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Today in Black History, 10/18/2012

• October 18, 1887 Granville T. Woods of Cincinnati, Ohio received patent number 371,655 for the Electro-Magnetic Brake Apparatus. His invention provided an economical and efficient system for the operation and control of railway brakes by electro motive force. Woods was born April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio. In 1884, he and his brother formed the Woods Railway Telegraph Company to manufacture and sell telephone and telegraph equipment. Woods was often called the “Black Edison” and over his lifetime was granted approximately 60 patents. Despite these achievements, he died virtually penniless on January 30, 1910. The Granville T. Woods Math and Science Community Academy in Chicago, Illinois is named in his honor.

• October 18, 1905 Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the first President of the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), was born in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire. Houphouet-Boigny graduated first in his class from the French West Africa School of Medicine in 1925 and began his career as doctor’s aide. In 1932, he began leading a movement of farmers against the white landowners and the economic policies of the colonial government. In 1944, he founded the African Agricultural Union (SAA) with himself as president. The SAA brought together African farmers who were dissatisfied with their working conditions and worked together to protect their interests against those of European planters. In 1945, Houphouet-Boigny was elected to represent French colonies in the French National Assembly. In 1956, he became mayor of the Ivorian capital of Abidjan and gained a seat in the Council of Ministers in Paris which he held for three years. When Cote d’Ivoire gained independence from France on August 7, 1960, Houphouet-Boigny was elected president. He held that position until his death on December 7, 1993. The Felix Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize was established in 1990 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Felix Houphouet-Boigny International Airport in Abidjan is named in his honor.

• October 18, 1919 Camilla Ella Williams, the first African American to receive a contract with a major American opera company, was born in Danville, Virginia. Williams earned her Bachelor of Science degree in music from Virginia State College in 1941 and earned a Marian Anderson Fellowship in 1943 and 1944. In 1946, she debuted with the New York City Opera and over the years sang throughout the United States and Europe with various other opera companies. In 1954, Williams became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera and in 1963 she sang the national anthem at the White House and at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Williams retired from opera in 1970 and in 1977 was appointed professor of voice at Indiana University where she taught until her retirement in 1997. In 1979, the City of Danville dedicated the Camilla Williams Park in her honor. In 2009, a “Tribute to Camilla Williams” program was held at the Schomburg Center and she was awarded the President’s Medal for Excellence by Indiana University. Her autobiography, “The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer and Diva,” was published in 2011. Williams died January 29, 2012.

• October 18, 1926 Charles Edward “ChucK” Berry, hall of fame guitarist, singer, and songwriter, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Berry made his first public performances while he was still in high school and by early 1953 was performing at popular clubs in East St. Louis, Illinois. In 1955, Berry recorded “Maybelene” which sold over a million copies and reached number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and in 1956 his song “Roll Over Beethoven” reached number 29 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. By the end of the 1950s Berry was an established star with several hit records and film appearances. After doing time in prison, Berry resumed recording and placed six singles on the Billboard charts during 1964 and 1965. In 1972, “My Ding-a-Ling” became Berry’s only number 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. In 1979, at the request of President Jimmy Carter, Berry performed at the White House. Today, Berry performs periodically. Berry was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1982, presented the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984, was in the first class of musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and received Kennedy Center Honors in 2000. In addition to “Maybelene” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” four other Berry recordings, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957), “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), and “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958), are listed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. An eight-foot tall statue of Berry was unveiled in St. Louis in 2011.

• October 18, 1948 Ntozake Shange, playwright and poet, was born Paulette L. Williams in Trenton, New Jersey. In 1970, Shange earned her Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in American studies from Barnard College and then earned her Master of Arts degree in the same field from the University of Southern California in 1973. In 1975, Shange’s first and most well known play was produced, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” The play won a number of awards, including the Off-Broadway Theater Award (Obie) and the Outer Critics Circle Award. Since then, Shange has written a number of other successful plays, including “Mother Courage and Her Children” which also won an Obie Award. She has also written several poems, essays, and short stories. Among her honors and awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund and a Pushcart Prize.

