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Today in Black History, 6/7/2012

• June 7, 1917 Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks, poet, and novelist, was born in Topeka, Kansas but raised in Chicago, Illinois. Brooks published her first poem in a children’s magazine at 13 and by the time she was 16 she had a portfolio of 75 published poems. In 1945, her first book of poetry, “A Street in Bronzeville,” was published and it received instant critical acclaim. She received her first Guggenheim Fellowship and was one of the “Ten Young Women of the Year” in Mademoiselle Magazine. Her second book of poetry, “Annie Allen,” was published in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the first won by an African American. In 1962, Brooks began teaching creative writing at several institutions, including Northeastern Illinois University and Columbia University. Her book length poem, “In the Mecca” (1968), was nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry. Also in 1968, Brooks was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois and in 1985 she was selected the Library of Congress’s Consultant in Poetry (now titled Poet Laureate). Brooks was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988 and in 1994 was chosen as the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecturer, the highest award in the humanities given by the federal government. In 1995, she was presented the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, by President William Clinton. Brooks was awarded more than 75 honorary degrees from colleges and universities worldwide and there are a number of schools in Illinois named in her honor. Brooks died December 3, 2000. Her biography, “A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks,” was published in 1990.


• June 7, 1931 David C. Driskell, artist, educator, and scholar in the field of African American art, was born in Eatonton, Georgia. Driskell earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in art from Howard University in 1955 and his Master of Fine Arts degree from Catholic University in 1962. He served as visiting professor at the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ife in Nigeria from 1969 to 1970. In 1977, Driskell joined the faculty of the University of Maryland and served as the chair of the Department of Art from 1978 to 1983. Since 1977, he has served as cultural advisor and curator of the Camille and William Cosby Collection of Fine Art. Driskell has written more than 40 catalogues for exhibitions he has created. In 2000, he was presented the National Humanities Medal by President William Clinton for work that has “deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizen’s engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand American’s access to important resources in the humanities. In 2001, the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora was founded at the University of Maryland, College Park. Driskell’s work is in the collections of many major museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the High Museum of Art, and Yale University Art Gallery. Driskell’s life and work is detailed in “David C. Driskell: Artist and Scholar” published in 2006.


• June 7, 1943 Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni, poet, author, and activist, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Giovanni earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in history with honors from Fisk University in 1967. Her early poetry, such as “Black Feeling, Black Talk” (1967), “Black Judgement” (1968) and “Re: Creation” (1970), was inspired by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Other works include “Those Who Ride The Night Winds” (1983), “Love Poems” (1997), “Acolytes” (2007), and “Bicycles: Love Poems” (2009). Giovanni has written more than 25 books, including volumes of poetry, illustrated children’s books, and collections of essays. Her children’s book “Rosa” (2005) was named a Caldecott Honors Book. In 2004, she was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for her album “The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection.” Giovanni was named Woman of the Year by Ebony magazine in 1970, Mademoiselle magazine in 1971, and Ladies Home Journal in 1972. In 1985, she was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame and named an Outstanding Woman of Tennessee. She has received 25 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the country. Since 1987, Giovanni has served as distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech.


• June 7, 1958 Prince, singer, songwriter, and musician, was born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Prince’s first album, “For You,” was released in 1978. He composed, produced, arranged, and played all 27 instruments on the recording. In 1979, he had his first major hit album, “Prince,” which contained the single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” which sold over a million copies. In 1984, he released “Purple Rain” which sold more than 13 million copies in the United States and spent 24 consecutive weeks at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and won the Grammy Awards for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. The film of the same name won the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. At one point in 1984, Prince had the number one album, number one single, and number one film in the U.S., the first time a singer had achieved that feat. Prince has produced 10 platinum albums, including “1999” (1982), “Sign o’ the Times” (1987), “Batman” (1989), and “Emancipation” (1996). He has been nominated for 33 Grammy Awards and won seven. His albums “1999” and “Purple Rain” have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as recordings of “qualitative or historical significance.” It is reported that Prince has written more than one thousand songs. Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Several books have been published about Prince, including “Purple Reign: The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” (1998) and “Prince: Life & Times” (2008). “Purple Rain” was added to the National Recording Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” in 2012.


• June 7, 1962 Janice Faye Lawrence Braxton, hall of fame basketball player, was born in Lucedale, Mississippi. Braxton played college basketball at Louisiana Tech University where she was a two-time All-American, led the team to the national championship in 1981 and 1982, and was the National Player of the Year in 1984. Braxton won a Gold medal as a member of the United States women’s basketball team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. She played professionally in Italy for 15 seasons, earning All-Europe honors seven times. She also played for the Cleveland Rockers in the Women’s National Basketball Association from 1997 to 1999. Braxton was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.


• June 7, 1995 Herman Russell Branson, physicist and president of two colleges, died. Branson was born August 14, 1914 in Pocahontas, Virginia. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree summa cum laude from Virginia State College in 1936 and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cincinnati in 1939. Branson joined Howard University in 1941 and remained there for 27 years, eventually becoming the head of the Physics Department, director of a program in experimental science and mathematics, and working on the Office of Naval Research and Atomic Energy Commission Projects in Physics. Branson served as president of Central State University from 1968 to 1970 and president of Lincoln University until his retirement in 1985. He was active in increasing federal funding for higher education and helped found the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education in 1969.


• June 7, 1998 James Byrd, Jr., an African American, was murdered in Jasper, Texas when three white men hooked him to a pickup truck and dragged him about three miles along the pavement. While being dragged, his arm and head were severed from his body. The murderers unchained his torso and left it on the road in front of the town’s black cemetery. An autopsy suggested that Byrd had been alive during much of the dragging. The three murderers were convicted with two of them receiving the death penalty and the other sentenced to life in prison. Byrd’s “lynching by dragging” resulted in the passage of a Texas hate crimes law and the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. After his death, Byrd’s family created the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing. In 2003, a movie about the crime, “Jasper, Texas,” was aired on Showtime.

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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.