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Today in Black History, 7/17/2012

• July 17, 1794 The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first black church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the first black Episcopal church in the United States, opened its doors. The church was founded in 1792 by Absalom Jones as the African Church of Philadelphia. It developed from the Free African Society, a non-denominational group formed by Jones and Richard Allen who left St. George Methodist Church because of discrimination. While the church has been located in several different building, it has operated continuously since its founding. The church was the first black church in the country to purchase a pipe organ and the first to hire a black woman as organist. A historical marker was erected at the original location in 1984 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

• July 17, 1862 Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act which stated that the slaves of Confederate officials, military or civilian, who did not surrender within 60 days of the act’s passage would be freed. The act was only applicable to Confederate areas that had already been occupied by Union troops. Although President Abraham Lincoln opposed the act, it eventually led to the Emancipation Proclamation.

• July 17, 1888 Miriam E. Benjamin, a Washington, D.C. school teacher, became the second black woman to receive a patent for her Gong and Signal Chair for hotels. Benjamin received patent number 386,289 for the chair which allowed hotel guests to summon a waiter from their chair. A button on the chair would buzz the waiter station and a light on the chair would let the wait staff know who wanted service. Her invention reduced hotel expenses by decreasing the number of waiters and eliminated the need for hand clapping or calling aloud to get the attention of waiters. Benjamin’s invention was later used in the United States House of Representatives and the predecessor of the method used today on airplanes. Nothing else is known of Benjamin’s life.

• July 17, 1911 Frank Martin Snowden, Jr., one of the foremost authorities on blacks in ancient history, was born in York County, Virginia. Snowden earned his Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1932, 1933, and 1944, respectively. He taught classics at Georgetown University, Vassar College, and Mary Washington College before joining Howard University in 1940 where he served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Snowden documented that blacks were able to co-exist with the Greeks and Romans because they were considered equals. He authored several books, including “Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience” (1970) and “Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks” (1983). Snowden was fluent in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Italian. From 1954 to 1956, he served as cultural attaché at the American Embassy to Rome. In 2003, Snowden was presented the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush for work that has “deepened the nations’ understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped to preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities. Snowden died February 18, 2007. The Frank M. Snowden, Jr. Lecture Series is held annually at Howard.

• July 17, 1921 Toni Stone, the first woman to play Negro League baseball, was born Marcenia Lyle in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Stone began playing baseball at the age of ten and by 15 was playing for a men’s semi-professional team. During World War II, she moved to San Francisco and played for a black semi-pro barnstorming team. In 1953, Stone was signed to play for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League. The next year, she played with the Kansas City Monarchs. Stone retired from baseball after the 1954 season and became a nurse. Stone was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and died November 2, 1996. Her biography, “Curveball: The Remarkable Life of Toni Stone,” was published in 2010.

• July 17, 1925 Jimmy Scott, jazz vocalist, was born in Cleveland, Ohio with a genetic condition that stunted his growth. Scott got his first singing experience in the church choir. He rose to national prominence in the late 1940s as “Little Jimmy Scott” in the Lionel Hampton Band singing the lead on “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.” In 1963, Scott recorded what is considered by many to be one of the great jazz vocal albums of all time, “Falling in Love is Wonderful.” However due to contract problems, the album was not released until 2003. The same thing occurred with his 1969 album, “The Source,” which was released in 2001. After that, Scott quit the music business and worked at a hospital and hotel in Cleveland. In 1992, he began a comeback with the release of “All The Way.” This was followed by “Dream” (1994), “Heaven” (1996), “Holding Back the Years” (1998), and “Moonglow” (2003). Scott performed at the inauguration ceremonies of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953) and William J. Clinton (1993). In 2007, he was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor that the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts. Scott’s biography, “Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott,” was published in 2002.

• July 17, 1935 Diahann Carroll, singer and hall of fame actress, was born Carol Diahann Johnson in Bronx, New York. In 1954, Carroll made her film debut in “Carmen Jones” and her Broadway debut in the musical “House of Flowers.” In 1962, she became the first black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress for her role in the musical “No Strings.” From 1968 to 1971, Carroll starred in the title role of the television series “Julia” which was the first series with an African American female star that was not a domestic worker. In 1968, she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Series for the role. In 1974, Carroll was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in “Claudine.” From 1984 to 1987, she appeared in the television series “Dynasty.” Carroll has been nominated for four Emmy Awards and won the 2008 Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for an appearance on the television show “Grey’s Anatomy.” In 2011, Carroll was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

• July 17, 1942 Cornelius L. “Connie” Hawkins, hall of fame basketball player, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Hawkins was an All-City basketball player in both his junior and senior year of high school and in both years led his team to the city championship. In 1960, he went to the University of Iowa and in his freshman year was implicated in a point shaving scandal. Despite not being charged or arrested, Hawkins was expelled from school and blacklisted by the NCAA and the NBA. For the next seven years, he played in various leagues, including three years with the Harlem Globetrotters. Hawkins filed a lawsuit against the NBA and in 1969 the NBA settled with him, paying him a cash settlement and allowing him to play in the league. Over his seven season NBA career, Hawkins was four-time All-Star. Hawkins retired in 1976 and in 1992 was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His biography, “Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story,” was published in 1972.

• July 17, 1944 The Port Chicago disaster occurred when an ammunition depot at Port Chicago, California exploded killing 320 men, including 202 African Americans assigned by the Navy to handle explosives. The resulting refusal of 258 African American men to return to the dangerous work became known as the Port Chicago Mutiny. 208 of the men were convicted of disobeying orders, reassigned to menial tasks, and given bad conduct discharges which meant the loss of all veteran’s benefits. The remaining 50 were formally charged, convicted of disobeying orders and making a mutiny, and sentenced to time in jail. “The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Military Trial in U.S. Naval History,” was published in 1993. In 1994, The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was dedicated to the lives lost in the disaster. In 1999, President William J. Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of the few “Port Chicago 50” still alive.

• July 17, 1959 Billie Holiday, hall of fame jazz singer and songwriter known as “Lady Day,” died. Holiday was born Elinore Harris on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Holiday had a very difficult childhood and by 1929 was performing in clubs around Harlem, New York. In 1933, Holiday made her recording debut with “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch.” By 1938, she was performing as a vocalist with the big band of Artie Shaw, making her one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra. Amongst the songs that Holiday recorded, “God Bless the Child” (1941), “Embraceable You” (1944), “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)” (1945), “Crazy He Calls Me” (1949), and “Lady in Satin” (1958) have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as recordings of “qualitative or historical significance.” “Strange Fruit” (1939) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and is listed on the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Holiday died with $.70 in the bank and $750 on her person. In 1972, the film “Lady Sings the Blues,” which was loosely based on her autobiography of the same title published in 1956, was released. Holiday was posthumously given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and in 1994 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor. She was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1961 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

• July 17, 1963 Regina Belle, singer and songwriter, was born in Englewood, New Jersey. Belle sang her first solo in church at the age of 8 and by 17 was the church’s star soloist. After graduating from high school, Belle studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music and attended Rutgers University where she was the first female vocalist with the school’s jazz ensemble. In 1987, she released her debut album, “All By Myself.” Other albums by Belle include “Stay With Me” (1989), “Reaching Back” (1995), “Lazy Afternoon” (2004), and “Love Forever Shines” (2008). In 1992, she teamed with Peabo Bryson on the song “A Whole New World” for the movie “Aladdin.” The song hit number one on the Billboard charts and won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal as well as the Academy Award for Best Song. Belle has been nominated for four other Grammy Awards.

• July 17, 1967 John William Coltrane, hall of fame jazz saxophonist and composer, died. Coltrane was born September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. In 1945, he enlisted in the United States Navy and played in the Navy jazz band. After returning to civilian life, Coltrane began freelancing around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From October, 1955 to April, 1957, Coltrane was part of the Miles Davis Quintet that recorded the 1956 albums “Cookin’,” “Relaxin’,” “Workin’,” and “Steamin’.” In 1958, he rejoined Davis and appeared on “Milestones” (1958) and “Kind of Blue” (1959). In 1960, Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps,” the first album of his compositions. In 1964, the John Coltrane Quartet produced their most famous recording, “A Love Supreme.” Coltrane was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1965. In 1982, Coltrane was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Solo Performance on “Bye Bye Blackbird” and in 1992 he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The John Coltrane House in Philadelphia was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999 and the John Coltrane Home in Huntington, New York was added to the National Register of Historic places in 2007. Also in 2007, Coltrane was posthumously awarded a Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board. Many books have been written about Coltrane, including “Coltrane: A Biography” (1975) and “John Coltrane: His Life and Music” (1999).

• July 12, 1977 The Black Academy of Arts and Letters (TBAAL) was founded by Curtis King with a mission “To create and enhance an awareness and understanding of artistic, cultural, and aesthetic differences utilizing the framework of African American Arts and Letters. To promote, foster, cultivate, perpetuate and preserve the Arts and Letters of African Americans in the Fine, Literary and Performing Arts.” TBAAL is based in Dallas, Texas and is the only arts institution and African American organization housed in a major urban convention center in the nation. It has been the launching pad for such artists as Erykah Badu and Regina Taylor.

• July 17, 1991 Harold Robert Perry, the first African American to serve as a Catholic bishop in the 20th century, died. Perry was born October 9, 1916 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. At the age of 13, he entered the seminary of the Society of the Divine Word and in 1938 he took his vows as a member. In 1944, Perry was ordained to the priesthood and then served as assistant pastor at a number of churches before returning to Louisiana as founding pastor of St. Joseph’s Church. During his six years as pastor, he built the church, a rectory, and a school. From 1958 to 1964, he served as rector at the Divine Word Seminary. In 1964, he became the first African American to deliver the opening prayer of the United States Congress. In 1965, Perry was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, making him the first African American of the modern era to become a Catholic bishop. He remained in that position until his death.

• July 17, 1997 Robert Clifton Weaver, the first African American to hold a cabinet level position in a United States President’s administration, died. Weaver was born December 29, 1907 in Washington, D.C. He attended Harvard University where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in economics in 1929, his Master of Arts degree in 1931, and his Ph.D. in 1934. Weaver was an expert on urban housing and wrote several books on the subject, including “The Negro Ghetto” (1948) and “The Urban Complex: Human Values in Urban Life” (1964). Weaver was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and served from 1966 to 1968. After leaving the cabinet post, Weaver became president of Baruch College in 1969 and in 1970 became a professor of urban affairs at Hunter College, from which he retired in 1978. In 1962, Weaver was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal and in 2000 the HUD headquarters building was renamed the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building. Robert Clifton Weaver Way in northeast Washington, D.C. is also named in his honor.

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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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