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Today in Black History, 5/29/2014

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• May 29, 1851 Sojourner Truth delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Her simple short speech was a powerful rebuke of antifeminist arguments of the day. It is still considered a classic expression of women’s rights. Truth was born Isabella Baumfree enslaved in Swartekill, New York November 19, 1797. When she was nine, she was sold with a flock of sheep for $100. In 1826, Truth escaped to freedom and in 1843 changed her name and began traveling and preaching about abolition. Her memoir, “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave,” was published in 1850. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit Black soldiers for the Union Army and later met with Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. Truth died November 26, 1883. She was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1981, in 1986 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor, and in 2009 she became the first Black woman to be honored with a bust in the United States Capitol. A number of books have been published about Truth, including “Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend” (1993) and “Glorying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth” (1994). Truth’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

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Today in Black History, 5/28/2014

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• May 28, 1875 Isaac Payne, John Ward, and Pompey Factor received the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration, for their actions during the Indian Wars. All three men were Black Seminoles known as Seminole Negro Indian Scouts. Payne served as a trumpeter, Factor was a private, and Ward was a sergeant attached to the 24th Infantry Regiment. On April 25, 1875 they along with one other man “participated in a charge against 25 hostiles while on a scouting patrol” by the Pecos River in Texas. Not much else is known of their lives other than Payne was born in 1854 and died January 14, 1904, Ward was born in 1848 and died May 24, 1911, and Factor was born in 1849 and died March 28, 1928.

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Today in Black History, 5/27/2014

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• May 27, 1861 Victoria Earle Matthews, journalist, social worker and activist, was born Ella Victoria Smith enslaved in Fort Valley, Georgia. She and her family were emancipated after the Civil War and moved to New York City. Matthews had some formal education but was mostly self-taught. Around 1880, she began her journalistic career, writing for three New York newspapers and contributing articles to African American newspapers. In 1893, she published the novel “Aunt Lindy: A Story Founded on Real Life.” During the early 1890s, Matthews became more involved in African American political and social concerns and was a co-founder of the Woman’s Loyal Union, an organization that worked against racial discrimination and supported the anti-lynching campaign. In 1895, she co-founded the National Federation of Afro-American Women and was later instrumental in the merger of that organization and the National Colored Women’s League and the National Association of Colored Women. Matthews served as the first national organizer of the combined organization. In 1897, she founded the White Rose Industrial Home for Working Class Negro Girls, a settlement house for young Black women providing safe housing, education, and life and job skills. Matthews died March 10, 1907.

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Today in Black History, 5/26/2014

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• May 26, 1883 Mamie Robinson Smith, vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist and actress, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a teenager, Smith danced in Salem Tutt Whitney’s Smart Set and in 1920 recorded a set of songs, including “Crazy Blues” and “It’s Right Here For You (If You Don’t Get It, T’ain’t No Fault of Mine).” These were the first recordings of vocal blues by an African American singer and sold over a million copies in one year. “Crazy Blues” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994 as a recording of “qualitative or historical significance” and selected to be part of the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress in 2005 as a recording of “cultural, historical, or aesthetical importance.” Smith continued to record throughout the 1920s and toured the United States and Europe. She appeared in a number of motion pictures, including “Jail House Blues” (1929), “Paradise in Harlem” (1939), and “Murder on Lennox Avenue” (1941). Smith died September 16, 1946.

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Today in Black History, 5/25/2014

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• May 25, 1849 Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, autistic savant and piano music prodigy, was born enslaved and blind in Harris County, Georgia. By four, Wiggins had acquired piano skills based solely on hearing and at five composed his first tune, “The Rain Storm.” At eight, Wiggins was licensed to a traveling show and marketed as a “Barnum style freak.” In 1860, Wiggins performed at the White House for President James Buchanan and in 1866 was taken on a European concert tour. It was said that his memory was prodigious and he never forgot anything, he was often called “a human parrot.” During the latter part of the 19th century, he was one of the most well known American pianists. Despite his fame, Wiggins was exploited, deceived, and robbed of the money he earned by his White guardians. Wiggins died June 14, 1908. His biography, “The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist” was published in 2009.

