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Today in Black History, 1/19/2013

• January 19, 1887 Clementine Hunter, folk artist, was born at Hidden Hill Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. At the age of 15, Hunter moved to Melrose Plantation where she spent most of her life picking cotton and never learning to read or write. Hunter was a self-taught artist who produced between four and five thousand paintings in her lifetime. In the 1940s, she sold her paintings for as little as a quarter. By the 1970s, they were selling for hundreds of dollars and today they are sold for thousands of dollars. Hunter was the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art and although she became a respected artist and folk art legend, she spent most of her life in poverty. Hunter died January 1, 1988. Several biographies of Hunter have been published, including “Clementine Hunter: American Folk Artist” (1990), “Painting by Heart: The Life and Art of Clementine Hunter” (2000), and “Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art” (2012).

• January 19, 1918 John Harold Johnson, hall of fame publisher and businessman, was born in Arkansas City, Arkansas. In 1933, Johnson and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois. After graduating from high school, he took a job as an office boy at Supreme Life Insurance Company and within two years had moved up to assistant to the president. In 1942, he used his mother’s furniture as collateral for a $500 loan to publish the first edition of Negro Digest which covered African American history, literature, arts, and cultural issues. Within six months, the magazine had a circulation of 50,000. In 1945, Johnson launched Ebony magazine which emphasized the achievements of successful African Americans and by 1985 it had a circulation of 2.3 million. In 1950, Johnson launched Tan magazine and in 1951 Jet magazine. In addition, Johnson developed a line of cosmetics, purchased three radio stations, and started book publishing and television production companies. The magazines and his other business ventures were so successful that in 1982 Johnson was the first African American to appear on Forbes Magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest people in the United States. Johnson received the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1966. In 1996, President Bill Clinton presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and in 1997 he was inducted into the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame. Johnson was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by several universities, including Howard University, the University of Southern California, and Wayne State University. He published his autobiography, “Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman,” in 1989. Johnson died August 8, 2005 and in 2010 the Johnson College Prep Charter School was opened in Chicago. Johnson’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• January 19, 1931 Carl Maxie Brashear, the first African American to become a United States Navy master diver, was born in Tonieville, Kentucky. Brashear enlisted in the navy in 1948 and graduated from the U.S. Navy Diving & Salvage School in 1954, becoming the first African American navy diver. In 1966, while involved in the recovery of an air force bomb, Brashear was involved in an accident that resulted in the amputation of the lower portion of his leg. In 1968, after a long struggle, Brashear became the first amputee to be certified as a diver and in 1970 became the first African American master diver. Brashear served in that capacity until his retirement from the navy in 1979 as a master chief petty officer. In 2000, “Men of Honor,” a movie inspired by Brashear’s life, was released. Brashear died July 25, 2006. The USNS Carl Brashear was christened in his honor in 2008 and in 2009 “Dream to Dive: The Life of Master Diver Carl Brashear,” an exhibition dedicated to him opened at the Nauticus Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

• January 19, 1969 Edwidge Danticat, author, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. At the age of 14, Danticat published her first writing in English, “A Haitian-American Christmas: Cremace and Creole Theatre.” In 1990, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in French literature from Barnard College and in 1993 her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Brown University. Her thesis for her master’s degree was the basis for her first novel, “Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1964). Other books by Danticat include “The Farming of Bones” (1998), which won the American Book Award, “The Dew Breaker” (2004), which won the Story Prize, and “Brother, I’m Dying,” which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award. Danticat has also taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami. In 2009, Danticat received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award and in 2010 published “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.”

• January 19, 1993 Reginald F. Lewis, lawyer and entrepreneur, died. Lewis was born December 7, 1942 in Baltimore, Maryland. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia State University in 1965 and his Bachelor of Laws degree from Harvard Law School in 1968. Over the next 15 years, Lewis helped a large number of Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Corporations (MESBICs) acquire funding. It is estimated that Lewis negotiated more than $100 million in transactions for MESBICs between 1973 and 1984. In 1983, he formed the TLC Group and in 1984 purchased the McCall Pattern Company for $1 million. In 1987, he sold McCall for $95 million and purchased Beatrice International for $650 million, net of operations that he sold. In 1992, Forbes Magazine estimated Lewis’ net worth at $400 million. That same year, Lewis gave $3 million to Harvard Law School to establish the Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center, the first building at the university named after an African American. Lewis’ autobiography, “Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?: How Reginald Lewis Created a Billion Dollar Business,” was published in 1995. In 2002, his foundation gave $5 million to open the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture June 25, 2005. The Reginald F. Lewis High School in Baltimore is named in his honor.

• January 19, 2006 Wilson Pickett, hall of fame soul singer and songwriter, died. Pickett was born March 18, 1941 in Prattville, Alabama. He grew up singing in church choirs. In 1955, he moved to Detroit, Michigan where his forceful and passionate style of singing was developed. In 1959, he joined The Falcons and in 1962 they released “I Found a Love,” which was co-written by Pickett and featured him on lead vocals, which peaked at number 6 on the R&B charts. Pickett’s first success as a solo artist was “It’s Too Late” (1963), but his breakthrough came with the release of “In the Midnight Hour” (1965) which hit number 1 on the R&B charts. Other number 1 singles by Pickett were “634-5789” (1966), “Land of 1,000 Dances” (1966), “Funky Broadway” (1967), and “Don’t Knock My Love, Pt. 1” (1971). Pickett recorded more than 50 songs that made the R&B charts and many crossed over to the pop charts. In 1991, Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1993 he received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award.

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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.