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Today in Black History, 8/29/2012

• August 29, 1910 Vivien Theodore Thomas, surgical technician and animal surgeon, was born in New Iberia, Louisiana. After graduating from high school, Thomas had hoped to go to college and become a doctor. However, the Great Depression derailed his plans. In 1930, he secured a job with Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University. Although doing the job of a laboratory assistant, Thomas was classified and paid as a janitor. In 1941, Blalock accepted the position of chief of surgery at John Hopkins Hospital and requested that Thomas accompany him. On November 29, 1944, using the tools adapted by Thomas from the animal lab and with Thomas at his shoulder coaching him, Blalock performed the first surgery to relieve “blue baby syndrome.” The operation came to be known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt and Thomas received no mention. Over his 38 years at John Hopkins, Thomas trained many surgeons that went on to become chiefs of surgical departments around the country and in 1968 they commissioned the painting of his portrait which hangs next to Blalock’s in the lobby of the Alfred Blalock Clinical Sciences Building. Thomas died November 26, 1985. The Vivian Thomas Young Investigator Awards are given by the Council on Cardiovascular Surgery and Anesthesiology and in 2004 the city of Baltimore opened the Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy. Thomas’ autobiography, “Partners of the Heart: Vivian Thomas and his Work with Alfred Blalock” was published in 1985 and in 2004 his story was told in the HBO film “Something the Lord Made.”

• August 29, 1911 Thelma Johnson Streat, artist, dancer, and educator, was born in Yakima, Washington. Streat started painting at nine and first gained national recognition at 17 when her painting “A Priest” won honorable mention at the Harmon Foundation exhibit in 1929. In 1942, she became the first African American woman to have a painting exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and her most famous painting “Rabbit Man” (1941) is part of their permanent collection. Streat also painted a series of portraits of famous people of African ancestry, including Marian Anderson, Paul Roberson, and Harriet Tubman. In addition to the Museum of Modern Art, Streat’s paintings have been part of exhibits at many other museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Art, the City of Paris Gallery, and the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition to being an artist, Streat traveled to Haiti, Mexico, and Canada to study the traditional dance and culture of indigenous people. In 1950, she performed a dance recital at Buckingham Palace for the King and Queen of England. Streat led the Children’s Education Project to introduce American youth to the contributions of African Americans through a series of murals. Streat died May 16, 1959.

• August 29, 1917 Eloise Gwendolyn Isabel Sanford, television and film actress, was born in New York City. Sanford made her film debut in the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Other films in which she appeared include “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), “Love at First Bite” (1979), and “Sprung” (1997). She is best known for her role as Louise Jefferson on the television situation comedies “All in the Family” (1971 to 1975) and “The Jeffersons” (1975 to 1985). In 1981, Sanford won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, the first African American to win in that category. She was nominated in that category six additional times. Sanford received an honorary doctorate degree from Emerson College and in 2004 was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contribution to the television industry. She died July 9, 2004.

• August 29, 1920 Otis Frank Boykin, inventor, was born in Dallas, Texas. Boykin earned his bachelor’s degree from Fisk College in 1941. He pursued graduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, but had to drop out after two years because he was unable to afford tuition. Boykin took a special interest in working with resistors and began researching and inventing on his own. On June 16, 1959, he received patent number 2,891,227 for a wire precision resistor which would be used in radios and televisions. On February 21, 1961, he received patent number 2,972,726 for an improved electrical resistor which could be made more quickly and more cheaply and could withstand extreme changes in temperature and tolerate and withstand various levels of pressure and physical trauma without impairing its effectiveness. This device is used in electrical devices, including guided missiles, computers, and a control unit for artificial heart stimulators. Boykin created other important products, including a chemical air filter and a burglarproof cash register. In total, he invented 28 different electronic devices and earned eleven patents before his death on March 4, 1982.

• August 29, 1920 Charles “Bird” Parker, Jr., hall of fame jazz saxophonist and composer, was born in Kansas City, Kansas. Parker began playing the saxophone at the age of eleven and by 1938 was touring nightclubs and other venues in the southwest. In 1939, Parker moved to New York City where on November 26, 1945 he led a recording session for the Savoy label marketed as the “greatest jazz session ever.” During his career, Parker played a leading role in the development of bebop and his innovative approaches exercised enormous influence on his contemporaries. Parker died March 12, 1955. The coroner who performed the autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker’s 34 year old body to be between 50 and 60 years of age. In 1955, Parker was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame, in 1979 he was inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame, in 1984 he was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor in 1995, and in 2002 the Library of Congress added his recording “Ko-Ko” (1945) to the National Recording Registry as a recording of “cultural, historical, or aesthetical importance.” HIs recordings “Billie’s Bounce” (1945), “Ornithology” (1946), “Charlie Parker with Strings” (1950), and “Jazz at Massey Hall” (1953) were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as having “qualitative or historical significance.” Much has been written about Parker, including “Charlie Parker” (1960) and “Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker” (1962) and in 1988 the biographical film “Bird” was released. A memorial to Parker featuring a 10 foot tall bronze head is located in Kansas City near the American Jazz Museum.

