With three children in tow, Jessie and her husband settled into a home on Colgate Street in a neighborhood known as “Brick City” – an idyllic enclave of single, working-class families with a shared community garden.
The plan was simple. Like many African Americans who left the South as part of the Great Migration, Jessie’s husband, Obadiah Sr., would find a stable factory job just outside of Detroit. Then Jessie would put to use the bachelor’s degree she had earned in upper elementary education from Grambling State University in the township of Taylor – just a few blocks from their new home.
But the plan went awry. Jessie first applied for a teaching position with the Taylor school district in April 1958, but was denied. The same thing happened in March 1959. And a third time in May 1959. The repeated denials may have set back Jessie’s plans, but they also set her up to fight an important battle for justice for black educators at a time when many were being pushed out of the teaching profession.
I interviewed Jessie’s family as part of my ongoing research into the history of black women teachers from the Reconstruction Era to the 21st century.
The battle began when Jessie filed a grievance with the Michigan Fair Employment Practices Commission, or MFEPC, on Sept. 1, 1959. Jessie’s grievance detailed her conversation with the superintendent Orville Jones in March 1958, in which he told her “there would be vacancies in 1959.”
In August 1958, the Taylor Township Board of Education – the body overseeing the school district where Jessie wanted to teach – took up the matter of employing Negro teachers at a board meeting. The reason the item was placed on the agenda? The Superintendent at the time, Orville Jones, “felt that any handicap” – he deemed race as a handicap – “be pointed out to the board.”
The chair of the school board, Mr. Randall, stated applications were “considered in the order of the dates they were received.” Since the Taylor school board was now on record regarding its hiring practices for teachers, Jessie used that statement in her grievance.
Jessie’s decision to file a grievance would be a costly one for her family. The couple had planned on two steady incomes. In 1959, now a mother of five children, Jessie took a job as a waitress and a cook in a cafe to make ends meet. Her job drew scorn from family members in Louisiana who knew she was severely underemployed. And though her children didn’t know it at the time, Jessie and her husband “gave up meals so the children could eat,” according to Jessie’s oldest son, Obidiah Jr.
In 1960 the MFEPC held a public hearing for the grievance filed by Jessie and Mary Ruth Ross – a second black teacher who was also denied employment by the Taylor board of education. According to the Detroit Courier, Jessie and Mary “were passed over for employment in favor of white applicants who lacked degrees.” Records uncovered by the MFEPC found that 42 non-degreed teachers hired between 1957 through 1960 were all white and “had a maximum of 60 hours of college credits.” Jessie and Mary, on the other hand, were both degreed teachers with some credits toward a graduate degree.
How the Brown decision hurt black teachers
While the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision is often celebrated and considered a legal victory, many scholars believe it had a harmful effect on black teachers. In 1951, scholars writing in the Journal of Negro Education rightly warned that Brown “might conceivably” impact “Negro teachers”. Nationwide, school district leaders pushed back against Brown in two ways.
First, school leaders slow-walked the implementation of Brown – for many school districts as late as the mid-1980s. Second, black teachers across the country lost their once-secure teaching jobs by the tens of thousands after Brown when black schools closed and black children integrated into white schools. In the South, for example, the number of black teachers had soared to around 90,000 pre-Brown. But by 1965 nearly half had lost their jobs. A 1965 report from the National Education Association, a leading labor union for teachers, concluded school districts had “no place for Negroes” in the wake of Brown. School officials railed against Brown and refused to hire black teachers like Jessie, turning them into what sociologist Oliver Cox described as “martyrs to integration.”
My own research confirms that the forced exodus of black women from the teaching profession was ignited by Brown. Discrimination by school leaders fueled the demographic decline of black teachers and remains one of the leading factors for their under-representation in the profession today.
First ruling of its kind
At the eight-day public hearing, Jones admitted that “the hiring of Negro teachers would be something new and different and something we had not done before.” He stated he felt that the Negro teachers were “not up to par.” The hearing eventually revealed that applications for “Negroes” were kept in distinct folders – separated from the submissions of the white applicants.
