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Today in Black History, 10/15/2012

• October 15, 1837 Fannie Jackson Coppin, educator and journalist, was born enslaved in Washington, D.C. Coppin’s aunt worked for $6 per month and saved $125 to purchase her freedom when she was 12 years old. In 1860, Coppin enrolled at Oberlin College and was the first African American student to be appointed in the college’s preparatory department. While attending Oberlin, she established an evening school for previously enslaved blacks. After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1865, she began to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1869, Coppin became principle of the institute, making her the first African American woman to receive that title. She served in that position until 1906. In addition to teaching, Coppin founded homes for working and poor women and wrote an influential column in the local newspaper that defended the rights of women and blacks. In 1902, Coppin and her husband went to South Africa and founded the Bethel Institute, a missionary school that emphasized self-help programs. Coppin died January 21, 1913 and her book “Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching” was published later that year. In 1926, a teacher training school was named the Fannie Jackson Coppin Normal School in her honor. That school is now Coppin State University. Coppin’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• October 15, 1890 The Alabama Penny Savings Bank was founded in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the first three African American-owned and operated financial institutions in the United States. In its early years, the bank’s officers worked without salaries, helping the bank survive the 1893 financial panic which caused the failure of other institutions. In 1913, the bank moved into a new six-story building built by the black-owned Windham Construction Company. The bank failed in 1915 and the building was bought by the Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythias and renamed Pythian Temple. In 1980, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

• October 15, 1923 Mary Morris Burnett Talbert, orator, activist, and suffragist, died. Talbert was born September 17, 1866 in Oberlin, Ohio. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin College in 1886, the only African American woman in her class. In 1887, she became an assistant principle at a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, the highest position held by an African American woman in the state. Talbert moved to Buffalo, New York in 1891 and became an early advocate for women of all colors. Described by many as “the best known colored woman in the United States,” Talbert lectured against lynching, racism, and for women’s suffrage. She co-founded the first chapter of the NAACP in Buffalo in 1910 and served as the national director of the NAACP Anti-Lynching Campaign in 1921. From 1916 to 1921, Talbert served as president of the National Association of Colored Women. She lectured in eleven European nations on the conditions of African Americans in the United States. In 1922, Talbert became the first woman to receive the NAACP Spingarn Medal. Talbert wrote extensively and published “The Achievements of Negro Women during the Past 50 Years” in 1915. Four branches of the National Association of Colored Women are named in her honor, including the one in Detroit, Michigan. Talbert Hall at the University of Buffalo is also named in her honor.

• October 15, 1935 Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the National Hockey League, was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. O’Ree started his minor league hockey career in 1957 and made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958. He played in only two games that year and was sent back to the minor leagues until 1961 when he played in 43 games. He scored 10 goals and had 10 assists in his 45 game NHL career, all in 1961. During his NHL career, O’Ree noted that “racist remarks were much worse in the United States than in Canada.” From 1961 to his retirement in 1978, O’Ree played in the minor leagues, winning two scoring titles. In 1998, O’Ree was appointed Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force which encourages minority youth to learn and play hockey. In January, 2008, the City of Fredericton named a new sports complex in his honor and in December, 2008 he received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen.

• October 15, 1937 Riley Leroy Pitts, the first African American commissioned officer to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, was born in Fallis, Oklahoma. In 1960, Pitts graduated from Wichita State University with a degree in journalism. After being commissioned as an officer in the United States Army, he was sent to Vietnam in December, 1966. In Vietnam, Pitts served as an information officer until he was transferred to a combat unit. On October 31, 1967, one month before he was to be rotated home, his unit was called upon to reinforce another company engaged against a strong enemy force. Captain Pitts led an assault that overran the enemy positions and then was ordered to move north to reinforce another company. During that battle, Pitts seized a grenade from a captured Viet Cong and threw it toward an enemy bunker. The grenade hit some foliage and rebounded toward Pitts’ position. Without hesitation, Pitts threw himself on top of the grenade which fortunately did not explode. Without regard for his own safety, Pitts continued to fire, pinpointing the enemy’s position, while at the same time directing his men forward until he was mortally wounded. On December 10, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the medal to Pitts’ widow and son and daughter. The Riley Leroy Pitts post of the American Legion in Mannheim, Germany and the Riley Leroy Pitts Park in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma are named in his honor.

