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Today in Black History, 7/23/2012

• July 23, 1891 Louis Tompkins Wright, physician and civil rights leader, was born in La Grange, Georgia. Wright earned his Bachelor of Arts degree as the valedictorian of his class from Clark University in 1911 and earned his medical degree cum laude from Harvard University in 1915. During his time at Harvard, Wright challenged and eventually defeated the practice of denying African American medical students access to white patients. During World War I, Wright served in the United States Army from 1917 to 1919, rising to the rank of captain and earning a Purple Heart. After the war, Wright went on to become the first black physician to be appointed to the staff of a New York municipal hospital, the first black surgeon in the New York City Police Department, the first black surgeon admitted to the American College of Surgeons, and the first black physician to head a public interracial hospital. Wright made important research contributions to the medical field, publishing 91 papers over his career. From 1934 until his death on October 8, 1952, Wright served as chairman of the NAACP national board of directors and in 1940 was the recipient of the organization’s Spingarn Medal.

• July 23, 1892 Emperor Haile Selassie I was born Tafari Makonnen in Ejersa Goro, Ethiopia. Selassie was Ethiopia’s Regent from 1916 to 1930 and Emperor from 1930 to 1974. His internationalist views led Ethiopia to become a charter member of the United Nations and in 1936 Time Magazine named him “Man of the Year” because of his anti-Fascist positions. As the result of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Selassie lived in exile from 1936 to 1941. In 1963, he presided over the establishment of the Organization of African Unity. Selassie was deposed as head of state in 1974 and imprisoned where he died under mysterious circumstances on August 27, 1975. His autobiography, “My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress: The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Selassie I,” was published in 1999. Today the Rastafarian Movement views Haile Selassie as a messianic figure who will lead the people of Africa and the African diaspora to a golden age of peace, righteousness, and prosperity.

• July 23, 1909 Norman W. Lewis, painter, scholar, and educator, was born in Harlem, New York. Always interested in art, Lewis had amassed a large art history library by the time he was a young man. His early paintings were mostly figurative, including “Meeting Place” (1930), “The Yellow Hat” (1936), and “Dispossed” (1940). In the late 1940s, his work became increasingly abstract, including “Tenement I” (1952), “Harlem Turns White” (1955), and “Night Walker No. 2” (1956). His painting “Migrating Birds” (1954) won the Popular Prize at the 1955 Carnegie International Exhibition. In 1963, Lewis was a founding member of the SPIRAL Group which sought to define how African American artists could contribute to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1972, Lewis received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and in 1975 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Lewis died August 27, 1979. His paintings are in the collections of numerous major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

• July 23, 1915 Hallie Almena Lomax, journalist and civil rights activist, was born in Galveston, Texas, but raised in Chicago, Illinois. Lomax studied journalism at Los Angeles City College, but was unable to get a job at a newspaper. In 1941, she started the Los Angeles Tribune, a weekly newspaper targeted at the African American community. The Tribune had a reputation for fearless reporting publishing articles about racism in the Los Angeles Police Department and at its peak had a circulation of 25,000. In 1946 Lomax won the Wendell L. Willkie Award for Negro Journalism for a column that challenged the stereotype of black men’s sexual prowess. Lomax was a delegate to the 1952 Democratic National Convention and led boycotts of the movies “Porgy and Bess” and “Imitation of Life” because she thought they misrepresented African Americans. Lomax closed the Tribune in 1960 and died March 25, 2011.

• July 23, 1962 Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson became the first African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Robinson was born January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was a star athlete, from 1939 to 1941 and served in the United States Army as a first lieutenant from 1942 to 1945. Robinson broke the major league baseball color line when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Over his ten season professional career, he won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, and was selected to six consecutive All-Star Games. Robinson retired in 1956 and that same year was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal. In the 1960s, Robinson helped to establish Freedom National Bank, an African American owned and operated financial institution in New York City. Robinson died October 24, 1972. In 1987 Major League Baseball renamed the Rookie of the Year Award the Jackie Robinson Award and in 1997 permanently retired his jersey number 42. In recognition of his achievements on and off the field, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 and the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2005. Robinson published his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” in 1972. There are numerous other books about Robinson, including “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy” (1983) and “Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America” (2004). Robinson’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• July 23, 1971 William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman, former President of Liberia, died in office. Tubman was born November 29, 1895 in Harper, Liberia. Tubman initially planned to be a preacher and at the age of 19 was named a Methodist lay pastor. After studying under private tutors, he passed the bar examination and became a lawyer in 1917. In 1923, Tubman was elected to the Senate of Liberia, making him the youngest senator in history. In 1937, he was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia where he served until 1943. Tubman was elected President of Liberia in 1943 and in 1944 was invited to the White House as the guest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first African head of state to be invited. During Tubman’s tenure as president, Liberia experienced a period of prosperity. Between 1944 and 1970, the value of foreign investments increased two hundredfold. From 1950 to 1960, Liberia experienced an average annual growth of 11.5%. The William V.S. Tubman University in Harper is named in his honor.

• July 23, 2009 Everette “E.” Lynn Harris, author, died. Harris was born June 20, 1955 in Flint, Michigan, but grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1977, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas. His first book, “Invisible Life,” was self-published in 1991. After that, Harris authored ten consecutive books to make the New York Times Best Seller list, including “And This Too Shall Pass” (1997), “Money Can’t Buy Me Love” (2000), “A Love of My Own” (2003), and “Basketball Jones” (2009). His personal memoir, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” was published in 2004.

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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.