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Today in Black History, 1/21/2013

• January 21, 1913 Fannie Jackson Coppin, educator and journalist, died. Coppin was born enslaved October 15, 1837 in Washington, D.C. She gained her freedom at the age of 12 when her aunt, who worked for $6 per month and saved $125, was able to purchase her freedom. In 1860, Coppin enrolled at Oberlin College and was the first African American student to be appointed in the college’s preparatory department. While attending Oberlin, Coppin established an evening school for previously enslaved black people. Coppin earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1865. She began to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1869, Coppin became principal of the institute, making her the first African American woman to receive that title. She served in that position until 1906. In addition to teaching, Coppin founded homes for working and poor women and wrote an influential column in the local newspapers that defended the rights of women and black people. In 1902, Coppin and her husband went to South Africa and founded the Bethel Institute, a missionary school that emphasized self-help programs. Her book “Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching” was published shortly after her death. In 1926, a teacher training school was named the Fannie Jackson Coppin Normal School in her honor. That school is now Coppin State University. Coppin’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• January 21, 1917 Leonard Roy Harmon, the first African American to have a navy ship named in his honor, was born In Cuero, Texas. Harmon enlisted in the United States Navy in June, 1939 and in October of that year was assigned to the USS San Francisco. By 1942, he had advanced to mess attendant first class. On November 12, 1942, the Japanese began the battle of Guadalcanel by crashing a plane into the USS San Francisco, killing or injuring 50 men. The next day they raked the USS San Francisco with gunfire, killing nearly every officer on the bridge. Disregarding his own safety, Harmon helped to evacuate the wounded. He was killed while shielding a wounded shipmate with his own body. For “extraordinary heroism,” he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the highest medal awarded by the U.S. Navy. On July 25, 1943, the USS Harmon, a destroyer escort named in his honor, was launched. The bachelor enlisted quarters at the United States Naval Air Station in North Island, California was named Harmon Hall in 1975.

• January 21, 1922 Lincoln MacCauley Alexander, Canada’s first black Member of Parliament, was born in Toronto, Canada. After serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, Alexander graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1953. In 1968, he was elected to the Canadian House of Commons, making him the first black Member of Parliament. He held the seat for four terms before serving as an observer to the United Nations in 1976. In 1985, Alexander was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the first black person to serve in a vice-regal position in Canada. During his term, he concentrated on bringing attention to education and youth issues. After stepping down from that office, Alexander was awarded the Order of Ontario and made a Companion of the Order of Canada. From 1991 to 2007, he served as chancellor of the University of Guelph and in 2000 was named chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. His autobiography, “Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy: The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander: A Memoir,” was published in 2006. Alexander died October 19, 2012.

• January 21, 1932 John Chaney, hall of fame college basketball coach, was born in Jacksonville, Florida. Chaney played basketball for Bethune-Cookman College where he was an NAIA All-American and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1955. After playing in the Eastern Professional Basketball League, Chaney’s first collegiate coaching position was at Cheyney State University in 1972 where he won the Division II national championship in 1978 and was named the Division II National Coach of the Year. In 1982, he took the head coaching position at Temple University and over the next 24 years took them to the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament 17 times and was named the National Coach of the Year in 1988. Chaney was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001 and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, the same year he retired from coaching. Chaney was known for the values that he instilled in his players and two books related to that are “Winning is an Attitude: A Season in the Life of John Chaney and the Temple Owls” (1991) and “Chaney: Playing for a Legend” (2006).

• January 21, 1951 Eric Himpton Holder, Jr., the first African American Attorney General of the United States, was born in The Bronx, New York. Holder earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in American history from Columbia College in 1973 and his Juris Doctorate degree from Columbia Law School in 1976. After graduating from law school, he joined the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section and worked there until 1988. That year, President Ronald Reagan appointed Holder a Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Holder stepped down from the bench in 1993 to accept an appointment as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, the first black U.S. attorney in that office. In 1997, he was promoted to deputy attorney general where he served until 2001. From 2001 to 2007, Holder worked in private practice, representing clients such as Merck and the National Football League. On February 3, 2009, he assumed the office of United States Attorney General. In 2010, Holder received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Boston University.

