Narrative Its February, Black History Month in America. This is the time of year we set aside to raise awareness of African American history and accomplishments. Carter G. Woodson was the father of Black History Month. Many Americans don’t realize that he planted the seeds for the celebration back in 1926, when he created Negro History Week. Over the decades, interest in Negro History Week grew. By the late 1930’s people in the North who worked in libraries and universities began celebrating the week as well. Mayors and governors also began to officially recognize Negro History Week, aware that African-Americans were important to their political futures. The evolution of Negro History Week became, by presidential proclamation, Black History Month in 1976. Into Slide: Today we are going to take a look at Black History in Columbus with a focus on six outstanding African-American figures with strong ties to our city Blind Tom Ma Rainey Horace King Corporal Eugene Jacques Bullard Alma Thomas William H Spencer Blind Tom 1 Thomas Wiggins, a blind slave known as Blind Tom, toured concert halls throughout America and Europe as a musical oddity. He also was known as Thomas Bethune, named after his owner, Gen. James Bethune.
Because he could not perform physical labor, Blind Tom wandered around the Bethune plantation often and became interested in the music played by Bethune's daughters. He is reported to have played tunes he had heard at the age of four, before he had learned to speak. At the age of five, he composed a tune, The Rain Storm. Bethune hired professional musicians to play for the boy, and to their amazement they discovered that Tom could perfectly reproduce the music he had heard. Although Tom's vocabulary was only about 100 words, eventually he learned to play perhaps 7,000 pieces of music, mainly from classical composers.
Blind Tom 2
Born in 1849, he could recite any poem and play any piece of music on the piano after hearing it only once. He earned over $100,000 a year for his owner, Bethune, who kept custody of him even after emancipation. Scholars now believe Wiggins was an autistic savant -- much like Dustin Hoffman's character in the film Rain Man. That term wasn't around in the 19th century, when few people questioned Wiggins condition.
When Wiggins died in 1908, his obituary in The New York Times referred to him as a "freak pianist" who played "with a conception of music that was as great as his skill. His technique came as naturally as did his musical emotions."
Blind Tom 3 In 1857, Blind Tom played his first concert in Columbus, Georgia. Newspaper reviews were favorable, so General Bethune took Tom with him on tour As quoted by Mark Twain in The Fayetteville Observer of May 19, 1862
The blind negro Tom has been performing here to a crowded house. He is certainly a wonder.... He resembles any ordinary negro boy 13 years old and is perfectly blind and an idiot in everything but music, language, imitation, and perhaps memory. He has never been instructed in music or educated in any way. He learned to play the piano from hearing others, learns airs and tunes from hearing them sung, and can play any piece on first trial as well as the most accomplished performer....
Tom played in the White House before President James Buchanan. Local musicians wanted to check if his act was mere trickery and made him repeat two brand-new compositions. He did so perfectly. The "challenge" later became a regular part of his performance.
In 1866, at the age of 16, Tom went on a world tour.
After the death of General Bethune, the care of Tom was transferred to Bethune's son John. After John died in 1883, Tom retired but had a series of concerts in New York City in 1904 before going back into retirement.
Blind Tom died in 1908 in Hoboken, New Jersey and was buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York. The people of Columbus, Georgia, raised money to purchase and install a commemorative headstone for him in 1976. Ma Rainey 1 Mother of the Blues
Ma Rainey 2 Gertrude Pridgett was born on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia into a showbiz family that performed in minstrel shows. She first appeared onstage in 1900, singing and dancing in minstrel and vaudeville stage revues. In 1902 she married the song and dance man William "Pa" Rainey and from then on became known as Ma Rainey. The couple formed a song and dance act that included Blues and popular songs. They toured the country, but primarily the South and became a popular attraction as part of Tolliver's Circus, The Musical Extravaganza and The Rabbit Foot Minstrels, where Rainey befriended a young Bessie Smith. In the 1920s Rainey was a solo star of the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit. It was not until 1923 that Ma Rainey signed a recording contract with Paramount. She ended up recording 100 songs between 1923 and 1928 on Paramount Records
Ma Rainey 3 During that time she was accompanied by many noted jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Tommy Ladnier, Fletcher Henderson and Coleman Hawkins. She continued working until 1935 and retired to her home Columbus, Georgia. Ma had been smart with her money and managed to build and operate two theaters but in1939 died of a heart attack.
Ma Rainey 4
Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 as an "early influence." Ma Rainey, "Mother of the Blues." was honored on a U.S. postage stamp in 1994.
