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Today in Black History, 12/1/2013

• December 1, 1874 Turner Byrd, Jr. of Williamsville, Michigan received patent number 157,370 for an improvement in railcar couplings. Byrd’s invention provided a means of uncoupling railcars without the necessity of an individual going between the cars. Byrd had previously received patent numbers 123,328 February 6, 1872 for an improved harness rein holder, 124,790 March 19, 1872 for an improved apparatus for detaching horses from carriages, and 126,181 April 30, 1872 for an improved neck-yoke for wagons. Not much else is known of Byrd’s life.

• December 1, 1882 John Alexander Sommerville, businessman and politician, was born in Jamaica. Sommerville emigrated to the United States in 1900 and in 1903 entered the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. His White classmates were so opposed to his presence that they threatened to boycott the class. Sommerville persisted and in 1907 graduated first in his class with the highest score recorded at the time. He also was the first Black person to graduate from the school. Sommerville opened a dental office in Los Angeles, California and became the first Black member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. In 1914, Sommerville and his wife founded the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Colored People and built a 26-unit apartment building for African Americans. In 1928, they opened the Hotel Sommerville. In 1936, Sommerville became the first Black delegate to the California Democratic National Convention and from 1949 to 1953 served as the first Black person appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission. In 1954, he was declared an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to Anglo-American relations. Sommerville published his autobiography, “Man of Color, An Autobiography of Dr. J. Alexander Sommerville: A Factual Report on the Status of the American Negro Today,” in 1949. Sommerville died in 1973 and today portraits of he and his wife hang in the USC dental school with the inscription “Do not wait for your ship to come in. Row out and meet it.” Also, Sommerville Place was established at USC as an African American themed residential community for freshmen students.

• December 1, 1906 Flora Batson, internationally acclaimed concert singer, died. Batson was born April 16, 1864 in Washington, D. C. but raised in Providence, Rhode Island. Growing up, she sang in local choirs and starting in 1878 sang for Storer College in West Virginia. In 1895, she launched her professional career by singing “Six Feet of Earth Makes Us All One Size” for 90 consecutive nights at New York City’s Masonic Temple. Batson became known as “the double-voiced queen of song” because of her remarkable voice range. Around that time, Batson joined the all-Black Bergen Star Concert Company and by 1897 had achieved national fame as its leading soprano. At the height of her career, she toured internationally singing for many world leaders, including Pope Leo XIII, Queen Victoria of England, and Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii.

• December 1, 1925 James R. Ford, the first Black Mayor of Tallahassee, Florida, was born in Leon County, Florida. Ford served in the United States Navy during World War II. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1950 and his Master of Education degree in 1959 from Florida A&M University. From 1950 to 1987, he worked in the Leon County public school system as a teacher and its first Black administrator. Ford served 14 years on the Tallahassee City Commission where he worked to eliminate segregated practices in the city government and to secure employment for Black people. In 1972, he became Mayor of Tallahassee, a position he held for two subsequent terms until 1982. Ford owns and manages six businesses, including serving as president of CNJ Associates. He is also active in the community, having served as president of the Tallahassee Urban League and the Tallahassee Chapter of 100 Black Men.

• December 1, 1933 Louis Allen Rawls, soul, jazz and blues singer, was born in Chicago, Illinois. Rawls was a high school classmate of Sam Cooke and they sang together in a 1950s gospel group. Rawls also sang background on Cooke’s recording of “Bring it on Home to Me” in 1962 and that same year released his first single “Stormy Weather.” In 1966, Rawls gained national attention with the release of the album “Soulin’” which contained his first R&B number one single “Love is a Hurtin’ Thing.” In 1967, he won his first Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance for “Dead End Street.” He also won the Grammy Award in that category in 1971 for “A Natural Man.” In 1976, Rawls recorded his most commercially successful single, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” which became his only certified million selling single. In 1982, Rawls received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1980, Rawls began the “Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethon” to benefit the United Negro College Fund and over the 27 shows that he hosted raised more than $200 million. Rawls died January 6, 2006. Over his career, he released more than 70 albums and sold more than 40 million records. The Lou Rawls Scholarship Foundation was established in 2007 to provide academic scholarships to qualified minority students and to assist them in obtaining a college education.

• December 1, 1937 Eugene B. Redmond, poet, playwright and educator, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Redmond served in the Far East for the United States Marine Corp from 1958 to 1961. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature and political science from Southern Illinois University in 1964 and his Master of Arts degree in English literature from Washington University in 1966. He published his first volume of poetry, “A Tale of Two Toms, or Tom-Tom (Uncle Toms of East St. Louis and St. Louis),” in 1968. Subsequent volumes include “Sentry of the Four Golden Pillars” (1970), “Songs from an Afro/Phone” (1972), “In a Time of Rain & Desire” (1973), and “Eye on the Ceiling” (1991) which won an American Book Award. In 1976, Redmond published “Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History,” a survey of poetry from 1746 to 1976 which explores the “complex web of beliefs, customs, traditions, and significant practices that tie diasporan Black cultures to their African origins.” Also that year, Redmond was named poet laureate of East St. Louis, the first poet laureate named by a municipality. Redmond has been poet-in-residence at Oberlin College, California State University, University of Wisconsin, and Wayne State University. He is currently an emeritus professor of English at Southern Illinois University. In 1993, Pan-African Movement USA presented him a Pyramid Award for lifetime contribution to Pan-Africanism through poetry and in 2008 he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Southern Illinois.