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Today in Black History, 5/24/2014

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• May 24, 1911 John Ward, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, died. Ward was born in 1847 in Arkansas. He was a Black Seminole and served as a sergeant in the 24th United States Army Infantry during the Indian Wars. On April 25, 1875, he and three other men “participated in a charge against 25 hostiles while on a scouting patrol” by the Pecos River in Texas. Not much else is known of Ward’s life.

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Today in Black History, 5/23/2014

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• May 23, 1832 Samuel Sharpe, national hero of Jamaica, was hanged for leading the Christmas Rebellion. Sharpe was born enslaved in 1801 in St. James, Jamaica. Although enslaved, Sharpe was allowed to be educated and became a preacher and leader in the enslaved community. On December 25, 1831, he organized a peaceful strike of several estates in western Jamaica during sugar cane harvest time. As a result of reprisals by the plantation owners, the strikers burned the crops. This caused the peaceful protest to turn into Jamaica’s largest slave rebellion, resulting in hundreds of Black and 14 White deaths. The Jamaican military ended the rebellion within two weeks and many of the leaders, including Sharpe were hanged. Just before he was hanged, Sharpe stated “I would rather die among yonder gallows, than live in slavery.” In 1975, the government of Jamaica proclaimed Sharpe a National Hero and Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College was founded. Sam Sharpe Square is located in downtown Montego Bay, Jamaica. Sharpe’s image is also on the Jamaican $50 bill.

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Today in Black History, 5/22/2014

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• May 22, 1914 Sun Ra, hall of fame jazz pianist, composer, bandleader and poet, was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama. Sun Ra was a skilled pianist as a child and by 12 was writing original music. As a teenager, he would see big band performances and produce full transcriptions of the music from memory. By his mid-teens, he was performing professionally as a solo pianist or as a member of various jazz and R&B groups. In 1934, Sun Ra took over leadership of a group and renamed it the Sonny Blount Orchestra. From the mid-1950s to his death May 30, 1993, Sun Ra led The Arkestra. He was one of the first jazz leaders to use two basses and electronic instruments. In 1982, he was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts and in 1984 he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. Sun Ra’s poetry and prose is available in “Sun Ra, The Immeasurable Equation,” published in 2005. His biography, “Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra,” was published in 1998.

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Today in Black History, 5/21/2014

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• May 21, 1847 Isaiah Thornton Montgomery, founder of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, was born enslaved on Davis Island, near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Montgomery was taught to read and write by his parents and briefly educated in the plantation school. After being freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, he and his father took control of the plantation they were formally enslaved on and became the third largest cotton producers in Mississippi. Their cotton won the top awards at the 1870 St. Louis, Missouri Fair, the 1873 exposition in Cincinnati, Ohio, and 1878 exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At their peak, they controlled 5,500 acres and had 1,000 field hands. However, successive bad crops, low prices, flooding, and debt plagued their operation and in 1881 ownership of the land was returned to the previous owner. Montgomery then pursued his dream of an all-Black colony of autonomous landowners by founding Mound Bayou in 1887. The town grew to 800 inhabitants on 30,000 acres with lighted streets, little crime, a bank, churches, schools, and more than 40 retail establishments. Montgomery served as the town’s mayor and was elected a delegate to the Mississippi Constitutional Convention in 1890. Montgomery died March 5, 1924.

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Today in Black History, 5/20/2014

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• May 20, 1743 Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haitian patriot and revolutionary leader, was born enslaved in Saint-Domingue, Hispaniola (now Haiti). At an early age, Toussaint’s master recognized his superior intelligence and taught him French, gave him duties which allowed him to educate himself, and freed him at 33. Beginning in 1791, Toussaint led enslaved Black people in a long struggle for independence from French colonizers, to abolish slavery, and secure native control over the colony. By 1796, Toussaint was the dominant figure in Haiti and tried to rebuild the collapsed economy and reestablish commercial contacts with the United States and Britain. However, in 1802 he was kidnapped by the French and died in a French prison April 7, 1803. Toussaint figures importantly in the early 19th century writings of several authors as a symbol and exemplar of resistance to slavery and as an example of the potential of the Black race. He also inspired a number of 20th century works, including Arna Bontemps’ “Drums at Dusk” (1939) and Aime Cesaire’s “Toussaint Louverture” (1960). Toussaint’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