• January 21, 1963 Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon, hall of fame basketball player, was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Olajuwon came to the United States to play basketball for the University of Houston where he had a standout career, including winning the 1983 NCAA Tournament Player of the Year Award. He was selected by the Houston Rockets in the 1984 NBA Draft and over his 18 season professional career led them to two NBA championships. He also was a 12-time All-Star, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year, and in 1994 was the NBA Most Valuable Player. Olajuwon also won a Gold medal as a member of the U.S. men’s basketball team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Olajuwon co-authored his autobiography, “Living the Dream: My Life and Basketball” that same year. He retired from basketball in 2002 as the NBA’s all-time leader in blocked shots and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. After retiring, Olajuwon has spent most of his time in Jordan pursuing Islamic studies. He has also had great success in the Houston real estate market, with estimated profits exceeding $100 million.

• January 21, 1975 Jason Moran, jazz pianist and band leader, was born in Houston, Texas. Moran began playing the piano at age six, but did not fall in love with the instrument until he was 13 when he switched from classical music to jazz. His debut recording as a band leader was “Soundtrack to Human Motion” in 1999. Subsequent recordings include “Facing Left” (2000), “Same Mother” (2005), and “Ten” (2010). The Down Beat Critics Poll voted him Rising Star Jazz Artist, Rising Star Pianist, and Rising Star Composer in 2003, 2004, and 2005, respectively. Also in 2005, Moran was named Playboy Magazine’s first Jazz Artist of the Year. In 2010, he received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award.

• January 21, 1984 Jack Leroy “Jackie” Wilson, hall of fame singer and performer known as “Mr. Excitement,” died. Wilson was born June 9, 1934 in Detroit, Michigan. He gained early fame as a member of The Dominoes. In 1957, Wilson began his solo career with the release of “Reet Petite” and over the next 15 years recorded more than 50 hit singles, including “To Be Loved” (1957), “You Better Know It” (1959), “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend” (1960), “Stop Doggin’ Around” (1960), “Baby Workout” (1963), and “Higher and Higher” (1969). In 1975, Wilson suffered a massive heart attack which left him in a vegetative state for the remainder of his life. Wilson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

• January 21, 1999 Charles Brown, hall of fame blues singer and pianist, died. Brown was born September 13, 1922 in Texas City, Texas. As a child, he took classical piano lessons. Brown earned his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry with the intention of teaching the subject. He moved to Los Angeles, California during World War II to teach, but ended up performing with a group called the Three Blazers. In 1945, they recorded Brown’s composition “Driftin’ Blues” which stayed on the Billboard R&B charts for six months and became a template for a lighter, more relaxed style of blues. Brown went solo in 1948 and released a number of major hits during the early 1950s, including “Get Yourself Another Fool,” “Black Night,” “Hard Times” and “Trouble Blues.” His “Please Come Home for Christmas” (1960) had sold more than a million copies by 1968. Brown received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship in 1997 and in 1999 was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

• January 21, 2007 Lovie Lee Smith became the first African American National Football League head coach to qualify for the Super Bowl. Smith was born May 8, 1958 in Gladewater, Texas. During his high school football career, he earned All-State honors for three years and led his team to three consecutive state championships between 1973 and 1975. Smith played college football at the University of Tulsa where he was a two-time All-American and graduated in 1980. After graduation, he began his coaching career at the high school level and later moved to the college ranks. In 1996, Smith began his professional coaching career. In 2004, he was hired as head coach of the Chicago Bears and in 2005 won the Associated Press Coach of the Year Award. Unfortunately, on February 4, 2007 Smith became the first African American head coach to lose a Super Bowl. Smith and his wife head the Lovie and MaryAnne Smith Foundation, which provides college scholarships to high school students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

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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.