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Today in Black History, 9/26/2012

• September 26, 1795 Alexander Lucius Twilight, educator, minister, politician, and the first black person known to have earned a bachelor’s degree from an American college, was born in Corinth, Vermont. From the age of 8 to 21, he was forced to work as an indentured servant. Twilight earned his bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in 1823. He also studied for the ministry with the Congregational Church. In 1829, Twilight was hired as principal of Vermont Grammar School and in 1836 he designed and built a massive four-story granite building called Athenian Hall to serve as a dormitory for the school, the first granite public building in Vermont. The building now serves as the Orleans County Historical Society and Museum. Also in 1836, he was elected to the Vermont General Assembly, the first African American elected to a state legislature. Twilight died June 19, 1857 and his home the Alexander Twilight House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Alexander Twilight Auditorium at Lyndon State College and Alexander Twilight Hall at Middlebury College are named in his honor. Alexander Twilight College Preparatory Academy is located in Sacramento, California. His biography, “Alexander Twilight, Vermont’s African American Pioneer,” was published in 1998.

• September 26, 1899 William Levi Dawson, professor, choir director, and composer, was born in Anniston, Alabama. Dawson earned his Bachelor of Music degree with honors from the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in 1925 and his Master of Music degree from the American Conservatory of Music in 1927. He served as professor of music at Tuskegee Institute from 1931 to 1956 and during that time developed the Tuskegee Institute Choir into an internationally known ensemble. Dawson began composing at a young age and his best known works are arrangements and variations on spirituals. His “Negro Folk Symphony” garnered attention at its world premier by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934. The symphony was later revised to “convey the missing elements that were lost when Africans came into bondage outside their homeland.” Dawson was honored with Wanamaker Awards in 1930 and 1931 and was given honorary doctorate degrees by Tuskegee University in 1955 and Lincoln University in 1978. He was elected to the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity in 1977. Dawson died May 2, 1990.

• September 26, 1925 Elbert Frank Cox became the first black person in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. Cox was born December 5, 1895 in Evansville, Indiana. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from the University of Indiana in 1917. After serving in the United States Army in France during World War I. Cox returned to earn his Ph.D. from Cornell University. After graduation, Cox taught at West Virginia State College from 1925 to 1929 and at Howard University from 1929 to 1961. Cox died November 28, 1969 and in 1980 the National Association of Mathematicians established the Cox-Talbert Address which is given annually at their national meeting. Also, Howard University established the Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund to help black students pursue their studies.

• September 26, 1929 Ida Stephens Owens, pioneering biochemist, was born in Newark, New Jersey. Owens completed her undergraduate studies in biology at North Carolina Central University and earned her Ph.D. in biology and physiology from Duke University in 1967, becoming the first black woman to earn her Ph.D. in this field of study at Duke. While at the National Institute of Health, she conducted studies in the genetics of detoxification enzymes that helped understand how the human body defends itself against poison. Dr. Owens is currently a senior investigator with the Section of Genetic Disorders of Drug Metabolism at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland.

• September 26, 1937 Bessie Smith, hall of fame blues singer, died. Smith was born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1912, she was hired as a dancer with the Moses Stokes troupe which included Ma Rainey. By the early 1920s, Smith had starred with Sidney Bechet in “How Come?,” a musical that made its way to Broadway, and she had become the biggest headliner and highest paid entertainer on the Black Theater Owners Association circuit. In 1923, Smith was signed by Columbia Records as part of their “race records” series and she scored a hit with her first recording “Downhearted Blues” which sold 780,000 records in the first six months after release. The recording was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2002 as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. In total, Smith made 160 recordings for Columbia. In November, 1933, Smith made her last recordings which included “Take Me for a Buggy Ride” and “Gimme a Pigfoot,” both of which remain among her most popular recordings. Smith was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1967. In 1989, she was posthumously honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1994, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor. Smith’s life is the subject of the play “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith.” Her biography, “Bessie,” was published in 1972.

• September 26, 1968 Martha Minerva Franklin, hall of fame nurse and founder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, died. Franklin was born October 29, 1870 in New Milford, Connecticut. She graduated from the Women’s Hospital Training School in 1897, the only black graduate in her class, and in the early 1900s moved to New Haven, Connecticut. After two years of investigating the nursing field, she determined that although black nurses could join the American Nurses Association they were restricted from addressing the issues of segregation and discrimination. As a result on August 25, 1908, Franklin hosted a meeting of 52 black nurses that resulted in the founding of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses with Franklin as president. The NACGN grew to an organization of 12,000 members from almost every state in the nation. By 1951, most of the groups aspirations had been met and they merged with the American Nurses Association. Franklin continued with her education and became a registered nurse with the New York Public School System. In 1976, Franklin was posthumously inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame as one of the pioneers of the nursing field.

• September 26, 1968 The Studio Museum in Harlem opened in a rented loft at Fifth Avenue and 125th Street in New York City as the first museum in the United States devoted to the art of African Americans and people of African descent. The current museum is located on 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue and has a permanent collection of more than 1,600 works. Included in that collection are works by Romare Bearden, Richard Hunt, Jacob Lawrence, Betye Saar, and an extensive archive of the work of photographer James VanDerZee.

• September 26, 1981 Serena Jameka Williams, top ranked female professional tennis player, was born in Saginaw, Michigan. Soon after her birth, Williams’ family moved to California where she started playing tennis at the age of four. Williams started playing professional tennis in 1995, but did not win her first professional singles title until 1999. Also in 1999, she became the second African American woman, after Althea Gibson in 1958, to win a Grand Slam singles tournament at the U.S. Open. She has gone on to win 45 Women’s Tennis Association titles, including 30 Grand Slam titles, 15 in singles, 13 in doubles, and 2 in mixed doubles. Williams has won more career prize money than any other female athlete in history. Williams has won the Gold medal in women’s doubles, with her sister Venus, at the 2000 Sydney, 2008 Beijing, and 2012 London Olympic Games. She also won the Gold medal in women’s singles at the 2012 games. She has also won numerous awards, including the 1998 WTA Newcomer of the Year, 1999 Tennis Magazine Player of the Year, the 2002, 2008, and 2009 WTA Player of the Year, 2003 ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete, and 2003 and 2010 Laures World Sportswoman of the Year. In 2008, Williams helped to fund the construction of the Serena Williams Secondary School in Matooni, Kenya. In 2009, she and her sister Venus became part owners of the Miami Dolphins professional football team, the first African American females to obtain ownership in an NFL franchise. Also in 2009, she released her autobiography, “On the Line.”

• September 26, 1998 Betty Carter, hall of fame jazz singer, died. Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1929 in Flint, Michigan, but grew up in Detroit. She studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory and by the age of 16 was singing with Charlie Parker. In 1958, Carter released her first solo album, “Out There With Betty Carter,” and in 1961 she recorded a series of duets with Ray Charles, including the R&B chart topping “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” In 1980, Carter released the double album “The Audience with Betty Carter” and was the subject of a documentary film “But Then, She’s Betty Carter.” In 1988, she won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female for the album “Look What I Got” and in 1992 she was designated a NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor the United States bestows upon a jazz artist. In 1997, Carter was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, by President William Clinton. In 1999, Carter was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.

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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.