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Today in Black History, 8/15/2012

• August 15, 1817 George Washington, a leading African American pioneer of the Pacific Northwest and the founder of the town of Centralia, Washington, was born in Frederick County, Virginia. The son of a formerly enslaved man and a woman of English descent, he was raised by a white couple. That couple and Washington moved to the northwest to claim land. Washington could not buy land because he was black, therefore the couple bought the land and Washington later repaid them for the land. Washington built a home and filed a plat for the town of Centerville (now Centralia), offering lots for $10 each. Washington died August 26, 1905 after Centralia had grown to a large and prosperous town. Today the city has a population of almost 15,000 with 90% of them white and less than 1% African American.

• August 15, 1818 Bridget “Biddy” Mason, nurse, real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist, was born enslaved in Hancock County, Georgia. Mason was given to a couple as a wedding present and they took her to Mississippi and then California. California was a free state and any enslaved person brought into the state was supposed to be freed. The couple refused to free Mason. Therefore, she petitioned a Los Angeles court and was granted her freedom. Mason worked as a nurse and midwife and was one of the first African Americans to purchase land in the city. She amassed a fortune of nearly $300,000 which she shared with charities. She was instrumental in founding a traveler’s aid center and an elementary school for black children. In 1872, Mason donated the land to and was a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s first and oldest black church. Mason died January 15, 1891. She is an honoree in the California Social Work Hall of Distinction and is annually celebrated on Biddy Mason Day on November 19th. Her biography, “The Life and Times of Biddy Mason,” was published in 1976.

• August 15, 1860 Henrietta Vinton Davis, orator, dramatist and organizer, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but raised in Washington, D.C. At the age of 15, Davis passed the necessary examinations and became a teacher in the Maryland public school system. In 1878, she became the first African American woman employed by the Office of the Recorder of Deeds in D.C. Davis began her elocution and dramatic arts education in 1881 and by 1883 was touring the Northeast and Midwest as a popular speaker. In 1919, Davis gave up her career as a dramatist to work with Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, becoming the first international organizer. At the 1920 UNIA convention, Davis was one of the signatories on the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. She established UNIA divisions in Cuba, Guadeloupe, St. Thomas, Port-au-Prince, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica. Garvey declared her “the greatest woman of the African race today.” After hearing her speak in 1921, a reporter for the California Eagle wrote “she is by sentiment and deed a genuine African patriot, full-fledged, sincere, uncompromising, ready to do, dare and die for her convictions.” Davis died November 23, 1941. In 2008, the Mayor of Washington, D.C. proclaimed August 25 “Henrietta Vinton Davis Day.”

• August 15, 1875 Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer and musician, was born in Holborn, London. Coleridge-Taylor studied the violin at the Royal College of Music and by 1896 had earned a reputation as a composer. In 1898, he completed his most well known piece, the cantata “Hiawatha’s Wedding-feast.” Coleridge-Taylor was greatly appreciated by African Americans. In 1901, a 200-voice chorus was founded in Washington, D.C. named the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. In 1904, he toured the United States and gained an increased interest in his heritage. He sought to do for African music what Johannes Brahms did for Hungarian music. Coleridge-Taylor died September 1, 1912 and later that year a memorial concert was held at the Royal Albert Hall. His biography, “The Hiawatha Man: the Life & Work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor,” was published in 1995.

• August 15, 1886 Charles Bennett Ray, abolitionist, clergyman and journalist, died. Ray was born December 25, 1807 in Falmouth, Massachusetts. In 1832, Ray enrolled as the first black student at Wesleyan University, but was not allowed to attend due to protests from white students. He then moved to New York City where he became a minister serving two predominantly white churches. About that time, Ray became involved in the abolitionist movement and became a prominent promoter of the Underground Railroad. He was also co-founder and director of the New York Vigilance Committee and a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1838, Ray became owner of The Colored American, a weekly publication whose mission was “to promote the moral, social and political elevation of the free colored people; and the peaceful emancipation of the slaves.”

• August 15, 1925 Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, hall of fame jazz pianist and composer, was born in Montreal, Canada. Peterson began playing the trumpet and piano at the age of five and at the age of 14 won the national music competition sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After that, he dropped out of school and became a professional pianist. Over a career spanning more than 65 years, Peterson released more than 200 recordings and won eight Grammy Awards, including the 1997 Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumental Soloist. Peterson also composed many pieces, including “Hymn to Freedom” (1962) and “Canadian Suite” (1964). Peterson was called the “Maharaja of the Keyboard” by Duke Ellington and is generally considered to have been one of the greatest pianist of all time. In Canada, he was regarded as a distinguished public figure and in 1972 was made an Officer of Canada, the country’s highest civilian order for talent and service. Additionally, Peterson was awarded honorary doctorates by 13 Canadian universities and inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1978. He was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1984. Peterson died December 23, 2007. Weeks after his death, the Province of Ontario announced a $4 million scholarship for the Oscar Peterson Chair for Jazz Performance at York University. Peterson’s biography, “Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing,” was published in 1990 and his autobiography, “A Jazz Odyssey,” was published in 2002.

