Black History Legends You May Not Know About


Huey Newton

Huey Percy Newton was the youngest and seventh son born to his parents, Armelia Johnson and Walter Newton, who was a sharecropper and a Baptist preacher. Newton was born February 17, 1942, in Monroe, Louisiana. His father reportedly named him after former Louisiana Governor, Huey Pierce Long, a populist who was a strong advocate for policies that benefited the poor and downtrodden.

The Newton family moved to Oakland, California, in 1945 so that his dad could take advantage of the job opportunities created by World War II wartime industries. In Oakland the family moved often and in one house young Newton had to sleep in the kitchen.

Newton attended the Oakland public schools where he claimed he was made to feel "uncomfortable and ashamed of being black." He responded by constantly and consistently defying authority, which resulted in frequent suspensions. At the age of 14, he was arrested for gun possession and vandalism. He said while he graduated high school, he was illiterate until he taught himself how to read by reading Plato's "Republic."

In his autobiography he wrote, "During those long years in Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience. Not one instructor ever awoke in me a desire to learn more or to question or to explore the worlds of literature, science."

In the mid-1960s, Newton pursued his education at Merritt College, where he met Bobby Seale. In 1966, Newton and Bobby Seale co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland. The Black Panther Party became a leading figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Unlike many of the other social and political organizers of the time, they took a more militant stance to the plight of Black communities in America.

Meanwhile, Newton was arrested in 1968 and charged with killing an Oakland police officer during a traffic stop. He was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to two to 15 years in prison. He was freed in 1970 after an appeals process deemed that incorrect deliberation procedures had been implemented during the trial.

In the 1970s, Newton aimed to take the Panthers in a new direction that emphasized democratic socialism, community interconnectedness and services for the poor, including items like free lunch programs and urban clinics.

In 1974 Newton was accused of another murder and fled to Cuba for three years before returning to face charges. Two trials resulted in hung juries. Even with his legal troubles, Newton returned to school, earning a doctorate in social philosophy from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1980. In March 1989 Newton was sentenced to a six-month jail term for misappropriating public funds intended for a Panther-founded Oakland school. In August of that year the 47-year-old was found shot dead on a street in Oakland after being shot several times including once in the head. A man described by police as a drug dealer admitted killing Newton. The suspect claimed the shooting was in self-defense and was the result of a drug deal. 

----------------------------------------------Reporting by Jabari Atiim

Louis Armstrong

One of American's greatest jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong, might not have picked up an instrument were it not for the time he spent in a Colored Waifs Home for boys as a juvenile delinquent. Armstrong, then age 13, was sentenced to the detention facility by a court after he fired a pistol in the air on New Year's Eve of 1912. From January 1913 to June 1914, under the instructor Peter Davis, he learned the cornet and bugle here.

Armstrong, better known to fans as "Satchmo" was born August 4, 1901, New Orleans, Louisiana. He died July 6, 1971 in New York City. He is viewed by many as the leading trumpeter and one of the most influential artists in jazz history.

During his career, Armstrong was at the forefront of changing jazz from ensemble-oriented folk music into an art form that emphasized inventive solo improvisations. He demonstrated that it was possible to have both impressive technique and a strong feeling for the blues. His improvisations permanently altered the landscape of jazz by making the improvising soloist the focal point of the performance.

From the beginning of his career as a bandleader, Armstrong created ensembles to showcase his spectacular trumpet playing. His music had such an important effect on jazz history that many scholars, critics, and fans call him the first great jazz soloist.

John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, one of the key architects of modern jazz, famously said "no him, no me" about Armstrong, explaining that Armstrong's playing was the foundation of his music.

In 1936 Armstrong became the first African-American jazz musician to write an autobiography, "Swing That Music." Armstrong's influence extended far beyond jazz; the energetic, swinging rhythmic momentum of his playing was a major influence on soloists in every genre of American popular music. Armstrong's trumpet improvisations influenced every jazz musician who appeared after him. Armstrong was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, also the Grammy Hall of Fame.

His talent landed him spots in movies, radio, and television where he was featured as a good-humor entertainer. He played a rare dramatic role in the film "New Orleans," in which he also performed in a Dixieland band. This prompted the formation of Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, a Dixieland band that at first included such other jazz greats as pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines and trombonist Jack Teagarden.