• October 15, 1938 Fela Anikulapo Kuti, multi-instrumentalist, composer and human rights activist, was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, Nigeria. In 1958, Fela was sent to London, England to study medicine, but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music. In 1963, he returned to Nigeria and formed a band. In 1969, Fela took the band to the United States where he discovered the Black Power Movement. After returning to Nigeria, his music became more politically motivated. His music was popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general, but unpopular with the ruling government. In 1977, Fela released the album “Zombie” which was an attack on the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit with the public, but resulted in an attack by Nigerian soldiers in which Fela was severely beaten and his mother killed. In 1979, Fela formed his own political party, Movement of the People, and put himself up for president in Nigeria’s first elections in more than a decade. His candidacy was refused by the government. In 1984, Fela was jailed by the government for 20 months. In 1989, he released the anti-apartheid album “Beasts of No Nation.” Fela died August 2, 1997 and more than a million people attended his funeral. A number of biographies have been written about Fela, including “Fela, Fela! This Bitch of a Life” (1982), “Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon” (1997), and “The Ikoyi Prison Narratives: The Spiritualism and Political Philosophy of Fela Kuti” (2009). Also in 2009, a production of his life titled “Fela” opened on Broadway and continues to tour around the world.

• October 15, 1966 The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in Oakland, California by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. In 1967, the organization marched on the California State Capitol to protest a selective ban on weapons and they published their official newspaper, The Black Panther. By 1968, the party had expanded into many cities around the country, membership was approximately 5,000, and their newspaper had a circulation of 250,000. As the party grew in national prominence, they became more focused on community social programs designed to alleviate poverty and improve health among communities most needful of aid. Despite this, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and instituted a program that included surveillance, infiltration, police harassment, perjury, and other tactics designed to incriminate party members and drain the organization of manpower and resources. As a result, party membership declined and the organization collapsed in the early 1970s. A number of books have been published about the party, including “In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement” (2006), “Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party” (2007), and “Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party” (2008).

• October 15, 1968 Wyomia Tyus became the first woman to retain her title when she won the Gold medal in the 100 meter race at the Mexico City Olympic Games. At those games, she also won a Gold medal by anchoring the 4 by 100 meter relay. Tyus had previously won the Gold medal in the 100 meter race and a Silver medal in the 4 by 100 meter relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Tyus was born August 29, 1945 in Griffin, Georgia and attended Tennessee State University. She retired from track after the 1968 Olympics and went on to coach high school athletes. In 1973, she returned to the track as part of the Professional International Track Association and over the next two years won 30 of the 40 events she entered. Tyus was also a founding member of the Women’s Sports Foundation. In 1980, she was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame and in 1985 was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame. In 1994, Tyus began working as a naturalist for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park in Spaulding County, Georgia is named in her honor.

• October 15, 2007 Ernest C. Withers, photojournalist, died. Withers was born August 7, 1922 in Memphis, Tennessee. He worked as a photographer in the United States Army during World War II and opened a studio in Memphis when he returned. He also worked for three years as one of the first African American police officers in Memphis. Withers documented the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1960s. In the 1950s, he also photographed such baseball icons as Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and the early performances of Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin. His photographs appeared in Time and Newsweek magazines, the New York Times and Washington Post newspapers, and the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” Many of them are collected in four books, “Let Us March On” (1992), “Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers Reflections in History” (2000), “The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs” (2001), and “Negro League Baseball” (2005).

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Founded in 1965 and located in the heart of Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is the world's largest institution dedicated to the African American experience. The Museum provides learning opportunities, exhibitions, programs and events based on collections and research that explore the diverse history and culture of African Americans and their African origins.

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