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Today in Black History, 9/23/2012

• September 23, 1863 Mary Church Terrell, civil and suffrage rights activist, was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Terrell earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1884 and her Master of Arts degree in 1888 from Oberlin College, making her one of the first African American women to earn a college degree. She also served as editor of the Oberlin Review. After college, Terrell taught at a black secondary school and at Wilberforce College. In 1895, she was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education where she served until 1906, the first black woman to hold such a position in the United States. In 1896, she was elected the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. In 1904, she was invited to speak at the International Congress of Women in Berlin, Germany, the only black woman at the conference. In 1909, Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett were the only black women invited to attend the organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1913, she was one of the organizers of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and 26 years later wrote its creed, setting up a code of conduct for Negro women. Terrell’s autobiography, “A Colored Woman in a White World,” was published in 1940 and Terrell died July 24, 1954. The Mary Church Terrell House in Washington, D.C. was named a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Terrell was among 12 pioneers of civil rights commemorated by the United States Postal Service with a series of postage stamps in 2009. Terrell’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

• September 23, 1890 John Mercer Langston was seated as a member of the United States House of Representatives from Virginia, making him the first black person elected to represent Virginia in Congress and the only one for another century. The election for the seat was actually held in early 1889 and Langston was declared the loser, but he contested the results because of intimidation of voters and fraud. After an 18 month legal fight, Langston was declared the winner and served the remaining six months of his term. He then lost his bid for reelection. Langston was born December 14, 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1849 and Master of Arts degree in theology in 1852 from Oberlin College. He was denied admission to law school because of his race and therefore studied law under an established attorney and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854. Langston was active in the abolitionist movement and helped runaways escape to the North along the Ohio part of the Underground Railroad. In 1858, he was elected president of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. In 1864, he was elected president of the National Equal Rights League which called for the abolition of slavery, support of racial unity and self-help, and equality before the law. Langston moved to Washington, D.C. in 1868 to establish and serve as dean of Howard University’s law school which was the first black law school in the country. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Langston a member of the Board of Health of the District of Columbia. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him Minister to Haiti and in 1884 he was appointed Charge d’affaires to the Dominican Republic. In 1885, Langston returned to Virginia to become the first president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University). Langston died November 15, 1897. There are several schools named in his honor, including Langston University in Oklahoma. The John Mercer Langston Bar Association in Columbus, Ohio is also named in his honor. Langston’s home in Oberlin, Ohio is designated a National Historic Landmark. He published his autobiography, “From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital; or the First and Only Negro Representative in Congress from the Old Dominion,” in 1894.

• September 23, 1923 Nancy Green, storyteller, cook, and one of the first African Americans hired to promote a corporate trademark, died. Green was born enslaved November 17, 1834 in Montgomery County, Kentucky. In 1890, she was hired by the R.T. Davis Milling Company to represent Aunt Jemima for a ready-mixed, self-rising flour. In 1893, Green was introduced as Aunt Jemima at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois where it was her job to operate a pancake cooking display. Her personality and cooking ability made the display so successful that the company received over 50,000 orders and she received a medal and certificate from the Expo officials. After the Expo, Green was given a lifetime contract to adopt the Aunt Jemima moniker and promote the pancake mix. She traveled on promotional tours all over the country and gained the financial freedom to become an activist and engage in antipoverty programs. In 1998, “Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima” was published.

• September 23, 1926 John William Coltrane, hall of fame jazz saxophonist and composer, was born in Hamlet, North Carolina. In 1945, Coltrane enlisted in the United States Navy and played in the Navy jazz band. After returning to civilian life, he began freelancing around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From October, 1955 through April, 1957, Coltrane was part of the Miles Davis Quintet that recorded the 1956 albums “Cookin’,” “Relaxin’,” “Workin’,” and “Steamin’.” In 1958, he rejoined Davis and appeared on “Milestones” (1958) and “Kind of Blue” (1959). In 1960, Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps,” the first album of his compositions. In 1964, the John Coltrane Quartet produced their most famous recording, “A Love Supreme.” Coltrane was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1965 and died July 17, 1967. In 1982, Coltrane was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Solo Performance on “Bye Bye Blackbird” and in 1992 he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The John Coltrane House in Philadelphia was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999 and the John Coltrane Home in Huntington, New York was added to the National Register of Historic places in 2007. Also in 2007, Coltrane was posthumously awarded a Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board. Many books have been written about Coltrane, including “Coltrane: A Biography” (1975) and “John Coltrane: His Life and Music” (1999).

• September 23, 1928 Frank Foster, jazz saxophonist, arranger, and composer, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Foster was educated at Wilberforce University after being turned down by the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music because of his race. From 1951 to 1953, he served in the United States Army in Korea. After his discharge, Foster joined the Count Basie Band where he contributed arrangements and original compositions. From 1986 to 1995, Foster led the band. In 1987, he received the Grammy Award for Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocal, Jazz Category and in 1988 he received the Grammy Award for Best Big Band Instrumental, Jazz Category. Foster was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002 and died July 26, 2011.

