Since this is Black History Month, I thought it might be appropriate to write about some of the individuals mentioned in a book by Charles E. Cobb Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A guided tour of the civil rights trail.
One of Cobb’s first narratives focuses on Charlotte “Lotty” Dupuy’s quest for freedom in 1828 after her master, Secretary of State Henry Clay, left office. Dupuy had been promised her freedom after serving a specific amount of time as a slave. She sued for her freedom but was unsuccessful.
Cobb also writes about opera singer Marian Anderson. The singer faced Washington’s racial discrimination as a free black woman when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform a recital at Constitution Hall, which they owned. The D.C. Board of Education refused to allow her to use the auditorium of a white high school. Ultimately an outraged Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR and petitioned the secretary of the interior to allow Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. Her recital is recognized as one of the most significant moments in modern black history. Millions across the nation heard the radio broadcast of the recital.
Washington’s racial discrimination also produced another barely known historic black woman — Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the NAACP who in 1950 at 86 years old walked into a segregated Washington restaurant with three friends to test discriminatory “lost laws” in the city’s codes. Three years later, a U.S. Supreme Court decision would declare that the laws were still enforceable.
About 10 years later, Ruby Pendergrass Cornwell re-enacted Mary Church Terrell’s Washington restaurant sit-in. Cornwell, the wife of a prominent black dentist and a member of Charleston’s elite black society, donned her hat, gloves, and pearls and with a group of friends took a limousine to the posh Fort Sumter Hotel and asked to be served lunch in the dining room. The ladies were arrested.
America remembers Rosa Parks as the mother of the civil rights movement because she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man in 1955, but according to Cobb, Charleston’s Septima Clark is the movement’s grandmother. Interestingly, Parks attended a leadership workshop conducted by Clark four months before her famous act.
Clark was an educator who in 1916 was forced to teach on rural Johns Island because blacks were not allowed to teach in Charleston. She persistently urged the Charleston School Board to hire black teachers. She succeeded. But in 1956 the board fired her because of her membership in the NAACP.
Cobb’s profile of North Carolina’s Ella Josephine Baker is also worth noting. As a NAACP director during the 1940s, she became the first executive director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by Martin L. King Jr. In 1960 when students from Shaw College in Raleigh staged lunch counter sit-ins, she convened the first meeting of what ultimately became the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Cobb’s book is filled with the profiles of individuals whose contributions to black history are well documented but little known. For my money it should be required reading during Black History Month.