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Today in Black History, 10/22/2012

• October 22, 1870 James W.C. Pennington, abolitionist, educator, historian, and minister, died. Pennington was born enslaved on Maryland’s eastern shore and named James Pembroke in January, 1807. He escaped from slavery in 1827 and changed his name to Pennington. Illiterate when he escaped, Pennington taught himself to read and write and by the early 1830s was proficient in Greek and Latin. In 1831, he was elected a delegate to the first annual Free Colored Convention. In the mid-1830s, he moved to New Haven, Connecticut to pursue theological studies. Because he was black, Yale’s School of Divinity refused to enroll him as a regular student. They did allow him to attend lectures, but he could not participate in classes or borrow books from the library. Pennington successfully completed his training and in 1838 received his ordination. In 1841, he published “A Text Book of the Origin and History of the Colored People” in which he argued against European claims to superiority and established the African origins of western European civilization. He also advocated African American emigration to Jamaica. In 1843, Pennington was a delegate to the World Peace Society in London, England where he called for a boycott of all enslaver produced American goods. In 1849, the University of Heidelberg in Germany awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree, the first African American to be awarded an honorary degree by a European university, and the next year he published his autobiography, “The Fugitive Blacksmith; or Events in the History of James W.C. Pennington, Pastor of a Presbyterian Church in New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States.” By 1853, Pennington had become a leading figure in the United States and that year was elected president of the National Free Colored People’s Convention. During the Civil War, Pennington advocated for black support and enlistment in the Union Army. After the Civil War, Pennington broke from the Presbyterians because of their reluctance to get involved with uplift efforts for the freed blacks. A biography, “American to the Backbone: The Life of James W.C. Pennington, the Fugitive Slave Who Became One of the First Black Abolitionists,” was published in 2011.

• October 22, 1936 Robert George “Bobby” Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and author, was born in Dallas, Texas. After dropping out of high school, Seale joined the United States Air Force where he served for three years before being dishonorably discharged for disobeying orders. On October 15, 1966, he and Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panther Party with Seale as chairman. On May 2, 1967, Seale led a group of 30 armed Black Panthers into the California State Assembly to protest proposed gun control legislation aimed at the party. Seale served two years in prison for his participation in demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Seale has authored several books, including “Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton” (1970), “A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale” (1978), and a cookbook titled “Barbequing with Bobby” (1987). In 2002, he became involved with Reach!, an organization focused on youth education programs. He also taught Black Studies at Temple University.

• October 22, 1939 Joaquim Alberto Chissano, the second President of Mozambique, was born in Gaza Province, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). After leaving secondary school, Chissano went to Portugal to study medicine at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon. However, because of his political activities he had to end his studies and flee to Tanzania. During the 1960s, Chissano represented the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) in Paris. He went on to fight in the Mozambican War of Independence and by June 25, 1975, when Mozambique achieved independence from Portugal, he had risen to the rank of major-general. After independence, Chissano was appointed foreign minister, a position he held for eleven years. In 1986, Chissano became president when Samora Machel was killed in an aircraft accident. He was reelected in 1994 and 1999. Chissano chose not to run for another term and stepped down from the presidency in 2006. In 2007, Chissano was awarded the inaugural $5 million Prize for Achievement in African Leadership by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in recognition of his good governance. Chissano currently chairs the Joaquim Chissano Foundation and the Forum of Former African Heads of State and Government.

• October 22, 1965, Milton Lee Olive, III, the first African American Congressional Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War, was killed in action. Olive was born November 7, 1946 in Chicago, Illinois. He enlisted in the United States Army at 17 and by 1965 was serving as a private first class in Vietnam. On this date, his actions earned him the medal, America’s highest military decoration. His citation partially reads, “Pfc. Olive was a member of the 3rd Platoon of Company B, as it moved through the jungle to find the Viet Cong operating in the area. Although the platoon was subjected to a heavy volume of enemy gunfire and pinned down temporarily, it retaliated by assaulting the Viet Cong positions, causing the enemy to flee. As the platoon pursued the insurgents, Pfc. Olive and four other soldiers were moving through the jungle together when a grenade was thrown into their midst. Pfc. Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his own by grabbing the grenade in his hand and falling on it to absorb the blast with his body. Through his bravery, unhesitating actions, and complete disregard for his safety, he prevented additional loss of life or injury to the members of his platoon.” On April 21, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the medal to Olive’s father. In 1979, the City of Chicago recognized him by naming Olive Park on Lake Michigan in his honor. The Milton L. Olive Middle School in Long Island, New York is also named in his honor.

• October 22, 1988 Henry Armstrong, the first boxer to hold world titles in three weight classes at the same time, died. Armstrong was born Henry Jackson, Jr. on December 2, 1912 in Columbus, Mississippi. He assumed the surname of his mentor and trainer, Harry Armstrong, in 1931. Because the fight purses were small, Armstrong usually fought at least twelve times a year. On October 29, 1937, he won the World Featherweight Championship, on May 31, 1938 the World Welterweight Championship, and on August 17, 1938 the World Lightweight Championship. Ring Magazine named him Boxer of the Year for 1938. In 1939, Armstrong produced and starred in an autobiographical movie, “Keep Punching.” After losing his titles, Armstrong retired from boxing with a professional record of 145 wins and 29 losses. In 1951, Armstrong was ordained a Baptist minister and he created the Henry Armstrong Youth Foundation which he funded with the profits from the two books he had written, “Twenty Years of Poem, Moods, and Mediations” (1954) and his autobiography “Gloves, Glory, and God” (1956). Armstrong was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

• October 22, 1992 Cleavon Jake Little, film and stage actor, died. Little was born June 1, 1939 in Chickasha, Oklahoma. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in dramatic arts from San Diego State University and received a full scholarship to graduate school at Juilliard. After completing Juilliard, he trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Little made his professional debut in 1967 in the Off- Broadway production of “MacBird.” The following year, Little made his first film and television appearances. In 1969, Little made his Broadway debut in “Jimmy Shine” and in 1971 won the Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in “Purlie.” Other Broadway appearances include “All Over Town” (1975), “The Poison Tree” (1976), and “I’m Not Rappaport” (1988). Film roles include “Vanishing Point” (1971), “Blazing Saddles” (1974), “Once Bitten” (1985), and “Fletch Lives” (1989). In 1989, Little won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor for a role in an episode of “Dear John.” In 1991, Little appeared in the television docu-drama, “Separate But Equal.”

• October 22, 2004 Samuel Lee Gravely, Jr., the first African American commissioned an officer in the United States Navy, died. Gravely was born June 4, 1922 in Richmond, Virginia. He enlisted in the Naval Reserves in 1942 and in 1944 successfully completed midshipman training, becoming the first African American commissioned as an officer from the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. His first assignment was to Camp Robert Smalls, a part of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station set aside for training African American enlisted men. In 1946, Gravely was released from active duty and returned to Richmond to earn his Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Virginia Union University in 1948. In 1949, Gravely was recalled to active duty and went on to be the first African American to serve aboard a fighting ship as an officer, the first to command a navy ship, the first fleet commander, and the first to become an admiral. Gravely retired from the navy in 1980 with several decorations, including the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, and Navy Commendation Medal. The USS Gravely and the Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. Elementary School in Haymarket, Virginia were posthumously named in his 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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