• August 29, 1921 Wendell Oliver Scott, stock car racer and the first African American to obtain a NASCAR racing license, was born in Danville, Virginia. As a boy, Scott learned auto mechanics from his father and later earned his reputation for speed driving as a taxi cab driver and bootlegger. From 1943 to 1945, he served in the United States Army in Europe. On May 23, 1952, Scott broke the color barrier in Southern stock car racing at the Danville Fairgrounds Speedway. He earned his NASCAR racing license in 1953 and won his only race on December 1, 1963 at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida. He is still the only black driver to win a race in what is now known as the Sprint Cup Series. From 1965 to 1969, Scott consistently finished in the top ten in the drivers’ point standings. Scott was forced to retire in 1973 due to injuries with one win and 147 top ten finishes in 495 career races. After retiring, he ran Scott’s Garage until his death on December 23, 1990. The 1977 movie “Greased Lightning” was loosely based on Scott’s story. His biography, “Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver,” was published in 2008.

• August 29, 1924 Dinah Washington, hall of fame blues and jazz singer, was born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. As a child, Washington played piano and directed her church choir and by 16 she was touring the United States on the black gospel circuit. During this period, she performed in clubs as Dinah Washington while performing as Ruth Jones on the gospel circuit. Between 1948 and 1955, she had numerous R&B hits, including “I Won’t Cry Anymore” (1951), “Trouble in Mind” (1952), and “Teach Me Tonight” (1954). In 1959, Washington won the Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance for “What a Difference a Day Makes.” In 1960, she teamed up with Brook Benton for “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” and “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love).” Washington was one of the most influential vocalists of the twentieth century and is credited as a major influence on Aretha Franklin. She died December 14, 1963. Three of her recordings, “Teach Me Tonight” (1954), “Unforgettable” (1959), and “What a Difference a Day Makes” (1959) have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as having “qualitative or historical significance.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed “Am I Asking Too Much” (1948) as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. In 1993, Washington was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and that same year the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor. In 2008, the city of Tuscaloosa renamed a section of 30th Avenue Dinah Washington Avenue. Her biography, “Queen of the Blues: A Biography of Dinah Washington,” was published in 1987.

• August 29, 1929 Albertina Walker, hall of fame gospel singer, was born in Chicago, Illinois. Walker started singing in church choirs at an early age and by the time she was a teenager, she was touring with Mahalia Jackson. In 1951, she formed The Caravans and soon after earned the title of “Queen of Gospel.” In the late 1960s, Walker disbanded The Caravans and began performing as a solo artist. She recorded her first solo album, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” in 1975. Walker recorded over 60 albums, including “Please Be Patient with Me” (1979), “I Can Go to God in Prayer” (1981), “Impossible Dream” (1997), and “Joy Will Come” (1997). She garnered ten Grammy nominations and won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Gospel Album for “Songs of The Church.” Walker was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 2001 and in 2005 the Grammy Awards honored her for her contributions to the gospel music industry. Walker died October 8, 2010.

• August 29, 1945 Wyomia Tyus, hall of fame track and field athlete, was born in Griffin, Georgia. Tyus attended Tennessee State University and at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games won the Gold medal for the 100 meter race. Tyus also won a Silver medal for the 4 by 100 meter relay. In 1968 at the Mexico City Olympic Games, she became the first woman to retain her title by again winning the Gold medal for 100 meters. She won her third Gold medal by anchoring the 4 by 100 meter relay team. Tyus retired from track after the 1968 Olympics and went on to coach high school athletes. In 1973, she returned to the track as part of the Professional International Track Association and over the next two years won 30 of the 40 events she entered. Tyus was also a founding member of the Women’s Sports Foundation. In 1980, Tyus was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame and in 1985 was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame. In 1994, Tyus began working as a naturalist for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park in Spaulding County, Georgia is named in her honor.

• August 29, 1946 Robert Beamon, hall of fame track and field athlete, was born in Queens, New York. In 1965 as a high school athlete, he ranked second in the United States in the long jump and received a track and field scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso. At the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, Beamon won the Gold medal in the long jump and set a world record that stood for 23 years. In 1972, Beamon earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from Adelphi University. In 1977, he was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame and in 1983 he was an inaugural inductee to the United States Olympic Hall of Fame. Beamon is an artist and chief executive officer of Art of the Olympians. He published his autobiography, “The Man Who Could Fly: The Bob Beamon Story,” in 1999.