After more than a year, the MFEPC issued a ruling in Jessie’s case. The decision got a brief mention from Jet Magazine on Dec. 1, 1960:
In the first ruling of its kind, the MFEPC ordered the Taylor Township School Board to hire Mrs. Mary Ruth Ross and Mrs. Jessie Simmons, two Negro teachers, and pay them back wages for the school years of 1959-60 and 1960-61. FEPC Commissioner Allan A. Zaun said the teachers were refused employment on the basis of race.
The attorney for the Taylor board of education, Harry F. Vellmure, threatened to challenge the ruling in court – all the way “to the Supreme Court if necessary,” according to the Detroit Courier. The board stuck to its position that Jessie and Mary were given full and fair consideration for teaching jobs and simply lost out to better-qualified teachers.
As a result of noncompliance with the MFEPC’s order, Carl Levin, future U.S. senator and general counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Taylor school district on Jessie’s and Mary’s behalf. Even though the matter did not reach higher courts, Vellmure filed several appeals that effectively slowed down the commission’s order for seven years.
As the lawsuit dragged on, Jessie became an elementary school teacher with the Sumpter School District in 1961. By 1965, she left Sumpter for the Romulus Community School District. According to Jessie’s children, they would continue in the Taylor school district and were known as the kids “whose mother filed the lawsuit against the school district.”
In 1967, after seven years of fighting the Taylor school district in local court, Jessie and Mary prevailed. They were awarded two years back pay and teaching positions. Saddled by hurt feelings after a long fight with the Taylor school district, Jessie declined the offer and continued teaching in Romulus.
The Simmons moved into a larger, newly constructed home on Lehigh Avenue. Jessie gave birth to her sixth child, Kimberly, one month before moving in. Although the new home was only two blocks south of their old home on Colgate Avenue, Jessie’s four surviving children recall that their lifestyle improved and their childhood was now defined by two eras: “before lawsuit life and after lawsuit life.” And by 1968, Jessie earned a master’s degree in education from Eastern Michigan University.
Unsung civil rights hero
At her retirement in 1986, Jessie’s former students recalled that she was an effective teacher of 30 years who was known as a disciplinarian with a profound sense of commitment to the children of Romulus.
Jessie’s story is a reminder that the civil rights movement did not push society to a better version of itself with a singular, vast wave toward freedom. Rather, it was fashioned by little ripples of courage with one person, one schoolteacher, at a time.
The first meeting of what would later become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took place in 1905 in Fort Erie near Niagara Falls, Canada. Legendary thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois attended.
Although the social justice movement for the advancement of Black Americans was initially named the Niagara Movement, based on that first meeting in Canada, there was no mention of Black Canadians at this historic meeting.
The story of this meeting helps to demonstrate the ongoing invisibility of Black Canadians both within Canada, across North America and internationally.
Given the strong geographical connection between Canada and the U.S., it is reasonable to question why Black Canadians are missing from the Niagara Movement’s historical narrative.
Their absence in this history highlights the erasure of the contributions of Indigenous, Black people and other racialized peoples in Canada. This Canadian historical narrative, as Canadian sociologist Rinaldo Walcott suggests, has effectively “invisibilized” the Black presence in Canada.
In his book, Black Like Who?, Walcott speculates that the NAACP disallowed Black Canadians from attending this first meeting, despite their attempts to engage in dialogue with the organizers. Walcott writes that there were Black people in Canada who had both heard of and wanted to participate in the movement. However, he believes they were not welcomed.
Many know that Black Americans faced racist laws meant to segregate and oppress their existence, but many do not realize that Black Canadians also faced the hardship of anti-Black racism or the extent to which they suffered.
Cooper’s example helps to demonstrate the Canadian settler social conditions where Black people are assumed to be guilty.
The urgent need for a social justice movement
Black people in both Canada and the United States have encountered, and continue to face, a white settler terrain that loathes Blackness. After the Civil War, the United States Congress passed laws to support newly freed African-Americans but in the decades that followed, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that set back those efforts.
By 1905, the need for a social movement for African-Americans was urgent.
