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Today in Black History, 2/16/2012

• February 16, 1858 Isaiah Mays, Medal of Honor recipient, was born enslaved in Carters Bridge, Virginia. By May 11, 1889, Mays was serving as a corporal in Company B of the 24th Infantry Regiment. On that day, he was involved in an engagement with robbers and his actions earned him the medal which was awarded February 19, 1890. His citation reads, “Gallantry in the fight between Paymaster Wham’s escort and robbers. Mays walked and crawled 2 miles to a ranch for help.” Mays left the army in 1893, and in 1922 applied for a federal pension, but was denied. Mays died penniless on May 2, 1925 and his grave was marked with only a small stone etched with a number. In 2001, the marker was replaced with an official United States Department of Veterans Affairs headstone. In March, 2009, his remains were disinterred, cremated and placed in an urn. On May 29, 2009, the urn was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

 

• February 16, 1904 James Baskett, actor and the first male performer of African descent to receive an Oscar, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. Baskett appeared on Broadway in the all-black musical revue “Hot Chocolate” in 1929. He also appeared in a number of all-black films, including “Harlem is Heaven” (1932) and “Straight to Heaven” (1939). From 1944 to 1948, he was part of the cast of the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio show. In 1946, he appeared in the lead role of Uncle Remus in “Song of the South,” but was unable to attend the premier in Atlanta, Georgia because of the city’s racial segregation laws. In 1947, Baskett received an honorary Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus for his “able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world.” Basket died July 9, 1948.

 

• February 16, 1932 Otis Blackwell, singer, pianist, and songwriter, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Blackwell learned to play the piano as a child. In 1952, he won a talent contest at the Apollo Theater, but his real love was songwriting. In 1956, he had his first success, composing “Fever” which was recorded by Little Willie John. Blackwell went on to become one of the leading African American figures of early rock and roll, writing million-selling songs for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dee Clark, and others. Over his career, Blackwell composed more than a thousand songs, garnering worldwide sales of close to 200 million records. Two of his songs, “Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley and “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as recordings of “qualitative or historical significance.” Blackwell was inducted into the National Academy of Popular Music’s Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1991 and received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1994. He died May 6, 2002.

 

• February 16, 1933 William Maud Bryant, Medal of Honor recipient, was born in Cochran, Georgia. By March 24, 1969, Bryant was serving as a sergeant first class in Company A of the 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces. On that day, during a battle in Long Khanh province, Republic of Vietnam, his actions earned him the medal. His citation partially reads, “The battalion came under heavy fire and became surrounded by the elements of 3 enemy regiments. Sfc. Bryant displayed extraordinary heroism throughout the succeeding 34 hours of incessant attack as he moved throughout the company position heedless of the intense hostile fire while establishing and improving the defensive perimeter, directing fire during critical phases of the battle, distributing ammunition, assisting the wounded and providing the leadership and inspirational example of courage to his men. When a helicopter drop of ammunition was made to re-supply the beleaguered forces, Sfc. Bryant with complete disregard for his safety ran through the enemy fire to retrieve the scattered ammunition boxes and distributed needed ammunition to his men. During a lull in the intense fighting, Sfc. Bryant led a patrol outside the perimeter to obtain information of the enemy. The patrol came under intense automatic weapons fire and was pinned down. Sfc. Bryant single-handedly repulsed 1 enemy attack on his small force and by his heroic action inspired his men to fight off other assaults. Seeing a wounded enemy soldier some distance from the patrol location, Sfc. Bryant crawled forward alone under heavy fire to retrieve the soldier for intelligence purposes. Finding that the enemy soldier had expired, Sfc. Bryant crawled back to his patrol and led his men back to the company position where he again took command of the defense. As the siege continued, Sfc. Bryant organized and led a patrol in a daring attempt to break through the enemy encirclement. The patrol had advanced some 200 meters by heavy fighting when it was pinned down by the intense automatic weapons fire from heavily fortified bunkers and Sfc. Bryant was severely wounded. Despite his wounds he rallied his men, calling for helicopter gunship support, and directed heavy suppressive fire upon the enemy positions. Following the last gunship attack, Sfc. Bryant fearlessly charged an enemy automatic weapons position, overrunning it, and single-handedly destroying its 3 defenders. Inspired by his heroic example, his men renewed their attack on the entrenched enemy. While regrouping his small force for the final assault against the enemy, Sfc. Bryant fell mortally wounded by an enemy rocket.”

 

• February 16, 1957 Levardis Robert Martyn “LeVar” Burton, actor, director and author, was born in Landstuhl, West Germany. Burton graduated from the University of Southern California School of Theater. While still in school, he came to prominence portraying Kunta Kinte in the 1977 television miniseries “Roots.” In 1986, Burton originated the role of La Forge in the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” television series. He subsequently reprised that role in the series of films beginning with “Star Trek Generations” (1994) through “Star Trek Nemesis” (2002). Burton also directed the Disney Channel television movie “Smart House” (1999) and the films “Blizzard” (2003) and “Reach for Me” (2008). Burton has won a number of awards, including the 1992 Peabody Award as executive producer of an episode of “Reading Rainbow,” 2000 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album, “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” and 2001 and 2002 Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Performance in a Children’s Series. Burton is the host and executive producer of a documentary titled “The Science of Peace” which investigates the science and technology aimed at enabling world peace.

 

• February 16, 1972 Jerome Abram “The Bus” Bettis, retired football player, was born in Detroit, Michigan. Bettis played football at Mackenzie High School and the University of Notre Dame before being selected in the 1993 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams. In his first year as a professional, he was named Offensive Rookie of the Year. Over his 13 year professional career, he was a three-time All-Pro selection. Bettis retired in 2006 after leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl victory at Ford Field in Detroit. In 1997, Bettis founded the Bus Stops Here Foundation to aid underprivileged children and in 2001 he was awarded the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in recognition of his volunteer work and excellence on the field. His autobiography, “Driving Home: My Unforgettable Super Bowl Run” was published in 2006.

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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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