February in American History: Part I

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While there is always something to remember in American history, the month of February is perhaps the most eventful of them all. This month (as well as all months), we remember the African-American patriots of old who fought tirelessly to secure constitutional rights for all. In February, our nation witnessed the birth of the 15th Amendment, the Sit-In Movement, and more heroic actions. Likewise, this month features the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Ronald Reagan, and others. Read on to learn about the events during the first half of February!

February 1, 1960

The Greensboro Sit-Ins begin. In the North Carolina city of Greensboro, four African-American citizens staged a peaceful protest at the lunch counter in the Woolworth Department Store. Their names were David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil. On February 2, they were joined by many others, including Clarence Henderson, whom this author had the honor and pleasure of interviewing on September 14, 2019. The sit-ins led to an increase in civil rights protests across the South. At his Independence Day speech in 2019, President Trump remarked, “Clarence Henderson was 18 years old when he took his place in history. Clarence, thank you for making this country a much better place.” Henderson is currently the head of the North Carolina chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation.

February 2, 1925

The Great Serum Run to Nome is completed. During the winter of 1925, a diphtheria outbreak occurred in the town of Nome, located in northwestern Alaska along the Bering Sea. Due to extreme weather conditions, airplanes were grounded and pack ice prevented the travel of ships. Likewise, there were no railroads connecting to Nome. The medicine could be transported from Seward to Nenana by train, and from there, it would be retrieved by a dog-sled team, which would begin a race against time. Several sled teams were responsible for hauling the medicine. The final team, lead by Gunnar Kassan and his husky Balto, finished the race. The longest distance, however, was traveled by Leonhard Seppala and his team lead by Togo. All participants received praise from President Calvin Coolidge and a statue of Balto was dedicated to all participants in New York City’s Central Park. In December 2019, a film was released to Disney Plus about the journey of Seppala and Togo, starring Willem Dafoe as Seppala.

February 3, 1870
The 15th Amendment to the US Constitution is ratified. The last of three Reconstruction amendments, the 15th prohibits both the federal and state governments from denying suffrage rights based on race or skin color. From 1890-1910, many Southern states adopted new laws within their state constitutions which prohibited African-Americans from voting. Other new laws introduced poll taxes and literacy tests. One literacy test in Alabama asked the question, “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” By 1966, all forms of voter discrimination were declared unconstitutional through various civil rights acts and Supreme Court rulings.

February 4, 1913
Rosa Parks is born in Tuskegee, Alabama. Sometimes referred to as “The First Lady of Civil Rights,” Parks became well-known following her stand against racial injustice in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. When three white men boarded a bus, they found no room to sit, and moved the “white” section to the seat behind where Parks was sitting. When Parks refused to move, she was arrested. This sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which led to other civil rights movements. Parks went on to fight racism across the country alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and other heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Parks passed away on October 24, 2005. She was the first woman in American history to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

February 6, 1911
Ronald Reagan is born in Tampico, Illinois. After moving to California at a fairly young age, he began a career in sports broadcasting. Not long after, he became a Hollywood actor, and during this time, starred in movies such as “Bedtime for Bonzo,” in which he acted with a chimpanzee. A Democrat until 1962, he then switched to the Republican Party and became a leading voice for Barry Goldwater and the “New Right.” Reagan rose to prominence in the political arena following his delivery of an impressive speech at the 1964 GOP Convention in San Francisco, California, and he served as governor of the state from 1967-1975. He served as president from 1981-1989 and his greatest accomplishments were revitalizing America’s economy and bringing the Soviet Union to its knees with a “peace through strength” initiative. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1994 and passed away on June 5, 2004. He remains an icon of the Republican Party.

February 7, 1783
The Great Siege of Gibraltar comes to an end. Beginning on June 16, 1779, Spain entered the American Revolution on behalf of the American Colonies. While the last fight of the war on American soil had ended at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781, French and Spanish forces continued engaging the British. Located on the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar was an important target for Spanish troops. From 1779-1783, Gibraltar was blockaded by the Spanish, with French forces providing reinforcements in 1782. The result of the siege proved a victory for the British, but the British nonetheless began peace talks in February 1783. The American Revolution officially ended on September 3 of that year.

February 9, 1773
William H. Harrison is born in Charles City County, Virginia. The son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Harrison was the last US president to be born while the American colonies were under British rule. A veteran of the War of 1812, Tecumseh’s War, and the Northwest Indian War, he earned the nickname “Old Tippecanoe” at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Prior to becoming president, Harrison served in many positions, including representative from the Northwest Territory, Governor of the Indiana Territory, Ohio State Senator, and US Minister to Gran Colombia. A member of the Democratic-Republican Party until 1828, he joined the Whig Party in 1836. He served the shortest term of any US president, lasting only from March 4 – April 4, 1841. On April 4, he passed away from pneumonia, becoming the first president to die in office, which triggered a constitutional crisis. William Harrison was the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, who served as president from 1889-1893.

