This is a fascinating world we live in. When you step back and look at it, something historic has happened literally every single day. Sure, some events are bigger and more important than others, but think about it…history is made every day.
In this regular blog series, we’re going to look at world history by month, with two or three blog posts each month that list momentous events in the history of the world–and inspiration for lessons that you can teach your children at home!
February 20, 1962: John Glenn becomes the first American launched into orbit. Not to be confused with Alan Shepard or Virgil “Gus” Grissom, each of whom had completed sub-orbital flights into space, John Glenn was the first American to actually orbit the Earth. On this day, he reached an altitude of 162 miles and completed three orbits in less than five hours. This came at a time when the United States was in a fierce competition with the Soviet Union, known as the “Space Race,” in which each country tried to outdo the other. In fact, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had already become the first human in space when he completed one orbit about 10 months before Glenn’s historic flight. John Glenn’s feat, however, was a pivotal moment in American space history, as his flight proved that the US had caught up to the Soviets in regard to space exploration.
This was just one of several aerospace records Glenn would set. He had been an accomplished Marine and Air Force pilot in the Korean War and World War II, having flown nearly 150 missions. In 1957, as the project leader of the F8U Crusader aircraft, he traveled from Los Angeles to New York in a ridiculous record of three hours and 23 minutes–it was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed. After his heroic 1962 flight and retirement from the Marines shortly thereafter, John Glenn began his career in politics by running for the US Senate as a Democrat in his home state of Ohio. After pulling out of the first race in 1964 and then losing in 1970, he was finally elected to the Senate in 1974, where he served four terms and was part of several committees. Glenn even attempted a presidential run in 1984 but withdrew from the race during the primaries. He would serve in the Senate until he retired in 1999…but he still managed to fit one more record in. On October 29, 1998, John Glenn became the oldest person to travel to space when he made a flight on the space shuttle Discovery at the age of 77. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2012, four years before he passed away at the age of 95. Take a further look into the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s as well as the heroic life and career of John Glenn, and why his 1962 flight into space was so significant.
February 21, 1965: Malcolm X is assassinated while giving a speech in New York City.
Malcolm X was one of the more polarizing figures of the civil rights movement. While in prison in the early 1950s, Malcolm Little joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) and renounced his former name, replacing it with an X. With his charisma, eloquence, and intellect, Malcolm X soon became one of the leading figures within the NOI. Outspoken and controversial, Malcolm X opposed the mainstream civil rights movements led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Rather than peaceful protests, Malcolm urged the NOI to defend themselves against white racism “by any means necessary.” His brashness led to friction between him and Elijah Muhammad, founder of the NOI. By 1964, tensions boiled over to the point where Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and spoke out against the group and its founder. That same year, Malcolm X visited Mecca and was compelled to convert to Sunni Islam, which rejected many principles of the NOI and subscribed to a more inclusive approach to the civil rights movement. By this time, because of his departure and subsequent disparaging comments about the NOI, Malcolm X had a long list of enemies.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was to speak to his Organization of Afro-American Unity group at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York City. Just a week before, his home in Queens was firebombed as he, his wife, and their children slept. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the assassination attempt, but at this point, he knew that he was in danger at all times. However, this did not compel Malcolm to cancel his speech, nor did it stop him from preventing his security detail at the event from performing checks on the audience members. Despite having a strong suspicion something might happen to him that day, he would not allow the security checks because they were a practice used by the NOI. There was also a conspicuous lack of law enforcement for his speech, which was out of the ordinary since Malcolm X’s events always drew a large police presence. As Malcolm took the stage to begin his speech, a scuffle appeared to break out in the crowd–it was then that an individual walked onto the stage, and approached Malcolm. That’s when he was shot and killed at the podium by the individual as well as, allegedly, two others–a total of 21 times. Three men were arrested and convicted, two of whom were prominent members of the Harlem NOI. However, there was no evidence linking the two NOI members to the shooting–one even had an alibi. They were still convicted, and those two men were imprisoned until 1985 and 1989. To this day, the identity of the actual killer or killers still isn’t a certainty, and the case has even been reopened based on new evidence from a recent Netflix documentary on the subject of his assassination. Use this tragic event to further explore Malcolm X’s legacy as well as his past involvement and then subsequent feud with the Nation of Islam as well as other prominent civil rights advocates of the 1960s.