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Today in Black History, 5/19/2014

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• May 19, 1885 John Percial Parker received patent number 318,285 for a Portable Screw Press, popularly known as the Parker Pulverizer. Parker was born February 2, 1827 in Norfolk, Virginia. At eight, he was sold into slavery. By 1845, he had earned enough money to buy his freedom for $1,800. As a free man, he became involved in abolitionist activities and aided in the freeing of over a thousand enslaved people. During the Civil War, Parker served as a recruiter for the Union Army and supplied castings for the war effort. In 1854, Parker established the Ripley Foundry and Machine Company and received patent number 304,552 for the Follower-Screw for Tobacco Presses September 2, 1884. Parker’s foundry employed more than 25 workers and remained in operation until 1918, well after his death February 4, 1900. His home in Ripley, Ohio was designated a National Historic Landmark February 18, 1997. Parker’s autobiography, “His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad,” was published in 1996.

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Today in Black History, 5/18/2014

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• May 18, 1838 Alexander Miles, barber and inventor, was born in Ohio. Miles moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin where he earned a living as a barber. He subsequently moved to Winona, Minnesota and Duluth, Minnesota. While in Duluth, he received patent number 371, 207 October 11, 1887 for an improved automatic opening and closing elevator door. Prior to his invention, elevator patrons or operators were often required to manually shut the door to cut off access to the elevator shaft. Sometimes people would neglect to close the door and people would fall down the elevator shaft. By 1900, Miles had moved to Chicago, Illinois where he started an insurance agency for Black people. He later moved to Seattle, Washington where he was considered “the wealthiest colored man in the Northwest.” Miles died May 7, 1918.

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Today in Black History, 5/17/2014

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• May 17, 1864 John William “Blind” Boone, pianist and ragtime music composer, was born near Miami, Missouri. When he was six months old, doctors removed his eyes in an attempt to cure his brain fever. Boone’s musical talents were recognized early and in 1872 he was sent to the St. Louis School for the Blind to study piano. In 1880, his professional career was launched after he played in a concert with the famous pianist, Blind Tom. After that, Boone played thousands of concerts in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. During his lifetime, Boone was a committed philanthropist who supported local causes and opened his home to the community. He donated generously to several churches and gave his time and talent to local youth. Boone died October 4, 1927. His home in Columbia, Missouri was listed on the National Register of Historic Places September 4, 1980. The John William Boone Heritage Foundation was founded to preserve the history of Blind Boone and Blind Boone Park in Warrensburg, Missouri is named in his honor. His biography, “Blind Boone: Missouri’s Ragtime Pioneer,” was published in 1998.

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Today in Black History, 5/16/2014

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• May 16, 1840 James Milton Turner, politician and Consul to Liberia, was born enslaved in St. Louis, Missouri. Turner and his parents were freed when he was young but he still had limited educational opportunities because Missouri laws restricted Black people from learning to read. Despite the legal obstacles, Turner learned to read and briefly attended Oberlin College. After the Civil War, he became a prominent politician known for his speaking ability. He worked for the Missouri Department of Education, establishing over 30 new schools in the state for African Americans, and providing support for Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University). In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Turner United States Minister to Liberia, the first African American to hold that position. After returning from Liberia in 1878, Turner organized the Colored Emigration Aid Association to provide assistance to Black people migrating from the South. Turner died November 1, 1915. His biography, “James Milton Turner and the Promise of America: The Public Life of a Post-Civil War Leader,” was published in 1991.

