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Today in Black History, 10/17/2012

• October 17, 1711 Jupiter Hammon, the first African American published writer in America (several years earlier Phyllis Wheatley’s poems had been published in England), was born enslaved in Long Island, New York. Unlike most enslaved people, Hammon was allowed to attend school and could read and write. His first published poem, “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries,” was published on Christmas Day, 1760. On September 24, 1786, he delivered his “Address to the Negroes of the State of New York” in which he stated “If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being Black, or for being slaves.” He also said that black people should maintain their high moral standards precisely because slaves on earth had already secured their place in heaven. Hammon remained enslaved his whole life and the date of his death is unknown, but it occurred before 1806. Hammon’s story is told in “America’s First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island” (1970) and “Jupiter Hammon and the Biblical Beginnings of African American Literature” (1993).

• October 17, 1806 Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of independent Haiti, was assassinated. Dessalines was born enslaved on September 20, 1758 in Saint-Domingue, Haiti. He worked in the sugar cane fields until he was 30 years old when he was bought by a free black man. He worked for the black man for three years until the slave uprisings of 1791. Dessalines joined the rebellion and quickly rose to the rank of lieutenant. He then joined the forces of Toussaint Louverture and by 1799 was serving as brigadier general. After the capture of Louverture, Dessalines became the leader of the revolution. He defeated the French troops at the Battle of Vertieres in 1803 and declared Haiti an independent nation in 1804 with himself as Governor-General for life. Dessalines declared Haiti an all-black nation and forbade whites from owning land or property. Today, Dessalines is considered one of the founding fathers of Haiti and a monument at the northern entrance to Port-au-Prince marks the place where he was killed. Also, the national anthem of Haiti, “La Dessalinienne,” is named in his honor, as is the city of Dessalines.

• October 17, 1817 Samuel Ringgold Ward, abolitionist, newspaper editor, and minister, was born enslaved on Maryland’s eastern shore. His parents escaped in 1820 and settled in New York City in 1826. After he left school, Ward worked as a teacher and became active in the abolitionist movement. In 1841, he became pastor of the Congregational Church of South Butler in New York. Ward’s oratory abilities and efforts in the abolitionist movement caused Frederick Douglass to say “As an orator and thinker Ward was vastly superior to any of us and the splendor of his intellect went directly to the glory of the race.” In 1851, Ward moved to Canada and worked with the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada. In 1853, his successful ten month fundraising trip to England enabled the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada to finance its work in support of escaped enslaved people from the United States. In 1855, Ward published “Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: his anti-slavery labours in the United States, Canada and England.” Ward retired to Jamaica where he died around 1866. A biography, “Samuel Ringgold Ward: Christian Abolitionist,” was published in 1995.

• October 17, 1928, Lerone Bennett, Jr., scholar, author, and social historian, was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Bennett earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Morehouse College in 1949 and served in the United States Army from 1951 to 1952. He joined Ebony Magazine in 1954 and for decades served as executive editor. Bennett is the author of several books, including “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619-1962,” which was published in 1963 and discusses the contribution of African Americans in the United States, and “Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream,” published in 2000 and questions Lincoln’s role as the “Great Emancipator.” Bennett has honorary degrees from several colleges and universities and in 2003 was awarded the Carter G. Woodson Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

• October 17, 1945 Graca Simbine Machel, educator and international advocate for women’s and children’s rights, was born in Incadine, Mozambique. In 1968, Machel earned a scholarship to the University of Lisbon in Portugal where she first became involved in independence issues. She returned to Mozambique in 1973 and following the country’s independence in 1975 was appointed Minister of Education and Culture, a position she held until 1986. In 1995, Machel was awarded the Nansen Medal from the United Nations in recognition of her longstanding humanitarian work on behalf of refugee children. In 1996, she chaired the committee that produced the United Nations Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. Machel is fluent in English, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and her native Tsonga. She is the only person in the world to have been married to the presidents of two different nations, widow of Samora Machel, former President of Mozambique, and current wife of Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa. Machel currently serves as the chair of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa executive committee.

• October 17, 1956 Mae Carol Jemison, hall of fame astronaut, physician, and the first African American woman in space, was born in Decatur, Alabama. Jemison entered Stanford University at the age of 16 and graduated in 1977 with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and a Bachelor of Arts degree in African and Afro-American studies. She earned her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981 from Cornell Medical College. After completing her medical internship, she joined the Peace Corp and served as a medical officer in Liberia and Sierra Leone from 1983 to 1985. In 1987, Jemison was accepted into the training program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and on September 12, 1992 traveled in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. During her 190 hours in space, she conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness. Jemison resigned from NASA in 1993 and started her own company that researches, markets, and develops science and technology for daily life. Jemison is a long-time advocate for science education and getting minority students interested in science. She has received several honorary doctorates and in 1992 the Mae C. Jamison Academy, an alternative school in Detroit, Michigan, was named in her honor. In 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and in 2004 she was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame. Jemison is a professor-at-large at Cornell University. Jemison published her autobiography, “Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments from My Life,” in 2001.

• October 17, 2008 Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of the hall of fame group The Four Tops, died. Stubbs was born Levi Stubbles on June 6, 1936 in Detroit, Michigan. In 1954, he and three friends formed a singing group called The Four Aims. Two years later, they changed their name to The Four Tops and in 1963 signed with Motown Records. By the end of the decade, they had over a dozen hits, including “It’s the Same Old Song” (1965), “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” (1965), “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (1966), “Standing In the Shadow of Love” (1966), and “Bernadette” (1967). Since the late 1980s, the group has focused on touring and live performances. In 1995, Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer and later suffered a stroke. In 2000, Stubbs was replaced in The Four Tops by Theo Peoples. The Four Tops have sold over 50 million records worldwide and in 1990 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1999, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

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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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