February 21, 1972: President Richard Nixon arrives in China for historic meetings with Chairman Mao Tse-tung. A president traveling to a foreign country for a diplomatic meeting with its leaders–seems pretty commonplace these days, doesn’t it? Well, back in 1972, a US president visiting Communist China was historic news. Why? Because the US and the People’s Republic of China were bitter enemies at the time. They had fought each other through the Korean War, China supported the enemy North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, and America was fiercely anti-Communist. But President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, saw a rare opportunity–the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were becoming increasingly hostile toward each other during the 1960s, so perhaps some diplomacy between America and China would make the Soviets more agreeable to US policy requests, such as a beneficial treaty between the US and North Vietnam, who now counted the Soviets as its biggest supporter. By further inflaming Soviet-Chinese tensions, the US could use their diplomatic relations with China as leverage when dealing with the Soviets, especially in regard to ending the Vietnam War. From China’s perspective, a union with the US would provide them with a powerful ally in their fraying situation with the Soviet Union while also potentially increasing American-Chinese trade.
For these reasons, President Nixon flew to Beijing (then Peking) for a week of talks intended to slowly re-establish diplomatic relations between the United States and China. In doing so, Nixon became the first US president to visit the People’s Republic of China since its establishment in 1949. During the trip, Nixon met with Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Premier Zhou Enlai and agreed to expand contacts between the nations and also create permanent open trade between the countries. The trip proved successful, as full diplomatic relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China were restored by 1979. Use this lesson to look further into our country’s history and relationships with communist countries and how diplomacy was achieved.
February 22, 1732: George Washington is born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. If you ask most people which president first comes to mind, odds are the answer will be either Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. And for good reason–they’re both generally considered among the top five American presidents ever. And Washington has the special distinction of being the first. Young George Washington grew up near Fredericksburg, Virginia and was homeschooled from age seven until he was 15. By that time, he had acquired the necessary skills to grow tobacco, raise stock, and survey. He began surveying land in various counties in Virginia until he was 18, and this spurred his interest in western land holdings–something he’d carry with him for the rest of his days. By the time he was 20, his father and one of his brothers had died, making him the owner of Mount Vernon, one of Virginia’s most prominent estates; he would eventually own approximately 8,000 acres of land on the property.
After serving a few years as a major in a Virginia militia during the French and Indian War, Washington was elevated to colonel in General Edward Braddock’s army in 1755. That August, at the age of 23, Washington was appointed the commander of all Virginia troops before retiring from that post in 1758. At that point, George embarked on a career in politics and was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Around this time, George married Martha Dandridge Custis, who brought to the marriage another 18,000 acres of land–combined with his own land, this made him one of the wealthiest landowners in Virginia. During this time, and ahead of the impending American Revolution, Washington tended to his land holdings with the help of more than 300 slaves. (While it was believed that George Washington did not like the idea of slavery or its institution, he reconciled that with the fact that it was legal and therefore acceptable. He did, however, ensure all of his enslaved workers would be freed upon Martha’s death–though Martha’s family’s slaves remained.)
Colonial resistance against the British began around the time the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was passed, and it continued with the Stamp Act of 1765–but it wasn’t until the Townshend Acts of 1767 that George Washington truly became involved in the colonial cause. But even then, letters he wrote during this period of his life indicate that he actually opposed colonial independence. That said, in 1769, he introduced a resolution to the House of Burgesses calling on Virginia to boycott British goods until these acts were repealed. In 1775, Washington was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and by June 1775, shortly after the Second Continental Congress, he was appointed major general and commander-in-chief of the colonial forces against Great Britain–this despite the fact that he lacked much of the military experience that those in his position would be expected to have. But George Washington was a smart man and an inspiring leader.
In August 1776, the British took New York City and during the epic battle, Washington’s army lost 2,800 soldiers to surrender. The rest of his army retreated to Pennsylvania; meanwhile, British commander Sir Douglas Howe set his troops up in Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey for the winter, confident the war would soon be over. On Christmas night, Washington and his army famously crossed the icy Delaware River and ambushed Hessian soldiers in Trenton before moving in on and defeating the British at Princeton. Despite that loss, the British kept pushing and eventually took Philadelphia in the summer of 1777. However, the key to a British victory wasn’t capturing American cities–after all, the Congress would simply move to another city. Washington eventually led his army to Yorktown, Virginia, where British General Cornwallis surrendered in 1781, handing Washington and the colonists the victory. Finally, near Christmas in 1783, George Washington resigned as commander-in-chief of the army and retired to Mount Vernon.