The NAACP would become the vehicle to increase the social citizenship of Black people in America, especially during the early 1900s, when the race divide cut deep and afflicted the social, political and economic conditions of Black folk.
U.S. segregation laws in the 1900s made holding meetings in hotels impossible. Efforts to hold the original meeting in Buffalo, New York were thwarted by a social climate that was simmering with racial hostility toward Black Americans. In historical notes, Buffalo’s NAACP chapter president, Rev. Mark Blue, mentioned that Black American thinkers were accepted by the management of the Erie Hotel, near Niagara Falls, Ont.
Why were Black Americans but not Black Canadians allowed at this historic meeting? Who disallowed them to enter? Was it the hotel managers? Was it the organizers? Were they there but perhaps not mentioned?
Invisible in Canada
Canada often characterizes itself as a haven for Black slaves of the American South, but it does so without acknowledging its own participation in the Black slave industry.
A seldom mentioned historical fact is that Canada has its own Black slave history. Prior to abolition, Black enslavement existed in Canada until it was abolished throughout British North America.
Before the Niagara Movement, the Canadian region was the site of safer passage of Blacks fleeing slavery in the United States. Heroic figures like Harriet Tubman travelled through Niagara, Canada to bring slaves to a better life in northern North America. Yet, as Walcott points out, there is little or no reference to these facts in the historical commentaries on the Niagara Movement.
The lack of information about these histories is another form of anti-Black racism that exists in Canada. Canada has adopted a policy of erasure when it comes to acknowledging the history and contributions of its Indigenous and Black peoples.
Many scholars have asserted the importance of continued Black Canadian cultural studies. The power politics of whose work gets published, and where, and the absence of Black, Indigenous and racialized histories have reinforced Black invisibility.
It is necessary to critically engage on historical notions of Blackness and the “cross border political identification” of Black Canadians and Americans. By recognizing that both Black Canadian and American historical episodes of anti-Black racism are similar, we question how the white settler terrain has convinced mainstream society to believe one is worse than the other.
This is an updated version of a story originally published on Feb. 14, 2019. It clarifies the location of the Niagara Movement’s first meeting.
In this April 10, 2018, file photo, Historic Jamestown staff archaeologist Lee McBee displays artifacts as he talks with visitors at the dig site of the Angelo slave house in Jamestown, Va. A few historical markers and records mention these early slaves, but there’s been scant research on their lives. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
The first Africans to arrive in English-controlled North America were so little noted by history that many are known today by only their first names: Antony and Isabella, Angelo, Frances and Peter.
Almost 400 years ago, they were kidnapped and forcibly sailed across the ocean aboard three slave ships — the San Juan Bautista, the White Lion and the Treasurer — and then sold into bondage in Virginia.
Now their descendants, along with historians and genealogists, are seeking recognition for a group of 20-some Africans they describe as critical to the survival of Jamestown, England’s first successful settlement in North America.
“We need to reclaim our history. We need to tell our story,” said Calvin Pearson, head of Project 1619 , which is named after the year those first Africans landed near what became Hampton, Virginia.
A few historical markers and records mention these early slaves, but there’s been scant research on their lives. President Barack Obama made the area where they arrived a national monument in 2011 to ensure that its history was not lost, and Pearson and others are working to learn more.
Before the slaves arrived, Jamestown was starving. “Basically all of those people were right off of the streets in England,” said Kathryn Knight, who in May will release a book titled “Unveiled – The Twenty & Odd: Documenting the First Africans in England’s America 1619-1625 and Beyond.”
Those colonists “didn’t know how to grow anything. They didn’t know how to manage livestock. They didn’t know anything about survival in Virginia,” Knight said. The Africans “saved them by being able to produce crops, by being able to manage the livestock. They kept them alive.”
The slaves’ arrival marked the beginning of the region’s fractured relationship with blacks. More than two centuries later, Virginia became home to the Confederate capital, and in the last week its governor has been pressured to resign for a racist photo that appeared on his page in a 1984 yearbook.
The new arrivals were Catholic and many spoke multiple languages, according to Ric Murphy, an author and descendant of John Gowan, one of the Angolan captives.
