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Today in Black History, 10/8/2012

• October 8, 1837 Powhatan Beaty, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was born enslaved in Richmond, Virginia. Beaty gained his freedom around 1861 and in 1863 enlisted in the Union Army’s 5th United States Colored Infantry Regiment. By 1864, he had risen to the rank of first sergeant. On September 29, 1864 at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, his regiment unsuccessfully attempted to attack the Confederate defenses at New Market Heights. During the regiment’s retreat, their color bearer was killed. Beaty returned under enemy fire to retrieve the flag. Only 16 of the original 91 members of the regiment, including Beaty, survived the attack unwounded. With no officers remaining, Beaty took command of the company and led a second attack against the Confederate lines. That attack was successful and drove the Confederates from their fortified positions. For his actions, on April 6, 1865 Beaty was awarded the medal, America’ highest military decoration. By the time he retired from the army, Beaty had participated in 13 battles and numerous skirmishes. After retiring, he returned to Cincinnati, Ohio and successfully pursued a career in acting and public speaking until his death on December 6, 1916.

• October 8, 1893 John Willis Menard, the first African American elected to the United States Congress, died. Menard was born April 3, 1838 in Kaskaskia, Illinois. During the Civil War, he worked in the U.S. Department of Interior and in 1863 was sent to British Honduras to investigate a proposed colony for previously enslaved African Americans. After the war, Menard moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1868, he was elected to Congress to fill an unexpired term, but was denied the seat due to a challenge by the loser. After hearing the arguments of both candidates, the House decided to seat neither man. During the process, Menard became the first African American to address the U.S. House of Representatives. Later, Menard moved to Florida where he served in the Florida House of Representatives and as justice of the peace for Duval County. He also was the editor of the Florida News and the Southern Leader from 1882 to 1888.

• October 8, 1894 Norbert Rillieux, engineer and inventor, died. Rillieux was born March 17, 1806 in New Orleans, Louisiana. As a Creole from a prominent family, Rillieux had access to education and privileges not available to many other blacks. In the early 1820s, he traveled to Paris to attend the prestigious École Centrale, studying physics, mechanics, and engineering. He became an expert in steam engines and published several papers about the use of steam to work devices. At the age of 24, Rillieux became the youngest teacher at École Centrale. While in France, Rillieux started researching ways to improve the sugar refining process and after returning to the United States in 1833 he began to develop a machine for which he was granted patent number 3237 on August 26, 1843. The multiple-effect evaporation system that he devised addressed all of the shortcomings of prior sugar refining processes and by 1849 thirteen Louisiana sugar factories were using his invention. His invention was an important development in the growth of the sugar industry. In the 1850s, Rillieux presented a plan to the government of New Orleans to eliminate the moist breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that were causing a Yellow Fever outbreak. His plan was turned down. Several years later, as the Yellow Fever outbreak continued, the city accepted a plan from white engineers that was similar to the plan proposed by Rillieux. In the late 1850s, Rillieux returned to France where he died.

• October 8, 1941 Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr., clergyman and civil rights leader, was born in Greenville, South Carolina. Jackson earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from North Carolina A&T in 1964 and went on to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary. However, in 1966 he dropped out to focus full-time on the Civil Rights Movement. He was ordained in 1968 without a theological degree. In 1966, Jackson was selected to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, Illinois and in 1967 he was promoted to SCLC national director. In 1971, Jackson resigned from SCLC to found People United to Save Humanity (PUSH). In 1984, he organized the Rainbow Coalition which was merged in 1996 with Operation PUSH to form Rainbow PUSH. Jackson has been very prominent internationally. In 1983, he went to Syria to secure the release of a captured American pilot who had been shot down over Lebanon. In 1984, he negotiated the release of 22 Americans being held in Cuba and in 1999 he went to Belgrade to negotiate the release of three American prisoners of war captured while patrolling with a United Nations peacekeeping unit. In 1984, Jackson became the second African American, after Shirley Chisholm, to mount a nationwide campaign for President of the United States. Four years later, he again campaigned for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Jackson was the 1989 recipient of the NAACP Spingarn Medal. In 1997, Jackson founded the Wall Street Project to provide more business and employment opportunities for minorities. In 2000, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President William Clinton. Jackson’s autobiography, “Straight from the Heart,” was published in 1987.

• October 8, 1952 Louis Tompkins Wright, physician and civil rights leader, died. Wright was born July 23, 1891 in La Grange, Georgia. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree as the valedictorian of his class from Clark University in 1911 and earned his medical degree cum laude from Harvard University in 1915. During his time at Harvard, Wright challenged and eventually defeated the practice of denying African American students access to white patients. During World War I, Wright served in the United States Army from 1917 to 1919, rising to the rank of captain and earning a Purple Heart. After the war, Wright went on to become the first black physician to be appointed to the staff of a New York municipal hospital, the first black surgeon in the New York City Police Department, the first black surgeon admitted to the American College of Surgeons, and the first black physician to head a public interracial hospital. Wright made important research contributions to the medical field, publishing 91 papers over his career. From 1934 to his death, Wright served as chairman of the NAACP national board of directors and in 1940 was the recipient of the organization’s Spingarn Medal.

