Black History Month at Humu:  Celebrating Black leadership, excellence, and courage

Caroline Dillon

Each February, we celebrate Black History Month at Humu with a series of internal panel discussions and presentations. This year, members of our team paid tribute to the following topics and individuals.

A short history of Black American Music

Many of the foundational elements of modern music can be traced to traditions born in Africa, including polyrhythms, blue notes, and call-and-response forms. Centuries of slavery and struggle shaped Black American Music, from field hollers and work songs to spirituals and songs of resistance. 

The story of the banjo is emblematic of Black American Music. The Americana staple is a direct descendant of West African instruments fashioned from gourds, animal fibers, and bamboo. Banjos have been a long-standing fixture of Black American Music, with little crossover into white culture until the 1800s. By the mid-1800s, banjos were common in blackface minstrel shows and began to gain widespread popularity in America. While associated with “whiter” styles of music today, the banjo played a pivotal role in the creation of Black American Music styles including Blues and Jazz. 

Similarly, though Black artists are responsible for the rich and diverse array of American Music, they are often omitted from the narrative. Instead, white musicians have historically received credit for their ingenuity where it hasn’t been due. 

Take Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also known as the Godmother of Rock & Roll. Sister Rosetta, born in 1915, was an innovative musician whose unique style and blending of genres shaped the direction of modern music. Billed primarily as a Gospel artist, she pioneered the sound of distorted electric guitar and up-tempo, energetic Rhythm & Blues.

“Oh, these kids and rock and roll – this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.” - Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Her groundbreaking music and performances inspired many artists commonly given credit for creating Rock & Roll, as well as many “guitar heroes” of the 1960s. Her 1944 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day” has been called the first Rock & Roll record; it was also the first Gospel record to cross over.

Meet Mellody Hobson, Co-CEO and President of Ariel Investments   

Mellody Hobson is a trailblazing financial leader and model for how to run a better, more diverse business.

Mellody is the co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments, the oldest black-owned investment fund with $16.8 billion in assets, and sits on the boards of Starbucks and JPMorgan Chase. She previously served as Chairman of DreamWorks Animation, where she helped facilitate the company’s sale to Comcast, and was also a long-standing board member of the Estée Lauder Companies.

Mellody was the youngest of six and was raised by a single mother. Her family faced significant adversity, including multiple evictions. Mellody grew up to become a lifelong advocate for financial literacy, calling it the key to generations of success, and is deeply committed to philanthropy. 

In October 2020, Mellody made a donation to establish a new residential college at her alma mater, Princeton University (where she met John Rogers, founder of Ariel Investments). The college house was formerly named for President Woodrow Wilson and will be the first at Princeton to be named after a Black woman. 

“My hope is that my name will remind future generations of students — especially those who are Black and brown and the ‘firsts’ in their families — that they too belong. Renaming Wilson College is my very personal way of letting them know that our past does not have to be our future.” - Mellody Hobson

In February of this year, Mellody announced “Project Black,” a private equity fund—that is 5x the size of a typical starting fund—designed to support minority leadership. The first company funded by Project Black went from having 1 person of color on the board to 13.  

To learn more about Mellody, we recommend her TED Talk “Color blind or color brave?” which has been viewed almost 5 million times.   

The landmark ruling and legacy of Loving vs. Virginia

In the 1950s, more than half of the US (including all southern states) had laws restricting interracial marriage, known as the Racial Integrity Acts of 1924. Breaking these laws could result in up to 5 years in jail, the legal reasoning being that the law punished both parties “equally.” This precedent came from centuries of state anti-miscegenation laws, upheld by the 1888 Supreme Court ruling (Maynard v. Hill)  reinforcing state authority to constitutionally regulate marriage. 

It took years for these racist laws to be effectively challenged by one incredible couple: Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving. 

Mildred, a woman of Black and Indigenous heritage, and Richard, a white construction worker, fell in love and married in Washington D.C. on June 2nd, 1958. They returned home to Caroline County, Virginia, where they were arrested in the middle of the night on July 14th, 1958. Richard was held in jail overnight while the pregnant Mildred was forced to stay for several days.

On January 6th, 1959, the Lovings were prosecuted and Judge Leon M. Bazile sentenced each to a one-year jail term at a state penitentiary. However, they were told their sentences would be suspended if they agreed to leave the state and not return for 25 years.

The Lovings left their home in Virginia and moved to Washington D.C. to raise their three children. 

