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm.

The Freedom Rides served to draw national and international attention to segregation in the American South. In September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued orders enforcing desegregation of all interstate travel facilities. The orders took effect in November 1961, some six years after the ICC's own ruling in Keys v. Carolina Coach Company that this be done.

Learn more about the Freedom Rides and the history of the Civil Rights Movement at your Milwaukee Public Library.

Lunch Counter Sit-In Movement

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Sitting_for_Equal_Service.jpg.jpgOn February 1, 1960, four freshman students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro walked into the local Woolworth's store, sat down at the lunch counter and ordered coffee. Following store policy, the lunch counter staff refused to serve the African American students at the "Whites Only" lunch counter. The young men sat quietly all day until the store closed.

The next day the four men returned, accompanied by 25 additional students. By this point, local newspaper and television reported on the peaceful protest. On the third day more than 80 students participated in the sit-in. By the fifth day the protestors numbered in the hundreds and the sit-in spread to a lunch counter at the nearby Kress store, as well. Whites heckled the students and even poured condiments and glasses of water over them as they sat quietly, reading and studying.

Greensboro was not the first sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement, but the spontaneity and open-endedness of the Greensboro students' protest proved inspirational. Sit-in protests quickly spread, first within North Carolina and then throughout the South. Many of the leaders of these lunch counter sit-ins were students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Within a year, similar peaceful sit-in demonstrations took place in over 100 cities in both the North and the South. At Shaw University in Raliegh, North Carolina, a conference funded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in April 1960 brought together 126 student delegates from 58 sit-in centers in 12 states, along with delegates from 19 northern colleges and representatives from several prominent national civil rights and student organizations. Out of this conference formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"). SNCC would play a major role in the success of both the lunch counter sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides, which this blog will feature tomorrow.

Learn more about the history of the Civil Rights Movement at your Milwaukee Public Library.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

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MIA_bus_boycott-advertisement.gifOn December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus. The next day, the Women's Political Council (WPC), an association of black professionals who had previously attempted to bring concerns about the segregated bus system to the mayor and city council in Montgomery, called for a one-day bus boycott on December 5th.

Ninety percent of Montgomery's black population stayed off the buses on December 5th, and that afternoon a group of ministers and other community leaders met to discuss the possibility of turning the boycott into a longer-term campaign. At that meeting the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed and the recently arrived young minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was chosen as its president. That evening that young minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to a crowd of several thousand community members at a mass meeting, saying:

I want it to be known that we're going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong.... If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott continued for more than a year, despite hardships, harassment and violence against its leaders and supporters. In early 1956, Reverend King's house was firebombed while his wife and daughter were inside; fortunately, no one was injured. The home of another boycott leader, E.D. Nixon, was also bombed around this time.

Throughout 1956 a legal case that challenged the Alabama state statutes and Montgomery, Alabama, city ordinances requiring segregation on Montgomery buses made its way through the courts. On June 1, 1956 a three-judge U.S. District Court panel ruled two-to-one that segregation on Alabama's intrastate buses was unconstitutional, citing Brown v. Board of Education as precedent for the verdict. King applauded the victory but called for a continuation of the Montgomery bus boycott until the ruling was implemented. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed the District Court's decision in Browder v. Gayle. On December 17, 1956, the Supreme Court rejected state and city appeals that they reconsider their decision. A few days later the order for an integrated bus system arrived in Montgomery and the Montgomery Improvement Association voted to end the boycott.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott launched Dr. Martin Luther King to national attention. The important victory in Montgomery inspired boycotts in Tallahassee, Florida and Birmingham, Alabama. Early in 1957 King and other black ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to promote civil rights.

Learn more about both Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott at your Milwaukee Public Library.

Segregation and Brown v. Board of Education...

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segregation_before_brown_v_board.pngOn May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, delcaring that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." State-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. This decision put an end to the doctrine of "separate but equal" that had prevailed for nearly sixty years since the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Fergusun decision in 1896.

A unanimous follow-up decision in 1955, known as Brown II, contained the Supreme Court's instruction for the states to implement school desegregation "with all deliberate speed." Desegregation had already begun in Topeka, Kansas elementary schools by the time Brown v. Board of Education was decided, but white resistance was much greater in many other places across the South.