• August 15, 1930 Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya, Kenyan politician, was born in Kilima Mbogo, Kenya. In 1950, Mboya joined the African Staff Association and a year later was elected president and began molding the association into a trade union named the Kenya Local Government Workers Union. In 1955, he received a scholarship to attend Ruskin College, Oxford where he studied industrial management and graduated in 1956. After returning from Britain, Mboya won a seat in the Legislative Council, but became dissatisfied and formed his own party, the People’s Congress Party. In 1958, at the All-African Peoples’ Conference, Mboya was elected conference chairman at the age of 28. In 1959, Mboya organized the Airlift Africa project which sent 81 Kenyan students to the United States to study at U.S. universities. Between 1959 and 1963, hundreds of Kenyan students benefitted from the project. A book detailing the project, “Airlift to America: How Barack Obama, Sr., John F. Kennedy, Tom Mboya, and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours,” was published in 2009. In 1960, the People’s Congress Party merged with the Kenya African Union and Kenya Independent Movement to form the Kenya African National Union with Mboya as Secretary General. After Kenya gained independence in 1963, Mboya became Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and later Minister for Economic Planning and Development, the position he held at the time he was assassinated on July 5, 1969. A street in Nairobi is named in his honor as well as the Tom Mboya Labour College in Kisumu, Kenya. In 2011, a monument in honor of him was erected in Nairobi.

• August 15, 1935 Vernon Eulion Jordan, Jr., lawyer and business executive, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Jordan earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from DePauw University in 1957 and his Juris Doctorate degree from Howard University in 1960. After leaving private practice in the early 1960s, Jordan served as the Georgia field director for the NAACP. He moved from there to the Southern Regional Council and then to the Voter Education Project. In 1970, he became executive director of the United Negro College Fund and from 1971 to 1981 served as president of the National Urban League. Jordan was a close adviser to President William Clinton and served on his transition team in 1992/1993. Since 2000, he has been Senior Managing Director with Lazard Freres & Co. LLC, an investment banking firm. He has also served on the board of directors of several corporations and is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Jordan was the 2001 recipient of the NAACP Spingarn Medal. Jordon’s biography, “Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir,” was published in 2001.

• August 15, 1938 Maxine Waters, the second African American woman elected to Congress from California, was born Maxine Moore Carr in St. Louis, Missouri. Waters earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from California State College in 1970. Prior to entering politics, she was a teacher and volunteer coordinator in the Head Start program. Waters won a seat in the California State Assembly in 1976 where she worked for divestment of state pension funds from any businesses active in South Africa, then operating under the policy of apartheid. In 1990, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where she currently serves on the Financial Services and Judiciary Committees. She is a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the most senior of the African American women currently serving in the U.S. Congress. The Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center in Los Angeles, California is named in her honor.

• August 15, 1945 Eugene Thurman Upshaw, Jr., hall of fame football player and labor leader, was born in Robstown, Texas. Upshaw played college football at Texas A&I University and earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1968. He was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the 1967 AFL Draft. Over his 15 season career, Upshaw was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time Super Bowl champion. In 1987, Upshaw was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and in 2004 the NCAA inaugurated the Gene Upshaw Division II College Lineman of the Year Award. Upshaw was an active member of the bargaining committee for the NFL Players’ Association and in 1983 became its executive director. He served in that capacity until his death on August 20, 2008. Upshaw is widely acclaimed for his role in ensuring the stability and success of professional football in the 1990s and early 2000s.

• August 15, 1958 William Lee Conley “Big Bill” Broonzy, hall of fame blues singer, songwriter and guitarist, died. Broonzy was born June 26, 1898 in Lake Dick, Arkansas, but raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He began playing music at an early age and at the age of ten made himself a fiddle from a cigar box and began playing spirituals and folk songs. Broonzy was drafted into the United States Army in 1917 and served two years in Europe during World War I. In 1920, he moved to Chicago, Illinois and released his first recordings in 1927, “Big Bill’s Blues” and “House Rent Stomp.” Broonzy wrote and recorded over 300 compositions, most of which were released after his death. Broonzy influenced a number of blues guitarist, including Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim. In 1980, he was an inaugural inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame and in 2007 he was an inaugural inductee into the Gannett Records Walk of Fame. His autobiography, “Big Bill Blues,” was published in 1955 and in 2011 a biography, “I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy,” was published.

• August 15, 1960 The Republic of the Congo gained independence from France. The Congo is located in Central Africa and is bordered by Gabon to the west, Cameroon to the northwest, the Central African Republic to the northeast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the east, and the Gulf of Guinea to the south. The country is 132,000 square miles in area with a population of approximately 3.7 million. Approximately 90% of the population practice Christianity.

• August 15, 2002 Jesse Brown, the first African American to serve as United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs, died. Brown was born March 27, 1944 in Detroit, Michigan, but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1963 and reached the rank of corporal. While serving during the Vietnam War, he was seriously injured resulting in his right arm being partially paralyzed for life. After his military service, Brown graduated with honors from the City Colleges of Chicago. In 1967, he joined the staff of Disabled American Veterans and in 1989 became the DAV’s first African American director. He served in that position until 1993 when he was selected by President William Clinton to become Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Brown served in that capacity until 1997 and during his tenure expanded services offered to female veterans, homeless veterans, and veterans who were ill due to chemical exposure in Vietnam or the Gulf War. In 2000, Brown was given the Leader’s in Furthering Education (LIFE) Memorial Foundation’s Presidential Unsung Hero Award which “seeks to honor an outstanding veteran who had demonstrated heroic efforts in surmounting disability and whose contributions to society serve as an inspiration to others.” That same year, he was selected as the Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year by the Disabled American Veterans. The Jesse Brown Veteran Administration Medical Center in Chicago is 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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