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Today in Black History, 10/31/2012

• October 31, 1896 Ethel Waters, hall of fame gospel, blues, and jazz vocalist and actress, was born in Chester, Pennsylvania. Waters began singing professionally in 1913 and for several years toured on the Black vaudeville circuit. In 1921, she became the fifth Black woman to make a record with the recordings “The New York Glide” and “At the New Jump Steady Ball.” In 1933, Waters starred in the all-Black film “Rufus Jones for President.” That same year, she took a role in the Broadway musical revue “As Thousands Cheer” where she was the first Black woman in an otherwise White show. In 1949, Waters was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film “Pinky” and in 1950 she won the New York Drama Critics Award for her performance in the play “The Member of the Wedding.” Also in 1950, she starred in the television series “Beulah,” but quit after complaining that the scripts portrayal of African Americans was degrading. In 1962, Waters was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for an appearance on the television show “Route 66.” Waters died September 1, 1977 and was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1984. In 1994 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor. Waters’ recordings “Dinah” (1925), “Am I Blue” (1929), and “Stormy Weather” (1933) were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as “qualitatively or historically significant.” In 2004, “Stormy Weather” was listed on the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Waters authored two autobiographies, “His Eye is on the Sparrow: An Autobiography” (1951) and “To Me, It’s Wonderful” (1972). A biography, “Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters,” was published in 2011.

• October 31, 1899 William F. Burr of Agawam, Massachusetts received patent number 636,197 for inventing improvements in switching devices for railways. His invention provided a novel switching device for street railways which was simple to construct and automatically switched the railcar. Not much else is known of Burr’s life.

• October 31, 1918 Ruben Rivers, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was born in Tecumseh, Oklahoma. When the United States entered World War II, Rivers enlisted and was assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion, nicknamed the “Black Panthers,” 26th Infantry Division. In November, 1944, he was serving as a staff sergeant in northeastern France and his actions during that time earned him the medal, America’s highest military decoration. On November 8, Rivers and his company encountered a roadblock set-up by the Germans. “With utter disregard for his personal safety, Staff Sergeant Rivers courageously dismounted from his tank in the face of directed enemy small arms fire, attached a cable to the roadblock and moved it off the road, thus permitting the combat team to proceed. His prompt action thus prevented a serious delay in the offensive action and was instrumental in the successful assault and capture of the town.” On November 16, Rivers was again leading an assault on a German position when his tank hit a mine, disabling it and seriously wounding Rivers. By the morning of November 19, 1944, Rivers’ condition had deteriorated. After refusing to be evacuated, Rivers took another tank and led the attack against the German anti-tank unit. The Germans landed two direct hits with high explosive shells that killed Rivers instantly. Although his commanding officer recommended him for the medal on November 20, 1944, it was not until January 13, 1997 that President William Clinton presented the medal to Rivers’ family. This was indicative of the lack of recognition afforded to African American soldiers who served during World War II.

• October 31, 1920 Dedan Kimathi Waciuri, Kenyan freedom fighter, was born in the Nyeri District of Kenya. In 1941, Kimathi enlisted in the army to fight on the side of the British during World War II. In 1946, he became a member of the Kenya African Union, a political organization formed to articulate Kenyan grievances against the British colonial administration. By 1950, Kimathi had become more radical and in 1951 joined the Forty Group, the militant wing of the Kikuyu Central Association. In 1953, Kimathi formed the Kenya Defence Council to coordinate all fighters against the British. In 1956, Kimathi was arrested by the colonial government and on February 18, 1957 was executed. Kimathi is viewed by most Kenyans as a national hero and many towns have buildings or streets named in his honor. On February 18, 2007, a bronze statue of Kimathi was unveiled in Nairobi city centre.

