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Today in Black History, 6/6/2012

• June 6, 1902 James Melvin Lunceford, bandleader and alto saxophonist, was born in Fulton, Mississippi but raised in Denver, Colorado. Lunceford earned his Bachelor of Music degree from Fisk University in 1926. While teaching high school in Memphis, Tennessee, he formed a student band which eventually became the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra. In 1934, the band began an engagement at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York and by 1935 they had achieved a national reputation as one of the top black swing bands. The Lunceford Orchestra recorded 22 hits, including the number one “Rhythm Is Our Business” in 1935. It was the first black band to play New York’s Paramount Theater and tour white colleges. Glen Miller was quoted as saying, “Duke Ellington is great, Count Basie remarkable, but Lunceford tops them all.” By 1942, the band began to have internal problems and suffered a decline in popularity. Lunceford died July 12, 1947. The Jimmy Lunceford Jamboree Festival is held annually in Memphis and in 2011 a Mississippi Blues Trail marker dedicated to Lunceford was unveiled.


• June 6, 1906 Willie Mae Ford Smith, considered the greatest of the “anointed singers,” was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi but raised in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1922, she and her sisters formed a gospel quartet called the Ford Sisters. After her sisters married and quit the group, Smith started a solo career. To supplement her household income, she became one of the first gospel singers to tour regularly. Rarely recorded, her reputation was based on her live performances. Smith was the first to introduce the “song and sermonette,” the act of delivering a lengthy sermon before, during, or after a performance. By the early 1950s, Smith had turned to evangelical work which she continued until her death on February 2, 1994.


• June 6, 1934 Roy Emile Alfredo Innis, civil rights activist and National Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands but raised in New York City. From 1950 to 1952, Innis served in the U.S. Army and from 1952 to 1956 attended the City College of New York. Innis joined the Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1963 and in 1965 was elected chairman of the chapter. In 1967, he was elected second national vice-chairman of CORE. Also that year, Innis was made the first executive director of the Harlem Commonwealth Council, an investment corporation established to create financial independence and stability in Harlem. Innis was elected national chairman of CORE in 1968 and continues to hold that position. He also was founder and co-editor of the Manhattan Tribune Newspaper. Since the 1980s, Innis has unsuccessfully run for several political offices.


• June 6, 1935 Robert Cornelius “Bobby” Mitchell, hall of fame football player, was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In high school, Mitchell played football, basketball, ran track, and was good enough at baseball to be offered a professional contract. He played football and ran track for the University of Illinois and in 1958 set an indoor world record in the 70-yard low hurdles. Mitchell was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the 1958 NFL Draft and over his eleven-season professional career was a four-time Pro Bowl selection. Mitchell retired in 1968 and at that time his career combined net yards was the second highest in NFL history. After retiring, he worked for the Washington Redskin organization, eventually rising to assistant general manager. Mitchell retired in 2003. Mitchell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and since 1980 has hosted the Bobby Mitchell Hall of Fame Classic to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Mitchell has also worked with many other organizations, including the Howard University Cancer Research Advisory Committee, the American Lung Association, and the Boys Club of Washington.


• June 6, 1936 Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of the Four Tops, was born Levi Stubbles in Detroit, Michigan. In 1954, Stubbs and three friends formed a singing group called the Four Aims. Two years later, they changed their name to the Four Tops and in 1963 signed with Motown Records. By the end of the decade, they had over a dozen hits, including “It’s the Same Old Song” (1965), “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” (1965), “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (1966), “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966), and “Bernadette” (1967). Since the late 1980s, the group has focused on touring and live performances. In 1995, Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer and later suffered a stroke. In 2000, Stubbs was replaced in the group by Theo Peoples and he died October 17, 2008. The Four Tops have sold over 50 million records worldwide and in 1990 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1999, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.


