December 31

On December 31, 1862, known as “Freedom’s Eve,” African Americans came together in churches and homes across the nation to await news that the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free (although this freedom could not be enforced until Union troops were available to do so after the Civil War.) This tradition continues today in Watch Night Services, which were also held by the Moravians in Germany beginning in 1833 as a time of spiritual reflection on the past year and preparation for the year to come. John Wesley adopted the Moravian custom for use by Methodists in 1840.


Amy Jacques Garvey (December 31, 1895 - July 25, 1973), the second wife of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, was a daunting intellectual and social activist in her own right. A gifted journalist, she worked as a columnist for Negro World in Harlem and often discussed the intersectionality of race, gender and class as it pertained to black women. When her husband was sentenced to five years in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for mail fraud, she assumed leadership of UNIA, making  national appearances to raise money for his defense fund and to keep the organization going. After he was deported in 1927, she went with him to Jamaica but later remained on the island with their two children when he went to London.

Selma Burke (December 31, 1900 - August 29, 1995) trained as a nurse in North Carolina and in 1924 moved to New York City to pursue that career. However, the artistic influence of the Harlem Renaissance caused her to renew her childhood interest in sculpture. She did a busts and paintings of many historical figures but is best known for her bas relief of President Franklin D. Roosevelt displayed at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. She established art schools in New York City and  Pittsburgh, where she later lived. Grants from the Rosenwald and other foundations enabled her to earn an MFA from Columbia University in 1941 and she also received a doctorate from Livingston College in 1970.

Frank Marshall Davis (December 31, 1905 - July 26, 1987)  began his career writing for African-American newspapers in Chicago. He moved to Atlanta, where he became the editor of the paper he turned into the Atlanta Daily World, then moved back to Chicago. His poetry work was sponsored by the WPA. He also played a role in the South Side Writers Group. In the memoir Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama mentions a friend of his grandfather named Frank, whom he later identified as Davis. Obama said Davis told him that he and Obama's maternal grandfather Stanley had grown up only 50 miles apart, near Wichita, although they did not meet until Hawaii.

Theresa Harris (December 31, 1906 – October 08, 1985) made her film debut in Thunderbolt, singing the song "Daddy Won't You Please Come Home". Her acting career spanned three decades, during which she played the maid of virtually every leading lady in Hollywood, often in uncredited roles. Aside from maids, she also specialized in playing blues singers, waitresses, tribal women, prostitutes, and hat check girls. She also appeared in several prominent roles for RKO Pictures as she was a favorite of RKO producer Val Lewton who routinely cast African American actors in non-stereotypical roles.

Jonah Jones (born Robert Elliott Jones; December 31, 1909 – April 29, 2000) was a jazz trumpeter who created concise versions of jazz and swing and jazz standards that appealed to a mass audience. In the jazz community, it can be argued that he might be best appreciated for his work with Stuff Smith. He was sometimes referred to as "King Louis II," a reference to Louis Armstrong. Jones started playing alto saxophone at the age of 12 in the Booker T. Washington Community Center band in Louisville, Kentucky before quickly transitioning to trumpet, where he excelled.

Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008), known as Odetta, was an American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter, and a civil and human rights activist, often referred to as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement". Her musical repertoire consisted largely of American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals. An important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, she influenced many of the key figures of the folk-revival of that time, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, and Janis Joplin. Time included her song "Take This Hammer" on its list of the All-Time 100 Songs, stating that "Rosa Parks was her No. 1 fan, and Martin Luther King Jr. called her the queen of American folk music."

Rosalind Cash (December 31, 1938 - October 31, 1995) is best known for her role as Lisa in The Omega Man (1971) opposite Charlton Heston, Soap opera viewers will remember  her as Mary Mae Ward on General Hospital during the mid-nineties. She was an original member of the Negro Ensemble Company, founded in 1968. In 1973, she played the role of Goneril in King Lear at the New York Shakespeare Festival alongside James Earl Jones's Lear.

Dorothy Fields (born December 31, 1942) is a local historian and archivist responsible for founding the Black Archives Foundation of South Florida, Inc. which is dedicated to preserving the history of the Overtown section of Miami.  From her efforts, the city of Miami later designated the community of Overtown as a National Trust “Main Street” community. Overtown is officially named the Historic Overtown Folklife Village. Fields is also responsible for the successful restoration of the landmark Lyric Theater located in Overtown.

Donna Summer (December 31, 1948- May 17, 2012) was a five-time Grammy Award winner, the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach No. 1 on the United States Billboard 200, and charted four number-one singles in the U.S. within a 12-month period. She reportedly sold over 140 million records , making her one of the world's best-selling artists of all time. Widely known as the "Queen of Disco", she was a 2013 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Gabrielle Christina Victoria "Gabby" Douglas (born December 31, 1995) is an American artistic gymnast. As a member of the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team at the 2012 Summer Olympics, she won gold medals in both the individual and team all-around competitions. Douglas is the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion, and the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics.


On December 31, 1972, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane crash while delivering relief supplies after an earthquake to Managua, Nicaragua from his native Puerto Rico where he regularly spent the off-season. Clemente was accompanying the goods personally so they wouldn't be diverted by corrupt governments officals as three earlier shipments reportedly had been. The DC-7 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff. Clemente had gotten his 3,000 hit in his last plate appearance the previous fall, and the Baseball Writers' Association of America held a special election for the Baseball Hall of Fame. They voted to waive the waiting period for Clemente due to the circumstances of his death, and posthumously elected him for induction into the Hall of Fame

December 31 is the seventh day of Kwanzaa. The guiding principle for the day is Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah), or creativity -- to do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful than when we inherited it.

Photo Gallery

Evening of  December 31, 1973. Malick Sidibé

Jet Magazine, December 31, 1953

Caroline Edwards is Miss Sepia Philadelphia of 1953
Jet Magazine, December 31, 1953

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