President’s Day Holiday – A Day for Celebrating Notorious Slave Owners or Black History Makers?
Every year, on the third Monday of February, America celebrates President’s Day. In actuality, the one federal “holiday” of the month is in recognition of George Washington’s birthday. In elementary school we all learned about the first President of the United States, his part in the American Revolutionary War, the wooden teeth and of course Martha, his wife.
While consistently described as a protagonist in American history, the narrative rarely includes significant emphasis on his role as a slave owner. Slavery undoubtedly captions a monstrous period in this country’s existence, spanning hundreds of years. Although that was pretty common among Whites at that time, the irony is that our country continues to rejoice in honoring a notorious participant in one of the most heinous acts committed against a race of people, within the one month supposedly dedicated to the those very people. So instead of solely acknowledging one of America’s so-called “forefathers”, why not recognize moments in Black History created by individuals who overcame enormous obstacles in order to achieve greatness. After all, it is Black History Month.
On February 16, 1923, Bessie Smith recorded, “Down Hearted Blues” for Columbia Records. Although technically her second recording, as the masters for the first were somehow lost, Smith recorded the legendary track and established a style that cemented her place in musical history. Smith’s first single sold 780,000 records in the first six months and would go on to sell 2 million copies, eventually solidifying her as the highest-paid black entertainer in the country [at the time] with an ensuing celebrity status that afforded her opportunities to play with renowned musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson and Coleman Hawkins. National Public Radio wrote, “her feverish growls and impassioned delivery informed nearly every facet of African American music, from Mahalia Jackson to Mary J. Blige.” Bessie Smith was eventually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
On February 16, 1970, Joe Frazier knocked out Jimmy Ellis to become the world heavyweight champion. After being stripped of his title for refusing the draft, Muhammad Ali was out and the boxing world was looking for a successor. More than 18,000 boxing fans attended the bout held in Madison Square Gardens, despite many regarding the fight as a mere formality, since Ali was still considered the undisputed champ. After four tough rounds, trainer Angelo Dundee ultimately called the fight at the beginning of the fifth round due to Ellis’ inability to continue, later stating, “Frazier was too strong for Jimmy.” Frazier won and eventually fought Ali on March 8, 1971 in what would ultimately be referred to as “The Fight of The Century.” After a unanimous decision, Frazier won that fight also and continued to retain the belt and title of “Heavyweight Champion of the World” for two more years before losing it to George Foreman in 1973.
Photos courtesy of Getty Images.