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Today in Black History, 12/26/2011

·   December 26, 1884 Felix Adolphe Eboue, French colonial administrator, was born in Cayenne, Guyana. Eboue was a brilliant scholar and won a scholarship to study in Bordeaux, France. After graduating in law from the École colonial in Paris, from 1909 to 1931 he served in Oubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic). In 1932, he was appointed secretary general of Martinique where he served until 1934 when he was transferred to the same position in French Sudan. In 1938, Eboue was transferred to Chad where he served until 1940, when he was appointed General Governor of all of French Equatorial Africa, a position he held until his death on March 17, 1944. During his tenure as General Governor, Eboue worked to improve the status of Africans. He placed some Gabonese civil servants into positions of authority and advocated the preservation of traditional African institutions. After his death, the French colonies in Africa brought out a joint stamp issue in his memory. Eboue’s ashes are in the Pantheon in Paris, France, the first black man to be so honored. Eboue’s biography, “Eboue,” was published in 1972.

·   December 26, 1894 Nathan Pinchback “Jean” Toomer, poet and novelist, was born in Washington, D. C. Toomer attended six institutions of higher education between 1914 and 1917, studying agriculture, fitness, biology, sociology, and history, but never earned a degree. After college, he published some short stories and served as principal of a school in Georgia. In 1923, Toomer published “Cane,” a series of poems and short stories about the black experience in America. Critics hailed it as an important work of the Harlem Renaissance. The years between 1925 and 1935 were the most productive of Toomer’s literary career. In 1927, he completed the novel “The Gallonwerps” and the play “The Sacred Factory.” In 1931, his long poem “The Blue Meridian” dramatically foreshadowed the racial discourse of the 21st century. Toomer stopped writing after 1950 and died March 30, 1967. Toomer’s biography, “The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness,” was published in 1987.

·   December 26, 1931 John Lee Love of Fall River, Massachusetts, inventor, died. Not much is known of Love’s life except that he was born September 26, 1889 and was the recipient of two patents. Love received patent number 542,419 on July 9, 1895 for an improved plasterer’s hawk. A plasterer’s hawk is a flat square piece of board made of wood or metal upon which plaster or mortar is placed and then spread by plasterers or masons. Love designed one that was more portable with a detachable handle and foldable board made of aluminum. On November 23, 1897, he received patent number 594,114 for a pencil sharpener that used a crank to shave off thin slices of wood from the pencil until a point was formed. The shavings from the wood would stay inside the sharpener. 

·   December 26, 1944 John Robert Fox, Medal of Honor recipient, died in action. Fox was born May 18, 1915 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated from Wilberforce University in 1940 with an ROTC commission of second lieutenant. In December, 1944, Fox was part of a small forward observer party that volunteered to stay behind in the Italian village of Sommocolonia. American forces had withdrawn from the village after it was overrun by German forces. Fox directed defensive artillery fire from his position on the second floor of a house. When the Germans attacked the small group of remaining Americans, Fox ordered artillery fire on his own position, killing him, but delaying the advance of the enemy. His action permitted U.S. forces to organize a counterattack and regain control of the village. In the early 1990s it was determined that African American soldiers who served during World War II were denied consideration for the Medal of Honor due to their race and after a review, on January 13, 1997 Fox’s widow received the medal, America’s highest military decoration, from President Bill Clinton. After the war, the citizens of Sommocolonia erected a monument to the nine men killed during the artillery barrage, eight Italian soldiers and Fox. In 2005, Hasbro introduced an action figure commemorating Lt. John R. Fox.

·   December 26, 1954 Osborne Earl “Ozzie” Smith, hall of fame baseball player, was born in Mobile, Alabama. Smith made his major league debut in 1978 with the San Diego Padres, but spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Over his 18 season professional career, he was a 15-time All-Star and a 13-time Gold Glove Award winner. After retiring from baseball in 1996, Smith served as host of the television show “This Week in Baseball” from 1997 to 1999. Smith has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1983 NAACP Image Award for Sportsmanship, Humanitarianism and Community Involvement, the 1994 Branch Rickey Award for personifying service above self, the 1995 Roberto Clemente Award for best exemplifying the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and contribution to his team, and in 1996 the Cardinals retired his uniform number 1. Smith was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002 and that same year a statue of Smith was unveiled at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis. Since retiring, Smith has been involved in a number of entrepreneurial ventures and authored a children’s book, “Hello, Fredbird!” (2006). He has published two autobiographies, “Wizard” (1988) and “Ozzie Smith – The Road to Cooperstown” (2002).

