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Today in Black History, 3/17/2012

• March 17, 1806 Norbert Rillieux, engineer and inventor, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. As a Creole from a prominent family, Rillieux had access to education and privileges not available to many other blacks. In the early 1820s, he travelled to Paris to attend school, studying physics, mechanics, and engineering. He became an expert in steam engines and published several papers about the use of steam to work devices. At the age of 24, he became the youngest teacher at the school. While in France, Rillieux started researching ways to improve the sugar refining process and after returning to the United States in 1833 he began to develop a machine for which he was granted patent number 3237 on August 26, 1843. The multiple-effect evaporation system that he devised addressed all of the shortcomings of prior sugar refining processes and by 1849 thirteen Louisiana sugar factories were using his invention. His invention was an important development in the growth of the sugar industry. Rillieux returned to France in 1850 where he died October 8, 1894. A Children’s book, “Sugar Makes Sweet Norbert Rillieux Inventor,” was published in 1994.


• March 17, 1865 Aaron Anderson, while serving as a landsman in the Union Navy during the Civil War, “carried out his duties courageously in the face of a devastating fire which cut away half the oars, pierced the launch in many places and cut the barrel off a musket being fired at the enemy.” In recognition of his actions, Anderson was awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration, on June 22, 1865. Anderson was born in 1811 in Plymouth, North Carolina and enlisted in the Navy at age 52. He left the Navy after his term of service expired and little Is known of his post-war life except that he died January 9, 1886.


• March 17, 1867 Ida Rebecca Cummings, educator and civic leader, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Cummings earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Morgan State College in 1922. Cummings began teaching in 1900 and taught for 37 years. In 1904, she and other members of the Colored YMCA established the Colored Empty Stocking and Fresh Air Circle to provide Christmas stockings to children who would otherwise have no gifts and to pay for the boarding of children in rural homes during the summer. From 1912 to 1914, Cummings was secretary of the National Association of Colored Women and chair annual convention planning committee. Cummings served as a trustee of Bennett College, the first female trustee of Morgan State College, and president of the Republican Women’s League. Cummings died in November, 1958.


• March 17, 1898 Blanche Kelso Bruce, the first elected African American United States senator to serve a full term, died. Bruce was born enslaved on March 1, 1841 in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Because his father was white, he was able to legally free Bruce and arrange for a trade apprenticeship. In 1864, Bruce moved to Missouri where he established a school for blacks and during the Reconstruction Period became a wealthy landowner in the Mississippi Delta. Over the years, he won elections in Bolivar County, Mississippi to sheriff, tax collector, and supervisor of education. In 1874, he was elected by the state legislature to the United States Senate where he served until 1881. In 1881, Bruce was appointed by President James Garfield to be Register of the Treasury, making him the first African American whose signature appeared on United States paper currency. Bruce served on the Board of Trustees of Howard University from 1894 to his death. Bruce’s home in Washington, D.C. was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and a number of schools around the country are named in his honor, including the Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy School District in Detroit, Michigan. An account of Bruce’s political life and that of his descendents is given in “The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty” (2006).


• March 17, 1912 Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1942, Rustin assisted in the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality. A declared pacifist, he was imprisoned from 1944 to 1946 for violating the Selective Service Act. While in prison, he organized protests against the segregated dining facilities. After his release from prison, Rustin was frequently arrested for protesting against British colonial rule in India and Africa. In 1947, he organized the Journey of Reconciliation, the first of the Freedom Rides, to test the Supreme Court ruling that banned racial segregation in interstate travel. In 1951, he organized the Committee to Support South African Resistance which later became the American Committee on Africa. In 1957, he assisted Martin Luther King, Jr. in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin worked as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House, a research and advocacy group for democracy, political freedom, and human rights. Rustin died August 24, 1987 and several schools and other institutions are named in his honor, including Bayard Rustin High School in West Chester and the Bayard Rustin Social Justice Center in Conway, Arkansas. A number of biographies have been published about Rustin, including “Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen” (1997), “Bayard Rustin: Behind the Scenes of the Civil Rights Movement” (1997), and “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin” (2004).


• March 17, 1919 Nathaniel Adams “Nat King” Cole, jazz pianist and singer, was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Cole learned to play the organ from his mother and began performing in the 1930s with the King Cole Trio. They signed with Capitol Records in 1943 and revenue from Cole’s recordings accounted for so much of Capitol’s success that the headquarters that they built in 1956 is often referred to as “the house that Nat built.” Cole’s first vocal hit was his 1943 recording of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” which sold over 500,000 copies. This was followed by such hits as “The Christmas Song” (1946), “Nature Boy” (1948), “Mona Lisa” (1950), “Unforgettable” (1951), and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” (1963). On November 5, 1956, “The Nat King Cole Show” debuted, the first television show hosted by an African American. The show only lasted a year because of the lack of a national sponsor. Cole also appeared in a number of films, including “The Blue Gardenia” (1953), “St. Louis Blues” (1958), and “Cat Ballou” (1965). Cole’s last album, “L-O-V-E,” was released just prior to his death on February 15, 1965. Cole was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990 and in 1997 was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. Cole’s biography, “The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole,” was published in 1991.


• March 17, 1927 Elizabeth Louise “Betty” Allen, operatic mezzo-soprano and educator, was born in Campbell, Ohio. Allen earned a bachelor’s degree from the Hartford School of Music in vocal performance and her first major performance came in 1951 as the soprano soloist in “Jeremiah Symphony” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She made her opera debut the following year in “Four Saints in Three Acts.” Also in 1952, she won the Marian Anderson Award. In October, 1954, she made her New York City Opera debut as Queenie in “Show Boat.” From 1960 to 1975, Allen was a regular guest artist with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. She also toured internationally during that time as a concert singer and recitalist, appearing throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Allen’s opera career ended in the late 1970s and in 1979 she became the executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts, becoming president in 1992. She was also active with numerous arts organizations, including the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of Carnegie Hall and the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts. Allen died June 22, 2009


• March 17, 1933 Myrlie Beasley (Myrlie Evers-Williams), civil rights activist, was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. While attending Alcorn A&M College, she met Medgar Evers and they were married in 1951. Evers was murdered in 1963 because of his civil rights activities. Evers-Williams earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from Pomona College in 1968 and served as director of consumer affairs for Atlantic Richfield Company. In 1971, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus. In 1987, Evers-Williams became the first African American woman to serve as a commissioner on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. In 1995, she became the first woman to serve as chairperson of the NAACP board, a position she held until 1998. That same year, she received the NAACP Spingarn Medal. Evers-Williams has co-authored two books, “For Us, the Living” (1967) and “Watch Me Fly: What I Learned On the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be” (1999). Evers-Williams founded and currently serves as president of the Medgar Evers Institute, whose mission is “to impact future generations in successfully leading and developing positive change through cultivated learning, generating new solutions, and promoting civic engagement.”


• March 17, 1944 Felix Adolphe Eboue, French colonial administrator, died. Eboue was born December 26, 1884 in Cayenne, Guyana. He was a brilliant scholar and won a scholarship to study in Bordeaux, France. After graduating in law from the Ecole 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 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. 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 of Paris, the first black man to be so honored. Eboue’s biography, “Eboue,” was published in 1972.

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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.