Wanting to return home, Mildred wrote a letter to the US Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963 asking for help. Kennedy referred their case to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) where Attorneys Philip J. Hirschkop and Bernard S. Cohen agreed to defend them. 

On February 11th 1965, Cohen and Hirschkop attempted to appeal the conviction at Virginina’s Supreme Court of Appeals in Richmond, but were ultimately denied on March 7th, 1966.  

The ACLU attornies brought the Loving v. Virginia case to the US Supreme Court on April 10th, 1967. Virginia’s assistant attorney argued that the “logic” of anti-miscegenation was too similar to laws prohibiting incest and polygamy. Cohen and Hirschkop argued that the statute was illegal and violated the 14th amendment which granted all citizens Equal Protection and Due Process. Hirsckop also stated that the laws were rooted in racism and not “not health and welfare laws.” They were, in fact, slavery laws.

The US Supreme Court voted unanimously in favor of the Lovings on June 12th, 1967. The historic ruling declared Virginia’s law prohibiting mixed-race marriage unconstitutional and legalized interracial marriage in every state. Unfortunately, it would take until 2000, another 33 years, for all states to completely erase anti-miscegenation laws from their books. 

“I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” - Mildred Loving

Loving vs. Virginia paved the way for the Supreme Court’s marriage equality rulings—United States vs. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell vs. Hodges (2015). June 12th is now nationally recognized as “Loving Day.”

Meet Bayard Rustin, Founder of the Congress of Racial Equality 

Bayard Rustin was one of the most influential activists of the Civil Rights Movement and an important advisor to Martin Luther King Jr.  

Bayard was one of twelve children and was raised by his grandparents in West Chester, Pennsylvania. As a child, he interacted with civil rights leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune. Mary founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls in 1904 with $1.50 and set the foundation for Historically Black Colleges and Universities today.

While in college, Bayard was drawn to the Young Communist League’s commitment to racial justice, but later distanced himself from the party when it de-emphasized civil rights activity. After leaving the YCL, Bayard founded the Congress of the Racial Equality (CORE) and began organizing campaigns and leading workshops on nonviolent direct action. 

Bayard was brought up in the Quaker religious tradition, which inspired a lifelong commitment to nonviolence. He traveled to India in 1948 to study Gandhian nonviolent philosophy for seven weeks. His commitment to nonviolence was so strong that he spent two years in prison as a conscientious objector during WWII.

With other CORE leaders, Bayard founded the Freedom Rides in 1947 to protest racial segregation on buses in the South. This provided the model for the 1961 Freedom Rides, also led by CORE, which ended when one of the buses was bombed by the KKK in Anniston, Alabama with the sanction of the local police department. 

In the early 1950s, Bayard became an important advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. Bayard helped him and other civil rights leaders plan the Montgomery bus boycott that was sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks. Bayard mentored Martin Luther King Jr. in nonviolent philosophy, who had only an “academic familiarity” with Gandhi prior to meeting Bayard. Martin Luther King Jr. invited Bayard to serve as one of his advisors despite knowing that his background would be controversial to other civil rights leaders. Bayard eventually drafted much of Martin Luther King Jr.’s memoir, “Stride Toward Freedom,” but did not want be credited in the book, telling an associate he “did not feel that he should bear this kind of burden.”

In December 1956, Bayard proposed the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to Martin Luther King Jr. to facilitate broader direct action campaigns after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. SCLC would go on to be one of the most important organizations in the civil rights movement and, later, in the Poor People’s Campaign.

In 1963, Bayard began organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was appointed deputy director of the march, despite the concerns of other civil rights leaders. The March brought over 200,000 participants to Washington and was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream" speech. 

Toward the end of his life, Bayard shifted his focus to issues of economic justice and gay rights. In 1953, Bayard was arrested in California for “homosexual activity” and spent 50 days in jail, where he was forced to register as a sex offender. In 2020, Bayard was pardoned by California Governor Gavin Newsom for his 1953 conviction. Bayard was the first person to bring the AIDS crisis to the attention of the NAACP in 1987. 

 Bayard was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013. 

“For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that. But today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.” - President Barack Obama

Black history is American history 

In the words of Reigan Combs, our VP of Marketing, “Black history is American history, but the responsibility often falls on Black individuals to tell and celebrate it.”

Black history matters 365 days a year, and we are honored to center, learn from, and celebrate stories of Black leadership, excellence, and courage.