• June 6, 1939 Marian Wright Edelman, children’s rights activist, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and author, was born in Bennettsville, South Carolina. Edelman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Spelman College in 1960 and in 1963 earned her law degree from Yale University Law School. Edelman was the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar when she began practicing law for the Legal Defense Fund where she worked on racial justice issues connected with the civil rights movement. In 1968, she moved to Washington, D.C. to help organize Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. In 1973, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund as a voice for poor, minority, and disabled children. The organization has served as an advocacy and research center for children’s issues. Edelman has received numerous honors and awards, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1985, Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1988, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President William Clinton in 2000. In 2010, a library was named in her honor in Bennettsville. Edelman has authored a number of books, including “Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change” (1987), “The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours” (1992), “Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors” (2000), and “The Sea is So Wide and My Boat is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation” (2008).


• June 6, 1944 Tommie Smith, hall of fame track and field athlete, was born in Clarksville, Texas. Smith won a track scholarship to San Jose State University where in 1966 he set the world record in the 200-meter race. Also at San Jose State, Smith was a co-founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization formed to boycott the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games to highlight human rights violations by the United States. The boycott did not occur and Smith went on to win the Gold medal in the 200-meter race. At the medal ceremony, he and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fist in a black power salute. They also wore black socks and no shoes to represent African American poverty in the U.S. For these actions they were suspended from the U.S. team, banned from the Olympic Village, and they and their families were subject to death threats. Smith later earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in social science from San Jose State and his master’s degree in sociology from Goddard Cambridge. He later became a track coach at Oberlin College where he also taught sociology. Smith was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1978 and in 2007 his autobiography, “Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith,” was published. In 2008, he and Carlos received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPY Awards.


• June 6, 1971 Flournoy Earkin Miller, composer, singer, and actor, died. Miller was born April 14, 1887 in Nashville, Tennessee. He appeared in vaudeville with Aubrey Lyles as Miler and Lyles from 1906 to 1929. In 1915, they appeared in “Charlot’s Revue” in England. Miller and Lyles wrote the book for “Shuffle Along,” a Broadway musical with music by Eubie Blake and lyrics by Noble Sissle. They also appeared in the Broadway production of “Runnin’ Wild” in 1923. After their breakup, Miller also appeared on Broadway in “Lew Leslie’s Revue” (1930) and “Harlem on the Prairie” (1937). Miller was posthumously nominated for the Tony Award for Best Score in 1979 for his contribution to the Broadway musical “Eubie.”


• June 6, 2005 Maurice Farnandis Rabb, Jr., ophthalmologist who did pioneering work in cornea and retinal vascular diseases, died. Rabb was born August 7, 1932 in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Louisville in 1954 and a medical degree in 1958 from the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Rabb studied ophthalmology at New York University and became the first African American resident of the University of Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary. From 1971 to 2005, Rabb served as chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at Mercy Hospital. From 1972 to 1987, he was the medical director of the Illinois Eye Bank and Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, the first African American to be a medical director of an eye bank in the United States. In 1972, Rabb founded the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center. There he led research that helped prevent retinal detachment and blindness in sickle cell patients. Annually the National Medical Association awards the Rabb Venable Ophthalmology Award for Outstanding Research to students and residents for the best research presentations.


• June 6, 2006 William Everett “Billy” Preston, rhythm and blues singer and musician, died. Preston was born September 2, 1946 in Houston, Texas. He began playing the piano at age three and by the age of ten was performing in the bands of gospel greats Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, and Andrae Crouch. At the age of 12, he appeared in the film “St. Louis Blues.” During the 1960s, he performed with Little Richard and Ray Charles. In 1965, Preston released his debut solo album, “The Most Exciting Organ Ever,” and in 1972 he released “Outa-Space” which sold more than one million copies and won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Other hits from Preston include “Will It Go Round in Circles” (1972), “Space Race” (1973), “Nothing from Nothing” (1974), and “With You I’m Born Again” (1980). Preston also played keyboards for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and was often referred to as “the Fifth Beatle.”

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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.