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Today in Black History, 9/17/2012

• September 17, 1858 Dred Scott, an enslaved black man that unsuccessfully sued for his freedom, died. Scott was born enslaved in Southampton County, Virginia in the 1790s. In 1847, Scott sued for his freedom in a Missouri state court on the basis that he and his wife had been taken by their owner to states and territories where slavery was illegal. Scott lost that case, but pursued the issue to the United States Supreme Court in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857. The Supreme Court ruled against him finding that he, nor any person of African ancestry, could claim citizenship in the United States and therefore could not bring suit in federal court. In effect, the Court ruled that enslaved people were property and not citizens and therefore had no claim to freedom. Ironically, Scott was granted his freedom by his owner less than three months after the Supreme Court decision. “Dred and Harriett Scott: A Family’s Struggle for Freedom” was published in 2004.

• September 17, 1866 Mary Morris Burnett Talbert, orator, activist, and suffragist, was born in Oberlin, Ohio. Talbert earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin College in 1886, the only African American woman in her class. In 1887, she became an assistant principal at a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, the highest position held by an African American woman in the state. Talbert moved to Buffalo, New York in 1891 and became an early advocate for women of all colors. Described by many as “the best known colored woman in the United States,” Talbert lectured against lynching, racism, and for women’s suffrage. She co-founded the first chapter of the NAACP in Buffalo in 1910 and served as the national director of the NAACP Anti-Lynching Campaign in 1921. From 1916 to 1921, Talbert served as president of the National Association of Colored Women. She lectured in eleven European nations on the conditions of African Americans in the United States. In 1922, Talbert became the first woman to receive the NAACP Spingarn Medal. Talbert wrote extensively and published “The Achievements of Negro Women during the Past 50 Years” in 1915. Talbert died October 15, 1923. Four branches of the National Association of Colored Women are named in her honor, including the one in Detroit, Michigan. Talbert Hall at the University of Buffalo is also named in her honor.

• September 17, 1879 Andrew Rube Foster, Negro League baseball player, manager, and executive, was born in Calvert, Texas. Foster started his professional career as a pitcher in 1897. He pitched until 1917 and many historians consider him the best African American pitcher of his time. In 1907, Foster began to manage teams while continuing to play and in 1910 gained ownership of his first team. In 1920, Foster and the owners of six other teams formed the Negro National League, a professional baseball circuit for African American teams with Foster as president. In 1925, Foster was nearly asphyxiated by a gas leak and although he appeared to recover, his behavior grew erratic and in 1926 he was confined to an asylum. Foster died December 9, 1930 and was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981. In 2010, Foster was featured on one of the postage stamps issued by the United States Postal Service commemorating Negro League baseball. Biographies of Foster include “The Best Pitcher in Baseball: The Life of Rube Foster, Negro League Giant” (1970) and “Andrew “Rube” Foster: A Harvest on Freedom’s Fields” (2010).

• September 17, 1891 William Othello Wilson received the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration, for his actions on December 30, 1890. By that date, Wilson was serving as a corporal in Company I, 9th U.S. Cavalry during the Indian Wars. He volunteered to successfully carry a message to the battalion commander at the Pine Ridge Indian Agency in South Dakota. He returned an hour later with reinforcements, saving the lives of at least 25 men in the wagon supply train. He was the last African American to earn the medal on American soil. Wilson was born September 16, 1867 in Hagerstown, Maryland. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1889. Wilson retired from the army in 1898 and died in January, 1928. A historical marker honoring Wilson is located in Hagerstown.

• September 17, 1896 Albert Alexander Smith, artist, was born in New York City. Smith attended the High School of Ethical Culture where he was the first African American to win a scholarship. He later became the first African American to study at the National Academy of Design. Smith enlisted in the United States Army during World War I and saw action overseas. After the war, he moved to Paris, France, attracted by the freedom and lesser degree of racial prejudice he encountered there. He would live and work in Paris for the remainder of his life. While earning his living as a musician and cabaret singer, he received extensive training as a printmaker and may have been the first black artist to execute an etching. Smith produced a series of portrait etchings of famous African American leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Bishop Richard Allen. Those works are in the collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Smith died in 1940.