·   December 26, 1966 Kwanzaa, a week-long celebration honoring universal African heritage and culture, was first practiced in the United States. Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga and is observed annually from December 26 to January 1. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following seven principles; Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). The first Kwanzaa stamp was issued by the United States Postal Service in 1997 and a second stamp was issued in 2004.

·   December 26, 1985 Jackie Ormes, the first African American female cartoonist, died. Ormes was born Zelda Mavin Jackson on August 1, 1911 in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. Ormes started in journalism as a proofreader for the Pittsburgh Courier. In 1937, her one-panel comic strip “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem” first appeared in the Courier. Ormes moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1942 and began writing articles and a social column for the Chicago Defender. At the end of World War II, her one-panel cartoon “Candy” appeared in the Defender for a few months. In August, 1945, Ormes returned to the Courier with the cartoon “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger” which ran for eleven years. In 1947, she contracted to have a Patty-Jo doll produced. It was the first African American doll to have an extensive upscale wardrobe. Today, the dolls are highly sought after collectors’ items. In 1950, she developed a multi-panel comic strip “Torchy in Heartbeats” which ran until 1954. Ormes retired from cartooning in 1956 and devoted the remainder of her life to the Southside Chicago community, including being a founding member of the board of directors of the DuSable Museum of African American History. Her biography, “Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist,” was published in 2008.

·   December 26, 1999 Curtis Lee Mayfield, singer, songwriter and record producer, died. Mayfield was born June 3, 1942 in Chicago, Illinois. In 1954, Mayfield dropped out of school and joined The Roosters who two years later became The Impressions. When Jerry Butler left the group, Mayfield became the lead singer. The Impressions were successful with a string of Mayfield composions, including “Gypsy Woman” (1961), “Keep on Pushing” (1964), “People Get Ready” (1965), and “Check Out Your Mind” (1970). Mayfield also wrote and produced scores of hits for other artists, including Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart” (1960), Gene Chandler’s “Bless Our Love” (1964), The Staple Singers’ “Let’s Do It Again” (1975), and Aretha Franklin’s “Something He Can Feel” (1976). In 1970, Mayfield left The Impressions to begin a solo career and to found an independent record label. In 1972, he released the album “Super Fly” which was the soundtrack for the film of the same title and one of the most influential albums in history. It is listed at 69 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. This led to other movie soundtracks, including “Claudine” (1974), “Sparkle” (1976), and “A Piece of the Action” (1977). On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed after stage lighting fell on him at an outdoor concert. Mayfield received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. He was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000 and as a member of The Impressions was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.

·   December 26, 2004 Reginald Howard White, hall of fame football player, died. White was born December 19, 1961 in Chattanooga, Tennessee and from 1980 to 1983 played for the University of Tennessee where he was an All-American. After college, he signed with the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League and after that league folded in 1985 he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League. Over the next fifteen seasons, White was a 12-time All Pro selection and in 1987 and 1998 was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Because of his strong Christian beliefs and his play on the field, White was known as “the Minister of Defense.” After retiring from football, White served as an associate minister at a church in Knoxville, Tennessee. During the 2005 football season the University of Tennessee, Philadelphia Eagles, and Green Bay Packers all retired White’s uniform number and in 2006 he was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Reggie White Boulevard in Chattanooga and Reggie White Way in Green Bay, Wisconsin are named in his honor.

·   December 26, 2009 Percy Ellis Sutton, lawyer, civil rights activist and political and business leader, died. Sutton was born November 24, 1920 in San Antonio, Texas. During World War II, Sutton served as an intelligence officer with the Tuskegee Airmen. He attended Prairie View University, Tuskegee Institute, and Hampton Institute before earning his law degree in 1950 from Brooklyn Law School. From 1964 to 1966, he served in the New York State Assembly where he was instrumental in getting funding to establish the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. From 1966 to 1977, he served as Manhattan borough president. In 1971, Sutton co-founded the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation which purchased New York City’s first African American-owned radio station. Sutton served as president of the corporation from 1972 to 1991. In 1980, he purchased and initiated the revitalization of the Apollo Theater in Harlem and in 1987 began producing the television show, “Showtime at the Apollo.” In 1987, Sutton was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal.

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, possessing a B.A. in English with a focus in creative writing.