February 9, 1861
Jefferson Davis is elected to become the first (and only) president of the Confederate States of America. Davis was born on June 3, 1808 in Fairview, Kentucky. A member of the Democratic Party, he represented Mississippi in the US House of Representatives from 1845-1846. He then served as Secretary of War from 1853-1857 and as a US Senator from Mississippi from 1857-1861. Following the Confederate defeat at the end of the Civil War, Davis was captured by US troops and imprisoned for several years, where he awaited a trial that never occurred. After his release from prison, he wrote several memoirs, which were later combined and titled, “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.” Davis became a prominent figure of the Lost Cause ideology during the Civil War’s post-war years. He passed away on December 6, 1889.

February 9, 1943
The Battle of Guadalcanal comes to an end. This marked a turning point in the Pacific Theater of World War II and was the first major Allied offensive against Japanese forces following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Located in the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal served as a primary Allied target, as Japanese forces threatened to cut off supply and communication lines. The Guadalcanal Campaign ended with an Allied victory.

February 10, 1763
The Treaty of Paris ends the French and Indian War. Known outside of the American Colonies as the Seven Years’ War, this was one of the largest conflicts of the 18th century. In America, the war was fought from 1754-1763, starting with the Battle of Jumonville Glen in present-day Pennsylvania. It was here that George Washington began his rise to prominence. The end result of the conflict was the expulsion of French forces and the expansion of the British Empire. The war inadvertently led to the American Revolution, due to British Parliament enacting various taxes in an effort to pay for the war with France.

February 11, 1953
President Dwight D. Eisenhower denies all appeals for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were American citizens who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, as well as providing the Soviets with top-secret information on nuclear weapons designs. They were executed on June 19, 1953. President Eisenhower said this of the Rosenbergs: “The execution of two human beings is a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.”

February 12, 1809
Abraham Lincoln is born at Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky. In 1830, the Lincoln family moved to Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham himself later began work as an attorney. He served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1834-1842 and then in the US House of Representatives from 1847-1849. Originally a member of the Whig Party, Lincoln switched to the Republican Party in 1854. The Party was founded largely on an anti-slavery tenet, as well as a platform that called for a restoration of the Founding Fathers’ true vision for the republic. He served as president from 1861-1865, during which time he guided the US through the Civil War, its greatest moral and constitutional crisis, preserving the union and abolishing slavery by its outcome. Lincoln was shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC on April 14, 1865. He passed away the next day. Lincoln is often ranked among the American peoples’ favorite presidents.

February 13, 1960
The Nashville Sit-Ins begin. A response to the sit-ins from Greensboro, North Carolina, these were lead by the Nashville Student Movement and the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. These sit-ins targeted various segregated businesses in Nashville, Tennessee, such as Woolworth, Walgreens, and many others. Participants included James Lawson, Kelly Miller Smith, and C.T. Vivian, among others. The sit-ins ended on May 10, 1960, though other sit-ins would continue across the south in response to segregation.

February 14, 1818
Frederick Douglass is born in Cordova, Maryland. One of the most influential writers and orators of the 19th century, Douglass authored several books on his experience with growing up under slavery, and he also became a teacher of the New Testament. A Republican, he eventually broke from the radicals within the party, such as William Lloyd Garrison, to embrace the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. During his time as a statesman, he served as an advisor to several presidents and as an ambassador to Haiti. In 1872, he became the first African-American nominee for vice president under Victoria Woodhull of the Reform Party, who was the first female candidate for president in American history. Throughout his life, Douglass dedicated his work to ensure that constitutional rights were upheld for all, regardless of race or gender. He passed away on February 20, 1895. May we never forget his timeless words: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

February 14, 1929
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurs in Chicago, Illinois. Following a bitter rivalry between the Irish North Side Gang – led Bugs Moran – and the Italian South Side Gang, led by Al Capone, seven of Moran’s men were lined up at Lincoln Park Garage. Dressed as police officers and armed with Thompson submachine guns and shotguns, the four perpetrators killed all seven men. The perpetrators were never identified, but former members of Eagan’s Rats working for Capone were the primary suspects. This has become the most infamous mob hit in American history and has been the subject of various movies and books.

February 15, 1898
The USS Maine explodes and sinks in Havana Harbor, Cuba. This was the catalyzing event that led to the US declaration of war against Spain. President William McKinley had hoped to avoid war, while his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, pushed for it. Stationed in Cuba during the Cuban War for Independence, the USS Maine was originally thought to have sunk at the hands of the Spanish. Two months later, President McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war. The explosion killed 260 men, with six more later dying from their wounds. The Spanish-American War began on April 21, 1898, and lasted nearly four months. The sinking triggered a boost in Yellow Journalism during the era. “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain” became a popular rallying cry. Today, however, the true cause of the sinking is debated.

Stay tuned for Part II of February in American History!

Garrett Smith
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