• December 1, 1940 Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor, III, comedian, writer and actor, was born in Peoria, Illinois. After his discharge from the Army in 1960, Pryor began working as a professional comic in clubs throughout the Midwest. In 1963, he moved to New York City and began to gain national recognition and appear on television variety shows such as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show.” In 1967, he appeared in his first movie, “The Busy Body,” and in 1968 recorded his first album, “Richard Pryor.” Over his career, Pryor won Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album for “That Nigger’s Crazy” (1975), “Is It Something I Said” (1976), “Bicentennial Nigger” (1977), “Rev Du Right” (1982), and “Live on the Sunset Strip” (1983). He also won the Emmy Award for Writing in Variety or Music in 1974 for a Lily Tomlin television special. Pryor appeared in more than 50 movies, including “Wild in the Streets” (1968), “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), “The Wiz” (1978), “Superman III” (1983), and the semi-autobiographical “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling” (1986). Pryor published his autobiography, “Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences,” in 1995. In 1998, Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Pryor died December 10, 2005. He was posthumously honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Pryor is listed number one on Comedy Central’s list of all-time greatest stand-up comedians.

• December 1, 1949 Kurt Lidell Schmoke, the first elected African American Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, was born in Baltimore. In high school, Schmoke excelled academically, as a student leader, and in football and lacrosse. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Yale University in 1971, studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, and in 1976 earned his Juris Doctorate degree from Harvard Law School. In 1982, Schmoke was elected the City of Baltimore State’s Attorney, a position he held until 1987. That year, he was elected Mayor of Baltimore. During his three terms in office, he improved the environment of low-income housing projects, kept the tax rate stable, and attracted the Ravens football team to Baltimore. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush presented him the National Literacy Award for his efforts to promote adult literacy. Schmoke served as dean of Howard University School of Law from 2003 to 2012 when he became vice president and general counsel of the university.

• December 1, 1955 Rosa Louise McCauley Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus and quietly set off a social revolution. On the Montgomery City buses, the first ten seats were permanently reserved for White passengers. Mrs. Parks was seated in the first row behind those seats. When the bus became crowded and more seats were needed for the White passengers, the bus driver ordered Mrs. Parks and three other Black passengers to move back in the bus. When Mrs. Parks refused, she was arrested and charged with “refusing to obey orders of bus driver.” Her arrest set off a bus boycott that lasted 381 days and brought the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to national prominence. For her quiet act of defiance, Mrs. Parks became known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” A number of books have been published about the boycott, including “She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott” (2007) and “Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott” (2008).

• December 1, 1963 Wendell Oliver Scott became the first, and to this day the only, Black driver to win a race in what is now known as the Sprint Cup Series. Scott was born August 29, 1921 in Danville, Virginia. As a boy, he learned auto mechanics from his father and later earned his reputation for speed driving as a taxi cab driver and bootlegger. From 1943 to 1945, he served in the United States Army in Europe. On May 23, 1952, Scott broke the color barrier in Southern stock car racing at the Danville Fairgrounds Speedway. He earned his NASCAR license in 1953. From 1965 to 1969, Scott consistently finished in the top ten in the drivers’ point standings. He was forced to retire in 1973 due to injuries with one win and 147 top ten finishes in 495 career races. After retiring, he ran Scott’s Garage until his death December 23, 1990. The 1977 movie “Greased Lightning” was loosely based on his story and his biography, “Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver,” was published in 2008.

• December 1, 1989 Alvin Ailey, Jr., hall of fame choreographer and activist, died. Ailey was born January 5, 1931 in Rogers, Texas. He did not become serious about dance until he was 18. In 1953, he joined the Lester Horton Dance Company and when Horton died later that year, Ailey assumed the role of artistic director. In 1958, Ailey formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and over the years created 79 works for his dancers, including “Blues Suite” (1958), “Revelations” (1960), “The River” (1970), and “Cry” (1971). Ailey was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1976. In 1992, Ailey was posthumously inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame.

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The Wright Museum

Welcome to the world's largest institution dedicated to the African American experience! The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History opens minds and changes lives through the exploration and celebration of African American history and culture. Some of the museum’s features include:

• 125,000 square feet and seven exhibition areas devoted to African Americans and their stories

• The Children’s Discovery Room, an interactive, multimedia experience for preschool through 3rd grade students

• The Louise Lovett Wright Library and Robert L. Hurst Research Center

• "Ring of Genealogy," a 37-foot terrazzo tile creation by artist Hubert Massey surrounded by bronze nameplates of prominent African Americans

• The Ford Freedom Rotunda and its 65-foot high glass dome; this architectural wonder is two feet wider than the State Capitol dome

• The General Motors Theater, a 317 seat facility for film, live performances, lectures, and presentations

• A museum store that sells authentic African art, books, and other merchandise.

Founded in 1965 by Detroit obstetrician Dr. Charles Wright, The Wright Museum is located in the heart of Midtown Detroit's Cultural Center, next to the Michigan Science Center and one block from the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Key to the experience is "And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture," the museum's 22,000-square foot, interactive core exhibit, which attracts and enthralls thousands of visitors per year. Thousands more enjoy a wide array of spectacular events including concerts, film screenings, lectures, performances, community health and fitness classes, and so much more! All told, The Wright serves close to a half million people per year through its exhibits, programs, websites, and annual events such as African World Festival.

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