------------------------------------------- Reporting by Victor Minikwu

Information from was used in this story.

Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke was

(a) endowed with second sight;

(b) sang to sticks;

( c) able to convince his neighborhood "gang" to tear the slats off backyard fences, then sold them to their previous owners for firewood;

Cooke, who dubbed the King of Soul during his brief illustrious career, did all of the above. He also was the middle child of a Church of Christ (Holiness) minister with untrammeled ambitions for his children. He did not disappoint his father.

Known for his smooth voice and tunes such as "A Change is Gonna Come," Cooke was a songwriter, a recording artist and a businessman. He was one of the first musicians to pursue a musical career's business opportunities and founded his record label and publishing firm.

Samuel Cook was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on January 22, 1931, to the Rev. Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae. His father pastored a church and young Sam Cook was exposed to the church and its music from the start.

Cook's career began with gospel music where he started to develop his soulful hits. By age nine Cook, with his two sisters, formed a gospel trio known as the Singing Children. As a teenager, he was a member of the nationally famous Highway Q.C.'s (so named because their home base was the Highway Baptist Church) with his younger brother, L.C. Cook. It was here that they sang with all the leading gospel groups of the day when they passed through Chicago.

He performed with a group in the 1950s called the Soul Stirrers, a gospel group.

He decided to switch from gospel to pop music in 1957. He struck a deal with Keen Records in 1957 and released his first number-one single titled "You Give Me," which reached No. 1 on Billboards R&B charts.

Cooke also was an astute businessman. He had his own publishing, recording, and management companies. By retaining ownership of his masters, Cooke profited whenever the music was sold or used.

In February 1964 RCA Victor released "A Change Is Gonna Come." The album was influenced by numerous personal events and reflects the struggles of African-Americans. During the Civil Rights Movement, it became an anthem and is considered historical, cultural, or esthetically significant.

Sadly, Cooke died at the peak of his career. He was shot to death on December 11, 1964, at the age of 33. The scene took place at a motel and the shooter was the motel manager, who accused him of a crime that remains a mystery today.

--------------------------------------------- Reporting by Senor Brown

Information from was used in this story

Ella Baker

A life's work that spanned more than five decades and rooted in political activism was that of Ella Josephine Baker.

Baker was born Dec. 13, 1903, to Georgiana and Blake Baker in Norfolk, Virginia. She is among the influential women pioneers who paved the way for other prominent leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

Her focus on African-American youth garnered her pivotal roles with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLS), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), three powerhouse civil rights organizations. Her role included working with local movement leaders to craft strategic campaigns against lynching, job training and equal pay for Black teachers.

Baker started her work with the NAACP in 1938 as a field secretary and later became the director of branches. Her persistence in fighting for civil rights generated controversial discussions among her male counterparts like Andrew Young.

Young once described Baker as a "determined woman."

He was quoted as saying,"The Baptist church had no tradition of women in independent leadership roles, and the result was dissatisfaction all around," according to the Stanford University Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

As civil rights leaders in the 21st century continue advocating for African-Americans related to these same challenges, Baker set the tone in 1938, providing guidance to young Blacks that displayed interest in civil rights, one of them being known as "the mother of the freedom movement," Rosa Parks, according to Time Magazine.

Not only did Baker's efforts lead young people to raise awareness regarding important issues, she also led philanthropic campaigns to cultivate relationships and funding for projects like the organization, In Friendship, in 1956 with co-founders Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin, which fueled many civil rights movements during that time.

Additionally, Baker's career advanced, traveling across southern states, where she arrived in Atlanta, Georgia to partner with King as director to spearhead another group of young leaders, thus creating the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and chartered the campaign to enforce voting rights for Blacks.

In August 2020, Joe Biden accepted the nomination to be the Democratic Party's nominee for president and quoted Baker. "Ella Baker, a giant of the civil rights movement, left us with this wisdom: Give people light and they will find a way," he said. "Give people light. Those are words for our time. The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long. Too much anger. Too much fear. Too much division."

Baker lived to be a champion for change, determined to make an impact and be the difference for African-Americans enslaved preceding her. Her tenacity to stand firm in her beliefs, much like our founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, is why she is Black history. Although unheralded, we honor a woman in history that acted and never gave up for what our young Black youth are still facing today.

"The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence." - Ella Baker

-------------------------------------------- Reporting by RaShon Young