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Today in Black History, 9/1/2012

• September 1, 1869 Robert Tanner Freeman became the first African American to receive a dental degree when he graduated from Harvard University Dental School. Freeman was born in 1846 in Washington, D.C. and was encouraged to pursue a career in dentistry as a way to help alleviate the suffering of other African Americans. Freeman applied to, and was rejected by, two colleges before he was accepted in the inaugural class at Harvard. Upon graduation, he returned to Washington, D.C. to set up a private practice. Unfortunately Freeman died four years later. The Washington, D.C. chapter of the National Dental Association in named The Robert T. Freeman Dental Society.

• September 1, 1912 Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer and musician, died. Coleridge-Taylor was born August 15, 1875 in Holborn, London. He studied 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 American music what Johannes Brahms did for Hungarian music. After his death, 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.

• September 1, 1947 Alexander N. Green, Congressman from Texas, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Green earned his bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University and his Juris Doctorate degree from Texas Southern University in 1974. After college, Green co-founded a private law firm and also served as president of the Houston chapter of the NAACP. During his nearly ten years in office, membership in the organization increased sevenfold. In 1978, he was elected Justice of the Peace of Harris County, a position he held for 26 years. In 2004, Green was elected to the United States House of Representatives and has been reelected three times. In Congress, he serves on the Committee on Financial Services where he has focused on fair housing and hiring practices for the poor and minorities.

• September 1, 1948 William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr. became the first African American to serve as a United States Supreme Court Clerk. Coleman was born July 7, 1920 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941 and his Bachelor of Laws degree magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1946. Coleman was one of the lead strategist and co-author of the legal brief in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Coleman earned his Doctor of Laws degree from Bates College in 1975 and that same year was appointed Secretary of Transportation by President Gerald Ford, making him the second African American to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet. Coleman served in that capacity for a little less than two years before returning to private law practice. In 1995, Coleman was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President William Clinton. In 2004, he was appointed to the United States Court of Military Commission Review. In 2011, Coleman was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Gettysburg College.

• September 1, 1977 Ethel Waters, hall of fame gospel, blues, and jazz vocalist and actress, died. Waters was born on October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. She began to sing professionally in 1913 in Baltimore, Maryland. For several years, she toured on the black vaudeville circuit. In 1921, Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record with the recordings “The New York Glide” and “At the New Jump Steady Ball.” In 1933, Waters starred in the all-black film “Rufus Jones for President.” That same year, she took a role in the Broadway musical revue “As Thousands Cheer” where she was the first black woman in an otherwise white show. In 1949, Waters was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film “Pinky” and in 1950 she won the New York Drama Critics Award for her performance in the play “The Member of the Wedding.” Also in 1950, she starred in the television series “Beulah” but quit after complaining that the scripts portrayal of African Americans was degrading. In 1962, Waters was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for an appearance on the television show “Route 66.” Waters was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1984 and in 1994 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor. Waters’ recordings “Dinah” (1925), “Am I Blue” (1929), and “Stormy Weather” (1933) were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as “qualitatively or historically significant.” In 2004, “Stormy Weather” was listed on the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Waters authored two autobiographies, “His Eye is on the Sparrow: An Autobiography” (1951) and “To Me, It’s Wonderful” (1972). A biography, “Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters,” was published in 2011.

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, possessing a B.A. in English with a focus in creative writing.

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