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The many faces of black history

First Lt. Vernice Armour heads back to the

First Lt. Vernice Armour heads back to the hangar after performing an engine wash on her AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter on Sunday, March 16, 2003, at an air base in the Gulf region. That month, Armour became the Marine Corps' first African-American female pilot and the nation's first African-American female combat pilot. Credit: AP / Julioe Jacobson

A renowned "Othello," a poet laureate, pioneers in flight and the labor movement and a legendary jazzman who composed his signature work in the basement studio of a modest home in Dix Hills -- each year, Black History Month brings to classrooms all over Long Island a chance to learn more about African-Americans who imprinted their stamp on the nation's history.

On March 6, 1857, the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court denied blacks U.S. citizenship and denied the power of Congress to restrict slavery in any federal territory. Scott, a slave, had sued for his freedom and that of his wife and two daughters. Following the Supreme Court's decision, the sons of Scott's first owner, who had been childhood friends of Scott and paid his legal fees as he fought for his freedom, bought Scott and his wife and set them free. Scott died nine months later.

Vernice Armour, the Marine Corps' first African-American female pilot and the nation's first African-American female combat pilot (Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003), was born in Chicago in 1973. But she didn't always have wings. By the time she was 4, Armour knew she wanted to be a mounted police officer. After high school, where she was class vice president and a member of Mu Alpha Theta, the mathematics honor society, and the National Honor Society, Armour joined the Army ROTC program at Middle Tennessee State University. After a brief stint with the Nashville Police Department, she was commissioned in 1998 as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and earned her wings in 2001, finishing first in her class of 12.

A. Philip Randolph, one of the key architects of the historic 1963 March on Washington, joined the Socialist Party of America when he was 21. Randolph -- the A. is for Asa -- co-founded the radical monthly magazine The Messenger, which operated from 1917 to 1928 and encouraged black laborers to demand higher wages and better working conditions. It opposed U.S. entry into World War I and subsequent African-American participation in the war, but also published leading literary figures like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. However, it was Randolph's work as a labor organizer -- he founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation's first black union -- that distinguished him the most.

Though obscure to many, Charles Hamilton Houston was one of this nation's greatest legal strategists. Sometimes referred to as "the Man Who Killed Jim Crow," Houston, the son of a lawyer, masterminded the strategy to dismantle Jim Crow by actively testing the "separate but equal" doctrine in the courts. He was a mentor to future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom he taught at the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. Houston also studied at the school, graduating cum laude, and served on the Harvard Law Review.

Paul Robeson was a renaissance man. At Rutgers University in New Jersey, he was an All-American athlete, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian. He spoke 15 languages, got a law degree and worked at a Manhattan law firm before his entertainment career took off. Robeson performed Negro spirituals on the concert stage to critical acclaim and played "Othello" on Broadway. He appeared in race films such as Oscar Micheaux's 1925 film, "Body and Soul," but is perhaps most well-known for the film "The Emperor Jones" and the Hollywood production "Show Boat."

Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and the youngest of 20 children, became a key figure in the Mississippi leg of the Civil Rights Movement. Raised poor and illiterate in the harsh Mississippi Delta, she was the granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of sharecroppers. Although exposed to homegrown civil rights activities through meetings she attended for the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in the all-black Mound Bayou, it wasn't until she answered the call to vote in 1944 that she started helping other blacks register to vote. She penned the phrase "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most prolific African-American female writers of her day. Between 1934 and 1948, she published seven books, including her autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road." Perhaps her most well-received publication was "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Hurston also wrote many short stories, plays, biographies, newspaper and magazine articles. When she died on Jan. 28, 1960, of a stroke, neighbors in Fort Pierce, Fla., could only collect enough for the funeral and burial, so Hurston was buried in a grave that remained unmarked until 1973.

 

A LEGEND IN DIX HILLS

For the last year of his illness-shortened life, legendary saxophonist John Coltrane lived with his wife, Alice, also a musician, in a split-ranch on Candlewood Path in Dix Hills that fans hope will one day be a museum and cultural center.

The Coltranes moved into the house in 1966, a year before the 40-year-old jazz icon died at Huntington Hospital from a liver ailment. In his basement studio, Coltrane composed what is considered his masterpiece: "A Love Supreme."

Coltrane, born in a small town in North Carolina, began his professional career with a Navy band. He then worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk before founding his own ensemble in 1960. His son, Ravi, also a saxophonist, played Coltrane songs at a benefit last year to raise funds to restore his family's former home, which was bought by the Town of Huntington after it was named among America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

 

Sources: The Poetry Foundation; PBS; biography.com; vernicearmour.com; thegrio.com

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