• October 31, 1928 Jose de la Caridad Mendez, hall of fame Negro League baseball pitcher and manager, died. Mendez was born March 19, 1887 in Cardenas, Matanzas, Cuba. He made his Negro league debut in 1908 and established himself when he pitched 25 consecutive scoreless innings in three appearances against the major league’s Cincinnati Reds. In a March, 1913 article in Baseball Magazine, a major league player wrote “he is a remarkable pitcher, and if he were a White man would command a good position on any major league club.” In Cuba, Mendez was known as El Diamante Negro (The Black Diamond). Mendez pitched his last game in 1927. He was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

• October 31, 1939 Ali Ibrahim “Farka” Toure, guitarist, singer, and one of Africa’s most internationally renowned musicians, was born in Timbuktu, Mali. Toure was the first African bluesman to achieve widespread popularity in Africa and was often called “the African John Lee Hooker.” He appeared in the 2003 documentary “Feel Like Going Home” which traced the roots of the blues back to its genesis in West Africa. He won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album in 1994 for “Talking Timbuktu” and in 2005 for “In the Heart of the Moon.” In 2004, Toure became mayor of the 53 villages of the Niafunke region of Mali and used his own money to grade the roads, put in sewer canals, and provide the fuel for the generator that provided electricity. In Mali, he was considered a national hero and when he died on March 7, 2006 the government radio stations suspended regular programming to play his music. His last album, “Savane,” was released posthumously and was chosen Album of the Year in 2006 by a panel of experts from the World Music Chart Europe.

• October 31, 1950 Earl Francis “Big Cat” Lloyd became the first African American to play in a National Basketball Association game. Lloyd was born April 3, 1928 in Alexandria, Virginia. He played collegiate basketball at West Virginia State College where he was a two-time All-American and earned his Bachelor of Science degree in physical education in 1950. He was selected by the Washington Capitals in the 1950 NBA Draft and played professionally for nine seasons, retiring in 1960. From 1972 to 1973, he coached the Detroit Pistons and then served as a scout for five seasons with the team. In 2003, Lloyd was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor and the basketball court at T.C. Williams High School in his hometown is named in his honor. His autobiography, “Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd,” was published in 2009.

• October 31, 1961 Alonzo C. Babers, Olympic Gold medalist, was born in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1983, Babers graduated from the United States Air Force Academy with a major in aerospace engineering. At the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games, he won Gold medals in the 400 meter race and the 4 by 400 meter relay. One month after the Olympics, Baber reported for flight training school and served as an active duty officer in the U.S. Air Force until 1991. He is currently a member of the Air Force Reserves and a pilot for United Airlines.

• October 31, 1963 Frederick Stanley McGriff, former major league baseball player, was born in Tampa, Florida. McGriff was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 1981 amateur draft and reached the major leagues full time in 1987. Over his 19 season professional career, McGriff was a five-time All-Star and had ten seasons with at least 30 home runs. He led the American League in home runs in 1989 and the National League in 1992. McGriff currently serves as an advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays.

• October 31, 1967 Riley Leroy Pitts, the first African American commissioned officer to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, was killed in action. Pitts was born October 15, 1937 in Fallis, Oklahoma. In 1960, he graduated from Wichita State University with a degree in journalism. After being commissioned as an officer in the United States Army, he was sent to Vietnam in December, 1966. In Vietnam, Pitts served as an information officer until he was transferred to a combat unit. On this date, one month before he was to be rotated home, his unit was called upon to reinforce another company engaged against a strong enemy force. Captain Pitts led an assault that overran the enemy positions and then was ordered to move north to reinforce another company. During that battle, Pitts seized a grenade from a captured Viet Cong and threw it toward an enemy bunker. The grenade hit some foliage and rebounded toward Pitts’ position. Without hesitation, Pitts threw himself on top of the grenade which fortunately did not explode. Without regard for his own safety, Pitts continued to fire, pinpointing the enemy’s positions, while at the same time directing his men forward until he was mortally wounded. On December 10, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the medal to Pitts’ widow, son, and daughter. The Riley Leroy Pitts post of the American Legion in Mannheim, Germany and the Riley Leroy Park in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma are 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.