4 The Ma Rainey House was fully restored in 2006 and now serves as a museum. It is located on 5th ave in the Liberty Heritage District just off Veterans Parkway at 8th St.
Horace King 1
Horace King was a most respected bridge builder in west Georgia, Alabama, and northeast Mississippi from the 1830s until the 1880s. He constructed massive lattice truss bridges over nearly every major river in Georgia to Mississippi and at nearly every crossing of the Chattahoochee River from Carroll County to Fort Gaines.
Horace King 2 Horace King was born as a slave of African, European, and Native American (Catawba) ancestry in Chesterfield District, South Carolina. King moved with his master, John Godwin (1798-1859), a contractor, to Girard, Alabama, now known as Phenix City, where Godwin had the contract to build the first public bridge connecting those two states. King probably planned the construction and directed the slaves who erected that span. Godwin apparently realized King's intuitive genius as a builder and nurtured those skills. During the early 1840s King served as superintendent and architect of major bridges at Wetumpka, Alabama, and Columbus, Mississippi, without Godwin's supervision.
John Godwin allowed King and his other slaves a great degree of freedom, and in 1846 he freed King, perhaps to protect this valuable asset from his creditors. King might have simply bought his freedom, but the relationship between the former master and slave remained the same. After Godwin's death in 1859, King erected a monument over his grave that declared "the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master."
Horace King 3
The Civil War brought an economic boom to Columbus, and King, like other local contractors, worked for the Confederacy. He supplied timbers and erected a major building for the Confederate navy there. The Alabama governor pressed King into service, against his will, to place defensive obstructions in the lower Alabama River.
5 Immediately after the war ended in 1865, a year after the death of his first wife, he married Sarah Jane Jones McManus, with whom he had no children.
During Reconstruction King became a Republican politician, serving twice as member of the Alabama House of Representatives. In 1872 King and his family moved to LaGrange, Georgia, where he continued to design and construct bridges, stores, houses, and college buildings until his death, on May 28, 1885. Obituaries praising his building skills appeared in the Atlanta, LaGrange, and Columbus newspapers.
Corporal Eugene Jacques Bullard 1 America’s first black aviator did not fly for the country of his birth America, but for his adopted country of France, a country for which he was severely wounded and received many medals for valor. Gene himself was a man who hesitated to speak of himself but one who stood on the principles of honesty and integrity. He treated everyone as he wished to be treated and because of that he was very well liked. He lived by the belief that all men were created equal and should be treated accordingly.
Corporal Eugene Jacques Bullard 2 Eugene Jacques Bullard was born on October 9, 1894, in Columbus Georgia, the seventh of ten children born to William (Octave) Bullard, a black from Martinique, and Josephine ("Yokalee") Thomas, a Creek Indian. Eugene’s father could trace their family roots as far back as the American Revolution. His family came from Martinique, an Island in the West Indies and spoke French as an everyday language. They arrived in America as slaves when their French owners fled the Haitian revolution. His mother died at age thirty three when Eugene was only five, leaving his father to raise him.
Eugene, divided by family loyalty and a quest for freedom, tearfully left his Columbus, Georgia home in 1902 at the tender age of eight. The catalyst for his early departure was the near unjust lynching of his father. The latter incident brought to Eugene’s mind the words his father had spoken earlier to him: in France a man is accepted as a man regardless of the color of his skin. He left home seeking this paradise, this France.
6 Due to his limited 4th grade formal education, and his young age, he wandered throughout the southeastern United States, searching for the ways and means to travel to France. He worked his way towards the seaport in Norfolk, Virginia and after four years of wandering and working at odd jobs to stay alive, he stowed away on a German ship bound for Aberdeen, Scotland-he was 12 years old. Corporal Eugene Jacques Bullard 3
By August 1914 the world was plunged into World War I but Bullard, not yet 19 years old, was too young to be accepted to fight for his adopted country of France. His love for his new country spurred him on to join the French Foreign Legion. After five weeks of training he was assigned to the Moroccan Division, which he said contained 54 different nationalities. Battle casualties were very heavy, and Eugene participated in some of the most heavily contested battles of 1914 through 1916. On March 5th 1916 during the Battle of Verdun Bullard received the wounds that removed him from the ground war. Since he was no longer fit for duty with the infantry, Eugene was afforded the opportunity to join the French Flying Corp. and soon earned his wings from aviation school on May 5, 1917. This made Bullard the very first black fighter pilot in history. Eugene’s first mission was on September 8, 1917 and claimed two "kills." His mechanics found seventy-eight bullet holes in his plane. In October, 1919, Eugene Bullard was discharged from the armed forces of France, a national hero of significant standing. He decided to remain in Paris and soon married a French Countess and fathered three children, one boy and two girls.