In Arkansas in 1957, Governor Orval Faubus ordered his state's national guard to block the admission of nine African American students to Little Rock's Central High School. A stand-off ensued for nearly a month until President Eisenhower sent in U.S. troops to protect the students.

In Virginia, Senator Harry F. Byrd organized state political leaders to undertake a policy of "Massive Resistance" against school integration. In one of the most extreme instances associated with this policy, the school board of Prince Edward County chose to withdraw all funding from its public school system rather than integrate it. The county left education to newly established private schools that excluded African American children from their classrooms. This situation persisted for five years until the Supreme Court declared that the school board's actions were impermissible violations of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1964).

Read more about the landmark Brown v. Board of Education legal decision (for adults or children) and school desegregation at your Milwaukee Public Library.

Ending Segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces

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In November 1947, black labor leader A. Philip Randolph and his colleague Grant Reynolds founded the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, which became known as the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience to the Draft. Randolph and Reynolds' goal was to convince President Truman and Congress to end segregation in the U.S. armed forces. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 1948, Randolph declared, "This time Negroes will not take a Jim Crow draft lying down." Unless segregation and discrimination were banned, he warned, "I personally will advise Negroes to refuse to fight as slaves for a democracy they cannot possess and cannot enjoy."

Randolph and Reynolds kept up the pressure throughout the next few months, sending letters to President Truman and organizing demonstrations in front of the White House. In a picket line in front of the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that July, Randolph carried a sign that read, "Prison Is Better Than Jim Crow Service."

Under pressure from both white liberals and blacks, Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, requiring "equality of treatment and opportunity" in the armed forces. When asked whether "equality of treatment" meant integration, Truman answered "yes."

Read more about African Americans' history of service in the armed forces today at your Milwaukee Public Library.

Fifteenth Amendment Extends Voting Rights

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Passed by Congress February 26, 1869, and ratified February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote, stating:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

As a result of the 15th Amendment's extension of the vote, many African Americans voted and were elected to public office during the 1870s and 1880s; however, by the 1890s many Southern states had enacted strict voter eligibility laws in an attempt to disenfranchise black voters. Through measures such as literacy tests, poll taxes and "grandfather clauses" excluding from eligibility for the vote all whose ancestors had not voted during the 1860s, these states were able to severely limit voting rights for African Americans in the South. It would take a powerful protest movement, new federal laws and strict federal supervision in the 20th century to ensure African Americans the right to vote in many parts of the American South.

View primary source documents related to its passage and effects at the Library of Congress Web Guide about the 15th Amendment and learn more about the 15th Amendment at your Milwaukee Public Library.

The 15th Amendment, along with the 13th and 14th, is one of the trio of Reconstruction Amendments that greatly expanded the civil rights of Americans. Stay tuned during the next two weeks to learn more about the long struggle in the 20th century to turn the promise of these civil rights into everyday reality for all Americans.


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Passed by Congress June 13, 1866, and ratified July 9, 1868, the 14th Amendment extended liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights to former slaves.

The major provision of the 14th Amendment formally defines citizenship in the United States. It declares that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States" are citizens. It thereby granted citizenship to former slaves and nullified the 1857 Dred Scott decision that black people were not citizens and could not become citizens, nor enjoy the benefits of citizenship.

Another equally important provision was the statement that "nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." By specifically mentioning the states, this language ensured that the right to due process of law and equal protection of the law applied to both the Federal and state governments. The Equal Protection Clause would form the basis for the Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court decision which led to the dismantling of racial segregation in the United States.

View primary source documents related to its passage and effects at the Library of Congress Web Guide about the 14th Amendment and learn more about the 14th Amendment at your Milwaukee Public Library.

The 14th Amendment, along with the 13th and 15th, is one of the trio of Reconstruction Amendments that greatly expanded the civil rights of Americans. Tomorrow's entry will focus on the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.

Thirteenth Amendment Abolishes Slavery

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On January 31, 1865 Congress passed and on February 1st President Abraham Lincoln approved the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which officially abolished slavery throughout the United States once it was ratified by three quarters of state legislatures. Ratification was completed December 6, 1865.

President Lincoln and members of his party were concerned that the Emancipation Proclamation would be seen as a temporary war measure, since it was based entirely on the President's war powers. Furthermore, the Emancipation Proclamation had not freed slaves in the border states and did not abolish slavery. A Constitutional amendment would ensure the end of slavery nationwide. The 13th Amendment declared:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
View primary source documents related to its passage at the Library of Congress Web Guide about the 13th Amendment and learn more about the 13th Amendment and emancipation in the United States at your Milwaukee Public Library.

The 13th Amendment, along with the 14th and 15th, is one of the trio of Reconstruction Amendments that greatly expanded the civil rights of Americans. Stay tuned this week to learn more about the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.


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The Known World Book Discussion February 19

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Join us as we celebrate Black History Month with a discussion of the novel The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

Date: Tuesday, Feb. 19
Time: 6-7 p.m.
Location: Meeting Room I
Central Library, 814 W. Wisconsin Ave.

Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusual mentor — William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia's Manchester County. Under Robbins's tutelage, Henry becomes proprietor of his own plantation — as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart at their plantation: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend estate, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave "speculators" sell free black people into slavery, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years.

An ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges seamlessly between the past and future and back again to the present, The Known World weaves together the lives of freed and enslaved blacks, whites, and Indians — and allows all of us a deeper understanding of the enduring multidimensional world created by the institution of slavery.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones was winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2004.


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Meaning and Making of Emancipation - free eBook

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The Meaning and Making of Emancipation, a free eBook available from the National Archives, presents the Emancipation Proclamation in its social and political context with documents in the National Archives' holdings that illustrate the efforts of the many Americans, enslaved and free, white and black, by whom slavery was abolished in the United States. It was created to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Available as an ePub file for iPhone, iPad, Android phone, Android tablet, Nook, SONY Reader, other mobile device or eReader, or PC or Mac.

Also available on iTunes for IPhone, iPod or iPad.

Also available using the Scribd app for PC or Mac, or iPhone, iPad, Android phone, or Android tablet.

Click the link on the title or cover image above to visit the download page for this eBook from the National Archives website, then stop by your Milwaukee Public Library to check out print books about the Emancipation Proclamation.


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Black Soldiers in the Civil War

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The United States Colored Troops made up over ten percent of the Union or Northern Army even though they were prohibited from joining until July 1862, fifteen months into the war. They comprised twenty-five percent of the Union navy. Yet, only one percent of the Northern population was African American. Clearly overrepresented in the military, African Americans played a decisive role in the Civil War.

In July of 1862, Congress passed the Militia Act of 1862. It had become an 'indispensable military necessity' to call on America's African descent population to help save the Union. A few weeks after President Lincoln signed the legislation on July 17, 1862, free men of color joined volunteer regiments in Illinois and New York. Such men would go on to fight in some of the most noted campaigns and battles of the war to include, Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Sherman's Atlanta Campaign.

On September 27, 1862, the first regiment to become a United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment was officially brought into the Union army. All the captains and lieutenants in this Louisiana regiment were men of African descent. The regiment was immediately assigned combat duties, and it captured Donaldsonville, Louisiana on October 27, 1862. Before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, two more African descent regiments from Kansas and South Carolina would demonstrate their prowess in combat.

After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, the War Department publicly authorized the recruiting of African Americans. The first regiment raised with such authority was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. (Leading many to report that it was the first African descent regiment.) By the end of 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant viewed the African descent population armed with the Proclamation as a 'powerful ally.'

African Americans fought in every major campaign and battle during the last two years of the war earning twenty-five Medals of Honor. USCT regiments captured Charleston, the Cradle of Secession, and Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Lincoln recognized their contributions. He declared, 'Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.' And without the Emancipation Proclamation, these soldiers and sailors would have had little reason to fight for the Union.

—Reprinted with permission from USCT History at the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum


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Robert Smalls

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Smalls-Harpers.pngIn the Spring of 1862 the Civil War was well underway and the Union Navy had blockaded major Confederate port cities, including Charleston, South Carolina.

A twenty-three-year-old enslaved man named Robert Smalls worked in Charleston as a pilot on the CSS Planter, a Confederate gunboat, along with several other enslaved men. Together, the men were able to operate the Planter without any of her white crew, which led them to launch a daring plan under Smalls' leadership.

In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, while the white crew members were on shore for the night, Smalls and the other men quietly brought their families aboard the Planter and set out from the Charleston harbor toward the Union Naval blockade. Experienced from their work on the gunboat, they gave all the right signals to Confederate gun batteries for safe passage through the harbor. Smalls surrendered the vessel as soon as they reached Union forces, and the men and their families were free!

