About four years ago, I created a highlight reel of some of my favorite Black history stories that appeared on Drunk History. In a moment where we seem to be facing a reckoning around racial justice, but also how the history of Black people is taught and framed, I wanted to update this original post to include stories that have since been drunkenly been relayed on the show. There’s more to our history than slavery and marches. More people should know it, and Drunk History is a wonderful place to learn it. Select parts of the original post may be abridged or edited.
One of my favorite, and most popular, posts is about the empowering nature of Derek Waters’ Drunk History for women. It creates a safe space for them to drink without the dire consequences frequently befalling women on television, and positions them as both reliable narrators (for the storytellers), and as figures of historical significance (for the story subjects).
Waters’ runaway hit, an expansion of his web series of the same name, has given similar status and importance to the stories of people of color. This inclusion, by the way, is not an accident. While controversy swirls around the best way to be inclusive on television, in film, and countless other woefully lopsided industries, Drunk History has decided to place an emphasis on finding and sharing these stories. I was delighted to learn of this through one of their writers on Twitter late last year (see left).
I could not love more that Drunk History is understanding and appreciative of the idea that their show is a platform to elevate history that we haven’t heard before, told from a perspective that – while unorthodox – is accessible enough to open people up to new stories. What I love ideologically about this show is its ability take something most people groan about in school, and make it accessible and even something they actively seek out. This is a problem that similarly plagues the history of marginalized societies – whose stories are typically left out of our nation’s narrative. The result? Stories about individuals that could be truly inspirational, that could lead those in the minority to greatness, are left undiscovered and ineffective. Thanks to the team at Drunk History for digging up some wonderful ones, and for prioritizing the continued search.
The accounts below are based on the ones told in the episodes and, while fact-checked, are subject to the finesse and recollection of intoxicated individuals. Fair warning. What’s more, there are more than are shared here – so I encourage you to keep digging! The whole series is streaming on Hulu and on the Comedy Central app. It’s a fun watch.
Season: 3, episode 7 (Oklahoma)
Narrator/Featuring: Mark Gagliardi, featuring Jaleel White as Bass Reeves
Story: After an argument with his owner over a poker game, Bass Reeves fled his life as a slave to the Seminole nation of Oklahoma. There, he learned the ways of Native American tracking and hunting. In 1875, US Marshal James Fagan came to Reeves and asked him to assist in the coverage of 75,000+ miles to take down fugitives wanted by the government. When ambushed at gunpoint by three brothers, Reeves was able to take them all down and return them to the fort singlehandedly. Bass Reeves threw over 3,000 men in jail, the most deadly US Marshal in history. In fact, he was so important to the wild frontier, that he inspired the character of the Lone Ranger- and in the translation, the Lone Ranger sadly went from being a heroic ex-slave, to an otherwise nondescript white officer.
Best Line: “Hey, I’m ambidextrous, I can shoot a gun with both hands…I’m 6’2″, and three hundred…uh, and ninety pounds…I’m gonna be the guy that keeps you safe. The only thing I can say to you is – I’m gonna tape a, take a nap. F*** it.”
Season: 2, episode 1 (Montgomery, AL)
Narrator/Featuring: Amber Ruffin, featuring Mariah Wilson as Claudette and Lisa Bonet as Rosa Parks
Story: In 1955, Colvin was the first person to be arrested for not giving her seat up to a white woman on the bus. At 15, Colvin refused to move and she was dragged off by the driver and the police. The NAACP was swamped with letters about her courage…letters that were read by Rosa Parks. Parks struck up a friendship with Colvin through this, and this sparked the idea for the bus boycott. Concerns were raised about a teenager being the face of the boycott movement, and so Parks was called upon to be similarly moved from the bus. This time, the action sparked a revolution and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that we know from the Civil Rights Movement. After this, Claudette participated in the lawsuit against the city of Montgomery. Segregation was declared unconstitutional in the city as a result of this case, after which Colvin moved to New York. Her story was made public years later, where she claimed to harbor no ill will toward Parks’ legacy; she instead showed pleasure that she could be part of a legacy that helped create freedoms for people of color.