• September 23, 1930 Ray Charles, hall of fame R&B, gospel and blues vocalist and pianist, was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia. At the age of five, Charles began to lose his sight and was completely blind by the age of seven. In 1943, he began to play gigs around Tallahassee and Jacksonville, Florida. In 1947, he moved to Seattle, Washington and recorded his first hit with the 1949 “Confession Blues.” In 1955, his song “I Got a Woman” reached the top of Billboard’s R&B chart and from there until 1959 Charles had a series of R&B chart toppers. In 1959, Charles crossed over to the pop charts with “What I Say” which was followed by “Georgia on My Mind” (1960), Hit the Road Jack” (1961), Unchain My Heart” (1962), and “Busted” (1963). In 1979, “Georgia on My Mind” was proclaimed the official state song of Georgia. Charles performed at President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 and President William Clinton’s first in 1993. Charles won 17 Grammy Awards during his career, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. In 1981, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1986 received Kennedy Center Honors. That same year, Charles was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Charles was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 1991 and received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, from President William Clinton in 1993. Charles died June 10, 2004. His final album, “Genius Loves Company,” was released two months after his death. The 2004 film “Ray” portrayed his life and career and Jamie Foxx won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Charles. In 2005, the United States postal facility in Los Angeles, California was renamed the Ray Charles Post Office Building and in December, 2007 Ray Charles Plaza was opened in Albany, Georgia with a revolving, lighted bronze sculpture of Charles seated at a piano. Charles’ biography, “Ray Charles: Man and Music,” was published in 1998. In 2004, he published his autobiography, “Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story.”

• September 23, 1954 George Costello Wolfe, playwright and director of theater and films, was born in Frankfort, Kentucky. Wolfe earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in theater from Pomona College and then taught for several years in Los Angeles, California and New York City where he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University in 1983. In 1989, Wolfe won an Obie Award for Best Off-Broadway Director for his play “Spunk” and in 1991 he gained national attention for “Jelly’s Last Jam” which received 11 Tony nominations and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical. In 1993, Wolfe directed “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” which won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play. From 1993 to 2004, Wolfe served as artistic director and producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival where in 1996 he created “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk” which won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. In 2004, Wolfe began directing films, beginning with the HBO film “Lackawanna Blues.” Wolfe currently serves as the chief creative officer for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia and continues to direct and produce plays such as “Topdog/Underdog” (2002), “Caroline, or Change” (2004), and “The Normal Heart” (2011).

• September 23, 1995 Henry Ransom Cecil McBay, chemist and educator, died. McBay was born May 29, 1914 in Mexia, Texas. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Wiley College in 1934 and his Master of Science degree from Atlanta University in 1936. McBay then taught at several educational institutions before accepting a position at the University of Chicago. While doing research at the university, McBay made discoveries that allowed chemists around the world to create inexpensive peroxide compounds which were useful as building blocks in many chemical reactions. As a result of that research, McBay received the Elizabeth Norton Prize for Excellence at Research in Chemistry in 1944 and 1945. In 1945, McBay earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. McBay taught in the Atlanta University system for the next 41 years. Other honors and awards earned by McBay include The Herty Award for Outstanding Contribution to Chemistry from the American Chemical Society of Georgia in 1976 and The Norris Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Teaching of Chemistry from the American Chemical Society of the Northeast in 1978. The Henry McBay Endowed Chemistry Scholarship was established at Morehouse College in 1986 and the Henry C. McBay Research Fellowship was established by the United Negro College Fund in 1995.

• September 23, 2000 Carl Thomas Rowan, journalist, author, and diplomat, died. Rowan was born August 11, 1925 in McMinnville, Tennessee. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics from Oberlin College in 1947 and his Master of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota in 1948. He worked for the Minneapolis Tribune from 1948 to 1961, reporting extensively on the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, Rowan served as a delegate to the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in 1963 he became U.S. Ambassador to Finland. In 1964, Rowan was appointed director of the United States Information Agency where he became the first African American to attend meetings of the National Security Council. From 1966 to 1998, Rowan wrote a syndicated column for the Chicago Sun-Times. His columns were published in more than 100 newspapers across the nation. He is the only journalist in history to win the Sigma Delta Chi medallion for journalistic excellence three years in a row. Rowan was the 1997 recipient of the NAACP Spingarn Medal. In 1999, he received the National Press Club Fourth Estate Award for lifetime achievement. In 1987, Rowan founded Project Excellence which was a college scholarship program for black high school seniors who displayed outstanding writing and speaking skills. By 2000, the program had given out $26 million in scholarships to over 1,100 students. In 2001, the press briefing room at the U.S. State Department was dedicated as the Carl T. Rowan Briefing Room in his honor. Rowan published his autobiography, “Breaking Barriers: A Memoir,” in 1991. Other books by Rowan include “South of Freedom” (1952), “Just Between Us Blacks” (1974), and “The Coming Race War in America: A Wake-Up Call” (1996).

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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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