IN HONOR OF BLACK HISTORY month, I am counting down 28 — because there are 28 days in February — young African Americans (or groups of African Americans) who played significant roles in breaking racial barriers and/or fighting injustice before and during the Civil Rights Movement.
Below are entries 20 to 16. Tomorrow, it’s numbers 15 to 12. That includes a couple who challenged a mixed-race-marriage law; the first two to integrate the University of Georgia; a 15-year-old who participated in the violent Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights march; and a determined activist who pursued a jail-no-bail protest policy.
20. HENRY LEWIS, 16, became the first African American instrumentalist with a major U.S. orchestra when he landed a spot with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1948. He became the youngest player in the history of the LA Philharmonic and would go on to become the first African American to conduct a world-class orchestra (1960), the first to become music director of a major orchestra (1968), and the first to con-duct at the Metropolitan Opera (1972). Described as “musically brilliant and a commanding figure with the baton” by The New York Times, he guest-conducted symphonies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, and New York before becoming, at thirty-six, the conductor and music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. This was “a landmark event in music,” wrote The Times, “for few blacks had even made it into the orchestra pit, let alone onto the podium.”
For more on Lewis, check out his 1996 New York Times obituary at
19. JOSEPHINE OPHELIA BOYD, 16, became the first American to graduate from a previously all-white public school in North Carolina when she received her degree from Greensboro High in 1958. The only black person among 1,950 students, Boyd was an easy target for those who called her names, pelted her with snowballs and eggs, spat in her food, and spilled ink on her books. The abuse continued after school hours with the slashing of the family car’s tires and the killing of two pet dogs. In 2004, Boyd returned to the Greensboro high school, which had been renamed Grimsley High, and spoke to students at an assembly. When she finished, she received a standing ovation.
For more on Boyd, check out this Los Angeles Times story from 2004:
18. PERRY WALLACE, 17, led all-black Pearl High of Nashville to the Tennessee state championship with a 63-54 win over all-white Memphis Treadwell in 1966. “Every time we went to the basket, Perry Wallace blocked the shot, slapped it away, or pinned it to the glass,” the Treadwell coach recalled of the first Tennessee title game in which black and white teams competed against each other. Eighty colleges recruited the 6-foot-5-inch Perry, who had been valedictorian of his senior class. He chose Vanderbilt and two years later became the first African American to play basketball in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), which included colleges from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.
For read about Wallace’s struggles as the only black player playing in racist venues, check out this NPR piece:
17. THE GREENVILLE EIGHT, led by 18-year-old Jesse Jackson (above, left) staged a sit-in to protest white’s-only access at a South Carolina library in 1960. The previous winter, Jackson had been prevented from checking out books at the Greensboro library while on winter break from the University of Illinois. “I just cried,” Jackson told the Chicago Tribune in 2010. “It wasn’t right, and I was determined to challenge that system.” The following summer, the group known as the Greenville Eight were arrested after entering the library, selecting books from the shelves, and sitting down to read. The protest succeeded: Two months later, Greenville libraries were opened to all races. The demonstration launched Jackson’s career as one of America’s most celebrated Civil Rights leaders.
For more on the Greenville Eight, check out this Chicago Tribune story, written on the 50th anniversary of their protest: