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Today in Black History, 7/11/2012

• July 11, 1821 Lucy Terry, creator of the oldest known work of literature by an African American, died. Terry was born around 1830 and stolen from Africa as an infant and sold into slavery in Rhode Island. On August 25, 1746, Native Americans attacked two white families in Deerfield, Massachusetts in an area called “The Bars.” Terry composed a ballad about the attack titled “Bars Fight” which earned her local acclaim. A successful free black man purchased Terry’s freedom and married her in 1756. A persuasive orator, Terry won a case against false land claims before the Supreme Court of Vermont in the 1790s. She also delivered a three hour address to the Board of Trustees of Williams College to support the admittance of her son to the college. Although unsuccessful, the speech was remembered for its eloquence and skill. Her poem was preserved orally until it was published in 1855.

 

• July 11, 1891 Decatur Dorsey, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, died. Dorsey was born enslaved in 1836 in Howard County, Maryland. During the Civil War, he joined Company B of the 39th United States Colored Infantry Regiment in 1864 and was promoted to corporal less than two months after joining. On July 30, 1864, he took part in the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia. During the battle, white Union soldiers were trapped in a crater by Confederate forces. Dorsey’s division was ordered in to reinforce the attack and rescue the trapped soldiers. His citation reads, “Planted the colors on the Confederate works in advance of his regiment, and when the regiment was driven back to the Union works he carried the colors there and bravely rallied the men.” During a second assault, the men of the 39th breached the Confederate works and engaged in hand to hand combat, capturing two hundred prisoners before withdrawing. Dorsey was subsequently promoted to first sergeant and awarded the medal on November 8, 1865. After the war, Dorsey married and lived in Hoboken, New Jersey. A Decatur Dorsey Maryland Civil War Marker is located in Ellicott City, Maryland.

 

• July 11, 1915 Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, businessman, politician, and the first elected African American municipal judge, died. Gibbs was born April 17, 1823 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After the 1849 gold rush, he moved to California where he became a successful retail merchant and a leader of the San Francisco black community. In 1855, Gibbs founded The Mirror of the Times, the first black newspaper west of the Mississippi River. In 1858, Gibbs moved to Victoria, British Columbia to escape growing racial prejudice in California and in 1866 became the first black man elected to the Victoria City Council. In 1870, Gibbs returned to the United States and settled in Little Rock, Arkansas and began to study the law. He passed the bar examination in 1872 and in 1873 was elected Little Rock Police Judge, a position he held until 1875. In 1877, President Rutherford Hayes appointed Gibbs registrar of the Little Rock district land office. President Benjamin Harrison appointed him receiver of public monies in 1889 and President William McKinley appointed him U. S. Consul to Madagascar in 1897. In 1903, Gibbs founded the Capital City Savings Bank which by 1905 had deposits of $100,000. Gibbs’ autobiography, “Shadow and Light: An Autobiography with Reminiscences of the Last and Present Century,” was published in 1902.

 

• July 11, 1925 Mattiwilda Dobbs, coloratura soprano and one of the first black singers to enjoy a major international career in opera, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Dobbs began piano lessons at the age of seven and sang in the church choir. She graduated first in her class from Spelman College in 1946 with a degree in music and Spanish and earned her Master of Arts degree in Spanish from Columbia University Teachers College. After winning the International Music Competition in 1951, Dobbs made her professional debut. She sang at the major festivals and opera houses throughout Europe. In 1953, she debuted at the La Scala Opera House, the first time a black artist sang in that opera house. Dobbs made her American debut in 1954 and in 1956 debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House. She was the first black singer offered a long-term contract by the Met. Dobbs refused to perform for segregated audiences therefore she was unable to perform in her home town of Atlanta until 1962. Dobbs retired from the stage in 1974 and began teaching at the University of Texas where she was the first African American on the faculty. She also taught at Howard University. She received an honorary doctorate degree from Spelman in 1979 and was elected to the board of the Metropolitan Opera in 1989.

 

• July 11, 2010 Walter Hawkins, gospel music singer, died. Hawkins was born May 18, 1949 in Oakland, California. He began his career as a member of his brother’s chorale, The Edwin Hawkins Singers. They produced “Oh Happy Day” (1967) which was one of the first gospel songs to cross over and become a mainstream hit. Hawkins left The Edwin Hawkins Singers in the early 1970s and founded the Love Center Choir. They produced the “Love Alive” series of recordings which sold well over a million copies from the 1970s through the 1990s. “Love Alive IV” (1990) was number one on the Billboard Gospel Album charts for 33 weeks. Hawkins produced and/or collaborated on 116 songs which were listed on the Billboard Gospel Music charts. He was nominated for nine Grammy awards and won the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Gospel Performance, Contemporary or Inspirational for “The Lord’s Prayer.” Hawkins was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 2005.

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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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