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Today in Black History, 8/16/2012

• August 16, 1902 Wallace Henry Thurman, novelist, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. Thurman wrote his first novel at the age of ten. He attended the University of Utah and the University of Southern California, but did not earn a degree. In 1925, Thurman moved to Harlem, New York and the following year became editor of The Messenger, a position he held for a year. Later, he became a reader for Macauley’s Publishing Company, the first African American in such a position. In 1929, Thurman wrote a play, “Harlem,” which debuted on Broadway. The same year his novel “The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life” was published. In 1932, he published “Infants of the Spring” and co-authored “The Interne.” Thurman died December 22, 1934. “The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader,” which includes all of his essays, many letters, and three previously unpublished works, was published in 2003.

• August 16, 1922 Louis E. Lomax, author and the first African American television journalist, was born in Valdosta, Georgia. Lomax earned his bachelor’s degree from Paine College in 1942, his Master of Arts degree from American University in 1944, and his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1947. He began his journalism career at the Baltimore Afro-American and the Chicago Defender newspapers. In 1958, he became the first black television journalist when he joined WNTA-TV in New York. In 1959, Lomax and his colleague, Mike Wallace (60 Minutes), produced “The Hate That Hate Produced,” a five-part documentary on the Nation of Islam. Lomax died on July 30, 1970 in a car accident when the brakes failed on his car near Santa Rosa, New Mexico. At the time of his death, Lomax was working on a documentary concerning the role of the FBI in the death of Malcolm X and he had a 141 page FBI file. Lomax authored five books, including “The Reluctant African” (1960) and “To Kill a Black Man” (1968).

• August 16, 1927 William Henry Thompson, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was born in New York City. Not much is known of Thompson’s life before he joined the United States Army except that when he enlisted, he gave his address as the Home for Homeless Boys in The Bronx. On August 6, 1950, Thompson was serving as a private first class in Company M, 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division near Haman, South Korea during the Korean War. His actions on that day earned him the medal, America’s highest military decoration. Thompson’s citation partially reads, “While his platoon was reorganizing under cover of darkness, fanatical enemy forces in overwhelming strength launched a surprise attack on the unit. Pfc. Thompson set up his machine gun in the path of the onslaught and swept the enemy with withering fire, pinning them down momentarily thus permitting the remainder of his platoon to withdraw to a more tenable position. Although hit repeatedly by grenade fragments and small-arms fire, he resisted all efforts of his comrades to induce him to withdraw, steadfastly remained at his machine gun and continued to deliver deadly, accurate fire until mortally wounded by an enemy grenade.” Thompson died from his wounds on August 23, 1950 and was posthumously awarded the medal on August 2, 1951. Initially, no black soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service during World Wars I or II, making Thompson the first black American to receive the medal since the Spanish-American War. In the 1990s, this wrong was partially righted when the medals of one World War I veteran and seven World War II veterans were upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor.

• August 16, 1929 Wyatt Tee Walker, theologian, civil rights leader and cultural historian, was born in Brooklyn, Massachusetts. Walker earned his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and physics magna cum laude from Virginia Union University in 1950 and in 1953 earned his master’s degree from Virginia Union’s Graduate School of Religion. That same year, he led a group of citizens who filed a federal suit for access to a public swimming pool in Petersburg, Virginia. The city closed the pool the next year rather than integrate. In 1957, Walker helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and from 1960 to 1964 served as executive director. In 1967, Walker became senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, New York where he served until his retirement in 2004. In 1975, Walker earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from Colgate Rochester Divinity School. In 1978, he founded the International Freedom Mobilization to draw attention to the abuses of apartheid in South Africa. Walker has published 14 books, including “Somebody’s Calling My Name: Black Sacred Music and Social Change” (1979) and “A Prophet from Harlem Speaks: Sermons and Essays” (1997). In 1993, Ebony Magazine named Walker one of The 15 Greatest Black Preachers and in 2008 he was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame. The Wyatt Tee Walker Senior Housing Development in New York City is named in his honor.

• August 16, 1938 Robert Leroy Johnson, hall of fame Delta blues musician, died. Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. At a very young age, he began traveling up and down the Delta as an itinerant musician. His landmark recordings from 1936 to 1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Considered to be the grandfather of rock and roll, his recordings “Sweet Home Chicago” (1936), “Cross Road Blues” (1936), “Hellhound On My Trail” (1937), and “Love in Vain” (1937) are listed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame amongst the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. “Cross Roads Blues” was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a recording of “qualitative or historical significance.” Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1990, “The Complete Recordings” was issued containing almost everything Johnson ever recorded and it won the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Historical Album. It was also included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2003 as “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.” In 1994, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor and in 2006 a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award was given in his name. Several films have been made about Johnson, including “Stones in My Passway: The Robert Johnson Story” (1990) and “Hellhound on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson” (2000).

