This Day in History – February 4th

Graphic by Kae Eleuterio / The Flat Hat

Blast From the Past is a weekly history blog dedicated to the lives of marginalized groups — such as women, racial minorities, people with disabilities and people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum — on a particular day. The author hopes that readers will not view these dates as a linear timeline of progress: legal and political victories do not always reflect that “things are getting better.” Rather, we should examine these stories as snapshots of people’s lives, and place them within the context of their time.


France abolished slavery in its colonies. European monarchies were still recovering from the American Revolution (which had ended in 1789) and attempting to suppress the ongoing French Revolution. While the European elites were struggling to maintain power, enslaved people in Haiti and Saint Domingue saw an opportunity to finally overthrow Imperial rule. French local government in the colonies saw the stirrings of a rebellion and realized that if France freed slaves in the colonies, the country could prevent an uprising and gather more support in the ongoing war against the British and Spanish. Three delegates from Saint Domingue — a free black man, a white man and a mulatto man — gave a report on the situation to the National Convention in France. The French government reacted with surprising enthusiasm, perhaps because abolition solved many of their problems at the time. But the story of French abolition didn’t end there; Napoleon revoked the decree in 1802, and after an ongoing struggle characterized by uprisings in the colonies, partial abolition decrees and various European wars, slavery was finally abolished throughout France and her colonies in 1848.


Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama. When she was two years old, her parents separated and she moved to Alabama to live with her grandparents. Parks’ grandparents were former slaves and not shy about their fight for equality; for example, Parks watched members of the Ku Klux Klan march down their street while her grandfather stood in front of their house with a shotgun. Parks attended segregated schools with scarce resources. At the age of 19, she married Raymond Parks, a barber who was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He supported her through high school, and she became actively involved in the NAACP after she graduated. December 1, 1955, Parks got onto a bus that she had been avoiding for 12 years. Although there was no ordinance that the buses needed to be segregated, bus drivers had the authority to ask black people to give up their seat for a white passenger and could call the police to remove the person if they refused. Parks knew that this particular driver was a strong supporter of segregated seats. But that day she was reportedly lost in thoughts of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager who had been murdered a few months before for allegedly flirting with a white woman (the woman confessed on her deathbed that she had fabricated the incident and that Till had died for her falsehood). Parks had already paid when she realized who the driver was. When the driver demanded that she stand up, she kept thinking of Emmett Till. In 1955, it was legal for bus drivers to carry handguns. It was entirely possible that he could have shot Parks on the spot. Three of the other black passengers complied with the driver’s demands and moved, but Parks remained seated. The driver demanded, “Why don’t you stand up?” Parks simply replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” She was arrested but released on bail that night. The incident inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where most of the African-American community refused to ride buses. The 381-day-long boycott was a huge success and ended with a Supreme Court ruling which declared that public transit segregation was unconstitutional. Although it is easy to undervalue Parks’ refusal to stand as a small act, her decision was a key part of the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Revolutions don’t always begin with the gunfire of a battlefield. Truly revolutionary acts can happen in our everyday lives, by refusing to submit to social pressures and deciding to stand firm in the rights we know we have, and the values we hold to be true.

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