Read a contemporary account of this event in an article from the June 14, 1862 issue of Harper's Weekly or learn more about Smalls' life, including this daring adventure, at The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls: A Traveling Exhibition and by reading books about him (for adults or children) at your Milwaukee Public Library.

Smalls went on to captain both the Planter and the Keokuk, an ironsides, for the Union Navy during the Civil War. He also recruited thousands of black soldiers for the Union Army during the course of the war. After the war, he went back to South Carolina and continued a career in public service, this time as a Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives and in several other positions.


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Mary Bowser, Union Spy in the Confederate White House

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Mary_Bowser.JPGMary Bowser was one of the most remarkable un-sung heroes of the Civil War. Bowser, a former slave, infiltrated the household staff of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia to gather intelligence for the Union during the Civil War.

As author Lois Leveen points out in her informative New York Times online commentary "A Black Spy in the Confederate White House," there is little direct historical evidence about Mary Bowser's life and work and much of what has been published about her over the years has been heavily embellished. It is not even known if the woman in the photograph on the left, which is often claimed to be a portrait of Mary Bowser, is really her.

However, what is clear is that Mary Bowser played an extremely valuable role in helping the Union Army obtain intelligence about the Confederacy. She was one of many African Americans contributing what the Union military referred to as "Black Dispatches," intelligence on Confederate forces supplied to the Union by African American operatives, both slave and free.

Leveen has written a fictional work based on Bowser's life titled The Secrets of Mary Bowser, which is available at your Milwaukee Public Library.


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Seeking Freedom at Fort Monroe

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Fort_Monroe.jpg"On May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel. Fort Monroe, Va., a fishhook-shaped spit of land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay..."

With these words historian Adam Goodheart begins his account of how Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend's arrival at his fort prompted Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler to articulate a novel war-time argument for disobeying federal law — specifically the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that all fugitive slaves be returned to their owners. Butler was not an abolitionist, but he had been a very shrewd Yankee lawyer in civilian life. When a Confederate officer named Major Cary came to inquire about the escaped slaves, Butler rode out to meet him. Goodheart describes the encounter like this:


Cary got down to business. "I am informed," he said, "that three Negroes belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. I am Colonel Mallory's agent and have charge of his property. What do you mean to do with those Negroes?"

"I intend to hold them," Butler said.

"Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?"

Even the dour Butler must have found it hard to suppress a smile. This was, of course, a question he had expected. And he had prepared what he thought was a fairly clever answer.

"I mean to take Virginia at her word," he said. "I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be."

"But you say we cannot secede," Cary retorted, "and so you cannot consistently detain the Negroes."

"But you say you have seceded," Butler said, "so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property."


That's just the beginning of the story of how Baker, Mallory and Townsend's brave act — and the creative response of Fort Monroe's commanding general — began to shift the focus of the Civil War toward emancipation.

Read more about these events in Goodheart's New York Times magazine article "How Slavery Really Ended in America," which is adapted from his book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, available at your Milwaukee Public Library.


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Emancipation Proclamation

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emancipation-proclamation thumbnail.jpg"President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared 'that all persons held as slaves' within the rebellious states 'are, and henceforward shall be free.'

Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

From the first days of the Civil War, slaves had acted to secure their own liberty. The Emancipation Proclamation confirmed their insistence that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom. It added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically. As a milestone along the road to slavery's final destruction, the Emancipation Proclamation has assumed a place among the great documents of human freedom."

—Above description from the Emancipation Proclamation page at the National Archives


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Welcome to Black History Month 2013

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celebrate-BHM.gifThe 2013 Black History Month theme is "At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington," in observation of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (issued on January 1, 1863) and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (which took place on August 28, 1963). In celebration of Black History Month this year, our Now @ MPL blog will focus on these pivotal events in American history, exploring their contexts and consequences with topical entries throughout the month.

To explore the history of emancipation on your own, take a look at the Chronology of Emancipation during the Civil War, which was adapted from the book Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War.

Or for an overview of key events in the struggle for civil rights during the 20th century, check out Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch's newest book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. This new book provides a brief look at 18 turning points drawn from Branch's more extensive, award-winning, three-volume history of the period: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988), Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 (1998), and At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (2006).


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This page is an archive of entries from February 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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