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Today in Black History, 5/15/2014

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• May 15, 1868 George Henry Wanton, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was born in Paterson, New Jersey. By June 30, 1898, he was serving as a private in the 10th Calvary Regiment (Buffalo Soldiers) in the Spanish – American War. On that day, American forces aboard the USS Florida near Tayacoba, Cuba dispatched a small landing party to provide reconnaissance on Spanish outposts in the area. The party was discovered and came under heavy fire. Their boats were sunk, leaving them stranded on shore. After four failed attempts, Wanton and three other members of the 10th Calvary successfully found and rescued the surviving members of the landing party. In recognition of his actions, Wanton was awarded the medal, America’s highest military decoration June 23, 1899. Wanton continued to serve in the military and reached the rank of master sergeant and served in the Quartermaster Corps before retiring. Wanton died November 27, 1940 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Today in Black History, 5/14/2014

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• May 14, 1861 Alfred Oscar Coffin, the first African American to earn a Ph. D. in the biological sciences, was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi. Coffin earned his bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 1885 and his Ph. D. in biology from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1889. From 1887 to 1898, he taught at Alcorn A&M College and Wiley University. From 1898 to 1909, he was a public school principal in Texas and Missouri. He ended his teaching career as a romance language professor at Langston University. Coffin published two books, “Origin of the Mound Builders” in 1889 and “Land Without Chimneys, Or The Byways of Mexico” in 1896, the first significant book on Latin America published by an African American. Coffin died in 1933.

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Today in Black History, 5/13/2014

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• May 13, 1831 Edward Park Duplex, the first African American mayor in the western United States, was born in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1854, Duplex moved to Marysville, California where he became a prominent business and civic leader. In 1855, he was a representative to the first California Colored Citizens Convention and the following year served on the convention’s executive committee. In 1875, Duplex moved to Wheatland, California where he established a successful hair care business. On April 11, 1888 the Wheatland Board of Trustees elected Duplex Mayor of Wheatland. Duplex died January 5, 1900. The building that housed his business still stands today. The “History of Yuba and Sutter Counties” named Duplex as “a man who helped make Wheatland.”

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Today in Black History, 5/12/2014

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• May 12, 1906 William “Gorilla” Jones, hall of fame boxer, was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Jones started boxing professionally in 1923 and won the World Middleweight Boxing Championship in 1925. He retired in 1940 with a record of 101 wins, 24 losses, and 13 draws. After retiring, he served as a chauffeur and bodyguard for the movie star Mae West and from the late 1940s to the 1970s trained other boxers. Jones died January 4, 1982. He was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009.

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Today in Black History, 5/11/2014

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• May 11, 1895 William Grant Still, “the dean” of African American classical composers, was born in Woodville, Mississippi but raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. Still started taking violin lessons at 15 and taught himself to play a number of other instruments. Still attended Wilberforce University where he conducted the university band and started to compose. He also studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. After serving in the United States Navy during World War I, he worked as an arranger for W. C. Handy and later played in the pit orchestra for the musical “Shuffle Along.” In 1934, Still was the recipient of the first Guggenheim Fellowship. On July 23, 1936, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra. On March 31, 1949, his opera “Troubled Island” (1939) was performed by the New York City Opera, the first opera by an African American to be performed by a major opera company. Despite selling out the first three nights and receiving 22 curtain calls on opening night, the opera was shut down, never to be staged again. “Just Tell the Story: Troubled Island” (2006) delves into some of the reason why. Still eventually moved to Los Angeles, California where he arranged music for films, including “Pennies from Heaven” (1936) and “Lost Horizon” (1937). He received honorary doctorate degrees from a number of institutions, including Oberlin College, Howard University, the New England Conservatory of Music, and the University of Southern California. Still died December 3, 1978. On June 15, 1981, his opera “A Bayou Legend” became the first opera by an African American to be performed on national television when it premiered on PBS. His biography, “In One Lifetime: A Biography of William Grant Still,” was published in 1984.

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Today in Black History, 5/10/2014

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• May 10, 1815 Henry Walton Bibb, author and abolitionist, was born enslaved in Shelby County, Kentucky. In 1837, Bibb escaped to Cincinnati, Ohio but was captured when he returned to free his wife. In 1842, he escaped to Detroit, Michigan. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required Northerners to cooperate in the capture of previously enslaved people, Bibb moved to Windsor, Canada. In 1851, he established the first Black newspaper in Canada, “The Voice of the Fugitive.” The paper promoted the abolitionist movement and provided information to parties on the Underground Railroad. Bibb and his wife also helped establish the Refugee Home Society which created settlements and assisted previously enslaved Black people who escaped to Canada. Bibb published his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave,” in 1848. Bibb died August 1, 1854.

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