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Today in Black History, 1/20/2013

• January 20, 1888 Leadbelly, hall of fame folk musician, was born Huddle William Ledbetter in Mooringsport, Louisina. From 1915 to 1934, Leadbelly spent considerable time in prisons where hundreds of his songs, including “Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene,” were recorded for the Library of Congress. By 1935, Leadbelly had gained fame and Life Magazine ran a three page article in the April 19, 1937 issue titled “Lead Belly - Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel.” Leadbelly performed on radio shows and toured around the world until his death December 6, 1949. Despite this, he died penniless. His vast songbook has provided material for numerous folk, country, pop, and rock acts. Leadbelly was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1989. A film, “Leadbelly,” loosely based on his life was released in 1976 and in 1999 the book, “The Life and Legend of Leadbelly,” was published.

• January 20, 1895 Eva Jessye, the first black woman to receive international distinction as a professional choral conductor, was born in Coffeyville, Kansas. Jessye studied choral music and music theory at Western University, a now defunct historically black college, and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Langston University in 1919. In 1926, she formed her own group, the Eva Jessye Choir. In 1929, she was the choral director for the film “Hallelujah,” in 1933 directed the choir for the opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” on Broadway, and, in 1935, was the music director for the opera “Porgy and Bess.” In 1928, Jessye published “My Spirituals,” a collection of arrangements of spirituals. She also composed her own choral works, including “The Life of Christ in Negro Spirituals” (1931), “Paradise Lost and Regained” (1934), and “The Chronicle of Job” (1936). An active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Jessye directed the official choir at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Before her death February 21, 1992, Jessye established the Eva Jessye African-American Music Collection at the University of Michigan.

• January 20, 1899 Arthur Huff Fauset, educator, anthropologist and author, was born in Flemington, New Jersey. Fauset earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921 and 1924, respectively. Fauset was discouraged from teaching at the university level because of his race. Therefore, he began teaching and later became principal of an elementary school. During his 20 years as principal, he fought for better working conditions for teachers and civil rights for black and other disadvantaged people. In 1942, Fauset earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1944, he published “Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the North.” Using Fauset’s work as a starting point, a new collection of essays, “The New Black Gods,” offering fresh ideas for understanding the religious expressions of African Americans was published in 2009. Fauset also authored “America: Red, White, Black, Yellow” in 1969 and “Sojourner Truth: God’s Faithful Pilgrim” in 1971. Fauset died September 2, 1983.

• January 20, 1929 Jimmy Wilbur Cobb, jazz drummer, was born in Washington, D.C. Cobb taught himself to play the drums. From 1958 to 1963, he played with Miles Davis, performing on albums such as “Kind of Blue” (1959) and “Sketches of Spain” (1960). He also worked with many other jazz greats, including Dinah Washington, Cannonball Adderley, Hank Jones, and Nancy Wilson. Cobb started leading his own bands in the late 1990s. Albums with him as leader include “Only For the Pure of Heart” (1998), “Cobb’s Groove” (2003), and “Jazz in the Key of Blue” (2009). Cobb was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009. He currently leads the Jimmy Cobb “So What” band.

• January 20, 1947 Josh Gibson, hall of fame Negro League baseball player, died. Gibson was born December 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgia. He made his professional debut with the Homestead Grays, the preeminent Negro League team of that time, in 1930. The true statistical achievements of Negro league players may be impossible to know because complete statistics and game summaries were not kept but it is claimed that Gibson hit almost 800 home runs over his 17 season professional career. He also was a ten-time All-Star and won two Negro League championships. Gibson died three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern major league history. Gibson was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 and in 2000 was ranked 18th on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. Biographies of Gibson include “Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues” (1978) and “Josh Gibson: The Power and The Darkness” (2004).

• January 20, 1954 The National Negro Network, a black-oriented radio programming service, was founded by W. Leonard Evans. It was the first black-owned radio network in the country and programming was initially broadcast to 45 member stations. Programming included musical variety shows and soap operas. Unfortunately, the network eventually failed due to the inability to attract major advertisers and the impact of television.

• January 20, 1987 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first observed as a national holiday. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating a federal holiday in honor of King on November 2, 1983, making it one of three holidays commemorating an individual person. The day was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000.

• January 20, 1997 Curtis Charles Flood, former professional baseball player, died. Flood was born January 18, 1938 in Houston, Texas and made his major league debut in 1956. Flood spent most of his 15 season professional career with the St. Louis Cardinals and was a three-time All-Star and a seven-time Golden Glove winner. Flood retired from baseball in 1971. Despite his outstanding playing career, Flood’s principal legacy was off the field. In 1969, the Cardinals attempted to trade Flood but he refused to be traded. He forfeited a $100,000 contract and sued Major League Baseball alleging that they had violated federal antitrust laws. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court which ruled in favor of Major League Baseball. Although his legal challenge was unsuccessful, it increased solidarity among other players and eventually led to free agency. In 1971, Flood published his autobiography, “The Way It Is.” A book about the court battle, “Baseball’s Reserve System: The Case of Curt Flood v. Major League Baseball,” was published in 2006.

• January 20, 2009 Barrack Hussein Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. The theme of the inauguration was “A New Birth of Freedom” and it set an attendance record for any event held in Washington, D.C. Based on the attendance, television viewership and internet traffic, it was probably the most observed event ever by a global audience.

• January 20, 2012 Etta James, hall of fame singer and songwriter, died. James was born Jamesetta Hawkins January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, California. As a teenager, she teamed up with two other girls and formed a group called The Peaches and in 1955 they released “The Wallflower” which reached number two on the R&B charts. Soon after that, James went solo and during the 1960s had a number of hits, including “At Last” (1961), “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” (1962), “Pushover” (1963), and “Tell Mama” (1967). James career stalled in the 1980s but she returned with several recordings in the 1990s, including the album “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holliday” which won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. In 2005, she released the album “Let’s Roll” which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2001, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and in 2003 received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Her recordings “At Last” and “The Wallflower” were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and 2008, respectively, as recordings of “qualitative or historical significance.” James published her autobiography, “Rage to Survive,” in 1995.

• January 20, 2012 John Levy, hall of fame double-bassist and businessman, died. Levy was born April 11, 1912 in New Orleans, Louisiana but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. In 1944, he moved to New York City where he played bass for Ben Webster, Errol Garner, Milt Jackson, and Billie Holiday. In 1951, he opened John Levy Enterprises, becoming the first African American personal manager in the pop or jazz music field. By the 1960s, his clients included George Shearing, Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, Joe Williams, Shirley Horn, and Ramsey Lewis. Levy was inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997 and in 2006 was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts. His biography, “Men, Women, and Girl Singers: My Life as a Musician Turned Talent Manager,” was published in 2000. He followed that with “Strollin’: A Jazz Life Through John Levy’s Personal Lens” (2009).

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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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