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Today in Black History, 9/30/2012

• September 30, 1935 John Royce “Johnny” Mathis was born in Gilmer, Texas. As a teenager, Mathis was known for his singing and athletic abilities. At San Francisco State College he broke classmate Bill Russell’s high jump record and in 1955 had to decide whether to pursue a recording career or tryout for the 1956 Olympics. Mathis decided on the recording career and in 1956 recorded two of his most popular songs, “Wonderful! Wonderful!” and “It’s Not for Me to Say.” In 1958, “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” was released as the first ever greatest hits album in the music industry. That album was on the Billboard album chart for an unprecedented 490 consecutive weeks. Mathis also has the distinction of having the longest stay of any recording artist on the Columbia Record label, having been with the label from 1956 to 1963 and from 1968 to the present. To date, Mathis has recorded more than 130 albums with sales in excess of 350 million and more than 60 of his albums have been certified gold or platinum. He has received three Grammy Awards and in 2003 received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Three of his recordings, “It’s Not for Me to Say” (1957), “Chances Are” (1957), and “Misty” (1959), have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as having “qualitative or historical significance.” Mathis continues to perform, but has limited his concert engagements to 50 to 60 appearances a year. In 1982, Mathis authored the cookbook “Cooking for You Alone.”

• September 30, 1942 Franklin Joseph “Frankie” Lymon, hall of fame R&B singer and songwriter, was born in Harlem, New York. At the age of 12, Lymon began singing in a group that called itself both The Ermines and The Premiers. In 1955, they wrote the song “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” On the day of recording, the original lead singer was late so Lymon stepped in and sang the lead. The song became their first hit, topping the Billboard R&B singles chart for five weeks. Over the next year or so five other top ten singles followed, including “I Want You to Be My Girl” and “The ABC’s of Love.” The group’s last single, recorded in 1957, was “Goody Goody.” After that Lymon went solo, but was not nearly as successful as he was with the group. On February 27, 1968, he was found dead from a heroin overdose. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and Lymon was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. In 1998, a fictionalized version of Lymon’s life was told in the film “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”

• September 30, 1954 Patrice Louise Rushen, R&B singer, songwriter, composer, and pianist, was born in Los Angeles, California. At a young age, Rushen was considered a child prodigy. At the age of 18, she won a competition at the 1972 Monterey Jazz Festival. Rushin earned her bachelor’s degree in music education and piano performance from the University of Southern California in 1976. She has many groundbreaking achievements, including the first woman to serve as head composer/musical director for the Grammy Awards and the Emmy Awards and the first woman to serve as musical director for the NAACP Image Awards which she did for 12 consecutive years. In addition, she is the only woman to be musical director/composer for the People’s Choice Awards. A classically trained pianist, Rushen has also achieved success as a singer with a number of top ten R&B hits, including “Never Gonna Give You Up” (1981), “Forget Me Nots” (1982), and “Watch Out” (1988). Rushen’s feature film composing credits include “Men in Black,” “Waiting to Exhale,” and “Hollywood Shuffle.” In 2008, Rushen accepted a professorship at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

• September 30, 1975 Virgie M. Ammons received patent number 3,908,633 for her invention of the “Fireplace Damper Actuating Tool.” Inside the fireplace chimney is a damper which opens and closes to allow smoke from the fireplace to be drawn upward out of the house. Ammons invention allowed the damper to be locked in the closed position, preventing cold air and dust from blowing down the chimney back into the house. Other than the fact that she was born in Eglon, West Virginia, little is known about her life.

• September 30, 1996 Moneta J. Sleet, Jr., photographer and the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, died. Sleet was born February 14, 1926 in Owensboro, Kentucky. He served in the United States Army from 1944 to 1946. Sleet earned his Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude from Kentucky State University in 1947 and his Master of Arts degree in journalism from New York University in 1950. Sleet went to work for Ebony Magazine in 1955 and over the next 41 years captured photographs of many significant African American individuals and events, including a young Muhammad Ali, Dizzy Gillespie, Stevie Wonder, Billie Holliday, and a grieving Betty Shabazz at the funeral of Malcolm X. His photograph of Coretta Scott King at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Sleet’s collection “Special Moments in African American History: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr. 1955 – 1996” was published posthumously in 1999.

• September 30, 2003 Simon Vengai Muzenda, Zimbabwean politician, died. Muzenda was born October 28, 1922 in the Gutu District of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). After completing his carpentry courses, he started his own carpentry business and became active in politics, eventually becoming administrative secretary of the Zimbabwe African National Union. His political activity led to him being arrested several times between 1955 and 1971. After Zimbabwe gained independence from the British government April 18, 1980, Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister and he appointed Muzenda deputy prime minister and foreign minister. In 1987, Muzenda was appointed first vice president, a position he held until his death.

• September 30, 2004 Mildred Louise McDaniel, hall of fame track and field athlete, died. McDaniel was born November 4, 1933 in Atlanta, Georgia. She was an outstanding high school athlete, winning state titles in basketball, the 80 yard hurdles, the high jump, and the long jump. In 1952, she enrolled at Tuskegee Institute where she won the Amateur Athletic Union outdoor high jump titles in 1953, 1955, and 1956 as well as indoor high jump titles in 1955 and 1956. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, McDaniel won the Gold medal in the women’s high jump and set a world record. McDaniel retired from competition after the Olympics and in 1957 earned her bachelor’s degree in physical education. In 1958, she moved to California where she taught physical education and coached until her retirement in 1993. McDaniel was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1983.

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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.