Best Line: “Oh I was just tired, aren’t I not threatening, white people?” and white people were like, “Oh, she’s just tired, we’re eating this up!” OR “You know what? F*** this. I’m moving to Burning Man. Wait — did I say Burning Man?” (tie)
Season: 3, episode 5 (“Cleveland”)
Narrator/Featuring: Ashley Barnhill, featuring Gaius Charles as Muhammed Ali, Ron Funches, George Wallace, + Echo Kellum
Story: In 1964, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world. Shortly after (as Muhammed Ali) he declared his intention to object conscientiously to his draft notice. However, the draft board refused to accept his objection, instead prompting him to go the induction ceremony. He declined to step forward at the ceremony, leading to the loss of his boxing license and championship titles. The Cleveland Summit was the brainchild of his manager Herbert Muhammed, which brought together other prominent Black athletes (Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor [who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabaar], Jim Brown, etc.) to discuss their service history with Ali. They all faced the media and stood by his decision, but he was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was finally overturned.
Best Line: “You’re an ugly bear, you smell like an ugly bear. You’re an ugly bear…you smell like an ugly bear. When I’m done with you, when I beat you, I’m gonna donate you to the zoo.”
Frederick Douglass + Abraham Lincoln
Season: Volume 5 of the Web Series
Narrator/Featuring: Jen Kirkman, featuring Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass, Will Ferrell, and Zooey Deschanel
Story: Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Frederick Douglass during the Civil War, and the president consulted with the abolitionist and former slave on how to deal with the problem of slavery in the country. Frederick Douglass talked to Lincoln about the ability of slaves to fight in the war, be paid equally, and to keep them safe in the event of their capture as prisoners of war. Through these meetings, the two became friends and Douglass became an advisor to the Lincoln White House throughout the war. Their relationship lasted until Lincoln’s death. At the dedication to the Emancipation Memorial, Douglass spoke publicly about his relationship with Lincoln- he honored their different views on many areas, but also spoke of his appreciation for his respect despite those differences.
Best Line: “He would have f***ing loved that. That was exactly his style. Come here, I have something for you. I want you to have Abe’s walking stick. His favorite walking stick.”
Season: 3, Episode 4 (“Spies”)
Narrator/Featuring: Crissle West, featuring Octavia Spencer as Harriet Tubman
Story: Harriet Tubman went to Port Royal, SC and served as a nurse, but was convinced she could do more. She went to the Colonel and sold her skills as a spy; once accepted, she snuck on plantations as a field hand to let slaves know what she was doing, then collaborated with mariners to stage a raid in 1863. She mapped out where mines were placed along the Combahee River, then burned a trail along that path to the dismay and shock of plantation owners. It was the first military operation completely planned and execution by a woman, and freed 750 slaves in the process. She went on to free over 1000 slaves in her lifetime, and her efforts helped the Union win the war.
Best Line: “B***h, y’all b***hes are too late! Me and my people already here!”
Eartha Kitt v. Lady Bird Johnson
Season: 6, Episode 11 (“Fame”)
Narrator/Featuring: Nicoly Byer, featuring Tessa Thompson as Eartha Kitt and Cheryl Hines as Lady Bird Johnson
Story: Did former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson intentionally torpedo the career of Batman’s first Black Catwoman? If this story told on the show’s sixth season is to be believed, yes. Eartha Kitt divided her time between her starring role as Catwoman, and volunteering with at-risk youth. The confluence of the two got her invited to a 1968 “Women Doers Lunch.” But after vocally criticizing both the president and the gathering of women for their inaction – or rather, their inaction toward Black youth – Lady Bird called upon the CIA to dig into Kitt’s life and backstory. After they classified her as a “sadistic nymphomaniac” (which, what?!), her contracts to work in clubs around the country were cancelled and Kitt left the US for Europe. Kitt came back to the US six years later at the request of Broadway director Geoffrey Holder, and was eventually able to resume her career.
Best Line: “The Women Doers Lunch, which is awful because that name probably had to be approved by several people…”
IMAGE CREDIT: Comedy Central
Gwendolyn Sanders and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade
Season: 5, Episode 5 (“Civil Rights”)
Narrator/Featuring: Crissle West, featuring Eris Baker (This is Us) as Gwendolyn Sanders
It’s interesting to me that a common question of White parents is, “how do I explain racism to my kids?” While I may never understand that from an experiential perspective, what I do know is this: one, absent a conversation, they may still commit acts of racism to their peers. I first heard racist language from a classmate when I was 5. And two, while young White children are shielded from the dangers of racism, young Black children are old enough to be impacted for life by it. Crissle cites an example from Birmingham in 1963, when seventh grader Gwendolyn Sanders and her younger sisters stood at the front of the city’s Children’s Crusade. In its first day (May 2, 1963), over one thousand kids were arrested during peaceful protest. Jails filled up with children, but as they were released they continued to demonstrate. And just as images of massive protests filled the dockets of nightly news, photos of these young demonstraters being attacked by dogs and knocked over by police hoses contributed directly to the meeting of MLK Jr’s demands.