• August 29, 1958 Michael Joseph Jackson, hall of fame singer and the “King of Pop,” was born in Gary, Indiana. Jackson made his professional debut in 1964 as a member of the Jackson 5. In 1968, they signed with Motown Records and their first four singles, “I Want You Back” (1969), “ABC” (1970), “The Love You Save” (1970), and “I’ll Be There” (1970) all peaked at number one on the Billboard 100. In 1971, Jackson started his solo career while continuing to perform with his brothers. In 1978, he starred as the scarecrow in the Broadway musical “The Wiz.” His 1982 album “Thriller” is the best selling album of all time with “Off The Wall” (1979), “Bad” (1987), and “Dangerous” (1991) among the best selling of all time. Over his career, Jackson won 19 Grammy Awards, including a record eight in 1984. Jackson is recognized as the most successful entertainer of all time by Guinness World Records. He transformed the art of the music video and influenced scores of other artists, including Mariah Carey, Usher, and Justin Timberlake. Jackson received numerous awards, including the World Music Award’s “Best Selling Pop Male Artist of the Millennium” and the American Music Award’s “Artist of the Century Award.” He was a double inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, once as a member of the Jackson 5 in 1997 and as a solo artist in 2001. Jackson died June 25, 2009 and was posthumously given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. Several biographies have been written about Jackson, including “Michael Jackson: The Man Behind the Mask” (2005).

• August 29, 1966 Melvin Beaunorus Tolson, educator and poet, died. Tolson was born February 6, 1898 in Moberly, Missouri. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree with honors from Lincoln University in 1923 and his Master of Arts degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1940. Shortly after receiving his undergraduate degree, Tolson took a position as English and speech instructor at Wiley College. He also served as the football coach, play director, and speech and debate coach. Under his direction, the debate team maintained a ten year winning streak, including winning the national championship over the University of Southern California which was the subject of the 2007 film “The Great Debaters.” Tolson’s first book of poetry, “Rendezvous with America,” was published in 1944. In 1947, he was appointed the Poet Laureate of Liberia and in 1953 he published “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia.” Tolson also served as Mayor of Langston, Oklahoma from 1954 to 1960. In 1970, Langston University founded the Melvin B. Tolson Black Heritage Center to collect material of Africans, African Americans, and the African diaspora. His autobiography, “Melvin B. Tolson, 1898 – 1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy,” was published in 1984.

• August 29, 1976 Mathis James “Jimmy” Reed, hall of fame blues musician and songwriter, died. Reed was born September 6, 1925 in Dunleith, Mississippi. He began playing the guitar at the age of ten. After spending several years performing in the area, Reed moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1943. By the 1950s, Reed had established himself as a popular musician and from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s had a string of hits, including “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby” (1956), “Honest I Do” (1957), and “Baby What You Want Me to Do” (1960). His recordings of “Big Boss Man” (1961) and “Bright Lights, Big City” (1961) are included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Reed was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

• August 29, 1995 Selma Hortense Burke, sculptor, died. Burke was born December 31, 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Winston-Salem University in 1922. In 1924, she graduated from St. Augustine Training School for Nurses and moved to Harlem, New York to work as a nurse. In the late 1930s, Burke received grants that allowed her to study sculpture in Vienna, Austria and Paris, France, culminating in her earning her Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in 1941. In 1943, Burke was chosen to sculpt a portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt which hangs today in the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. Many historians believe that this plaque served as the inspiration for the Roosevelt dime. In 1940, Burke established the Selma Burke Art School in New York City and in 1968 the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She earned her Ph.D. from Livingston College in 1970. Notable sculptures by Burke include “Temptation” (1938), “Despair” (1951), and “Mother and Child” (1968). Her last monumental work was a 1980 statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. which stands in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1979, Burke was recognized by President Jimmy Carter for her contribution to African American art history. Burke’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• August 29, 2011 David “Honeyboy” Edwards, hall of fame blues guitarist and singer, died. Edwards was born June 28, 1915 in Shaw, Mississippi. At the age of 14, he left home to begin the life of an itinerant musician which he led throughout the 1930s and 1940s. During that time, he played with many of the leading bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, including Robert Johnson and Big Joe Williams. In 1942, Edwards was recorded for the Library of Congress. He did not record again until 1951 when he recorded “Who May Be Your Regular Be.” Other albums by Edwards include “Drop Down Mama” (1953), “I’ve Been Around” (1995), and “Roamin’ and Ramblin’” (2008). Edwards won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album for “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.” He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996 and in 2010 received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Guitar Museum Lifetime Achievement Award. Edwards published his autobiography, “The World Don’t Owe Me Nothin’,” in 1997. In 2002, he received a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship, recognizing him as a national treasure. The story of his life is also told in the 2010 film “Honeyboy and the History of the Blues.”

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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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