• October 8, 1964 Priscilla Marie “CeCe” Winans Love, gospel singer, was born in Detroit, Michigan. In the early 1980s, Winans and her brother Benjamin (BeBe) started out as background vocalists for The PTL (Praise the Lord) Club show where they performed for five years. They left PTL to pursue their singing career and recorded four albums, including “Heaven” (1988) and “Relationships” (1994). In 1995, they split up to pursue solo careers and Winans released “Alone in His Presence” which earned her the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album. Over her career, she has won nine other Grammy Awards and ten Steller Awards. In addition to her singing career, Winans has authored three books, “”On a Positive Note” (2000), “Throne Room: Ushered into the Presence of God” (2004), and “Always Sisters: Becoming the Princess You Were Created to Be” (2007). Her most recent album, “Songs of Emotional Healing,” was released in 2010.

• October 8, 1979 Edith Spurlock Sampson, lawyer and judge, died. Sampson was born October 13, 1901 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She earned her bachelor’s degree in social work from the New York School of Social Work, her Bachelor of Laws degree from John Marshall Law School in 1925, and was the first woman to earn a Master of Laws degree from Loyola University Graduate Law School in 1927. In 1947, Sampson was appointed an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois. In 1950, President Harry Truman appointed her an alternate United States delegate to the United Nations, making her the first African American to officially represent the U.S. at the UN, where she served until 1953. In 1961, she became the first black U.S. representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 1962, Sampson was elected associate judge of the Municipal Court of Chicago, becoming the first black woman to be elected a judge in Illinois. In 1966, she became an associate judge for the Circuit Court of Cook County where she served until her retirement in 1978. Sampson received several honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Laws degree from John Marshall Law School. The Edith Spurlock Sampson Apartments in Chicago are named in her honor.

• October 8, 1985 Theresa Harris, film and television actress, died. Harris was born December 31, 1906 in Houston, Texas. In 1929, she came to Hollywood, California and sang in the movie “Thunderbolt.” Over her career, Harris appeared in more than 75 movies usually playing maids, blues singers, tribal women, waitresses, and hat check girls. Her films include “Hold Your Man” (1932), “Morning Glory” (1933), “Jezebel” (1938), “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), and “The Gift of Love” (1958). She also appeared on several television shows during the 1950s.

• October 8, 1999 John B. McLendon, Jr., the first African American basketball coach at a predominantly white university, died. McLendon was born April 15, 1915 in Hiawatha, Kansas. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1936 from the University of Kansas where he learned the intricacies of basketball. However, McLendon was not allowed to play because the university’s team was segregated. McLendon earned his Master of Arts degree from the University of Iowa and went on to be a successful college coach at schools such as North Carolina College for Negroes, Hampton Institute, and Kentucky State College. During that time, he was a three-time winner of the NAIA Coach of the Year Award and while coaching at Tennessee State University became the first college basketball coach to win three consecutive NAIA championships. McLendon’s teams were credited with increasing the pace of basketball from the slow tempo of the early years. In 1962, McLendon was hired as head coach of the American Basketball League Cleveland Pipers, making him the first African American head coach in professional sports. In 1966, he was hired to coach at Cleveland State University, becoming the first African American basketball coach at a predominantly white university. McLendon retired from coaching in 1969. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 and posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007. McLendon’s biography, “Breaking Through: John B. McLendon, Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer,” was published in 2007. His coaching legacy is also chronicled in the ESPN documentary “Black Magic” which was first aired in 2008.

• October 8, 2004 Wangari Muta Maathai became the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Maathai was born April 1, 1940 in Nyeri District, Kenya. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree with a major in biology and minors in chemistry and German from Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in 1964 and her Master of Science degree in biological sciences from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966. In 1971, Maathai earned her Doctorate of Anatomy from the University College of Nairobi, making her the first East African woman to receive a Ph.D. She also taught at the university where she campaigned for equal benefits for women on the staff. Maathi also worked with the Kenya Red Cross Society and the Environment Liaison Centre where she came to believe that the root of most of Kenya’s problems was environmental degradation. In 1977, she led the planting of the first trees to conserve the environment in what became the Green Belt Movement. She encouraged, and paid a small stipend to, women to plant tree nurseries throughout Kenya. Maathi was also a leader of the pro-democracy movement in Kenya. In 2002, she was elected to parliament and appointed assistant minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources, a position she held until 2005. In 2005, Maathai was elected the first president of the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council. Maathai has published several books, including her autobiography “Unbowed: A Memoir” (2006), “The Challenge for Africa” (2009), and “Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World” (2011). Maathai died September 25, 2011.

• October 8, 2010 Albertina Walker, hall of fame gospel singer, died. Walker was born August 29, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois. She started singing in church choirs at an early age and by the time she was a teenager, she was touring with Mahalia Jackson. In 1951, Walker formed The Caravans and soon after earned the title “Queen of Gospel.” In 1967, she disbanded The Caravans and began performing as a solo artist. She recorded her first solo album, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” in 1975. Walker recorded over 60 albums, including “Please Be Patient with Me” (1979), “I Can Go to God in Prayer” (1981), “Impossible Dream” (1997), and “Joy Will Come” (1997). She garnered ten Grammy nominations and won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Gospel Album for “Songs of The Church.” Walker was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 2001 and in 2005 the Grammy Awards honored her for her contributions to the gospel music industry.

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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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