Best Line: (as JFK) “I didn’t want to say it before because of the Southern white voters. But them motherf***ers are racist! So it’s time to just be real.”
Season: Volume 3 of the Web Series
Narrator/Featuring: Jen Kirkman, featuring Tymberlee Hill as Oney Judge, Danny McBride, and Jason Ritter
Story: Oney Judge was a slave for George and Martha Washington, who was given as a gift to Washington’s daughter. After serving her last dinner before being “gifted”, she left and escaped from PA to New Hampshire. Instead of assuming she escaped, the Washingtons blamed the French. The head of customs finds her in New Hampshire and tries to bring her back. She tells him she was not, in fact, kidnapped but chose to leave. When the customs agent returns to Washington, he informs the Washingtons of her decision to leave. In response, Washington drafts the Fugitive Slave Act, indicating that Judge’s kids belonged to him because she escaped from his employ. To protect her kids, Judge wrote to Washington to make a deal: she would return to be a slave, but would wish to be free when they died. He declined, and so she stayed on the run with her children in the woods of New Hampshire, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Best Line: “I can’t stop with the hiccups. This is separate from the interview, because I wanna honor her, and I can’t…”
IMAGE CREDIT: Comedy Central
Ella Fitzgerald + Marilyn Monroe’s Powerful Friendship
Season: 4, Episode 2 (“Legends”)
Narrator/Featuring: Tymberlee Hill, featuring Gabourey Sidibe as Ella Fitzgerald and Juno Temple as Marilyn Monroe
Story: “This is the most astonishing voice I’ve ever heard in my life,” Monroe said upon listening to Fitzgerald’s album nearly one hundred times as a guide to developing her own singing skills. But when Monroe reached out to glitzy nightspot The Mocambo to inquire about Fitzgerald performing live, she was told that the Black singer would never perform there. Monroe responded with an offer: if you bring Ella Fitzgerald in, and let me sit in the front row of the club, you can take as many pictures as you want. With pictures of the in-demand starlet at a premium, club owners agreed.
Best Line: “Marilyn’s like, ‘I’m an orphan!’ and……eh, what’s her name…Ella! Ella’s like, ‘I’m a f***ing orphan too!”
Season: 2, episode 1 (Montgomery, AL)
Narrator/Featuring: Allan McLeod, featuring Jordan Peele as Percy Julian
Story: Born in Montgomery in 1899, Julian decided early to become a scientist and went to DePauw in Indiana. Banned from living on campus, he lived and worked as a butler in a fraternity house nearby. Unable to get his PhD, he left for Vienna to complete his doctoral study. He returned to the US with his terminal degree and had hoped to work at Howard, but controversial letters drove him to resign. He instead worked at Glidden, where he became the Director of Research. An accident with excess moisture in a tank led to the synthesis of progesterone from soybeans, leading to breakthroughs in arthritis and birth control (among other areas of utilization).
Best Line: “This molecule goes to this molecule and boom…and this molecule goes to this molecule and boom…we’re havin’ a good time!”
Nichelle Nichols Brings Black Women to Space
Season: 5, episode 3 (“Game Changers”
Narrator/Featuring: Ashley Nicole Black, featuring Raven Symone as Nichelle Nichols and Jaleel White as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Story: Nichelle Nichols was approached personally by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry after she worked on another show of his, and he asked her to help fill in his vision of a utopian future in space. After one season on the show, she was prepared to quit in favor of Broadway. As she took the weekend to ponder her next move, she went to an NAACP fundraiser…where Martin Luther King, Jr. praised her for the vision of space and of the future she helped contribute to. As you can imagine, that committed her to the show – and to the show’s more vocal stance on racial equality in later seasons, including TV’s first interracial kiss. She used that platform to lobby NASA to change its recruiting practices so that our real vision of a future in space could be more diverse than the one represented by the first moon landing. In her travels she recruited notable figures like Sally Ride, the first woman in space; Guion Bluford, NASA’s first Black astronaut; and Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space.
Best Line: “And he said, ‘yes, I’m Martin Luther King, and I’m a Trekkie,’ and she was like, ‘f*** me’. But it’s real. Martin Luther King loved Star Trek.”
What did I leave out? What stories are still in need of the Drunk History treatment?