• September 17, 1907 Mary Edmonia Lewis, the first African American woman to gain international recognition as a sculptor, died. Lewis was born July 4, 1845 in Albany, New York. She attended Oberlin College, one of the first institutions of higher learning to admit women and different races, from 1859 to 1862. In 1863, Lewis moved to Boston, Massachusetts and began to study under a well known sculptor. She had her first public solo exhibit in 1864. Her early works were highly popular, including medallion portraits of the abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. In 1865, Lewis moved to Rome, Italy where she spent most of her career. Lewis had many major exhibitions, including one in Chicago, Illinois in 1870 and one in Rome in 1871. In 1873, the New Orleans Picayune stated, “Edmonia Lewis had snared two $50,000 commissions.” For the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she created the monumental 3,015 pound marble sculpture “The Death of Cleopatra.” One critic wrote that Cleopatra was “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section.” In 1877, President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned Lewis to do his portrait. Other works by Lewis include “Old Arrow Maker and his Daughter” (1866), “Forever Free” (1867), and “Hager” (1868). Little is known of Lewis’ later life. Her name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• September 17, 1922 Antonio Agostinho Neto, the first President of the Republic of Angola, was born in Bengo Province, Angola. In 1947, Neto left Angola for Portugal to study medicine. While in Portugal, he was imprisoned for seven years for his political activities. In 1958, he graduated from the University of Lisbon with his medical degree and in 1959 returned to Angola. After his return, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola was formed with Neto as president. For the next twelve years, Neto directed the armed struggle within Angola against Portuguese colonial rule. In 1975, Angola achieved full independence from Portugal and Neto became the first President of Angola. He served in that position until his death on September 10, 1979 and is often referred to as “the father of modern Angola.” The main university in Angola, the Agostinho Neto University, is named in his honor as well as an airport in Santo Antao, Cape Verde.

• September 17, 1932, Joseph W. Hatchett, the first African American Supreme Court justice in the South in the 20th century, was born in Clearwater, Florida. Hatchett earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Florida A&M University in 1954. Because the law schools in Florida were segregated, Hatchett attended Howard University Law School where he earned his Bachelor of Laws degree with honors in 1959. From 1960 to 1966, he worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. On September 2, 1975, Hatchett was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court. In 1976, he was reelected to the court, making him the first African American elected to statewide office in Florida. Hatchett resigned from the court in 1979 to accept an appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the first African American to be appointed to that court. He remained on that court until 1999 and served as chief justice from 1996 to 1999. He now works in private practice.

• September 17, 1937 Orlando Manuel Cepeda, hall of fame baseball player, was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Cepeda began playing major league baseball in 1958 with the San Francisco Giants and that year was named National League Rookie of the Year. Over his 16 season professional career, he was a seven-time All-Star and the National League Most Valuable Player in 1967. In 1999, Cepeda was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and in 2008 the San Francisco Giants added a life-size bronze statue on the fourth corner of their stadium to honor him as one of the greatest Giants of all time. Cepeda has been recognized nationally for his humanitarian efforts as an ambassador for baseball. In 2001, he received the Ernie Banks Positive Image Award. Cepeda has authored “My Ups and Downs in Baseball” (1968), “High and Inside: Orlando Cepeda’s Story” (1984), and “Baby Bull: From Hardball to Hard Time and Back” (1998).

• September 17, 1968 “Julia,” a weekly television series starring Diahann Carroll, premiered on NBC. It was one of the first weekly series to depict an African American woman in a non-stereotypical role. Carroll played a widowed single mother with a son whose fighter pilot husband had been shot down in Vietnam and who was a nurse in a doctor’s office. The show ran for 86 episodes until March 23, 1971. In 1969, the show was nominated for three Emmy Awards, including Carroll being nominated for Outstanding Continuing Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series. That same year, she won the Golden Globe Award for Best TV Star - Female.

• September 17, 1970 “The Flip Wilson Show,” a variety show, premiered on NBC. It was the first prime time variety show starring an African American male since the “Nat King Cole Show” in 1957. It was also the first television program starring a black person to become highly successful with a white audience. During its first two seasons, it was the second most watched show on television. Wilson was most famous for creating the roles of Geraldine Jones, a sassy modern woman, and Reverend Leroy, the minister of the Church of What’s Happening Now. He also popularized the phrases “What you see is what you get” and “The devil made me do it.” In addition to the skits, Wilson provided television exposure for many African American entertainers. The show was cancelled after 94 episodes on June 27, 1974.

• September 17, 1983 Vanessa Lynn Williams became the first woman of African descent to be crowned Miss America. Williams reign was full of challenges and controversy. For the first time in pageant history, a reigning Miss America was the target of death threats and angry racist hate mail. On July 23, 1984, Williams was forced to resign as Miss America because of nude photos of her taken prior to the pageant. The title was then passed to Suzette Charles, also African American. Although Williams resigned, she was allowed to keep the crown and scholarship money and is officially recognized by the Miss America organization as “Miss America 1984.” Charles is recognized as “Miss America 1984b.” Williams went on to a successful career as a singer and actress, earning Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award nominations. From 2010 to 2012, Williams starred in the television series “Desperate Housewives.”

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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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