Then, in 1939, war once again threatened the nation Eugene once more answered the call to duty. In July 1939, he joined the French underground and resistance movement. He spoke three languages including German, and readily agreed to honor a request to spy for France. The Germans arrogantly felt that no black man could properly understand their language, so Bullard was quite successful in this endeavor. When Paris was being overrun by the German army, Gene fled the city with his daughters. Upon arriving in Orleans he joined some uniformed troops who were defending the city. When the group Bullard was with came under heavy attack, his dozen or so compatriots were killed and he was badly wounded. Rather than allow him to be captured and interrogated by the Gestapo, Bullard was smuggled into Spain with his daughters. Later he was medically evacuated to the United States. Fully recovered in New York City and joined by his daughters, Eugene settled down to
7 rebuild his life. He was thrilled to again see America, and he soon found work as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center. It was the job he would hold until he retired.
French President-General Charles de Gaulle of France, while visiting New York City, publicly and internationally embraced Eugene Bullard as a true French hero in 1960. On 12 October, 1961, after suffering a long illness due to the wounds he received, Eugene Jacques Bullard passed away. But, again, France did not forget. On 17 October, with the tri-color of France draping his coffin, he was laid to rest with full honors by the Federation of French War Officers at Flushing Cemetery in New York. Alma Thomas 1
Alma Thomas wanted to try a new kind of painting—unlike anything she'd ever seen or done before. But how? As she thought about this, she stood at her window, watching the holly tree in her front yard. She decided to try painting everything she saw—the sun shining through the leaves, the breeze rustling them, the shadows changing their shape and color. This would be her new kind of painting!
Alma Thomas 2 (1891-1978)
Alma Thomas was a prominent abstract painter of the 1960s and 1970s, and was the first African American woman to have a solo art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, in 1971 Born in Columbus on September 22, 1891, Alma Woodsey Thomas was the eldest daughter of John Harris Thomas, a successful businessman, and Amelia Cantey, a dress designer. Alma Thomas showed artistic tendencies as a child when she used local clays to make homemade puppets and sculptures. Her home life was a constantly changing environment of cultural activities, as her parents arranged for various lecturers and speakers to make presentations there. Despite this rich atmosphere of culture, the prevalent social ills of racism and a poor education system for African Americans caused the Thomas family to move in 1907 to Washington, D.C., where they settled in a house that Alma would occupy for the next seventy-one years.
8 After a long and distinguished career as a teacher, Thomas retired in 1960 to focus her energies entirely on her own art. During her professional career she had remained active and visible in Washington's growing art community, and in the late 1950s she developed the confidence and knowledge to pursue the highly colored abstract style for which she is known.. Thomas's work was included in the important show Contemporary Black Artists in America, held in 1971 at the Whitney Museum in New York. Thomas died in Washington, D.C., in 1978 at the age of eighty-six. Three years later a retrospective exhibition was held at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art. In 1998 the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Indiana organized a retrospective exhibition of her paintings that traveled to Columbus. Today her work can be found in many major museums. The Columbus Museum holds an important collection of Thomas's paintings, watercolors, sculptures, and marionettes, as well as a significant archive of her papers. The Smithsonian American Art Museum also has an archive of her paintings and family papers.
William H Spencer 1 From the Historic Marker places at the original site of Spencer High School “Near here, on November 29, 1930, the first local high school for colored students opened. The school was a result of a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation and was named in honor of William Henry Spencer, Supervisor of the Colored Schools on Muscogee County from 1912-1925….”
William H Spencer 2
1857- 1925 Dr. William Henry Spencer was a leading early black educator in Columbus He began teaching in 1875 and was director of the colored schools from 1912-1925. First Supervisor of the elementary schools for African-Americans. First black high school in 1930 named in his honor Sought equality in education
Spencer HS Alumni Association built historic marker in 1990
William H Spencer 3 Spencer High School served as the first voting precinct in Muscogee County to use negro Poll Workers. The School moved to Sheppard Drive in 1950s and then to Victory Drive in 1978. Original school was destroyed in fire on 12-26-1982 ( former Marshall Junior HS 1950s.)
William H Spencer 4
The Spencer House Constructed in 1912 is an example of 19th century Classical Revivalism You can see it at Veterans and 8th St on the SW corner. Dr. Spencer lived there from 1912-1925 The Spencer House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and was restored in 1981