54 years ago, on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was was shot to death by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith outside of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1952, Evers joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As a field worker for the NAACP, Evers traveled through his home state encouraging poor African Americans to register to vote and recruiting them into the civil rights movement.Due to his high-profile position with the NAACP, Evers became a target for those who opposed racial equality and desegregation. He and his family were subjected to numerous threats and violent actions over the years, including a firebombing of their house in May 1963. After a funeral in Jackson, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In 1964, the first trial of chief suspect Byron De La Beckwith ended with a deadlock by an all-white jury, sparking numerous protests. When a second all-white jury also failed to reach a decision, De La Beckwith was set free. Three decades later, the state of Mississippi reopened the case under pressure from civil rights leaders and Evers’ family. In February 1994, a racially mixed jury in Jackson found Beckwith guilty of murder. The unrepentant white supremacist, aged 73, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Beckwith died in 2001.
Akasease Kofi Boakye Yiadom, current age 106, Ghana
The World War II veteran graduated in 2009 from university, where he had enrolled three years aged 96. A former teacher, Boakye Yiadom in an interview on graduation said education had no end, “as far as your brain can work alright, you eyes can see alright, and your ears can hear alright…”
He is widely read and quoted in several books and studies, with most of his written and cited work focusing on his experiences as a teacher, both in colonial and independent Ghana.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason, born a slave in Mississippi in 1818, achieved financial success that enabled her to support her extended family for generations despite the fact that she was illiterate. In a landmark case she sued her master for their freedom, saved her earnings, invested in real estate, and became a well-known philanthropist in Los Angeles, California. Although born in Mississippi, Mason was owned by slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina before she was returned to Mississippi. Her last owner, Robert Marion Smith, a Mississippi Mormon convert, followed the call of church leaders to settle in the West. Mason and her children joined other slaves on Smith’s religious pilgrimage to establish a new Mormon community in Utah. In 1848 30-year-old Mason walked 1,700 miles behind a 300-wagon caravan that eventually arrived in the Holladay-Cottonwood area of the Salt Lake Valley. Along the route west Mason’s responsibilities included setting up and breaking camp, cooking the meals, herding the cattle, and serving as a midwife as well as taking care of her three young daughters aged ten, four, and an infant. In 1851 Smith and his family and slaves set out in a 150-wagon caravan for San Bernardino, California to establish yet another Mormon community. Ignoring Brigham Young’s warning that slavery was illegal in California, Smith brought Mason and other enslaved people to the new community. Along the trek Mason met Charles H. and Elizabeth Flake Rowan, free blacks, who urged her to legally contest her slave status once she reached California, a free state. Mason received additional encouragement by free black friends whom she met in California, Robert and Minnie Owens. In December 1855 Robert Smith, fearing losing his slaves, decided to move with them to Texas, a slave state. The Owens family had a vested interest in the Mason family as one of their sons was romantically involved with Mason’s 17-year-old daughter. When Robert Owens told the Los Angeles County Sheriff that slaves were being illegally held, he gathered a posse which including Owens and his sons, other cowboys and vaqueros from the Owens ranch. The posse apprehended Smith’s wagon train in Cajon Pass, California en route to Texas and prevented him from leaving the state. After spending five years enslaved in a “free” state Bridget Mason challenged Robert Smith for her freedom. On January 19, 1856 she petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her extended family of 13 women and children. Los Angeles District Judge Benjamin Hayes took three days before handing down his ruling in favor Mason and her extended family, citing California’s 1850 constitution which prohibited slavery.Mason and her family moved to Los Angeles where her daughter married the son of Robert and Minnie Owens. Mason worked as midwife and nurse, saved her money and purchased land in the heart of what is now downtown Los Angeles. Mason also organized First A.M.E. Church, the oldest African American church in the city. She educated her children and with her wealth became a philanthropist to the entire Los Angeles community. Bridget “Biddy” Mason died in Los Angeles in 1891.
Sylvester Magee (May 29, 1841 – Oct. 17, 1971) was 130 years when he died. He was considered to be the last person to survive American slavery and the last living Civil War veteran. For more than 40 years Magee didn’t have a head stone until Feb. 2014, when several people unveiled one in his honor in the small grave yard of Pleasant Valley Methodist Church located in Foxworth, Mississippi.
