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Today in Black History, 10/2/2012

• October 2, 1800 Nathaniel “Nat” Turner, rebellion leader, was born enslaved in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner learned to read and write at a young age and was deeply religious. By early 1828, he was convinced that he “was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty” and that God had given him the task of “slaying my enemies with their own weapons.” On August 13, 1831, there was a solar eclipse and Turner took that as his signal. On August 21, he began the rebellion with a few trusted fellow enslaved men. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing their white owners. The rebels grew to a group of more than 50 enslaved and free blacks and they eventually killed 55 white men, women, and children. Turner’s rebellion was suppressed within two days and he was captured on October 30. On November 5, he was convicted and sentenced to death and was hung on November 11, 1831. The state executed 56 other blacks suspected of being involved in the uprising and another 200 blacks, most of whom had nothing to do with the uprising, were beaten, tortured, and murdered by angry white mobs. Also the Virginia General Assembly passed new laws making it unlawful to teach enslaved or free blacks or mulattoes to read or write and restricting blacks from holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed white minister. “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” a novel, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968 and a film “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property” was released in 2003. Turner’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• October 2, 1898 Otis J. Rene, songwriter and record producer, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. With his younger brother Leon, in the 1930s they founded Exclusive Records and Excelsior Records, becoming the leading producers of recording artists such as Nat King Cole, Johnny Otis, and Joe Liggins and His Honeydippers. They also owned publishing companies Leon Rene Publications and Recordo Music Publishers. One of their best known songs was “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” made popular by the Ink Spots in the 1940s and Pat Boone in the 1950s. Rene died April 5, 1970.

• October 2, 1929 Moses Gunn, stage, film, and television actor, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Gunn earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Tennessee State University in 1959. He then studied at the University of Kansas from 1959 to 1961 in their graduate program for speech and drama. Gunn made his New York stage debut in 1962 in “The Blacks” and went on to win Obie (Off-Broadway Theater) Awards for his performances in “First Breeze of Summer” (1975) and “Titus Andronicus” (1987). He also was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actor in 1976 for “The Poison Tree.” Gunn was a co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company in the 1960s. Gunn also appeared on film with roles in “Shaft” (1971) and “Shaft’s Big Score” (1972) and in 1977 he was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series for his role in the television mini-series “Roots.” Gunn died December 17, 1993.

• October 2, 1935 Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., United States Air Force officer and the first African American selected for astronaut training, was born in Chicago, Illinois. At the age of 20, Lawrence earned his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Bradley University. After flight training, he was designated a U.S. Air Force pilot and over his career accumulated over 2,500 flight hours. In 1965, Lawrence earned his Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from Ohio State University and on June 10, 1967 was selected as an astronaut in the Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory Program. On December 8, 1967, Lawrence was killed in a plane crash. After many years of obscurity, on December 8, 1997 his name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Major Robert Lawrence, Jr. School for Mathematics and Science in Chicago is named in his honor.

• October 2, 1937 Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., lawyer, was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. Cochran earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration from the University of California in 1959 and his Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Marymount University School of Law in 1962. By the late 1970s, Cochran had established his reputation in the black community as the result of litigating a number of high profile police brutality and criminal cases. In 1978, he joined the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office as its first African American assistant district attorney. Five years later, he returned to private practice and in 1990 formed his own firm which grew to 26 offices in 15 states. Over the years, Cochran gained the reputation as the “go to” lawyer for the rich and famous. His list of clients included Michael Jackson, O. J. Simpson, and Sean Combs. He also represented what he termed the “No J’s,” including Geronimo Pratt and Abner Louima. Over the years, it was estimated that he earned $40 million trying cases. Cochran died March 29, 2005. In January, 2006, the Los Angeles Unified School District renamed his boyhood school the Johnnie L. Cochran Middle School and in 2007 Cedars-Sinai Medical Center opened the Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Brain Tumor Center.

• October 2, 1958 The Republic of Guinea gained its independence from France. Guinea is located in West African and is bordered to the north by Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Mali, to the west by Mali and Cote d’Ivoire, to the south by Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire, and to the east by the Niger River. The country is approximately 95,000 square miles in size with a population of approximately 10 million people. Approximately 43% of the population belongs to the Fula ethnic group and 85% are Muslim.

• October 2, 1981 Hazel Dorothy Scott, jazz and classical pianist and singer, died. Scott was born June 11, 1920 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, but raised in New York City. She performed extensively on the piano as a child and received further training at the Julliard School of Music. While still in high school, Scott hosted her own radio show. In 1940, Scott starred at the opening of Barney Josephson’s Café Society Uptown in New York City and soon her piano pyrotechnics were acclaimed throughout the United States and Europe. She was called the “darling of café society.” In 1942, she made her Broadway debut in “Sing Out the News.” Scott appeared in a number of films, including “I Dood It” (1943), “Broadway Rhythm” (1944), and “Rhapsody in Blue” (1945). Scott was also the first woman of color to have her own television show, “The Hazel Scott Show” which premiered in July, 1950. Due to racism and McCarthyism, the show was cancelled in September of that year when she was accused of being a Communist sympathizer. Scott was one of the first black entertainers to refuse to play before segregated audiences. Albums released by Scott include “Hazel Scott’s Late Show” (1953) and “Relaxed Piano Mood” (1955). Her biography, “Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist, from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC,” was published in 2008.

• October 2, 2005 August Wilson, hall of fame playwright, died. Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr. on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and used the Carnegie Library to educate himself. He made such extensive use of the library that they later awarded him an honorary degree, the only one they have awarded. In 1968, Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theater and performed his first play, “Recycling.” In 1978, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota and took a job writing educational scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota and began writing his “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of ten plays with each set in a different decade that sketch the black experience in the 20th century. The best known of these plays are “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1984), “Fences” (1985), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (1988), and “The Piano Lesson” (1990), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. In 2000, Wilson was presented the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush for work that has “deepened the nations’ understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.” Two weeks after Wilson’s death, the Virginia Theater in New York City’s Broadway theater district was renamed the August Wilson Theater, the first Broadway theater to bear the name of an African American. In 2006, the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh was renamed the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and Wilson was posthumously inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. In 2007, his childhood home was declared a historic landmark by the State of Pennsylvania.

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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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