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Today in Black History, 10/27/2012

• October 27, 1917 Oliver Reginald Tambo, co-founder of the African National Congress Youth League, was born in Pondoland, South Africa. Tambo won a scholarship to Fort Hare, the only college that Blacks could attend, but was expelled in 1939 for participating in a student strike. He later studied law by correspondence and qualified as an attorney in 1952. In 1943, he along with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu founded the ANC Youth League with Tambo as national secretary. In 1955, Tambo became secretary general of the ANC and in 1958 became deputy president. In 1959, Tambo was banned by the South African government and the ANC sent him to England, where he lived until 1990, to mobilize opposition to apartheid. He returned to South Africa and was elected national chairperson of the ANC in July, 1991. Tambo died April 24, 1993. In October, 2006, the airport in Johannesburg was renamed Tambo International Airport in his honor.

• October 27, 1924 Ruby Dee, actress, playwright, poet, and activist, was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, but grew up in Harlem, New York. Dee earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter College in 1945. She made several appearances on Broadway before gaining national recognition for her role in the 1950 film “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Dee has been nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special for her role in the 1990 television film “Decoration Day.” In 2007, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “American Gangster.” Also in 2007, she and her husband, Ossie Davis, won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. Other films in which she has appeared include “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Jungle Fever” (1991), and “A Thousand Words” (2012). Dee is a long time civil rights activist, belonging to the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was personal friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In 1995, she and Davis received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on individual artist by the United States, from President William Clinton and in 2005 they received the Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. Dee received the 2008 Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. In 2001, she and Davis published their autobiography, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”

• October 27, 1941 Ernest Everett Just, pioneering biologist and one of the founders of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, died. Just was born August 14, 1883 in Charleston, South Carolina. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in zoology in 1907. After graduating and encountering the reality that it was almost impossible for an African American to join the faculty of a White college or university, Just accepted a position at Howard University. On November 11, 1911, Just served as the academic adviser to three Howard students in establishing Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. In 1912, Just was appointed head of the Department of Zoology at Howard, a position he held until his death. Just was the first recipient of the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1915 and the next year earned his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Chicago. In 1930, Just was the first American to be invited to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, Germany where several Nobel Prize winners conducted research. He wrote the important textbook, “Biology of the Cell Surface” in 1939. Just’s biography, “Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest E. Just,” was published in 1983. The book received the Pfizer Award and was a finalist for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. In 1996, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in honor of Just. Beginning in 2000, the Medical University of South Carolina has hosted the annual Ernest E. Just Symposium to encourage non-White students to pursue careers in biomedical sciences and health professions.

• October 27, 1956 Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the first black president of Fisk University, died. Johnson was born July 24, 1893 in Bristol, Virginia. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia Union University in 1916 and his Ph.D. in 1919 from the University of Chicago. After the Chicago race riot of 1919, Johnson did much of the research which showed how the riot had deep roots in denial of economic and social opportunity to African Americans. His subsequent book, “The Negro in Chicago” (1922), became the classic model for comprehensive commission reports. In the 1920s, Johnson moved to New York City to become research director for the National Urban League. In 1927, he returned to the south as head of sociology at Fisk University. In 1934, Johnson was elected the first Black trustee of the Julius Rosenwald Fund and in 1937 became the first Black elected vice president of the American Sociological Society. In 1946, Johnson became president of Fisk University, a position he held until his death. Over his career, Johnson wrote 17 books, including “Shadow of the Plantation” (1934) and “Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South” (1940).

• October 27, 1987 John Oliver Killens, novelist and educator, died. Killens was born January 14, 1916 in Macon, Georgia. He attended a number of institutions of higher learning, including Morris Brown College, Howard University, and Columbia University, but never earned a degree. After serving in the military in the South Pacific from 1942 to 1945, Killens moved to New York City in 1948 to focus on establishing a literary career. Around 1950, he co-founded a writer’s group that became the Harlem Writers Guild. In 1954, Killens’ first novel, “Youngblood,” was published. Two of his novels, “And Then We Heard the Thunder” (1962) and “The Cotillion or One Good Bull is Half the Herd” (1971), were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. In 1986, Killens founded the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College where he taught English. “Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens” and “The Development of the Black Psyche in the Writings of John Oliver Killens 1916-1987” were published in 2003.

• October 27, 2008 Es’kia Mphahlele, author, educator, and activist, died. Mphahlele was born December 17, 1919 in Pretoria, South Africa. He earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from the University of South Africa in 1949 and 1956, respectively. Mphahlele taught high school from 1945 to 1952 and published his first book of short stories, “Man Must Live,” in 1947. Banned from teaching by the apartheid government, he left South Africa in 1957 and spent the next twenty years in exile. During that time, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Denver in 1968 and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Mphahlele returned to South Africa in 1977 and joined the faculty of the University of Witwatersrand. He authored a number of other books, including “The African Image” (1962), “The Wanderers” (1969), and “Father Come Home” (1984). He also authored two autobiographies, “Down Second Avenue” (1959) and “Afrika My Music: An Autobiography 1957-1983” (1984).

• October 27, 2009 Roy Rudolph DeCarava, photographer, died. DeCarava was born December 9, 1919 in Harlem, New York. He determined early that he wanted to be an artist and initially worked as a painter and commercial illustrator. Eventually he was drawn to photography and in 1955 opened A Photographer’s Gallery, pioneering an effort to win recognition for photography as a fine art. Also in 1955, he collaborated with Langston Hughes on a book about life in Harlem, “The Sweet Flypaper of Life.” DeCarava served as professor of photography at Cooper Union Institute from 1968 to 1975 and Hunter College from 1975 to his death. A collection of his photographs, “Roy DeCarava, Photographs,” was published in 1981. In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, by President George W. Bush.

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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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