Unsung & Oversung Heroes

by W. D. Ehrhart

I was reading a book recently by Jerry Mikorenda called America’s First Freedom Rider. It tells the story of Elizabeth Jennings, a young school teacher in New York City who on a Sunday morning in 1854, while on her way to the church where she was the organist, was physically hurled by the conductor and the driver from the streetcar she tried to board because she was African American.

Jennings, who later became Elizabeth Jennings Graham by marriage, hired a lawyer, sued the streetcar company, and won. The young lawyer who took her case was Chester A. Arthur, then an idealistic and progressive thinker (who, sadly, later became a protégé of New York politician Roscoe Conkling and somewhat of a political hack).

Jennings, who I had never heard of before, spent a lifetime fighting for equal rights for African Americans. One of only two Black women to pass a rigorous teacher training program, she and the other woman were not allowed to participate in the public awarding of diplomas along with their seventy white classmates. But she persevered as a teacher and educator. As late as 1895, she was instrumental in creating the first kindergarten in New York City for African American children.

American history is filled with women and men like Jennings, who we should know about and be inspired by, but have never heard of. How about James William Charles Pennington, the first African American to attend Yale, though he was not allowed to enroll officially, and who could not speak in class or borrow books from the library? He later earned a doctorate from Heidelberg University in Germany.

Ever heard of James McCune Smith, the first African American to receive a medical degree? Or Charles Reason, the first Black professor at a white college? One can well imagine the insults and humiliations and obstacles each of these men faced in order to become the “first” in his field.

Then there was Henry Ossian Flipper, the first Black graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, whose fellow cadets made it clear he was not welcome. A few years after his graduation, he was court-martialed on trumped up charges and dismissed from the army for “conduct unbecoming of an officer.” (In 1976, the Assistant Secretary of the Army issued Flipper a Certificate of Honorable Discharge, and in 1999 President Clinton pardoned Flipper’s court-martial conviction. Better late than never, I suppose.)

One of my favorite unsung heroes is Eugene Bullard, an African American who joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914, and fought in the trenches of the Western Front until he was wounded for the third time and invalided out of the infantry, whereupon he learned to fly and flew twenty combat missions with the French Air Corps. He was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire, but when he tried to transfer to the American Air Corps after the U.S. entered the Great War, the Americans wouldn’t take him. Guess why. His final job, before he died in 1961, was as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center, where no one had any idea he had once been known in France as “the Black Swallow of Death.”

And how about E. D. Nixon, the Alabama civil rights leader and union organizer, without whom there probably would have been no Montgomery Bus Boycott? Or Madonna Thunderhawk, co-founder of Women of All Red Nations and organizer for the Lakota People’s Law Project? These are people we should know about.

Conversely, learning the darker side of people we already know about and may admire can be uncomfortable. I realize that no one is perfect. We are all human and subject to human frailties and foibles. But here is some history about American heroes that few Americans know:

Susan B. Anthony, that champion of abolition and women’s rights, said in 1866, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Well, okay, maybe she’d be willing to work for enfranchising both Black men and women of either color. We’ll never know.

But her suffragist ally, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, left no wiggle room when asked if Black men should have the vote, replying, “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?”

Then there’s Theodore Roosevelt, whom most historians identify as “progressive.” Indeed, he is the embodiment of the Progressive Era, according to standard history texts, which don’t record that he thought it “a rather good thing” when a mob lynched eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans after they’d been acquitted of murder at trial. Nor do most texts report that as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, TR declared, “I should welcome almost any war for I think this country needs one,” before eagerly collaborating with Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst to start the Spanish-American War.

Closer in time is Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. Secretary of State and later UN Ambassador, who Bill Clinton described as “a passionate force for freedom, democracy, and human rights,” and Joe Biden called “a force for goodness, grace, and decency.” But when asked if the deaths of half a million Iraqi children was a fair price to pay for imposing sanctions on Saddam Hussein, she replied, “The price, we think, the price is worth it.”

As I said, and readily acknowledge, no one is perfect. Even Jesus lost his temper on at least one occasion, and roughed up the moneychangers in the temple. And He was Jesus. The rest of us are mere mortals.

Still, American history—all history, I am sure, but we’re Americans—is replete with a plethora of heroes we ought to know more about. On the other hand, many of our most prominent and honored heroes are not quite what we’re taught they are. What I’ve discussed here is only a tiny sampling, a teaser if you will.

And it matters because history explains who we are, and how we got to be who and where we are, and where we are likely headed. You have only to consider the number of our fellow citizens who believe the myths and falsehoods and drivel spouted by Dolt .45, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and their ilk to understand how dangerous a faulty grasp of history can be.

Ignorance is not bliss, and while knowledge may be power, inaccurate knowledge can be powerfully destructive.


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.

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