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Frederick Douglass

3 iconic Black civil rights activists born on Valentine's Day

Image: Frederick Douglass | Public Domain

For many people, 14th February is a day to buy lots of chocolate, send a card to a loved one and celebrate romance. However, the celebration of St Valentine isn’t the only thing that makes this particular date special. Here are three vital figures born on Valentine's Day and their contributions to Black History.

1. Frederick Douglass

Born into slavery in 1817 or 1818, Frederick Douglass went on to become one of the most prominently abolitionist leaders of his time. While there is no record of his birth, Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on 14th February every year as he remembered his mother calling him her ‘little Valentine’ as a child.

Separated from his mother as an infant and his maternal grandparents at the age of six, Douglass moved multiple times throughout his early life. Determined to become a free man, he repeatedly attempted to escape his captors until he managed to board a train heading north in September 1838. He arrived in New York less than 24 hours later.

Once established as a free man in Massachusetts, Douglass got to work. While employed as a labourer during the day, he attended abolitionist meetings, gave speeches, and wrote autobiographies detailing his life as an enslaved person. His skill with both the spoken and written word directly contradicted the era’s racist rhetoric and challenged America’s beliefs about the morality of slavery.

Throughout the American Civil War, Douglass fought to ensure that the abolition of slavery and emancipation remained at the forefront of the war’s outcome. He even met with President Lincoln to highlight and challenge that Black troops weren’t receiving fair and equal treatment.

As well as tirelessly fighting for Black rights in America, Douglass was outspoken in his belief in women’s suffrage, and in a speech, stated that he could not accept the right to vote as a Black man if it wasn’t a right that also extended to women.

2. Moneta Sleet

Born on 14th February 1926 in Kentucky, Moneta Sleet was the first black man to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

Cutting his teeth in the field at a young age, Sleet started his career as the editor of his high school newspaper. After serving in an all-Black unit during WWII and graduating with a Master’s degree from New York University, Sleet landed his first journalism role with Ebony magazine in 1955.

Sleet’s 41-year photography career with the magazine documented key and historical moments in the Black rights movements as well as the people behind them. Capturing everything from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Sleet’s photographic insight into the Black Civil Rights movement didn’t just record historic moments but humanised the activists behind them.

3. Charlotta Bass

Born in 1888, Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass was a journalist, activist, and the first African-American woman to own a newspaper, The California Eagle.

After working her way up through the ranks at the paper until she became an editor, Bass purchased the publication at auction for the price of $50 in 1912 - the equivalent of around $1,530 today. Charlotta used The California Eagle to highlight the stories and struggles of African-American people in her area. By 1925 the publication had grown from a four-page tabloid to a 20-page weekly publication with a staff of twelve and a circulation of around 60,000 people.

It wasn’t long before Bass’ journalistic activism caught people’s attention. She was investigated by the FBI for communism, threatened by the US postal service, and received constant backlash from authorities for her advocacy. Despite this, Charlotta persisted, and in 1952 she became the first African-American woman to be nominated for Vice-President when she ran with the Progressive Party’s Vincent Hallinan.

Charlotta worked tirelessly right up to her death to advocate for equality, civil rights, peace, and the right to good jobs and homes for Black Americans.