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Black History Month is for Animal Lovers

Our museum, the National Museum of Animals & Society, has been working on a new exhibit documenting the history of animal protection in America. (It'll debut in our new building in Los Angeles this spring.) By and large, it's more challenging to find historical stories about people of color who took the time and energy to advocate for animals, especially when they were fighting so hard for their own freedoms, such as with civil rights. But every now and then we discover some new anecdote and we just have to share it with the world.

People who care about one cause usually care about others too, so its no wonder that the Martin Luther King Jr family is comprised of animal lovers and vegetarians, including Loretta Scott KIng. Or take members of the political musical group Dead Prez, many of whom are vegan. But let's go back 100 years or so....

I assume you know the legendary Booker T. Washington?

Booker T. WashingtonPhoto credit: Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives

Booker T. Washington | Photo credit: Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives

He was only one of the most well known and respected African-Americans of his day, and an educator, author, orator, and advisor to presidents of the United States. But what most people don't know is that Mr. Washington formed a branch of the Bands of Mercy, a humane youth organization that was started by the American Humane Education Society and the Massachusetts SPCA. These Bands of Mercy pledged "kindness and justice to all living creatures," and held club meetings, put on plays, sang songs, went on photography excursions to humanely 'capture' wildlife, and stopped animal cruelty when they saw it happening. His branch was located at the Hampton Institute in 1883. By the 1890's, over 11,000 of these groups existed in the U.S. And as years progressed, tens of thousands of more groups were organized.

You can learn more about the history of humane education and these special Bands of Mercy in our online exhibition, Be Kind:A Visual History of Humane Education, curated by Dr. Keri Cronin of Brock University.

And another of our favorite stories of African-American descent - Meet Dr. William Key and his wonder horse, Jim.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives

The Tennessee State Library and Archives

Known as the "Marvel of the Twentieth Century" and "The Greatest Crowd Drawer in America," Dr. Key and Jim traveled across the nation teaching kindness to animals through their dynamic act. Through humane training methods, Doc Key was able to nurture Jim's natural abilities to read, write, spell, do math, tell time, sort mail, use a cash register and a telephone, cite Bible passages, and engage in political debate! In addition to these jaw-dropping feats performed in front of enormous crowds, Jim earned a reputation as a psychic when he predicted the marriage of President Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, to her male companion in the audience. How? When Jim was asked to spell her name, he did so but with the gentleman's last name! Their marriage would transpire in two years time.

The duo was seen by an estimated 10 million Americans and written about in every major newspaper. Fans collected his promotional pamphlets, souvenir buttons, postcards and photos, bought Beautiful Jim Key pennies, danced the "Beautiful Jim Key" two-step, wore Jim Key gold pinbacks in their collars, and competed in Beautiful Jim Key essay contests, while millions signed up to join and support humane groups around the country. Two million children joined the Jim Key Band of Mercy and signed his pledge, "I promise always to be kind to animals."

Jim at the Cash RegisterThe Tennessee State Library and Archives

Jim at the Cash Register | The Tennessee State Library and Archives

The good doctor was just as impressive as his equine. A self-trained veterinarian, William was born a slave in 1833. When the Civil War erupted, Bill chose to protect his master's boys, serving the Confederate Rebels in several battles. At the same time, he also helped the Yankees and fellow slaves via the Underground Railroad. Considered a double-agent, he was sentenced to hang, but outmaneuvered fate with a winning hand in a game of poker. After the war, he paid off the mortgage on his dead master's fallen property, and supported his master's heirs for the rest of their days.

Entrance to the Jim Key attractionThe Tennessee State Library and Archives

Entrance to the Jim Key attraction | The Tennessee State Library and Archives

The entrepreneurial Dr. Key established a leading veterinary practice, a racetrack, hotel, restaurant, and made a fortune in the patent medicine business selling Keystone Liniment in his traveling medicine shows. He was married to four notably beautiful, educated women. He had no children, just his one-of-a-kind horse.

Advertisement for Jim KeyThe Tennessee State Library and Archives

Advertisement for Jim Key | The Tennessee State Library and Archives

Dr. Key became one of the most recognized African-Americans of his time, and made significant strides in breaking down color barriers. He arranged special performances and discounts for black audiences. At the World's Fair in Charleston, SC, he convinced the organizers to open its doors to African-Americans for an entire day โ€“ to overwhelming financial success.

If you know of any other stories of animal lovers of color who took a stand for our feathered and furry friends, please let us know, here at the museum. Drop us an email: info@museumofanimals.org.