The last survivor of the Rosewood massacre (The result of rape accusations made by a white woman against a black man, which led to violent riots and the murder of several innocent African-Americans in January of 1923.)
She was the last person alive with a living memory of Rosewood the north Florida black town that was consumed in racial rage this week more than eight decades ago. She was eight when it happened and her memory was as clear as a bell. Robie Mortin and I were friends. I met her well into her nineties living in an assisted living complex in West Palm Beach where what was left of her family settled after the event.
“I was in third grade,” she once told me. “I could read and write. I remember everything;” like playing in her aunt Sarah Carrier’s yard every Sunday after church, like the plum trees that grew in her yard, like getting apples at Christmas and dancing and playing games on Emancipation Day; and the night the mob burned the town down. Mortin had never gone back except for a short visit when the governor and state officials dedicated a historic marker on Highway 24, but that was not to touch the ground, to smell the woods or to go to the old graveyard where her mother is buried. But in 2008 she allowed me to take her back twice and she showed me everything. We walked the railroad bed where the rails had been moved many years ago but the raised rail bed still runs true through the woods like a green tunnel; to the place where the Masonic lodge stood which was the building in which she attended school; and to that graveyard that not only holds her mother’s bones but those of many Rosewood pioneers and victims. Her aunt Sarah who was killed during those terrible days is there. So is her uncle, Sam Carter who was the first person to be killed in the massacre. She lived in his house. She recalled the cold night the mobs came. The moon was full and bright; so bright you could see shadows at mid-night. “My daddy told us to get up and put on all of our heavy clothes. He said the people were shooting and they had to get out of Rosewood.”
A lot of people had to get out of Rosewood that night. Mortin and her aunt Polly, Sam Carter’s mother, were fortunate. They made it to the train depot from which they escaped to Chiefland about twenty miles away. Many others spent several freezing nights hiding in the dank woods trying to avoid the mobs. Rosewood had been the perfect storm for racial violence. All of the usual suspects applied, an alleged sexual attack by a black man on a white woman, a black man with an attitude and lots of friends who had guns, economic jealousy because many blacks in Rosewood were doing better than the back woods whites who lived around them and the killing by blacks of a white law enforcement officer. It had all been a lie. Mortin had heard the stories over the years. The white woman, Fannie Taylor was having an affair and almost got caught when her lover beat her one morning while her husband was at work. Fannie said a black man did it and that was all it took. Over the following week hundreds of white men descended upon Rosewood vengeance in mind and torches in hand. Sylvester Carrier would emerge as the hero of the moment. He gathered up his family and hunkered down in his mother’s large two-story home. He was a Mason.
“Almost all of the men out there were Masons”, Mortin recalled. The night the mob came to the Carrier House an unknown number of heavily armed black men were waiting. Some were hidden in the woods. It was a gathering of Masons. When it was all over eight people were dead including Sylvester and his mother Sarah, Robie’s aunt. She and Sam Carter’s mother moved to Riviera Beach which had become home to many Rosewood survivors.
“The old black cemetery in Riviera Beach is filled with Rosewood folks,” she once told me. In June of 2010 she joined them. On my way to Rosewood I had seen her the day before she died in a hospice facility in West Palm Beach. No one else was left who could remember what happened that desperately cold night in 1923. What she left behind was a loving family and a many grateful friends, including me.
Interview by the historian Dr Marvin Dunn
Willie and George Muse were black albino brothers born in Roanoke, VA in 1893. In 1899 they were kidnapped by sideshow agents and told there mother had died and they would never see her again. They were showcased as White Ecuadorian cannibals, Eko and Iko. In the mid 1920s the brothers toured with Ringling Brothers circus and while visiting their home town, their mother found them and fought to free her sons 20 years after their disappearance.
“A controversial homemade doll that’s often found in the South is the “topsy-turvy doll,” The topsy-turvies existed because the slave masters actually didn’t want the slave children to have dolls that looked like themselves, which would give them a sense of empowerment. “When the slave master was gone, the kids would have the black side, but when the slave master was around, they would have the white side…