This week in history, we take a look at Nick Biddle, the first black soldier wounded in the Civil War, the massacre of black troops in Arkansas, the first Emancipation Day Parade in Washington DC, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” and quite a bit more of the events that took place in this third week of April.
First Black Soldier Wounded in Civil War
Amidst the chaos that was the pro-secessionist Baltimore Riot, Nicholas Biddle, an escaped slave now living in Pottstown, Pennsylvanian. As an orderly to Capt. James Wren of the Washington Artillery, Biddle accompanied the battery and was seriously wounded. As his unit made their way through the streets to board a train to Washington, the cry of “Nigger in uniform!” tore through the crowd. With that, Biddle was struck in the head by a brick, cutting him to the bone. Though he fell to the ground, he was picked up and made his way to the waiting cars. Other soldiers in his battery were likewise injured. Biddle gained quite a bit of fame in Pottstown, to which he returned after his unit’s ninety day enlistment was up. Sadly, he grew destitute and died in 1870 with hardly a penny to his name. Members of his battery took up a collection for his funeral. More can be learned here.
Black Troops Massacred at the Battle of Poison Spring
Following a victory against a small Union force in Arkansas, Confederates under the command of John Marmaduke were reported to have killed scores of surrendering black United States troops. According to Confederate General William L. Cabell, Southern soldiers “killed at least eighty Negroes.” Colonel James M. Williams of the 1st Kansas reported: “Many wounded men belonging to the First Kansas Colored Volunteers fell into the hands of the enemy, and I have the most positive assurances from eye-witnesses that they were murdered on the spot.” “We were obliged to bring our wounded away the best we could,” reported Major Richard Ward immediately after the battle, “as the rebels were seen shooting those that fell into their hands.” The 1st Kansas suffered 41% casualties, while the Confederates suffered 3%. More can be read about the battle here.
Emancipation Day Celebration in Washington DC
What is often seen as the first Emancipation Day Parade in the United States capital took place in 1866 – less than a year following the end of the Civil War. It had been four years since Lincoln had freed the slaves in the city. The parade wound through the streets starting and ending in Franklin Square. There, speeches were made and general merriment was the rule of the day. The annual parade lasted until 1901, though it’s since been revived. Washington, DC officially celebrates Emancipation Day on April 16, the day Lincoln signed emancipation into law. More here.
Civil Rights Act of 1871
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Second Enforcement Act, also known as the Civil Rights Act, into law on this date. In a large part, the Act was to allow the Federal government to better battle the Ku Klux Klan in the South, who were doing all they could to suppress the black vote. Grant himself personally asked for this legislation, which was pushed through Congress in less than a month. The Act placed Federal troops between black voters and Klan members, replacing the too-sympathetic state militias. In a large way, these laws ended the Klan until it was reformed in the early 1900s. The Act can be read here.
Billie Holiday Records First Civil Rights Song
With lyrics a poem by Abel Meeropol, and based upon the Indiana lynching of two black men in 1930, blues singer Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit.” It was, in all respects, a song of protest. “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” “I wrote Strange Fruit,” said Meeropol, “because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it.” When Holiday suggested recording the song, her record company and manager both refused, fearing repercussions in the South. Going with an independent label, it ended up selling over a million copies, “Strange Fruit” became Billie Holiday’s most iconic work. In 1999, Time magazine named it the song of the century. More about the song itself can be read here. Here the song for yourself here.
Azor Leaves for Liberia
As part of the Back to Africa movement of the late 1800s, the ship Azor, filled with 206 black American volunteers, set off from Charleston, South Carolina for Liberia. This was in response to the particularly violent election of 1876, and its holders believed that there was no longer a place for them in America. More can be read here.
Ride-Ins Staged on Richmond Streetcars
As part of a wave of protest against segregation, like black citizens in Charleston in March, activists staged “Ride-Ins” on Richmond Streetcars. According to a newspaper report: “To-day a negro insisted upon riding upon the street car. The conductor put him off when several hundred negroes gathered, and insisted that the man should ride. A strong force of police came up, and the man was arrested. Much excitement was caused at the time.” In a few years, such laws would be overturned, only to reappear in the early 1900s.
First Black Female Lawyer
Less than a decade after the Civil War, Charlotte E. Ray became the first black female lawyer in America, graduating from Howard University School of Law. Raised by a father who was an abolitionist publisher and conductor on the Underground Railroad in New York, Ray attended school in DC and law school at Howard (an institution which, at that time, did not accept women). She went on to become the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. As race relations reached their nadir, Ray lost work and eventually turned to teaching and became an activist for civil rights as well as women’s suffrage. More here.