In 1787, the states of the fledgling country were feuding with each other, rendering the Articles of Confederation ineffective. After Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, a Constitutional Convention was called in Philadelphia, and it was there that George Washington was unanimously chosen to be the first president of the United States. It was also where Washington, along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison realized the need for a Constitution–which was barely ratified by a single vote. Washington was unanimously elected president with every electoral vote and was sworn in as president in New York City. During his presidency, Washington worked to establish treaties with Native Americans and also appointed what would become the District of Columbia to be the nation’s capital. He faced challenges along the way, such as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 and 1792, but he was quick to show force through the Militia Act of 1792, which demonstrated that his government would use force when needed. It was during Washington’s presidency that political parties began to grow–and separate. Politicians split into separate factions, then known as Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. And while he vehemently opposed bipartisanship, there was little he could do to slow the splintering of his government. George Washington would resign from the presidency at the end of his second term and retire back to Mount Vernon once again in 1797. Shortly thereafter, he would contract what appeared to be a sore throat and a cold–the next evening, George Washington died at the age of 67. Not only was he a revered military hero, but George Washington created the template for the American presidency and was instrumental in forming the democratic government still in place nearly 250 years later. Plenty of Washington-related topics to dig into here!
February 23, 1868: African American educator and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois is born in Massachusetts. William Edward Burghardt (better known as W.E.B.) Du Bois was a prominent African American scholar who accomplished much as an activist, leader, and citizen during his 95 years. During the first decade of the 20th century, Mr. Du Bois was instrumental in forming the Niagara Movement, an African American protest group composed of scholars and professionals; and he was also a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known as the NAACP, in 1909, and served as its director of publicity and research from 1910 to 1934. He also founded and edited publications for both organizations. In editing the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, Mr. Du Bois consistently published young Black writers and ensured the magazine served as a source of information for African Americans. He was no stranger to controversy, however. Between 1910 and 1912, Du Bois was a member of the Socialist Party; in 1934 he resigned from the NAACP because their policy and advocacy of integration conflicted with his African American nationalist strategy; and in 1961 he joined the Communist Party of the United States. He did return to the NAACP as director of special research, however, from 1944 to 1948, during which time he presented African American grievances in front of the United Nations.
His scholarly work, prior to this period, was arguably second to none. Upon graduating from high school as valedictorian in 1884, Mr. Du Bois earned his bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in Nashville, spending summers teaching in Black schools in the area until 1888, at which point he enrolled at Harvard University, earned a bachelor’s degree with cum laude honors, and served as a commencement speaker. Mr. Du Bois also received his Master of Arts from Harvard in 1891. From 1892 to 1894 he studied history and economics at the University of Berlin on a Slater Fund fellowship and then served for two years as a professor of Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University in Ohio. In 1895, he became the first African American to receive a doctorate from the university. For the next two years, Du Bois served as an assistant instructor in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he conducted a groundbreaking sociological study of the urban Philadelphia community. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899) assured his place among the country’s top scholars. From 1897 until 1910, Mr. Du Bois taught economics and history at Atlanta University, where he organized conferences called the Atlanta University Studies of the Negro Problem while editing 16 of their annual publications. During his career, he also wrote novels, poetry and essays, and several histories of Black people and their culture. In part because of his deep love for Africa and its people (regardless of where they lived), Mr. Du Bois moved to Ghana and became a citizen of the African country in 1961–he died there six years later. Sixty years later, he’s still considered the leading African American scholar of his era. Dig deeper into some of Mr. Du Bois’s beliefs and how they shaped his education and writing.
February 24, 1868: President Andrew Johnson is impeached after a vote by the House of Representatives. The first, but not the last. About 153 years before Donald Trump made history as the first president to be impeached two times, President Andrew Johnson became the first to ever be impeached. Johnson had some mighty big shoes to fill, as he was the president who immediately succeeded Abraham Lincoln after the latter was assassinated in 1865. Perhaps the deck was stacked against Johnson–he had to follow arguably the greatest president this country has ever seen, he was barely literate until his wife taught him how to read and write, he was an alcoholic, and the House of Representatives were no fans of him or his policies. That said, he did accomplish some important things during his four years in office. Slavery was formally abolished (though Lincoln did much of the heavy lifting before his death), the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, and Nebraska joined the union. On the other hand, Johnson still believed that states should have the right to decide for themselves whether slavery should be legal, and he battled with Congress over bills that gave former slaves the same rights as other US citizens.
Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t avoid impeachment. But, why was he impeached? It started with President Lincoln’s plan of reconstruction, which would allow for leniency toward the South when it rejoined the Union. Part of the plan was granting amnesty to those who agreed to pledged an oath of loyalty to the United States and followed all federal slavery laws. President Johnson was merely attempting to carry out his predecessor’s plan, but it was met with plenty of resistance from Radical Republicans in Congress who demanded military governments and stricter terms for readmission to the Union. Neither side budged. The push to start impeachment proceedings began when Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from his cabinet, thereby breaching the Tenure of Office Act–this act stated that a president could not dismiss appointed officials without the consent of Congress. The House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson, and his trial began in March and concluded in May. The Senate’s verdict–not guilty…by a single vote! Therefore, Johnson was allowed to finish out his term as the 17th President of the United States, which ended in 1869. Andrew Johnson made history, but not the kind he’d want to be remembered for. Only two presidents since have been impeached–Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump in both 2019 and 2021. While none of these presidents were found guilty by the Senate, the impeachments undoubtedly leave a stain on their legacies. Learn more about the impeachment process and look into the three impeachments that have occurred since Johnson’s.
February 26, 1846: American frontiersman and legend “Buffalo Bill” Cody is born in Indiana. Did William Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill” kill nearly 4,300 buffalo in just 17 months? Only Mr. Cody knows for sure, but that statement is a fitting synopsis of his life–partly true, partly fictional.
What has been established as truth: he worked with the Pony Express at the age of 14, he served in various roles for the Union army during the Civil War, and he began hunting buffalo in 1867 to feed construction workers on the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
What we don’t know for sure: he won the nickname “Buffalo Bill” after an eight-hour shooting match with a fellow “Bill”, a hunter named William Comstock.
What we do know: he returned to the army and fought in 16 battles, for which he earned a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872; the award was taken away in 1916 on the grounds that Cody wasn’t a regular member of the armed forces at the time, but it was returned posthumously in 1989. While showing real-life skill and bravery, Bill was simultaneously becoming something of a folk hero whose adventures were being chronicled in fictional form under his alter-ego “Buffalo Bill” by novelist Ned Buntline, starting in 1869. “Buffalo Bill” became a household name in the mold of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.
Also true: In 1872, Ned Buntline convinced Bill to re-create his “Buffalo Bill” persona on stage in his play The Scouts of the Plains, a role that displayed his showmanship and humor and was well-received. In fact, Bill continued to act and also began to write during this time. He penned the first edition of his autobiography in 1879 and published several of his own “Buffalo Bill” dime novels.
Fact: Between theater seasons, Bill escorted wealthy Easterners and Europeans on hunting expeditions in the West. Also, in 1876, he returned to the army as a scout. But his real genius revealed itself in 1883 when he created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, an outdoor show that featured buffalo hunts with real buffaloes, an Indian “attack” that featured actual Native Americans, a Pony Express ride, and a presentation of Custer’s Last Stand that was re-enacted with Lakota who had actually fought in the real battle. The show was a huge success with its combination of theater and actual history, and it toured the country over the span of three decades and also played to adoring crowds in Europe.
While Bill basked in the celebrity spotlight, real life came calling once again, as he was summoned back to the army in 1890 during the Ghost Dance uprising of the Native Americans. To diffuse the tense situation, he brought Natives from his Wild West troupe to serve as peacemakers; he even went to Wounded Knee to help restore some sense of order after the infamous massacre that occurred there in late 1890. Though Cody’s show was an enormous hit and huge money-maker, he managed to lose his entire fortune before his death in 1917. Take a closer look at the actual events “Buffalo Bill” Cody was involved with, as well as some of the tall tales that served as entertainment.
That does it for historical figures and events for February. Stay tuned for March, coming soon! In the meantime, check out our partner site, Elephango.com, for more fun and factual lessons!