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Today in Black History, 5/31/2012

• May 31, 1921 The Tulsa Race War in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma occurred, resulting in 35 city blocks of residences being destroyed and 10,000 predominantly black people left homeless. Officially 39 people were reported killed, but unofficial counts range up to 300. The Greenwood section of Tulsa was predominantly black and had a commercial district that was so prosperous that it was often referred to as “the Negro Wall Street.” On Monday, May 30, a teenage black man was accused and jailed for assaulting a young white woman. By the next day, thousands of armed white men had gathered to seek revenge and a smaller group of armed black men gathered to provide protection. A confrontation occurred, resulting in large-scale civil disorder. In 2001, the Oklahoma state legislature passed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act which provided for more than 300 college scholarships for descendents of Greenwood residents, mandated the creation of a memorial to those who died in the riot, and called for efforts to promote economic development in Greenwood. Books about the riot include “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” (1982) and “Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 – Race, Reparations, Reconciliation” (2002).

 

• May 31, 1921 Reece “Goose” Tatum, hall of fame basketball player, was born in El Dorado, Arkansas. In high school, Tatum played baseball, football, and basketball. He played Negro league baseball from 1937 to 1949 and was a co-owner of the Detroit Clowns baseball team in the late 1950s. Tatum played basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1941 and 1942 before being drafted into the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, he returned to play with the Globetrotters until 1954. During that time, Tatum is credited with inventing many basketball moves, including the hook shot. After leaving the Globetrotters, he created his own touring basketball teams. Tatum died January 18, 1967 and was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.

 

• May 31, 1924 Patricia Roberts Harris, the first African American woman to serve as a United States Ambassador, was born in Mattoon, Illinois. Harris earned her Bachelor of Arts degree summa cum laude from Howard University in 1945 and in 1960 graduated at the top of her class from the George Washington University National Law Center. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed her Ambassador to Luxembourg where she served until 1967. In 1969, Harris was named dean of Howard University’s School of Law, a position she held until 1972. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Harris Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and in 1979 she became Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare where she served until 1981. In 1982, she was appointed a professor at the George Washington University National Law Center, a position she held until her death on March 23, 1985. Harris also served on the Board of Directors of several corporations, including Chase Manhattan Bank, Scott Paper Company, and IBM. The Patricia R. Harris Education Center in Washington, D.C. is named in her honor.

 

• May 31, 1931 Shirley Verrett, operatic mezzo-soprano and soprano, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, but raised in Los Angeles, California. Verrett made her operatic debut in “The Rape of Lucretia” in 1957. In 1958, she made her New York City debut in “Lost in the Story” and in 1959 she debuted in Europe in “Rasputins Tod.” Verrett enjoyed great fame from the late 1960s through the 1990s. In 1994, she made her Broadway debut in “Carousel.” In 1996, Verrett joined the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater & Dance as a professor of voice. In 2003, Verrett published her memoir, “I Never Walked Alone” and she died November 5, 2010.

 

• May 31, 1940 Robert Russa Moton, educator and author, died. Moton was born August 26, 1867 in Amelia County, Virginia. He graduated from the Hampton Institute in 1890. From 1891 to 1915, Moton served as an administrator at Hampton Institute. After the death of Booker T. Washington, Moton was named principal of Tuskegee Institute in 1915, a position he held until his retirement in 1935. In 1932, Moton was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal. Moton published two books, “Finding a Way Out” in 1920 and “What the Negro Thinks” in 1929. Moton Field, the initial training base for the Tuskegee Airmen, was named in his honor. The former R. R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia was named a National Historic Site in 1998 and now houses the Robert Russa Moton Museum, a center for the study of civil rights in education. The Robert Russa Moton Charter School in New Orleans, Louisiana is also named in his honor.

 

• May 31, 1967 William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn, composer, pianist, and arranger, died. Strayhorn was born November 29, 1915 in Dayton, Ohio. He began his musical career studying classical music at the Pittsburgh Music Institute and while still in his teens composed the song “Life Is Lonely” which was later renamed “Lush Life.” In 1938, Strayhorn met Duke Ellington and over the next 25 years they worked together on a number of classic pieces, including “Take the A Train” (1939), “Day Dream” (1946), and “Satin Doll” (1953). In 1969, Ellington recorded a memorial album, “And His Mother Called Him Bill,” consisting entirely of Strayhorn compositions. Strayhorn was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1967. The Billy Strayhorn Historical Marker, located at Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, was dedicated in 1995. His biography, “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn,” was published in 1996.

 

• May 31, 1997 Jewel Stradford Lafontant-Mankarious, the first female Deputy Solicitor General of the United States, died. Lafontant-Mankarious was born April 28, 1922 in Chicago, Illinois. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Oberlin College in 1943 and in 1946 became the first African American woman to earn her Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Chicago Law School. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed her Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. In 1963, Lafontant-Mankarious became the first black woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. President Richard M. Nixon appointed her vice chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on International, Educational and Cultural Affairs in 1969, representative to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1972, and the first female Deputy Solicitor General in 1973. Lafontant-Mankarious left the Nixon administration in 1975 and practiced law until 1989. From 1989 to 1993, she served as ambassador-at-large and U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Lafontant-Mankarious was a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality, an officer in the Chicago chapter of the NAACP, and a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

 

• May 31, 2000 Johnnie Harrison Taylor, gospel, blues, and soul singer, died. Taylor was born May 5, 1937 in Crawfordsville, Arkansas. In 1957, he was hired to replace Sam Cooke in the gospel group the Soul Stirrers and in 1962 he recorded his first solo, “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day.” In 1966, Taylor moved to Stax Records and recorded several hits, including “Who’s Making Love” (1968), “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” (1971), and “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)” (1973). After Stax folded, Taylor recorded his biggest hit, “Disco Lady” (1976), which sold more than two million copies. His 1996 album “Good Love” was number one on Billboard’s Blues Chart. Taylor was awarded a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1999. Taylor was known as “the philosopher of soul.”

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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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