• August 16, 1947 Carol Elizabeth Moseley Braun, the first and only African American woman elected to the United States Senate, was born in Chicago, Illinois. Moseley Braun earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Illinois in 1969 and her Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Chicago in 1972. From 1973 to 1977, she served as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office. In 1978, she was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives where she served for nine years. In 1987, she was elected Cook County Recorder of Deeds, a position she held for four years. In 1992, Moseley Braun was elected to the U.S. Senate where she served for one term. From 1999 to 2001, she served as U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand. Moseley Braun was briefly a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 and in 2011 she lost the election for Mayor of Chicago. She currently runs a private law practice and has launched a line of organic food products.

• August 16, 1950 Hasely Joachim Crawford, the first Olympic champion from Trinidad and Tobago, was born in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago. Crawford started track at the age of 17 and competed in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. In 1976, at the Montreal Olympic Games, he won the Gold medal in the 100 meter race, the first Gold medal won by an athlete from Trinidad and Tobago. Crawford also competed for his country at the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. In 2000, he was named the Trinidad and Tobago Athlete of the Millennium and the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain was named in his honor in 2001.

• August 16, 1958 Angela Evelyn Bassett, actress, was born in Harlem, New York. Bassett earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in African American studies from Yale University in 1980 and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama in 1983. Bassett made her film debut in 1986 and has appeared in numerous films since, including “Boyz in the Hood” (1991), “Malcolm X” (1992), “Akeelah and the Bee” (2006), and “Jumping the Broom” (2011). In 1994, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her role in “What’s Love Got to do With It.” In 2008, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Bassett is an avid supporter of youth arts programs, children with diabetes, and those in foster homes.

• August 16, 1963 The first United States postage stamp designed by an African American was issued. Graphic artist George Olden conceived the stamp that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The stamp featured a severed link in a large black chain against a blue background.

• August 16, 1987 Charles Harris Wesley, historian, educator, and author, died. Wesley was born December 2, 1891 in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Fisk University in 1911 and his Master of Arts degree from Yale University in 1913. In 1925, Wesley became the third African American to receive his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Wesley served as the dean of Liberal Arts and the Graduate School at Howard University from 1925 until 1942, president of Wilberforce University from 1942 to 1947, president of Central State College from 1947 to 1965, and executive director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History from 1965 to 1972. Wesley authored a number of books, including “The History of Alpha Phi Alpha: A Development in Negro College Life” (1929), “The History of Sigma Pi Phi” (1954), “Ohio Negroes in the Civil War” (1962), and “Prince Hall: A Life and Legacy” (1977).

• August 16, 1998 Dorothy West, novelist and short story writer, died. West was born June 2, 1907 in Boston, Massachusetts. She wrote her first story at the age of seven and at the age of 14 won several local writing competitions. In 1926, West tied for second place with Zora Neale Hurston in a writing contest sponsored by the Urban League’s Opportunity magazine with her short story “The Typewriter.” After moving to Harlem, New York in 1934, West founded and published the Challenge magazine and its successor New Challenge magazine which were among the first to publish literature featuring realistic portrayals of African Americans. During the early 1940s, West wrote a number of short stories for the New York Daily News. In 1948, West’s first novel, “The Living is Easy,” was published. For the next 40 years, West worked as a journalist for small newspapers on Martha’s Vineyard. In 1995, her second novel, “The Wedding,” was published and in 1998 Oprah Winfrey turned it into a two-part television mini-series. Also in 1995, a collection of her short stories and reminiscences called “The Richer, The Poorer” was published. West’s biography, “Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color,” was published in 2012.

• August 16, 2007 Maxwell Lemuel “Max” Roach, hall of fame jazz percussionist, drummer and composer, died. Roach was born January 10, 1924 in Newland, North Carolina. At the age of 10, Roach was playing drums in gospel bands and by 18 was playing in jazz clubs. Roach’s most significant innovations came in the 1940s when he devised a new concept of musical time. He studied classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music from 1950 to 1953 and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in music composition. In 1952, he co-founded Debut Records with Charles Mingus. In 1960, Roach composed the “We Insist! – Freedom Now” suite to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Among the most important records made by Roach was “Money Jungle” (1962) with Mingus and Duke Ellington, generally regarded as one of the finest trio albums ever made. Roach spent the 1980s and 1990s continually finding new forms of musical expression and presentation. Roach was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1980, the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1982, and in 1984 was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the United States bestows on a jazz musician, by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1986, a park in London was named in his honor and he was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant in 1988. In 2008, Roach posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

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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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