Black History: A Chess Perspective

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

Black History Month… a month that is to represent the triumph of a people over adversity and to pay hommage to their achievements. When Carter G. Woodson dubbed “Negro History Week” in 1926, his intent was bring exposure to the unique history and plight of the Black people. He founded the Negro World where he chronicled the condition of the Blacks and later wrote the seminal book, The Mis-Education of the Negro. He earned a Master’s a University of Chicago in 1908 and a Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1912 and became one of the foremost pioneers in the field of contemporary history.

Is Black History Relevant?

Woodson had a difficult time convincing others that there was a need for a commemoration dedicated to championing the “so-called American Negro.” He was told that Black history was no different from American history and there should not be any distinction. However, it is well-known that the way history is painted depends on who has the brush. Woodson opined that Black history and the accomplishments of Black men and women were often overlooked, blotted out of history or trivialized. Negro History Week became “Black History Month” and is recognized nationally.

One of the problems with Black History Month is that the same figures are honored each year: Dr. Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver. These are staple of classroom lessons on Black history, but the perhaps they have become have lost their novelty. There is an increasing concern that the history is not being taught properly or by instructors who are very selective on which figures they cover.

Zumbi dos Palmares led the slave resistance against Portuguese colonizers in Brazil. November 20th is a day of commemorating Black consciousness. On this day, Brazilians of African descent honor Zumbi as a hero, freedom fighter, and symbol of freedom. There is a university named after him in Sao Paulo, Brazil which is designed to accommodate Afro-Brazilians.

Of course Black history, extends far beyond what “African-Americans” have done. Black pioneers in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe had made tremendous accomplishments. Haiti has been in the news of late and of course many are hearing the name Toussaint L’Ouverture, the military leader who lead the Haitians to a stunning victory over France in quest of slave independence.

There are many other legendary leaders around the world who led independence and resistance movements such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines (Haiti), Paul Bogle (Jamaica), Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Amilcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau), Samora Machel (Angola), Zumbi dos Palmares (Brazil) to name a few.

There are also a long list of scientists (Imhotep), athletes (Jesse Owens), politicians (Patrice Lumumba), historians (Cheikh Anta Diop), scholars (Sir Arthur Lewis) that could easily fill up a large encyclopedia. One would ask, “why it is important to have this history?” The best way to explain this is to reflect on the purpose of this very website.

The Black Renaissance in Chess

Many years ago as a rising young player in Chicago, I knew only a few Black Masters. In the midst of a conversation with a Caucasian player, he asked me about the number of Black masters and I could only name the few I knew. The problem was that no one had taken time to archive the history of the players and they certainly didn’t appear regularly in chess magazines. Thus, there became a need to show the contributions of a forgotten segment. There are now thousands of pages of documented history on Blacks’ contributions to chess at “The Chess Drum“.

Walter Harris Frank Steet

Looking back on chess history there are many landmarks for Blacks. There is 19th century chess problemist Theophilus Thompson who was the first Black player of note. In the U.S., Walter Harris, Frank Street and Kenneth Clayton and Leroy (Jackson) Muhammad led the 60s era along with Charles Covington and Charles Lawton of the 70s. Then came the effect of the “Fischer Boom”.

The 80s saw a mass wave of Black Masters rise and throughout the world there were players making their presence felt. The 80s saw a teen sensations named Baraka Shabazz and K.K. Karanja. African and Caribbean nations began dotting the Olympiad landscape and taking their rightful place among the cadre of chess nations. African International Masters Watu Kobese (South Africa), Odion Aikhoje (Nigeria), Robert Gwaze (Zimbabwe) have produced shining moments for “Mother Africa”. WIM Oleiny Linares-Napoles made Cuba proud by winning a silver medal in the 2008 Olympiad with 9/10.

IM Emory Tate

A landmark event occurred when Maurice Ashley became the first Black Grandmaster in 1993. This became the benchmark for Black excellence and was followed by Pontus Carlsson (Sweden) and Amon Simutowe (Zambia). Of course, Emory Tate will go down in the annals of Black history as one of the most celebrated players, a reputation coming from his dashing victories. The historic Wilbert Paige Memorial was a tournament for the ages. The idea that there is such a history will provide the upcoming talents with examples of paths once trodden.

History in the Making

Currently, age records are being smashed with young stars around the world becoming living legends. It is also true that in the African Diaspora, there are a number of young boys and girls beginning to make progressive strides. In America, the players making a mark are getting younger and younger. Kassa Korley has broken the age record for U.S. National Master at 15 years 2 months. His record is endangered by players like Justus Williams and Josh Colas who are only 11 years old and already 2100 strength. These young boys have a history they can draw upon.

All-Americans, Justus Williams and Josh Colas.

Scholastic All-Americans: Justus Williams and Josh Colas

There is something clearly important about seeing images of successful people with whom you have something in common. For those who have never had problems finding role models, it may be hard to understand the significance. For those who have to look far and wide for examples, the Black Master playing against the world’s best can make a huge difference in the confidence of impressionable minds. One thing is for sure… the “Wall of Fame” will only get bigger as long as we preserve the immediate history. Mimicking Carter G. Woodson, we should be compelled to present historic examples that are often overlooked. There are many beautiful stories yet to be told!


  1. Moment in Black History
    SAMORA MACHEL (Mozambique)

    Machel is an African leader I learned about during a doctoral class called “African Political Thought”. I admired his leadership, charisma and strong will. I also saw footage of him describing military strategy. He was a genius and a master tactician. It is no doubt that he could have been a chess Grandmaster. He died in a plane crash under mysterious circumstances.

