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Today in Black History, 10/21/2012

• October 21, 1864 Alfred B. Hilton, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, died of wounds received at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm during the Civil War. Hilton was born in Harford County, Maryland in 1842. On September 29, 1864, Hilton was serving as a sergeant in the 4th Regiment Colored Infantry when his unit participated in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. During the battle, Hilton carried the American flag as part of the unit’s color guard. As he charged the enemy fortifications, he grabbed the regimental colors from a wounded comrade. When he was seriously wounded, he called out “Boys, save the colors.” Two of his fellow soldiers grabbed the flags before they could touch the ground. On April 6, 1865, Hilton was posthumously awarded the medal, America’s highest military decoration, for his actions during the battle. Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood and Private Charles Veale, both African Americans, also received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle.

• October 21, 1917 John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, hall of fame jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, was born in Cheraw, South Carolina. By the age of 12, Gillespie had taught himself to play the piano, trombone, and trumpet and he took his first professional job at 18. Together with Charlie Parker, Gillespie was a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz and was also influential in the development of Afro-Cuban jazz. Gillespie was a major influence on many musicians, including Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Arturo Sandoval. In 1956, he organized a band to go on a State Department tour of the Middle East and earned the nickname “the Ambassador of Jazz.” Gillespie was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1960 and in 1982 was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1989, Gillespie received the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s most prestigious cultural award, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Also that year, he received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, from President George H. W. Bush. In 1990, he received the Kennedy Center Honors Award. Gillespie published his autobiography “To Be or Not to Bop,” in 1979 and died on January 6, 1993.

• October 21, 1950 Ronald Ervin McNair, physicist and NASA astronaut, was born in Lake City, South Carolina. McNair earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in physics, magna cum laude, from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971. In 1976, he earned his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. McNair was chosen for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration program in 1978 and flew aboard the Challenger in February, 1984 as a mission specialist. On January 28, 1986, McNair died along with six other crew members during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. A number of public places have been renamed in honor of McNair, including schools throughout the country. The United States Department of Education offers the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program for low income, first generation, and/or underrepresented students.

• October 21, 1980 Valerie Thomas received patent number 4,229,761 for her invention of the Illusion Transmitter which allowed the user to render three dimensional illusions in real-time. Thomas was born in May, 1943 and graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in physics. In 1964, she went to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration program where she worked until her retirement in 1995. In addition to her invention, Thomas designed programs to research Halley’s Comet and ozone holes. During her time at NASA, she received many awards including the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. She is currently an associate at the UMBC Center for Multicore Hybrid Productivity Research and serves as a mentor for the Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology and National Technical Association.

• October 21, 1994 Charles Edward Anderson, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in meteorology, died. Anderson was born August 13, 1919 in St. Louis, Missouri. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Lincoln University in 1941. After graduating, Anderson enlisted in the United States Air Force and was sent to the University of Chicago where he earned his meteorological certification in 1943 and began serving as weather officer for the Tuskegee Airmen. Anderson earned his Master of Science degree from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1948 and in 1960 earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Anderson remained a weather officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps until 1960. From 1966 until his death, Anderson was a professor, first at the University of Wisconsin and then at North Carolina State University. Today the American Meteorology Society honor Anderson’s legacy with the Charles Anderson Award given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to the promotion of diversity in the atmospheric sciences.

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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.