Historic Events

Fort Pillow Massacre

Fort Pillow Massacre

Fort Pillow Massacre

On April 12, 1864 Confederate troops, commanded by General Bedford Forrest, attacked Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Union troops holding the fort were outnumbered and no match for the 1500-2500 Confederate soldiers attacking them.

Although there was not an official surrender it was pretty obvious that the Union soldiers were defeated and had given up. Many threw down their arms and rushed to the nearby river to get away. 300 Union troops, most of whom were black, were killed unnecessarily and many of the black soldiers were shot in the head at point-blank range.

A surviving white soldier described the battle this way:

From where I fell wounded, I could plainly see this firing and note the bullets striking the water around the black heads of the soldiers, until suddenly the muddy current became red and I saw another life sacrificed in the cause of the Union. Here I noticed one soldier in the river, but in some way clinging to the bank. Two confederate soldiers pulled him out. He seemed to be wounded and crawled on his hands and knees. Finely one of the confederate soldiers placed his revolver to the head of the colored soldier and killed him. (Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Another surviving white soldier said:

I saw one of the rebels and told him I would surrender. He said, “We do not shoot white men.”  … He ordered me away; he kept on shooting the negroes (Source: US Capitol)

In May 1864 the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of War conducted an investigation. The committee concluded that Confederate soldiers killed most of the Union soldiers after they had surrendered.

Soldiers serving under Forrest did not accept the conclusion and maintained their claim that Union soldiers kept their weapons and fired back at the Confederate army while fleeing.

The controversy surrounding the battle at Fort Pillow continues today. Historians agree a massacre did occur, but differ in their conclusions over whether the killings were premeditated or occurred in the heat of battle.

Note: Nathan Bedford Forrest was a planter and made a fortune dealing in cotton, land and slaves. After the war he was associated with the Ku Klux Klan and was allegedly its first Grand Wizard. Forrest denied that allegation during Congressional testimony in 1871.

Freedom Riders

Freedom RidesIn May 1961, a group of Black and white men and women left Washington, DC on two public buses. The group was traveling to states in the south to test the United States Supreme Court decision that “segregation in interstate bus and rail stations was unconstitutional.”

The bus trip was organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The trip was the beginning of what became known as the Freedom Rides.

During the trip, white people in the group sat in the back of the buses. Black people in the group sat in the front. At rest stops the white riders went into the “Black-only” areas and Black riders went into the “white-only” areas.

While traveling through the northern part of the south the Freedom Riders did not have any problems. However, things changed when they reached what is considered the deep south.

In Anniston, Alabama one of the buses was met by a mob of angry white people. The mob threw rocks at the bus and slashed the tires. The driver was able to drive away but when he stopped to change tires the bus was firebombed.

Riders on the second bus were approached by an angry crowd of white people in Birmingham, Alabama. Many of the Freedom Riders were beaten and some pretty badly.

Even though there was violence the Freedom Riders got a lot of support. Others joined the group and the Freedom Rides continued through the summer. More than 300 Riders were arrested and spent much of the summer in jails in the south.

The Freedom Riders never made it to New Orleans, which was their original goal. In the end that didn’t matter because the Rides became known and talked about around the country. They even got the attention of the White House and President Kennedy. Because of all the attention, the Freedom Riders could not be ignored. They forced President Kennedy to deal what what the Riders were trying to accomplish and talk about civil rights in the country.

The Freedom Rides also led to a an important ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission. The commission made segregation in interstate bus travel illegal. The ruling was a win for the Freedom Riders and Black Americans.

Historic Elections

olHistoric Elections5 Historic Elections

Who Made History?


This blog post highlights historic elections and trailblazing African Americans elected to key positions in government. They include the first blacks elected to congress, the first black elected to a governorship and of course the first black president.

Edward Brooke


November 1966
Edward W Brooke (1919-2015) of Massachusetts became the first African American elected to the United States Senate by popular vote. He served from 1967-1979. Brooke, a moderate republican led efforts to attach an anti-discrimination amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. He also defended the need to extend the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and pushed his colleagues to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday.



Shirley Chisholm

November 1968

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) of Brooklyn, New York became the first African American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. Chisholm was an activist in her community and carried that spirit with her to the House of Representatives where she fought to increase federal funding to extend hours of daycare facilities. She was also the primary backer of the national school lunch bill and led efforts to override President’s Gerald Ford’s veto of the bill. Chisholm served in the House of Representatives from 1969 to 1983.


Lawrence Douglas Wilder


November 1989
Lawrence Douglas Wilder (born 1931) became the first African American elected Governor in the United States. He served four years, from 1990-1994. During his governorship he balanced the state budget and sponsored new construction projects at several Virginia colleges and universities, mental health facilities, and state parks.



Carol Moseley-BraunNovember 1992 (born 1947)
Carol Moseley-Braun (born 1947) of Illinois became the first African American woman elected to the United States Senate. During her term in Congress she fought for social legislation including federal funding for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission. She sponsored a National Park Service Initiative to fund historic preservation of the Underground Railroad. She also convinced the Judiciary Committee not to renew a design patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy because it contained the Confederate Flag. Moseley-Braun’s time in the senate was marred by controversy. She was accused of campaign finance violations and was criticized by the Congressional Black Caucus for taking a private trip to Nigeria to attend the funeral of a dictator’s son.


Barack Obama


November 2008
Barack Obama (born 1961) was elected 44th President of the United States. During his presidency he addressed the financial crisis and put the United States on the path to financial recovery. He was reelected for a second term in  2012. During his second term he implemented the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

Chart to share with students: History Making Elections