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Today in Black History, 4/2/2012

• April 2, 1911 Charles “Honi” Coles, tap dancer and actor, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Coles developed his high-speed rhythm tapping on the streets of his hometown. In 1940, while dancing with the Cab Calloway band, he teamed with Charles “Cholly” Atkins to form Coles & Atkins. Their partnership lasted 19 years. Coles made his Broadway debut in the 1949 production of “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” He also appeared in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” in 1976. His performance in the 1983 production of “My One and Only” earned him both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. During the 1980s, Coles taught dance and dance history at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and George Washington Universities. In 1991, Coles was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, by President George H. W. Bush. Coles died November 12, 1992 and was posthumously inducted into the Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2003.


• April 2, 1918 Charles White, graphic artist and educator, was born in Chicago, Illinois. White became interested in art by the age of seven and at 14 was working as a sign painter. White earned a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago and graduated in 1937. After graduation, he joined the Works Project Administration and in 1940 was commissioned to create a mural on the history of the Negro press. In 1947, White had his first one-man show. His works explored the universal conflicts that plague all humankind. Despite his success, White could not escape racism. His work was included in an exhibition of black artists at the University of Alabama, but the artists were not allowed to attend. Also, the Delgado Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana purchased one of his paintings, but he was denied admission to the museum. Europe was different. On a 1951 trip, he found his work widely known and his skin color was not a concern. In 1965, White began teaching at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, California and taught there until his death on October 3, 1979. White’s images of the black experience are held in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Library of Congress, the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Collection, and several universities.


• April 2, 1932 Willie M. “Bill” Pickett, cowboy and rodeo performer, died after being kicked in the head by a horse. Pickett was born December 5, 1870 or 1871 in Travis County, Texas. After quitting school, he took up ranch work. Pickett is generally credited with inventing the technique of bulldogging, grabbing cattle by the horns and wrestling them to the ground. In 1905, Pickett joined the 101 Ranch Wild West Show where he was a popular performer and toured around the world and appeared in motion pictures. Because of his race, he often had to claim to be a Comanche in order to perform. In 1971, Pickett was the first black inductee to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and in 1989 he was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. In 1994, the United States Postal Service honored Pickett with a commemorative postage stamp as part of the “Legends of the West” series. Several biographies have been published on Pickett, including “Bill Pickett, Bulldogger: The Biography of a Black Cowboy” (1977) and “Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett” (1994). Pickett’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.


• April 2, 1939 Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr., instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, was born in Washington, D.C. Gaye started as a member of The Moonglows in 1958 and after they disbanded in 1960, he moved to Detroit, Michigan and signed with Motown Records. Gaye experienced his first significant success in 1962 as co-writer of the Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789.” This was soon followed by his first hit single, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” (1962). Other hit singles followed in 1963 and 1964, including “Hitch Hike,” “Pride and Joy,” “Can I Get a Witness,” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” In the 1970s, Gaye released several successful albums, including “What’s Going On” (1971), “Let’s Get It On” (1973), and “Live at the London Palladium” (1977). Gaye’s 1982 hit, “Sexual Healing,” won two Grammy Awards, including Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, Male. On April 1, 1984 Gaye was fatally shot. His autobiography, “Divided Soul,” was published in 1986. In 1987, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1996 he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Gaye’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.


• April 2, 1984 Georgetown University defeated the University of Houston 84 to 75 in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball championship game making John Thompson the first African American head coach to lead his team to the title.


• April 2, 1995 Julius Arthur Hemphill, jazz composer and saxophonist, died. Hemphill was born January 24, 1938 in Fort Worth, Texas. He joined the United States Army in 1964 and served for several years. In 1968, Hemphill moved to St. Louis, Missouri and co-founded the Black Artists’ Group, a multi-disciplinary arts collective. He moved to New York City in the mid-1970s and in 1976 founded the World Saxophone Quartet. Hemphill left the group in the early 1990s. He recorded over 20 albums as leader, including “Dogon A.D.” (1972), “Buster Bee” (1978), and “Five Chord Stud” (1993). Ill health forced Hemphill to stop playing the saxophone, but he continued writing music until his death. He was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1995. A multi-hour oral history interview that he conducted for the Smithsonian Institute in 1994 is held at the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History.

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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.