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A history lesson from the street signs of Riverview

Ned Jilton II • Feb 13, 2019 at 7:30 PM

Did you know there is a history lesson hidden away in the street signs of Riverview here in Kingsport?

The street names Wheatley, Dunbar, Carver, Douglass and Louis tell the story of people who overcame great prejudice to do great things.

Phillis Wheatley was the first published African-American female poet.

Wheatley was born in Africa sometime in 1753 and imported as a slave to America, where she was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston. It was the Wheatleys who taught Phillis to read and write and recognized her talent as a poet.

In fact, she was such a good poet that many in the Colonies refused to believe that a slave would be able to write that well.

In 1772, she was forced to prove in court that she actually wrote the poetry bearing her name. After facing a jury of Boston dignitaries, including future founding father John Hancock, they concluded she had written the poems and signed a document proclaiming such.

In 1773, the Wheatleys emancipated Phillis and later that year her book “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” was published around the world and brought praise from George Washington, among other notable figures.

Wheatley achieved her great success while overcoming two of the biggest obstacles of the 1700s: being black and being a woman.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was a poet, novelist and playwright born in 1872 to former slaves from Kentucky who had moved to Dayton, Ohio.

He was the only black student at Central High School in Dayton, the same school attended by Orville and Wilbur Wright, builders of the first airplane. In fact, Orville was a classmate and friend.

Dunbar was a published poet by age 16, and by 18 he wrote and edited Dayton’s first weekly African-American newspaper, which happened to be printed by his high school friends the Wright brothers.

In an effort to raise money for law school, Dunbar took a job as an elevator operator making $4 a week. He paid for the printing of his first book and then made the money back by selling copies to his elevator passengers.

Dunbar would gain an international reputation as a writer and would go on to write the lyrics for the first all-African-American musical to be produced on Broadway.

Sadly, Dunbar’s talent would not be around for very long. He died of tuberculosis in his hometown of Dayton at the age of 33.

George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor.

Carver had to leave home just to get a basic education because black children were not allowed to attend public school in the Missouri town where he lived. He eventually graduated from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas, and then applied to college.

He was accepted by Highland University in Kansas, but was turned away when he arrived on campus due to his color.

But he didn’t give up. He applied to Iowa State and became the school’s first black student.

Carver earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and was encouraged by faculty members to work for his master’s degree. Doing research at the Iowa Experiment Station, he earned his master of science degree in 1896 and later became the first black faculty member at Iowa State.

Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington invited Carver to become head of the Agriculture Department there. For the next 47 years, Carver taught and did research at the institute.

During his time at Tuskegee, Carver developed and taught methods of crop rotation, alternating cotton crops with plantings of sweet potatoes, peanuts and soybeans. The practice resulted in improved cotton yields and gave farmers alternative cash crops. To encourage better nutrition in the South, he widely distributed bulletins using the alternative crops. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 recipes using peanuts.

Carver’s reputation as a scientist and inventor spanned the globe. He was made a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England; Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt met with him; and the crown prince of Sweden studied with him.

Frederick Douglass was a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman.

Douglass escaped from slavery and became a national leader of the abolitionist movement. As a speaker, he set a standard for oratory to which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. aspired.

In fact, Douglass was so eloquent that many in the North refused to believe he was ever a slave. Many times Douglass would open with, “I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them.”

Douglass joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which counted among its members Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. He became a licensed preacher in 1839, which helped him hone his oratorical skills.

On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech to the ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. It is considered by many as the greatest anti-slavery speech of all time.

With the start of the Civil War, Douglass begin lobbying for black soldiers in the Union army, saying, “He who would be free must himself strike the blow.”

During the war, Douglass continued to press President Abraham Lincoln about black soldiers and their treatment and after the war he pushed President Andrew Johnson for black voting rights.

Even with slavery eliminated, Douglass continued to work for equality for all, especially women. In fact, that’s how he ended his life.

On Feb. 20, 1895, Douglass attended a meeting of the National Council of Women, during which he received a standing ovation. Shortly after he returned home, Douglass died of a massive heart attack.

Joe Louis was a professional boxer whose name was originally Joseph Louis Barrow. But as the story goes, in his first fight at the age of 17, he wrote his name so big he could only get his first and middle name in the space. From then on he was known as Joe Louis.

Louis reigned as the world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, but it was his bout on June 22, 1938, against Germany’s Max Schmeling that is most remembered.

Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany was stirring up trouble in Europe, and Schmeling was a symbol of Aryan superiority when he arrived in New York for the fight.

Before the bout, Louis visited the White House, where he talked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.”

With 70,000 people in Yankee Stadium watching and the bout broadcast by radio around the world in at least four languages, Louis defeated Schmeling two minutes and four seconds into the first round.

Louis was a national hero, and he defended his heavyweight crown over the next several years. However, it was on the golf course where Louis would again achieve notoriety.

Louis was an avid golfer and played frequently. In 1952, he broke the color barrier in American golf when he played in a Professional Golf Association tournament. Today, there is a golf course named for him in Riverdale, Illinois.

When Louis died in 1981, President Ronald Reagan said, “Joe Louis was more than a sports legend — his career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of white and black people around the world.”

He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given to civilians by the U.S. legislative branch.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected] timesnews.net .

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