    It was said that his plane was given a signal from a South African beacon that drove the plane off course into a mountain. Machel had given refuge to anti-apartheid fighters and the apartheid government was angry. In another twist, the South African authorities arrived at the scene and collected personal possessions and papers and did not notify the Mozambican authorities until nine hours after the crash.

  2. Moment in Black History

    This picture was taken from The Spokesman-Review (June 26, 1981). It shows a 15-year old Baraka Shabazz playing in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. Her story hit the news waves with a frenzy and she was featuring in magazines and TV programs such as “Tony Brown’s Journal”. She played in the U.S. Women’s Championship, but after a disappointing result, she decided to put the game behind her. However, she will forever be a pioneer for Black women in U.S. chess being the first to achieve a Candidate Master’s or “Expert” rating.


  3. Thanks, Daaim, for making this available to the chess world. The article handles the material well. I will share this with my Turkish peers, who are eager to learn about African-American experiences, and they approach new information with fresh eyes, and genuine interest. Great stuff.

  4. Daaim, speaking of Air Force champions. IM Tate probably hold the record. He won the Armed Forces Championship 5 times. Very impressive. I played with him two of those years. The Air Force would invite twelve of the top players to a training camp, for about ten days, and we would play a tournament to see who would make the team. Only six players could make the team. The training camp was competitive, but fun. After training camp, the Armed Forces Championship was held in Washington. This tournament was a lot stronger than it is today.

  5. Moment in Black History

    Emory Tate, 5-time Armed Forces Champion

    Air Force Sergeant Emory A. Tate, Jr., stationed at Ft. Meade, Maryland accepts the first annual Haskell Small Award for taking individual honors at the 25th Annual Armed Forces Chess Championship Tournament. Tate won the tournament, which was held in Washington, D.C. from September 11-20 (1984), with a score of 8½-3½.

    It was the second year that Tate has taken top honors in this tournament. The trophy is named for the late Colonel Haskell Small, who was instrumental in organizing and promoting the military chess championship. Colonel Small’s widow is here shown presenting the trophy to Sergeant Tate. He would go on to win the championship a total of five times. Photo courtesy of the American Legion.

    Drum Source:

  6. Daaim,
    This brother (Sean Gonsalves) wrote that article like he had some insight on Blacks in chess. Very informative article. A MUST READ!

  7. Glenn,

    I have exchanged a cordial e-mail with the brother. I congratulated him on his effort. I did send him a few corrections… namely the comment about Baraka Shabazz being the only Black woman to make Expert. I pointed out that Colette McGruder, Medina Parrilla and Darrian Robinson have reached 2000. Rochelle Ballantyne is not far behind.

  8. Moment in Black History

    Marcus Mosiah Garvey

    One of the most powerful African voices ever to walk the planet was Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Garvey was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica on August 17th 1887 and was a Pan-Africanist who lead the Universal Negro Improvement Association with the idea of unifying descendants of slaves and establishing a model homeland of repatriation.

    He was a powerful voice for the reclamation of Black pride and dignity. The UNIA, founded in Harlem, New York, was known for elaborate parades through Harlem with stunning pageantry and celebration. He was able to inspire masses of Black people around the world to stand up and be counted amongst the “brotherhood of men.” One of his most famous quotes was, “Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will.”

    Garvey set about on ambitious projects… some successful, some not successful. One of Garvey’s most famous projects (for good and bad reasons) was the launching of the Black Star Shipping Line. The idea of this ship was to initiate Pan-African commerce and travel. He legally sold stock in this enterprise and raised to what amounted to hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of dollars. However, his business acumen was poor and the shipping line was a colossal failure.

    After leading the UNIA movement (which claimed four million members), his ambitions were subverted by intelligence authorities, Black spies and moderate Blacks who felt he threatened the safety and the integrationist aims. Garvey had a bitter relationship with Black civic leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois of the NAACP. He was later accused of mail fraud and spent and two years in prison. Upon his release, he was deported back to Jamaica. He later moved to London where he died on June 10th 1940. His body was later exhumed and laid to rest in his homeland of Jamaica.

    There is a documentary made on Garvey called, “Look for me at the Whirlwind” which features many historians and Garvey’s two sons. The audio speech below shows him in rare form. He ranks amongst the greatest orators in world history. He spoke in the 1920s about topics that are still relevant today. Note the part about Blacks’ practice of skin-bleaching! Garvey was certainly a visionary thinker of his day.

  9. Daaim,
    I also sent Sean Gonsalves an email. Informing him that I got his link from the Chess Drum. His article about Blacks in Chess seems like he had some inside information, i.e., been around tournament chess and socialize with Black chess players. Maybe he is just a very good researcher or have been reading the Chess Drum. What ever the case, it was a very well written article.

  10. Of historical interest — You can see a clip of Toussaint’s last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” at This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.

  11. Moment in Black History
    Capoeira (Brazil)

    Capoeira is a martial art that was formed by African slaves. It was created from a variety of expressions and artforms including acrobatics, dance, music and theatrical jousting. The Afro-Brazilians used capoeira as a fighting system to defend themselves against Portuguese oppression. Its deadly attributes rely on deception and strikes from incredible angles and positions.

    The art was later outlawed because it became a weapon that thugs used in the favelas to rob and terrorize the population. Blades were inserted in shoes and straight razors became the weapons of choice. The revolution of Pastihna (Angola form) and Bimba (Regional form) represented centeral figures in the revolution of reviving the artform.

    Capoeira is celebrated and practiced around the world and remains one of the most inventive martial arts and the only that includes cultural expression of music as an integral part. The one-stringed berimbau is the heart and soul of capoeira music. Below is a clip from the movie, “Besouro”.

    Below is a scene from the movie “Tom Yung Goong” featuring martial arts superstar Tony Jaa. He is fighting capoerista Lateef Crowder.

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