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Today in Black History, 8/19/2012

• August 19, 1791 Benjamin Banneker, a free African American astronomer, surveyor, and almanac author, wrote a letter to United States Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson pointing out the hypocrisy of slavery. In the letter he stated, “I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us; and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath given being to us all; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he has also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties; and that however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or color; we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him.” Jefferson responded to Banneker on August 30 stating, “No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men.” The complete correspondence between the two can be found by doing a search on “Benjamin Banneker letter to Thomas Jefferson.”

• August 19, 1814 Mary Ellen Pleasant, entrepreneur and abolitionist, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Records indicate she was in Nantucket, Massachusetts around 1827 as a bonded servant to a store keeper. Pleasant moved to San Francisco, California during the Gold Rush Era in 1852. Because she was able to pass as white, she was able to work in exclusive men’s eating establishments and benefit from the financial information and deals discussed at the tables. After the Civil War, she publicly changed her racial designation in the city directory from white to black. After being ejected from a city streetcar, Pleasant filed a lawsuit. The 1866 decision in Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, outlawed segregation in the city’s public conveyances. Her efforts earned her the title of Mother of the Civil Rights Movement in California. Pleasant died January 4, 1904. Her biography, “The Making of “Mammy” Pleasant: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth Century San Francisco,” was published in 2003. Pleasant’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• August 19, 1946 Charles Frank Bolden, Jr., the first African American Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was born in Columbia, South Carolina. Bolden earned his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical science from the United States Naval Academy in 1968 and his Master of Science degree in systems management from the University of Southern California in 1977. Following graduation from the Naval Academy, Bolden entered the military and served until he retired in 2004. During his military career, he logged more than 6,000 hours of flying time, including more than 100 combat missions during the Vietnam War. Bolden became an astronaut in 1981 and has logged over 680 hours in space during 4 space flights. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Bolden NASA Administrator, making him the first African American to permanently head the agency. Bolden has received honorary doctorate degrees from a number of institutions, including the University of South Carolina, Winthrop College, Johnson C. Smith University, and Monmouth University.

• August 19, 1946 Martha Rae Watson, hall of fame track and field athlete, was born in Long Beach, California. Watson attended Tennessee State University and was America’s premier female long jumper during the 1960s and early 1970s. She competed in the long jump at the 1964 Tokyo, 1968 Atlanta, 1972 Munich, and 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. She also was a member of the 4 by 100 meter relay team at the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games. Watson won five indoor and three outdoor national titles between 1964 and 1976 and twice set the United States indoor record in the long jump. Watson retired from competition in 1979 and was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1987.

• August 19, 1950 President Harry Truman appointed Edith Spurlock Sampson an alternate United States delegate to the United Nations, making her the first African American to officially represent the United States at the U.N. She served at the U.N. until 1953. Sampson was born October 13, 1901 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from John Marshall Law School in 1925 and became the first woman to earn a Masters of Laws degree from Loyola University’s Graduate School of Law in 1927. In 1947, she was appointed an Assistant State Attorney in Cook County. After her time at the U.N., Sampson became the first black U.S. representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1961. In 1962, Sampson became the first African American woman to be elected as a judge in the state of Illinois when she won the election for Associate Judge of the Municipal Court of Chicago. She served on that court until her retirement in 1978. Sampson died October 8, 1979. The Edith Spurlock Sampson Apartments in Chicago are named in her honor.

• August 19, 1959 Blind Willie McTell, hall of fame blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter, died. McTell was born William Samuel McTier and blind in one eye on May 5, 1898 in Thomson, Georgia. He learned to play the guitar and loss his remaining vision at an early age. McTell began his recording career in 1927 and in the years before World War II performed widely and recorded 149 songs, including “Georgia Rags,” “Three Women Blues,” and “Broke Down Engine.” McTell was posthumously inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1981. An annual blues festival in his honor is held in Thomson. His biography, “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell,” was published in 2009.

• August 19, 2008 Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, the third President of the Republic of Zambia, died. Mwanawasa was born September 3, 1948 in Mufulira, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). After earning his Bachelor of Law degree in 1973 from the University of Zambia, he worked in private law firms. In 1982, he was appointed vice-chair of the Law Association of Zambia and from 1985 to 1986 was the Zambian Solicitor General. In 1991, Mwanawasa was elected to Parliament and from that year to 1994 served as vice president. In 2001, Mwanawasa was elected president where he served until his death. He is credited for initiating a campaign against corruption, lowering inflation, and increasing the economic growth of the country.

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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.