In this Feb. 1, 2019 photo, Mark Summers, a historian at Historic Jamestowne poses for a photo in Jamestown, Va. Summers leads tourists down paths once used by Angelo, also known as Angela, who was one of the first Africans to arrive in North America. Although there’s not much known about Angela, Summers said being able to show people where she lived and the grounds she walked is a spiritual experience for some. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
They came from a royal city and “were quite informed and educated, and several of them, based upon what they did in the latter part of their years, clearly were leaders in the community in one form or the other,” Murphy said. “Many of them became landowners, which is quite different from the false narrative of what an enslaved person was.”
In Jamestown, historian Mark Summers leads tourists down paths that Angelo — also known as Angela — walked after being sold to a Captain William Pierce.
Like many of that first group, her life is largely a mystery. In fact, her entire known biography “could probably fit on a 3×5 index card,” Summers said. But being able to show people where she lived and walked is a spiritual experience for some, he said.
For African-Americans, “this is the same thing as going to Plymouth Rock,” said Summers, who works at the Historic Jamestowne park. “Here’s a place where you can stand and say, ‘We set foot here, and we can still walk this ground.'”
The first Africans were among more than 300 taken out of the Ndongo region of Angola, a Portuguese colony of mostly Catholic Africans, on the San Juan Bautista bound for Mexico. That ship was attacked and plundered by the White Lion and the Treasurer, which together seized about 60 slaves. After stopping in the Caribbean and trading some of the slaves for provisions, the White Lion sailed for Virginia with its human cargo.
Englishman John Rolfe, who would later marry Pocahontas, documented the White Lion’s arrival at what was then called Point Comfort.
“He brought not anything but 20, and odd Negars, which the Governor and Cape Merchant bought for victualle,” Rolfe wrote in a letter in January 1620, meaning that the colony purchased the slaves with provisions.
A 1620 census showed 17 African women and 15 African men in Jamestown.
Although sold into servitude, many of those original Angolans fared better than the millions of African slaves who came to North America later, said John Thorton, a Boston University professor of African American studies and history.
“They had a better chance at a better future than almost anybody who followed them because they were the first,” Thorton said. “A lot of them ended up owning property, and they ended up owning slaves of their own.”
By intermingling with the English colonists, some had children who ended up passing for white and merging into early colonial society, Thorton said.
Some, like the Catholic John Pedro, met with tragedy, Pearson said.
Pedro “ended up owning quite a bit of land in Virginia. When the English Civil War broke out, it was Protestants versus Catholics,” Pearson said. Pedro moved to Maryland to live with other Catholics, but he was captured in a battle and executed.
Antony and Isabella became servants for a Captain William Tucker, gained their freedom around 1635 and started a homestead in Kent County, Virginia, Pearson said. Around 1623, they had a son named William Tucker who “became the first documented African child born in English-occupied North America.”
Descendants of Antony and Isabella are buried at a Hampton cemetery that has been in use since the 1600s, Pearson said.
Knight has a different interpretation of those early records, concluding that Frances gave birth to Peter first, making him the first African child born in Virginia.
Described in later records as a “Negro carpenter,” Peter married and received his freedom with the promise of paying 10,000 pounds of tobacco to his master around 1676. He made the last payment in 1682, Knight said.
Murphy, who wrote “Freedom Road: An American Family Saga from Jamestown to World War,” said it’s important for black people to know about these first Africans because it “helps us have more ownership of American history.”
Pearson, whose organization plans to honor the anniversary of the Africans’ arrival on Aug. 24, agrees.
“From here, we see the beginnings of the Africa imprint on what would become the United States of America. It’s worth remembering.”
Crowding the plate, fearsome and fearless, Frank Robinson hammered his way into the Hall of Fame.
His legacy, however, was cemented that day in 1975 when he simply stood in the dugout at old Cleveland Stadium — the first black manager in Major League Baseball.
Robinson, the only player to earn the MVP award in both leagues and a Triple Crown winner, died Thursday at 83. He had been in failing health and in hospice care at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. MLB said he was with family and friends at the time.
“Frank Robinson’s resume in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.
