By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Sheer necessity pushed African Americans to organize the 1917 NAACP Silent Protest Parade in New York City, due to the absence of laws that protected Blacks from lynchings and violence.
According to The Equal Justice Initiative, “More than 4,000 racial terror lynchings (occurred) in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950.” This is why an estimated 10,000 African Americans in 1917 silently marched down Fifth Avenue carrying banners in an effort to condemn widespread racist violence and racial discrimination.
To resist racial violence, more than six million African Americans also migrated from the South to the North and West “in fear for their lives,” the Equal Justice Initiative website noted.
“Many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person,” the Equal Justice Initiative website noted. “People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity.”
Black Resistance—an organized pushback against racially-motivated hardships—is the 2023 theme for Black History Month.
The prosthetic device that a Virginia Black inventor created for World War II amputees in the 1950’s illustrates the theme.
Specifically, a prosthetic is an artificial device that replaces a missing body part. Aiming to help World War II amputees feed themselves, Bessie Virginia Blount Griffin, who was born in 1914 in the Hickory community of Princess Anne County (now a part of the city of Chesapeake), invented a patented electrical motor that pushed food through a tube into an amputee’s mouth. Griffin’s device delivered one bite of food at a time through a tube.
The catch was a World War II amputee with a missing arm or leg, had to intentionally bite down, in order to eat independently. This means each bite was released after the patient deliberately bit down on the tube.
“You’re not crippled, only crippled in your mind,” Griffin often told amputees, who could not walk to the bathroom, pull a tee-shirt over their head, or raise a fork to their lips.
The way Griffin’s 1951-patented device compensated for an amputee’s lack of limbs and allowed him to use his last remaining bodily functions (his lips and teeth) to secure food, in other words—Blacks began to deliberately respond to harsh Jim Crow laws.
For example, four years after Griffin’s prosthetic device was patented—Rosa Parks deliberately bit down. This means Parks’ intentionally responded to the sense of helplessness that the Jim Crow system bred. Parks deliberately remained in her seat on a Jim Crow bus in Montgomery in 1955. Rosa Parks’ resistance launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and fueled the Civil Rights Movement, which led to Barack Obama becoming president.
Years later, Park’s explained why she bit down. Elaborating on her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger, Parks commented years later in a trademark quote. “I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move,” Parks explained. “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
Recently, Black Resistance resurfaced and is now moving at slow-motion speed in Springfield, Ga.
Specifically, a group of Black high school students recently dropped an armload of books, made some protest signs, and even filed a 14-page lawsuit after a string of racist incidents occurred at Effingham County High School and Effingham College and Career Academy which are located in Springfield, Ga., about 45 minutes from Savannah.
“It’s just incident, after incident, after incident, after incident,” said Lakeisha Hamilton, one of the parents who recently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Effingham County School District for prohibiting Black students from wearing clothes with Black Lives Matter logos.
“In one instance, a Black student was refused entry to a football game because she was wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ shirt; and was advised that she could not enter with it on,” the lawsuit states. “However, a white student was allowed entry at the very same event with a shirt that read, ‘Stomp on My Flag; I’ll Stomp Your A**’. There were no repercussions for that white student.”
“There’s still confederate flags in the school from my understanding in the trophy case,” Hamilton said, in recent news reports. “There’s a confederate flag etched in a stone on the marble that bears the name of the school. Kids still wear confederate attire.”
History shows conditions changed after an African American refused to grin and bear a racist handicap.
For example, in 1756, slaves not only launched First Baptist Church, the nation’s oldest Black church which is located up the road in Petersburg. The church launched Peabody High School in the church in 1870, (about five years after Black anti-literacy laws officially ended after the Civil War).
The point is this historic Petersburg church provides a rare glimpse into this year’s Black History Month theme: “Black Resistance.” This church began as First African Baptist Church, when it was founded in 1774 near Lunenburg, Va., on the William Byrd III plantation. Free members of the congregation later moved to Petersburg and changed the name to First Baptist Church when the Black church on the Byrd plantation burned to the ground.
But the historic Petersburg church burned to the ground in 1866 “during a wave of arson targeting Petersburg’s Black churches,” according to the Historical Marker Database website, ” After the building burned the present sanctuary was built in the Romanesque style and dedicated in 1872.”
Petersburg’s historic Black church illustrates the twists and turns that Black Resistance has taken.
“Before there was a George Washington president, there was a First Baptist,” Julian Greene, the church’s historian, told WRIC-TV in a 2018 interview. “We’ve had over 14 pastors in our 244-year history and that is remarkable in its own right and its own accord,” Greene said.
Peabody High School, which was launched inside of the church and became a public high school in 1920, speaks volumes about Black Resistance. This means First Baptist founded one of the first public schools for African Americans in Virginia. During its more than 150-year lifespan, Peabody High moved around Petersburg several times, eventually becoming a middle school in the 1970’s.
Peabody’s last commencement ceremony was held for its June 1970 graduates. It operated more than 40 years as a middle school, but operations ended abruptly in 2017, according to news reports.
Today, First Baptist is still one of the state’s largest churches and offers an array of services including a prayer ministry, quarterly family night fellowship, marriage enrichment retreats, leadership prayer breakfasts, and multiple youth programs including a scouting program, an after-school tutorial program, a computer lab, and a spring break camp.
“We generally have afternoon and after-school programs for the children,” Greene, the church’s historian said. “We are obligated and required to maintain and ensure that we carry that lifeline out for the future.”