• October 18, 1951 Terry McMillan, author, was born in Port Huron, Michigan. McMillan earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of California and her Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in 1979. Her first book, “Mama,” was self-published in 1987. She gained national attention in 1992 with her third novel, “Waiting to Exhale,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list for many months and was turned into a movie in 1995. In 1998, another of her books, “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” was made into a movie. Her most recent works “The Interruption of Everything” was published in 2005 and the sequel to “Waiting to Exhale,” “Getting to Happy,” was published in 2010.

• October 18, 1958 Thomas Hearns, the first boxer to win world titles in four different divisions, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but raised in Detroit, Michigan. Hearns had an amateur boxing record of 155 wins and 8 losses and won the 1977 National Golden Gloves Light Welterweight Championship. That same year, he turned professional and in 1980 won the WBA World Welterweight Championship. In 1982, he moved up in weight and won the WBC Super Welterweight Championship. Hearns won the Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year Award in 1980 and 1984. In 1987, he again moved up in weight and won the WBC Light Heavyweight Championship. Later in his career, Hearns also won two Cruiserweight Championships. Hearns retired with a record of 61 wins, 5 losses, and 1 draw.

• October 18, 1961 Wynton Learson Marsalis, jazz and classical music trumpeter and composer, was born in New Orleans, Lousiana. At the age of eight, Marsalis was performing traditional New Orleans music in the church band and at 14 was invited to perform with the New Orleans Philharmonic. While in high school, he was also a member of the New Orleans Symphony Brass Quintet. Marsalis moved to New York City in 1978 and in 1980 joined the Jazz Messengers. Throughout the 1980s, Marsalis led several jazz bands of his own and in 1987 he co-founded and became artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, a position that he continues to hold. In 1983, Marsalis became the first musician to win Grammy Awards for both a jazz and a classical recording. In total, he has won nine Grammy Awards, including the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children for “Listen to the Storyteller.” In 1997, his “Blood on the Fields” became the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Since Hurricane Katrina, Marsalis has been active in raising money and awareness to rebuild New Orleans. In 2005, Marsalis was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, by President George W. Bush. He has toured 30 countries and 5 million copies of his recordings have been sold worldwide.

• October 18, 1966 Cyril Valentine Briggs, writer and political activist, died. Briggs was born May 28, 1888 in Nevis, West Indies. He moved to New York City in 1905 and got his first writing job at the Amsterdam News in 1912. In 1917, Briggs founded the African Blood Brotherhood to stop lynchings in the South and racial discrimination in the North. In 1918, the ABB started publication of a magazine called The Crusader. As the leader of the ABB, Briggs called for “control by African American workers of the means of production which employed them, whether in industry or in agriculture.” He also became a leading exponent of separatism, calling for “government of the Negro people, for the Negro people and by the Negro people.” By the mid-1920s, the ABB began to lose influence and Briggs lived out the remainder of his life in relative obscurity.

• October 18, 1995 Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the first African American to attend law school in Oklahoma, died. Fisher was born February 8, 1924 in Chickasha, Oklahoma. She graduated from Langston University with honors in 1945. In 1946, she applied to the University of Oklahoma School of Law, but was denied because of her race. On January 12, 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma that colleges could not deny admittance based on race. In reaction to the ruling, the Oklahoma legislature created the Langston University School of Law. Fisher refused to attend Langston and announced her intention to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, she was finally admitted to the University of Oklahoma School of Law on June 18, 1949. After admitting her, the law school gave her a chair marked “colored” and roped it off from the rest of the class. She also had to dine in a chained off guarded area of the law school cafeteria. Despite these hardships, Fisher earned her Master of Laws degree in 1951. After graduating, she practiced in her hometown and was a professor at Langston University. In 1992, she was appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. In 1996, Fisher was posthumously inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame. That same year, her autobiography, “A Matter of Black and White: The Autobiography of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher,” was published. The Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher Gardens on the campus of the University of Oklahoma is dedicated in her honor.

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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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