Robinson hit 586 home runs — he was fourth on the career list behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays when he retired and now ranks 10th. An MVP with Cincinnati and Baltimore, he led the Orioles to their first World Series championship in 1966.
“Frank Robinson and I were more than baseball buddies. We were friends. Frank was a hard-nosed baseball player who did things on the field that people said could never be done,” Aaron posted on Twitter.
“Baseball will miss a tremendous human being,” he said.
An All-Star outfielder in 12 seasons and a first-ballot selection to Cooperstown, Robinson also was a Rookie of the Year, a Gold Glove outfielder and a bruising runner.
But his place in the sport’s history extended far beyond the batter’s box and basepaths.
Robinson fulfilled his quest to become the first African-American manager in the big leagues when he was hired by the Cleveland Indians. His impact was immediate and memorable.
The Indians opened at home that year and Robinson, still active, batted himself second as the designated hitter. In the first inning, he homered off Doc Medich and the crowd went crazy, cheering the whole April afternoon as Cleveland beat the Yankees.
The Reds, Orioles and Indians have retired his No. 20 and honored him with statues at their stadiums.
Robinson later managed San Francisco, Baltimore and Montreal. He became the first manager of the Washington Nationals after the franchise moved from Montreal for the 2005 season — the Nationals put him in their Ring of Honor.
More than half the major league teams have had black managers since his debut with Cleveland.
Robinson later spent several years working as an executive for MLB and for a time oversaw the annual Civil Rights Game. He advocated for more minorities throughout baseball and worked with former Commissioner Bud Selig to develop the Selig Rule, directing teams to interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a new manager.
For all he did on and off the field, Robinson was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005.
“Frank Robinson’s wife, Barbara Ann Cole, once said, “He believes in rules and he respects the game. He reveres the game,'” Bush said in a statement. “When I presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, I noted that ‘Baseball fans across America will tell you the feeling is returned. In the game we love, few names will ever command as much respect and esteem as the name of Frank Robinson.'”
Brooks Robinson, a fellow first-ballot Hall of Famer, said he spoke to his Baltimore teammate and longtime friend a few days ago.
“He was the best player I ever played with,” he said.
Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre played against and worked with Frank Robinson for years.
“He was a tough nut,” Torre recalled at the owners’ meetings in Orlando, Florida. “He never lost that feistiness, which puts a smile on your face … He was always that guy that commanded a lot of respect and he had a presence about him.”
Born Aug. 21, 1935, in Beaumont, Texas, Robinson attended McClymonds High School in Oakland, California, and was a basketball teammate of future NBA great Bill Russell. But it was on the diamond, rather than court, where fame awaited Robinson.
“We all know we lost one of the Greats,” Russell tweeted.
Starting out in an era when Mays, Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams were the big hitters, Robinson more than held his own over 21 seasons — if anything, many who watched Robinson felt he never got his full due as an all-time great. He finished with 1,812 RBIs and hit .294 — he played in the World Series five times, and homered in each of them.
Robinson was the only player to hit a ball completely out of old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and once connected for grand slams in consecutive innings of a game. But he didn’t just slug away, as evidenced by a .389 on-base average boosted by 1,420 walks against 1,532 strikeouts. Extremely alert on the bases, he had 204 steals.
Robinson played the game with grace, yet was known as fierce competitor who combined hard work with natural talent. He planted himself near the plate, yielding to no pitcher, and didn’t seem to care about being brushed back or getting hit by a pitch 198 times.
“Pitchers did me a favor when they knocked me down,” Robinson said. “It made me more determined. I wouldn’t let that pitcher get me out.”
And opposing pitchers noticed.
“Frank Robinson might have been the best I ever saw at turning his anger into runs. He challenged you physically as soon as he stepped into the batter’s box, with half his body hanging over the plate,” Hall ace Bob Gibson once wrote.
“As a rule, I’m reluctant to express admiration for hitters, but I make an exception for Frank Robinson,” Gibson wrote.
Robinson carried a similar philosophy as a baserunner, unapologetically sliding spikes high whenever necessary.
“The baselines belong to the runner, and whenever I was running the bases, I always slid hard,” Robinson declared.
