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Today in Black History, 12/31/2010

· December 31, 1864 Joachim Pease received the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration, for his conduct during the Civil War battle between the USS Kearsarge and the Confederate CSS Alabama. His citation reads “Served as seaman on board the U. S. S. Kearsarge when she destroyed the Alabama off Cherbourg, France, 19 June 1864. Acting as loader on the No. 2 gun during this bitter engagement, Pease exhibited marked coolness and good conduct and was highly recommended by the divisional officer for gallantry under fire.” Other than the fact that he was born in 1842, not much is known of Pease’s life before or after the war.

· December 31, 1864 James Mifflin received the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration, for his actions during the Battle of Mobile Bay, Alabama. His citation reads, “On board the U. S. S. Brooklyn during successful attacks against Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats and the ram CSS Tennessee in Mobile Bay, 5 August 1864. Stationed in the immediate vicinity of the shell whips which were twice cleared of men by bursting shells, Mifflin remained steadfast at his post and performed his duties in the powder division throughout the furious action which resulted in the surrender of the prize rebel ram Tennessee and in the damaging and destruction of batteries at Fort Morgan.” Other than the fact that he was born in 1839, not much is known of Mifflin’s life before or after the war.

· December 31, 1864 Wilson Brown received the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decorations for his actions on August 5, 1864 during the Battle of Mobile Bay, Alabama. Brown was serving as a landsman on the USS Hartford. He and five other sailors worked on the Hartford’s berth deck loading and operating the shell whip, a device that lifted boxes of gunpowder up to the gun deck. Brown’s citation reads, “Knocked unconscious into the hold of the ship when an enemy shellburst fatally wounded a man on the ladder above him, Brown, upon regaining consciousness, promptly returned to the shell whip on the berth deck and zealously continued to perform his duties though 4 of 6 men at his station had been killed or wounded by the enemy’s terrific fire.” Other than the fact that he was born in 1841 and died January 24, 1900, not much is known of Brown’s life before or after the war.

· December 31, 1900 Selma Hortense Burke, sculptor, was born in Mooresville, North Carolina. In 1924, she graduated from the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses and moved to Harlem to work as a nurse. In the late 1930s, she received grants that allowed her to study sculpture in Vienna and Paris, culminating in her earning a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University in 1941. In 1943, Burke was chosen to sculpt a portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt which hangs today in the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D. C. Many historians believe this plaque served as the inspiration for the Roosevelt dime. In 1940, Burke established the Selma Burke Art School in New York and in 1968 the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh. Notable sculptures by Burke include “Temptation” (1938), “Despair” (1951), and “Mother and Child” (1968). Her last monumental work was a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. which stands in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina, done in 1980. In 1979, Burke was recognized by President Jimmy Carter for her contribution to African American art history. Burke died August 29, 1995. Burke’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

· December 31, 1930 Odetta Holmes, singer, actress, songwriter, and human rights activist, was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Odetta’s first professional experience was in musical theater in 1944 and in 1949 she joined the “Finian’s Rainbow” touring company. She began her solo career in 1956 with “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” and followed with “At the Gates of Horn” (1957), and “Odetta Sings Folk Songs” (1963). She sang “O Freedom” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was named “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” Odetta also acted in several films, including “Cinerama Holiday” (1955) and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974). From 1977 to 1997, Odetta recorded sparingly but beginning in 1998 she began to refocus on recording with “To Ella.” Subsequent albums included the 2000 Grammy nominated “Blues Everywhere I Go,” “Looking for a Home” (2002), and the 2007 Grammy nominated “Gonna Let It Shine.” In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment of the Arts’ National Medal of Arts and in 2005 the Library of Congress honored her with a Living Legend Award. Odetta died December 2, 2008.

· December 31, 1948 LaDonna Adrian Gaines (Donna Summer), the Queen of Disco, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. At 18, she left home for New York and landed on the European Tour of the musical “Hair.” Her first solo single, “Sally Go Round the Roses,” was released in Europe in 1971. In 1975, “Love to Love You Baby” was released and went to number 2 on the Billboard chart. Other hits include “Bad Girls” (1979) which charted at number 1, “She Works Hard for the Money” (1983), and “Crayons” (2008). On December 11, 2009, Summer performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in honor of President Barack Obama. Over her career, she has had 18 Gold albums, 11 Gold singles and has received 5 Grammy Awards.

· December 31, 1972 Roberto Clemente, hall of fame baseball player, died in an aviation accident while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Clemente was born August 18, 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. He was drafted by the Pittsburg Pirates in 1954 and played 18 seasons with the team. During his career, he was awarded the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1966, selected to 12 All-Star teams, won 12 Gold Glove Awards, and led the league in batting average 4 times. Clemente was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 and Major League Baseball annually presents the Roberto Clemente Award to the player that best exemplifies Clemente’s humanitarian work.

· December 31, 1994 Woodrow Wilson Woolwine “Woody” Strode, athlete and film actor, died. Strode was born July 25, 1914 in Los Angeles, California. He attended UCLA where he was a world class decathlete and a star on the football team. Strode was one of the first African Americans to play in the National Football League, playing for the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Strode made his big screen debut in 1941 in “Sundown” but is best remembered for his performances in the 1960 films, “Spartacus” and “Sergeant Rutledge.” He remained a visible character actor throughout the 1970s and 1980s. His last film was “The Quick and the Dead” (1995) which was released after his death.

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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.