Robinson broke in with a bang as a 20-year-old big leaguer. He tied the first-year record with 38 home runs for Cincinnati in 1956, scored a league-high 122 times and was voted NL Rookie of the Year.
Robinson was the 1961 NL MVP after batting .323 with 37 homers and 124 RBIs for the pennant-winning Reds, and reached career highs in runs (134) and RBIs (136) in 1962.
All-time hits leader Pete Rose joined the Reds the next year.
“He had a huge influence on me when I first came up in ’63,” Rose told The Associated Press by phone. “Frank was a really aggressive, hard-nosed player, and it rubbed off on everybody. Frank was the one who took me under his wings, so to speak. … Frank consistently talked to me about playing the game the right way,” he said.
Robinson was an All-Star, too, in 1965, but Reds owner Bill DeWitt decided Robinson was an old-ish 30 and time to make a move.
That December, Robinson was the centerpiece in what would ultimately be one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history, going to Baltimore for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson.
Robinson became an instant hit with the Orioles in 1966 as the unanimous AL MVP and a Triple Crown winner.
On May 8, he became the only player ever to hit a home run completely out of Baltimore’s home park, Memorial Stadium. The drive came against Cleveland ace Luis Tiant and the spot where the ball sailed over the left-field wall was marked by a flag that read “HERE” that remained in place until the Orioles left for Camden Yards in 1991.
Robinson batted .316 with 49 home runs and 122 RBIs during his first season in Birdland. He then homered in the first inning of the 1966 World Series opener at Dodger Stadium and capped off the four-game sweep of Los Angeles with another homer off Don Drysdale in a 1-0 win in Game 4.
Robinson hit two home runs against Rose and the Reds to help win another crown for the Orioles in 1970.
All told, Robinson was an All-Star in five of his six seasons with Baltimore, reaching the World Series four times and batting .300 with 179 home runs. The cap on his Cooperstown plaque carries on O’s logo.
Pappas went 30-29 over two-plus seasons with the Reds, Baldschun won one game in 51 appearances over two years with Cincinnati and Simpson hit five home runs as a part-time outfielder for the Reds during two mediocre seasons.
Robinson was traded to the Dodgers before the 1972 season. He played for the California Angels in 1973 and was dealt to Cleveland late in the 1974 season.
His managerial debut came 28 years after Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier as a player.
“Every time I put on this uniform, I think of Jackie Robinson,” Frank Robinson said as he began his new role.
Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and daughter Sharon paid tribute.
“Frank Robinson was a dear friend and realized one of Jack’s great hopes, becoming baseball’s first African-American manager. He was remarkable and made us all feel proud for his many contributions to baseball and to society,” they said together in a statement.
Robinson had coached for the Orioles and worked in their front office when he became their manager in 1988 after the team opened at 0-6. Things didn’t get much better right away as Baltimore went on to lose its first 21 games and finished 54-107. The next season, the O’s went 87-75 and Robinson was voted AL Manager of the Year.
Tough and demanding, he went 1,065-1,176 overall as a big league manager.
A no-nonsense guy, Robinson also had a sharp wit. That served him well in Baltimore where, in addition to being a star right fielder, he was the judge for the team’s Kangaroo Court, assessing playful fines for missing signs, uniform mishaps and other things he deemed as infractions.
At the time, the Orioles had a batboy named Jay Mazzone, whose hands were amputated when he was 2 after a burning accident. Mazzone capably did his job for years with metal hooks and became good friends with Robinson.
Some players, though, initially weren’t sure how to treat the teen.
“Frank Robinson broke the ice,” Mazzone said. “He was running his Kangaroo Court and calling a vote among the players, whether to fine somebody or not.”
“It was either thumbs up or thumbs down,” he recalled. “After the vote, he said, ‘Jay, you’re fined for not voting.’ Everybody laughed. After that, I was treated just like everybody else.”
Survivors include his wife, Barbara, and daughter Nichelle.
There was no immediate word on funeral arrangements. The family said in lieu of flowers, contributions in his Robinson’s memory could be made to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, or the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.
AP Sports Writer Joe Kay and AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this report.